TESTUDO'S SNORKEL GUIDE Cayman Off the Beaten Path

"Stinky" the Dolphin pays a visit to the Kaibo Yacht Club Marina docks during lunch. While I was tempted to jump in and snorkel with him, some video I watched previously regarding his mating habits made me think it wouldn’t be such a good idea. :)

REVIEW - Cayman Kayaks Bio-Bay Night Tour

Mrs. Testudo and I did the Bio-Bay tour with Cayman Kayaks February 2009 and to say it was really an enlightening experience is an understatement. The wife was not too thrilled about having to participate (paddling around in the dark, getting wet and potentially getting mosquito bites…not her idea of fun).  I have been itching to check out this supposed natural wonder in our backyard, ever since I read about a similar bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Luckily this trip the moon went into hiding and we finally had optimal conditions; so she had no choice but to gave in.

We meet our guide Tom, at the Rum Point Club parking lot just after sunset. The group signed liability waivers, settled up payments, applied bug spray, got outfitted with a paddle and life-vest, applied some more bug spray and then walked across the street to the bio-luminescent cove.

Since it was the day before the new moon, the conditions for observing the light emitting dinoflagellates (tiny creatures that emit light like a firefly or glowworm when threatened) that inhabit the cove were near perfect (i.e. really dark and not too windy). I had checked what the phases of the moon were going to be for our stay and purposely booked the darkest night for the tour.

Information on the bio-luminescent Dinoflagellates

We got outfitted with our kayaks (2 people per) and started paddling out to the far end of the cove, just as the darkness began to gather. About midway, at the center of the cove, the paddle stroke wakes began to look a bit different, but I really couldn’t be sure if just the lights from the homes that surround the bay playing off the ripples or if something else was transpiring. When we reached the far end of the cove we gathered-up kayaks and Tom began to give a thorough explanation of the creatures we were about to witness, why they do what they do, why they are in this one particular cove (one of only a handful in the world), and what we could expect on the balance of the tour.

During the informational session, we started to notice the water around us was sparkling. “OK, neat, but there better be more”, was what I’m sure was going through my wife’s head. As we started to follow Tom back to a dark section on the cove the show really began.

The paddle stroke and kayak wakes began to have and eery glow, that got more and more intense as we paddled onward to the next stop. Suddenly, we could see quick streaks of light darting about the kayaks. “Fish” explained Tom, “wait until you see a lobster or sting ray”.  We did not have our waterproof camera yet, so these are stock images, but I’ll update with our own pictures once we get back to the cove.

I do not want to go into more detail, as not to spoil the thrill of actually experiencing this wonderful natural phenomenon in person. All I can say is that it was as awesome an experience as could have been hoped for. Kids (10+) and Adults will be absolutely mesmerized by some of sights that look like they came right out of movie a special effects studio - the Navi’s from Avatar and oozing glowing Alien vs Predator blood.

My wife and I agree that we will recommend this to tour to all our friends, family and guests. The tour lasted a little over an hour. Too bad it is only available two weeks per month. The only thing that could be better is if you were lucky enough to go out on a night on which a black-out occurred for complete darkness. It was amazing and a bit troubling at the the amount of light that was being emitted from the homes that surround the cove. You can really begin to understand that there really is such a thing as light pollution and what the dark skies movement is about.  I can only imagine what an even more magical experience it would be in the utter darkness.

The mosquitoes really were not bad, and were most bothersome while we waited in the parking lot since it was dusk (their prime feeding time). So if you are a mosquito magnet, just make sure to apply your deterrent of choice before hanging around the meeting spot.

We are far from accomplished kayakers and were pretty much on par skill-wise with the entire group. You will bump into other kayaks, but everyone just laughed as it happened since they had just hit someone else.

So for a truly unique and informational experience that sets Grand Cayman apart from most other Caribbean islands I would definitely give it a try.  

We even went out an bought a kayak so we can experience again on our own.

DOWNLOAD THE REVIEW HERE

http://www.caymankayaks.com/biobay.htm

SNORKEL GUIDE: BODDEN TOWN

View Testudo’s Bodden Town Snorkel Guide in a larger map

           SNORKELING GUIDE: BODDEN TOWN

              - Governor Russell Beach to Turtle Nest Inn -

A welcoming committee of Chubs greets new arrivals

While the beaches and restaurants of the southern and western coasts of Grand Cayman are fantastic, the snorkeling has generally been a let down on the Testudo snork-O-meter experience scale.  I do enjoy visiting Eden Rock and Devils Grotto on Sundays when George Town is more like Ghost Town; just to gaze in wonder at the sheer mass of coral and guess how many millions of years it took to build those mammoth structures.  All done in utter solitude the weekends afford.  Many of the other well worn nearby West Bay sites are just that; still enjoyable in their own right, but not really memorable.  

My perfect snorkel site combines varied underwater terrain, diverse marine life, with abundant and vibrant coral structures; a combination I have been unable to find away from the North Side and East End sites, until now.

I have been told that the snorkeling off Bodden Town was pretty good.  But then I have heard the same thing about Cemetery Beach in West Bay, so I thought, yeah right.  

The area initially got added to the radar when we were looking at properties and a real estate agent commented on the good snorkeling off Turtle Nest Inn (he used to harvest lobsters there) and continued as I read the frequent comments of TNI guests attesting to the great snorkeling there.  So after a few requests from blog readers, I finally got around to having a look see for myself.  OK to be honest, it was really because the weather was just pounding the surf all along North Side on our last visit.  I had gotten in next to no decent snorkeling and was desperate for a fix.

Happy to report, I have now found decent snorkeling on the south side.



LOCATION (19°16’51.95”N  81°14’45.12”W): I choose to set up snorkel base camp at the Governor Russell public beach.  Due partly to the usually east to west prevailing currents and also since I perceive the redeveloping Coe Wood beach (just down the road to the west) to still be a bit sketchy.  

It is located just west of the cemetery (why are so many snorkel spots on Grand Cayman adjacent to cemeteries?) and east of the Pirate Caves tourist trap on Bodden Town Rd.  There is a wide shoulder along the road near by the bus stop for parking.  A sliding fence gate serves as the entryway to the beach.

The beach itself is tiny and semi-picturesque, but nothing to write home about. There are no facilities of any kind here.  Just down the road to the west is the Coe Wood Public Beach, which does have parking,  restrooms, shade pavilions and a few nearby food and drink vendors.  It too can serve as a good snorkel base camp.

From the West, park on the roadside near the beach entrance.  Just not in front of the bus stop.

View from the East, park along the roadside just past the cemetery

Entrance gates to the Governor Russell Public Beach

Pick a spot among the crowds and make yourself at home



CONDITIONS: While the beach is nice and sandy, the entry from it can be slightly rocky. Nothing too burdensome to overcome, just look for a sandy opening as you choose where to enter.  Once you are in the water, head straight out towards the reef.  Like many spots, the initial terrain is beds of turtle grass, these eventually gives way to small coral colonies. The reef is about 200 yds from shore and most of the coral is contained within a 125 yds - 200 yds zone from the beach.  The seas were still a bit rough on my visit due to all the September tropical systems in the area, but nothing like the mess back on the North Side that week.  

This is a location that you do need to be mindful of the tidal conditions. Though the water is shallow throughout the area, mainly between 3 - 8 feet, there are some cuts in the barrier reef that can create a funnel effect with the currents.  It can translate into a fairly strong outward pull or inward push, but especially evident when the tide is going out.  If there are strong surges and/or currents, avoiding a collision with coral can be a challenge.  To help make the most of your visit, I recommend checking the tidal forecasts when conducting your trip planning.

Once you have cleared the turtle grass zone, soft corals and sea fans will start to become visible.  The marine life is not abundant in this zone, but some of the more solitary species may be seen.

Soon you will come upon some of the large hard coral colonies and the marine life will become more pronounced.  Unfortunately, I witnessed some significant areas of coral bleaching.  The Blade Fire corals were especially impacted.  Hopefully the El Nino condition that warmed the waters this Spring and Summer will diminish and usher in a period of cooler water temperatures and improved coral heath.

Approaching the reef you will begin to see much more marine life and some moderately healthy coral colonies.  This area was hit especially hard by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and the corals appear to be just recently staging a come back. There is a nice mix of hard and soft corals out here and several large schools of Blue Tang and Chubs who will most likely swim by to investigate you.  

As you make your way west towards the Turtle Nest Inn there will be some imposing Elk Horn forests.  Most of the coral is still dead here, but it houses some of the larger fish I came across.  Namely some large Parrotfish and a resident Barracuda.

There is a lot to see here and I by no means have explored it fully.  For those that prefer a shallow water snorkel with varied terrain and good fish counts this should be added to your short list.  It is now my go to south shore snorkel location. 

The sea floor on the way out towards the reef is turtle grass

You will soon come upon some small sea fans, whips and soft corals

Approaching the reef the corals increase in size and diversity

Evidence of coral bleaching was especially acute at this site

The white areas are the dead sections of the coral caused by the bleaching

There is a nice mix of different coral species throughout the area

More evidence of bleaching on Blade Fire Corals

The Elkhorn corals took a beating from Ivan in 2004, but new growth attests to their resiliency. 

Staghorn coral clusters are also making a come back

Typical seascape out by the reef

Following a school of Blue Tang usually leads to something worth seeing

Like this reef monitor, who’s making sure everything is in order.  Why do barracuda always seem much bigger in person?

A nice view of the shore

DOWNLOAD THE BODDEN TOWN GUIDE HERE 

For more pictures, check out my Bodden Town Snorkel album 

SNORKEL GUIDE: RUM POINT BARRIER REEF

      TESTUDO’S SNORKEL GUIDE: Rum Point Barrier Reef

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Sprawling Staghorn Coral thicket, Rum Point Barrier Reef, Grand Cayman

Throughout my travels to the various isles and coastal regions of the Caribbean, there has remained one elusive and unfulfilled desire.  While I have had the privilege to snorkel barrier reefs reached via boat, my true aim had always been to be able to swim out to one from shore, just like portrayed in the movie The Blue Lagoon (having Brooke Shields along for the swim would be welcomed too).  I imagined that a great reward must await those who would venture out to where the fluid power of the ocean collided with the perceived permanency of the land. The Barrier Reef along the North Side and East End districts of Grand Cayman finally provided me with such an opportunity.


LOCATION INFO:  The surface level reef creates a sinuous off-shore barrier, uninterrupted for long stretches, along most of the northern and eastern edges of the island.  There are also strands located along West Bay, predominately off of Barkers National Park.  The distance from shore varies from as close as 40 yds. at spots on the East End to around 400 yds. off the tip of Rum Point.  The route described below starts you at the reef area approximately 150 yds. out from shore. The typical current in the area usually runs east to west, so I will usually walk about a half-mile down the beach from Rum Point to the Sea Lodges complex for my entry.  You can park your vehicle at the Rum Point Club (19°22’16.70”N 81°16’15.60”W) and walk the half-mile. This is a good idea since the beach area is a natural exit and endpoint to your snorkel, plus there are concessions and restrooms.  Another good parking spot, closer to the start of the route, is the Cayman Kai Public Beach parking lot (19°22’8.80”N  81°15’59.62”W)(1/10 mile west of the Sea Lodges).  It has a simple restroom facility.  It is easy to miss, so when coming from the east, look for the small sign and parking lot on the right-hand side, about 7 or 8 lots past the Sea Lodges.

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Link to a larger interactive map of Rum Point


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(Click image for printable version)

CONDITIONS: Look for a sandy spot to make your water entry and don your gear. The sea floor near shore can be rocky, with tufts of sea grass beginning about 5-10 yards out.  The grassy meadows will last for about 25-30 yards and then quickly give way to a sandy bottom.  The depth quickly jumps from 4-8 ft to 15-20 ft.  On the snorkel out, be on the watch for passing Eagle Rays and Southern Rays or an occasional Barracuda wingman.  With little else to see, this is a good place for a power snorkel.  About 100 yds. out the sea floor will display a gradual incline as you approach the reef structure.  The best area to focus your explorations is the sweet spot, halfway between the sand zone and the actual barrier reef. Here you will find a profusion of fish, along with a plethora of soft corals, sea whips and rods. The average depth at  ebb tide is 4-6 ft.  The closer you approach the reef, the shallower the water becomes.  The pictures below were taken during low tide, so you can see it is all but impossible to actually swim over-top the barrier reef. As you work westward, there are pockets of detritus and debris where the reef has been battered and yielded some ground to the constant force of the waves. The fish do not see many human visitors like some other areas, but for the most part do not seem to mind you intruding upon their routines.  

Unlike the sections of the Barrier Reef many of the Sting Ray City tours visit, this segment does not feature much in the way of impressive coral structures.  The reef is predominately composed of ancient coral bases and rubble with most living coral being located in the sweet spot described earlier.   

WHAT YOU WILL SEE: Being at the point of water exchange from the open sea, the clarity is usually excellent; even when when conditions may be poor closer to shore.  There tend to be more Angelfish, Trumpetfish and Black Durgons here than other spots around the Rum Point area.  Noticeably absent are the larger fish such as Grouper, Snapper and Porgies.  Lobsters and crabs abound, along with different Grunts, Butterfly and Squirrelfish.  A little less than a third of the way towards Rum Point, a beautiful soft coral and sea fan garden will appear.  With the water so shallow, a bright and sunny day creates a profusion of color that is truly breathtaking.  Look for Trumpetfish trying to pass themselves off as branches of coral and Triggerfish hiding nearby. The next portion of the journey will take you past lone Brain and Lobed Star coral sentries busily tended by their little denizens. You will then come upon an area of larger rocks and boulders with little coral or plant life.  This is a good marker to begin looking toward the shore side for what I consider the highlight of snorkel, the beds of Staghorn Coral thickets.  These are the most impressive sprawling thickets of Staghorn I have happened upon to date. The three or four large thickets in this area make for an impressive miniature forest. Floating above these coral canopies reveals many of the smaller endemic fish species like Gobbies, Wrasses and Blue Chromis.

If you veer away from the reef a bit by the Staghorn thickets, you will come upon a wondrous little section of reef known as Pete’s Paradise.  Here the Staghorn grows in pockets intermingled with Brain and Star corals, creating a most picturesque underwater sight.  Lots of Squirrelfish and other smaller species dart amongst the coral.  This is one of the few spots were the Black Durgon are a little less shy and avail themselves for pictures.

You now have a decision to make.  If you have had enough for the day, you can head in towards the Rum Point Club and grab a mudslide, or continue on towards the outer portion of boulder coral garden that extends out to the reef.  If you head in, there will not be much to see, except for remnants of Staghorn thickets from days of old and a pretty desolate sea floor.  So another good time for a power snorkel.  You can continue to follow the reef where there will be boulder corals spread over the area.  The water is usually super clear here, but a bit deeper.  So unless you free dive, I usually suggest you take the next option and hit the Boulder Coral Garden.  If you choose to proceed to the Boulder Coral Garden, then follow along the reef until you reach the point of land in front of the Retreat Condominiums just past Pete’s Paradise, now start heading back to shore making a line to the pier.  You will soon come upon the large Lobed Star corals that comprise the bulk of the outer coral gardens coral field.  Taking this option will give you the complete Rum Point snorkel experience.

(Click here for the Coral Garden Guide)

Click on images below to enlarge

image Cayman Kai Public Beach parking area makes for a good jumping off point

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Black Durgon at the shallow crest of the reef                Yellowtail Damselfish 

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Banded Butterfly fish                                              Trumpetfish among the sea whips  

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Grunts and Blue Tang mass at a coral                   Lobster and Trunkfish face-off 

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Typical Seascape near the reef                          Porcupinefish hides under a ledge

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Male Southern Ray on the prowl                         Shy Porcupinefish makes a get-away

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Typical small coral clusters along the reef                    Sea Rods

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Grunts school amongst the Staghorn Coral

image Inquisitive juvenile French Angelfish and a Squirrelfish 

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A school of Blue Tang

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A feeding Sting Ray

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A Barracuda hovers in the distance

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A pair of Flying Gurnards forage the sea floor 

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A reef scene

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Staghorn clusters sprout amid the other coral in the following images from Pete’s Paradise section of the reef.

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Location of Pete’s Paradise Staghorn Garden


So now that my desire has finally been realized, it is time to find another cinematically derived challenge…Jaws, the Deep, the Abyss??? While there may be better areas to snorkel the reef I have yet to find, this section is particularly accessible and makes for a good introduction for a longer snorkel, a bit farther from shore. If you are extremely comfortable in the water, the backside of the reef awaits….

DOWNLOAD THE GUIDE FROM GOOGLE DOCUMENTS HERE: http://goo.gl/S254Fh

VIEW ADDITIONAL PICTURES HERE: http://snipurl.com/wfgcv

  © 2010 Testudo Enterises, LLC

SNORKEL GUIDE: RUM POINT SHORE "DRIFT" ROUTE

      TESTUDO’S SNORKEL GUIDE: Rum Point Drift Route

Queen Triggerfish

The regal Queen Triggerfish, attended by a Surgeonfish and Harlequin Bass escort

LOCATION INFO: This reef is located to the east of the ‘point’ at Rum Point and starts about 30-40 yds off shore.  The typical current in the area usually runs east to west, so I will usually walk about a half-mile down the beach from Rum Point to the Sea Lodges complex for my entry.  You can park your vehicle at the Rum Point Club (19°22’16.70”N 81°16’15.60”W) and walk the half-mile.  This is a good idea since the beach area is a natural exit and endpoint to your snorkel, plus there are concessions and restrooms.  Another good parking spot, closer to the start of the route, is the Cayman Kai Public Beach parking lot which has a simple restroom (19°22’8.80”N  81°15’59.62”W) (1/10 mile west of the Sea Lodges).  It is easy to miss, so when coming from the east, look for the small sign and parking lot on the right-hand side, about 7 or 8 lots past the Sea Lodges (this is also a good entry for the Barrier Reef route).

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Parking lot for the Cyaman Kai Public beach

ENTRY: The water entry along this section of the North Side beach ranges from little pockets of sand that quickly give way to turtle grass or a combination of iron-shore and rubble which continue out to the ridge system.  The route map below provides some idea of the better entry points I have found for accessing the snorkel grounds.  Survey the area and find what looks to be the best entry point. The non-sand or grass bottom areas consist of rock and broken coral bits that for the most part are not sharp on bare feet.  Tread lightly when you enter to get your fins on and you should be fine; no urchins or other hidden nasties around. 

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Link to a larger interactive map of Rum Point

Rum Point Shore Snorkel Route

(Click on image for printable version)

WHAT CONDITIONS YOU CAN EXPECT: Depending on where you enter the water, there will be a mixture of grassy area interspersed with sandy bowls and shallow water for about 20-30 yards. The area will then open and the depth will increase to around 4 to 8 feet as you approach the ridges.  On the sea side of the ridges you will see a sandy expanse that continues out until the Barrier Reef.  There is usually a steady east to west current the will help push you along towards Rum Point. Visibility is usually good, but being a shallow snorkel site it can get stirred up easily with stronger winds or currents.  This is a typical drift snorkel, so take your time and explore all the nooks and crannies.

WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT TO SEE: The corals here are much smaller than at the Rum Point Coral Gardens; the majority consisting of soft corals, fans and sea whips with some nice Brain Coral specimens here and there.  The area is usually loaded with smaller fish that congregate around the corals.  The largest fish tend to be Rainbow Parrotfish; you’ll know you are getting close to some when you hear their coral crunching getting louder.  Snapper, Butterflyfish, Squirrelfish, Triggerfish, Grunts and Triggerfish are usually prevalent; Lobsters can sometimes be seen in crevasses, keep on the lookout for their antennea.  As you move toward the west, the ridge-line will begin to split into a wider ridge closer to shore with a narrower one toward the sandy sea floor zone.  I usually choose to initially follow the ridge farther from shore as the schools of fish and corals are more interesting here.  Then as this ridge-line begins to breakdown, I will head back to the wider section closer in.  The corals begin to become more spread out and less healthy as you approach Rum Point.  There will be large areas of dead corals with little to see other than the occasion Sting Ray or Sand Tilefish or other bottom dwellers.  Once you reach the last house along the beach before the Retreat Condos you can either 1) head closer to shore and search the grassy areas for resting Sting Rays or the occasional Eagle Ray fly-by or 2) Continue over the dead zone and eventually come upon the small reef directly off the rocky point.  The nooks and ledges immediately along the iron-shore are a great spot to get up and personal with smaller fish.  The water is very shallow and the Wrasses and other small fish are accustomed to being studied.  You can exit on the beach around the point or continue to swim towards the pier and look for the resident Barracuda.

WHAT I SAW THIS TRIP: I met up with the resident school of Rainbow Parrotfish, some of the mature ones approach 4 ft, was greeted by the always shyly inquisitive school of Blue Tang, more Queen Triggerfish than usual, and some comical little Wrasse and juvenile fishes.  This is definitely a good snorkel for seeing fish and being able to observe their behaviors; without having to go far from shore or expend to much energy swimming.

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Soft Corals on a ridge

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Local School of Blue Tang

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Pair of Spotfin Butterflyfish

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Tiny Goldline Blenny in its abode

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Rainbow Parrotfish

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Typical seascape with soft corals, sea whips and some Wrasse

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A Stingray Cruises By

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Some of the larger coral found in the area

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A turtle with a shark bitten or propeller damaged shell

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Typical seascape with Rainbow Parrotfish and Wrasse

DOWNLOAD SNORKEL GUIDE FROM GOOGLE DOCUMENTS HEREhttp://snipurl.com/rumpointshorert

More images from this area can be found here (labeled as Rum Point Shore Route):

http://snipurl.com/wfgh0

 © 2010 Testudo Enterises, LLC

SNORKELING REPORT: Sting Ray City Dive Site

Welcoming ComitteThe welcoming committee

LOCATION INFO: The original Sting Ray City is located at this shallow dive site. We took the Tortuga/Red Sail dive boat out.  Cost was $40 US pp.  The trip is really geared towards divers, but they try their best to accommodate and get snorkelers involved in the action.  It is about a 10-15 minute ride over to the the site from the Kaibo Marina in Cayman Kai.  The site is located next to the barrier reef and the cut in it that funnels the rays there.   The water depth is about 12 ft. and is usually clearer than you’ll see in the pictures.  The wind direction and currents had been funneling all the crud from North Sound towards the reef all week creating the low visibility. Definitely a fantastic experience, with fewer crowds for snorkelers vs. the Sand Bar Site. 

WHAT YOU WILL SEE: The dynamics of each trip will differ depending upon whether it is snorkel or dive focused.  This trip, being dive focused, consisted of both divers and snorkelers getting off the boat and gathering on one side.  The divers down below and the snorkelers up above.  The divers gathered in a rough “feeding” circle and the the dinner bell of squid aromas was sounded.  The rays are docile after years of human interaction and behave almost like well trained canines; but they still can put on a show when hungry.  If you are lucky enough to “somehow acquire” a piece of squid be prepared to be hounded, humped and sucked until it is rewarded.  We also snorkeled and dove (all the while followed by our pack of rays) out to try and coax Psycho II, the resident Moray Eel out from his lair.  But he was not the least bit interested.  If you are not a diver or adept snorkeler then I would recommend you first visit the Sting Ray City Sand Bar Site where you can have an equally intimate experience with Cayman’s most famous wildlife by simply wading in the shallow waters of the sand bar.  Do not leave the island without visiting one of the sites.

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DOWNLOAD THE REPORT FROM GOOGLE DOCS HERE: http://snipurl.com/src_dive_site

 

 © 2010 Testudo Enterises, LLC

Providing some unique detail and perspective on the Grand Cayman restaurant and bar scene.