Snorkeling at Christopher Columbus Condos: Tips from a Pro

by Toni Keesee

Did you know that you can snorkel directly off our shores at Christopher Columbus Condos? Not only can you, but it’s a great location to do so. Our waters are teeming with activity. In order for you to get the most out of your first snorkel or next snorkel here, we asked long time snorkeler, Nancy Snowden (and owner of one of our condo units) for her advice. She’s well known amongst our crew for having the best snorkeling adventures right here at CCC. Read what she has to share in the Q&A below.

How long have you been snorkeling at Christopher Columbus Condos? And how did you first get into snorkeling?

I’ve been snorkeling at Christopher Columbus Condos for 25+ years. I first snorkeled in Hawaii in my 20’s and was shocked at all the colorful fish you could see just two feet down in the water—had no idea all that was going on under there. All I had to do was put my head in and look. From there I was hooked. I got into diving and then found my way to Grand Cayman in the 80s and 90s. Cayman has such fantastic snorkeling opportunities especially right in front of our condos here at CCC. There are great coral formations to explore just beyond our shoreline.

What kind of gear do you use?

I use a mask, snorkel and fins. Some people use full face masks which can be helpful if you have trouble breathing through a snorkel, but I prefer the standard masks. You don’t have to have fins, but you’ll be able to go farther with them. Fins also protect your feet.

When purchasing a mask, get one that fits your face well. One fitting technique you can use is to look down, put the mask on your face without the strap around you head and just suck in with your nose—if it stays in place then you’ve got a good seal and a good fit.

Take a noodle if you want support in the water, or wear a life jacket if you’d like extra support. Just know you won’t be able to dive under with the life jacket of course.

Once in the water, what advice do you have?

Actually, if you’ve never snorkeled before, I suggest getting comfortable with your gear in the pool first. That way, once you’re in the ocean you’re confident and ready to go.

Once in the ocean, swim very slowly, or even just hang in the water quietly. This doesn’t have to be deep at all. Just observe…and you will be amazed at what you see.

When your mask fogs up the tried and true method of spitting in your mask and giving it a quick rinse in the ocean water really works.

Where is the best place to snorkel from the CCC beach?

There is definitely more activity to the north (right), but you don’t have to go out very deep to see yellow and black striped sergeant majors, parrotfish, blue tangs, peacock flounders, disc-shaped butterflyfish, French angels, shy porcupine fish hanging out under rock overhangs, ocean triggers and white chubs. Christmas tree worms are plentiful on the coral. They’re the ones that disappear in a flash if you wave your hand or swim near them. And you can find their cousins “feather dusters” more in the sandy areas to the south (left off the beach).

When I go out to snorkel, I typically make a loop. I swim out to the right, down a couple of condos and then swim back.

What are some fish that one can hope to see during a snorkel at Christopher Columbus?

Aside from all the varieties mentioned above, you’ll also see lots of trunkfish (sometimes called cow fish). They’re so cute. And you may not see them every time, but it’s not uncommon to see eel, scorpion fish, and spotted eagle rays, too.

While some may think they’re boring because they aren’t visually stunning, I love looking for banded jawfish. They make holes in the sand about the size of a quarter for their home. They’ll have pieces of coral all around the hole that they’ve cleaned out—it’s almost like they’ve decorated their yard. If you wait they’ll peek their heads out.

There are octopus, but they are harder to spot. Look under rocks (near holes) and you may see an eye peeking out. It’s less common to see them fully out, but if you’re lucky enough to experience that it’s super cool. They’re small, maybe a foot tall and they swim along funny, gliding. You’re most likely to see them at the rocks just north of us (to the right when you enter the water).

octopus and eel

What else can you see while snorkeling at Christopher Columbus Condos?

I love finding sand dollars. Unless you’re looking for them you can really miss them. They’re whiter than the sand and that’s how I spot them. You have to go really slow to see them.

Seeing squid is always fun. They typically hang a foot or two below the surface, looking like they are swimming backwards due to the fake eye marking near their tail. If you see one, look to its right and left on the same level, and you are bound to see more and sometimes many.

I once snorkeled through a huge school of silversides – with a barracuda in the middle. It was awesome and beautiful—and just off the CCC beach to the north (right).

You may also see lionfish (an invasive species in Cayman). One quick tip: if you do see one don’t swim above it. When scared they can apparently float up quickly, and you don’t want to get stung by one.

When’s the best time of day to snorkel?

Typically the best time of day to see the most activity, including stingrays and eagle rays is early morning or late afternoon. I have seen everything at every time of day, though, so it seems like you just never know what you might spy. (You definitely get better at spotting things with experience). 

If you want to see lobster, go around dusk and look for their two antennae sticking out from under a coral or rock. Then you can dive down and see the whole lobster. You can often find them under buoys, too. Even if you don’t find lobster, you’re bound to find something interesting hanging out at the base of the buoys in the water.

During turtle mating season you can see the large loggerheads or hawksbills in the early morning or evening hours on the surface.

sea turtles

What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen while snorkeling at CCC?

I saw a flying gurnard a few years ago. At first it looked like a big cricket at the bottom of the ocean and as I got closer it took off. It wasn’t super fast, so I could keep up. It spread its wings and all of a sudden it was a brilliant blue. That thing knocked my socks off. I’ve seen maybe a half dozen over the course of 25 years. They’re kind of rare.

flying gurnard photos

I also found a gold spotted eel. At first I thought it was a snake just sitting on the ocean floor. It wasn’t big, only like a foot long and maybe the diameter of a dime. I’ve never seen one since, but it was really neat.

Do you have any advice for identifying what one sees?

I have a book that I love using by Paul Humann called, Reef Fish Identification. Fish can be difficult to describe, but you can research them on Google. Start your search with shape, color and size descriptions and make sure to take advantage of browsing the image search.

[Also take a look at these fish we’ve written about previously.]

What keeps you coming back?

Never knowing what I’m going to see. I will go in the middle of the day just because I’m bored thinking I’m not going to see anything. And then I see the most spectacular things that knock my socks off. Just watching the fish interacting is so fun.