Not all of us are quite ready to strap on the tanks and pretend to be Jacque Cousteau. Unlike diving, snorkeling is easy to learn, the equipment is cheap and drinking is usually involved.
This Island just off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula has been a hotspot for diving and snorkeling for years. For the newbie, Chankanaab National Park is an easy intro to snorkeling, especially for first-time kids. Located just a few miles southwest from the cruise ship docks, it’s a fun, safe, family- friendly park that also offers swimming with the dolphins. Just remember something I had not thought of: dolphins poop in the water. I’m not sure where I thought they did their business, but I wasn’t expecting it to be on me.
If you are just a hair more adventurous though, head further south on the island to any of the dirt road turnoffs toward the beach and you’ll find smaller, mom and pop type operations. These are on small boats and they take you a bit out on the water to snorkel on top of the Palancar Reef. Not only is it very reasonably priced, but if you have a blonde teenage daughter with you, the service will become so much more attentive.
Mexico: Yucatan Peninsula
South of Playa del Carmen you can snorkel right off the beach at some resorts. The Barceló Maya resort complex has an excellent little reef right off the beach. You can also take a Fat Cat Catamaran tour out of Puerto Aventuras that takes you back toward Playa to some amazing shallow water snorkeling. They also will show you how to flip your life jacket upside down, wear it like a diaper and float in the water while drinking beer. Now that’s something Jacques Cousteau never taught.
Negril is on the party side (southwest end) of the island and the best side for water sports. Ocho Rios, on the north, central side of the island is a bit more of a lush, tropical paradise but the reefs are not quite as colorful, nor are the fish as bountiful. The Negril area has the most all-inclusive resorts, bars and nightclubs and of course, Ricks Café. Take a boat out from Seven Mile Beach- which is actually about 4 miles long, no worries, no problem mon- and enjoy one of the most eye-popping, beautiful reefs you will find in the Caribbean. Some tours take you to Booby Cay which is worth visiting just to say you’ve been to a place called Booby Cay. Snorkeling on the other end of Negril, further south east will take you to the cliffs and caves near Ricks. You can watch the cliff divers at Ricks and some tours even drop you off if you are crazy enough to try it yourself.
The Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I.)
If you’re staying on St. Thomas, the main island with the biggest city, Charlotte Amalie, you can do a day-sail over to St John which is just right up the street, (a term land-lubbers would use.) While the water in the whole Virgin Island chain is just about the clearest, blue water you’ll find, unfortunately the reefs have taken a beating. They are still lovely but disease and hurricanes have dulled them a bit. The fish are abundant but the coral around St John and St James islands didn’t seem as vibrant as Jamaica or Mexico for that matter. St James island has a Barracuda named of course “Barry,” in one favorite snorkeling hole and looks to be battle weary, but is non-threatening. That is good since Barracudas are basically all teeth and will scare the heck out of you if they’re hanging around the ladder off the side of the boat.
The Virgin Islands (B.V.I.)
You may choose to tour the islands on a power boat excursion such as Pirate’s Penny or Stormy Petrel located in Redhook on St. Thomas. The Baths on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands (B.V.I) are famous rock formations, grottos, caves and hideouts for many a pirate in the day. It’s really not a snorkeling stop as far as coral reefs or abundant fish go but you will find the water refreshing and you’ll get to use your pirate accent without annoying anyone. Well, besides the tour guides who hear it all day, or the Wife who has had to deal with it all week
Though also not a snorkel spot, a stop to the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke (B.V.I.) is a good way to end your day. It’s called The Soggy Dollar because you have to swim to the beach from your boat, so your dollars will get soggy; clever huh? You don’t need your snorkel gear to get to or from this beach bar but may want to bring it along for the swim back to your boat after a few of their famous painkiller cocktails.
The water is so blue and clear there but I just realized I’ve said that about all these spots. Almost anywhere in the Caribbean has amazingly clear water and as long as there is something underneath to attract fish such as coral reefs, shipwrecks or even just rocks, the snorkeling will be great. Many of the cruise ships have private island stops in the Bahamas where the snorkeling is fine. This is especially true if your idiot friend is tossing barbeque chicken in the water to give you a better “experience.” Did I mention about the shark infested waters? There was also a plethora of jellyfish coming out in the afternoon which made me squeal like a young girl in terror, if I could squeal underwater. That does remind me though of one last tip: listen to the local experts on when and where is a good time to jump in.
By Michael Ryan