Paradise Island / Cayo Arenas - Best Snorkeling in the D.R.
by Harley McAllister
One gets a sense of the power of marketing when what the locals call Cayo Arenas (or, "Sand Island"), suddenly gets transformed in English to "Paradise Island." But at least in this case the reality lives up to the marketing hype.
Paradise Island is a short 20 minute boat ride of the north coast of the Island near Punta Rucia. There are guided tours that provide snacks, drinks, full lunch and snokel gear and cost a lot more, or you can go a different route and hire a local fisherman to take you out there for substantially less (bring your own food and drinks but they usually have snorkel gear and bread to feed the fish).
The boat ride itself is pretty fun as you bounce through the ocean waves, and shortly you start to make out these little huts seemingly rising out of the open ocean. It isn't until you get closer that you realize they are perched on a miniature island of sand that is smaller than a football field.
This tiny island is surrounded by a ring of coral that is still in good condition, supporting a thriving marine ecosystem and a wide variety of fish. On the interior side of the ring of coral the entire bay is shallow enough that the water is only waist deep and it is easy to wade. But if you want to venture out through some of the openings in the coral to the seaward side, the coral drops off precipitously into the deeper blues of the open ocean.
This trip is an excellent introduction to snorkeling for kids because the shallow side of the reef has calm, clear, warm waters - still with plenty of fish. A good tip for snorkeling with kids is to put a lifejacket on backwards around their body and under their arms as it will keep them floating well as they place their face in the water without excessive kicking and arm movement. Boat operators typically bring along some inexpensive bread to feed to the fish, and the fish are happy to oblige. Another tip - try to go as early in the day as possible, because the crowds grow throughout the day and the island starts to feel less like Gilligan’s Island and more like Times Square. The crowds also stir up the sand and the wind picks up later in the day, both of which contribute to slightly cloudier water conditions. However, if afternoon is the only time you can go, don't let that discourage you, because we have been there in the afternoon as well and still had a wonderful time.
Finally, on your ride home the smaller boat operators can take you on a boat tour of the adjacent Mangrove swamps, another diverse and threatened ecosystem. Mangroves and coral actually have a symbiotic relationship because the mangroves serve as nurseries for many of the important fish species that live on the coral reefs as adults. The Parrotfish is the best example, as the adults serve to eat excess algae off the coral keeping it clean, while the juveniles find protection from predators in the mangroves.
So, if you are looking for some fantastic snorkeling and a decent biology lesson in ecosystems, make time to visit Paradise Island.