There are hundreds of tropical destinations where you can spend an afternoon snorkeling a bay, reef or rock pile. But if you are passionate about the sport, you'll want to focus on a handful of destinations that stand out for reasons from the quality of the marine life and reefs, to the topside settings and amenities. Here are five of our favorite snorkeling spots that never fail to impress.
It would be hard to imagine a more perfect venue for snorkeling than Palau. This small South Pacific archipelago takes in hundreds of square miles of shallow reefs, sheltered bays and mangrove-shrouded marine lakes and more than 300 uninhabited limestone islands, all set within a protective barrier reef. This expansive lagoon supports some 1,500 species of fish and more than 450 varieties of reef-building corals. Snorkelers can choose from a wide range of underwater experiences that range from shallow coral gardens set within hidden coves, to exciting drifts through shark-laden passes and explorations to the edge of outer reef slopes and walls. Also in the mix is the chance to view one of the largest underwater collections of World War II shipwrecks, planes and other equipment in the Pacific, many of which are sitting in clear, shallow water. Palau's most famous snorkeling adventure takes place in Jellyfish Lake, where it is possible to swim in vast clouds of non-stinging of golden and moon jellyfish. A limited number of snorkeling reefs can be reached from shore, but the vast majority of Palau's shallow sites are accessed by speedboat trips, or on paddling excursions, which are often the best way to reach some of the most dramatic and remote lagoons. Another signature attraction of Palau waters are the giant clams, which can weigh up to 200 pounds.
This Caribbean island's nickname is “Divers Paradise.” But you don't need tanks to experience Bonaire's underwater magic. The entire island is ringed in a marine park that extends all the way to the shore and includes numerous sites where the coral reefs rise to snorkeling depths. A prime example is Karpata, where groves of elkhorn corals reach almost to the surface, and soft coral gardens line the upper reaches of a slope that begins in less than ten feet of water. As a bonus, this and similar sites are easily accessed from shore, as is another favorite, the Salt Pier. Stretching more than 300 feet out to the edge of deep water, the pier is used for the bulk loading of salt aboard freighters. When there are no ships in port, divers and snorkelers are free to explore the sponge-covered pilings below, which often hold schooling fish, and are patrolled by large silver-sided tarpon. A number of dive operators provide boat trips to popular sites along the island's western coast, as well as the fringing reefs of Klein Bonaire. Even more, adventures await on the islands east coast, where snorkelers can fin their way through the mangrove-lined channels of Lac Bay, or explore the seagrass beds of Lac Cai. Also unique to Bonaire is half-day cave snorkeling excursion where participants can float in freshwater pools set within an hidden cavern.
No matter which island in the Hawaiian chain you pick, you'll find great snorkeling. On Oahu, the big attraction is Hanauma Bay, which welcomes nearly a million visitors a year, and offers convenient infrastructure such as an interpretive center, restrooms, showers and even a tram from the parking lot. On the island's north shore, Sharks Cove delivers a slightly wilder snorkeling experience, less chance of a crowd, and a better chance of seeing turtles and possibly one of the cove's namesake residents. Move over to Maui and the choices multiply. Favorite shore sites such as Black Rock, Honolua and Kapalua Bay combine topside beach time with easy water access and excellent underwater scenery. Opt for a boat trip, and you can head for the sheltered waters of Honolua Bay, or meet up with sea turtles in one of the many sites along the island's southwest coast known collectively as Turtle Town. The Ultimate Maui snorkel trip is a boat ride offshore to Molokini Crater. On the big island, several waterfront parks south of the town of Kailua-Kona provide easy shore access. Some of the best snorkeling in Hawaii can be found in the waters of Honaunau Bay, adjacent to Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. Another favorite is the Kealakekua Bay Marine Reserve, which is also served by a number of excursion boats.
Wakatobi Dive Resort is a boutique Indonesian beach resort has earned a reputation as one of the world's premier dive destinations, and it offers equal appeal to snorkelers. Just a few fin kicks from the beach is the House Reef, a two-mile expanse of grass beds and coral reefs that have been named as the world's best shore dive. To help snorkelers reach the more distant parts of this reef, the resort's dive shop operates a fleet of small taxi boats for pick up and drop off services. Another feature that sets Wakatobi apart from most other snorkeling destinations is the makeup of the reefs themselves. At dive sites all through the resort's private marine preserve, the reefs rise from deep water to within a few feet of the surface and provide acres of spectacular shallows for snorkelers to explore. This allows the same spacious launches that ferry divers to these sites also welcome snorkeler, which is especially great for families and diver/snorkeler couples. Wakatobi is also known for the pristine quality of the reef, and the diversity of marine life. Ashore, guests are housed in luxurious private bungalows set in a beachside palm grove and are treated to five-star service and gourmet dining experiences.
Cozumel and Riviera Maya, Mexico
These adjacent destinations make the list based on the sheer diversity of snorkeling experiences they provide. Divers know Cozumel as one of the Caribbean's premier diving hotspots, where steady flows of clean oceanic water nurture vibrant reefs along the island's sheltered western shore. Move closer to shore and the high-relief formations prized by divers transitions to coral gardens that provide snorkelers with hours of exploration and enjoyment. These sites alone are reason enough to visit, but when you combine a Cozumel vacation with time just across the channel on the shores of the Yucatan Peninsula's Riviera Maya, the possibilities multiply. This coastline is riddled with lagoons and cenotes, which are natural sinkholes in the limestone bedrock that are windows into underground rivers. Often, the walls of these jungle-lined pools recede into deep overhangs, creating a unique opportunity to swim into a cavern zone and discover marble-white stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Sheltered coastal lagoons such Cenote Manatee and Xel-Ha hold colorful tropical fish, while nearby bays add sea turtles to the mix. Cozumel and the Riviera Maya are also starting points for two additional snorkeling adventures. Throughout the summer months, tour operators run day trips to the waters near Isla Mujeres, where snorkelers can interact with huge, docile whale sharks. Also in the area is the world's largest underwater sculpture garden, which is easily viewed with mask and snorkel.
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