TESTUDO'S SNORKEL GUIDE Cayman Off the Beaten Path
SNORKEL GUIDE: NORTH SIDE WONDERLAND

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TESTUDO’S SNORKELING GUIDE: WONDERLAND

            - North Side Cemetery to Chisholm’s Grocery -

imageBlankets of Finger Coral and clusters of mushroom-like Star Coral

The lack of snorkeling opportunities this trip, due to unfavorable water conditions, had me suffering through a bout with melancholy that would make a Mock Turtle jealous.  I was desperate not allow the door to close on 2010 without at least one final go at a snorkel.  It was growing late in the day and the unrelenting currents over at Rum Point were dissuading me from heading out to my usual go to spot at the Coral Gardens.  I was off into my own pool of tears when, thanks to a tip from blog reader Jim D., I found my salvation - a site I think I shall call Wonderland.  I can almost swear I glimpsed puffs of smoke from a giant blue sea slug drifting among the mushroom-like corals; and was that a grinning Cheshire Porcupinefish, popping in and out amongst the underwater tree branches?  

LOCATION INFO (19°21’5.14”N  81°12’22.49”W): Situated in the heart of the wee village of North Side, just past the Post Office and Civic Center when heading West, is a small seaside park (about 2.1 miles from the Frank Sound Rd/North Side Rd. intersection and 1.5 miles west from Over the Edge restaurant).  The park consists mostly of an overflow parking lot for the church across the street and some some picnic tables (making this a nice lunch spot for those heading to and from Rum Point).  Adjacent to the eastern side of the park is the North Side Cemetery.  Park your car at the park, use the tables to organize your gear and the sandy beach is only a few yards away. If present, follow the fish-footman into the sea and start your adventure.

imageGrassy parking lot at the small North Side church park

image Another view of the park from North Side Road.  Cemetery is immediately to the left.

imageNo smoking, no drinking, no loud music, no snorkeling

image North Side Cemetery

imageNorth Side Wesleyan Church across from the park

imageView of the beach and water entry facing west  

imageView of the beach and water entry facing east 

SITE CONDITIONS: The water entry is a mostly small rocks and coral debris, but can be managed barefoot if you like to put your fins on in the water.  The general snorkeling area is about 700 yds long, running East/West from the park down to Chisholm’s Grocery Store.  The barrier reef is very close to shore here, ranging from about 75 - 150 yds, so heavy wave action and surge gets mitigated significantly.  However, if the seas are rough you may still encounter some surge the closer you get to the barrier reef, as I experienced on my visit.  The general current along the north shore runs East to West and was not particularly strong at this site.  My advice is to start from the East and make your way West with the current.  

This is a shallow water snorkel area and the coral height can make navigation difficult during low tide, as I also experienced.   If possible you should aim for a visit when the high tide is approaching (Cayman Tidal Forecasts).  Average water depths ranged from 2 - 8 feet, getting shallower the closer to the barrier reef.

As is the case with many sites on the north shore, mock turtle grass patches appear almost immediately upon entry.  The water remains fairly shallow until about 40 yards out where is begins to approach 4-6 feet.  There happened to be a fallen tree about 60 yds straight out from the beach on my visit.  Due in equal parts to the surf and turbidity in the water, the branches appeared to “grasp out” towards you with each swell.  It made for an eerie underwater sight.  Would love to check it out in a few weeks on a calmer day to see what grinning creatures have made it their home.  

This site is all about the coral.  There are fish and other marine life here, but I did not encounter the sheer numbers or diversity as at other sites.  However, some fish I did encounter definitely ate far too many cakes.

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I have seen some big Barracuda, but he was easily the biggest fish I have ever seen.  No lie, his tail fin was as wide as my flipper and overall the fish was close to 6 feet in length!

At about 40-50 yds out you will reach the first coral.  Turn left, then turn right into the hedge-like coral cluster maze and start exploring.  The shallow depth and serpentine layout of the shoals make paying careful attention to your immediate surrounding critical to avoiding a nasty brush with the coral.  There are numerous species of coral in this area, creating a rainbow-like profusion of colors.  Garnet Starlet Corals, verdant green and ocher star corals, purple Corky Sea Fingers and Yellow Mustard Hill and Brain Corals.  I was getting bounced around a good bit and the sunlight was playing peek-a-boo with the clouds, so the pictures really do not do justice to the true vibrancy of the corals here.  I only scratched the surface of this site, but I am confident there are even more amazing things to be viewed and hopefully under better conditions.

imageBlood orange Star Corals

imageVerdant green Star Corals

imageCory Sea Fingers with their Polyps extended 

imageMustard Hill Coral cluster

imageLettuce Coral 

imageUnique shaped Brain Coral

image'Humpty Dumpty' -  Finger Coral with polyps extended

image"Off with their hands!" The Digit Garden - Finger Coral and Corky Sea Finger patches

imageThe Caterpillar’s Mushroom Garden of ocher Star Coral

imageAnother view of the Digit Garden

As you head west, Elkhorn Coral start to become more prevalent and the Star and Finger Corals give way to large Brain and Starlet Corals.  The overall vibrancy and health of the corals also begins to diminish.  I found the best snorkeling in the area behind the Mahogany Point Condos (near docks) to be towards the shore side of the coral shoals.  This was also the section that presented the most surge and largest rollers.  The water action on the inland side was much calmer.  As you approach Chisholm’s you’ll pass an undeveloped parcel of land and the sea floor will become grassy again.  This is where I was taken by surprise by the big barracuda.  

The water exit behind Chisholm’s Grocery has a fair amount of smooth and sharp ironshore, but the sea floor is fairly clear of debris and sharp objects.  I suggest keeping your fins on and doing the backwards duck walk onto the beach to lessen the chance of a lacerate foot.

imageThe Queen’s Croquet Grounds on the reef side near Mahogany Point Condos

imageTweedledum and Tweedledee’ Brain Coral specimens on the shore side near Mahogany Point

imageThe last reef rampart before exiting

imageThe water exit area behind Chisholm’s Grocery (notice the iron shore)

imageChisholm’s Grocery marks the conclusion of this tale

Mesmerized by the world unfurling before my eyes, I was getting drawn deeper and deeper into this wondrous site; completely absent-minded that the time I had arranged for my pick-up by Chisholm’s Grocery had long since past.  While engrossed watching a lobster quadrille in its den, I heard my name off in the distance.  The faint calling, quickly grew into shouting, scolding me for being very, very late for tea.  Sorry Honey.

I’ll let you guess what movie was playing on the plane ride down to Cayman.

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 © 2011 Testudo Guides, LLC.

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….

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  © 2010 Testudo Enterises, LLC

Hello Testudo!
I enjoy reading about all your snorkeling adventures on the GC forum. Lots of good advise too. My family of six adults who love to snorkel will be staying at the villa 'Far Tortuga' in July and heard the snorkeling off their dock is some of the best on the island. Is that true and have you ever snorkeled in that general area? Also when you get to the reef from there, can you snorkel on the back side of the reef or is it a deep dropoff ? What about the current beyond the reef itself? I am very curious as to what we will be seeing and the depth of the water in the sound itself going out to the reef. Thanks for your insight! Jim D.
Anonymous

Hey Jim,

You picked a great house for a snorkel base on North Side.  I love the set-up of Far Tortuga, plus the name kind of hits home.  

The snorkeling there should be good.  I have not snorkeled directly in the waters off Far Tortuga, but I have down the road, about 1 mile closer to Rum Point.  I was just picking out some spots that looked promising from shore.  The fish were plentiful, but coral was lacking at that particular spot.  The barrier reef was a bit too far from the shore, so I didn’t get to explore, but a little closer to Driftwoods is pretty good.   I can’t recall if there are any cuts in the reef nearby the house, but the reef breaks-up a bit over that way so there probably are.  You you might try looking on Google Earth to possibly ID some prior to your arrival.  Chisholm’s Grocery is a searchable land mark and the house is a little east of there.

The back side of the reef can be snorkeled, but it will depend on the conditions.  I usually stay on the in-land side unless the water is placid, no desire to become a reef ornament if the waves or currents are unfavorable. There are some drop-offs in that general area and you can sometimes see larger fish coming in and out with the tides.  If you get tired of the area, you are within 10 minutes to some other excellent areas as well.  My current favorite is Barefoot Beach.  Hope you have a great trip!