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Blankets of Finger Coral and clusters of mushroom-like of 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ALBUM with additional images.
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