I’m tough to please when it comes to snorkeling tours and trips (and wildlife travel more generally).
I’m the kind of person who cringes when I see a dive shop, snorkeling safaris or a travel blogger use a stock image of fish from the Indo-Pacific while marketing an experience in the tropical Atlantic, or describe a seascape as full of “colorful tropical fish.”
Which species, FFS!!!!!???
Here’s one from Beach Bum Cozumel
Another good way to draw my ire is to advertise or write about snorkeling and diving and make your feature image a school of Sargeant Majors over a sandy bottom.
Bonus points if they’ve got a full-face snorkel on.
Buy a serious snorkel mask.
If you really want to make me apoplectic, have them holding a starfish.
The bottom line is that all of these things show me, the snorkeling snob, that you don’t really care about the experience, and I can safely write you, your opinion and, if you’re a business, whatever you’re selling, off.
These kinds of snorkeling experiences are fine for the mass market, but if you’re reading this article and feel my pain, chances are you, like me, expect a lot more when it comes to snorkel travel recommendations.
Here’s my personally curated list of what I think are the best snorkeling trips anywhere in the world.
- Snorkeling Tour #1: The Coral Triangle–Raja Ampat and Milne Bay
- Snorkeling Tour #2: The Caribbean– Southwater Caye Marine Reserve and Bonaire
- Snorkeling Tour #3: The Red Sea–Dahab and Marsa Shagra Village
- Snorkel Tour #4: The Northeastern Indian Ocean– The Surins & Similans, Koh Lipe, Koh Kradan and Pulau We
I’ve written this for, well, myself, so I’ve gone and assumed that you also have probably done a lot of snorkeling throughout your life and have similarly high standards.
I’ve tried to cover the most beautiful reefs in all of the most stunning bodies of water in the tropics–from the Coral Triangle to the Red Sea to the Northwestern Indian Ocean.
They are a combination of dive resorts and off-the-beach snorkeling destinations.
Some of these places I’ve been to, and others are on my bucket list.
All of them offer some of the best snorkeling and sea life anywhere in the tropics.
Snorkeling Tour #1: The Coral Triangle–Raja Ampat and Milne Bay
If you are planning a snorkeling-centric nature and wildlife trip to the coral triangle and want to experience the absolute best of the best, then you can’t go wrong with West Waigeo, Raja Ampat and Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea.
Leg 1: West Waigeo, Raja Ampat
Raja Ampat, in isolated far eastern Indonesia, has acquired mainstream notoriety over the last 10 years. It is still comparatively unknown and unvisited, but it has changed quite a bit even since I first started visiting in 2018–especially the most accessible islands and snorkeling spots.
Prior to that, this isolated group of 1,500 small islands, cays and shoals were best known as a scuba diving mecca–some of, if not the very best diving in the Coral Triangle, the Amazon of the Ocean, and therefore the world.
The archipelago’s iconic Dampier and Sagewin Straits host major oceanic and biomass exchanges between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, flooding Raja Ampat’s waters with nutrient-rich upwellings and currents, drawing in megafauna like whales and dolphins and pelagic fish like Whale Sharks and Manta Rays.
What’s more, this location and its unique oceanographic phenomena also produce considerable seasonal variation in temperatures, which are believed to be responsible for the hardiness of Raja Ampat’s coral, compared to many of the more fragile reef ecosystems in the region (e.g., the Great Barrier Reef).
Having been to the islands on snorkeling trips several times now, and experienced much of the Dampier Strait area, there are definitely levels to Raja Ampat snorkeling.
My personal opinion is that the West Waigeo area–Manyaifun, Kabui Bay, the Meos Manggara Islands, and the sites around Piaynemo–offer the best snorkeling in Raja Ampat.
Far from major river mouths and around 100km (depending on the site) from the much more built up and tourist-oriented islands of Mansuar, Arborek, and Gam, the reefs around West Waigeo are a cut above and offer serious snorkelers some of the most spectacular coral reefs in the world.
How to snorkel West Waigeo
The best way to snorkel West Waigeo’s coral reefs is through the Stay Raja Ampat Homestay Association.
The homestay association provides local Papuan families living throughout these remote islands with an opportunity to earn some money by opening their traditional thatched Melanesian homes up to tourists.
You get very affordable room and board and can arrange a la carte snorkeling trips through the hosts (who often don’t speak much, if any, English, so download an offline translation app).
The reefs in this area are some of the healthiest in the world–true coral gardens brimming with more hard and soft coral species than anywhere else, home to healthy and recovering populations of Black-Tip Reef Sharks, Epaulette Sharks, Nurse Sharks, pelagic fish like Barracuda and Jack Trevally, and unparalleled Indo-Pacific fish and other marine life diversity.
Leg 2: Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea
Whether you are fortunate enough to be able to combine Raja Ampat and Milne Bay into a single epic snorkeling trip or you just do Milne Bay on its own, you are in for the snorkeling experience of your life.
Milne Bay in Southeastern Papua New Guinea is one of the best snorkeling spots in the entire world.
Often considered THE place that put Papua New Guinea on the map as an international snorkeling and diving destination (particularly for muck diving and macro photography), this is how UNESCO describes Milne Bay:
“Milne Bay Province harbors one of the most environmentally pristine areas of coral reefs remaining in the Coral Triangle… there is the possibility that 420 coral species may occur in the region, which is higher than the Australian Great Barrier Reef”
Marine life here is prolific, and local reefs are teeming.
How to snorkel Milne Bay
The best way to snorkel Milne Bay is to stay at Tawali Dive Resort.
Their rates are very reasonable (and include your meals).
While Tawali is best known as a prue dive resort, their house reef is fantastic–sure to satisfy any serious snorkeler with high standards–and will blow the neoprene socks off of anyone who has never snorkeled places like Raja Ampat, Komodo National Park, the best parts of the Great Barrier Reef, and other world-class Coral Triangle snorkeling locations.
Snorkeling Tour #2: The Caribbean– Southwater Caye Marine Reserve and Bonaire
I’ve always found that a diving or snorkeling trip to the Caribbean after spending so much time in the Coral Triangle leaves a lot to be desired.
But I’ve come to realize over the years that you have to appreciate things and places for what they are, and the Tropical Atlantic isn’t supposed to look like the heart of the Coral Triangle.
Places like Southwater Caye and Bonaire are spectacular in their own right.
Leg 1: Southwater Caye Marine Reserve, Belize
Belize is the Mecca of Caribbean diving and the heart of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. The atolls and islands off the coast of Belize are home to some of the healthiest marine ecosystems in the region–ideal spots to observe megafauna like Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, Manatees, sea turtles, Nurse and Lemon Sharks, Eagle Rays and the general splendor of Caribbean reefs.
If Belize offers the best sea life in the tropical Atlantic, then one of the best of the best snorkeling destinations is the Southwater Caye Marine Reserve.
Located halfway down the coast of Belize, 16km off the coast, sits Southwater Caye Marine Reserve–over 47,700’ hectares protecting one of the most vibrant coral reefs in the region.
Established in 1996, this is considered one of the more off-the-beaten-path diving and snorkeling destinations in the country.
The Southwater Caye Marine Reserve Management Plan (2019-2023) states that the area is
“highlighted under ecoregional planning initiatives for its particularly rich biodiversity, particularly due to its combination of extensive healthy reef, seagrass meadows and threatened island mangroves ecosystems.”
It is considered “one of the most highly developed examples of barrier reef structure in the region, with extensive spur and groove formation” and “one of the most biodiverse marine systems within the western hemisphere, supporting a number of endemic species, species new to science…and nesting beaches for Hawksbill and Green Turtles” according to the Reserve Management Plan.
How to see South Water Caye Marine Reserve
There are a few ways to snorkel Southwater Caye Marine Reserve.
You can stay on the mainland and commute, stay on any of the neighbouring islands north of Southwater Caye or stay on Southwater Caye itself.
Staying on the mainland
If you’re staying on the mainland, you’re likely either going to be staying in Hopkins or Dangriga and then taking a boat to Southwater Caye Marine Reserve.
Accommodations on the mainland are considerably less expensive than staying on Southwater Caye itself.
Staying on Southwater Caye
There are only a handful of accommodation options on Southwater Caye, and they are all very pricey…save for one (and it’s the most unique).
Enter the Southwater Caye Marine Biology Field Station.
Southwater Caye Marine Biology Field Station
Surely one of Belize’s greatest hidden gems is the Southwater Caye Marine Biology Field Station.
One of the few marine research sites in the world that accepts non-academic visitors, run by International Zoological Expeditions Belize, this is a no-frills research station in the heart of the most pristine snorkeling in the western hemisphere, giving you access to perhaps the Caribbean’s best snorkeling.
The alternative, if you want to stay right on Southwater Caye, is the comparative luxury of a much more expensive diving and snorkeling resort.
Leg 2: Bonaire
Bonaire is the smallest of the Neth-Antilles, also known as the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao). It is a small desert and xeric scrub island just off the northwest coast of Venezuela and, in 2011, was referred to by the Ecologist, an environmental analysis organization, as “The Last Healthy Coral Reef in the Caribbean.”
While much has changed since 2011, and Bonaire, as is the case anywhere, has not been immune to the effects of climate change and natural disasters, the island is still home to some of the best reefs anywhere in the Tropical Atlantic.
This is the case for several reasons.
Outside of the Hurricane Belt, as well as flat and inhospitable to large-scale agriculture–meaning very little of the runoff that kills reefs elsewhere in the Caribbean–Bonaire is something of an anomaly in the Region.
What’s more, the island realized very early on that its economic fate was tied to the health of its reefs. Since 1979, fishing has been heavily regulated around Bonaire, and all of the island’s fringing reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves have been considered protected areas.
One of the indirect but not minor effects of those protections has been continuous healthy populations of coral grazers like parrot and surgeonfish, ensuring coral smothering algae is controlled, meaning new polyps are allowed to form and start new colonies.
How to see Bonaire
Bonaire has a couple of direct flights from Europe (Amsterdam and Brussels), otherwise, you are connecting through either Aruba or Curacao.
There are plenty of accommodation options on Bonaire–from luxury boutique hotels to much more affordable guest houses and some Airbnbs.
Snorkeling Tour #3: The Red Sea–Dahab and Marsa Shagra Village
Dahab and Marsa Shagra Village are the two best snorkeling trips you can take in Egypt and, combined, are definitely the best snorkeling adventure in the Red Sea.
Leg 1: Dahab
Dahab, in the Gulf of Aqaba, home to places like Blue Hole and Ras Abu Galum National Park, offers incredible off-the-beach snorkeling on some of the healthiest and most climate-resistant corals in the world–reefs that have been highly resistant to warming ocean temperatures and, therefore, acidification and bleaching.
The major downside of Dahab is that the city itself is filthy, as are its beaches. Broken glass, dogshit minefields and endless cigarette butts cover virtually every square inch of sand.
If you are here for the reef, however, you can look past it.
Once in the water, the views change dramatically, and you remember why you are here. This is a video from Napoleon Reef just outside the town of Dahab:
The coastline and the walk to the isolated Ras Abu Galum National Park is also wonderful, as are the reefs once inside.
How to snorkel Dahab
My favourite thing about a place like Dahab is that all of the best snorkeling is right off the beach.
I created a guide to some of my favourite off-the-beach snorkeling destinations around the world that goes into a lot of depth on Dahab, how to get there, where to stay and how to access the prime snorkeling spots.
Leg 2: Marsha Shagra Village
Marsha Shagra Village is further south, outside the Gulf of Aqaba, and it is definitely another Red Sea snorkeling trip worth doing.
Marsha Shagra is a small Bedouin village just to the north of the larger town of Marsa Alam (which can be reached via air from Sharm or Cairo, as well as a few places in Europe).
The extensive house reef right in front of the accommodations is spectacular, with Dugongs regularly sighted here.
It is also a wonderful place from which to explore the world-famous Elphinstone Reef.
How to snorkel Marsa Shagra Village
The best way to stay and snorkel at Marsa Shagra Village is to book a stay via Red Sea Diving Safari.
Snorkel Tour #4: The Northeastern Indian Ocean– The Surins & Similans, Koh Lipe, Koh Kradan and Pulau We
The northeastern Indian Ocean, and particularly the Andaman Sea ecoregion off the coasts of Myanmar, Thailand and Northwestern Indonesia, lie at the confluence of two major southern marine influences: The South China Sea and the northern Bay of Bengal/Andaman Sea.
The constant currents that flow clockwise around the Bay of Bengal collide with seasonal water masses that pass through the Straits of Malaca, creating an intermingling of marine fauna from both bodies of water–a marine biogeographical crossover that occurs nowhere else in the world.
The result is some of the richest, most diverse reefs in the Indian Ocean, especially around the Surin and Similan Islands.
Leg 1: Mu Ko Surin National Park and Similan Islands
The Surin and Similan Islands are the most ecologically diverse coral reefs in Thailand, thanks to the mixing of the two aforementioned oceans.
More than 700 species of marine fish, 140 species of crustaceans and 160 species of hard corals are found here.
What’s more, because of the upwelling phenomena in the region, in which cold water from the deeper ocean is brought to the surface, creating favorable conditions for plankton blooms, the islands, and particularly the Surins, attract pelagic megafauna like whales, Whale Sharks, Manta Rays and dolphins.
It is not only the best place in Thailand, but one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks.
How to snorkel the Similan and Surin Islands
The major issue with visiting the Surin and Similan Islands is that they are really only accessible during Thailand’s dry season (November Through April/May)
The arrival of the Monsoons can make travel conditions in the Andaman quite dangerous, so dive boats and local day trip boats stop going.
That said, there are two main ways to visit these islands: liveaboard or day trip departing from the Thai mainland.
Most of the liveaboard options leave from Puhket and do a tour of the best Andaman dive and snorkel sites, including the Surin and Similan Islands.
Leg 2: Koh Kradan & Koh Lipe, Thailand and Pulau We, Indonesia
Heading south from the Similan and Surin Islands brings you to the three other best snorkeling trips in the Andaman–the islands of Koh Kradan and Koh Lipe in Thailand and Pulau We (Sabang) in Indonesia.
Koh Kradan and Koh Lipe are the most off-the-beaten-path “touristy” islands in Thailand, particularly Koh Kradan.
There are only a handful of accommodation options on the island and no hostels, bars or restaurants.
Couples come here for peace and quiet (and for some fabulous snorkeling right off the beach).
How to snorkel Koh Kradan
There are only a handful of accommodation options on Koh Kradan, and to get to them requires either a) a minivan+longtail boat or b) a ferry from Koh Lanta that only operates during the high/dry season.
Koh Lipe, to the south of Koh Kradan, offers similar (very good) Thai Andaman snorkeling, but the water visibility tends to be better around Lipe and, during the high season, you have snorkeling spots in Tarutao National Park available to you.
How to snorkel Koh Lipe
Koh Lipe is my favourite “tourist” island for snorkeling.
I say “tourist” because the Similan and Surin Islands are part of marine reserves and you can’t stay overnight there; it’s purely for diving and snorkeling.
The awful mass tourism on the other easily accessible islands in Thailand (Like Koh Phi Phi, Koh Samui, Koh Tao, etc.) makes them unbearable, IMO, and they don’t have great off-the-beach snorkeling anyways.
Koh Lipe does receive tourists (and some of them are your typical trashy Thailand tourists), but there is comparatively little of it–especially if you visit during the low season.
Bear in mind that you forfeit Tarutao Marine park if you visit during the monsoon season. It’s closed.
Just off Sunset Beach, on Lipe’s south coast, is the best reef. If you want more specifics, I’ve covered Lipe much more in-depth in my article on the best off the beach snorkel destinations for digital nomads.
Pulau We (aka Sabang)
If you are willing to put in the effort required to reach Pulau We, off the northwest coast of Northern Sumatra in Indonesia, you will be well-rewarded for your effort, especially if you are into macro underwater photography.
I saw more species of moral eels (including ribbon eels), nudibranchs, gobies, blennies and beautiful crustaceans here than I have seen anywhere else.
The coral around Weh is in rough shape because of the 2004 tsunami (North Sumatra was the epicentre), but it is in various stages of recovery, there are ongoing reef restoration projects around the island, and there is tremendous abundance and diversity here further out into the Northeast Indian Ocean-Andaman ecoregion.
The hard coral cover here, in many places, looks more similar (though certainly not comparable in terms of health or extensiveness) to what you would see in the Maldives or the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia (plus the Andaman seascape).
You are far more likely to observe a wide range of angelfish here (and in shallow water) as well as seaward-facing reef specialists like Blue Tangs and Clown Triggerfish than you are further north in the Andaman.
Like Lipe, We Island is somewhere I’ve spent quite a bit of time, so I recommend you read my snorkeling guide to Pulau We here, which includes more insight into getting there, staying there and accessing the best snorkel spots.
I only recommend the very best snorkeling trips to fellow snorkeling snobs
Coral reefs around the world have been decimated over the last several decades by natural disasters, pollution, overfishing and destructive fishing methods, the disappearance of mangrove nurseries, and warming ocean surface temperatures.
A lot of people recommending snorkeling trips and destinations are simply not aware of just how few vibrant reefs are left in the world. They don’t realize that, in so many places, they are swimming over coral graveyards and observing greatly diminished reef organism diversity.
When I spend my money traveling somewhere to snorkel on this dying planet, I want to know that I am seeing something special, not run-of-the-mill.
I hope the above recommendations provide some inspiration for you, the discerning snorkeler, as you experience the world’s slowly disappearing coral reefs.