Want to snorkel with whale sharks, sea turtles or humpback whales? Or maybe float above underwater statues like Christ the Abyss?
Whether you're an avid snorkeler looking for a big adventure, or consider yourself a beginner, this list has something for everyone. Grab a mask and dive into some of the best places for snorkeling in the world.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Technically, nature can't deliver a sure-thing when it comes to animal encounters, but Isla Mujeres, found 9 miles offshore of Cancun, Mexico, is as good as it gets. June through August, the turquoise waters are thick with the spawn of bonito tuna becoming a buffet for whale sharks, the world's largest fish at up to 41½ feet long. Local tour operators can drop you in the path of these fish, allowing encounters that can sometimes last up to 20 minutes. This area is also home to two underwater statue parks filled with more than 500 life-size sculptures in 12 to 20 feet of water.
If you followed the coverage of Hurricane Irma in September 2017, you might expect that the reefs of Key Largo suffered damage. Thankfully, this upper Florida Key was within the eye of the storm, and thus the reefs were largely spared any consequence. The high-profile corals of Molasses Reef, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, are still surrounded by cruising nurse sharks, Southern stingrays, and several species of turtles including loggerhead, green and hawksbill. The famed Christ of the Abyss statue, found at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, is also unharmed and the park is accepting visitors.
Glovers Reef Atoll, Belize
The best snorkel reefs start shallow, and few are shallower than Glovers Reef Atoll. At low tide, coral heads pop from the sea, visible to beachgoers at the private-island Off the Wall Dive Center and Resort. Don a mask and jump in to witness the rainbow of reds, yellows and purples of the hard and soft corals, and thriving marine life. You don't need to cover much ground to encounter diversity. Here, the best tactic is to hover above a patch of reef and check out the hundreds of species, from blenny fish, each only 3 inches long, to toadfish, a pancake-flat, whiskered bottom-dweller that betrays its hiding spots when emitting a loud croak.
The experience of witnessing the parade of big marine life finning along the edge of a reef wall tends to be limited to certified scuba divers. Off the island of Little Cayman, the Bloody Bay Wall starts at a snorkeler-friendly depth of 18 feet, then plummets like the side of a skyscraper to 6,000 feet. Even at 18 feet, you’ll encounter eagle rays, sea turtles and Nassau grouper, a 17-inch species beloved by dive guides for its Labrador-Retriever-like personality.
In Hawaii, green sea turtles, known locally as honu, are revered, believed to be the embodiment of guardian spirits. They're also thought to be good luck — funny because they're found on every Kona beach. In the water, sightings of this reptile are super common in the town of Kailua-Kona at Kahaluu Beach Park, a tiny bay with minimal waves. Or try the site Two-Step, a 30-minute drive south of town. Here, you'll meet turtles, as well as schools of yellow tang, butterfly- and surgeonfish, plus seals and dolphins. Visit here and you'll quickly learn why Hawaii offers some of the best places for snorkeling in the World.
Koh Kradan, Thailand
Interested in snorkeling in the South Pacific? The quiet island of Koh Kradan, off Thailand's west coast in the Andaman Sea, is home to Hat Chao Mai National Park where you can snorkel atop untouched corals and beds of anemones, home to tons of clownfish. The island itself offers accommodation, albeit the rustic variety. Those seeking a more posh experience can bed down on the nearby island of Koh Lanta and take a day trip.
Grand Turk and Salt Cay, Turks and Caicos Islands
Year-round, the 100-foot in-water visibility is enough to lure snorkelers to the reefs of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Winter only sweetens the pot: December through February, scores of humpback whales come to the Caribbean to mate or give birth, and the Columbus Passage between the islands of Grand Turk and Salt Cay is on their migratory route. This stretch, shallow and warm, is an ideal training grounds for momma to teach baby about breathing and other whale-life basics making it also ideal to behold greatness underwater.
This temperate Dutch island is beloved by divers for good reason. It lies outside the hurricane belt, and it was the first Caribbean island to designate its coasts and reefs a marine park sanctuary. Together, these protections have preserved the surrounding corals, resulting in reefs that remain the most colorful in the region. Moreover, of Bonaire's 89 dive sites, 63 are reachable from the shore. The sites on the northern half of the island are preferable for snorkelers, as there are fewer surges, and the reef plateau starts between 2 and 10 feet deep. Top snorkel sites include Andrea I, Witch's Hut and 1,000 steps — so named for the staircase to the water. Fear not: It's really just 78 steps, but the name keeps the crowds away.
Many people make the pilgrimage to Fiji to worship reefs resplendent in forests of lush, soft corals. But here’s the catch: you can’t necessarily find the best snorkeling spots near every island throughout the chain. Our top pick in the whole country is Somosomo Strait, found between the islands of Taveuni and Vanua Levu. And, yes, reefs do encircle the islands starting from shore, but to access the best of the best, namely Rainbow Reef, a boat tour is a must.
North Sulawesi, Indonesia
The reefs of Indonesia are everything any Blue Planet watcher might expect: nonstop riots of colorful coral obscured by curtains of fish. Top of the list for snorkelers would be Kungkungan Bay Resort, in the Lembeh Strait, just north of the island of Sulawesi. This hideaway resort is favored for a house reef accessible from shore, where water babies can spy scads of exotic life, from blue-ribbon eels to cuttlefish. Plus, this resort practically invented the scuba phenomenon known as muck diving, aka checking out the wild, unusual critters that live amid the black sand muck. If you can get past the ugly factor of the bottom, as a snorkeler, you can also behold seahorses, leaf fish, pipefish, bobtail squid, flamboyant squid, blue-ringed octopi the list goes on and on.