Editor’s Note: Some of the information below may be out-of-date. British Virgin Islands, Dominica and the Florida Keys were heavily impacted by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. Please visit caribbeantravelupdate.com and fla-keys.com for updates.
We've ranked the 25 island spots for the best snorkeling in the world, from No. 25 (the Galapagos) to No. 1 (?). See which spots you've already visited for snorkeling and scuba diving, and which spots you want to see next.
The Galápagos Islands hold many wonders, but few are as charming as the clowns of the sea, the Galápagos sea lions. From the town of Puerto Ayora on the main island of Santa Cruz, take a boat ride to Plaza Sur, home to over a thousand sea lions. Jump off the boat into the shallow water and you'll be an instant hit with the juveniles, who like to swim up for a closer look. The adults are more wary: Mothers stay back, keeping a watchful eye on their young, while bull males may occasionally give you a warning "bark" underwater if you get too close. Otherwise, consider yourself the life of the party as the playful creatures perform swirling acrobatics in your honor.
Uepi Island Resort on the edge of Morovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands is one of the few places where you can swim with one of the ocean's most unusual inhabitants: the chambered nautilus. This cephalopod is best known for its gorgeous circular shell that is favored by collectors, but the living animal is even more fascinating. Virtually identical to fossils that are 400 million years old, the chambered nautilus lives 800 to 1,000 feet below the surface, where it rests until nighttime when it begins its migration to shallower zones (600 feet) for scavenging. It takes a full evening for resort staff to safely trap a nautilus from the deep water in which it feeds. Plan on a crack-of-dawn snorkeling date on a shallow reef to see this critter pulse water through its siphon and appear to dance around the hard corals. The staff then accompanies the nautilus down to 120 feet, where it is released.
To increase your chances of a wild dolphin encounter while in the water, remember this advice from the amiable folks at Bimini Undersea Adventures: The more you free dive, spin around and act like a fish, the more likely you'll be to end up looking a curious cetacean in the eye. The company pioneered wild dolphin encounters in Bimini 15 years ago, and their enthusiasm hasn't waned. Summer is the best time for locating resident Atlantic spotted dolphins in the shallow waters off Bimini, thanks to calmer seas, but the company will take out groups of six or more all year long. Encounters aren't guaranteed since it is up to the dolphins to choose when to visit and for how long.
Looking for some luxury to go along with your snorkeling? You can stay at the Poseidon Undersea Resorts and feel like you're snorkeling in the privacy of your own room. Or visit Veligandu Island Resort, a tiny island situated on the edge of a sparkling atoll about 25 miles west from the international airport in Male. When you step off the plane, you'll be greeted with a brilliant landscape of unending blue punctuated by elegant over-water bungalows (a honeymoon favorite) and an achingly beautiful beach. Grab your snorkel gear and explore the enormous natural aquarium that begins just off the sand. The waters here are lagoon calm, and the atoll's reef teems with brilliant Indian Ocean fish species. You may even see several graceful lion fish.
Restorf Island, located 10 miles off New Britain in northern Papua New Guinea, is the place to go to encounter creatures you have likely never seen before. Spiny devilfish, jewel-like filefish and other bizarre critters inhabit the island's surrounding shallows and small reef walls. You may even find something that doesn't have a name; new species are still being discovered here.
From August to October, southern humpback whales come to the waters of the Islands of Tahiti to mate and give birth. Rurutu, one of the Austral Islands located 350 miles (a 90-minute flight) southwest of Tahiti, is one of their favorite stops. On three-hour excursions with Raie Manta Club (the only snorkel- and dive-trip operator on the island), a scientist will teach you about the whales as the captain begins his search (encounters are never guaranteed). When the boat approaches a single whale or pod, you'll slide into 100-foot-deep waters so clear you'll swear you are snorkeling through air. Snorkelers aren't allowed to approach the whales, but their curiosity may bring them to you. Advance booking is recommended.
You may not think of Spain as a snorkel destination, but tell that to the tiny Mediterranean town of L'Estartit on the main island's Costa Brava, which boasts at least nine dive shops. They'll probably inform you that the renowned archipelago of Les Medes, less than a mile offshore, has the richest marine life in the Med. This national wildlife reserve comprises seven uninhabited islands and dozens of rock reefs, where sightings of schooling rays, barracuda, eels and octopuses are common. Trips to Les Medes' sheltered waters run year-round.
This oft-overlooked National Marine Reserve sits just south of the equator in the clear Atlantic, 338 miles off the Brazilian coast. The region is a World Heritage site and only accepts a limited number of visitors. Book a day trip from Port Santo Antonio on the main island, which gives the archipelago its name, and visit Baia de Golfinhos (Bay of Dolphins), home to hundreds of resident spinner dolphins who often show off their amazing aerial leaps to the tour boats. Then head to Baia Do Sancho for snorkeling that includes close encounters with massive resident sea turtles. Time your visit from August through December to find the calmest seas.
The Caribbean still has secluded hideaways perfect for snorkeling – if you know where to look. Nicaragua's Big Corn Island offers angelfish (pictured), southern stingrays, green morays and yellow fairy basslet fish that appear to swim upside down near overhangs.
Long a favorite of scuba divers, Menjangan Island is part of the West Bali National Park system, which means that fishing and species collecting are not allowed. The island's shallows are a haven for Indo-Pacific marine life, like schooling electric-blue chromis and shrimpfish. Twenty yards out, huge table-coral formations protrude in improbable layers to catch essential sunlight. The island boasts calm waters year-round, but the best conditions are from April through November, when underwater visibility exceeds 100 feet. Several Balinese resorts offer trips to the island, or you can book a day trip out of Labuan Lalang harbor on Bali's northwest coast.
This entire island, off the northeast coast of Borneo, is ringed with a hard-coral garden that suddenly drops almost 2,000 feet into the blue. The dramatic drop-off allows for myriad colorful tropicals in the shallows as well as regular visits of larger inhabitants, such as schooling barracuda, big amberjacks and sea turtles. To protect this natural wonder, the Malaysian government has forbidden any land-based resorts on the island since 2005, so Sipadan is best visited as a day trip from one of the resorts on the nearby islands of Mabul and Kapalai. Alternatively, you can boat in from Semporna on the mainland. The island is a favorite for scuba divers; be sure to find an operator who also caters to snorkelers.
At the southernmost coral reef in the world, more than 490 tropical and temperate species mix and mingle. And because only a limited number of guests are allowed on Australia's Lord Howe Island at a time, you can witness the spectacle in what feels like total isolation. If that's not enough, the snorkeling hot spots at this UNESCO World Heritage site are almost all found in the calm, shallow water of the miles-wide lagoon off the west coast of the island.
Though named for the laughing gulls that can still be seen on this tiny islet 11 miles offshore mainland Placencia, Laughing Bird Caye is best visited to meet the underwater inhabitants. The shallow reefs here have been designated both a national park and a World Heritage site, and the result is a pristine ecosystem with soft and hard corals and all manor of angelfish and wrasse lilting before your mask. A number of operators from Placencia take small groups out to this protected outpost. A ranger is stationed on the caye 24/7 and will gladly explain the interesting ecology.
Get personal with the Caribbean's friendliest rays at Stingray City. This sandbar located near the reef passage of the North Sound was once a popular place for fishermen to clean their catches, which at the time attracted the rays. Today it's the sound of dive-boat motors that sets off the rays' Pavlovian response. These graceful, winged Hoovers will soar in and suck squid bait from your fingers. The action can get a little frenzied as they brush against you seeking handouts, but it's all harmless fun. Think of them as overeager puppies with fins. Most Grand Cayman resorts and dive shops offer guided trips at least once daily.
While Jost Van Dyke is known for White Bay and its famous Soggy Dollar Bar with the best Painkiller drink anywhere, the eastern tip of Jost Van Dyke attracts eagle rays, pompano, tarpon, ocean triggerfish and other large swimmers, in addition to postcard picks such as Creole wrasse and parrotfish.
This region of the Indonesian archipelago is heralded worldwide for its incredible coral-reef biodiversity. The many islands of the Misool area are so protected from rough ocean conditions that exotic soft corals of every hue, from flaming orange to pale lavender and hot pink, can be found within a few feet of the surface. The last count by ichthyologists (people who study fish) recorded 1,704 different species in Raja Ampat. Until recently, you could only experience the area by taking a multiple-day, live-aboard boat cruise out of Sorong on Papua New Guinea. The Misool Eco Resort promises some of the most stunning marine life in the world, literally steps away from your bungalow.
Few travelers make it to Culebra, 25 miles east of Puerto Rico. Fewer still trek to Flamenco Beach, the island's best spot for encountering hawksbill turtles, squid and angelfish among the fingers of reef.
Slip into the temperate waters of Lover's Cove on Santa Catalina. Just 22 miles from the coast of greater Los Angeles, you'll be swept away into a kelp forest. Light beams dance and sway beneath the green canopy of kelp, a sea grass that can grow one foot a day. Bright orange garibaldi ignite the scene with their fiery, neon-orange presence.
Dominica is home to nine active volcanoes; experience the geothermal activity by snorkeling around effervescent Champagne Reef, located on the western side of the island near the town of Soufriere. A freshwater sulfur spring at the site sends out streams of warm air bubbles into the Caribbean. Not only does this sea of seltzer tickle as it bubbles up from the reef, but the vent also attracts unusual critters, from flying gurnards to Caribbean reef squid. The reef is accessible from shore, or you can take a boat trip with a local outfitter.
Snorkel Maui's coast without the crowds at Papalaua Wayside Park, found a few miles south of Lahaina. The pleasant beach stretches along a tree-covered shoreline. On the eastern end, locally known as "Coral Gardens," literally hundreds of coral heads jockey for sunlight in the clear sapphire sea. Bright yellow butterflyfish abound in the coral maze, and lazy green sea turtles are a likely encounter. Always keep an eye out for Humuhumu nukunuku apuaa; the dynamic Hawaiian triggerfish is as much fun to pronounce as it is to spot. Snorkeling here is generally best in the morning when winds are calmer.
Fly by float plane from Key West and then do a pontoon landing to explore a true snorkeling wonderland in the Dry Tortugas National Park. The park's shallow reefs are perhaps the least-visited in the U.S. and are home to a wealth of Caribbean fish species and live corals. When you come up for air, enjoy a picnic on the beach or explore the ruins of Fort Jefferson, which dates to 1846. The 70-mile flight takes about 40 minutes each way.
Follow veteran cave explorer Henk Sanders on an exploration of some of Bonaire's 200-plus caves and learn how changing sea levels created the island's many limestone caverns, often hidden deep in the arid scrub with tiny entrances. The remaining fossilized coral is stunning, and the freshwater pools punctuated with stalactites and stalagmites lure adventurous snorkelers. Negotiating the glass-clear water is simple, but getting in and out of the caves requires good shoes and at least a minimal level of fitness. (Ready to plan your trip? See our editor's favorite resort in Bonaire.)
Some of Fiji's most beautiful reefs are situated in the remote region called the Bligh Water, located halfway between the largest islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Here, dramatic sea mounts climb hundreds of feet up from the ocean floor, topping out just below the water's surface and creating an oasis of marine life. Prepare to be awed by plumes of colorful soft corals, passing schools of gem-hued anthias and the micro world of multicolored invertebrates all vying for your attention. Good snorkeling skills are recommended, as the site is far from land and subject to strong currents.
Don't think size matters? Then you haven't snorkeled with the largest fish in the sea: the whale shark. At up to 40 feet in length, these huge animals look intimidating but are actually harmless, consuming only plankton and small marine life. When these slow-moving behemoths rise to the surface, don your snorkel gear and slip in to swim beside them while they feed. The most active season for sightings is February to May, but there are no guarantees. Experienced outfitters like Deep Blue Utila record all their sightings to help support whale shark research programs.
To swim with sea turtles, bring your fins and mask to Kahaluu Beach Park, located five and a half miles south of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. This spot is a favorite with both locals and visitors and is one of the best places in the state to spot green sea turtles. A freshwater spring that filters through the black-sand beach feeds into Kahaluu's calm ocean bay. The blending of waters stimulates algae growth, which attracts the turtles. Watch them feed in the shallows and then snorkel out to the protective rock reef where hundreds of resident reef fish compete with even more turtles for your attention.