Warm Waters, Azure Seas & Colorful Fish
Await Cruisers Who Snorkel
Among the perks of snorkeling excursions on a Caribbean cruise are swimming with stingrays off Grand Cayman and photographing tropical fish in Cozumel.*
By Michael DeFreitas
Sleek dark shapes circled our small boat as Caribbean rollers crashed nearby on the outer fringes of the barrier reef. But here inside the reef, the waters of Belize’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve were clear and calm.
By the time we had tied up to the anchor buoy, the water around the boat teemed with six-foot-long nurse sharks, three-foot-wide gray southern stingrays and large silver-sided horse-eye jacks.
“They don’t call this Shark Ray Alley for nothin,” our guide uttered, pointing at the water. In the old days, it seems, the fishermen used this part of the reef to clean their fish, and the sharks and rays would come to eat the scraps. “Today, we just feed ‘em tourists,” he joked, flashing a perfect set of pearly whites.
Snorkeling with the friendly sharks and stingrays along this section of pristine reef is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The five-square-mile park is now Belize’s top marine attraction for cruise passengers. At left, snorkelers explore this park.*
A daily diet of fish scraps –– not tourists –– guarantees plenty of marine critter interaction.
Holland America Line (www.hollandamerica.com) and Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.com) are among the many lines offering Shark Ray Alley excursions on their 2008 western Caribbean itineraries with port calls in Belize; the excursions run $80 to $105 per person.
Snorkeling Hot Spots
Throughout the Caribbean, a plethora of other snorkeling reefs also await. Most are just a few fin kicks from shore. (At right, a Royal Caribbean cruise guest is about to "walk out" to snorkel.*)
The reefs are home to a diverse ecosystem packed with marine creatures like foureye butterflyfish, giant blue parrotfish, brightly colored wrasse, sea turtles, lobsters, colorful sea stars and corals.
Popular snorkeling ports on eastern Caribbean itineraries include the Bahamas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Antigua, St. Martin and St. Vincent & The Grenadines.
Besides Belize, you’ll find other excellent snorkeling in such western itinerary ports as Cozumel, Cancun and the Bay Islands of Honduras.
An exotic fish and colorful corals are visual perks of one of the author's Cozumel snorkeling trips (shown above left).*
Southern Caribbean snorkeling draws include Barbados, Bonaire, Aruba, Curacao and Panama’s San Blas Islands.
In addition, cruisers -- and particularly families with children -- can enjoy beach fun and snorkeling at a cruise line private island.
At right, this young boy couldn't wait to hit the water for snorkeling at Labadee, Haiti, on a Royal Caribbean cruise.*
Grand Cayman's Stingray City
Thousands of cruise ships passengers each year head for Stingray City, a string of shallow sandbars stretching across Grand Cayman’s North Sound between Morgan Harbor and Rum Point.
In the late 1980s, fishermen starting feeding the resident stingrays fish scraps.
Now dozens of rays, attracted by the boat’s engines, show up for an easy meal. The rays are so friendly you can hold them.
At left, a Royal Caribbean cruise passenger snorkels in close proximity to a stingray.*
The thought of a free meal also attracts hundreds of tropical fish like sergeant majors and angelfish; they hug the shallow coral reefs adjacent to the sandbars.
The combination of large schools of colorful fish and four-foot-deep water translates into one of the best snorkeling spots in the Caribbean.
Princess Cruises (www.princess.com) and Carnival Cruise Lines (www.carnival.com) are among the cruise lines that visit Grand Cayman throughout the year.
Their 2008 Stingray City excursions run $50 to $75 per person double.
Aruba's Antilla Wreck
Aruba’s west coast is another hot spot for snorkelers. One reason? Rather than surrender to Dutch marines on May 11, 1940, the captain of the German freighter, Antilla, set fire to his ship and opened the bilge valves. The Antilla sank to the bottom.
Today, most of the superstructure and fore deck of the mostly intact wreck lie less than 15 feet below the surface. Purple tube sponges protrude from the Antilla’s starboard side like miniature cannons.
Hard and soft corals cover the hull down to her keel. Green sea turtles rest on the deck near the bridge. Lobsters and clouds of silver sides crowd the ship’s many nooks and crannies.
Many cruise lines offer 12- to 14-day Aruba itineraries from south Florida, giving cruisers a good opportunity to explore the Antilla.
Curacao's Underwater Park
Established in 1983, Curaçao’s 1500-acre Underwater Park stretches for 12.5 miles along Curacao’s southeast coast.
The park features a well-marked, 875-foot underwater snorkel trail between Caracas Bay and Jan Thiel Bay.
One fish encountered on a recent Curacao snorkeling trip by the author is shown at right.*
Information plaques, mounted on the reef along the trail, help snorkelers identify the beautiful coral gardens, abundant fish life and a couple of shallow shipwrecks.
The popular Tug Boat wreck sits upright in about 17 feet of water, making it easily accessible to snorkelers.
Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International (www.royalcaribbean.com) will dock in Curacao on their 2008 Panama Canal itineraries from Miami. Their snorkeling excursions cost between $49 and $70 per person.
Have Fun, Stay Safe
Cruisers who pay attention to simple, common sense snorkeling tips given by their marine trip operator will discover that snorkeling is easy, safe and, yet highly exciting.
Nothing beats the rush when colorful fish and exotic sea creatures materialize in front of your eyes.
Most cruise-operated excursions include a mask, snorkel and fins. But, you also may bring your own.
Comfortable flotation vests are also available. Thus, even non-swimmers may enjoy snorkeling.
And don't forget to bring along a waterproof, underwater "throwaway camera. They're available for purchase on most cruise ships.
You'll likely snap some great shots of your underwater experience and marine life. At right, this woman on a Royal Caribbean cruise is doing just that.*
Whether you're a beginner or experienced snorkeler, you'll find that from Belize to Grand Cayman, Mexico to Aruba, and many spots in between, the Caribbean’s fabulous marine world awaits.
Award-winning writer and photographer Michael DeFreitas specializes in adventure and cruise travel in Latin America and the Caribbean. His stories and photos grace the pages of travel magazines all over the world. Besides his magazine work he is contributing editor for five cruise guides by Ocean Cruise Guides.
*Photos used above are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of Royal Caribbean International or Michael DeFreitas. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.