Saturday, January 15, 2011


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

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 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 on Trip Advisor 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


For more pictures, check out my Bodden Town Snorkel album 

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