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–$75, 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. Separating the North Sound and Cayman's celebrated wall drop-off (part of a 6,000-foot underwater mountain), this reef has snorkeling along its shallow side, which is crawling with critters of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Grand Cayman.
Cemetery Reef. Sitting 50 yards out from the north end of Seven Mile Beach, within walking distance of several condo resorts, this reef has fish that are accustomed to being fed. Blue tangs, blue-headed wrasse, bat jacks, and black durgeon could swarm around you. Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman.
Cheeseburger Reef. This 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, but beware of snapping snappers if you bring food. George Town, Grand Cayman.
Coral Gardens. Near Stingray Sandbar, this snorkeling site attracts nurse sharks, moray eels, queen conch, lobster, and schools 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. Though this site is even more spectacular for divers, who can explore its caves and tunnels, from the surface you can still 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. This site (as opposed to Stingray City, a popular 12-foot dive) is the island's stellar snorkeling attraction. Dozens of boats head here several times daily. It's less crowded on days with fewer cruise ships in port. North Sound, Grand Cayman.
Wreck of the Cali. You can still identify the engines and winches of this 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. 93 N. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1201.
Captain Marvin's. Multistop North Sound snorkeling trips, as well as fishing charters and land tours, are offered by the indomitable, irrepressible Captain Marvin. One of the first regular Stingray City operators (in business since 1951), he is still going strong in his nineties, though he rarely takes the boats out himself. Full-day trips include lunch and conch dives November–April, when the crew prepares marinated conch as the appetizer; other excursions include the Crystal Caves. The half day (three hours) tour is the best deal; though large groups can be a drawback. Reservations can be made only from 10 to 3 on weekdays or via the website. Cash payments usually receive a discount. Cayman Islands Yacht Club, Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. 345/945–7306; 345/945–6975; www.captainmarvins.com.
Ebanks Watersports. This outfit is run by a large family long known for its aquatic activities. Shawn Ebanks offers a range of water sports, including private charters, scuba diving, fishing, and his popular Sea-Doo wave-runner snorkel tours ($150 for single riders, $200 for two). The crew is friendly, experienced, and particularly adept at holding stingrays for the ultimate photo op; they'll even teach you how to pick one up. Two custom-fitted boats (a 45-foot Garcia and a trim 23-footer) include GPS navigation, VHS radio, freshwater shower, and other necessities. 164 Yacht Dr., Dock C, West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1207. 345/925–5273; 345/916–1631; 727/440–-5200 ; www.ebankswatersports.com.
Fantasea Tours. Captain Dexter Ebanks runs tours on his 38-foot trimaran, Don't Even Ask, usually departing from the Cayman Islands Yacht Club ($40 including transfers, $30 children under 12). Tours are not too crowded (22 people max) and Ebanks is particularly helpful with first-timers. Like many captains, he has pet names for the rays (ask him to find Lucy, whom he "adopted") and rattles off factoids during an entertaining, nonstop narration. It's a laid-back trip, with Bob Marley and Norah Jones playing, 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. Luxurious 62- and 65-foot catamarans (the Spirits of Cayman, Poseidon, Calypso, and Ppalu) often carry large groups on Stingray City, sunset, and evening sails ($45–$90, $25–$45 children under 12) including dinner in winter. Although the service may not be personal, it's efficient. A glass-bottom boat takes passengers to Stingray City/Sandbar and nearby coral reefs. Trips run from several hotels, including the Westin and Morritt's, in addition to the Rum Point headquarters. Rum Point, North Side, Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/949–8745; 345/623–5965; 877/506–6368; www.redsailcayman.com.