Bonaire National Marine Park
Bonaire gets – and deserves – a lot of credit for its commitment to the protection of its marine environment. The Marine Park, which surrounds the island from the high-water mark down to 200 feet, was pioneered by a diver (the famous Captain Don Stewart) back in 1979 and has been supported by diver contributions since 1990. There’s great snorkeling around most of the island (look for the yellow shore-dive markers), but standouts include Sorobon in Lac Bay, 1,000 Steps, Karpata, and Klein Bonaire. In some places, the hard corals grow right to the surface, and there are still healthy stands of elkhorn swarming with fish. The annual fee is $25 for divers, $10 for snorkelers.
Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve
Glover’s Reef is one of the Caribbean’s rare atolls, lying some 30 miles off the Belize coast and forming a large, protected link in the vast Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (locally called the Belize Barrier Reef). Created in 1993 and named a World Heritage Site in 2000, the reserve encompasses the entire atoll, down to the 100-fathom line, with no-take areas where grouper spawn, and zones that allow sustainable indigenous fishing or snorkeling and diving. Inside the atoll’s 80-square-mile lagoon, 700 coral patch reefs provide endless snorkeling and common sightings of turtles, sharks and rays. The Wildlife Conservation Society operates a research station on Middle Caye, and visitors can stay at the rustic Slick Rock eco-resort on Long Caye .
Bloody Bay Marine Park
With its tiny population and scant development, Little Cayman has seen virtually no human-caused damage to its reefs – and marine park status ensures continued protection of one of the world’s most spectacular underwater attractions: Bloody Bay, on the north coast. Snorkelers here have the rare opportunity to swim over a coral cliff. Floating in the clear water at a site called Three Fathom Wall, you watch fish milling around the bottom in 18 feet of water. Fin a few yards north, and the bottom drops straight down 1,000 feet. The walls of Bloody Bay are festooned with healthy creatures – tangles of rope sponges, gigantic barrel sponges and webs of soft corals.
Los Roques Archipelago National Park
These 50 islands poking out of crystal-blue waters 90 miles east of Bonaire are ringed with reefs and softened by vast coral-sand flats and turtle-grass beds swarming with bonefish. Only one of the islands, Gran Roque, is inhabited, and it’s there that visitors base themselves in small posadas that line the island’s few sand streets. Snorkelers and divers head out with local guides in small boats to explore surrounding islands and their practically virgin reefs, which received protected status in 1972 and continue to be among the healthiest and most biodiverse reefs in the Caribbean. The farther south from Gran Roque, the better the reefs.
As if swimming inside a volcano isn’t cool enough, snorkelers visiting the southern tip of Dominica can toast to the success of this marine reserve by floating in Champagne – one of the Caribbean’s most unique sights. Volcanic gases gurgling up through the rocky seabed give the shallow dive site its name, and you can join parrotfish and juvenile tropicals swimming though the bubbly backdrop. Another great snorkel spot in the reserve (established in 1998 after a campaign by local high-school students) is the top of Scott’s Head Wall, on the rim of a submerged crater, with views of supersized gorgonians, sponges and brain corals. $2 park fee.
Tobago Cays Marine Park
ST. VINCENT + THE GRENADINES
Yachties know the protected waters of the Tobago Cays as one of the Caribbean’s most idyllic anchorages. In 1997, the five uninhabited cays and the spectacular Horseshoe Reef that guards four of them received their own protection with marine park status. Charter boats snug into the calm behind the reef and find fabulous snorkeling on the back-reef patches, the shallow reef crest and, especially, on either side of “Dinghy Pass,” which cuts through to the outside of the reef. Snorkel trips from Union Island, Palm Island, Mayreau and the other Grenadines explore these same areas as well as outside the reef around Petit Tabac – the isle where Captain Jack Sparrow was marooned in the first Pirates of the Caribbean.**
Soufriere Marine Management Area
SMMA is often noted as one of the world’s most successful marine parks at bringing together various stakeholders, including local fishermen, landowners and water-sports operators. Established in 1995, the park covers two terrific snorkeling areas. At Anse Cochon (Bay of Pigs), patch reef starts in just 5 feet of water, and snorkelers often spot turtles and eels. Farther south, beneath the gaze of St. Lucia’s famous Pitons, Anse Chastanet Reef is the island’s best fish-and-critter-watching spot. Coral Gardens offers a unique view: Look down to see healthy reef; look up and Gros Piton towers above you. Park fees are $5 for divers, $1 for snorkelers.
Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park
Established way back in 1959 by the Bahamas National Trust, this collection of tiny cays surrounded by coral reefs bathed in electric-blue water is the oldest land-and-sea park on the planet. Determined to give the area the highest level of protection so that “only osprey” would fish here, the government upped the ante in 1986 by declaring the 176-square-mile sanctuary a no-take zone. The protection has been so successful (conch populations are 31 times higher than in the surrounding area; grouper and lobsters that breed here are repopulating the archipelago), it’s become a model for other refuges worldwide. It’s accessible only by boat; snorkelers and divers can base at Staniel Cay Yacht Club or Sampson Cay or take a live-aboard cruise.
Sapodilla Cayes Marine Park
At the southern end of Belize, 40 miles offshore from Punta Gorda, the 14 sandy isles of Sapodilla make up the elbow of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef as it bends toward Honduras. Extensive spur-and-groove coral formations (including elkhorn) run seaward of the islands, and atop the reef crest and inside the lagoons, corals grow almost to the surface, providing limitless shallow snorkeling. Endangered hawksbill sea turtles nest on Hunting Caye, and it’s common to see turtles as well as nurse sharks, rays and all the ornamental reef fish. Accommodations in Punta Gorda, such as the Coral House Inn, can arrange local guides for the trip out to the cayes.
The Western Hemisphere’s four atolls (three in Belize, one in Mexico) are by nature isolated, miles offshore, making them less subject to pollution than coastal reefs. Thirty miles long, Chinchorro Bank (protected since 1996) is the Caribbean’s largest atoll, a ring of reef and coral islands surrounding a lagoon. It lies 19 miles off Costa Maya and Mahahual in the southern Yucatán. Weather permitting, snorkelers and divers make the 90-minute run to the atoll to see Mexico’s richest reef ecosystem, including elkhorn growing right to the surface, black coral “trees” as shallow as 30 feet, genius-sized brain corals, and barrel sponges as big as the spinning tea cups at Disney World. There are also dozens of wrecks, and to prevent looting, only snorkeling is allowed on them.