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The proximity of healthy, Technicolor reef to the Grand Cayman shore means endless possibilities for snorkelers. Some sites require you to simply wade or swim into the surf; others are only accessible via boat. Nearly every snorkeling outfit follows the same route, beginning with the scintillating Stingray City and Sandbar. They usually continue to the adjacent Coral Gardens and often farther out along the Barrier Reef. Equipment is included, sometimes drinks, snacks, and lunch. Half-day tours run $35–$40, full-day $60–$70, and there are often extras such as kids' discounts and a complimentary shuttle to and from Seven Mile Beach resorts. Other popular trips combine Eden Rock, Cheeseburger Reef, and the wreck of the Cali off George Town. Most decent-size boats offer cover, but bring sunscreen and a hat.
Barrier Reef. A Barrier Reef separates the North Sound and Cayman's celebrated wall drop-off (part of a 6,000-foot underwater mountain). You can snorkel along the shallow side, which is crawling with critters of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Grand Cayman.
Cemetery Reef. Cemetery Reef sits 50 yards out from the north end of Seven Mile Beach, within walking distance of several condo resorts. Fish here are also accustomed to being fed, so blue tangs to blue-headed wrasse and bat jacks to black durgeon could swarm around you. Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman.
Cheeseburger Reef. Cheeseburger Reef earned its unusual moniker thanks to its location straight out from the downtown Burger King. It's also known as Soto's Reef after legendary diver Bob Soto, one of the islands' original dive operators. The eye-popping, 12,000-year-old coral formations begin 20 yards offshore, with larger heads a mere 10 feet down, though it reaches depths of 40 feet. You can swim through numerous tunnels where turtles and tarpon hang out; people have long fed fish in the area, and they're not shy, wanting it their way, but beware of snapping snappers if you bring food. George Town, Grand Cayman.
Coral Gardens. Coral Gardens, which is very near Stingray Sandbar, attracts nurse sharks, moray eels, queen conch, lobster, and not just schools but universities of jacks, tangs, sergeant majors, parrot fish, yellowtails, and others playing hide-and-seek with riotously colored soft and hard corals. It really is like swimming in an aquarium. North Sound, Grand Cayman.
Eden Rock. Eden Rock is even more spectacular for divers, who can explore its caves and tunnels, then proceed to Devil's Grotto. Still, from the surface you can see schools of sergeant majors, yellowtail snappers, parrot fish, tarpon, Bermuda chubs, even the occasional stingray and turtle. George Town, Grand Cayman.
Stingray City Sandbar. Stingray City Sandbar (as opposed to Stingray City, the popular 12-foot dive) is the stellar snorkeling attraction on Grand Cayman and simply not to be missed; dozens of boats head here several times daily. The area is always less crowded if you can go on a day when there are fewer cruise ships in port. Pick up from your hotel can be arranged. North Sound, Grand Cayman.
Wreck of the Cali. You can still identify the engines and winches of the Wreck of the Cali, an old sailing freighter, which settled about 20 feet down. The sponges are particularly vivid, and tropical fish, shrimp, and lobster abound. Many operators based in George Town and Seven Mile Beach come here, as well as Eden Rock. About 50 yards out from Rackam's Waterfront Pub, 93 N. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1201.
Bayside Watersports. Bayside Watersports offers half-day snorkeling trips, North Sound beach lunch excursions, Stingray City and dinner cruises, and full-day deep-sea fishing. The company operates several popular boats out of West Bay's Morgan's Harbour. Full-day trips include lunch and conch diving in season (November–April). Morgan's Harbour, West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1401. 345/949–3200. www.baysidewatersports.com.
Captain Crosby's Watersports. Captain Crosby's Watersports offers favorably priced snorkeling (and dive) excursions on well-equipped 47- and 40-foot trimarans; $40 includes lunch. Captain Crosby is one of the more colorful captains among a group of genuine characters (he maintains a friendly rivalry with his fellow sailors regarding who really jump-started Stingray City tours). He's actively involved in preserving Cayman's maritime heritage as a founder of the Catboat Association. As a bonus, the trips are usually a little longer in duration; expect a sing-along with the captain on his guitar at some point. You can also arrange deep-sea fishing charters. Grand Cayman. 345/945–4049 or 345/916–1725. www.captaincrosbywatersports.com.
Captain Marvin's. Multistop North Sound snorkeling trips, as well as fishing charters and land tours, are offered here. The indomitable, irrepressible Captain Marvin, one of the first regular Stingray City operators (in business since 1951), is still going strong in his 90s. Full-day trips include lunch and conch dives in season (November–April), when the crew prepares marinated conch as the appetizer. The half day (three hours) is a better deal than the quickie trips; the only drawback is the relatively large groups. Reservations can be made only from 10 am to 3 pm on weekdays or via the website. Cash payments usually receive a discount. Cayman Islands Yacht Club Marina, Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. 345/945–4590, 345/945–6975, or 866/978–6364. www.captainmarvins.com.
Ebanks Watersports. Ebanks Watersports is run by a large family long known for its aquatic activities. Shawn Ebanks offers a range of water-sports activities, including various snorkeling tours, private charters, fishing, and his popular Yamaha wave-runner snorkel tours (the last are costlier, $125 for single riders, $175 for two). The crew is both friendly and experienced; they're particularly adept at holding the stingrays for the ultimate photo op; they'll even teach you how to pick one up yourself. His two custom-fitted boats (a 45-foot Garcia and 34-foot Wellcaraft Scarab) include GPS navigation, VHS radio, freshwater shower, and other necessities. Cayman Islands Yacht Club, Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1010. 345/925–5273. www.ebankswatersports.com.
Fantasea Tours. Captain Dexter Ebanks runs Fantasea Tours on his 38-foot trimaran, Don't Even Ask, usually departing from the Cayman Islands Yacht Club. He doesn't pack you in like sardines (20 people max) and is particularly helpful with first-timers. Like many of the captains, he has his own pet names for the rays (ask him to find Lucy, whom he "adopted") and rattles off fascinating factoids during an entertaining, non-stop narration. It's a laid-back trip, with Bob Marley and Norah Jones on the sound system, and fresh fruit and rum punch on tap. West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. 345/916–0754. www.dexters-fantaseatours.com.
Red Sail Sports. Red Sail Sports offers Stingray City, sunset, and evening sails (including dinner in winter) on its luxurious 62- and 65-foot catamarans, the Spirits of Cayman, Poseidon, Calypso, and Ppalu. It often carries large groups; although the service may not be personal, it will be efficient. In addition to the large cats, a glass-bottom boat takes passengers to Stingray City/Sandbar and nearby coral reefs. It operates from several hotels, including the Westin and Morritt's, in addition to its Rum Point headquarters. The cost ranges from $40 to $80. Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/949–8745, 345/623–5965, or 877/506–6368. www.redsailcayman.com.
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