ST. JOHN, U.S. Virgin Islands
Let's call it Diving Lite.
Snorkeling, the colorful yet cautious cousin of scuba diving, is a way to see the sea without — glub, glub — going under. You don't even have to know how to swim.
"I had a family of four the other day, and after I gave them the lesson and put them in the water, I discovered not one of them could swim. That is when I took them one by one and just dragged them with me so they could at least enjoy the fish of Bonaire," says Renee Leach of Renee Snorkel Trips in Bonaire, a snorkel-friendly island in the southern Caribbean.
Around for thousands of years — since the first person thought of breathing through a reed poking above water — snorkeling is also called skin diving. It can mean anything from beginners gingerly sticking their faces into shallow water to free diving underwater with snorkel gear, holding your breath.
More spontaneous than scuba, snorkeling requires only a mask, snorkel and fins. No air tanks, no wet suits. You can pack gear in your suitcase or just rent it for a few bucks when you get there.
Cheap? Yes. The undersea world doesn't yet charge admission.
While scuba diving may be the sexy sport, snorkeling is far more popular. More than 10 million Americans snorkeled in 2008, while just 3 million went scuba diving. Snorkeling is nearly equally as popular with men and women, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
"The youngest snorkeler I had was 3 years and the oldest was 93, so it is something that anybody can do at any age," says Leach.
Many trips that travel agent Jan Stogner books are for avid scuba divers who have spouses or friends who snorkel instead.
"Lots of times I send people on vacation where one dives and the other doesn't. Some of the spouses want to sit on the beach and do a whole pile of nothing," says Stogner, president of Caribbean Dive Vacations in Columbia, S.C. "But if they want to snorkel, we can arrange for them to do it off the boat or near the shore."
For extreme beginners, here are four places I recommend. Hardly the top snorkeling destinations in the world, they're still amazing. All have snorkeling gear available for rental; prices vary but are about $15.
• Coki Beach, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Snorkel in water a few feet deep and see schools of brightly colored fish. A good place for ultra beginners to start their snorkeling adventures. (usvitourism.vi)
• Trunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow the underwater snorkeling trail, which even has plaques under the water. Sometimes it can be a bit wavy or cloudy. (nps.gov/VIIS)
• Stingray City, Grand Cayman. A boat takes you out in the bay to shallow clear water to see dozens of giant and rather tame stingrays circling for food. Equipment is included, but honestly, the stingrays are so big you don't even need to put your head in the water to see them. (stingraycitytrips.com)
• Chankanaab National Park, Cozumel, Mexico. A pretty park with easy to access water for beginner snorkelers. Cozumel is one of the most popular scuba destinations in the world, and this place is a nonintimidating spot to start, just to see fish and practice your moves. There are underwater statues just off shore to see, too. (cozumelparks.com)
Once you've got your snorkeling comfort, graduate to spots like Honduras, Bonaire, Hawaii, Belize or St. Lucia.
As your body adjusts to the underwater world, magical things float by — schools of fish that look like they were splashed by Crayola, waving plants, sea fans, urchins, coral, snails. Suddenly, snorkeling is fun. Snorkeling is cool.
Actually, snorkeling is like diving. Or close enough.
To shoot fantastic underwater snorkeling photos, you need a waterproof housing for your camera or a decent waterproof camera. Here are some tips.
• Shoot near the surface on a bright sunny day for best light. Below 20 feet, you need a strobe.
• Shoot up, not down, on the creatures and plants, and get as close as you can.
• Be as still as possible while shooting.
• A cheap underwater disposable camera costs about $10. I tried a Fuji disposable, and only two of the 27 photos were decent. A photo editor on this trip used a Canon PowerShot SD960 with the additional waterproof housing (Canon WP-DC32). The results were excellent.
• Roatan, Honduras. One resort, Anthony's Key, offers snorkeling packages that include lodging, meals and several snorkeling trips, including one at night. (anthonyskey.com)
• Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles. One of the most famous diving spots in the world, the southern Caribbean island also has multiple shore diving-snorkeling opportunities, notably at Andrea II Shallow and Klein Bonaire.
• Hawaii, Three Tables or Hanauma Bay, Oahu. The surf can be rough at Three Tables, but, when it's calm, you can snorkel in an intriguing reef close to shore. Tidal pools are nearby for those who would rather wade.
• Southern Belize. The Southwater Caye Marine Reserve reef, one of the most pristine in the world, has amazing coral and fish.
• Anse Chastanet Beach, St. Lucia. Protected and relatively shallow marine reserve.
• Jellyfish Lake, Palau. I've never been there, but apparently the jellyfish in this lake have lost their sting, so you can snorkel while hundreds of blobby little creatures bob against you.
• Buck Island, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. This underwater preserve offers excellent snorkeling.
• Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Remote location with walk-in reef snorkeling.
• Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, Fiji. One of the best dive resorts in the world also offers guided snorkeling. (fijiresort.com)
Ask your resort about snorkeling gear rental, good spots or day trips.
Consult a specialist in scuba or snorkel vacations, such as Caradonna Worldwide Dive Vacations (caradonna.com, toll-free 1-800-328-2288). In Bonaire, see Renee Snorkel Trips (reneesnorkeltrips.com).
• Get to your snorkel destination early so it's not stirred up by others.
• Make sure your mask fits so water doesn't get in.
• At first, your breathing will sound like Darth Vader sucking wind. After a while the sound is comforting.
• Don't snorkel alone.