Image: St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
USVI
St. John's crenulated coast is rich with protected places to snorkel. Since practically the entire island is a national park, there's not much of the sediment-filled runoff that has damaged coral and clouded the water at some other Caribbean locations.
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updated 7/16/2008 2:44:31 PM ET 2008-07-16T18:44:31

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.

Image: Makaha Beach Park, Oahu
www.sailhawaii.com
One of the best snorkeling sites in the Hawaiian Islands is the very accessible Makaha Beach Park, located on the leeward side of Oahu. Visibility runs 100 feet or more — even swim with the resident spinner dolphins.
For casual snorkelers, it's possible to pick up a $20 mask and snorkel at a local dive shop, ask around for good spots—and jump right in. On the laid-back Puerto Rican island of Culebra, for example, world-class snorkeling is a short hike away via public transport. From the mainland, hop a ferry to Dewey, then take a bus to Playa Flamenco; Carlos Rosario Beach is just 20 more minutes away—on foot. Swim just a few yards offshore, and you're snorkeling among a wild selection of coral, sea fans and reef fish. Similarly, Makaha Beach Park on the Hawaiian island of Oahu is located just off the main highway. Park the car and jump into fantastic snorkeling. Of course, at nearly every popular Caribbean and Pacific vacation spot, plenty of resorts and outfitters are ready to arrange half-day or full-day outings to the offshore reefs.

Image: Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Tammy Peluso  /  iStockphoto.com
The Great Barrier Reef lies 12 to 50 miles off the northeastern shore of Australia. The amalgam of 2,500 reefs stretches 1,400 miles, covering an area as large as California.
Real diehards, on the other hand, plan entire vacations around their dives. Like their scuba brethren, they seek out some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs, known for their variety of fish and other sea creatures. Just getting to Rurutu in French Polynesia is a bit of an adventure; but then you still have to take a boat to find migrating humpback whales. Likewise, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s great snorkeling spots, lies 12 to 50 miles offshore. In some places it’s possible to snorkel from an island resort; in other cases, you’ll have to travel by boat for your day’s swim.

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.

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