Different types of snorkeling spots

We can snorkel in many different environments. If the coral reefs are some of the most famous spots, you can also go snorkeling in more unusual places, such as lakes, natural pools, or cenotes. This page is intended to help you better understand the characteristics of the main types of snorkeling spots that can be explored.

The coral reefs

Shallow, and hosting exceptional biodiversity, the coral reefs are the most popular snorkeling spots. There are several types of coral formations, each with their own profile and environment, which make them very different areas to snorkel.

Closed fringing reefs, or “lagoons”

Closed fringing reef, lagoon

Formed near the shore, these reefs consist of a small “lagoon” (often only 2 to 6ft deep) and a coral reef usually located a few hundred meters from the shore. These small “lagoons” (more precisely, “shallow backreef zones”) are natural nurseries for many fish. Some are home to pretty coral beds. However, it is quite rare to see larger creatures there, such as turtles, sharks, or rays. Safe and shallow, they are generally the perfect spots for children and beginners.

Lagon à l'île de la Réunion

The Hermitage lagoon on Réunion Island. On the picture, you can see a pass cutting the reef, through which the “lagoon” communicates with the open sea.

Lagon de Moorea

The fringing reef of Moorea, with the island of Tahiti in the background. At this point, opposite the Sofitel Moorea, the “lagoon” is nearly 700m wide.

Snorkeling en lagon aux Seychelles

The shallow depth of these spots allows snorkelers to observe the underwater life up close while staying at the surface. Here, a batfish at Anse Source d’Argent, Seychelles.

Narrow fringing reefs

Narrow fringing reef

On young islands, especially volcanic islands, corals colonize rocky or sandy beds just next to the shore. They thus form narrow reefs, sometimes of only a few meters or tens of meters wide, more or less dense in corals. These recent reefs are characterized by the absence of barriers: they are open to the open sea. This often allows snorkelers to observe species that don’t enter the lagoons very often, such as turtles or rays.

Fringing reef in Kauai

The narrow fringing reef of Tunnels Beach on the island of Kauai. This one is about 60 to 70m wide. It is not uncommon to see the Hawaiian monk seal here, which comes to hunt on the reef.

Fringing reef Reunion

Now closed due to the risk of shark attacks, Boucan Canot reef is one of the few snorkeling spots that is not sheltered by a coral reef in Réunion.

Fringing reef Hawaii

The narrow reefs allow snorkelerrs to explore pretty coral slopes open to the ocean, as here at Captain Cook Monument, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Reef drop offs

Reef drop off

When a fringing reef is well developed but does not form a barrier, it takes the form of a reef flat that ends in a relatively steep drop off, overlooking the open sea or a deep lagoon. Its profile is similar to that of “lagoons”, but the absence of a barrier makes it possible to explore the outer slope of the reef and observe species that rarely or never venture into shallow water. The reef flat is often covered with seagrass beds, on which green turtles come to rest and feed.

Reef drop off Egypt

Snorkelers swim along the drop off of Gorgonia Beach Resort, near Marsa Alam, Egypt. The reef, close to the surface, is very easy to explore.

Reef drop off Red Sea

The reef drop off, located at the meeting point of the reef flat and the ocean, is one of the most lively marine environment. On this picture, the drop off of Ras Um Sid, in Sharm el Sheikh.

Reef drop off Indonesia

Less steep, the drop off of Siladen Island, Indonesia, has a fantastic soft corals cover. 

Barrier reefs

Barrier reef

Barrier reefs can be located far from the shore, sometimes tens of kilometers. A deep lagoon often forms between the shore and the barrier. They form a more or less continuous crown reef around certain islands, interspersed with passes or open areas. The depth and calm waters of the lagoon attract many species, such as whales, dolphins, manta rays or dugongs. The inner reef, sheltered from the waves, is generally the best area to snorkel.

Great barrier reef

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is the largest coral reef in the world. In some places, it is located more than 80km offshore the coast of Queensland.

Barrier reef Belize

The Belize Barrier Reef stretches nearly 1000km in the Caribbean Sea, from Mexico to Honduras. It includes many cays, low islands made up of sand and coral.

Great barrier reef Australia

The Great Barrier Reef (here, at Opal Reef) is home to one of the richest marine ecosystems on the planet, which is concentrated in the first few meters below the surface.



An atoll is a ring-shaped island made up of coral reefs, and encircling a generally shallow lagoon. Often, more or less extensive islands emerge on the reef. The atolls are the oldest coral systems and among the richest in underwater life. They allow you to snorkel both on the inner (the lagoon) and the outer reef (the drop off), and to discover a wide range of sea creatures.

Atoll Maldives

The Maldives has one of the largest concentrations of atolls on the planet. Often the small islands (here, Maafushivaru island) are home to luxury hotels.

Atoll Fakarava

A typical landscape of the Tuamotu atolls, in French Polynesia. Here at Fakarava Blue Lagoon, snorkelers can swim with blacktip sharks in the shallow waters of the lagoon.

Atoll reef Maldives

Velidhu island’s outer reef, in the Maldives, is home to magnificent coral drop-offs, full of life.

Some other types of snorkeling spots

Fortunately, snorkeling is not only practiced around coral reefs! All over the world, other specific marine or freshwater environments can easily be explored. Some very famous, others much more unusual.

Rocky beds

Rocky beds

In areas where there are no (or almost no) corals, rocky bottoms are among the richest ecosystems. The rocks are often covered with small algae and sponges, supporting micro-organisms which attract many invertebrates and fish. The rocks also provide hiding places for juveniles of coastal fish species. Rocky beds can take different shapes, from shallow flats to steep drop-offs.

Rocky cove Galapagos

Darwin Bay, Galapagos Islands. Poor in corals, the rocky bottoms of the archipelago are the favorite habitat for sea lions, sharks, and other fish.

Rocky seabed Mediterranean

The rocky seabeds of the Mediterranean are a nursery for all the coastal fish in the area. Here, a group of saddled seabream in Cala Ti Ximo, Spain.

Rocky seabed Costa Rica

On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the shallow rocky beds provide shelter for many fish, such as the Cortez angelfish.

Seagrass meadows

Seagrass meadows

Seagrass beds are underwater meadows made up of flowering plants, not algae. Often growing at shallow depth near the coast, they have an important ecological role, because they contribute to the oxygenation of the water, and fix very specific species. When the seagrass beds are dense, they form underwater forests, in which shelter many fish and invertebrates. Some species live permanently in the seagrass beds. Others, like dugongs or turtles, only frequent them to feed on.

Posidonia meadows Mediterranean

Posidonia meadows are one of the richest marine ecosystems in the Mediterranean. Salema, one of the rare herbivorous fish in the region (here pictured in Port Cros), is a really easy sight in these areas.

Green sea turtle in seagrass meadows

Marine phanerogams are one of the main food sources for green sea turtles, as here on the Akumal seagrass beds, Mexico. This has earned these plants the vernacular name “turtle grass”.

Sea stars in seagrass meadows

Hundreds of horned sea stars are found on Siladen Island‘s shallow seagrass beds.

Sandy beds

Sandy beds

At first glance, sandy bottoms may appear poor in marine life. If they do not have the same density of species of other types of environments, they nevertheless host very specific species. On most snorkeling spots (including in coral areas), you often have to cross sandy areas near beaches. Take a look on it, because sometimes beautiful surprises are hidden in the sand.

Flounder in sandy beds

Sandy areas are the kingdom of flatfish, such as this peacock flounder, photographed in Boucan Canot (Réunion Island). 

Starfish in sand in Corsica

In the Mediterranean, the sand sea star lives in the sandy areas, sometimes half-buried. It is quite easy to see this starfish near the beaches (here, photographed in Palombaggia, Corsica).

Stingray in sand

Stingrays (here a cowtail stingray in Anse Lazio, Seychelles) are sometimes seen hidden in the sand to hunt or rest.

Natural pools

Natural pools

Natural pools are shallow seawater pools located on the coastline. They can form naturally in the rocks, or they can be built by humans, to offer safe bathing areas when the sea is too dangerous. In general, these pools communicate with the ocean through small openings and fill and empty with the rhythm of the tides. Providing shelter to many fish, these are often perfect spots for children.

Rocky pool in Reunion Island

On the south coast of Réunion Island, battered by waves, several swimming pools have been built with rocks. The basin of Grande Anse, in particular, is home to a very rich underwater world.

Natural pool Isle of Pines

The Isle of Pines Natural Pool, in New Caledonia, is separated from the ocean by rocks. Its beds are sandy, with some magnificent coral reefs that have grown in its calm waters.

Tidal pools South Africa

Dolphin Coast tidal pools, in South Africa, allow children to spot fish, octopus and starfish at shallow depth. These pools fill with seawater at each high tide.



Cenotes are natural holes, filled with water, which forms in karstic environments.  Dozens of them are found in Central and North America, particularly in Mexico, Guatemala, and Cuba. The cenotes can be filled with freshwater, brackish water or seawater. Some extend into caves and underground galleries, which can sometimes be snorkeled. If you can often see fish or turtles there, cenotes are also extraordinary spots for their geological formations and the clarity of their water.

Cenote in Mexico

Casa Cenote, Mexico is located in the middle of the jungle. Filled with freshwater, it offers unforgettable snorkeling moments. 

Cave cenote

Some cenotes extend into caves, like here at Cenote Dos Ojos, Mexico. 

Snorkeling Cenote in Tulum

A snorkeler in the crystal clear water of Casa Cenote. In addition to extraordinary aquatic landscapes, this cenote is inhabited by numerous freshwater fish, which take shelter between the submerged roots of the surrounding trees.

Wrecks and artificial reefs

Wrecks and artificial reefs

The wrecks and artificial reefs are prime snorkeling and diving spots. While most wrecks are the result of accidental events (like the many ships that have been wrecked near the coasts of the world), others are submerged or created voluntarily by man. These may be artificial reefs intended to reduce coastal erosion or to help coral reefs recover. Underwater art, playing both an artistic and ecological role, has also been installed on many spots around the world. Artificial reefs and wrecks are quickly colonized by underwater fauna and often are very interesting exploration areas.

Wreck Curacao

The Tugboat, in Curacao, is a fantastic wreck to explore. It lays only 15ft deep, a few tens of meters off the coast.

Tank wreck Aqaba

If the wrecks are generally boats, they are sometimes more original, like this tank sunk near Aqaba, Jordan. A little further, you can also snorkel the wreck of an airplane.

Underwater statues in Gili Islands

The underwater statues of “Nest”, an art installation immersed in Gili Meno, near Bali. Apart from the artistic aspect, these statues were quickly colonized by corals, sponges, and fish.

Open sea

Open sea

The open sea, deep and far from the coast, is an uncommon snorkeling location. However, in some areas accessible by boat tours, snorkelers can encounter from the surface marine mammals (such as whales and dolphins), whale sharks, or manta rays.

Dolphins Zanzibar

A pod of dolphins offshore Zanzibar.

Whale shark

Encountering a whale shark, which often swims placidly on the surface of the ocean, is one of the most beautiful experiences a snorkeler can live (here at Whale Shark Point, Maldives).

Dolphins in Reunion Island

In Réunion Island, several companies offer snorkeling tours to encounter dolphins or humpback whales, during Southern Winter.



When we think of snorkeling, we generally think sea and ocean. Yet the lakes can also be awesome snorkeling locations. Freshwater or brackish water lakes can be found all over the world, with clear enough water to observe aquatic life with a mask. As closed environments, lakes are home to unique species and sometimes offer unusual experiences, such as snorkeling among thousands of jellyfish or shrimp.

Lake in Palau

Jellyfish Lake, in Palau, is filled with thousands of stingless jellyfish. Swimming among these fascinating creatures is an extraordinary experience.

Perch in French Alps

There are many freshwater lakes in the French Alps, where you can spots species typical of freshwater environments, like these perch at Cap des Séselets, in Lake Bourget.

Shrimp in Indonesian lake

Still off-the-beaten-track, the small Sombano lake in Indonesia is inhabited by hundreds of small red shrimp.

Ready to explore the underwater world? Check out the list of all the snorkeling spots currently listed on the site. We offer a complete report for each of them, with map, advice, and underwater pics!