Snorkeling is enjoyed by thousands of the Caribbean’s visitors each year, and is many visitors’ favorite activity. In fact, some people plan their entire vacation around this sport. This guide provides quick access to everything you need to know about snorkeling in the Caribbean.
What is it about the Caribbean that draws so many snorkelers to its waters? If you ask any avid snorkeler, you’ll find their list to be endless and varied, but we can narrow the typical response down to a few common elements: near perfect conditions, breathtaking underwater scenery, and diversity of experiences even at the same destination.
Below you’ll find an in-depth, comprehensive discussion of everything you would want to know about snorkeling in the Caribbean. Choose the right destination, learn need-to-knows, and find plenty of great tips to help you get the most out of your vacation. If you want to learn everything, read right down the page. If you’re looking for something specific, click on one of these links to jump right to the section you are most interested in.
- The Caribbean’s Best Snorkeling
- Snorkeling Near Hotels and Resorts
- Snorkeling Au Natural
- What to Expect
- Water Conditions
- Snorkeling Gear
- The Mask
- Classic Design
- One Lens Mask
- Split/Two Lens Mask
- Frameless Mask
- Mask with Side Lens
- Anti-Fog Agent
- The Snorkel
- The Fins
- Getting Started
- Choosing Your Snorkling Site
- Boat or Beach?
- Tips for First-Timers
- Clearing your Snorkel and Mask
- Snorkeling with Children
- Final Word
If your upcoming trip to the Caribbean will be your first snorkeling experience, we have plenty of tips below that will walk you through everything you need to know — including what gear is appropriate, what to look for, and do’s and don’ts in the water. If you’ve been snorkeling before and just want some help with planning your next getaway, we have lots of useful information for you as well.
The Caribbean’s Best Snorkeling
This first chart lists some of the best, most interesting snorkeling spots in the region — including many that are considered by experts to be amongst the best in the world. If you’re looking forward to snorkeling during your vacation, you can’t go wrong by planning a trip at any of these destinations.
|Destination||Notable Snorkeling Site|
|Anegada, BVI||Loblolly Bay|
|Belize||Hol Chan Marine Reserve|
|Bermuda||Snorkel Park Beach|
|Curaçao||Jan Thiel Beach|
|Fajardo, Puerto Rico|
|Isla Mujeres, Mexico||Garrafon Reef Park|
|Malmok, Aruba||Arashi Beach|
|St. John, USVI||Trunk Bay|
|St. Martin||Dawn Beach|
|Tobago||King Peter’s Bay Beach|
|Virgin Gorda, BVI||The Baths|
Snorkeling Near Hotels and Resorts
There are so many great snorkeling sites in the Caribbean, it can be tough to decide where to go. To help you narrow this plethora of options, this next table focuses on convenience: it lists destinations where you can find a wide selection of high quality accommodations that are located right near some of the best snorkeling. In many cases, these hotels are set directly on beaches with snorkeling, so you can walk straight from your room down to the water, where you can don your mask and snorkel and get started without any delay or hassle.
Snorkeling Au Natural
No, we don’t mean snorkeling in the nude (although some of these spots are secluded enough you could conceivably do that). If you want to go snorkeling where you’re surrounded by natural beauty this next list will help.
This collection of snorkeling destinations has nature preserves, underwater marine reserves, and snorkeling parks that offer awe-inspiring scenery both above and below the water’s surface. You may have to travel a greater distance from your hotel to reach some of these snorkeling spots, or pay an modest fee enter the park, but every one of these places is worth a little extra effort, allowing you to be surrounded by nature at its best — not high rise hotels.
|Destination||Notable Snorkel Park|
|Andros, Bahamas||Central Park|
|Belize||Silks Caye Marine Reserve and|
|Cancun, Mexico||Punta Nizuc Reef|
|Holetown, Barbados||Folkstone Marine Park|
|Isla Mujeres, Mexico||Garafon Reef|
|Little Cayman, Cayman Islands|
|Malmok, Aruba||Arashi Marine Park|
|Montego Bay, Jamaica||Montego Bay Marine Park|
|St. Croix, USVI|
|St. John, USVI||Virgin Islands National Park|
What to Expect
What can you expect to see? Well, it depends on where you will be going, and perhaps a bit of luck. The Caribbean features a diverse range of underwater ecosystems that support a variety of life, and some creatures are so rare, or so shy, they are hard to spot. So, don’t expect to see everything on a single vacation, let along at a single site.
Still, there are some notable examples of marine life that you might want to become familiar with in advance, so you can keep an eye out for them. Stationary wildlife include:
- Sea Fans
- Sea Urchins
You’ll also find plenty of mobile wildlife. From the colorful scales of the Queen Angelfish, to the stripes and recognizable fins of the Spotted Drum, many fish in the Caribbean have distinctive features that make it easy to know what you’re looking at, if you prepare a mental checklist in advance of your sightings. The following list includes examples of some common animals to look for:
- Banded Coral Shrimp
- Blue Tang
- Green Moray Eel
- Spotted Eagle Ray
- Spotlight Parrot Fish
- Yellowtail Damselfish
There are also hundreds of less common species, including the elusive sea turtle. While turtles will be abundant off some islands, do not get discouraged if you do not find any during your snorkeling adventures. For the best chance, look for them when you’re snorkeling over seagrass beds, which is also a good place to spot immature fish.
You may also spot larger fish, and even underwater wrecks, if you snorkel over deeper waters. Sightings of this sort, of course, are more common if you go scuba diving rather than snorkeling.
Finally, don’t ignore the coral! While many people tend to think of coral as plants, or even worse as rocks, coral and their relatives are living animals. The coral we see are actually composed of hundreds of tiny animals called coral polyps that grow together to form a colony. Coral forms an essential part of the marine ecology, so be sure to respect these fragile creatures when snorkeling. Take a look at the list below to see some of the coral, sponges, and fans you might pass by while snorkeling.
- Coral – Pineapple Coral, Staghorn Coral, Brain Coral, Torch Coral, and Star Coral
- Sponges – Tube Sponges and Vase Sponges
- Fans – Found in a variety of colors; such as red, yellow, and purple.
While conditions can vary by location, the water in most of the region is so clear visibility reaches between 50 and 100 or more feet. This makes for a more enjoyable experience, because you can see where you are going, and move toward the most interesting sites. In most areas water temperatures hardly ever fall below 75 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing most people to swim comfortably throughout the year. If you know you tend to get chilled in the water, you can consider wearing a wet suit — but this isn’t necessary for most people.
Understand that the waters are filled with sea life that is continuously changing and maturing with the environment. The tides and currents ebb and flow depending on the moon and weather patterns. It probably isn’t hard to guess that the best time to head into the water is when the waves are small and the day’s weather is expected to be mild. Don’t worry about light rain showers — you’re already wet and will hardly notice the change as the rains starts and stops. Of course, you shouldn’t go snorkeling if a storm is expected — not only to avoid the risk of lightning, but also because large waves can be dangerous and reduce visibility due to sand movement.
Choosing the right gear can make or break your snorkeling expedition. Whether you purchase your own gear and bring it with you, or avoid the hassle of bringing it with you and rent from a local shop or use the free gear provided by your tour guide, make sure you have the right fit. Whether you are investing in gear before your vacation, or taking your chances on whatever is available from a local tour operator or rental shop, the following information can help you understand the options, and choose the best equipment.
When it comes to a great snorkeling experience, the criticially important piece of equipment is the mask. The mask covers both your eyes and your nose and must be just the right fit to keep water from getting in and to keep your breath from fogging up the lenses. Some masks have a purge valve, which is a small valve that drains water out should leaking occur. If your mask leaks or you’re constantly having to clear away fog, it’s likely as sign that you need a replacement.
Getting the right fit is essential. Usually, the shop you are renting or buying from will have an expert on hand to help you make the right choice, but if you’re on your own, or grabbing a free mask in a crowded tour, make sure you have a mirror handy. Take a look at where your eyes are placed compared to your nose, and how close your nose is to your mouth. Then find a mask with a similar shape to that of your face. Try on the mask of your choice, checking that it is not too narrow, that you have a good view, and that there is space under your nose.
Test the suction: Press the mask to your face without putting on the straps, gently inhale through your nose to pull the mask toward your face, and drop your hands. If the mask stays on your face without having to strongly or continuously inhale, it has passed the suction test. One more tip: make sure the strap rests high above your ears. If it rests directly on your ears, it will become painful over time, and if it leaves red marks on your head you know it is too tight and not the proper fit. Also try this with the snorkel to ensure the weight of the snorkel doesn’t break the seal or change the way the mask rests on your face.
Another tip: if you choose a mask that allows you to pinch your nose with it on, you can easily clear your ears when you are under water.
The classic snorkeling mask has a single large lens that encompasses your nose. This design is still around, but other designs have emerged that strive for lower air volume and better sealing.
One Lens Mask
A modern single lens mask features a nose pocket and unobstructed forward views. Some users report discomfort when water pressure presses the mask up against their nose.
Split/Two Lens Mask
Some users prefer a mask with a separate lens for each eye, since this provides more room for the nose, and less air volume within the mask. You might initially be annoyed by seeing the divider down the middle, but after a while your mind adjusts and you won’t notice it.
Another option does away with the plastic frame, gluing a silicone skirt directly to the lens. These are only available in a single lens design, without side windows. The advantage is that they tend to be very comfortable and lightweight. The main disadvantage is that many users have difficulty finding one that fits their face well enough.
Mask with Side Lens
Some masks add side windows which provide improved peripheral vision and allow more light to reach your eyes. Don’t expect to actually look out the side windows. Rather, these offer the benefit of letting you sense objects and motions to either side of you. This design is a particularly good choice if you have claustrophobic tendencies, or like to swim with a partner — you can better sense whether they are still swimming along side you, without having to constantly look for them. A minor disadvantage: adding side windows tends to increase the the total volume of air held in the mask.
While you’re in the shop testing out masks, this would be a good time to purchase a commercial anti-fog agent to help keep your mask from fogging up. A mask with tempered glass lenses is less likely to become foggy, but it can still happen. Anti-fog gel applied to the lenses will help to make doubly sure you don’t run into this problem. If your mask still ends up becoming foggy while snorkeling, take a break, remove your mask, and apply some more gel. If you forgot to bring gel, just spit in it. Use your fingers to spread the coating, put your mask on, and get back to snorkeling.
The snorkel is a gently curved tube attached to your mask that allows you to breath naturally while your face remains under water. Although many types are to be found, a dry snorkel is recommended as it includes a splash guard which prevents water from entering it should you dive below to examine something of interest, or in the event waves begin to crash over you.
Fins are not a necessity when you are snorkeling, but they help you to move around more quickly and save your energy. Make sure you choose fins that don’t hurt and are neither too tight nor too loose and still allow easy movement of your ankle and foot.
Wearing fins that don’t fit properly can be just as annoying or damaging to your feet as walking in shoes that are not the correct size. Take the time to get advice before selecting fins — a good design and fit for your body size is important, or you may find yourself leaving the fins behind, due to discomfort or cramping of your calves, feet or toes.
Because of this, you’ll also want to make sure to test your potential fins while wearing any booties you intend to wear while you’re snorkeling. Also keep in mind that there are many types of fins on the market, and snorkel fins are different than scuba diving fins — they’re shorter in length for easier maneuverability.
Put the fins on in waist-deep water and use a slow, fluttery motion to propel yourself forward. If you’re snorkeling from a boat, wait until it is time to enter the water before you put your fins on, and then take them back off while still in the water, just before you ascend the ladder.
In addition to the snorkel, mask, and fins trio, there are a few other pieces of equipment that might aid in making your snorkeling experience a more enjoyable one.
- Snorkeling Vest: will help to keep you afloat, thus using less energy as you explore. This is especially helpful if you get caught in a spot where the currents are swift or if you simply aren’t a strong swimmer even in calm waters.
- Dry Bag: dry bags, such as Otter Boxes, are great for taking your (few) most essential items with you rather than leaving them unattended on the beach. Your car key and perhaps a credit card and a small amount of cash should be all that’s needed (leave the other stuff back in your room). Having these few items floating around with you will aid in your comfort so as to enjoy the underwater world without worry of all things above.
- Wetsuit or rash guard: wetsuits do more than keep you warm in chilly water. They can also protect you from sunburns and prevent you from being stung by underwater creatures – benefits that are also offered by rash guards.
If you’re a first time snorkeler, you doubtlessly have dozens of questions covering everything from where and when to how. You can visit any local watersports shop and find a team of employees able to answer your questions, but the following tips will help boost your knowledge as well.
Choosing Your Snorkling Site
There are hundreds upon hundreds of snorkeling sites to explore in the Caribbean. Each is unique and caters to a different style of snorkeler. Do you prefer shallow ship wrecks, bright and healthy coral, or is seeing colorful schools of fish and other sea life what appeals to you?
If you’ve been snorkeling before, you already know your preferences, but newbies will want to take a moment to think about what it is they are after during their adventure. It is also important that you do a little research to find a location that is especially known for its underwater scenery but do not require you to be an expert snorkeler. This translates to calm waters, and if possible a spot that has a life guard on duty.
Boat or Beach?
The choice really comes down to what you want to see and your comfort level. And, if you’re really into snorkeling, you should plan on doing some of both.
As you review our local snorkeling guides, you’ll discover there are numerous tour guides waiting to take you snorkeling to sites that are only accessible by boat. Tour operators may also take you to great sites close to the shore, or accessible from public beaches with the primary benefit being the convenience of using their gear and their assistance in learning how to snorkel.
For the first time snorkeler, swimming out from the beach is recommended. Swimming off the end of a boat, particularly in deep water, can cause some newcomers to feel anxious, particularly if they’ve never donned a snorkel and mask before.
Even if you plan to go snorkeling off a boat, you might want to gain a little experience beforehand by snorkeling in shallow water along a beach. Even if there isn’t a lot to see, knowing you are in control and can stand up at any time, or that the shore is just a short swim away, may help you gain confidence in the process of looking down through a glass mask and breathing through a snorkel.
This is not to say that choosing to go for a boat tour in deeper waters is a mistake. Quite the contrary, whether you are a good swimmer, or a poor swimmer that doesn’t mind wearing an inflatable swim vest, you should see what’ it’s like to snorkel over deeper waters. Just relax and slip into the water off the end of the boat. You’ll be rewarded with magnificent underwater scenery which typically is more diverse and exciting than what you’ll find closer to shore.
The Free Fun guides to local snorkeling spots include detailed information about boat rentals, day sail operators and snorkeling tour operators who can take you to some of the best off-shore snorkeling spots in their area. This is obviously a bit more costly than snorkeling on your own, and it can sometimes be annoying if too many inexperienced snorkelers try to crowd into the same spot at the same time. But for many people, their best, most memorable snorkeling experiences occur as part of a day-sail or organized tour.
With all this being said, the cost of snorkeling is generally minimal compared to other aspects of your vacation. You can visit most beaches and bring your equipment with you without spending a dime. Or, you can rent a snorkeling kit for less than $35(USD) (sometimes far less), and enjoy using it for a full day of water exploration.
The cost of a guided snorkeling tour will vary depending on the sites you see, how long you sail, and exactly what is included, but it is rare to spend more than $75(USD) per person for this type of guided experience. And that fee often includes lunch and all-you-can drink soft drinks, beer and rum drinks (after you finish snorkeling).
Tips for First-Timers
- Practice clearing your mask and snorkel in shallow water.
- Always snorkel with a partner.
- Always be aware of your surroundings.
- Know the day’s weather conditions.
- Start off in shallow areas, then work your way to deeper waters.
- Use a floatation device if you are not a strong swimmer.
- Never wear jewelry.
- Stay relaxed and swim slowly to save your energy.
- Don’t touch the coral – or any sea life, for that matter.
- Do not pocket souvenirs.
- Don’t feed the fish.
- Use biodegradable sunscreen.
As you might have noticed, these tips are both for your safety and the safety of the environment, so lets take a deeper look at a few of the most important ones.
Clearing your Snorkel and Mask
If this is your first time snorkeling, you’ll definitely want to practice clearing your mask and snorkel before you really get into exploring. Your mask’s purge valve can be cleared by tilting your head forward while firmly holding the mask with your hands, and exhaling with your nose. This burst of air will clear any water you’ve accumulated through the purge valve.
To clear your snorkel, bring your face just below the surface and take a deep breath through your snorkel. Then, hold your breath and bring yourself and your snorkel completely under the water. After a beat, rise back up to your starting position just below the surface and blow a sharp blast of air through your snorkel. Inhale very slow to check for water. If there is still water in the snorkel, another short blast of air should take care of it.
Focus on Awareness
Be it weather conditions, the goings-on of those around you, the time, or where you are located, you must always be aware of your surroundings. Start your day by checking local weather conditions and surf advisories before you even leave your accommodations. When you arrive at your snorkeling site you’ll be able to see for yourself if the weather will help create a positive experience or prevent you from snorkeling at all.
Some beaches have safety flags posted on the beach and some include lifeguards who update the current surf conditions. Just remember, red flags mean things are dangerous and swimming is not allowed; while yellow flags remind you to proceed with caution and that while you can swim, things are still on the rough side.
Another helpful tip regarding awareness of your environs while snorkeling is to wear a waterproof watch so as not to lose track of time. Have a stable focal point on the beach so you can easily and periodically pop up from the underwater excitement and confirm that you’re not drifting too far away and that your buddy or companions are still within a short distance from each other.
Protecting the Environment
One of the most important parts of snorkeling is making sure to preserve the environment so that the sea creatures that live there can continue to thrive and future generations can return time and again. Without realizing it, you can have a negative impact, so it is important to do your best to do as little damage as possible.
Never stand on or touch the coral, and be aware of your fins as you swim to be sure you don’t accidentally kick the reef. In addition to potentially killing the coral, you can also get cut on sharp edges or burned by the bacteria on the coral. It goes without saying that you should never take home any souvenirs. Not only can it bad for the eco-system, but it many places it is illegal to take anything from the water — even small rocks and bits of coral should remain behind for the benefit of the fish and future visitors.
It may not seem like it, but feeding the fish can be harmful as well. Digesting food that they are not used to can be detrimental to their health and alter their eating patterns which affects the circle of life in these remote underwater areas. This is true of sea turtles as well. And just like with the coral, you should not touch the fish. Some can sting or cause you to burn, and others might become aggressive. It is for this reason that you should also avoid wearing shiny jewelry.
Finally, wearing regular sunscreen or any insect repellent in the water releases chemicals into the water that can cause the coral to become bleached and die. Sunscreen may still be necessary for your own protection, but there are biodegradable brands on the market that will not cause any damage.
Snorkeling with Children
Snorkeling is a great activity to include in your family vacation, but the younger your children are the more preparation you’ll have to do. The best way to prepare is to have your children practice in the bath tub. Get them outfitted for their gear back home if you can, so they have plenty of time to get used to how it feels and play with it in the water. Take this time to explain how to use each piece of equipment, but do not put pressure on them. If they want to stop, let them.
If you’re planning to rent your gear, see if you can make time to practice in the pool of your hotel, or at the very least, begin your day of snorkeling in a very shallow, clear, calm area of the beach. Water wings or some sort of flotation device is essential not only for safety, but to conserve their energy. The key to an enjoyable day of snorkeling with younger children is to go with the flow and keep things simple.
There are many reasons why snorkeling is such a popular pastime, but those who love the sport have attributed it not only to the chance to see a magical and mysterious underwater world, filled with brightly colored and vibrant sea life, but also because it is calm, peaceful, and other-worldly. In order to know what makes this sport such a big deal, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself . Chances are, you’ll quickly fall in love yourself.