10 Amazing Snorkeling Spots in the Caribbean

February 26, 2013

Islands contributor Tanya Burnett, a snorkeling and scuba-diving expert photographer, shares her favorite places to snorkel across the Caribbean. And don’t forget to jot down her snorkel tips for dolphins, whale sharks and more.

The Cliffs at Negril Jamaica

The Cliffs at Negril, Jamaica

I’ve often dreamt of a Caribbean idyll where just a few steps from my private bungalow were aquarium-like conditions replete with all manner of fish life. This came to life with a stay at the Rockhouse Hotel, perched on the cliffs of Negril, Jamaica. The dramatic cliffs pockmarked with caves and fissures teaming with silversides and kissed by tropical light were as close to living my dream as I’ve ever been. Tanya Burnett
Pigeon Cay Roatan

Pigeon Cay, Roatan

This tiny, postcard-worthy uninhabited island is a 45-minute boat ride from Roatan but feels a world away. The entire island was ours, the only sounds the transparent waters whispering on the beach and the birds chattering in the trees. The snorkeling was a personal exploration of the entire circumference of this pocket paradise. The bleached ivory sand bottom played host to huge elkhorn coral, iridescent damsels and careening parrot fish on a chaotic mission. Tanya Burnett
Isla Mujeres Mexico

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Isla Mujeres has become the go-to spot to snorkel with whale sharks. These sharks are the antithesis of the Jaws image — think 25-foot-long puppy dogs of the sea and you’ll be close. Every year, hundreds of these gentle giants congregate from June to August to slurp in the local fish spawn while about a hundred lucky snorkelers swim in their midst. Even standing on the boat, I was entranced by a veritable sea of dorsal fins and the intricately patterned backs of these of these largest fish in the ocean.
Swimming with Dolphins Bahamas

Swimming with Dolphins, Bahamas

I admit it: There really is something purely joyful about sharing the water with wild dolphins. The first time I looked eyes with a curious Atlantic spotted dolphin, I was hooked. After dozens of trips, the feeling is still enchanting. Summer’s calm seas make it easier to locate the resident dolphins primarily found in 20 to 30 feet of Bahamian water. This is different than swimming with captive dolphins; here the dolphins call the shots. Tanya Burnett
Hol Chan Marine Reserve Belize

Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize

One of the Western Caribbean’s great delights is about a 20-minute boat ride from Ambergris Caye. Topside there is little to distinguish this spot in the shallow teal-colored sea aside from some limestone reef breaking the surface. But the first time I looked beneath the protected waters of the reserve, I was wowed by nurse sharks, stingrays, jacks and grunts cavorting with snorkelers over turtle grass and reefs. The marine life is used to being fed here, so it is not unusual to be up close and personal with dozens of fish at a time. Tanya Burnett
Stingray City, Grand Cayman

Stingray City, Grand Cayman

Perhaps the most popular snorkeling spot in the world is Grand Cayman’s Stingray City in Grand Cayman. Any dive shop or resort can arrange a trip to this shallow sandbar with a jar of squid parts for the local denizens. The stingrays’ Pavlovian response to the arrival of the boats and snorkelers is hilarious. Rays soar in and suck bait from fingers using smell, not sight, which can lead to occasionally awkward but harmless encounters as they explore with their rubbery lips while snappers clean up the stray bits. The ballet of flying rays is mesmerizing. The challenge is not losing your snorkel while laughing at the show. Tanya Burnett
Cayo Diablo National Park, Fajardo Puerto Rico

Cayo Diablo National Park, Fajardo, Puerto Rico

Only a 20-minute boat ride from the Fajardo shore, Cayo Diablo straddles the border of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. In 10 to 15 feet of water, sea rods, sea fans and pillar corals seem to cover every inch of the shallow reef that’s protected from the rugged Atlantic by a spine of jagged limestone. Stands of elkhorn and staghorn coral play host to countless tropicals, but the real reason I come to Cayo Diablo is for the sea turtles. I found several hawksbill and green turtles that were calm enough to swim alongside at a leisurely pace, seeming unconcerned as I marveled at their timeless features. Tanya Burnett
Thousand Steps and Windsock Bonaire

Thousand Steps and Windsock, Bonaire

Look for a numbered yellow rock beside the coastal road, and it will likely mark a great location to don a mask. Two of my favorites are a Thousand Steps and Windsock. Thousand Steps is special for its location — a pocket beach at the base of a sheer cliff that, as its name implies, takes a little work to get to. I love slipping into the crystalline water in this remote escape to fin over elkhorn coral and schooling sergeant majors while indulging a private-island fantasy. Windsock, on the other hand, is so easy and accessible that my parents are even up for a plunge. It’s not uncommon to see larger species like jacks, barracuda, turtles or even a tarpon. Tanya Burnett
Silver Bank Dominican Republic

Silver Bank, Dominican Republic

Why would I spend 12 hours on a boat motoring to a remote bank 90 miles north of the Dominican Republic, with no beach or facilities in sight? Because it’s the best place to swim with wild North Atlantic humpback whales that migrate to the Silver Bank to mate and calve. There’s little else to do but enjoy the incredible displays of 30-ton leviathans launching into the air. When conditions are right, slip into the water to witness what few will ever see. Watch playful youngsters and cautious moms. When floating above a male humpback singing to a female, you’ll feel the experience as much as hear it. Tanya Burnett
Dry Tortugas Florida

Dry Tortugas, Florida

There was a time when sea planes were a typical mode of island-hopping around the Caribbean, and I’ve always felt a bit nostalgic for those days of romantic adventure that I never experienced firsthand. That’s just part of what makes a trip to snorkel in Florida’s Dry Tortugas special — a 30-minute flight in a small float plane soaring a few hundred feet above turquoise water. Add in a final destination of Fort Jefferson National Park and some fabulous snorkeling to create my perfect day. Travel light, but bring everything you need, including a picnic. Tanya Burnett

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