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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Less steep, the drop off of Siladen Island, Indonesia, has a fantastic soft corals cover.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Velidhu island’s outer reef, in the Maldives, is home to magnificent coral drop-offs, full of life.
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.
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.
Darwin Bay, Galapagos Islands. Poor in corals, the rocky bottoms of the archipelago are the favorite habitat for sea lions, sharks, and other fish.
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.
On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the shallow rocky beds provide shelter for many fish, such as the Cortez angelfish.
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 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.
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”.
Hundreds of horned sea stars are found on Siladen Island‘s shallow seagrass 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.
Sandy areas are the kingdom of flatfish, such as this peacock flounder, photographed in Boucan Canot (Réunion Island).
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).
Stingrays (here a cowtail stingray in Anse Lazio, Seychelles) are sometimes seen hidden in the sand to hunt or rest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Casa Cenote, Mexico is located in the middle of the jungle. Filled with freshwater, it offers unforgettable snorkeling moments.
Some cenotes extend into caves, like here at Cenote Dos Ojos, Mexico.
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.
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.
The Tugboat, in Curacao, is a fantastic wreck to explore. It lays only 15ft deep, a few tens of meters off the coast.
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.
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.
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.
A pod of dolphins offshore Zanzibar.
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).
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.
Jellyfish Lake, in Palau, is filled with thousands of stingless jellyfish. Swimming among these fascinating creatures is an extraordinary experience.
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.
Still off-the-beaten-track, the small Sombano lake in Indonesia is inhabited by hundreds of small red shrimp.
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