Updated: September 1, 2014 at 9:21 am
GRAND CAYMAN ISLAND - After pulling on my snorkel mask and fins, I plunged face-first into the Caribbean Sea.
Immediately, a few feet from shore, I was surrounded by an array of colorful tropical fish. I felt like I'd dropped into a scene from "Finding Nemo."
I swam to a nearby reef and found myself gasping through the snorkel tube at the scene unfolding below me. There was a sea turtle gliding along. Stingrays snuggled into pockets of sand in the sea floor. A large barracuda hovered by a rock, its mouth open. Flounder swam sideways and dug into the sand. There was even a small school of squid.
My wife, Cary, and I took turns signaling frantically to each other, pointing out the latest sea life discovery.
As I followed a stingray, I noticed the ocean getting dark. A few more kicks of my fins and I was staring over a wall. The ocean floor dropped off 60 feet, and I could see to the bottom.
It was slightly unnerving to be bobbing in the sea, maybe 50 yards offshore, and looking over the edge of a cliff into a turquoise abyss.
Then, I caught a glimpse of a school of 25 or so blue-green fish swimming along the base of the cliff. They were tarpon, and they looked to weigh 150 pounds or more apiece.
Sensory overload was kicking in when two scuba divers swam into view midway along the cliff. It was my 15-year-old son, Ben, and his dive instructor, Bec Swanson, from Indigo Divers. Ben was making his first open water dives as part of his scuba certification process.
For a moment, I had forgotten that we had been trailing them from above with our snorkel gear.
During a week of snorkeling and sightseeing on Grand Cayman Island, it would not be the last time I found myself in awe at the island paradise about 450 miles south of Miami off Cuba's southern shore.
In fact, my family quickly fell in love with Grand Cayman, including its spectacular Seven Mile Beach, the iguanas we saw along the canals and golf courses and roadsides, and even the wild chickens that live on the island. Wild chickens are a long Cayman tradition made worse, we were told, after Hurricane Ivan in 2004 destroyed chicken farms, scattering even more across the island.
I've snorkeled in California, the Bahamas, Roatan Island, Honduras, the Big Island of Hawaii, and in Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos in Mexico. None of them measures up to Grand Cayman.
And best of all, we were able to snorkel simply by parking and wandering straight in the water from the beach or the rocky iron shore. That included Cheeseburger Reef in George Town, named for its proximity to a fast food joint, Cemetery Reef near a graveyard, and Turtle Reef.
Same for Rum Point, where a fabulous reef treated us to all manner of sea life and a beach shaded by palm trees and featuring public showers and, most important, a bar serving mango daiquiris.
Only once during the week did we hire a boat to take us to a reef.
But that day on the boat was our best day.
We joined an Acquarius Sea Tours trip to Stingray City, Coral Garden and Starfish Point. One reason we chose Acquarius was the size of the boat. We prefer smaller operations and Acquarius limited its group to 25 or so.
We sat up top with the skipper and enjoyed the view as we plowed the cobalt waters to our first stop at Coral Garden.
Dropping into the 86-degree water, we found the garden in full bloom with an assortment of the most beautiful coral I've seen.
And the fish were not scared. Instead, they swam to us, getting right up in our masks, mooching for food.
Ben and I quickly spotted a small stingray and followed it until we were dazzled by a queen angelfish.
We circled back to a large outcropping of rock and dived to the bottom, about 12 feet, and found a large moray eel living inside. Its head was larger than my hand and I didn't dare reach near it for fear of losing a finger.
In a nook of a nearby collection of coral was a smaller brown-and-yellow-spotted moray. It danced in and out of the rock and soon attracted a crowd of masked-and-flippered observers.
I could have spent the day snorkeling in the garden. But I'm glad I didn't because next was Starfish Point where sea stars live in the grasses that are just offshore of some of the more beautiful beaches you'll ever see.
Finally, we headed to Stingray City, a sandbar off the north end of the island, near Rum Point. Decades ago, fishing boats stopped on the sandbar to clean their fish, our guide told us.
Stingrays were attracted to the free meals and eventually made a home in the area. An estimated 90 stingray now live on the sandbar and it is the island's top tourist attraction.
Today, tourist ships circle the sandbar and the stingrays circle the shallow waters, rubbing the legs of tourists and even swimming into the arms of those brave enough to try.
It was quite a rush to feel stingrays - many 6 feet across and upwards of 200 pounds - glide between your legs and up into your arms, eyes blinking and gills flapping as they posed for photos.
For anyone serious about snorkeling, Stingray City needs to be your next trip.
More than snorkeling
Of course, there's more to do on Grand Cayman Island than scuba and snorkel. We were tempted to ride horses in the surf on Conch Point near Barker's National Park. But we decided to save that for our next trip.
And Seven Mile Beach offered an assortment of diversions such as para-sailing and float bikes and trampolines.
After getting accustomed to driving on the left side of the road, we spent a day touring the island by car, stopping in Bodden Town and Breakers and at the Blow Holes, where waves crashing through holes in the rocky shore produce explosive geysers of seawater.
We intend to visit the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park on our return trip, along with the National Museum in George Town in hopes of learning more of its history of pirates and slavery and shipwrecks and turtle hunting.
And, of course, we'll be packing our snorkel gear.