By Sarah Sekula, published in ISLANDS magazine
Jim Ward has a lot of hobbies: cliff diving, saving sea turtles, catching lobster for dinner. Why all the water? Since his childhood growing up in the southeast United States, this 27-year-old has loved beaches. So after graduating from the University of the Virgin Islands, then spending three months working on a lemur project in Madagascar, he packed his bags for Grand Cayman. We checked in with Jim to discover why he relishes the beach as his true home. (Hint: It’s not just because of the daily conch fritters and tuna sashimi.)
What first led you to the Caribbean? I was raised to love the outdoors. Family trips were dedicated to the national parks of the western U.S. and the beaches of the East Coast. I realized early on that beach week was the best week of the year, so when the opportunity to pursue island life became a reality, there were few questions in my mind. I applied to the University of the Virgin Islands to study marine biology. Knowing terribly little about island life, or anything south of northern Mexico, I boarded a plane. I knew definitively that I’d made the right choice when I found out our first invertebrate zoology lab was going to be three hours of diving at Saba Rock.
What was in store after college? I met Dr. Patricia Wright, a renowned scientist who was based in Madagascar. She invited me to assist on one of the lemur projects being conducted at Centre ValBio, her research station in the rainforests of Madagascar. I quickly accepted and spent the next three months there. I ended up taking nearly 20,000 photos, discovering that my hobby had grown into something else entirely. After coming back from Madagascar, I did a Web search that turned up a job in the Cayman Islands, working as a diver doing photography and underwater videography. Though the job wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated, I realized once I’d arrived that something here was much more my style. Ocean Futures Society had created an educational outreach program called the Ambassadors of the Environment by Jean-Michel Cousteau and had partnered with the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. It was a great chance to spend more time with science and encourage travelers to lessen their impact on our fragile planet. I’m essentially a teacher without a classroom.
So how long did it take you to really ease into the island life you found on Grand Cayman? Everyone’s first week on island is typically a bit of a scramble — bank account, phone, transport, trying desperately to remember everyone’s name and get the lay of the land. That said, my first week here was terrific. I was greeted with cold Heinekens at an open-air apartment by friendly over-tanned roommates. Divers have a different air than most people and come by smiles very easily. Not the most glamorous of lifestyles, but it can be a satisfying one.
What is a workday like for you? An average day involves waking up at about 7:30 a.m., a 15-minute bike ride to work and a morning boat trip to Stingray City to teach guests about the biology of the rays. Then, it’s back to the hotel for lunch at the cafeteria. After that, a land-based activity like our photography class or a snorkel. I stop at the grocery on the ride back for whatever I can stuff in my backpack and head home to make dinner with the roommates. In the evening, it’s usually a night snorkel or telescope observation session with guests back at the hotel.
How much free time do you have to enjoy the island? One perk of working on an island in the Caribbean is all of the downtime that corresponds with hurricane season every summer. Last year, I was fortunate enough to travel to Costa Rica for three months to work with sea turtles in the remote Osa Peninsula. And for those days when I have an afternoon off on Grand Cayman, I can be 150 feet underwater in a matter of minutes, swimming with hawksbill turtles and schools of horse-eye jacks. The biodiversity is incredible. My favorite discovery on land was finding a cave system in the center of the island. Because of the strenuous physical and environmental conditions, it’s something that very few people will ever actually get to see.
What were a few of the things that you had to get used to when you first moved to the island? Airfare is never really that cheap, for one thing. Also, groceries are expensive, and mail typically arrives at least a couple of weeks late. Cayman has a limited nightlife, with most evenings ending by midnight. And on Sundays, much of the island, including the grocery, is closed for the day. That said, I feel a connection with the sea here that trumps any inconvenience.
Any advice for folks who’d like to follow in your footsteps? Getting accustomed to constant 80-degree weather does take a little patience for someone who is used to four seasons. Days are sunny and hot, and air conditioning is a novelty. Be prepared to be salty and have patches of sand just about everywhere.
Sandy feet aside, do you feel like you made the right move? I feel more alive than I ever have. I have a bicycle that I ride to work down the island roads here on Grand Cayman every day. I have an apartment that I love with a huge comfy bed and an amazing view. You can lie in the hammock to watch the sunset and be sung to sleep by the breaking waves of the sea below. I feel that for the first time in my life, I am coming into my own.
Facts of Life
- Climate: Tropical
- Population of the Cayman Islands: 57,000
- Population of George Town, Grand Cayman: 30,000
- Main hospital: Cayman Islands Hospital in Georgetown
- Price of local beer: $3 for a Caybrew
- Language: English
- Ease of immigration: Easy
- Ease of buying a home: Easy
- House starting price: $300,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath house with a pool in the northwest part of the island
- Website: caymanislandsrealty.com