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 like Full Face Snorkel Masks, Fins, Underwater Camera, Drysuit ,etc.. or hire a guide, are the sorts of places we’ve highlighted here.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 transportation—just make sure to confirm they have rental gear available, otherwise you’ll need to bring your own.
5. Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles
Like its sister island, Bonaire, Curaçao’s reef hugs the shore so closely you’ll encounter hundreds of species of fish and coral just a few fin-kicks from the beach. Add to that an average visibility of 110 feet and temperate waters year round and you’ve got an underwater destination worth going out of your way to reach. Among the 50-plus snorkeling sites around the island, one of the best is Curaçao Underwater Marine Park, at the southeastern end of the island. There you’ll find 12 miles of beautiful coral gardens, colourful fish, turtles, dolphins, and even sunken ships. Bonaire probably tops Curaçao for sheer snorkelling bliss, but Curaçao has a lot more going on above water, including a larger variety of hotels, restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. Why choose just one? It’s easy to visit both in a single trip.
This mountainous island has long been considered one of the Caribbean’s premier diving destinations, and the snorkeling ain’t too shabby either. Champagne Beach is a must—underwater volcanic vents make it look and feel as if you’re snorkeling in a bowl of warm champagne. Soufriere-Scotts Head Bay, at the island’s southern tip, is another favorite for snorkelers. There, hard and soft coral blankets the submerged rim of an ancient volcano crater, home to innumerable sea creatures. Experienced snorkelers can swim out to the edge of the crater, which dramatically plunges hundreds of feet—a remarkable sight. If you want to spend a bit of time on land, Dominica features plenty of terrific hiking.
3. Tobago Cays, St. Vincent and the Grenadines
The Tobago Cays consist of five uninhabited islets surrounded by rich coral reefs and crystalline water protected as a national marine park; it’s a pristine spot, to say the least, and perfect for snorkeling. Tour operators on Union Island and even St. Vincent offer day trips here, usually combined with a stop at nearby Mayreau Island, while other visitors arrive by private or chartered yacht. It can get busy in high season—when food and souvenir vendors arrive in small motorboats—but not obtrusively so. The massive horseshoe-shaped reef nearly encircles the islands, and the underwater terrain is overflowing with tropical fish, sponges, and other creatures. There’s a turtle feeding area near one of the cays, and gorgeous white-sand beaches border the others.
2. Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
With shallow reefs and crystalline waters, Providenciales offers excellent snorkeling opportunities. Visitors are treated to a thriving underwater world, with myriad fish and sea creatures, dramatic coral formations and colorful fans, and impressive wall drop-offs. For shore snorkeling that will dazzle rookies and experienced snorkelers alike, head to Grace Bay. Home to Smith’s Reef and Bight’s Reef, Grace Bay boasts underwater trails that feature placards describing the locations and their residents. For further afield sites, book a snorkeling tour from one of the tour operators that embarks from Leeward Marina.
1. Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles
The waters around Bonaire have been protected as a national marine park for more than 30 years, making this one of the Caribbean’s most pristine underwater environments and home to a seemingly endless variety of coral, tropical fish, and large sea creatures. Add to that a mellow current and crystal-clear visibility year round, and you’ve got a true snorkeler’s paradise. Even better, most of Bonaire’s snorkeling sites are accessible right from shore; just stop at any of the bright yellow painted stones along the road, grab your gear, and hit the water. The local tourism board and various local dive shops also collaborate to offer the Bonaire Guided Snorkeling Program, a popular guided tour of five of Bonaire’s top snorkeling sites including 1,000 Steps and Just a Nice Dive.