South Sound has changed drastically over the past decade with housing developments and condominiums filling in the beachfront stretch of road. For better or worse, however, one landmark has remained: the ‘Shoe Tree’.
In reality, the site encompasses three casuarina trees, two living and one dead. Hundreds of flip-flops and other footwear dot the trees and spill over into the surrounding beach.
For tourists, the site has become a photo opportunity and a place to leave their mark on Grand Cayman. New flip-flops nailed to the trees bear messages like, ‘I ♥ Cayman from MKE, WI’, ‘Don’t mess with TX’, and ‘For our Daddy in Afghanistan’.
Travel pages recommend the site as an off-beat attraction. On Google, reviewers have left the ‘historical landmark’ with a 3.9-star rating.
For South Sound residents, however, the site has become a point of contention. With all the construction that has transformed the neighbourhood, many locals question why the Shoe Tree has remained unchanged.
“We have picked hundreds upon hundreds of shoes from the ground as they eventually fall off or some are not secured in the first place. They wash into the sea or get buried in the sand. We have to take them to the garbage,” said one resident, Joyce Cantlay.
“There is no difference in someone leaving their empty plastic bottle or their plastic shoe. In fact, the shoe is worse because it is not recyclable.”
When Wolfgang Brocklebank nailed the first flip-flops to a dead casuarina in April 2009, he did not have tourism in mind. Instead, he intended for the shoes to serve as a reminder to keep Cayman’s beaches clean.
All of the shoes first nailed to the tree were collected by Brocklebank and his friends at Spotter Bay in East End. Between the ironshore and mangroves, he was surprised by how much rubbish he found along an otherwise beautiful beach.
“There was so much garbage on the beach. It was incredible,” he said.
That day, he estimated they filled 10 trash bags with shoes collected along a 100-feet-long stretch of beach. Back at his apartment, he sorted through 330 shoes, from flip-flops to stilettos.
“There was not a single match,” he said.
“A lot of them weren’t even the whole shoe. A lot of them were just the rubber sole because that’s what doesn’t biodegrade.”
After debating what to do with the shoes, he eventually decided to put them on display at a beach that, at the time, was considered off the beaten track.
“They had not built anything across the road. There were just mangroves,” he said.
The idea was to bring awareness to the waste that washes up and remains on Cayman’s non-tourist beaches.
He decided on a tree that had been killed during Hurricane Ivan to display his collection. Over three nights, he and a friend worked in the darkness, hoping to avoid detection.
For several hours a night, he climbed a ladder up the tree and his friend handed him shoes, one after the other.
“When a car would go by, I would jump off the tree and hide. I didn’t want anyone to see me doing it,” he said.
“I wanted people to be surprised. I wanted people to be like, ‘Damn, there is a tree with like 300 shoes on it. What the hell?’”
Almost immediately, he started hearing chatter about the tree.
“Suddenly everyone was talking about it. ‘That thing is ridiculous. Where did that come from?’”
Brocklebank left the island shortly after but has kept up with the location through his Facebook page, ‘Cayman Shoe Tree’. The page has attracted more than 2,700 followers, many of whom have left photos of their own contributions to the site. Now back living in British Columbia, Canada, as a helicopter pilot, he is surprised by what the site has become.
“People writing on the shoes and signing them, that completely was not the point. The tourists don’t know that and I have no idea how it became such a thing,” he said.
The Facebook page now starts with a disclaimer: “This Tree is Not a Place to Dump your Garbage and Unwanted Shoes, People!”
When Brocklebank’s own sister came to the island on a cruise, he was shocked to learn that her tour guide recommended visiting the tree.
“The fact that you’re taking a bus of people there,” he said, “That’s so weird.”
Plastic-free campaigners are not happy with the site either.
Linda Clark, a volunteer with Plastic-Free Cayman, wants to see littering laws enforced to stop visitors from leaving their shoes at the site.
“It’s disappointing that along South Sound, they removed the vegetation and left the littered trees,” she said.
Even Brocklebank said he cannot believe the tree remains standing.
“If you’re living in a high-end building, it looks like junk,” he said.
Clark added that the Shoe Tree concept has spread to other parts of the island, including a tree in East End that was recently cleaned up by volunteers.
She expressed concerns for turtle nesting season and how rubbish on the beaches can make conditions dangerous for breeding females and their hatchlings.
“The best thing is to be responsible with your use of plastic, and if you see it on the beach, remove it,” she said.
She encouraged residents concerned with beach waste to attend the next Plastic-Free Cayman clean-up on 21 Sept. Events are scheduled for Barkers and East End in Grand Cayman, and on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.