World’s Best Snorkeling Islands

February 6, 2009
World's Best Snorkeling Islands

Something happens as soon as we immerse ourselves into the sea. Our breathing slows but our pulse quickens. Underneath the surface, this different world surprises with every glance. Along a vibrant reef, colors run rampant, and shapes seem gleaned from surreal imagination. As an island connoisseur, what you need is a list of island destinations where you can happily spend your entire exploration in the water. You know there are no other places on our planet so filled with wonder, awe and discovery.

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Santa Catalina, California
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. Once you get past the initial awe, this experience lacks no surprises, including giant sea bass, which are like curious finned cows; flirty harbor seals, which like to nibble at your snorkel or fins; a fleet of sea lions; and elegant bat rays. And that’s just the start of your adventures in the national marine park that surrounds this Channel Island: Lover’s Cove tops the list, but you can snorkel from any coast on this island and get lost in your reverie. Settle in at The Inn on Mt. Ada for sweeping views of Avalon harbor, and relive your underwater discoveries.


Dimakya Island, Philippines
Forget sharks, whales and dolphins. If you want true bragging rights in the snorkeling world – in the world in general, for that matter – swim with dugongs. This rare, extremely skittish and highly endangered marine mammal is closely related to the manatee and can grow to about 9 feet long and 1,000 pounds. And it regularly lunches among the sea grass beds near tiny Dimakya Island in the Philippines. In fact, Dimakya is one of the only places in the world where an in-water dugong encounter isn’t just likely, it often involves a friendly and lengthy meet-and-greet with these extra- ordinary creatures. And the intimacy and stillness of snorkeling is the only way to keep from scaring them off. Look into their eyes and feel both their feral spirit and curiosity; it will burn in your memory. Between stolen moments with this mythical mermaid, wander off to the shallow and bio-rich house reef that surrounds the island like a fairy ring. Spend time with stingrays, green sea turtles, clouds of reef tropicals and even passing manta rays. Club Paradise, the only resort on the island, will sweep you away between blue adventures with its five-star barefoot elegance and utter quiet.

Uepi Island, Solomon Islands
Imagine floating through Grand Central Terminal during a fire alarm at rush hour: You’re still not really close to the amount of action, color and movement that awaits mere steps off the beach at Uepi Island. This snorkeling hot spot is nestled in the life-rich tropical haven of the Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands, and at almost any spot along its coast, you can wade in and explore one of the most captivating and bio-diverse underwater ecosystems on the planet. Above these colorful Seussian forests of hard and soft coral, sponges and seafans, legions of wildly colored reef fish flow over the reef like living rivers. Start off at the prosaically named Welcome Jetty, a working pier where all travelers arrive to Uepi. The pier lives up to its name; every creature is in attendance, living among the sponge-covered trunk-like stanchions. You’ll find snowflake morays, nudibranchs, jittery clownfish, vivid giant clams and even a gang of zippy blacktip reef sharks. (They are attracted by a feed – don’t hold the bait, and you’ll be fine.) Share snorkeling notes with other guests at the Uepi Resort, and enjoy taking off on a new adventure each day.

Lord Howe Island, Australia
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. One quick adventure out to Erscotts Hole on the inner southwest side of this reef will change your world view of snorkeling for good: Here the doubleheader wrasse, chameleon-like bluefish and almost everything else that swims is as curious about you as you are about them. Meanwhile, several resident sea turtles wander from snorkeling site to snorkeling site, almost oblivious to your presence. For big thrills, slip over to Ned’s Beach at the end of the day. Locals come to this northeast-facing coast to feed fat, 3-foot-long kingfish and thick emperors in the shallows. It’s one melee you’ll want to witness from below. Decamp at the Capella Lodge, which has dreamy views of the lagoon.


Huahine, Islands of Tahiti
Underwater and above, Huahine has some of the best – and least-known – places to discover in Tahiti. There’s a small motu, or islet, at the entrance to Port Bourayne Bay, a short outrigger ride from Te Tiare Beach Resort. Wake up early, grab your gear and enjoy the short 20-minute paddle on the lagoon of this hidden gem in Tahiti’s Society Islands. The reef that surrounds the motu ripples with life, from clownfish to eels to gangs of yellow and white saddleback butterflyfish that love to crowd in front of your camera. It’s like getting caught in a whirlwind of fall leaves. Take a bit of French bread underwater with you, and they’ll swirl around you for hours. Crank it up a notch and hire a guide to take you to Huahine Iti for a drift snorkel. The lagoons that surround Tahiti’s islands have narrow openings for the tidal shift, so it’s easy to ride this blue magic carpet. Nothing’s more decadent in the snorkeling world than drifting along effortlessly over coral gardens alive with as much movement and color as a sprawling urban city. Keep your eyes peeled for green sea turtles napping under the coral ledges and stingrays hidden in the sand.

Discover what a vibrant, lush and pristine Caribbean reef is supposed to look like. Come to Bonaire. The island won the 2008 Sustainable Tourism Award from islands magazine and the Caribbean Tourism Organization for its abundant and wonderfully healthy underwater treasures. Almost every kind of marine life that resides in the Caribbean can be found in the protected arms of the Bonaire National Marine Park. And since the critters that live here know they’re protected, they have no problem putting on a show. Take a boat to Klein Bonaire, a small, uninhabited sister island just off the capital city of Kralendijk, where you can explore from anywhere off the beach and encounter everything from butterflyfish to filefish among the sea rod and sea fan forests. You’ll have no problem finding several species of wrasse, angelfish and triggerfish, as well as lobster. Bonaire has also been hailed as the macro capital of the Caribbean. Take a guide to help you spot stealthy little critters like seahorses. Wind down at the Belmar Oceanfront Apartments Bonaire on your private terrace.

Andros Island, Bahamas
From the air, Andros Island looks like someone sprayed it with a machine gun, riddling the island with holes, Chicago gangland style. In the Southern Bight of this Bahamian island, you’ll find a series of oceanic versions of blue holes. These caverns and caves reach deep into the dark shadows of the earth, mixing fresh and salt water. In the light that surrounds these entrances to the blue netherworld, life gathers in battalions. In about 20 feet of water, coral gardens form a ring around the holes. There, dozens of stingrays frolic; swarms of French grunts and lumbering Caribbean reef sharks amble past; schools of jacks swirl and circle over the entrances; and barracuda hover over the scene. From the Seascape Inn, it’s only three miles to the Southern Bight, and you never know what you’ll see next.


Big Island, Hawaii
If you want to encounter the full range of local Hawaiian marine life, including many endemic species, come to Kealakekua Bay. The sheltered bay is only about 12 miles south of Kailua Kona on the Big Island and is home to green sea turtles, spinner dolphins and, from about December to May, humpback whales. Even if you don’t go eye-to-eye with the gentle giants — an experience that will rock your world – you will defi nitely feel and hear their haunting whale song. There’s also a nearby lava tube to snorkel, which fills with streaks of sunlight at certain times of the day and sometimes houses napping whitetips. Because all the marine life has become accustomed to the presence of people, nothing’s skittish. The hoards of butterflyfish, surgeonfish, wrasse and hawkfish go about their daily business of eating and trying not to get eaten right in front of your eyes. Stay at the Outrigger’s Keahou Beach Resort, where dozens of green sea turtles come to nap in the lagoon below.


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