Pops Top Ten Best Snorkeling and Sea Experiences in Florida and the Caribbeanby Phil Popsrocks
Jun 1, 2007 (Updated Feb 11, 2008)
The Bottom Line Snorkeling and being in the glorious seas of the Caribbean have been a pleasure for me and my wife. I hope you can experience such excitement and beauty too.
My first snorkeling experience was not in the Caribbean. It was further north in Bermuda where my wife and I spent our honeymoon. That was 36 years ago. It's in the last ten years, now that our children are grown, that we have been able to spend more time pursuing this fascinating hobby. Though there are so many places we have yet visit, we have been to a number of remarkable reefs and can share some amazing experiences.
In our top ten best snorkeling and sea experiences and adventures listing I knew I would be mentioning St John, US Virgin Islands. It was the visit there that first had me enter a review on Epinions. I came back home full of excitement and wanted to share it. We have since revisited the island and learned even more. Though this list is not in any order of our preferences St John's is our top listing for all round fun in the sea.
1. Trunk Bay, St John US Virgin Islands
Trunk bay is part of the Virgin Islands National Park. It's one of the most photographed spots on all the Caribbean. Coming around a bend while traveling north to Trunks Bay the view comes into sight from perhaps a 100' elevation. The view is spectacular. Getting onto the beach also holds magic with the white powdery sands with palms all along the coast.
Trunk Bay is noted for it's underwater snorkeling trail. It's a good one for snorkeling beginners because its a short easy swim right from the beach. Getting in and out of the water there is easy. Once acclimated a snorkeler can break away from the trail and make their way toward a small island just yards away.
Trunks Bay has facilities including a food concession, showers and toilets. This is one of the few beaches where there is an admission fee, not much though. I suggest this to anyone who is first visiting the island and for beginner snorkelers.
2. Water Lemon Key St John US Virgin Islands
Just a fifteen minute or so drive via a rental car or by taxis that run the shore all day long, a more experienced snorkeler can make their way to Water Lemon Key. It's also listed on some maps as Watermelon Key.
This is near the ruins of a Dutch mill that was used for processing sugar cane. A mile or so walk along the shore takes a swimmer perhaps a hundred yards from Water Lemon Key. We swam the distance across to the island one time instead of taking the loop that brings one closer. Only stronger swimmers should go that way.
The waters all around the Key are full of different kinds of sea creatures. We saw many sea turtles and rays in the sea grasses on the northern side of the island over a period of days. More south and east were huge star fish on the sea bottom. We also saw many squid here too. Circumnavigating the island can be a bit rough for a novice if the trade winds are blowing hard. The unprotected waters get a bit more rough. The assortment of fish however, is worth a swim too, if not spooked by the darker areas and rocky outcrops. This is perhaps one of our favorite hikes and snorkel places to enjoy.
A few times we would be engulfed in schools of tiny fish that took a while to swim through as they were near one hundred feet of swimming little animals. At one point they all scattered in front of me, but from the other direction. I was suddenly face to face with a barracuda. Very cool! Scary too. This is my favorite place to snorkel that is right from a beach.
3. The Baths, British Virgin Islands
We read about the "Baths" and had to take a look. An excursion left from St Thomas, made a stop at St. John and made it's way to the BVI. We did have to have passports.
A bus took us from the entrance station to the Bath's National Park, BVI. A walk of a hundred yards or more brought us down to a lovely beach with lockers and facilities. We donned our gear and for four hours explored the amazing "Baths". This is an area with huge boulders that have been smoothed to a gentle roundness. They are toppled over each other in such a way that they can be walked under and small pools of water are captured in some areas. It's like nothing else I had ever seen. The walks under the boulders and swimming out among them was amazing. we found abundant sea life and the formations were haunting and interesting. This is a place everyone should try and see at least once in their lives.
4. Buck Island, St. Croix, USVI
Buck Island is reachable through boat excursions by licenced captains. It is off the coast of St Croix, the least visited of the three US Virgin Islands. They usually take people out for half day or full day trips. I wish we took the full day.
We were expecting more only because the hype has it listed as one of the top snorkeling spots in the world! Due to recent hurricanes, it may no longer hold that title. It is however, an amazing place to snorkel and is in my top five best places to snorkel. The boats take the group to an underwater trail. Unlike the one at Trunk bay on St Thomas, this one offers more for the experienced snorkeler. The formations are larger and the water deeper. This is all done from a boat. We checked out the trail and did some exploring on our own. Pretty cool.
Part of the excursion took us onto the island where we could wander or snorkel off the beach. We walked the most beautiful stretch of sand I have ever seen on any beach anywhere. Another winner.
5. Vieques of Puerto Rico
Vieques pronounced (Vee-ay'-cays) is an island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. It's about twice the size of Manhattan. It's notoriety was the fact that until 2002 the US Navy used it as a training area including use of targeting bombs. That year, they left and gave the lands over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service that now allows people to drive to the previously unused beaches on the island. These beaches bear the name Red, Blue, Purple and Green as named by the US Navy. Some areas are still off limits do to the possibility of live ordnance.
We rented a jeep like vehicle and took to the bumpy roads. This place was beautiful. Many short pull-offs went right up to the beach. Some of these pull-offs were absolutely stunning! It was like our own deserted beach. The white sand is of nice fine quality and the waters were warm, calm and clear. The distant views from some beaches of El Yunque, the rain forest of Puerto Rico were breathtaking. Snorkeling was hit and miss though I do give some helpful hints in my Vieques full review. The water was always clear but not much in coral formations.
The most important reason I have Vieques on my sea experience list is because of it's Bio-Bay. They are filled with one celled creatures called bioluminescent dinoflagellates. Whenever they are moved or agitated in any way they glow.
There are over three quarter of a million in just one gallon of the water in this bay. You can even see fish as they leave a glowing trail as they swim in the waters. You swim in the waters with them and as you raise your hand out of the water first the glow washes down the arm and then individual bright little spots can be seen trickling down the arm and into the water. This is a once in a lifetime experience that everyone should make an effort to see. A photo showing the glowing affects is at the top of the Bio Tour review.
6. Nassau, Bahamas
I've been to the Bahamas twice now. The second time has me hooked. We took a half day snorkeling trip with Stuart Cove's Aqua Adventures. It was a blast!
They first took us to one of the clearest and cleanest waters we ever were in. The coral, fans and fish were abundant and colourful It was a little deeper than I like at about 12-20 feet but the views were incredible. They then too us to an equally as interesting spot. We were so interested in the flora and fauna that we never even checked out the wreck that we were near.
The third part of this excursion was really cool. Our last stop brought us back south. This is where we received very specific instruction as to what our limits in the water are with live shark swimming some twenty to thirty feet beneath us circling a wire crate that was lowered by our crew member. The crate holds chunks of fish to attract the sharks.
Though I never felt any great thrill or feeling of really being among the abundant sharks that were just below us, it was still pretty cool watching them circling the food. It was like being at a zoo when the lions are pacing just before feeding time only here the animals were below us with nothing but water in between.
After everyone was aboard the crate was brought to the surface and the sharks continued circling it to the surface. The crate was opened and chunks of the fish were thrown onto the water's surface. It was exciting watching them make their moves to the food. The skillful maneuvering had dorsal fins break the surface and with quick moves the sharks gobbled up the bait. I suppose it was what we understand as a feeding frenzy. It was quite exciting. The day was perfect with the combo of fine clear water and colourful fauna snorkeling mixed with the splashing antics of the hungry sharks later.
7. Dry Tortugas Florida
Dry Tortugas is a US National Park South of Key West Florida. The island was named Tortugas because of the abundance of turtles (tortugas) that were found there in the 1500's By Spaniard Ponce de Leon. Though the counts have dwindled you can still spot turtles there now. These island have no fresh water source thus, they are considered dry
The island was first used as a station for a fort built to protect American Interests in that corner of the Gulf of Mexico. It was later used a a prison in the Civil War. Dr Mudd who was charged for complicity in the assassination of president Lincoln, spent time there before being pardoned.
The Fort offers tours and such that were interesting but the main reason I took the two hour 70 mile boat ride was to snorkel the island.
Then fort has a moat around it and I spent some time in very warm waters there. I particularly enjoyed the fascination of the world of the undersea as I snorkeled in the area around an old pier. The new growth and amount of fish using it as a place to live was incredible.
I also happened to be out by myself (something I don't recommend) and when over some sandy bottom area a good distance from shore some kind of fish, larger than me brushed by me and was gone in a flash. It scared the heck out of me. Just minutes later I was quietly snorkeling and then I hear the sound of an engine making its way toward me. I picked up my head looked around, but didn't see the boat. The noise was almost deafening by then and I heard a loud "thump" very close to me. I thought I was about to be run over and crushed by something. It turned out to be a seaplane landing some thirty yards away.
I headed back to shore and enjoyed some sunshine on land and the two hour trip back to Key West.
8. Stingray City Cayman Islands
My wife and I had been wanting to visit the famed Stingray City for a while. We had our opportunity as an excursion when on a Grand Caribbean cruise. Some people were warning us that we shouldn't go after Australian environmentalist Steve Irwin died from a stingray barb to the heart. I assured then that that was a fluke, perhaps wrong wording. Anyways these are different kind of animal in a different environment. We had a blast!!
A boat was set up for the excursion. A short bus ride got us to it. Once aboard we were told what to do and not do. All was easy and made sense. When we arrived at the site there were perhaps a dozen other boats there with tourists. We hopped out into about four feet of water. It's a sand bar well out from shore. The stingrays immediately made their way toward us. Some as wide as my arm span brushed up against me. My wife and a couple of friends were shrieking like school girls afraid of mice.
The scene was a lot of fun. The animals came up to me once I learned how to feed them. My wife and the others got used to these large gentle animals and they all interacted with them. We had many photos taken kissing them, holding them and more. This is another "at least once in a life time event." We loved it.
9. Cozumel, Mexico
My wife and I snorkeled Cozumel twice. They weren't our favorite snorkeling trips but I believe worth some mention. It's a very different kind of snorkeling experience. First I have to say that the Mexicans do not know what they are losing as they let so many foreigners trample their assets. There seems to be little regard as to explaining to people the importance of staying off coral.
Anyways Cozumel has part of one of the worlds longest reef, second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, just off its shores. It's considered one of the best places for diving in the world. Though it is also hailed as tops for snorkeling too, I haven't found it.
There are two reasons why I find it good but not great. The first is that much of the reef is beyond the 12-16 foot distance I think of as ideal. We were taken to specific areas that were supposedly best for snorkelers on our last trip but they weren't as shallow as we like.
The second reason I don't care for it as much is because the swimmer is always drifting. The currents move the swimmer and there is no way to simple hover an area and study it a while, letting the fish get used to your presence and coming out more.
Having said all that, I can see the draw for divers. The walls were amazing to look at and there are all kinds of fish to spot and swim with. I do some free diving and I can get down for a while. I loved that part of it. Unfortunately my wife doesn't so she was restricted in her two experiences there.
10. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Florida
Where I found Mexico squandering their natural resource of the coral reefs with over-use and not giving any instruction in reference to staying away from coral etc, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park gives excellent guidance in how to snorkel and keep the reefs alive.
They offer 2-1/2 hour excursions where safety and environment are the number one concerns. The instruction is done in an extremely professional manner and taken seriously. That I liked because some of the reefs they took us to were the prettiest I have ever seen anywhere.
The sites were not overly deep so the sun reflected off the multi-coloured fans making them look glorious. A fine assortment of fish were in the area and the waters were comfortable for the many new snorkelers with us.
We also made a stop to see Christ of the Deep, a nine foot bronze statue that is underwater. It was here that the crowds made the swimming a bit too cramped. It is a spectacular site to see. A free dive down presents excellent images. We did get our photos and moved on. This is perhaps one of the better excursions beginner snorkelers can go on. Being in the states it may also be one of the easiest to get to.
Update Feb 2008
My wife and I just returned from a week at Turks & Caicos. We found some great snorkeling on this island and well run excursions. It's now in my top two destinations along with St John, USVI.
Turks & Caicos
St. John VI The island that is quiet and pristine.
US Virgin Islands National Park This park is awesome with private beaches and fantastic snorkeling!
The Baths National Park British Virgin Islands
St Croix A visit July '06
Buck Island Reef National Monument
Vieques, Puerto Rico's Island Treasure
Island Adventures Biobay Tours
Nassau, Bahamas Straw Market, High end Shopping, and awesome snorkeling
Stuart Cove's Aqua Adventures Nassau Bahamas
Dry Tortugas National Park
Stingray City Cayman Islands
Cozumel Mexico, A Different Kind of Snorkeling
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
pops favorite boat rides in the US