Peep with the fishes at these snorkeling hot spots
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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.
SNORKEL VS. SCUBA
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 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 only 3 million went scuba diving. Snorkeling is almost equally as popular with men and women, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
Leach says, "The youngest snorkeler I had was 3 years, and the oldest was 93, so it is something that anybody can do at any age."
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.
Here are four places recommended for extreme beginners. Hardly the top snorkeling destinations in the world, they're still amazing. All have snorkeling gear available for rent. Prices vary, but all are about $15.
COKI BEACH, ST. THOMAS
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.
TRUNK BAY, ST. JOHN
Follow the underwater snorkeling trail, which even has plaques under the water. Sometimes, it can be a bit wavy or cloudy.
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.
CHANKANAAB NATIONAL PARK
Cozumel, Mexico, cozumelparks.com
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 offshore to see, too.
One resort, Anthony's Key, offers snorkeling packages that include lodging, meals and several snorkeling trips, including one at night. Rates from $769 a person (double occupancy) for 7 nights (anthonyskey.com).
BONAIRE, NETHERLANDS ANTILLES
One of the most famous diving spots in the world, the southern Caribbean island also has multiple shore diving and snorkeling opportunities, notably at Andrea II Shallow and Klein Bonaire.
THREE TABLES AND HANAUMA BAY
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.
The South Water Cay 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
Underwater preserve with excellent snorkeling.
HERON ISLAND, GREAT BARRIER REEF
Remote location with walk-in reef snorkeling. Heron Island resort offers guided reef tours, half-day snorkeling tours and semi-underwater rides in an amphibious vessel. Rates from about $340 a night.
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU FIJI ISLANDS RESORT, FIJI
One of the best dive resorts in the world also offers guided snorkeling. All-inclusive rates from $690 a night for two people.
* 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.
To shoot fantastic underwater snorkeling photos, you need a waterproof housing for your camera or a decent waterproof camera. I tried a Fuji disposable underwater camera (about $10), and only two of the 27 photos were decent. A photo editor used a Canon PowerShot SD960 ($329.99) with the additional waterproof housing (about $160, Canon WP-DC32). The results were excellent.
* 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.