When Joel Simon was a kid, he and his brother began snorkeling around the pilings in murky Alamitos Bay near Long Beach. “It was one of the most intriguing places I’d ever been,” he says rapturously, nearly 50 years later. “These old rusty cans lying in the muck underneath the dock were actually like treasure chests containing barnacles and octopus and all kinds of wonderful encrusting organisms.”
He’s never lost his love of snorkeling. In fact, today he runs Sea for Yourself, leading trips that combine snorkeling with marine ecology in places from Florida to Fiji.
Snorkeling is one of the best ways to see a tropical vacation spot from a new perspective and gain a little appreciation of its wild side. “It’s a fantastic vehicle to get people introduced on a firsthand basis to some of the joys of the marine environment,” says Simon.
When lifelong animal-lover Tori Cullins moved to Hawaii, she missed the “warm furry critters” from the mainland. “We don't even have squirrels,” says the co-owner of Wild Side Specialty Tours on Oahu. “I took to the water to satisfy the nature disconnect I was feeling. Reefs are more diverse than rainforests, and what land animal can compete with the beauty, intelligence and evolutionary success of dolphins and whales?”
As a way to see the ocean, snorkeling has plenty of advantages over scuba. For one, it’s easy. If you can swim, you can snorkel with very little training. Second, it’s cheap, with no need for expensive gear. You can stuff everything you need in your suitcase—or even buy it on the spot.
“It’s not equipment-intensive—just mask, fins and a snorkel and off you go,” says Debbie Been, owner of Salt Cay Divers in the Turks and Caicos. The minimum of gear can be liberating. And in some cases—diving with whales, for example—the lack of bubbles allows you to get closer to your quarry than you can with scuba gear. “It’s so peaceful. You can float on top of all the sea creatures swimming below and not disturb them in their natural environment.”
And, it’s a great way to get your exercise on an otherwise sedentary vacation. “You are preoccupied with all the beauty of the underwater world and don't realize how much swimming you are doing,” says Been.
Whatever your level of commitment, a good snorkeling trip requires just four things: clear water, gentle currents, abundant aquatic life and the chance to get away from the crowds. In our list of the world's best snorkeling spots, some require a boat trip, while others are no further than a public beach or park.