It recently dawned on me, whilst reminiscing about my travels, that somehow or another, I had completely unintentionally snorkelled off 5 out of 6 continents of the world, except Antartica. Though I like to think my experience in a dry suit, snorkelling in water that was near 0c, between the tectonic plates, in Iceland comes close enough to the cold.
From snorkelling off Sulawesi in the Pacific Ocean to swimming through mini shoals in Greece, I’m lucky enough to have seen a diverse selection of sea creatures, fish, coral and reef-life on my travels.
First of all, in my travels, I have met probably hundreds of divers. People are always surprised when I say I don’t dive. This is because at most destinations that I’ve travelled to, I’ve found that snorkelling is a perfectly good way of seeing a reef, and can be less disruptive to the wildlife. Most all, diving is expensive. You can hire a snorkel for the fraction of the cost of one dive, and I’m yet to see that cost really justified. If the reef is good; it’s good, whether you snorkel or take a dive to it.
Personally, I never thought Kenya was synonymous with any reef life what so ever. How wrong I was! My snorkelling trip off the coast of Kenya was one of my first and best ever. The reef here was abundant and the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a real life version of Finding Nemo.
I’ve never seen more diversity or colour; in the coral and fish themselves, on all of my travels. It was really spectacular and the water was gentle, making it perfect snorkelling conditions.
Kenya has been smart enough to make it’s beautiful reef ecosystem into several marine parks which can be visited by hiring a boat and paying a marine park fee of less than USD$20pp. I chose to take a boat in the Malindi Marine Park, to visit the ‘Coral Garden’, but I understand the reef is stunning across the coast. Splitting the cost of the boat hire, makes the total cost sub-USD$50pp.
With over 900 inhabited islands in Indonesia, it is unsurprising that there is a teeming reef in several parts of this huge, spread of a country. The good news is, if you’re willing to travel, much of Indonesia’s outstanding reef is really untouched.
Most tourists opt for easy to reach spots like the reef off the coast of Bali or the Gilli Islands (effortlessly accessed from Bali and often visited in conjunction with a trip to). But, Indonesia’s real beauty lies in the hard to reach places that remain unspoilt and undisturbed. Sadly, there are areas which were subject to blast fishing (aka bombing the reef) and this has led to some die off, but overall there’s many, many places where the reef looks in great shape.
I explored the hard to reach Togean Islands, off the island of Sulawesi, and I can confirm it was well worth the absolute ball-ache of effort that it took to get there; a long car journey, an overnight in a hotel, another overnight boat, and a daytime boat.
In particular, the Atoll reef here was one of the most breathtaking things I’ve ever seen in my life. A great monolith, rising out of the water, teeming with fish and brightly coloured coral. It was spectacular.
The Togean Islands have many beautiful and quiet spots to enjoy. It’s not the cheapest place you’ll do a boat trip in Indonesia, but if you’re snorkelling you can still expect to pay a reasonable 30 or so euros per person for a seriously impressive snorkelling trip that takes in several sights that you won’t forget for a very long time.
Unbeknown to me before I arrived, the Togean Islands are also one of the rare places in the world (other than Palau) that you can swim with stingless jelly fish. It takes a certain kind of lake to evolve and separate its self form the sea (with jellyfish evolving inside said lake!), to create this natural phenomenon. I was lucky enough to hear about this excursion whilst snorkelling, and jumped at the chance of leaping in the lake, donning my snorkel. It was a truly unforgettable experience, and having many hundreds of jellyfish float around you in this murky lake, was totally eerie and awesome! On the same trip I visited Karina Beach and saw my first ever sea snake too!
An easier to reach spot from Sulawesi, is Bunaken, an hours’ boat trip from Makassar. The reef is a little way out from Bunaken’s shore, and though swimmable, I found the currents could be dicey. It was well worth it though and there were plenty of fish. I heard diving from here was good and there are several dive schools on the island.
Lastly, another couple of up and coming spots are Raja Ampat and Flores. Raja Ampat has long been notoriously difficult to reach though transport connections but that’s easing thanks to increasing flights to major hubs and then an onward boat trip. Another true desert island experience, like the Togean Islands, with no phone signal, limited amenities, but a stunning and well-worth-it reef.
My top tip for Indonesia.. Indonesia is a really economical place to travel, it’s easy to stretch your money here and travel in relative comfort without breaking the bank. What it isn’t, is time-friendly. The best places to visit take effort and a long time on (often uncomfortable) transport. It’s not a country that lends its self to be skipped through in a week or two. But, it’s a 100% worth it and Indonesia is a place that is totally inline my travel ethos.
Home to one of the most famous and talked about reefs in the world. The Great Barrier Reef is the worlds’ largest. Thanks to global warming, the reef is struggling and seeing an unprecedented rate of coral bleaching. Not helped by the large numbers of tourists regularly descending on the reef, making it hard to find a spot that looks like the photos you might have imagined.
The most popular way to visit the reef is to take a day boat trip from Cairns. After being spoilt by so many quiet and colourful reef snorkels in other parts of the world, I was disappointed to see how lacklustre the marine life was here, except for a jolly turtle.
I hear from those who have visited the harder to reach areas of the Great Barrier, the more you move away from the touristy areas, the better it gets. Especially north, towards Cape York. But, expect to pay a serious premium for that kind of adventuring.
My top tip for Australia.. Forget the Great Barrier altogether and visit Ningaloo. Much less talked about but, significantly more impressive! Way up in the northern reaches of Western Australia, Ningaloo is diverse and home to abundant marine life. It remains pristine, in part, thanks to its difficult to reach location. The easiest way is to take an internal flight from Perth to Exmouth and catch one of the many Ningaloo reef tours from there. It’s even possible to swim with Whale Sharks and during the migration season there’s limited availability to swim with Humpback Whales – both heavily monitored by the government to ensure minimal disruption to the animals.
OCEANIA: New Zealand
There’s a handful of worthwhile snorkelling and dive sites around New Zealand. Most notable is Goat Island Marine Reserve, an easy 1 hour drive from central Auckland. It usually enjoys calm seas that make it an accessible place to get in the water, even for the most inexperienced snorkeler. You’ll pass by companies offering snorkel hire on the drive to the reserve.
Another great in-the-water experience that New Zealand offers is the chance to swim with dolphins. A far cry from the stereotypical, dolphin-in-a-swimming-pool experience, the South Island’s town of Kaikoura has companies proffering a real au naturel experience, taking you far out to sea and dropping you in amongst a pod of meandering dolphins. Companies are serious about their ecology and not disturbing the dolphins in their natural habitat, making it a much more animal friendly experience than most other “swimming in dolphins” tours around the world.
Central America has some great spots to check out a reef. My top pick was exploring the famous Belizean ‘cayes’ (that’s another name for islands, to the rest of us). In particular whirling away a few very soggy days in Caye Caulker. Pro tip: The rainy season means rain.
Thankfully, I was able to duck away on a boat to a further flung reef where it wasn’t raining! You’ve really got an abundance of choice in Belize and there’s plenty of reef to explore, regardless of whether you’re snorkelling or diving, there’s lots of fish to meet.
The Cayes are easily accessed by boat from Belize City, making it a hop and a skip from a plane to paradise.
After spending several months in the Mediterranean, there was one phrase that stuck: The Med Is Ded. I can imagine the days, long ago, when the Mediterranean must’ve been teeming with life. But, those days for the most part, are gone. After intensive, unregulated, overfishing, many areas have struggled to keep up or recover from this damaging way of life.
That said, there are rays of hope and it’s still worth donning a snorkel and jumping in the water, if you can snatch some unspoilt corners of Greece’s coast. I never would’ve thought I’d find a shoal of thousands of tiny fish off the coast of Symi, or multicoloured fish lurking in corners of rocky outcrops, but they are there. If you look hard enough!
So, whilst there’s no reef in Iceland, there is the incredibly impressive glacial-water-filled fissure between the Eurasia and North American tectonic plates. Don a dry suit, and jump in! The water hovers just above a goosepimpling 0c, making it by far the chilliest snorkel I’ve ever done. Despite the strangeness of the whole experience, it is a completely unique experience it to look down the hundreds of meters of visibility that the glacial water offers, of the chasm. A once in a lifetime opportunity, and like no other snorkelling adventure on the planet!