Scuba diving requires training, a PADI qualification, and heavy equipment, but absolutely anyone who can swim and feels at ease in the water can snorkel. It’s the easiest way to discover an unbelievable underwater world full of color, critters, and beauty. Snorkelers only need a mask, a snorkel, and fins, and it’s free to practice on most of the world’s beaches at any time, dependent on sea condition.
There’s so much to see and learn; snorkelers can swim among dolphins, turtles, and rays, discover thousands of different corals, and ambush shoals of jewel-colored fish as they dart around their domain. Here are some simply magical snorkeling destinations; dive in to their marine wonders.
1. Menjangan Island, Bali
Part of West Bali National Park and within sight of Java on the north-west tip of Bali, Menjangan is protected and accessible by boat only with a guide. Trips can be booked through hotels or at the national park offices on the beach at Labuhan Lalang. Just on the 20-minute outrigger journey from the mainland, we saw green turtles and the fleeting shadows of bottle-nosed dolphins.
The reef is in spectacularly good condition, with table-coral formations almost protruding from the water, which teems with fish: eels, schools of bright purple chromis, star fish, puffer fish, and vast angelfish swaying gently in the current, partly hidden among wafting coral fans. The water is calm at Menjangan all year but visibility is best from April through November.
2. British Virgin Islands
There are many excellent snorkeling sites throughout the BVIs, but two stick out in my mind. Firstly Salt Island, for diving over the wreck of RMS Rhone, which sank with all its passengers in 1867 during a hurricane. In clear water with a lilting current, it’s easy to float over the hull and get a sense of its size. Hundreds of brightly flecked parrotfish, yellowhead wrasse, triggerfish, and clownfish flick over the barnacle- and seaweed-encrusted decking and rigging of the boat, with rays and nurse sharks lurking in the depths.
Anegada is one of the more remote spots in the BVIs, where the warm waters of the Caribbean meet the colder Atlantic Ocean. Composed of coral, the island reaches just 28 feet (8.5 meters) above sea level. The pristine waters of the north coast are protected by reefs, which form shallow lagoons that are safe for snorkeling. Try Loblolly Beach for wrasse, parrotfish, snapper, and spiny lobster before retiring to the Big Bamboo beach bar for a sundowner.
3. South Plaza Island, Galapagos Islands
If you’re lucky enough to get to the Galapagos Islands, snorkeling with the sea lions on rocky South Plaza Island is one treat guaranteed to melt the very hardest of hearts. This remote little volcanic speck in the Pacific Ocean is the home of more than a thousand sea lions, whose pups happily show off for snorkeling humans by performing acrobatics in the crystal-clear turquoise seas. Although the older sea lions keep their distance as they tumble and turn in the water, they readily accept human presence. Boat trips and wet suit hire can be arranged from Santa Cruz; while visiting South Plaza Island check out the colonies of swallow-tailed gulls and boobies as well as cumbersome yellow and red land iguanas.
Go snorkeling in the Galapagos on a Tortuga Bay Tour and Yacht Cruise to La Loberia Island
4. Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Stretching 1,400 miles down the east coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s longest and most southerly reef. There are many springboards off onto the reef from Port Douglas south to Brisbane and Hardy Reef, accessible from Shute Harbour, just east of pretty Airlie Beach, is one of the best spots. Here’s your chance to swim among the coral and sea life of Hardy Lagoon in majestic silence. Harmless black-tip reef sharks stalk snorkelers among the pink and green shades of lettuce, antelope, and brain coral as it whispers back and forwards in the gentle current.
This is an opportunity to experience the Barrier Reef without the crowds, swimming among flashy regiments of sergeant majors, parrotfish, timid green turtles, and sea slugs. Trips out to Hardy Reef are by boat, cat, or plane; the latter gives the chance to spot the perfectly formed Heart Reef and return flights at sunset take in the Whitsunday Islands, flying low over the gleaming white silica sands of Whitehaven Beach as it streaks yellow and pink in the setting sun.
5. Stingray City, Cayman Islands
The Cayman Islands’ boast that it has the friendliest stingrays in the Caribbean appears to be true. Once they hear the engines of the dive boats, they congregate in scores on the sandbar inside the reef at North Sound and hang around waiting to be fed. Although the reef itself is nothing special, the rays simply steal the show. They know no fear and hoover bait from outstretched palms before bustling around in the shallow, transparent water and nudging legs when they want more handouts.
Once they have eaten their fill and posed for their close-up, they happily let snorkelers swim around them. Touch them gently – they feel velvety – but be careful with your fins if they are swimming close by. Most Grand Cayman hotels can organize trips to Stingray City by yacht, boat, or jet ski, which operate all year around; take sun cream and towels.
6. Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt
Not the most enchanting spot in the world, but Sharm on the Red Sea has plenty of reefs and is striving to sustain its green credentials by the establishment of three national parks. Of these Ras Mohammed National Marine Park has a backdrop of arid red mountains, is edged with soft sandy dunes, and offers clear, calm water with great visibility, healthy banks of live pink and yellow coral, and thousands of fish.
Look out for blue-spotted rays, scorpion fish, angelfish, butterfly fish – and if you’re lucky you might spot dolphins playing in the bow waves of the dive boats. Wear a T-shirt in the broiling summer months to prevent sunburnt backs. There is an eco-camp in the park for overnight stays, but all hotels in Sharm can organize trips.
7. Big Island, Hawaii
Swimming with turtles is possible in many tropical destinations, but on islands like Barbados they are habitually fed by the crews on the dive boats, so they respond Pavlov-like to the sounds of the boat engines. To see wild green turtles in their natural environment, head for the protected Kahalu’u Beach Park near Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Here the seawater is clear and calm and protected by a rocky reef with thousands of resident fish, but the real stars of the show are the turtles. Attracted by the algae-rich water, they feed in large numbers in the shallows close to shore before disappearing over the reef back to sea. Growing up to 500 pounds, they are unafraid of people and will tolerate them swimming among them. However, there are strict guidelines for snorkelers; do not feed, touch, or chase the turtles.
8. Islas Medas Islands, Spain
Contrary to the belief that there are virtually no fish left in the western Mediterranean Sea, the Costa Brava boasts one of the best snorkeling sites in the world. The seven uninhabited rocky islets of Las Medas rise steeply out of the sea a mile (1.6 km) offshore and form Spain’s first Maritime Nature Reserve. Some of the richest marine life in the Med is to be spotted when floating through the sheltered coves and over rocky reefs.
A ridiculous abundance of lobsters, moray eels, enormous and over-friendly groupers, octopus, mullet, barracuda, and even tuna hover over the lapping sea grass and waving slabs of fan coral or dart into into underwater caves. Try the snorkeling spot at Pota del Llop to see spiky yellow and purple gorgonian coral. Boat trips depart L’Estartit on the mainland and run year-round; a wet suit is required in winter and visibility is never great after rain.
9. Kuda Bandos, The Maldives
The Maldives are an archipelago of 1,200 coral-formed islands splayed out in the center of the Indian Ocean, of which around 90 are given over to glamorous resorts, many with their own ‘house’ reefs. The snorkeling off Kuda Bandos is exceptional for the variety and size of the fish and easy for novices; the reef rings the island for around 100 feet (30.5 meters) before abruptly dropping off to form a wall plunging downwards.
Float over the edge of the reef between the inky darkness and the pristine sapphire blue of the shallows to spy scores of manta and stingrays as well as darting black-tipped reef sharks and barracuda mingling with the shady silhouettes of scuba divers far below. Further inshore among the lumpy brain coral and wafting finger coral the waters are infested with shoals of parrotfish, comical sweetlips, stripy sergeant majors, and flashy triggerfish. Don’t forget the sun lotion or wear a T-shirt. All Maldives hotels can organize trips and Kuda Bandos is closed to non-nationals at weekends.
10. Dimakya Island, Philippines
So you’ve swum with dolphins, turtles, and reef sharks. What’s next on the bucket list? Dimakya Island is one of the few places in the world that offers swimming with dugongs. These extremely rare, endangered, and shy marine mammals look like over-inflated walruses and grow to about nine feet (2.75 meters) in length while weighing in at up to 1,000 pounds. Despite their size they are gentle beasts of the sea with a mournful countenance, and pop inshore regularly to feast on the sea grass beds around this minute coral island in the Philippines.
An added bonus on this marine paradise is the richness and diversity of the house reef, where manta rays, green sea turtles, and schools of flashing tropical fish may just look commonplace following an encounter with the spectral dugongs.
- Sasha Heseltine