In the beginning, there was the beach and the boutique, the bus tour and the buffet. But one cruise line looked out over the islands and noted that of the snorkel there was almost none. And lo, it created leaders to teach the way of the snorkel. And the passengers tried it and looked upon wonders under the sea, and saw it was good.
The year was 1977. On the west coast, cruise director Julie McCoy had just begun welcoming the neurotic lovelorn aboard the "Love Boat." In Florida, an upstart cruise line called Carnival was making waves with a fleet of two small, second-hand ships. It was also the year that NCL (then Norwegian Caribbean Line) introduced "Dive-In," the cruise industry's first organized snorkeling program aboard the Sunward II. Up till then a large portion of the American public considered the snorkel mainly a swimming pool toy.
NCL's program included instruction, equipment and guided snorkel tours, both ship-conducted and through onshore excursion operators. The experience spread throughout the industry's customer base, and now a large number of cruise lines -- especially those catering to younger or more active passengers -- have established similar programs. What's available now extends beyond snorkeling to scuba, as well as to lesser-known adjuncts such as snuba, helmet diving, and all manner of arcane underwater breathing and transportation contraptions.
The first question to ask yourself when choosing a cruise primarily with snorkeling or diving in mind is: How much control of the program is in the hands of the cruise line? Are there onboard divemasters? Does the ship conduct its own dive excursions or does it sell commercial dive or snorkeling trips as just another shore excursion? And, if so, do the onboard divemasters accompany the passengers on the excursion? From our perspective, the more hands-on the cruise line is, the higher the rating.
Rent, own or borrow? Here's a simple rule of thumb: Go from top to bottom; the higher on your body, the more good reasons for packing and bringing your own. Starting with the snorkel itself -- above all else, it's a matter of hygiene. That mouthpiece has been in a stranger's mouth. Passengers who stress over the threat of Norovirus and wash their hands every five minutes often don't give a second thought to plunking a publicly used snorkel in their mouth. In Cozumel, folks whose stomachs begin twitching at the very sight of a local ice cube blithely accept the gear handed out by local, Mexican operators, trusting, we suppose, that they wash the snorkels in Evian water. It should be noted that some cruise lines are offering new or sterilized snorkel mouthpieces through their shore excursion departments, but snorkels are inexpensive and take little room in suitcases. If you enjoy snorkeling, it's worth the investment.
Masks are more personalized than most people think. Faces are different in shape and size. Use a mask too big and it will leak around the edges; use one too small, and your vision will be limited. That adjustable strap, once personalized for you, should seldom require readjustment, unlike that mask you got from the ship's onboard dive department, which seemed previously to have belonged to a munchkin (or the jolly green giant). Snorkelers needing corrective lenses will be happy to know that any decent mask has inserts available to reproduce any ocular prescription.
Fins are so generic that, unless you have very large or very small feet (or one of each!), it's unlikely that you will fail to find suitable ones. They take a lot of room in your luggage, so don't bother investing.
If you're on a large or mid-sized ship, there is little variance in design or architecture that would make a difference for the logistics of diving or snorkeling. However, some small ships have transoms that fold down into "sports platforms," which will make the task of boarding Zodiacs and loading scuba gear for divers a much simpler task. Also, some ships have gear storage rooms, and among those some will store passenger gear. Though not a major issue for snorkelers, divers will appreciate always having -- and this will seem oxymoronic -- a dry wetsuit to climb into, as well as having a more spacious and less pungent stateroom, which is likely to put a smile on their cabin stewards' faces as well.
How should you select an itinerary? Though coral thrives throughout the Caribbean, there are two "bands" running east and west across the region where growth is particularly lush and abundant. The northern band runs approximately between latitudes 18 and 25 north, covering the territory of typical Eastern and Western Caribbean sailings. The southern band extends from 11 through 14 north. This article concentrates on the Eastern Caribbean, covering dive and snorkel sites in the U. S. and British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos Islands. (Though the final two are technically Atlantic rather than Caribbean islands, they are included because they are frequent calls on Eastern Caribbean itineraries.)
How We Chose Our Recommendations
First, we chose arguably the best dive and snorkel areas for each location, and picked the most accessible ports of call for each. Then we ranked the cruise lines calling at those ports based on ship design; level and quality of staff participation; and number, variety and value of available snorkel or diving excursions. Because the best dive sites often are found near less visited ports of call, expect some repeats in the ratings.
Turks and Caicos Islands
Best Sites or Areas: Anywhere along the Turks and Caicos Wall
What's There: For divers there are miles of vertical walls dropping off 7,000 feet into the abyss, rivaling the walls in the Cayman Islands. Snorkelers will find a wealth of sea life and beautiful coral growth in the "spur and groove" formations (alternating coral reef patches and narrow sand canyons) that lead to the wall. Snorkeling depths run between 10 and 40 feet.
Closest Port of Call: Grand Turk Island
Our Pick: Carnival
Why: Basically, by default. Carnival may not have ships designed to maximize diving and snorkeling, nor do they offer an onboard dive staff, but of the lines currently calling at Grand Turk -- Carnival, Silversea, Fred. Olsen and Holland America -- only Carnival offers fish- and coral-peeping shore excursions. For divers there are dives for both uncertified and certified divers, including diving the wall. Snorkelers can board a boat right from the cruise pier for a pair of stops: one reef and one stingray encounter. Lastly, for those who want bottom time but aren't ready to take up scuba, there is a helmet dive offered.
Best Sites or Areas: Bimini, the Abacos, or any smaller, undervisited islands
What's There: Nature has created a textbook environment for coral growth in the Bahamas, with the gulf stream bringing clear, nutrient-rich, warm water to a broad, shallow plateau, allowing an abundance of light to penetrate all the way to the sandy bottom. Bimini, sitting on the edge of a trench, scores both for shallow diving and snorkeling over lush, healthy reefs, and for scuba trips along the precipice. Shark feeds are popular out of Nassau, but at this point in time, no cruise line is offering them as an excursion.
Closest Ports of Call: Nassau, Freeport, Bimini, numerous cruise line private islands
Our Pick: Our vote goes to Royal Caribbean.
Why: Royal Caribbean scores on two fronts. First of all, they have an onboard water sports department, SeaTrek, which includes instruction and guidance for both scuba and snorkeling, and certification and Discover Scuba courses for those who want to try diving or get the full rating. On CocoCay, their private island in the Berry Group, both supervised scuba and snorkeling excursions are offered. They also have the widest range of dive and snorkel trips offered from Nassau and Freeport.
U.S. Virgin Islands
Best Sites or Areas: Caneel, Hawksnest, Jumbie, Trunk and Cinnamon Bays; Steven's Henley, Rata, Durlos and Whistling Cays
What's There: For snorkelers, most of the action takes place in the St. John National Park. The highly irregular northern coast of St. John creates numerous sheltered bays with calm, clear shallows and decent numbers and varieties of coral and sea life to keep snorkelers' interest. Though Trunk Bay is the best known, it is also the most visited and shows the most coral damage. Further afield are St. John's many small cays, or islets, many of which have the feel of deserted islands, with pint-sized beaches you can snorkel to or from. For divers, the points of land that form the borders of the bays continue offshore as underwater ridges, ideal for leisurely exploration. In the pass between St. John and the British Virgin Islands' Norman Island, it's not uncommon to see large pelagic fish, including tuna and shark.
Closest Port of Call: St. John
Our Pick: Windstar, hands down
Why: With onboard PADI instructors, Windstar's dive program is second to none, offering not only ship-conducted dive trips, but also 11 different certifications and specialties, everything from Discover Scuba to Advanced. Windstar ships have excellent sports platforms and gear storage. The service could not be more pampering; you simply exits your cabin in the morning and walk down to the aft end of the ship and into the waiting Zodiac, into which your gear has already been assembled and loaded.
British Virgin Islands (Tortola)
Best Sites or Areas: Norman, Peter and Salt Islands
What's There: The small islands across the Sir Francis Drake Channel south of Tortola offer an incredible wealth of dive sites including wrecks, reefs, walls and canyons. Some sites, like The Indians, near Norman Island, are excellent both for snorkeling and diving, having areas as deep as 60 feet or as shallow as five. The Caves, along Norman's north shore, are rumored to have been the repository for many a buccaneer's booty. Now they give snorkelers the unusual opportunity to snorkel in and out of short caves among hordes of tiny silversides. Nearby Peter Island is home to one of the most eerily beautiful dive sites anywhere, Painted Walls, where divers glide through steep narrow canyons coated in sponges of Day-Glo oranges, reds, greens and purples. Salt Island is home to one of the world's most popular wrecks, the RMS Rhone, a 19th-century mail steamer lost in a hurricane.
Closest Ports of Call: Norman Island, though reachable with ease from Road Town, Tortola
Our Pick: Star Clippers
Why: Star Clippers is the only line that currently calls at Norman Island. In addition, Star Clippers has an extensive onboard snorkeling program, with many ship-conducted trips leaving the ship by Zodiac, including to the Caves. We gave Star Clippers the nod for scuba, too, though we do so with a number of caveats. First, Star Clippers' ships do not have sports platforms, requiring guests to lug gear up and down stairs to get to the gangway, made worse by the fact that Star Clippers uses the much heavier European steel tanks rather than lighter aluminum ones favored by Americans. Additionally, we have found that Star Clippers does not overlap dive teams. In other words, most other lines which conduct their own dive excursions have, at change of contract time, a period of a couple of weeks where the outgoing divemasters orient the incoming team to the location of all the best dive sites. Star Clipper does not.
British Virgin Islands (Virgin Gorda)
Best Sites or Areas: Ginger Island, The Baths, The Dog Islands
What's There: The Baths, though mostly devoid of coral, is a popular snorkeling spot nonetheless. Ginger Island has some nice walls and broad slopes where rays and sharks are common. The Dog Islands have some diveable caves, and a spot called Coral Gardens, in the middle of which is an actual plane wreck.
Closest Ports of Call: Spanish Town or North Sound Virgin Gorda
Our Pick: Windstar
Why: For the same reasons mentioned earlier. With onboard PADI instructors, Windstar's dive program is second to none, offering not only ship-conducted dive trips, but also 11 different certifications and specialties, everything from Discover Scuba to Advanced. Windstar ships have excellent sports platforms and gear storage. The service could not be more pampering; you simply exits your cabin in the morning and walk down to the aft end of the ship and into the waiting Zodiac, into which your gear has already been assembled and loaded.
--by Steve Faber. South Florida-based Faber is a longtime contributor to Cruise Critic. Beyond our Web site, Faber's work has appeared in a myriad of outlets, including Cruise Travel Magazine, "The Miami Herald" and "The Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising."
First image appears courtesy of the BVI Tourist Board.