The warm waters that fringe the fabled islands in the South Pacific offer some of the best visibility on the planet, and the reefs are a treasure trove of charismatic creatures waiting to be discovered by adventurous travelers. This is where you can swim beside dolphins, whales or sharks, giving your bucket list a few major checks. Plus, these islands offer white-sand beaches, turquoise lagoons and villages to explore between underwater expeditions. Below are five top places to snorkel to see the South Pacific’s most impressive marine wildlife.
1. Moorea – French Polynesia
Dive with dolphins, stingrays, and blacktip reef sharks in the sandy lagoon encircling Moorea, a laid-back, mountain-clad island just 10 miles from Tahiti. Try your luck at finding the animals yourself by snorkeling in waist-deep water over a sandbar on the northwest tip of the island, or book an encounter at the Moorea Dolphin Center where you’re guaranteed 15 minutes of hands-on interaction with these playful mammals.
How to get there: Take a 15-minute flight via Air Tahiti, or a 30- to 60-minute ferry ride from Papeete
2. Vavau – Tonga
Tonga’s Vavau island group is one of the best places in the world to swim with humpback whales. Females migrate north to the warm waters of the South Pacific each June to give birth, hanging out in the shallows with their newborns through October. Tour operators offer eco-friendly, intimate whale encounters, and mamas will often nudge their babies up to play alongside the visiting humans, giving you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to dance with a whale.
How to get there: Take a direct flight from Nadi, Fiji, via Fiji Airways
3. Bora Bora – French Polynesia
Glide next to manta rays as they weave through Bora Bora‘s famous blue-green lagoon. With a wingspan reaching up to 23 feet, the resident mantas look like giant birds as glide through the water. Snorkelers can watch them scoop up zooplankton with their wide-open mouths, or see them hovering at a coral reef “cleaning station,” where fish pick parasites off their black-and-white skin. Schools of spotted-eagle rays, stingrays, and blacktip reef sharks are also common sights.
How to get there: Take a 45-minute flight via Air Tahiti from Papeete
Not only is it one of the largest raised coral atolls in the world, the tiny island-nation of Niue is also the only place where you can swim with the katuali, a sea snake that grows up to 3 feet long. Its tiny mouth makes it harmless to humans (children wear them as necklaces on Niue’s beaches), but this snake is one of the most venomous creatures on the planet. Watch the beautiful striped snakes stream through clear water as they dive down to the reef to feed, then resurface to breathe. The best place to snorkel with katuali is in Snake Gully near Avatele Beach.
How to get there: Air New Zealand offers twice-weekly three-hour flights from Auckland
5. Fakarava – French Polynesia
Drift over hundreds of blacktip reef sharks as you ride the current through Fakarava‘s lagoon. This atoll’s south pass is nicknamed the “Shark Wall,” and is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you want to up the ante on your encounter with sharp-toothed predators, visit on the June solstice when Fakarava’s pass turns into a full-on feeding frenzy. Tens of thousands of grouper spawn in the shallows, drawing in large oceanic sharks and schools of big fish, all of which are clear as day in the gorgeous tropical water.
How to get there: Air Tahiti offers daily 75-minute flights from Papeete