With these top ten snorkel sites, you can explore the best our oceans have to offer. Underwater photographer and adventurer Tanya Burnett-Palmer shares her favorite places to sightsee beneath the waves.
Snorkel in Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas
Keep an eye out for: jacks, tarpon, turtles, the occasional dolphin or porpoise―almost anything can wander in. Small reef fish stay in the shallows. When to go: all year; 242/338-0011 or reeldivers.com.
Buck Island, St. Croix, USVI
On-site secret: If you’re still honing your snorkeling skills, seek out the operators sanctioned by the park; they’re quick with instruction and help. Keep an eye out for: the three species of sea turtles that call the park a nesting area.When to go: all year, but check for wind speed―the waters can get choppy. Summer offers fewer crowds.
Crystal River, Florida
On-site secret: Swim slowly and stay calm and you may enjoy a manatee encounter for 15 minutes or more. Keep an eye out for: a whiskery face nuzzle, a flipper hug, and a full-body rub. Though the manatee defines your interaction, they can be very sociable.When to go: all year. In winter there are more manatees, but in summer there are fewer crowds; 800/291-3483 or americanprodive.com.
Rockhouse, Negril, Jamaica
On-site secret: Book a bungalow close to the restaurant for the most direct access to the best snorkeling. The grottos are absolutely magical. Keep an eye out for: huge schools of silversides and such wonders as the snake eel―a nonthreatening beauty.When to go: anytime year-round for usually calm, protected waters; 876/957-4373 or rockhousehotel.com.
Pigeon Cay, Honduras
On-site secret: Have the boat driver take a return route by Oak Ridge, a charming Honduran fishing village. Keep an eye out for: juvenile reef fish and fantastic elkhorn coral in the sparkling waters.When to go: year-round, but summer offers the calmest conditions; 011/504/413-2229 or subwaywatersports.com.
Stingray City, situated on a shallow sand bank off Grand Cayman Island, may be the most popular snorkel site in the world. It’s spectacular fun to be mobbed by a gregarious flock of soaring Southern stingrays in water clear as air.
On-site secret: Every snorkel operator runs trips to Stingray City, but check the cruise ship schedules to avoid the crowds. Keep an eye out for: the stingray’s unusual “vacuum cleaner” mouth. Stingrays are soft and slippery, but their mouths have the suction of a Shop-Vac, and in their excitement I have received the occasional stingray hickey. Don’t worry―it’s a harmless souvenir that goes away in a day or two.
When to go: spring and summer for the calmest conditions; stingraycitytrips.com.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize
On-site secret: Float from the feeding area to the shallow reefs and discover a dreamlike setting of sun-dappled coral and tiny reef denizens. Keep an eye out for: eagle rays. On more than one occasion I’ve been thrilled to see a majestic spotted eagle ray soaring through the reefs.When to go: all year, but check cruise ship schedules to avoid the busiest times; holchanbelize.org.
Bimini Islands, Bahamas
Lover’s Cove, Catalina Island, California
On-site secret: A lot of the fish here are used to being fed and aren’t shy. Wear gloves if you’re bringing peas or bread for them, as their enthusiasm leads to finger nibbling―more of a nuisance than a danger. Keep an eye out for: sea stars, eels, anemones, octopuses, and, most notably, the brilliant orange Garibaldi fish. If you are comfortable diving down 10 to 15 feet, you’ll find many small crustaceans and beautiful nudibranches.When to go: summer, when water temperatures warm to the low 70s; 877/766-7535 or catalinadiveshop.com.
Papalaua Wayside Park, Maui, Hawaii