Snorkeling may be the easiest entry for traveling underwater — home to some of the greatest destinations, attractions, and wonders. Snorkelers stay in the upper layer of water, where sunlight dances and the full array of colors are still visible for memories and photography. Floating gently on the sea and peering down at nature’s life force in motion is soothing meditation, relaxing exploration, and privileged access.
I am passionate about scuba, small submersibles, and the emerging infrastructure of underwater tourism, but I would never give up the basic joy and beauty available through snorkeling.
Some of my favorite snorkeling memories are in the Sea of Cortez, the Galapagos, Palau and Papua New Guinea. Just getting to be there is a luxury – and then there’s snorkeling!
Baja’s Sea of Cortez
To see sea lion pups twist and twirl in a 360-degree aqua-ballet around you, head to the rookeries in the Sea of Cortez, “the world’s aquarium.” This UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve is a long finger of water between the Mexican mainland and the skinny peninsula below California known as “Baja,” The Sea of Cortez was made famous by writer-biologist John Steinbeck and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
North of Cabo San Lucas, and less than a two hour flight from Los Angeles, the city of La Paz (The Peace) is Baja’s historic and modern capital and a wonderful departure port for water lovers.
A luxurious way to enjoy the Isla Espiritu Sea Lion Colony is to indulge in an American Safari Baja Un-Cruise for a week full of memorable wildlife opportunities with comforts for all your senses. After playful encounters with the big-eyed pups, the crew greets you with towels, drinks, and snacks, followed by hot showers or Jacuzzi soaks while looking for whales and dolphins, then a gourmet brunch.
If you are enjoying La Paz and Baja from a land base, Fun Baja offers a delightful daytrip. I enjoyed the shady boat, international group of fellow snorkelers, and the fresh-fish lunch they made for us on a secluded cove of the island of Espiritu Santo.
Humans are the minority among the hundreds of barking and diving pups and parents in the sea lion colonies. The curious playful ones may even grab a fin.
The underwater wildlife of the Galapagos is as wondrous as the topside of the islands. The island group straddles the equator 600 miles from South America. Snorkeling is wonderful year round, although a wetsuit helps, since the cold Humboldt current sweeps down to this part of the Pacific to make for rich biodiversity.
Snorkelers can see swimming marine iguanas, fur sea lions, and even the famed Galapagos penguin! Penguins don’t normally live in the northern hemisphere, but the delightful Galapagos penguin is an exception. After following the antics of sea lions and even a prowling reef shark, I lifted my head to get my bearings- and there was a little penguin debating whether to jump in the water!
Ecoventura’s one-week, ecofriendly “expedition cruises on 20 passenger yachts” island-hop to the highlights and are a great platform for snorkeling. Once the gear is fitted for you, including wetsuits, it’s “yours” for the week. Naturalists are onboard and underwater to help identify great creatures – blue-footed boobies on the trail, and schools of surrounding fish in the sea.
On one outstanding day, I saw large sea turtles in the morning and then an Ecoventura guide arranged for me to get close to Giant Tortoises on land in the afternoon.
Papua New Guinea
PNG has some of the greatest cultural diversity on the planet – more than 600 languages are still spoken there. It’s hard to pull away from visits to tribal river cultures, shopping for the hand-carved masks displayed in working Spirit Houses, and witnessing the dances and festivals in the Highlands. But the hundreds of islands of Papua New Guinea, north of Australia, are surrounded by beguiling waters with their own alluring diversity.
The private South Pacific island of Lissenung resembles a sweet movie set – a paradise dollop you can walk around in an hour. Just off the Island of New Ireland in the Bismark Sea, the Lissenung Island Resort is set up for divers, with a thatched dining hall and hammocks hanging into the water, but I enjoyed some of the best snorkeling I can remember.
The consistently warm waters and huge range of healthy corrals attracted fish of many colors to Lissenung, and I also enjoyed wonderful snorkeling off the North Coast of Madang. My souvenirs include photos of scorpion fish, corals and a memorable shell.
Trans Niugini Tours can help you plan your trip and indelible dips.
The Republic of Palau is an incredible Micronesian archipelago of small tropical islands, touted as one of the top dive locations in the world. The snorkeling is also spectacular.
Hike inland on Eil Malk Island in Palau to the world-renowned “Jellyfish Lake,” where the pulsing orbs of jellyfish have evolved without the notorious stinging touch. Instead, snorkelers who brush against them feel a gentle softness. To get a sense of the other worldliness of their realm, you can see a video and piece I did for National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel.
The lake jellies are unique, but don’t miss the oceanic treasures either. Giant clams, colorful tropical fish, and Gorgonian corrals may be enjoyed by simply walking from your resort into the water with a mask.
Palau has also declared itself a shark sanctuary to protect them from slaughter, so snorkelers may be treated to the sleek behavior of one of the food chains most intelligent creatures.
For wreck lovers, remnants of WWII Pacific battles litter the sea bottom, sometimes in shallow waters, like this Japanese Zero Plane.
Still ahead, I am looking forward to sharing with readers of Luxury Travel Mavens great warm-water places to snorkel with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, and with manatees, the mammal rumored to be mistaken for mermaids.
For more adventure, there’s night snorkeling to see the wonders of glowing bioluminescence or the swoops of manta rays, those glorious winged creatures called both angels and devil fish.
And for those who want to don a “dry suit,” unforgettable snorkeling awaits in Alaska.
—Lisa TE Sonne for Luxury Travel Mavens
All photos © Lisa TE Sonne except for jellyfish © Sharon Spence Lieb (travel writer/photographer)