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Snorkeling in the Caribbean: The 5 Healthiest Marine Ecosystems in the Region

The Caribbean Sea is iconic for having some of the clearest water in the world. This is due to a lack of plankton and other suspended particles, combined with the relative shallowness of the Caribbean compared to other large tropical seas and oceans.

While not nearly as biodiverse as their counterparts in the Indo-Pacific, and definitely not as impressive when it comes to macro and muck diving, there are still plenty of great offshore and off-the-beach snorkeling and diving destinations in the Caribbean. 

One thing to keep in mind when it comes to snorkeling in the Caribbean is that climate change and frequent highly destructive hurricanes have destroyed some 80 percent of Caribbean reefs. Anyone who has been visiting Caribbean reefs over the last couple of decades can attest to the devastation. 

Despite that, there is still some awe-inspiring snorkeling in the Caribbean, where coral and fish populations are relatively healthy.

The below article isn’t just a list of places in the region you can snorkel and dive. It is a list of the remaining healthy marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, where there is still spectacular marine life to be seen. 

I wanted to put together a resource for snorkelers (and divers) whose Caribbean travel plans are largely concerned with spending a lot of time exploring marine ecosystems.

This is not one of those “best places to rent a full-face snorkel mask and putter around some coral rubble with 1000 other tourists” articles. It is a carefully curated list of the handful of places that remain in the Caribbean where you actually get to experience and witness relatively thriving coral reef ecosystems.

While there is no comparing what survives today with the comparatively unbleached, unfished, less algae-covered, less polluted coral reefs of the pre-21st century, there is still beautiful diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean to be done. 

They are: 


Belize: The Mecca of Snorkeling in the Caribbean

Belize offers premier snorkeling in the Caribbean

It wouldn’t be right to begin a list of the best remaining marine ecosystems and snorkeling in the Caribbean anywhere other than Belize. 

Despite suffering bleaching and coral loss over the course of the 21st century, Belize still maintains its reputation as one of the best places to go diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean (and the world).

Its hundreds of kilometres of barrier reef, the country’s reliance on dive tourism and myriad protected areas make Belize a must-see for anyone, digital nomad or otherwise, interested in seeing the world’s remaining marine biodiversity hotspots. 

Belize is such a snorkeling and diving mecca that it deserves an article of its own. There are almost too many atolls and marine reserves in Belize to mention, so instead, I’ve chosen 4 of my favourite spots. All 4 of them offer, without a doubt, some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean. 

Glover’s Atoll

Glover’s Atoll is the beating heart of the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve–a world heritage site and one of the best snorkeling destinations anywhere in the Caribbean. Isolation and exceptionally clear water has allowed coral colonies to establish themselves to depths of 300 feet. 

The reef’s around Glover’s Atoll are very nice, and you will definitely see the usual cast of Caribbean reef fish, but it’s the megafauna that draws most divers to this spot. Blacktip reef sharks, eagle rays, bottlenose dolphins, and mantas are common sights around Golver’s. 

Getting There

Your hotel or dive resort typically provides transportation to Glover’s Atoll, which is a 3-hour boat ride from Belize City or two hours from the smaller towns of Hopkins, Placencia or Dangriga. 

Accommodations 

As far as I know, there are only two accommodation options on Glover’s Atoll: Manta Island Resort and Glover’s Atoll Resort.

Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Directly off the coast of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a thriving five-square-mile marine ecosystem.

Large colonies of healthy elkhorn and brain coral, large schools of jack and barracuda, and massive grouper (even a few Nassau Groupers) are the main attractions at Hol Chan. 

If you come during the wet season (June-November), you will probably see manatees grazing the seagrass beds in the shallow parts of the reserve.

Hol Chan means “little channel” in Mayan, and it is the main passage to the outer edge of Belize’s barrier reef. It has been a protected area since 1987–no fishing, no anchoring, no touching coral–which is why it continues to be some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean. 

Getting There

You can get to Hol Chan Marine Reserve either from Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker. Alternatively, it is also possible to reach this snorkeling spot from Belize City. 

Accommodations 

You can check out accommodation options on Hol Chan here

Turneffe Atoll

There are four true atolls in the world–a circular barrier reef that either fully or partially protects a lagoon–and Belize is home to 3 of them.

One of the main draws of an atoll is the megafauna, which gathers around the steep (up to 3000 foot) drop-offs at the edge of the reef. 

The gorgeous vertical walls are where the reef fish live, with open ocean predators like tuna, barracuda, jack and sharks patrolling the perimeter.

Tuneffe is Belize’s most recently designated protected area, covering 300 square miles, all of which are open for snorkeling and diving.

Spectacular coral diversity, large schools of fish, turtles, sharks and other open ocean predators are all common around Turneffe. There are few places where you can snorkel in the Caribbean and see this kind of abundance and vibrancy. 

Getting There

You can get to Turneffe Atoll either by boat (1.5 hours from Belize City), or you can charter a plane from Belize City (20 mins)

Accommodations 

You can check out accommodation options on Turneffe Atoll here

South Water Caye Marine Reserve

Located in the far south of Belize, near the Guatemalan border, this is one of the largest marine protected areas in the country, covering nearly 50,000 hectares of coastal and mangrove ecosystems.

People come to this spot for wall dives and snorkeling, especially for macro life like nudibranchs, gobies, and crustaceans, and to marvel at the sheer numbers of pelagic (open ocean) fish that congregate along the reef’s outer walls, including both reef and silky sharks.

If you come in April and May, you also stand a chance of seeing Whale Sharks.

Getting There

Because South Water Caye is quite a bit further south than the other three destinations above, it is usually reached by boat (40 minutes) from Dangriga town, rather than Belize City. To get to Dangriga town from Belize City, you can either take a domestic flight on Tropic Air or Maya Island Air, or you can bus (3.5 hours). 

Check out flights between Belize City and Dangriga Town here. 

Accommodations 

You can check out accommodation options on South Water Caye Marine Reserve here


Bonaire

Bonaire is the smallest of the ABC islands (AKA the Neth-Antilles) located off the northwest coast of Venezuela, and in 2011, it was referred to by the environmental news and analysis website The Ecologist as “The Last Healthy Coral Reef in the Caribbean.” 

Since 2011, the island’s coral reefs have been struck by both hurricanes and the omnipresent bleaching events that happen throughout the Caribbean (and the world), but for most of the 20th century, Bonaire got away unscathed by coral-killing hurricanes. 

Bonaire is also flat and arid, which means very little coral-killing runoff, and in a region that has been absolutely devastated by overfishing, Bonaire was lucky to become an international diving destination early on, meaning that fishing was heavily regulated long before most other places in the region.

Since 1979, in fact, all of the island’s fringing reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves have been considered protected areas. Every visitor to the marine park must purchase the $25 nature tag that is typically purchasable through most local dive shops. 

The bottom line is that island’s largest source of outside income has been and continues to be diving, meaning you are likely to see more reef fish in Bonaire than on any other large Caribbean island, and the snorkelling is easily accessible just offshore. 

What’s more, because there are relatively healthy populations of algae grazers like parrot fish and surgeonfish, the algae that take over dead coral is removed, opening up space for new coral polyps to form and grow. 

Go to pretty much any scuba forum and search for conversations about Bonaire, and the consensus tends to be that this is some of, if not the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean (and definitely the southern Caribbean) and one of the most popular shore diving destinations in the world. 

Below are some of the best places to snorkel on Bonaire: 

  • 1000 Steps
  • Karpata
  • Te Amo Beach
  • Cliff
  • Buddy Dive
  • Windstock 
  • 18th Palm
  • 1000 steps

This video was shot with the GoPro Hero 7. It’s an older model at this point, but it has been one of my favourite underwater cameras for snorkeling.

The newer models are definitely superior in terms of the tech, but I’ve found they overheat, so I’ll sacrifice the 5K and fps for the 7, which still has very impressive 4k and reliability.

The majority of the snorkeling spots on Bonaire feature narrow fringing reef, which starts basically at the shore and extend out 100m or so to steep dropoffs.

While coral health varies, Bonaire still has some of the richest diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean, and it’s easy to access. 

Windstock, Buddy Dive, Cliff and 18th Palm are the best spots close to the capital of Kralendijk. Te Amo Beach, which sits directly in front of the airport, is one of the best spots for beginners.

If you had north of town you will reach the famous 1000 Steps, which is usually a good place to see turtles, and Karapata, which has a lot of still healthy staghorn coral (a rarity in the Caribbean). 

Acropora cervicornis, Haemulon flavolineatum y Chromis multilineata en Bonaire, Antillas Holandesas. Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble.

Up north, you will also find great off-the-beach snorkeling spots in Andrea 1 and 2, Nuklove and Petries Pillar. If you make your way south of Kralendijk, Tori’s Reef, Red Beryl North, Salt Pier and Yellow hut are also fantastic. 

Heading over to the east coast, you’ve got places like Lac Bay/Sorobon Beach, which provides a semi-enclosed bay fringed by a protective barrier reef where you can see more relatively healthy staghorn coral colonies, as well as Lac Cai at the far north of the inlet, where sea turtles come into the seagrass beds to feed and rest. 

Bonaire features one of the most diverse and well-preserved marine ecosystems in the Caribbean, and all of the sites are easy to get to, which is why it is consistently ranked as some of, if not the best snorkeling in the Caribbean. 

There are over 55 species of both hard and soft corals to be found, more than 350 fish species, as well as green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles in relative abundance. If you are serious about diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean, Bonaire should be at the top of your list of places to see before it’s too late. 

Getting There

To get to Bonaire, you can either fly direct from Amsterdam (with seasonal flights from Brussels), or you have to connect through either Aruba or Curacao. If you’re flying from anywhere outside of Amsterdam or Brussels, that is how you’ll have to do it. 

Where to Stay

While getting to Bonaire is more expensive than Curacao or Aruba, once there, it’s actually purported to be a bit less expensive than Aruba. There are plenty of accommodation options to fit different budgets once on Bonaire, from luxury boutique hotels to humbler guest houses and Airbnbs. 

If you want to be as close as possible to the diving and snorkeling spots, you will want to be on the island’s protected West coast. Check out accommodation options here


Tela, Honduras

On Honduras’ northeast coast, at the southern end of the great Meso-American reef, lies the town of Tela. With 70 percent reef cover (some of the highest anywhere in the Caribbean) and incredible biodiversity, Tela offers the intrepid traveller some of the best snorkeling in the Caribbean. 

This video put together by the Tela Marine Research Centre, while shot in 2016, gives you a good idea of the insane coral coverage you can expect in the area. You would be hard pressed to find similar-sized colonies of table coral anywhere else in the Caribbean. 

Getting to Tela involves a bit of a jaunt, and the snorkeling and diving are offshore, but if you are serious about experiencing the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean, then Tela, and particularly Tela Bay, should be on your list. 

The reefs around Tela are visited by marine biologists from around the world looking to see an example of a balanced reef ecosystem and are the closest thing to a time machine divers have. This is what the Caribbean used to look like. 

Much of the reason for this has to do with the presence of Long-Spined Sea Urchins–important algae eaters–which experienced a mysterious mass die-off throughout the Caribbean in 1983 that reefs still haven’t recovered from. For some reason, these urchins were more resistant around Tela and the reef shows it. 

Now a Marine Wildlife Refuge, Tela undoubtedly has one of, if not the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean, and therefore some of the best snorkeling in the Caribbean.

Getting There

The fastest way to get to Tela is to fly to the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second largest city and then hire an airport cab to take you to Tela. It’s about an hour and a half ride and should cost you around $75. 

Accommodation

Once there, there are plenty of hotel and Airbnb options for all budgets. You can check out accommodation options in Tela here


Providencia (of San Andrés and Providencia), Colombia

Colombia is not usually touted as an epicentre of diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean, despite having some respectable places off the coast of Tayrona National Park, Capurgana and Sapzurro–close to the Panamanian border–, and the Islas del Rosario just off Cartagena.

The real jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean snorkeling requires a plane ride to the sparsely populated island of Providencia. 

Providencia is part of the massive UNESCO Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, is home to around 5,000 people (many of whom had to be evacuated after Hurricane Iota) and is still recovering from that disaster.

Thankfully, the damage to Providencia’s reef following the 2020 hurricane was not structural and most of the sites surveyed by the Bulletin of Marine and Coastal Research showed only low to low-medium damage, which means it is still one of the best places to snorkel in the Caribbean. 

It is also undoubtedly one of the best places to spot Caribbean reef sharks, which are essentially a guarantee on most dive trips. Sharks and other big predators are one of the primary indicators of a healthy reef ecosystem, and they are still easily seen in Providencia. 

Providencia has the third largest reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and Belize Meso-American Reef and the island, because of its remoteness, has managed to avoid the plague of mass tourism that most other Caribbean islands suffer from. 

Getting There

One of the main reasons Providencia remains a paradise (albeit one in the hurricane belt) and continues to host some of the best snorkeling in the Caribbean is that it is 800km from the Colombian mainland and only reachable from the neighbouring island of San Andrés.

There are no flights from Colombia or Nicaragua, so you either catch a 45-minute flight out of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla International in San Andrés or a 3.5-hour ferry (I’ve heard the crossing can be a little hairy). 

Where to Stay 

There are no large hotel chains in Providencia–just cottages, local homestays and some smaller boutique hotels. 

Check out your accommodation options here.


Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Bahamas

The Bahamas is a small group of islands just 80km from the southeast coast of Florida and has some of the best snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea. 

The Perry Institute For Marine Science’s latest coral health report card, released in 2020, contains analysis done over the previous five years and compares its conclusions to those reached in 2016.

The report presents a “reef health index” which rates coral sites throughout the islands from poor to good across a variety of metrics. They are:

  • Coral Cover
  • Benthic Index
  • Coral Condition
  • Partial Mortality of Corals
  • Coral Disease
  • Coral Recruitment
  • Large Parrotfish Index
  • Diadema Urchin Density
  • Grouper Index

All of these factors combine to tell a story about the relative health of a coral reef.

While the majority of sites in the Bahamas were rated as being in “fair condition,” with the rest “impaired,” the Bahamas marine protected areas (MPAs) were doing quite well.

Sixty percent of the sites surveyed in Marine Protected Areas throughout the Bahamas were in “good health.” 

The reef ecosystem was particularly healthy in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, which has been a protected area since 1959 and under an exclusively no-take fishing policy since 1989. Many studies indicate that fish, crustaceans, conch, and coral populations are healthier here than in other parts of the Bahamas. 

Sixty percent of the sites surveyed in Marine Protected Areas throughout the Bahamas were in “good health.”)

The Perry Institute For Marine Science’s 2020 Coral Health Report Card

All of the enforced protection mentioned above, in addition to national protection for sharks and turtles, and a prohibition on spearfishing while scuba diving, means the Bahamas has some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean.

It is rare that you get divers who have dove extensively throughout the coral triangle gushing about Caribbean diving, but the Bahamas offers spectacular Caribbean diving. If your frame of reference is Cuba or the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas is Caribbean snorkeling and diving on an entirely different level. 

Getting There

The best way to access the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park is by making your way to either Grand Exuma or Staniel Cay.

There are direct flights to George Town on Grand Exuma, which is then easy access to Exuma Cays MPA, otherwise, you have at least one other connection.

Getting to Staniel Cay involves flying either from Fort Lauderdale’s executive airport (which is a bit pricey) or flying to Nassau and then onto Staniel Cay on one of the Bahamas’ domestic airlines, Flamingo or Titan Air. 

Where to Stay

Check out Grand Exuma accommodation options here and Staniel Cay here


Get Out There and See These Places While They Are Still There

Climate change and natural disasters (some, perhaps intensified by climate change) have devastated more than half of all Caribbean reefs.

Most visitors to the Caribbean’s most popular destinations (Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica) have no idea what they are seeing when they strap on their rental equipment and putter around the coral graveyards in front of their all-inclusive or on a snorkeling day trip is actually the long, painful process of coral armageddon that has been playing out over the last few decades. 

There are fewer and fewer diving and snorkeling destinations in the Caribbean where overfishing, agricultural runoff, acidification, natural disasters, mass tourism and algae takeover haven’t decimated what were once some of the most stunning marine ecosystems on the planet.

The few that do remain are on the above list.

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