My wife and I are avid snorkelers. We have snorkeled in various spots all over the world. So, with this in mind, I decided to write about our 10 best snorkeling experiences. Be aware, these selections are very subjective.
What I looked for in choosing these places was not necessarily the quantity and variety of fish, but also the quality of the total experience, including the beach and coral environment. For example, a place with a great stretch of sand might rank over an area we had to painfully tip-toe through rocks to enter the water. Also snorkeling on a boat excursion trip would be chosen only if the experience was particularly unique. Considering this, here is the list.
NORMAN REEF, AUSTRALIA
When we came to the Great Barrier Reef, 1,580 miles along the northeast coast of Australia, we knew its reputation as having the best diving and snorkeling in the world. We weren’t disappointed. The Barrier Reef is not accessible from the shore. Therefore, in Cairns, Queensland, we took an easy route to reach the reef on a Great Adventure trip in a high-speed catamaran, which took us some 40 miles out to a unique pontoon, a large 135-foot by 45-foot covered platform. It was equipped with tables, chairs and a restaurant. Other amenities included a dive shop and, of course, a souvenir shop. All the comforts of home.
Once we were there, it was a short swim out to the spectacular coral shelf and the creatures living on it…every manner of tropical fish, including giant clams. To greet us when we returned to the float was “Sammy,” a large six-foot Maori wrasse…a daily ceremony, we were told. We were in and out a couple times, had lunch, staying there for three hours. For those who don’t want to get wet, there is an underwater observatory and semi-submersible submarine to view reef life.
RED SEA-SAFAGA, EGYPT
For divers and snorkelers, the Red Sea is high on the list of places to go. One of the most famous resort cities is Sharm el Sheik on the Sinai Peninsula. Having been there, we prefer Sagafa, Egypt, to the south. It is not nearly as crowded, and it is much easier to get out to a reef. Also a point for tourists to consider,: It is a few hours, drive from Safaga to Luxor on the Nile, the celebrated destination to see ancient temples and royal tombs.
At Soma Bay, right outside town, there is a long pier extending about a hundred yards out. We entered the beach through the Sheraton Soma Bay Resort. (For those not staying at the resort, it’s a good deal to pay a small day fee and use the facilities.) Once at water’s edge, a short walk took us to the pier. Here, divers, as well as snorkelers, enter the water and immediately are in a wonder world among coral and exotic sea life. A lot of the same species seen in the tropics throughout the world are here but in different colors. We also saw species new to us
Once in, we were amazed at how clear the water is in the Red Sea. Clown fish abounded. Right away we saw the outrageously bedecked lion fish, a rare sight anywhere, but here he was, swimming languorously among the crowd.
Whatever your conception of tropical paradise, the Seychelles Islands will more than meet it. These are over 100 islands scattered off the African coast in the Indian Ocean east of Kenya. Stereotypically, wide unspoiled beaches abound, lined with palms, virtually unspoiled and not over-crowded.
Mahe is the capital and the most inhabited of the islands. The two easiest islands to reach from there are Praslin, a 20-minute flight, or three hours by ferry. La Digue is a 30-minute ferry ride from Praslin. Snorkeling is excellent in both places, especially Le Digue which has some of the most photographed beaches in the world. Its surrealistically-shaped granite rocks rising from the shallows like sentinels can be seen in countless fashion ads.
On La Digue’s Anse d’Argent beach, we took a short swim to the reef. On the way, we saw an octopus wrapped around a pillar of coral, his tentacles flowing in the current. A little beyond, we came on a couple of devil scorpion fish on the bottom and were very wary of not touching their poisonous bodies.
We had our best snorkeling on small Desroches Island, a 50 minute flight from Mahe. Unlike Praslin and La Digue which have a few places to stay, there is only one small resort here. A walk around the island takes only 20 minutes.
We had one of our greatest ever snorkel experiences here about 50 yards out from the main beach. Once there, we came upon a tower of coral with the most varieties of fish we had ever seen in a small area. They included many of our seldom-seen favorites, the moon-shaped marong fish and the oriental sweetlips with its black and yellow polka dot patterned fins. Even a lion fish slowly glided by. We were on a “snorkel high” the rest of the day.
Bonaire is the smallest of the so-called ABC islands in the Dutch Antilles, which include Aruba and Curacao. Long considered one of the best diving and snorkeling spots in the world, Bonaire’s coastline has been designated a marine park, affording protection to the area’s magnificent coral gardens and abundant sea life.
The best place for underwater viewing is on the small off-shore cay, Klein Bonaire. We took a boat for the brief journey from the main island. After jumping ashore, we spread out our towels. Mask and fins in hand, we walked a couple hundred yards down the beach to the recommended spot to enter the water. In a short time we came to the outer edge of the reef and got into the prevailing current along the coral. With the reef on our left and deep water on the right, we floated along, amazed at the rainbow array of staghorn, elkhorn and brain coral and the iridescent sparkle of the fish who swam among it.
SAN BLAS ISLANDS-PANAMA
San Blas is an archipelago consisting of 365 islands, some 100 miles off the east coast of Panama. Inhabited by Kuna Indians, many of the islands are postage stamp-size, with the biggest only a mile around. The islands are easily accessible after a 20-minute flight from Panama City. Accommodations are rustic here as would be expected, but it’s a place of quiet nights and bright sunny days, with pleasant breezes tempering the mid-day heat..
Kunas welcome tourists and will take them in their boats to a different uninhabited island each day, each with perfect beaches and great snorkeling in the warm, clear water as would be expected in this unspoiled place. )
On the islands people live much as their ancestors did in palm-thatched huts with no electricity. Food and water are brought in from the coast. Of course, a Kuna staple is the plentiful supply of sea life. By the way, the crab and lobster caught in these waters are the best we’ve ever eaten.
Kuna women are known for their multi-colored wear: patterned blue cotton wrapped skirt, red and yellow head scarf, arm and leg beads and an intricately sewn mola-panel blouse. Molas are hand-woven in a reverse applique technique, using several layers of different colored cotton. (Four-layered designs are the best.) These have become desirable art pieces and a principle source of income for the people. Indeed, women follow tourists and set up what we called “mola malls” on the beaches. Part of our daily fun was taking a stroll down the line, viewing these wonderful rectangular pieces. Averaging about 18 by 14 inches, they depict animals, mythic characters and folk symbols, the pieces are as little as $10 each, but some sold for up to $80.
NINGALOO REEF-WEST AUSTRALIA
The Great Barrier Reef comes to mind when snorkelers and divers consider going to Australia. But some 800 miles north of Perth on the country’s sparsely populated northwestern coast lies Ningaloo Reef. Nearly 200 miles long, it is one of the largest fringing coral reefs in the world. Also, in contrast to the Barrier Reef, it is situated close to the beach, about 100 yards out at its nearest point. Due to its remoteness, Ningaloo doesn’t have the tourist draw nor reputation of its eastern counterpart.
Even beginners can swim in the shallows along the reef and see an amazing variety of fish swimming among the more than 180 species of coral which create a riotously colorful display. However, reef snorkeling is only one of the big attractions here. From mid-March to mid-May snorkelers can swim with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish. Ninagaloo is the only easily accessible place in the world where these gentle giants appear in large numbers at predictable times of the year.
Whale sharks reach more than 36 feet long and weigh more than 11 tons and swim close to the surface, seemingly inviting people to join them. Boats leave daily to seek them, and airplanes scout their location. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.
All the Polynesian islands have great snorkeling, but we especially like Huahine, 198 miles northwest of Tahiti. The island consists of two volcanic ranges joined by a natural bridge. It is called the “Garden Island,” due to its lush green tropical foliage and jungle-like scenery. A big plus, there are less vacationers here than in neighboring Moorea and Bora Bora, giving us a chance to get away from people and explore on our own. There are many white sand beaches off which to snorkel. The high point here came, however, when we took a dive boat which dropped us off into a slight current at an outer reef. We then leisurely floated through a lagoon, moving effortlessly with the flow, taking time to enjoy the fish. To keep us from being swept away, our boat was cruising slowly at our side.
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU RESORT-FIJI ISLANDS
Fiji contains some 300 islands, many with top resorts, making it hard to select the right place to visit. High on anyone’s list, though, is the Jean Michel Cousteau Resort, particularly if water sports are a premium. With the Cousteau name, the diving has to be good, and snorkeling, too, is the best. This award-winning, five-star resort is located on 17 acres of what used to be a coconut plantation. (There are warning signs on the premises to watch out for the falling coconuts.) On Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, the Cousteau is surrounded by mountains and reefs, at the edge of Savusavu Bay, a well-protected refuge. Buildings are constructed on the theme of a traditional Fijian village, with 25 bures (thatched-roofed bungalows) in various sizes to accommodate couples or families.
Every morning the resort boat leaves with a group of divers, while we snorkelers had several options. Coral and fish can be seen by going off the little pier in front. A snorkeling boat is available to take guests out. We especially liked nearby Lighthouse Reef with deep water on one side where we might spot a large grouper; shallow on the other with the usual menagerie of smaller tropicals to be seen. Night snorkeling was also an option. A staff marine biologist would take groups equipped with flash lights off the pier to see the wonders of night time on the reef. We particularly sought out our new “friend,” a rare oriental sweetlips, snoozing under a coral ledge. For information, call (800) 246-3454 or http://www.fijiresort.com
We have been snorkeling off each of the Hawaiian Islands but by far our favorite place is Kealekekua Bay on the Kona coast of the big island of Hawaii. First of all, the bay is historically unique, the place where Capt. Cook, the famous British explorer, met his death in 1779 at the hands of the natives. A plaque commemorating this event is located on the north shore of the bay.
Another thing that makes this spot special is its isolation. There are only limited ways to reach the bay. First, one can hike 2.5 miles down from the highway. (My wife and I have done this in our younger days. It’s easy to go down the trail, but, believe me, it is tough hiking straight up in the afternoon, carrying your backpack and snorkeling gear.)
People also kayak two miles from the south, or, best for us, come in on a Fair Wind Snorkel and Dive Cruise in a sleek 60-foot catamaran. Fair Wind is the only commercial boat that brings people to this area. The hour-long cruise leaves from Keahou Bay, on the Kona Coast, mornings and afternoons.
At the base of lava cliffs, Kealekekua waters are normally calm and clear, even on rough-water days along the coast. Everyone, young and old, can have a great time seeing the multitude of fish living on the coral and exploring the underwater lava caves. We particularly enjoy seeing the eels that swim out during the day here-big morays and snowflakes, not to mention the green sea turtles that often swim by. Spinner dolphins are almost daily visitors to the bay and can be seen frolicking close-by. Of course, in late fall and winter migrating humpback whales can also be readily spotted. On the morning cruise, after a couple hours of snorkeling, the captain fires up the barbecue on the back deck and serves burgers for hungry passengers. Fair Wind has another ship, too. The more luxurious Hula Kai brings snorkelers to other places along the lava coastline.
LA JOLLA COVE-SAN DIEGO
When people talk about snorkeling spots, it is most often about places in the tropics. Great snorkeling can also be found in colder water locations, our favorite being La Jolla Cove on the Pacific Ocean. We make it a point to go to La Jolla in the summer when the water is a comfortable, but invigorating, 68-72 degrees. The cove itself is world famous, a small beach tucked between adjacent sandstone cliffs. Because of its beauty, it is one of the most photographed beaches in Southern California. It is part of the San Diego/ La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve which helps ensure that marine life remains plentiful.
On our daily soirees into the water, we see an interesting variety of fish, including the bright orange garibaldi, which seems to glow in the water, rivaling the beauty of any tropical fish. Amazingly, it starts out blue, as a baby, and slowly gains orange spots in the juvenile stage. Near the surface, close to shore, schools of top smelt with blue and brown stripes cruise along. Almost as plentiful are opaleyes, with white dots on their backs, brown-patterned kelp bass and grey barred sand bass. Not so plentiful, but exciting to see, are the scraggly red and yellow giant kelp fish and the shovelnose guitarfish.
Also a big draw during the summer months are the harmless leopard sharks which migrate here to breed and give birth. We swim out in the shallows and see swarms of them. From the cove, there are many directions to take. To the north are the La Jolla Sea Caves, some eight caverns worth exploring. A half-mile south of the cove, we snorkel around Seal Rock where seals will come off their ledges to visit.