Islands contributor Tanya Burnett, a snorkeling and scuba-diving expert photographer, shares her favorite places to snorkel across the Caribbean. She gives a detailed description of her experience. And don’t forget to jot down her snorkel tips for dolphins, whale sharks and more.
The Cliffs at Negril, Jamaica
I’ve often dreamt of a Caribbean idyll where just a few steps from my
private bungalow were aquarium-like conditions replete with all manner
of fish life. This came to life with a stay at the Rockhouse Hotel,
perched on the cliffs of Negril, Jamaica. The dramatic cliffs pockmarked
with caves and fissures teaming with silversides and kissed by tropical
light were as close to living my dream as I’ve ever been.
Pigeon Cay, Roatan
This tiny, postcard-worthy uninhabited island is a 45-minute boat ride from
Roatan but feels a world away. The entire island was ours, the only sounds
the transparent waters whispering on the beach and the birds chattering in
the trees. The snorkeling was a personal exploration of the entire
circumference of this pocket paradise. The bleached ivory sand bottom played
host to huge elkhorn coral, iridescent damsels and careening parrot fish on
a chaotic mission.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Isla Mujeres has become the go-to spot to snorkel with whale sharks. These
sharks are the antithesis of the Jaws image — think 25-foot-long puppy dogs
of the sea and you’ll be close. Every year, hundreds of these gentle giants
congregate from June to August to slurp in the local fish spawn while about
a hundred lucky snorkelers swim in their midst. Even standing on the boat,
I was entranced by a veritable sea of dorsal fins and the intricately
patterned backs of these of these largest fish in the ocean.
Swimming with Dolphins, Bahamas
I admit it: There really is something purely joyful about sharing the water
with wild dolphins. The first time I looked eyes with a curious Atlantic
spotted dolphin, I was hooked. After dozens of trips, the feeling is still
enchanting. Summer’s calm seas make it easier to locate the resident
dolphins primarily found in 20 to 30 feet of Bahamian water. This is
different than swimming with captive dolphins; here the dolphins call the
Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize
One of the Western Caribbean’s great delights is about a 20-minute boat
ride from Ambergris Caye. Topside there is little to distinguish this spot
in the shallow teal-colored sea aside from some limestone reef breaking the
surface. But the first time I looked beneath the protected waters of the
reserve, I was wowed by nurse sharks, stingrays, jacks and grunts cavorting
with snorkelers over turtle grass and reefs. The marine life is used to being
fed here, so it is not unusual to be up close and personal with dozens of fish
at a time.
Stingray City, Grand Cayman
Perhaps the most popular snorkeling spot in the world is Grand Cayman’s
Stingray City in Grand Cayman. Any dive shop or resort can arrange a trip
to this shallow sandbar with a jar of squid parts for the local denizens.
The stingrays’ Pavlovian response to the arrival of the boats and snorkelers
is hilarious. Rays soar in and suck bait from fingers using smell, not sight,
which can lead to occasionally awkward but harmless encounters as they explore
with their rubbery lips while snappers clean up the stray bits. The ballet of
flying rays is mesmerizing. The challenge is not losing your snorkel while
laughing at the show.
Cayo Diablo National Park, Fajardo, Puerto Rico
Only a 20-minute boat ride from the Fajardo shore, Cayo Diablo straddles
the border of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. In 10 to 15 feet of water,
sea rods, sea fans and pillar corals seem to cover every inch of the shallow
reef that’s protected from the rugged Atlantic by a spine of jagged limestone.
Stands of elkhorn and staghorn coral play host to countless tropicals, but the
real reason I come to Cayo Diablo is for the sea turtles. I found several
hawksbill and green turtles that were calm enough to swim alongside at a
leisurely pace, seeming unconcerned as I marveled at their timeless features.
Thousand Steps and Windsock, Bonaire
Look for a numbered yellow rock beside the coastal road, and it will likely
mark a great location to don a mask. Two of my favorites are a Thousand Steps
and Windsock. Thousand Steps is special for its location — a pocket beach at
the base of a sheer cliff that, as its name implies, takes a little work to
get to. I love slipping into the crystalline water in this remote escape to
fin over elkhorn coral and schooling sergeant majors while indulging a
private-island fantasy. Windsock, on the other hand, is so easy and accessible
that my parents are even up for a plunge. It’s not uncommon to see larger
species like jacks, barracuda, turtles or even a tarpon.
Silver Bank, Dominican Republic
Why would I spend 12 hours on a boat motoring to a remote bank 90 miles north
of the Dominican Republic, with no beach or facilities in sight? Because it’s
the best place to swim with wild North Atlantic humpback whales that migrate
to the Silver Bank to mate and calve. There’s little else to do but enjoy the
incredible displays of 30-ton leviathans launching into the air. When conditions
are right, slip into the water to witness what few will ever see. Watch playful
youngsters and cautious moms. When floating above a male humpback singing to a
female, you’ll feel the experience as much as hear it.
Dry Tortugas, Florida
There was a time when sea planes were a typical mode of island-hopping around
the Caribbean,and I’ve always felt a bit nostalgic for those days of romantic
adventure that I never experienced firsthand. That’s just part of what makes a
trip to snorkel in Florida’s Dry Tortugas special — a 30-minute flight in a
small float plane soaring a few hundred feet above turquoise water.
Add in a final destination of Fort Jefferson National Park and some fabulous
snorkeling to create my perfect day. Travel light, but bring everything you
need, including a picnic.
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