Image: Snorkeler
Part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve just off the coast of Belize, Shark Ray Alley is a great place to view some of the more charismatic characters of the deep — primarily nurse sharks up to six feet long and southern stingrays up to four feet across. Guides chum the critters to keep them in close view. You might also see porpoises and turtles.
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updated 2/15/2009 11:20:46 AM ET 2009-02-15T16:20:46

Snorkeling is a terrific way to see your Caribbean travel destination from a new perspective. Slipping beneath the surface to swim through corals and spy on reef fish helps a tourist gain some appreciation of the natural world beyond the clubs and casinos.

For such rich rewards, the sport doesn’t ask for much in return. For starters, it requires little skill or athleticism — only the ability to feel comfortable in water.

“You don’t even have to swim to snorkel,” says Renee Leach, who guides snorkel tours on Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles. “You float. You can’t sink.”

In fact, Leach has guided snorkelers as young as 3 and as old as 93, and has pulled nonswimmers around by the hand.

“If our guests are not experienced snorkelers we go straight to a shallow area where we ‘learn’ to snorkel in waist-deep water and test out the equipment so even people who actually cannot swim can participate in the snorkeling,” says Elena Humphrey, who guides trips to Puerto Rico’s La Corillera Nature Reserve.

“No certification,” says Luis Saez, a dive instructor who manages a guide service that takes snorkelers among the islands of La Cordillera. “It’s something the whole family can enjoy. It’s something really simple to do.”

Not only does it take less training and skill than scuba, it also takes less equipment — a real advantage for a traveler. You can pack a mask, snorkel and flippers in a tote bag. If you don’t have gear or left it at home, you can usually pick up a mask and snorkel at a local dive shop for under $20. (More, of course, if you want good-quality stuff.)

Image: Snorkeler
Michael DeFreitas Underwater / Alamy
As close to pristine as it gets in Puerto Rico, Isla Mona Nature Reserve lies 45 miles off Puerto Rico’s western coast. Billed as the “Galapagos of the Caribbean,” Mona is home to extraordinary wildlife.
Compared with diving, says Karen Moise, part owner of a Nature Island Dive shop in Dominica, “it’s not as cumbersome. But you can see a lot of stuff, a lot of marine life.”

And if you don’t have gear and don’t want to buy any, simply sign up for a tour that provides the gear. The key to a good guided experience is finding guides who are involved in pointing out interesting stuff underwater and then, back at the surface, explaining what you’ve seen, Moise says.

As easy as it is to go snorkeling, some places provide a better experience than others. Even in the Caribbean — as close to ideal snorkel waters as you can imagine — some sites stand out. What makes these great snorkeling spots? Whether you plan to spend every waking hour in the water or only paddle around for a single afternoon, it comes down to four things: clear water (often with visibility approaching 100 feet), mild currents (or none at all), abundant aquatic life (especially healthy corals and diverse reef fish) and the chance to get away from the crowds.

Some of our best Caribbean snorkeling spots are no farther away than a public beach or park. On the island of Dominca, the bizarre bubbling volcanic formation known as Champagne is easily accessed from shore. On the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas, some of the best diving, including a 261-foot shipwreck in 20 feet of water, lies just offshore from the Riding Rock Inn Resort and Marina.

Other spots are a bit harder to reach. You’ll need a boat — at the very least a kayak — to snorkel La Cordillera Nature Reserve in Puerto Rico. And to explore fabulous Mona Island off the west end of Puerto Rico is a major expedition. You’ll need not only a boat but at least a couple of days.

When it comes to undersea life, some of our sites have a bonus. For example, Hol Chan Marine Reserve on Ambergris Caye in Belize boasts not only coral and small fish, but abundant rays and sharks as well. Mexico’s Isla Contoy stands out for giving snorkelers a chance to swim with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish.

And if snorkeling with a fish that stretches 30 feet doesn’t cast your vacation experience in a new light, nothing will.

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