Grand Cayman is perhaps best known as a Caribbean tax haven where the world’s rich and infamous stash their zillions. But not all visitors come for banking. For a long time, I’ve been going for the beaching. For good reason. My grandmother used to manage a hotel on the island, but even though she’s long since retired, I keep going back because Cayman has the Caribbean’s best coastline, with miles of bright white sand next to turquoise water. Under the sea is even better: wildlife — turtles, eels, barracudas and rays — can be seen a short swim offshore, flitting between sea fans, shipwrecks and tons and tons of coral. The best part: I don’t use a pile of Scuba gear to take it all in — just a simple snorkel mask and flippers that I bought in Toronto. Here, my six favourite places to snorkel offshore in Grand Cayman.
The first time I went to Spotts Beach I wasn’t impressed. The water looked both weed-y and rough. Then my husband and I noticed shapes moving just below the surface, with little heads occasionally poking up for air. Turtles! Turns out, big sea turtles often come to Spotts to feed on grasses growing close to shore. We got in the water, approached slowly, didn’t get too close, and the turtles didn’t seem to mind, letting us float around them as they munched their food. Since then, we’ve gone back often to see these gentle creatures.
The best time to visit is early in the morning before the beach gets busy and while the turtles seem to be more numerous (one morning we saw five or six). I also recommend going on a calm day when there isn’t much wind. Currents at Spotts can be strong, and the waves choppy, which makes it hard to swim too far from shore. But when the sea is flat, you can easily swim out past the grasses, out about 200 yards, to a big reef. On the way out, I’ve seen lobsters, squid, conchs, and stingrays. At the reef, I’ve seen big parrot fish and French angelfish, barracudas, an eagle ray, huge purple sea fans and of course more turtles.
What you need to know: there is free parking on-site, the reef is marked by red buoys about 200 yards from shore, but don’t swim past the buoys as the currents can be strong.
Spanish Bay Reef
I grew up swimming Spanish Bay Reef, because my grandmother managed the nearby Spanish Bay Reef Hotel. Although the hotel is currently closed, waiting for a buyer to redevelop the property, many people still find creative (though not necessarily legal) ways to get around the chain links fences and snorkel (I don’t recommend it, but the fences aren’t that hard to hop). The reason people go: about a hundred yards from shore, there’s a mini sea wall lined with coral and sea fans. The last time I went, I saw a six-foot, bright green moray eel ribboning through the water, hunting little fish with its menacing teeth, and two barracudas (one of which got quite curious and close, so I had to keep telling myself that barracuda attacks are rare, otherwise I might have peed myself). A previous time, I saw a turtle and about a billion little fish.
For those not interested in breaking and entering, you can either be patient and wait for a new hotel to open, or join a boat tour from the Cobalt Coast Resort nearby — they occasionally take groups to Spanish Bay.
What you need to know: This site is currently closed, but if you can find some way out to the reef it’s worth it.
Like Spanish Bay Reef, nearby Turtle Reef is a mini-wall close to shore. Unlike Spanish Bay Reef, there is no fence-hopping required to get in. Entry is at the end of the Macabuca patio (which, FYI, has a really good rum punch), down a ladder and into a cove of craggy ironshore. Just past the rocks, yellow buoys mark the reef. Despite the name, when I went in January 2020, I didn’t see any turtles, though some Scuba divers who were out at the same time said they did. I did, however see black durgon, stingrays, a cluster of about 30 of tarpon — huge but harmless silver fish — and two incredibly gracious eagle rays gliding through the water side-by-side, as though they were close friends heading out on an adventure.
What you need to know: there is free parking on-site, at the Cracked Conch restaurant, and free entry down a ladder off the end of the Macabuca patio.
Wreck of the Cali
When I’m swimming, I’d rather see reefs not wrecks. There’s something creepy to me about the prow of a boat appearing ghost-like in the water, like something out of the Titanic movie. That said, the last time I was in Grand Cayman, in January 2020, I snorkeled the Wreck of the Cali, the remains of a 1900 freighter that sank in 1948 when, as the story goes, the hull sprang a leak, causing the cargo of rice to expand, fracturing the boat.
What remains are in fairly shallow, clear water just off of downtown Georgetown, near the cruise ship terminal. The boat isn’t intact. Its remains are strewn in different directions, so imagination is required to picture what the vessel would have looking like a century ago. But it’s easy to make out the masts, the deck and parts of the engine, all of which create the impression of a once impressive craft. I couldn’t see any rice — I’m assuming that was all long ago eaten by the tarpon and other fish that swim around the boat. And there is a reef at the far end, which gave me something less eerie to look at after the swimming over the spectral Cali.
What you need to know: You can usually find free street parking nearby. It’s possible to swim off a little beach near Rackman’s restaurant, but I paid $10 US to get in at the Divers Down dive shop, which allowed me to use their lockers, showers, ladders and have a guide tell me exactly where to go to see the boat.
Bob Soto Reef aka Cheeseburger Reef
Bob Soto Reef aka Cheeseburger Reef (the first name comes from a legendary diver on the island, the latter because there is a Burger King nearby) is in central George Town, near the cruise ship terminal, and the Wreck of the Cali. Instead of freak-y ghost boats in the water, there are just big heads of coral, some of which rise up just below the surface. Stingrays, tarpon and many other fish live in the crevices and cracks between the rocks, which seem to go on and on forever, making this a very exciting, long swim. A note of caution, though. The reef is well marked by buoys, but there are lots of boats coming in and out of this part of the harbour, so attention must be paid.
What you need to know: It’s easy to find street parking nearby. Free access via a ladder next to the Lobster Pot restaurant, beside the Lobster Pot Dive Center.
Rum Point is one of the prettiest beaches in the island — bright white sand shaded by soft, tall pine trees that dapple the otherwise bright Caribbean light. The water is shallow, with a sandy bottom that seems to go on forever. But about 200 metres out, clusters of coral start to appear, with bursts of green, purple, orange and pink. Because the water isn’t deep, everything is easy to see, including the sea life — eagle and stingrays, conch and angelfish.
One of my favourite reasons for coming here is the Wreck Bar and Grill, which has good jerk chicken and rice and peas — sustenance post swim!
What you need to know: There is free parking at the beach and free entry to the water. A Red Sail dive shop on site can direct you where to go, and provide a free, floating flag to swim with to alert any boats in the area that you’re there.