When Joel Simon was a kid, he and his brother began snorkeling around the pilings in murky Alamitos Bay near Long Beach, Calif. "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. Today he runs Sea for Yourself, leading trips that combine snorkeling with marine ecology in places far and away from Long Beach, from Florida to Fiji.
Snorkeling can be one of the best ways to see a tropical vacation spot and gain an appreciation of its wild side — the kind that doesn't do karaoke at the hotel bar until all hours of the night. It's an activity that's easy to do, there are myriad colorful, memorable sights to see and it's a solid way to stay in shape when the daily routine's been put on hold.
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 heavy, expensive gear purchased, rented or — worse — lugged onto the airplane.
"It's not equipment-intensive — just mask, fins and a snorkel and off you go," says Debbie Manos, co-owner of Salt Cay Divers in the Turks and Caicos. The minimum amount 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."
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.
Then there are the snorkeling spots for real diehards who plan entire vacations around their dives and seek out some of the world's most pristine coral reefs, often in remote places. Just getting to Rurutu in French Polynesia is a bit of an adventure (it's 350 miles south of Tahiti); 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.
But what's perhaps most satisfying about recreational snorkeling is that its joys are the same for those who do it on vacation once every few years as for those who live in tropical locales year round.
When Tori Cullins, co-owner of Wild Side Specialty Tours on Oahu, moved to Hawaii, she missed the "warm furry critters" from the mainland. "We don't even have squirrels," says the. "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?"
And on top of all that, snorkeling is a great way to get 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 Manos.
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.
© 2012 Forbes.com