Snorkeling in the Caribbean: Off the Shore or Off a Boat

Couple snorkeling off a beach of Cozumel Island.

Larry Dale Gordon / Getty Images.

Snorkeling is the easiest and cheapest way to get a good close look at the underwater wonders of the Caribbean. Pretty much anyone can put on a diving mask and breathe through a snorkel tube; add a pair of swim fins (flippers) and you really don't need to do much more than float along the surface and peer down at the marine life below. It's so simple, even small kids can do it.

You might be surprised at how much you can see while snorkeling, even right off the beach at your Caribbean resort. During a visit to the Little Dix Bay resort, for example, you may cruise right over stingrays and sea turtles as well as the usual colorful reef fish and corals.

Most resorts will loan you snorkel equipment for free, making snorkeling both the cheapest and simplest way to explore the underwater world.

You also can join a dive charter where a boat will take you out to prime snorkeling and diving spots around the island you are visiting. Charters often allow you to see unique sights like submerged wrecks and healthier reefs than you typically find around resort areas, which means more colorful coral and fish populations, as well as sharks and other larger denizens of the deep. Dive boat staff keep an eye on your safety, too, and of course there's usually free-flowing beer and a lunch provided, in addition to a scenic boat ride. What's not to like?

Learn about other undersea options too.

01 of 05

Snorkeling Tips

A woman snorkeling in clear waters
M Swiet Productions / Getty Images

A Few Tips on Snorkeling

  • If you are renting or borrowing equipment, make sure it is clean before you stick that tube in your mouth. Most dive shops will soak your gear in a mild detergent bath, but if that's not good enough for your peace of mind, bring some alcohol cleaning pads along. Or, just buy your own gear and pack it -- a mask and tube really don't take up much space.
  • There's nothing more annoying than a mask half-full of salt water, so make sure to cinch the strap on your mask tight so that no water gets in. This can be done most simply by putting the mask on your head first, loosely, then pulling the straps tight on either side of your head.
  • It may sound gross, but the easiest way to keep your mask from fogging is to spit on the lens and rub the saliva around, then dip it quickly into the water to rinse.
  • Remember to attach the snorkel tube to the mask strap to keep it upright when you are swimming and to prevent water from getting into the tube.
  • If water gets into your snorkel tube, don't panic. Just stop, raise your head above water, and either take the mouthpiece out and drain or blow out the tube to get the water out.
  • Don't be afraid of swim fins: Yes, they look dorky, and they're hard to flop around in when you are still on the boat. But they'll make a world of difference once you are in the water, especially if you're not a strong swimmer. Try to wait until the last minute before putting your fins on -- on or near the boat ladder is best; doing it in the water can be tricky.
  • Yes, you can dive with a snorkel mask! I love snorkeling around the Baths on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, but you need to dive to best appreciate the rock formations here. Just remember to take a deep breath and don't try to breathe through your snorkel tube!
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02 of 05

Sea Trek: Walk the Floor of the Caribbean Sea

Sea Trek divers at Xcaret park in Mexico

Sub Sea Systems Inc.

Sea Trek gives you the experience of visiting the ocean floor without learning how to scuba dive. However, it's much more like wearing an old-style atmospheric diving suit than scuba gear, so your movement is pretty limited. I would recommend Sea Trek as a one-time novelty -- something to do if you never plan to get certified to scuba dive. But your experience can vary widely from location to location, so be sure to get some details about your excursion before you go.

I recently did Sea Trek during a visit to Cozumel in the Mexican Caribbean, at the Chankanaab nature park. The excursion starts at the end of a pier, where your guide will give you some brief instructions about following hand signals (including how to signal if you're panicking and want to go back to the surface) and how to get into the water wearing the bulky Sea Trek diving helmet (answer: slowly).

Then it's time to put on the gear, which resembles a spacesuit helmet that sits right on your shoulders. Out of the water, it's really heavy, so you don't want to linger on the dock. (You don't get any other gear, so just wear a bathing suit.) Once you are in the water you basically just sink to the bottom, and voila, you're standing underwater!

A hose from the surface feeds air into the helmet, and the pressure keeps the water out. For breathing purposes, this works great, and the big transparent bubble around your head helps prevent you from feeling claustrophobic. It all seems fairly idiot-proof, unless you decide to intentionally remove the helmet. You do need to stay upright, of course, but it's surprisingly hard to fall down underwater.

The drawback of this system, however, is that the sound of the air being pumped into the helmet is awfully loud, so you're not exactly getting a serene, Little Mermaid type experience down there. And, even underwater the helmet makes for clumsy movements, and you still feel the weight of the thing on your shoulders.

Once the initial thrill wears off, there's also the problem -- at least at Chankanaab -- that's there's not much to see or do while you are at the bottom. You really can't stray far from the dock, your time below is limited (less than 10 minutes), and the sea bottom right off the beach is pretty barren -- sand, a few rocks, some pilings, and an occasional fish floating by. Our guide did his best to make it all seem interesting -- including scattering food to draw the fish closer -- but ... it wasn't. Certainly not for the $75-100 you'd pay for the experience.

DePalm Tours in Aruba charges less and has a special underwater walkway for Sea Trek tours that leads past a sunken Cessna airplane. That sounds better, as does the Dolphin Trek at the Xel-Ha park in the Riviera Maya. You also can find Sea Trek in the Bahamas (at the Atlantis resort), Belize, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Grand Cayman, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and -- soon -- Jamaica, at Dolphin Cove. In Mexico, the Xcaret park and other vendors in Cozumel also offer Sea Trek.

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03 of 05

Atlantis Submarine: Take a sub tour of the Caribbean Sea

Wreck of cargo ship seen from Atlantis IV submarine in Aruba.

Bob Curley

If you really don't want to bother with any gear at all but still want to see what diving below the surface is all about, check out Atlantis Adventures. This company, which has operations in Aruba, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, Curacao, Cozumel, and St. Martin, offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go down in a real submarine and view reefs, marine life, and wrecks.

It's a no muss, no fuss experience: You line up at the dock, a small tender boat takes you out to the moored sub, and a fixed gangplank allows you easy access to a hatch and stairs leading into the sub. (The climb down the stairs may be tricky if you have physical-health issues, and the sub is not handicapped-accessible.) Once inside, you take your place in two rows of seats facing a row of large glassed portholes.

It's cozy but not crowded even with 40-plus passengers aboard, and when my daughter and I took the Atlantis sub ride in Aruba we never felt like our view outside was obstructed. In fact, the views were awesome, the cabin was air conditioned, and there was really very little sensation of motion at all on this quiet, battery-powered sub -- a good thing if you are prone to motion-sickness.

The sub dives down about 130 feet and offered close-up looks at a large coral formation and a sunken ship; a handy fish-identification guide helps you figure out what's swimming by the porthole, and a digital display shows you how deep you are. The experience was well worth the $100 or so splurge -- after all, how many chances are you going to have to go down in a sub, Jules Verne style?

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04 of 05

Snuba: A Fun Introduction to Scuba Diving

Scuba divers with air hoses attached to surface float.

Sub Sea Systems Inc.

Snuba is basically scuba diving without a tank on your back; it's a great way to get introduced to the sport and to overcome any initial fears you might have about diving.

Snuba's official motto is "Go Beyond Snorkeling," and that's an apt description of an experience that falls squarely between snorkeling and scuba. Like snorkeling and scuba, you're wearing a diving mask. However, instead of a snorkel tube you have a regulator in your mouth, as with scuba. But you don't carry your own oxygen supply -- the tanks are kept on a float and the surface, and air is pumped through hoses to your regulator. No wetsuit is required, either.

For my money, this is the best alternative to scuba out there. The introductory course takes just 15 minutes, you don't need to be certified, and there's a minimal amount of gear to fuss with. If you've never done scuba before, the biggest mental challenge likely will be getting used to breathing through the regulator. The first time I did Snuba -- in Little Bay, St. Maarten, with Blue Bubbles -- I had my moment of panic once I put my head down into the water ... until I realized that I didn't have to dive, and I could take my time to relax and breathe while I was still paddling on the surface near the float. After that, it was great -- for the first time I had the thrill of diving 30 feet down under the water (don't forget to pop your ears to relieve the pressure) like those scuba divers I always envied while I was snorkeling up above.

Snuba prices vary from destination to destination but were relatively inexpensive in Cozumel -- a great deal for the experience you get. Anyone ages 8 and up can Snuba, and there's also a special "Snuba Doo" program for younger kids.

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05 of 05

Scuba: The Real Deal for Diving in the Caribbean

Meet a sea turtle while diving in Saba!

Saba Tourist Board

The Caribbean is one of the diving capitals of the world, and there's no better place to learn how to scuba dive. Scuba diving has by far the steepest learning curve of all Caribbean diving experiences, but the rewards include the ability to dive deeper and longer than anyone else and to explore shipwrecks and other underwater sights shared by relatively few other people. For many, an introduction to scuba marks the beginning of a lifetime love affair with a challenging but thrilling sport.

Many Caribbean hotels offer a "resort course" that serves as a beginner's class in scuba; if you stay at an all-inclusive resort, the course may even be included in the cost of your stay (otherwise, it typically will cost less than $50). Dive shops -- which are located wherever there is water in the Caribbean, meaning virtually every island) -- also offer introductory dive courses. These 2-3 hour courses consist of lecture, a session in the hotel pool to get used to the scuba equipment and rules of the sport, and finally a real dive in the ocean.

Later, you can visit a dive shop certified by the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) to continue your scuba education, starting with your Open Water Diver certification, which you'll need to dive with a charter tour in the Caribbean. There's more information on scuba and certification at the Scuba site.

Top dive sites in the Caribbean include Saba, Bonaire, Turks and Caicos, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, among others. There also are a number of dive resorts that combine multiple dive excursions with the cost of your stay, such as the famous Captain Don's Habitat on Bonaire.