Swimming with Dolphins in Anguilla

dolphin flipper wave

Aischa popped out of the water and thrust her snout up to my cheek. She wanted a kiss. She held herself still in that position until I obliged by putting my lips on her face. Now happy, she tilted her head up and then slid down into the water and swam away.

dolphin kiss
Getting a kiss from Aischa the bottlenose dolphin.

I had never thought about interacting with a dolphin before; I thought that was something that would be more interesting for kids. However, on a recent cruise I signed up for a dolphin encounter excursion. I assumed it would be little more than a short photo opportunity in a big swimming pool where a dolphin would be confined like in an aquatic zoo. I was wrong. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.

dolphin discovery
The beach and boardwalk at Dolphin Discovery on Anguilla.

The cruise ship stopped in St. Maarten and from there I sailed for an hour over to the neighboring island of Anguilla. After a short bus ride, I arrived at the Dolphin Discovery facility. These bottlenose dolphins live not in an artificial environment (e.g., a swimming pool) like at Sea World, but in a large fenced in area of the ocean. I walked on a long boardwalk out to the man-made lagoon and got in the water.

Scientists think that dolphins are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. They’re highly social animals, living in groups (called pods) of up to a dozen members. They establish strong social bonds; they will stay with injured or ill pod members, even helping them breathe by bringing them to the surface to breathe if needed; and they have been known to protect swimmers from sharks. They are great communicators – by clicks, whistles, and other vocalizations, and by non-audible touch and posturing movements.

My guide’s name was Jose, and he was working with a young female dolphin named Aischa. Jose was a new trainer and he was still building up a rapport with the rambunctious teenager. Aischa had learned her dolphin encounter behaviors, but she sometimes disobeyed Jose and swam away to the other side of the lagoon to be with her boyfriend. Sounds just like a human being, doesn’t it?

happy dolphin
Aischa flipping into the air.

The dolphins at this facility were trained for at least four behaviors when interacting with guests.

The first behavior is the kiss. Jose instructed me to hold my hands together in a cupped fashion, extending my arms out in front of me. Jose blew his whistle and in response Aischa swam up to me and held her position with her head out of the water until I smooched her.

Next, I held my hands up high above my head. Aischa came out of the water vertically and, while balancing on her tail, waved her flippers at me. She seemed to be smiling and laughing at me as she nodded her head in unison with the flipper movements. It was so charming…

dolphin flipper wave
Doing the dolphin flipper wave!

For the next two behaviors I swam out into the lagoon. As instructed, I floated with my feet down in the water and held out my right arm while I put my left arm across my chest. On Jose’s command, Aischa swam in a circle around me until she approached me from behind. Right before she bumped into me, she flipped over onto her back and extended her flippers to either side. I grabbed on to the base of each flipper with my hands and away we went! She gave me a fast ride for about 10 yards until she started to turn back to her stomach and I let go. It was exhilarating to feel the strength of the animal as it powered through the water pulling my extra weight.

dolphin ride
Going for a ride on Aischa!

Finally, I floated with the upper half of my body on a boogie board. I straightened my legs, pointed my toes down and stayed motionless. Aischa swam around me in a circle again and approached me from behind. She pushed her snout into the sole of one of my feet and pushed hard. I shot forward like a cannon ball! She propelled me across the water for about 10 yards and then let go.

dolphin ride
Getting a big push!!

It is amazing to me that these animals like humans enough to cooperate with these behaviors. Of course, the sushi they get from the trainers as rewards help to persuade them.

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Festivals in Jamaica

the Caribbean Sea

(This is a guest post from Susanne Richards)

While traveling in the Caribbean, I was fortunate enough to visit some friends who were staying in Jamaica. Yes, we were there for the beautiful sandy beaches and nights out in Negril, but local festivals were also on our radar. Of course the sun was definitely a factor too!

the Caribbean Sea
Come to Jamaica for the Caribbean Sea – but don’t stop there!

If you’re like me, when you think reggae, you probably end up humming a Bob Marley tune. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 50 years, you’ll know that he, along with most other reggae legends, comes from this beautiful island – which brings me to our first July festival!

International Reggae Day

On July 1st, Jamaica hosts an International Reggae Day Festivalwhich celebrates both reggae and the island’s cultural history. Rather than venturing into Kingston for the main festivities, our group decided to celebrate the reggae spirit a little closer to home, at the famous Rick’s Cafe. We danced all day and night to live music, and chatted with both tourists and locals in the laid-back outdoor atmosphere. Known for its music and irie vibe, Rick’s is also a popular cliff-jumping spot. We cheered on the local cliff jumpers (and a few crazy tourists!) while sipping our cold Red Stripes.

Little Ochie Seafood Carnival

If you love seafood as much as I do, you won’t want to miss this annual event in Alligator Pond, Manchester. We shared plates of snapper right of the beachfront grill, curried lobster tails, garlic shrimp and some of the best crab I’ve ever tasted. Not travelling in July? Don’t worry if you miss the beach party – you can enjoy fresh and delicious seafood year-round here at Little Ochie, a family-style tiki hut restaurant known for its fresh and delicious seafood.

Makka Pro Surf Contest

While still relatively small compared to the West Coast surf scene, the Caribbean surfing community is growing steadily. The Makka Pro Surf Contest on Southhaven Beach brings together the local surf talent as well as surfers from around the Caribbean – pack a cooler and a beach chair and catch the excitement.

Portland Jerk Festival

Some fellow travelers we ran into were fresh off a visit to this foodie festival, and I am sorry I missed it! Bringing together a menu packed with jerk specialties (chicken, pork, fish and more), and activities for the whole family, this festival is definitely worth checking out.

Of course after a busy day or night of festivals (and so much eating!), Jamaica’s beaches offer the perfect place to relax.

Susanne Richards is Montreal-based university student who loves music, Caribbean beaches and adventure travel. Susanne occasionally writes for the Luxury Retreats travel blog, about villas in Ocho Rios Jamaica, and her latest travel adventures.

Scothies bar in Jamaica
For the best Jamaican eats check out local haunts like Scotchie’s (pictured) or Little Ochie.

Relaxing at Rum Point, Grand Cayman

Rum Point on Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands is one of my favorite places on earth. It is on the north coast of the island, far from the crowds of Seven Mile Beach.

Rum Point Beach
Another day in paradise

The point itself is a small peninsula, with a splendid white sand beach on one side, and rocky iron shore on the other. I like to walk along the iron shore coastline and gaze at the multi-million dollar beach villas, trying to decide which one I would buy if I won the lottery. Along the way I comb the beach for nice shells or interesting flotsam, but all I ever seem to find are plastic bottles washed ashore from Cuba.

Since the Rum Point beach is within the North Sound and far from the reef line, the water is typically very smooth and shallow for at least 50 yards from shore. This makes it great for small children to play in the water and in the sand at the water’s edge. The sand is perfect for making elaborate sand castles. The beach is partially shaded by large pine trees bent by the easterly winds and there are many beach chairs and hammocks for comfortable lounging.

There is a small reef to the right of the pier which is only 20 yards offshore in shallow water. This reef is very accessible for beginning snorkelers to see the colorful fish of the Caribbean in a safe environment.

Rum Point
The crystal clear waters at Rum Point

For those a little more experienced or adventurous, swimming out around Rum Point itself is another option. This area is a marine preserve with lots of sea fans, coral, larger fish, and even some lobsters, conchs, and octopi if you look closely. If the weather is right, there may be a current running from east to west over the point. By starting on the east side, you can swim out 30 yards with your snorkel gear and then float all the way to the pier. No need to paddle, just relax and watch the fish as you coast on by.

The Wreck Bar and Grill is on site to provide a tasty island-style lunch and a fruit smoothie for hot afternoons. Water sports such as paddle boats, wave runners, and small sailboats are available for rent through the Red Sail Sports operation. A trip out to Stingray City in the middle of the North Sound on a large catamaran is good way to spend part of the afternoon.

The beach sometimes gets crowded with cruise ship passengers, who come by boat for a few hours in the middle of the day. Thus the best time for quiet relaxation is in the late afternoon. The sun is not so hot and the shadows from the trees shade you nicely as you snooze or catch up on your reading.

The view from the pier at Rum point
A walk on the pier at Rum Point

Rum Point is also an excellent spot to watch the sun set. As the sun goes down over the calm waters, you can ponder what to do tomorrow. The answer might be to do the same thing that you did today. Nothing but relax.

Top Snorkeling Spots in Grand Cayman

Smith's Cove in Grand Cayman

Here are the best spots to snorkel in Grand Cayman.

Smith's Cove in Grand Cayman
Smith's Barcadere on Grand Cayman

Cheeseburger Reef The reef is about 150 yards offshore behind the Burger King on the north edge of Georgetown. Access into the water is via a small sandy path of beach between the north side of the Burger King and the south side of the Lobster Pot Dive Shop. Look for the two orange mooring balls that mark the reef. There is nothing to see until you get to the reef. The coral formations are impressive, rising up to less than 10 feet from the water surface. Large fish, turtles, and reef sharks can be seen.

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Eden Rock The reef is about 100 yards offshore from the Eden Rock Dive Center south of Georgetown. Access into the water is via stairs cut into the ironshore. Swim out to the mooring balls. The reef is a mass of large coral heads connected by tunnels and caves.

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Smith’s Barcadere Swim 20 yards straight out from the beach to explore coral heads and schools of small fish. Continue on to either side of the cove. The best snorkeling is on the left of the cove near the shoreline in 6 to 10 feet of water. The beach has shaded areas and picnic tables.
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Some other places:

Rum Point – Easy, shallow access good for beginners. Snorkel to the right of the pier towards the small point in front of the Retreat at Rum Point condos.

Turtle Reef – Just north of the Turtle farm lies Turtle Reef. Snorkellers can access it through the shore facilities. There are two different entrances in this location, one, in front of the dive shop by taking a step ladder or by entering in the cove right next to the Turtle Farm.

Cemetery Beach Reef – This patch reef is located near the north end of Seven Mile Beach off a waterfront cemetery. The reef itself is a long, narrow patch reef in less than 10 feet of water. You will find some elkhorn corals on the crown of this reef. The big attraction is the fish. It’s a bit of a swim, about 100 yards, and there is an occasional current, so be aware and cautious.

Wreck of the Gamma – The Gamma is an old freighter that has been sitting just off the shore north of the Cali for decades. Her hull is half exposed and half submerged and presents a striking view. Shore access is easy from a protected rough sand/crushed coral cove. She sits immediately offshore. Depths barely reach 10 feet. Many varieties of fish shelter under the stern while schools of silversides inhabit the interior. The entry cove is slightly north of the wreck.

Wreck of the Cali – Shore access is excellent and the swim is just 75 yards. Watch for the resident population of Tarpon.

South Sound, Blue Parrot: The Blue Parrot is actually the name of a bar that used to be a very popular “hang out” for divers. . The site is now, as was before, at the Coconut Harbor. Because the bar is gone, you can drive your car right to the edge of the water and suite up. The entrance is easy, with steps carved out of the rocky shoreline; one can jump right in and snorkel the 20 yards to the beginning of the coral formation. This site sits in about 30ft of water eventually getting deeper to 50ft in a sandy bottom.

Bodden Town, Beach Bay: Beach Bay is a small cove hidden just before entering Bodden Town. You have to drive down the long Beach Bay road, about two miles, before you reach the shore. There is a small parking lot as soon as you get to the end of the road. From there just walk downhill to the beach, you will see the cove to the left. This snorkeling spot is situated at the end of Pedro’s Bluff. The entrance is fairly easy; the small man made lagoon makes for an easy access to the outside barrier reef that surrounds the area. The area consists of mostly shallow water snorkeling with dramatic coral formations outside the reef in about 30ft of water.

Morritt’s Tortuga – You can snorkel right off the dock at Tortuga located on the eastern end of Grand Cayman. It is a shallow area with coral formations, sea fans and schooling fish. Some of the best spots can be found by the Tortuga Club’s reefs, to both the left or right of the resort as well as the pier. Be aware of the channel that sometimes carries quite a lot of current, snorkel on the right of the pier at the Tortuga club or on the left of the channel by walking on beach or driving to the beach by the point.

Walking and Not Smoking in Jamaica

smoking in Jamaica

I always rent a car when I go on a beach vacation.  I like to visit different beaches and that can be difficult without a car.  Well, almost always.  The only time I haven’t rented a car was our visit to Jamaica.  I had heard horror stories about tourists driving in Jamaica, getting lost, robbed, or worse.  I’m sure those are isolated incidents that get international headlines and that I am more likely to get poked by sharp coral.  Still, driving around the island didn’t sound like a good idea, even if we were going to the tourist areas and not the toughest parts of Kingston.

rocks above the Caribbean Sea
The view at Catch a Falling Star in Negril, Jamaica

We were staying in Montego Bay on the north shore for a few days, followed by Negril for a few days.  The resort we stayed at in Mo’ Bay (as the locals call it) was a half mile outside of town. We took a taxi into the shopping area.  There wasn’t much in the stores that interested me.  It was June, off season, and there weren’t many tourists around.  So the storekeepers descended on us like vultures to road kill.  Every other guy kept asking me about Bob.  Who the hell is this Bob guy anyway? And I why should I know anything about him?

I found out that Bob also has other names.  Like Marley, smoke, and ganja.  These people were trying to sell me marijuana.  Which one would think would be illegal, even in Jamaica, but everywhere we went I was approached to buy pot.  I couldn’t sit on the beach for more than 15 minutes without someone, male or female, young or old, asking me to relieve them of some of their stash.  Even the waiters in the restaurants were part-time salesmen.  They were polite and discrete about it, nothing too pushy or obnoxious.  But it still annoyed me and disturbed my attempts at relaxation.

smoking in Jamaica
Hanging with Bob (photo by Allison Skabrat)

After shopping and not buying anything but coffee beans, I suggested we walk over to the marina and have dinner at a seafood restaurant I read about.  We could take the main road the long way around the bay, or take a short cut.  I made the executive decision to take the short cut, because I was wearing flip flops and my feet were starting to hurt.

By this time it had gotten dark, and the road we took cut through an industrial area.  Many of the streetlights were broken, and our shadows from the few that remained danced along the corrugated tin walls of abandoned warehouses.  Litter blew in the sea breeze at our feet as we picked our way through the potholes.

Distant memories of old newspaper accounts of tourist crimes bounced around my brain as I picked up the pace a little.  I didn’t want to alarm my wife and daughter with tales of violent crime as we strolled through an area where we could vanish into the night.

“Let’s walk a little faster.  I’m really hungry,” I said.  I was hungry, but I was also getting a little scared.  I kept looking over my shoulder.  But there was no one on the street.  We were alone.

We eventually found the restaurant and had a nice meal and a couple of Red Stripes.  When it was time to go, I knew we should take a cab.  There was no way I was going to walk back through the warehouse wasteland late at night.  I asked the hostess to call us a taxi, which brought us conveniently back to our hotel.

The next day we left for Negril, which is on the western end of the island.  Negril has a reputation as a hippy hangout and party central.  We stayed outside of town again, away from the main beach in a bungalow above the rocks.  The girl at the front desk suggested we go down the road to Rick’s Café to see the cliff divers and the reggae band.  It was also a great spot to see the sun set over the Caribbean Sea. That sounded like fun.

Since Rick’s Café was only a couple of hundred yards down the road, I thought it didn’t make sense to call a taxi.  The taxis were all back in town. Instead, we’d walk there and back.

The trip there was of course in the early evening, before the sun had set.  We watched the divers, the reggae band, and the sunset. After the band finished its second set, I asked the girls if we could go.  After all, I was tired from a long day of declining marijuana purchases.

“Are you sure we want to walk back?  Can we take a taxi?  It’s really dark out there now and there is no shoulder on the road,” said my safety-conscious wife.

“Hey, we can walk a couple of hundred yards.  It’s not like the road is crowded.  We’ll see cars coming our way,” I said.  I was acting more courageous than I felt.

What could happen?  It’s only two hundred yards.  We left the café and started walking.  It was a warm, humid night.  The moon was a sliver crescent, hanging in the sky to light our way.  The flying bugs were buzzing in the trees.  We strolled along arm in arm.

As we came around the bend near our place, I noticed that there was a guy standing by the gate to our compound.  I could see that he was tall and thin and had something in his hands. I couldn’t tell what it was.

“Uh, there’s a guy in our way up there,” I said.  I was trying to be bold and protective.

“He’s probably going to try to sell us pot, Dad” said my teenaged daughter. Based on our recent experiences in the country, I had to say that was an accurate prediction.

“Just keep walking and don’t say anything to provoke him.”

We approached the guy, ready to run and bang on our gate and yell at a moment’s notice.

“Good evening ladies and gentleman.  Would you care to have a look at my artwork?” he said as he pushed the button on a small flashlight he held in one hand as he pulled some watercolors out of a satchel hanging from his shoulder.

“No thanks, not tonight.  Maybe some other time,” I said.  That was a change of pace.  Not Bob, but art.

We knocked on our gate to wake up the night guard so he could let us in.

The next day Lisa and I went for a walk.  As we turned out of the gate we ran right into the guy again.  We couldn’t avoid him so we stopped to talk.  In the daylight I could see that his eyes were red and glazed over.  I think he had been talking with Bob quite a bit already that day.  It probably interfered with his painting and selling techniques.

We didn’t buy any of his watercolors.  But we did enjoy talking with him.  In the daylight, he was nothing to be afraid of.  He was friendly and offered to be our tour guide.  We politely declined.

Our new friend Russell in Negril (photo by Allison Skabrat)

On the flight home I thought about our experiences and how my perceptions colored my attitude about the place.  We weren’t any more unsafe than many other places we have visited.  I knew that in my rational mind.  However, that didn’t mean I was ready to book a return trip to Jamaica.

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