Top Ten Places to Snorkel
|STINGRAY CITY: Snorkel among gentle stingrays in Grand Cayman's waters (Philip Coblentz/Digital Vision)|
You'd think that just about every island in the Caribbean would have a great place to snorkel...and that's practically true. But, even with an embarrassment of riches, some spots are better than others. Most important, top snorkeling spots should have calm, protected waters. High swells could push you into rocks or coral or make you seasick, and a strong current could carry you hundreds of meters from your starting point before you realize it. Of course, there has to be something down there to look at, and whether it's coral, shipwrecks, or flora and fauna, some areas and islands are simply better than others.
You know that classic turquoise water that always appears in pictures of the Caribbean? Terrible snorkeling—nothing but sand. Dark patches are better, as they often cover coral heads or reef. Depth is a crucial factor too—six to 20 feet is ideal, deep enough so you can look straight down and not brush against anything, but not so deep you can't dive down for a closer look. Location is also important, as an easily accessible snorkel spot helps logistics. Ideally you want to be able to get to it quickly by boat or swimming from shore (although the isolation of hard-to-get places can be appealing too, especially on busy islands). Snorkeling spots with all the perks we've mentioned, plus local shops to rent gear or hire a guide, are the sorts of places we've highlighted here.
10. Utila, Honduras
The smallest of Honduras's Bay Islands, Utila is best known as a place to view and snorkel with whale sharks. The biggest fish in the sea, adult whale sharks measure 25 to 50 feet long and can weigh a whopping 15 tons. They're harmless, by the way, feeding on plankton, krill, and other small prey (similar to baleen whales), and nothing quite compares to sharing the water with such a huge animal. Whale sharks can be hard to locate in the open water, but they're most numerous around Utila from March to May and August to October, and a few dive shops offer specialized snorkeling tours. Utila has excellent shore snorkeling too, including Airport Reef, with a shallow sprawling reef formation, and Blue Bayou, which has a beach and pier for easier entry.
Utila Vacation Guide
9. Cozumel, Mexico
Jacques Cousteau visited Isla Cozumel in 1959 and was so stunned by its underwater beauty that he named it one of the world's top dive spots. It remains so, thanks to decades of federal environmental protection and despite ever-increasing tourist traffic and the bruising effects of recent hurricanes. No less remarkable for snorkelers, Cozumel offers numerous sites reachable by boat and from the shore. Famous spots include Palancar, which has five sections—the Shallows and Garden being the best for snorkeling. Another includes a 40-foot Convair airplane (sunk in shallow water for a film shoot in the '70s) and Dzul-Ha, a nondescript strip of beach with terrific coral formations just offshore. Cozumel's sites can have strong currents, so do plan accordingly.
Cozumel Vacation Guide
8. Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
Grand Cayman is no deserted island getaway, in fact, it's one of the busiest destinations in the Caribbean. A good number of its visitors are business people—the island hosts close to a thousand banks—but most travel there for the diving and snorkeling. And for good reason: Grand Cayman boasts a rich coral reef, great visibility, and an array of sea life, large and small. The island's most popular snorkel site is Stingray City, where scores of rays (technically wild) have grown accustomed to being fed and observed by masked landlubbers. There's no escaping the crowds—human or cartilaginous—but it's a memorable experience nonetheless. Other favorite spots include Eden Rock, known for its unique underwater grottos; Cemetery Reef, where you can go snorkeling right from a pretty beach; and Grand Cayman's newest spot, the intentionally sunk wreck of the USS Kittiwake, which reaches to within 15 feet of the surface.
Grand Cayman Vacation Guide
7. Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
Virgin Gorda's premier destination is The Baths, a jumble of massive granite boulders extending from the shore out to sea. Although the shallow areas are the main attraction, for their labyrinthine passages and hidden grottos, the snorkeling further out is superb. The rocky underwater terrain offers a break from the region's abundant coral, and teems with sea life. The surf tends to be quite mellow, but do take precautions not to be washed against the protruding boulders. If you encounter heavy crowds—this is a favorite excursion for cruise-shippers—there are smaller but no less interesting boulder fields along much of the nearby coastline. To avoid crowds, arrive very early—before 10 a.m. is best.
Virgin Gorda Vacation Guide
6. Anegada, British Virgin Islands
Anegada's name comes from the Spanish word for drowned or flooded, references to either the island's low profile (just 28 feet above sea level at its highest point) or the hundreds of ships that have foundered on the extensive reef system surrounding it. Either way, the abundance of reefs and shipwrecks makes Anegada ideal for snorkeling and diving. It's also one of the most remote spots in the Caribbean, so those who make the effort to get there are rewarded with pristine snorkeling and hardly another two-legged creature in sight. The best snorkeling lies on the island's calm northern shore. Hotels and dive shops arrange trips and transportationjust make sure to confirm they have rental gear available, otherwise you'll need to bring your own.
Anegada Vacation Guide
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication