Looking for the best snorkeling in the Caribbean? There are over 7,000 islands in the Caribbean and plenty of gorgeous beaches and resorts draw snorkeling enthusiasts from around the world. In this article we will look at the top Caribbean snorkeling destinations.
A Caribbean cruise can mean many things to different people. Some are attracted to the duty-free shopping, others to the local culture. And of course, there are the beaches and water sports. As you prepare for your Caribbean cruise you may see many shore excursions that include snorkeling.
The Caribbean is the most popular destination in the world for snorkeling. It is an amazing activity that just about anyone can try. Unlike scuba diving which requires formal and expensive training, snorkeling is easy to learn and does not require much time to learn.
If you have never tried snorkeling, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Here is a list of some of the best islands for snorkeling in the Caribbean with an overview of snorkeling at that destination.
Read, enjoy and dream.
The Islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao are called the ABC islands. They are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and you can visit them on Southern Caribbean Cruises.
Aruba is a small island about 20 miles long and just 6 miles wide at its widest point. The island is surrounded by a fringing reef. A fringing reef is one that starts near shore, often touching the shore. The area between the reef and shore is called a lagoon, it will be shallow and often calm. Past the reef may be deeper and subject to currents.
There are several outstanding beaches, ten of which are also known for snorkeling. Snorkelers have the option of entering from a beach or taking a snorkeling trip by boat.
Here is a sample of some best:
- Arashi beach is one of the top beaches with snorkeling, it is located on the north side of the island. You can take a bus from outside the cruise port to the beach. This site rates as one of the best for beginner snorkelers as the lagoon has plenty of marine life and no currents. A mix of soft and hard corals, sea fans and small tropical fish are the highlights here. But do keep an eye out for patches of sea grasses. Arashi beach frequently has sea turtles visiting, and they like the sea grasses. Experience snorkelers will also love this site, outside the fringing reef are currents and larger fish. You must bring your own gear is you plan to visit here, there are no snorkeling vendors at the beach.
- Boca Catalina is a short walk south of Arashi Beach. It is a thousand-foot-long white sand beach in a protective cove. The reef runs parallel to the shore with a maximum depth of about 15 feet. The best marine life is found at the reef.
- Mangel Halto is located in the south of the island. It too can be reached by public transportation. This site has amazing marine life, including rays. While the reef is still a fringing reef, the outer portion has a wall that drops to 110 feet. Currents can be strong outside of the reef and should only be tried by experienced snorkelers who are strong swimmers. This site is more open than the others mentioned, and the conditions can become rough. Inside the lagoon, you may also encounter swells. There are few tourist here but is a favorite among the locals. If you are up to the challenge, this may be the best snorkeling in Aruba.
This is another of the ABC Islands in the Southern Caribbean. Bonaire is considered to be the shore diving capital of the world. If you were to rent a vehicle, the most common option is a pickup truck with boots to hold scuba tanks in the truck’s bed. There are even drive-in service centers to get a filled scuba tank that are open 24 hours a day.
The entire coast line of Bonaire is a marine park. Bonaire has 65 dive sites, with another 25 on Klein Bonaire, a small island just off the Bonaire. To show how much shore diving is loved, the road maps of Bonaire list the dive sites. As you drive along the road near the shore, you will see rocks painted white with a number also painted on it. Those numbers correspond to the road maps. The road map also highlights a dozen of the dive sites that are recommended for snorkeling and another dozen on Klein Bonaire.
The most popular snorkeling site is the site named 1,000 steps, number 16 on the road map. It is located about 3 miles from the cruise port. Contrary to the name, there are only 70 steps from the road down to the shore line. It just feels like a thousand steps to the scuba divers returning from a dive. The shore line is mostly rocky with a small stretch of sand. When you enter the water you will have a sandy bottom with water less than 5 feet for about 25 feet. Then the water gets a little deeper and the reef starts. Over the reef the maximum depth is 20 feet, the visibility on the site is normally around 100 feet.
A snorkeler from a cruise ship may find that Klein Bonaire is perfect for them. The island is within sight of the cruise terminal, and a water taxi can take you to the island’s No Name Beach. The portion of the island facing Bonaire (east and south) has a dozen snorkeling sites. These are all protected waters and are teeming with coral and marine life. Visibility is seldom less than 100 feet. Visitors are only allowed on the shores; the interior portion of the island is a restricted sanctuary. Bring what you will need for the day as there are no vendors on the island.
Your cruise ship will arrive at Georgetown on Grand Cayman Island and anchor off shore. Georgetown harbor is very shallow so a tender will take you to shore. As you come into the harbor, you will be able to see a wonderful reef. The Cayman Islands market themselves as the 365 dive site destination. You can dive a different site every day for a year. These sites are a mix of shore dives and boat dives, with many of the shore dives suitable for snorkeling. Travel times to some destinations on Grand Cayman Island can be a challenge for the cruise passenger.
- Stingray City is one of the best experiences on the island. Stingray City is a series of shallow sandbars in the North Sound of Grand Cayman. The story is that decades ago, fisherman would come into the sound to sort and clean their catch. The waste was thrown into the waters. Southern stingrays would come and feed on this free feast. Today, hundreds of tourist are the ones feeding the stingrays. The stingrays will take small pieces of fish from the snorkelers hand. The waters are calm and the snorkelers normally stay in water shallow enough to stand in. This is best done as a shore excursion and can be combined with the turtle farm snorkeling.
- “Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter”. This center is the only one in the world to bred green turtles in captivity. Some turtles are allowed to hatch naturally on a beach from a nest, while others are held longer. Most turtle in the wild are eaten while they are young. The center keeps some turtles in a lagoon until they are a year old and their chance of survival is higher. Snorkelers are allowed to join these young turtles. Some of these turtles will be held longer and sold for meat. This is done to lessen the temptation of poaching.
- Seven Mile Beach is the most popular beach destination the Cayman Islands and is often ranked as one of the best beaches in the world. The beach is home to the majority of the resorts and hotels. However, the beach is wide as well as long so it never seems to be crowded. The water is calm and visibility is outstanding. Snorkelers will have a great view of the marine life below them.
- The Wreck of the Cali is located in Georgetown harbor near the fisherman’s market. The wreck is in 25 feet of water about 150 feet off shore. Because of the distance from shore, this site is for more experienced snorkeler who are good swimmers.
See the best things to do in the Cayman Islands on a cruise.
Costa Maya, Mexico
The Port of Costa Maya is a fairly new one, and it is often called a manufactured port. As you look out at the port from the ship, there is little to see. Before the port was built, there was not much tourism here. There are some outstanding Maya ruins within a hours drive and a water park has been built (by the cruise lines). The Maya ruins are very interesting and well worth a look in you are interested in the local culture. Native Choice tours (https://www.thenativechoice.com/ ) offers excellent tours to the different ruins and will drop you off at the beaches if you ask.
Just a short distance down the coast from the port is the small town of Mahahual. A three dollar tram ride will take you to the heart of this peaceful town. The town is becoming popular for scuba divers and snorkelers, however, it does not have many hotels. The reason for the popularity is that the Barrier Reef is very close off shore. Divers and snorkelers can take boats to the outer reefs in minutes. T
here is another reason why it is popular. There are reefs that are just a two or three minute swim from the beach. The crystal clear waters, the calm conditions and the multitude of marine life makes this some of the best shore dives/snorkeling area in the Caribbean. There are public beaches and there are some beach clubs that offer meals and unlimited drinks for a reasonable price. The website for Mahahual ( https://mahahualmexico.com/ ) has information about local businesses.
Cozumel is an island off the Yucatán Peninsula near Playa del Carmen, and the most popular cruise port in Caribbean Mexico. Between these two points is the northern part of the Mesoamerican Reef System. The Mesoamerican Reef System is about 700 miles long and runs from the Yucatán Peninsula down to Honduras and includes the Belize Barrier Reef. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest reef in the world.
Visits to the Mesoamerican Reef will require a boat, and it is recommended for more advance snorkelers due to the possibility of currents. However, the island has many coral reefs around it and you can view many of them within a short swim from a beach. All snorkeling sites are on the west side of the island. The east side has strong currents and high seas. Many of the hotels will allow entrance to their beaches and snorkeling for a small consumable fee. Here are some snorkeling sites to consider.
- The Money Bar Beach Club at Dzul Ha, is one of the best places to snorkel in Cozumel. It is located about five minutes from the cruise terminal and has no consumable fee. If you do not have your own gear, you can rent it here. There is also lockers you can rent for your valuables. The beach is rocky, however, there are ramps and ladders that can take you directly into the water.
- Palancar Reef is an off shore reef so it can only be reached by boat. It is a 45-minute boat ride from the cruise terminal. It is one of the best reefs of the Mesoamerican reef system.
- Palancar Beach itself is a good location for snorkeling. It is about a 20-minute drive from the cruise port and does not get the massive waves of cruise passengers other beaches do. You can also get a boat here if you do wish to go to the reef.
RELATED: 20 Best Things to do in Cozumel
Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras is another very popular port. The Bay Islands are located in the Caribbean off the coast of the country’s mainland. The most popular activities for this port call are the water sports and beaches. Roatan is about 38 miles north to south and only about 5 miles wide. The island has two cruise ship terminals, Coxen Hole, also called Town Center at Port of Roatan and Mahogany Bay Cruise Center. Carnival cruise lines and its subsidiaries call at Mahogany Bay, all others call at Town Center.
The economy of Roatan relies heavily on tourism. This comes primarily from cruise ship passengers, divers and snorkelers. Many divers and snorkelers will rent waterfront properties and snorkel right from their own beach. For those visiting on a cruise ship consider these areas:
- West Bay Beach has frequently appeared on list of the best beaches in the Caribbean. West Bay Beach’s sands are soft, white and dotted with palm trees. A fringing reef is just a couple of minutes swim away. There is even a set of signs underwater indicating the best direction to go for snorkelers.
- French Harbor with French Key and Little French Key are outstanding destinations for enjoying the beach and water. This area offers pristine reefs that are teeming with marine life. The two keys have private resorts that are frequent by cruise passengers and includes transportation from and to the cruise ports.
- East End is not as frequently visited by the cruise ship passengers and offers a very relaxing atmosphere. The two small Cow and Calf Cays offer outstanding conditions. Boat trips also visit here.
Poverty is high in Roatan and the infrastructure is poor. If you are out on your own, you will be bothered by beggars. If you are not going by a shore excursion, it is best to arrange transportation ahead of time.
Saint Kitts and Nevis is a two-island nation that is part of the Leeward Islands chain of the Lesser Antilles. The Lesser Antilles are a portion of the boundary between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Saint Kitts is the larger of the islands and the city of Basseterre is where the cruise ships call. Saint Kitts is not as well known for snorkeling because the shore line is very rocky and there are few beaches. That said there are several shore snorkeling sites worth visiting and some deep snorkeling sites accessible by boats. Advance snorkelers who are strong swimmers will enjoy the drop off along the reefs.
- Sandy Point National Marine Park is one of the best dive sites in the Eastern Caribbean. It has outstanding coral formations and marine life. It is also well protected from the rough seas that the more exposed areas have. Snorkelers will find that the features that attract the divers are available to them as well. The visibility here is great, so snorkelers have great views even in deeper water.
- White House Bay is about 5 miles Southeast of Central Basseterre where the cruise ships dock. The beach here is very rocky so it is not very popular for swimming. The snorkeling is outstanding and there are a couple of wrecks that can be explored.
- Frigate Bay is located on the Atlantic side of the island. This is a great location to explore on a shore excursion due to conditions varying.
Saint Martin is part of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean Sea and visited on Eastern Caribbean and some southern Caribbean cruises. It comprises 2 separate countries, divided between its northern French side, called Saint-Martin, and its southern Dutch side, Sint Maarten. The island of Saint Martin is only 34 square miles in size.
The widest portion of the island is 9.3 miles east from Point du Plum to Orleans, and furthest distance north and south is 6.42 miles from Grand Case, St. Martin to Fort Amsterdam, Sint Maarten. Despite the small size the island has 36 miles of coast line and 37 beaches.
Snorkelers will find over a dozen location to explore from the shore and more with short boat rides. You can find an overview of the best snorkeling sites here.
Caribbean Cruise Private Island Ports.
Many of the Eastern and Western Caribbean cruise departing from Florida will include a stop in the Bahamas. These port calls are on private islands. You will likely want to try snorkeling when your ship calls on these private islands. The private island concept has been around almost as long as vacation cruises. The cruise lines buy or lease an island, then develop an infrastructure that will support the passengers from the ship. These islands are exclusively for the guest of the cruise ship.
The typical island will have three or four beaches, water sports, bars and food service. The crew prepare and serve the ship’s food. Think typical BBQ/ picnic food. Tons of BBQ Chicken, Ribs, hamburgers and hot dogs, along with salads and desserts. Harvest Caye in Belize is the exception to free food. They have branches of local restaurants where you can purchase your meals, or you can walk back to the ship.
The leading cruise lines having their own islands:
- Castaway Cay, Bahamas – Disney Cruise Line
- Half Moon Cay, Bahamas – Holland America Line
- Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas – Norwegian Cruise Line
- Princess Cays, Bahamas – Princess Cruises
- CocoCay, Bahamas – Royal Caribbean
- Labadee, Hispaniola – Royal Caribbean
- Harvest Caye, Belize – Norwegian Cruise Line
The Caribbean is not the only destinations with outstanding snorkeling. Cruises from California to Catalina Island and the Mexican Rivera offers some outstanding snorkeling. You might even be able to snorkel with school bus size whale shark.
Hawaiian cruise also takes you to destinations with perfect snorkeling. And who could resistance spending time in the Greek isles watching the marine life, or anywhere else in the Med. Having tried snorkeling a few times, you may find yourself including snorkeling sites as part of the criteria for your next vacation.