Snorkeling the waters of St. John, Virgin Islands is for me–and for many others–one of the most rewarding and fun things to do on St. John. The water is warm and tranquil. It’s normally easy to get in and out of the water.
You move effortlessly, unencumbered by gravity, and experience the wonderful and colorful world of the coral reefs, sea grassbeds and mangrove lagoons that surround St. John in the magnificent Virgin Islands.
Knowing correct snorkeling technique, understanding the St John’s undersea environment and being able to identify and know about what you will see in this strange new world will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the sport, as well as alerting you any possible safety or environmental concerns.
For this reason, that in addition to your mask fins and snorkel you bring with you a knowledge of what you will be looking at when you enter the beautiful underwater world of the Virgin Islands.
Learning to Snorkel
If you’ve never snorkeled before and you’re here on St. John, this is the ideal opportunity to learn this easy, relaxing and rewarding activity. The underwater world that lies just offshore of our magnificent beaches awaits you in clear, calm and non-threatening waters.
The key to enjoyable snorkeling is to be comfortable in the water and with your equipment. You will need mask, fins and snorkel, preferably ones that you’ve bought from a reputable dive shop whose salespeople have guided you toward obtaining the appropriate gear.
If you have access to a swimming pool, this will be a good place to start. If not, a calm beach will serve just as well. If there are waves breaking on the beaches of the north shore, try a south shore beach.
Virgin Island waters are fairly warm, even in the winter. Nonetheless, you want to have a positive and enjoyable snorkeling experience. So if you feel cold do something about it. Buy a dive skin, a wet vest, or a lightweight wet suit, depending on how much cold management you as an individual need.
Now, sit by the pool and dangle your feet in the water, sit in your beach chair by the sea or wade out from the beach into shallow water. Put on your mask. Put the snorkel in your mouth and get used to mouth breathing through the snorkel. Breathe a bit more slowly and a little deeper than normal to compensate for the already breathed air that will remain in the snorkel after you have exhaled.
Clearing Your Snorkel
After you feel comfortable breathing through the snorkel, get into the water about waist deep. Put your head in the water and just breathe for a while. When you feel comfortable try a snorkel clearing exercise. Bend your head down and allow some water to get into your snorkel. Slowly breathe in just enough air to blow out forcefully, shooting the water out of your snorkel. Then inhale carefully, making sure all the water has been expelled from the snorkel tube.
Relaxed Fetal Position
Now take in a deep breath and put your head underwater. The snorkel will fill with water. Still looking down with your face in the water, raise up your head until it is at surface level. Again blow the water out of the snorkel tube, inhale carefully and then continue normal breathing.
When you feel confident that you can breathe through your snorkel and get rid of any water that gets inside, you will be ready for the next step, the relaxed fetal position. Begin by standing in waist-deep water, with your mask and snorkel in place. Put your head in the water and breathe gently and deeply. Now let yourself float, curling up into the fetal position and just relax. Let your arms and legs hang loose and go where they want. Try to achieve a state of mind where you are so relaxed that you feel like you could just about fall asleep.
Clearing Your Mask
The next thing to practice will be how to clear your mask if needed. While floating in shallow water with your mask and snorkel, deliberately pull your mask away from your face so that water gets inside. Lift your head out of the water and pull the bottom of the mask away from your face allowing the water to drain out. Replace your mask and continue floating.
Practice Your Kick
Once you have gained a level of comfort breathing through the snorkel, clearing it and clearing your mask and have practiced the relaxed fetal position, you will be ready to put on your fins.
Practice your flutter kick. This is a leisurely up and down kick with most of the thrust coming on the down stroke. The power of this kick should come from the hips and upper legs. Kicking from below the knees is called the bicycle kick and not only is it inefficient, but it looks funny to boot.
While still in shallow water practice maneuvering about, making turns and adjusting your speed. Also learn to judge distances, taking into account that everything will look about twenty-five percent closer when looking underwater through your mask.
Now you should be able to venture out to explore the reef and the underwater world. Go out with an experienced buddy, relax and enjoy.
Choosing your Mask
The mask is the most important piece of snorkeling equipment. Our eyes are designed to function in air and the mask provides an airspace allowing our eyes to focus and see clearly through the water.
You should always buy your own mask. Rental equipment or borrowed gear may not provide a prefect fit. When your mask fits properly, it will not only be comfortable, but will be able to provide that all-important watertight seal. This means no leaks at all, however tiny. (Snorkeling with an uncomfortable or leaky mask can make snorkeling a miserable experience.)
To check if a mask fits and is watertight, tilt your head up and place it on your face without the strap. It should sit snugly with no spaces. Breathe in through your nose and lower your head. The mask should stick to your face and stay there without you holding on to it. Be sure there is no air leakage.
Now put on the strap and adjust it tight enough that it holds the mask in place, but no tighter than that. (A common mistake among beginning snorkelers is to over tighten the strap; something that causes, rather than prevents, leaks.) Make sure that your hair is not caught in the mask. Attach the snorkel and put it in your mouth. Inhale through your nose and check once more for any air leaks.
Make sure the nosepiece fits comfortably around your nose without touching it. The nosepiece should have finger pockets so you can easily close off the nasal air passage. This is important if you intend to go below the surface or free dive.
In the old days, masks were made out of black rubber. Nowadays, the best masks are made with clear, surgical-grade silicone, which is soft, flexible and hypoallergenic. Watch out for bargain specials; masks made out of clear PVC. This material looks like silicone, but is much harder and not as flexible. PVC masks are often uncomfortable and may leak.
If you have a mustache, the only mask for you will be the high-grade silicone variety. It’s also a good idea to apply a small amount of a petroleum jelly product like Vaseline to your mustache.
Masks come in many styles, with single, double and side lens options. The important thing is that the lens or lenses be made of tempered safety glass, which will be scratch-resistant and will not shatter upon impact. Always emphasize safety, a comfortable fit and water tightness, after that whatever style or color suits you best will be fine.
A rule of thumb for SCUBA divers is, “if you need glasses to drive, you need glasses to dive.” For snorkelers it is not as critical, but your enjoyment of the underwater world will certainly be enhanced if you can see it clearly. If you need glasses, check to see if your mask is corrective lens adaptable. Have your personal prescription installed in your mask, which will be much better than buying a mask with a readymade corrective lens.
Things look about 25% closer when looking at them underwater. So if you just need reading glasses, you may not need corrective lenses. The magnifying effect of the mask underwater should also be taken into account when judging distances while snorkeling. Everything looks closer than it actually is.
Preparing a new mask
When you first buy a mask you will need to clean it to remove the oily film that is applied at the factory to protect the lens during shipping. Use a commercial mask cleaner and not a household cleaner, the remnants of which could get in your eyes when the mask gets wet.
Defogging your mask
As much as a leaky mask is annoying and detracts from your snorkeling enjoyment, so is a mask that keeps fogging up. The standard defogging agent is plain old spit, but today several commercial defogging agents are readily available at dive shops.
Spit on the mask lens or a pply a few drops of the defogging liquid and rub it around. Rinse your mask with water. (Seawater will be fine.)
Put the mask on and begin snorkeling right away. If you wait too long, or walk around on land with your mask on, it will probably fog up, even with the defogger applied.
Getting water out of your mask
Sometimes even the best fitting masks can fill with water. If this happens to you, the easiest way to clear the mask is to lift your head out of the water and pull the bottom of the mask away from your face allowing the water to drain out. Replace your mask and continue snorkeling.
When you return from your snorkel adventure, rinse your mask with fresh water and let it dry in the shade. Store it in a dry place, preferably in a protective box that will also keep it safe from damage when you travel.
Choosing Your Snorkel
Before the invention of the snorkel, whales and dolphins must have been baffled by the creatures they would sometimes observe swimming on the ocean’s surface. These life forms called themselves human beings. They seemed to be aquatic mammals like the cetaceans, but there was something very strange about them. Their breathing holes were on the wrong side of their heads.
Modern man has now compensated for this obvious biological disadvantage. Human beings have developed and produced a simple tube, the short end of which goes in their mouths while the long end sticks out of the water and into the air. This ingenious device effectively changes the location of their breathing holes to the other side of their heads allowing the human beings to move efficiently on the surface of the water without having to constantly lift up their heads to breathe.
With snorkels, it is not necessary to get anything fancy, although more and more fancy options are available. Following are some tips on purchasing the right snorkel for you.
Buying a Snorkel
Like masks, the best snorkels are made out of silicone. You should make sure that the mouthpiece is comfortable before you make your snorkel purchase. This means trying it out in the shop. Hopefully they’ll have something there to clean off the mouthpiece before you put in it your mouth.
The diameter of the snorkel tube should be wide enough to permit unrestricted breathing, but narrow enough so that you can easily blow out any water that gets in the tube. To check if the snorkel tube is of the proper diameter, the rule of thumb is to use your thumb – it should fit snugly inside the tube.
State-of-the-art snorkels are usually elliptical instead of a straight up and down. This is a better hydrodynamic design and lets the snorkel move through the water more easily, cutting down on snorkel drag, which can pull on your mask and cause leakage.
Another consideration is how the snorkel attaches to the mask. You’ll want the snorkel to sit at a good angle to the water so that it doesn’t pull on the mask in such a way that causes the mask to leak or doesn’t sit so low that water can get inside the snorkel easily. Because you won’t be able to see how the snorkel rides in the water, you should have someone else observe you and help you make the final adjustments. It is not a good idea to support your snorkel between the mask strap and your head. Not only will this get uncomfortable after a while, but it also may cause the mask to leak.
If you intend to keep your mask in a box, then it will be necessary to detach the snorkel when storing the mask. In this case, an easy to connect and disconnect clip system will keep this procedure from becoming a frustrating experience. If you just leave your mask with the snorkel attached, in a dive bag for instance, then the ease of attachment and detachment is less critical.
Using Your Snorkel
When you dive below the surface, water will enter the snorkel tube. The traditional method of clearing the snorkel is to blow out a strong puff of air, which will shoot the water out of the tube. You should breathe in carefully at first to make sure that all the water is out of your snorkel, before breathing normally.
Many snorkels now come with a purge valve. This is a one way flap of silicone, usually positioned at the bottom of the tube that lets most of the water drain from the bottom instead of having to be pushed out at the top. With the purge valve, a small puff of air usually suffices to drain the snorkel tube.
Water may also enter the snorkel accidentally, for example, from waves or from splashing water. Another snorkel option, the splashguard, helps to keep water out of your snorkel while you’re moving about on the surface.
When you take your first breath through a snorkel, fresh air from the atmosphere goes through the snorkel and into your lungs. When you exhale, your breath goes through the snorkel and into the air. On subsequent breaths, you must first breathe the oxygen-depleted air that remained in your snorkel from your previous exhalation. To compensate for this, you should take long deep breaths.
If you are seeking a high tech solution to the problem of stale air, the Fresh-Air snorkel made by the Air Tech Company has developed a system that allows you to breathe fresh air only. This snorkel is designed with separate inhalation and exhalation chambers with one way valves to direct the airflow.
Snorkels are traditionally worn on the left side, because when used with scuba gear, the regulator goes on the right. If you are just snorkeling or skin diving as it is sometimes called, you can wear the snorkel on either side. Nonetheless, it is probably better to wear it on the left side if just to develop good habits if you ever try scuba diving, if not just to impress other people, or passing whales and dolphins, with your diving sophistication.
Unlike other creatures that inhabit or venture into the sea, we human beings seem particularly ill adapted to the ocean environment. For one thing, our fins lack the necessary surface area to propel us efficiently through the water. Through science and technology, however, we have compensated for this disadvantage by inventing prosthetic rubber fins that fit over the small inefficient fins that we call feet.
For some reason many beginner snorkelers feel that they do not need fins. This is a big mistake. Using fins we can move through the water further, faster and with much less effort than by depending on bare feet or by using our arms. Moreover, fins make it possible to dive and swim underwater leisurely and efficiently, opening up a beautiful underwater world invisible from the surface of the water.
Most importantly, snorkeling with fins is safer than snorkeling without them. They protect your feet when you first get in the water. They can get you out of trouble if you get caught in a current that is too strong to negotiate without fins and they can get you back to the beach or to your boat more quickly if an emergency arises.
Choosing Your Fins
Like your other snorkeling gear, comfort is the key. Ill-fitting fins are no fun at all. They can cause blisters that not only will ruin your snorkeling experience, but can also put a crimp in your style for other activities as well.
Bad experiences derived from using fins that don’t fit well may be behind many of beginning snorkelers’ decisions not to wear fins at all. To avoid these problems, don’t depend on borrowed, rented or bargain-basement packaged snorkeling sets. Purchase your own personal fins and try them on in the store before you buy. Look for flexible lightweight fins made with a soft rubber that feels good on your feet.
There are two basic types of fins. The full foot variety is worn over bare feet and covers the entire bottom of the foot. The adjustable variety has an open heel. They are held on by adjustable heel straps and are worn over dive booties.
Snorkelers generally prefer the lighter, more flexible full foot fins, while most SCUBA divers prefer the adjustable variety, which tend to be stiffer and heavier, but offers more thrust and more protection. For snorkeling, either one will work as long as it feels good.
The length, shape and style of the fins should be compatible with your size and strength. For example, longer fins provide more propulsion, but require more strength and more effort. It is best to buy your fins at a reputable dive shop where they can help you pick out the right fins for your needs.
Using Your Fins
If you are getting in from a beach in calm conditions with a safe sandy bottom, wade out to waist-deep water and put your fins on then. In rougher conditions or in water with an unknown bottom, put your fins on first and walk into the water backwards.
From a boat, put your fins on just before going into the water, or get into the water first and have someone hand you your fins one by one. Take your fins off before you get back in the boat. Don’t walk about the vessel with them on. It is dangerous and annoying to others.
Once in the water, use your fins for propulsion. Let your arms rest comfortably at your sides. The kick you will be using most will be a leisurely, up and down kick called the flutter kick. Keep your knees slightly bent. Don’t tense up your ankles. This will cause cramps. Don’t kick from below the knees, it is not efficient and looks funny. Most of the thrust of your kick will come on the down stroke with the power coming from your hips and upper legs.
To increase your speed, use faster rather than longer kicks and for sudden bursts of speed try the dolphin kick.
To vary muscle use and to avoid fatigue, alternate your flutter kick with the somewhat slower frog kick.
One other word of advice for beginners; the correct terminology is fins and not “flippers.”
Dangers and Environmental Concerns
Many beginning snorkelers are uncomfortable in the water because they are afraid of what unknown terrors may be lurking about. Most of these fears, especially the fear of fish, are either unreasonable or grossly exaggerated. On the other hand, there are other, more probable, dangers that the beginning snorkeler may not even be aware of.
The most common fear is the fear of sharks, a preoccupation that has become almost a national obsession, due mostly to movies like “Jaws.” Nonetheless, if you are snorkeling in the Virgin Islands in relatively shallow water, near the shore, and are not spear fishing, chances are great that you will never even see a shark. On the unlikely event that you do see one, it is extremely doubtful that it will have the slightest interest in you. For extra safety, calmly snorkel back to the beach or your boat.
The next most feared fish is the barracuda. They are curious and often come alongside a snorkeler and look at them. Barracudas have the disconcerting habit of opening and closing their mouths displaying their sharp teeth and a serious overbite. This motion is not meant to frighten or to warn. It is simply a part of the way they breathe. Barracudas feed on fish very much smaller than themselves, which would exclude big, fierce-looking human beings.
I have never known of anyone getting attacked by a barracuda, and this includes spearfishers and SCUBA divers. But, to stay on the safe side, it would probably be better not to wear shiny jewelry while snorkeling. The theory here is that a visually challenged barracuda or one hunting in murky water might mistake that glittering object for a little fish and go after it. I’ve never known of this actually happening, but it won’t hurt to take this precaution.
Although anything is possible, not everything is probable. Shark and barracuda attacks on Virgin Island snorkelers are so overwhelmingly improbable that they should not be a cause for concern.
Snorkelers should be aware that there are other dangerous animals that they do need to watch out for. First and foremost are corals. Yes, corals are animals, not plants or rocks. They do have a rock-like exoskeleton that is sharp and coarse. When your skin is wet, it can be cut easily so even light contact may result in abrasions that can be itchy, annoying, and slow to heal.
Not only can coral hurt you, but also you can hurt it. Just lightly brushing up against live coral can damage the surface mucus layer, making the animal more susceptible to infection. Worse yet, is when snorkelers inadvertently kick coral with their fins or actually stand on the living coral reef when they get tired or frightened. Coral is extremely slow growing, so the results of such damage can be long lasting.
Another common hazard is the spiny sea urchin. These are the black spherical creatures that look like little black land mines. The central body is about two to three inches in diameter and the spines can be as long as eight inches. If you step on or bump into one, the sharp spines can easily puncture your skin, break off and remain imbedded there. Once in your flesh, the spines are difficult to get out. They usually dissolve after a while, but the wounds can be painful, annoying and can become infected easily.
The key to dealing with sea urchins is to avoid them. If you are getting into the water at a rocky or coral strewn location, wear your fins into the water. Walk backwards and watch where you step. When snorkeling, watch where you’re going especially in shallow water or in tight quarters within the reef.
Another animal to watch out for is the jellyfish. Most species encountered in the Virgin Islands, such as the commonly found moon jelly, are fairly innocuous and contact with their tentacles usually has no effect at all. People with sensitive skin, however, could get a mild rash.
A more dangerous jellyfish, the sea wasp or box jelly, also can be found in our waters, but far less frequently. They are translucent with a dome-shaped body about three inches long and have four tentacles about six to twelve inches long. Although some people can have a serious allergic reaction, usually the sting, which is not nearly as bad as a regular wasp sting, leaves you with an itchy welt that takes about a week to go away. Treat sea wasp stings by applying vinegar over the effected area.
The Most Dangerous Animal of All
One more extremely dangerous animal often found in Virgin Island waters is the human being driving a motor boat, so be on the lookout. If snorkeling in areas not protected by swim buoys, use a dive flag and be especially careful.
Know Your Limits
Another aspect of snorkeling safety is to be aware of the water conditions and of your own your limitations. These will change with time and location. So take into consideration factors such as wind, waves, currents, breaking surf, boat traffic, water clarity and depth as well as your experience level and physical condition. Stay within your comfort zone and use a flotation device if necessary.
Salomon & Honeymoon
Some of the finest snorkeling on the north shore can be found on the reef between Salomon and Honeymoon Beaches. This easily accessible, shallow water snorkel can be thoroughly enjoyed by snorkelers of all experience levels.
Both Salomon and Honeymoon Beaches can be reached via the Lind Point Trail or from the Caneel Bay Resort.
Visitors arriving from the Caneel Bay Resort will be subject to a $20.00 parking fee that will be waived for those spending money at the resort’s facilities.
Snorkeling equipment, as well as single and double kayaks, standup paddle boards and beach chairs can be rented at the Honeymoon Beach Hut. Cold drinks ice cream and candy are also available for purchase. Other facilities available at Honeymoon Beach include a snack shop, rest rooms and lockers.
Most of the reef lies in calm shallow water with some sections even rising above the surface at times of extreme low tides, thus snorkelers should make an extra effort to avoid situations where the water is too shallow for them.The coral reef here is in relatively good condition and the reef community is colorful and diverse. Snorkelers will encounter intricate coral formations and lots of fish with different varieties arriving at different times of the day.
Snorkeling in the center of the bays can also be a worthwhile experience. Stay in areas protected by swim buoys to minimize danger from dinghy traffic in the area. Here, the environment is sand and coral rubble. You will have to look more carefully to find interesting activity, but there really is a great deal of life here. The hills and holes on the sea floor are formed by eels, worms, shrimp, clams and crabs that make their homes on this underwater beach.
Snorkeling just off the beach is also a good way for beginners to get practice before attempting to snorkel over the reef where there is a possibility of danger to both the snorkeler and to the reef from accidental contact.
The reef on the east end of Honeymoon around the point between Honeymoon and Caneel Bays is also a good snorkeling area. It’s closer to the beach and smaller than the more extensive reef on the other side of the bay. There are always a lot of fish here as well as some excellent examples of colorful elkhorn coral.
Salt Pond Bay
There’s a beautiful reef located just about in the center of Salt Pond Bay, where two sets of rocks rise above the surface of the water.
Snorkeling out to the left side of the reef, you should find a vibrant pillar coral that always seems to be a big attraction for colorful little fish.
Be aware that it is a somewhat long snorkel to reach the reef and that the sea is often choppy at times causing waves to break over the rocks. For these reasons, this snorkel is recommended for experienced snorkelers only.
For some reason, the Salt Pond Bay snorkel always rewards me with something exciting. Among other cool stuff, I’ve seen moray eels, turtles, nurse sharks and squid. You’ll also find plenty of reef fish, corals, sea fans and sponges.
Snorkeling out along the east side of the bay, you can reach the coral reefs that lie just north of the Blue Cobblestone Beach. This is a considerable distance also, so pace yourself, or to decrease the distance, take the Ram Head Trail to the beach and snorkel towards Salt Pond Bay.
Leinster Bay & Waterlemon Cay
Leinster Bay is made up of two smaller bays, Waterlemon Bay on the east and Mary’s Creek on the west. To reach Waterlemon Bay, which has two great snorkeling locations, take the Leinster Bay Trail beginning at the parking area for the Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins.
Unnamed Beach Snorkel
About half way (0.4 mile) down the Leinster Bay Trail lies a small sand and coral rubble beach, which provides excellent snorkeling for intermediate and advanced snorkelers. This is the first and only sandy beach that you pass on the trail before arriving at the beach across from Waterlemon Cay.
Enter the water over a shallow area of coral rubble. It is a relatively easy entry, but be careful where you step while putting on your gear to avoid contact with any sea urchins or live coral.
The reef extends out about 20 yards from shore. It is shallow over the top of the reef, but deep enough for experienced and confident snorkelers to negotiate safely. Care should be taken not to kick the coral with your fins. At the seaside edge of the reef is an underwater hillside, which descends about 30 feet to meet the sand and grass bottom of the center portion of the bay. A good plan is to snorkel west (to the left) over the shallow portion of the reef first, and then return along the deeper reef edge.
The dominant species of coral found in the shallow top reef are colonies of star and boulder coral. There are many small reef fish in the area. You will almost certainly see parrotfish, angelfish, grunts, damselfish and schools of blue tang along with a vast assortment of invertebrates such as sponges and plume worms.
Along the reef edge on the underwater hillside are gardens of sea fans and other gorgonians, such as sea rods, sea plumes, dead man’s fingers and sea whips. This section of reef tends to attract larger fish such as blue runners, mutton snapper, and yellowtail snapper.
There can be a moderate current here which sets to the west, as well as the possibility of a strong breeze blowing in the same direction. Be prepared for a more difficult return to the beach, as you will be going against the chop and the current.
Many visitors name Waterlemon Cay, the small island found off the beach at the end of the Leinster Bay Trail, as their favorite snorkel.
Enter the water from the beach and snorkel towards Waterlemon Cay. The distance between the beach and the cay is about 0.2-mile. You’ll be snorkeling over seagrass lying in about 25 feet of water. This is the best place on St. John to see starfish. Also, look for conch, sea cucumbers, green turtles and stingray, creatures that also frequent this sand and grass environment.
To decrease the snorkeling distance to the island, follow the trail at the far end of the beach. Bear left at the first fork in the trail, which will continue to follow the shoreline. At the end of this trail, walk along the shore and choose a convenient place close to Waterlemon Cay to enter the water. The distance across the channel to the island is only about 0.1 mile. This entry is from the rocky shoreline to a rocky bottom. Be careful not to step on live coral or sea urchins.
From this entry point to the eastern part of Waterlemon Cay, you will snorkel over an area of seagrass and scattered reef. Closer to the island the water becomes quite shallow. Here you will see schools of blue tang and some very large parrotfish. You can hear the parrotfish crunching their beak like teeth along the surface of the rocks and dead coral. They do this to scrape off algae. Chunks of coral and algae pass through the parrotfish’s unique digestive system and are excreted as fine coral sand. Much of the sand on our beautiful beaches is produced in this manner.
Around the north and west sides of the island, the underwater seascape is truly an “Octopuses’ Garden.” There are several varieties of hard coral, including excellent specimens of brain coral. Sea fans and sea plumes are found on the deeper parts of the reef. The whole area is teeming with fish and other sea creatures. Look for eels in holes and for octopus where you find opened seashells piled together, signaling a place where they have feasted.
Best Undersea Grasslands Environment
Maho Bay offers the snorkeler a wonderful seagrass environment. Maho is the best bay on St. John for observing the inhabitants of this important environment such as sea turtles, rays, conch and starfish in a calm and non-threatening environment.
Green Sea Turtle and Remora
Perfect for Beginner Snorkelers and Children
Because of the way its situated Maho Bay is usually the calmest of the north shore beaches. Moreover the water deepens gradually and stays relatively shallow as you wade out from the beach. These factors make Maho Bay the perfect starting place for children and those just learning to snorkel.
Good Reef Snorkeling as Well
Maho Bay also offers good reef snorkeling for those looking to explore the sealife on a coral reef. The best area for this is along the coast on the northern side of the bay and out to the big rocks at Maho Point.
The rocky north coast on the right hand side of the beach offers excellent snorkeling, especially during the summer months when large schools of fry congregate close to shore. These small silvery fish travel in close proximity to one another in large schools that look like moving underwater shadows.
On the outskirts of these living clouds, in slightly deeper water, lurk predators, such as jacks, yellowtail snapper, Spanish mackerel and barracuda as well some respectfully-sized tarpon and pompano. Every now and then, one of these larger fish will enter to feed, moving quickly into the glittery mass. The fry are extremely sensitive to minute changes in water currents and can sense the approach of the hunters. In a burst of speed, they move away from the oncoming predators. Some are successful and some are eaten. Some breach the surface of the water, fly through the air and splash back into the sea. This splash, however, puts them into yet more danger. Waiting pelicans and brown boobies swoop down in the vicinity of the splash scooping up big mouthfuls of unlucky fry.
In the midst of all this activity, large schools of French grunts, oblivious to the drama around them, hover, almost motionless, over and around colorful live coral.
Parrotfish and blue tang swim about grazing on algae.
Little damselfish defend their self-proclaimed territories by darting menacingly at even large intruders.
A closer look will reveal all sorts of beautiful and mysterious sea creatures like small eels, feather duster and Christmas tree worms, brightly colored sponges and gracefully swaying gorgonians such as the colorful sea fan.
In the underwater grasslands just seaward of the reef, snorkelers are likely to come upon large green sea turtles often accompanied by stuck-on remora or bar jacks that follow along just inches above the turtle’s back. In this area one may also see southern stingrays, conch, trunkfish, and others.
Novices who feel more comfortable close to shore can have a rewarding snorkel around the rocks on the south side of the bay between Francis and little Maho or over the seagrass that lies in shallow water on the other end of the beach.
Whistling Cay & Mary Point
Taking advantage of the kayaks that are are available for rent at the
beach at Cinnamon Bay, intermediate and advanced snorkelers can access excellent snorkeling at Whistling Cay or Mary’s Point.
At Whistling Cay kayaks can be put ashore on the pebble beach
in the vicinity of the partially restored stone house on the
eastern side of the island, across the channel from Mary Point.
There are also other small cobblestone beaches on the west side
of the island near the mooring buoys. Once your kayak is securely
up on dry land, you can enter the water to enjoy the excellent
snorkeling all around Whistling Cay, the best of which is in
the vicinity of the big rocks off the northwestern point.
At Mary Point, there is a small beach where the kayaks can
easily be hauled out of the water. You’ll find beautiful
snorkeling all along the shoreline of the small passage, called
Fungi Passage, between Whistling Cay and St John. This area
may also be reached by snorkeling from the beach at Francis
Bay, but quite a bit of swim time will be spent in getting
there and getting back.
Be careful! Do not venture too far offshore, as there is the
ever-present danger of boat traffic in the passage.
Princess Bay Mangrove Snorkel
Starting from the intersection of Centerline Road (Routes 10)
and Salt Pond Road (Route 107), near the Coral Bay Moravian Church, proceed east 1.8 miles on the East End Road (Route 10) to the mangrove-lined Princess Bay. The bay is close to the road. Enter
the water at any convenient spot and once in the water head east
(left), where the mangrove roots grow in water deep enough to
comfortably accommodate snorkeling.
Mangrove Fringe Forests
The prospect of snorkeling in the mangroves is not often greeted
with enthusiasm. Mangroves are usually thought of as hot, buggy,
smelly swamps. This assessment is essentially correct for mangrove
basin forests found in the Virgin Islands and elsewhere. These
occur where mountain guts flow into large flatlands bordered
by shallow well-protected bays. Mangrove basin forests can
be hot and muggy, with little breeze and lots of bugs. Moreover,
the abundance of decaying organic matter in the swamp sends
off a decidedly disagreeable odor, so that, all in all, snorkeling
the basin forest mangroves is not particularly inviting.
Another type of mangrove habitat, however, called a fringe forest,
can also be found in the Virgin Islands. In a fringe forest,
mangroves grow along a narrow, partially submerged shelf situated
between a well-protected bay and sharply rising hillsides. Because
these mangroves are confined to a narrow shelf of land, there
are no extensive wetlands and less organic debris, hence the
fringe forest is far less humid, supports less insect life, and
is not foul smelling like the basin forest. Here, snorkelers
can comfortably observe the mangrove habitat, a vast underwater
nursery, serving almost all the species of fish that will eventually
live around and within the coral reefs.
Mangrove Sea Life
You can snorkel right up to the mangroves. Don’t wear fins
for this snorkel. Taking care not to kick up sediment, look inside
the tangle of roots. You will be astounded by this vast nursery
for tiny fish, such as miniature, blue tang, French grunts, yellowtail
snapper, butterfly fish, jacks, damselfish, sergeant majors,
parrotfish, old wife, fry and barracuda. The dense, shallow environment of the mangrove roots offers an exceptionally wide variety of baby fish safety from the appetites of larger fish as well as
a thick soup of nutrients provided by the decay of mangrove leaves
The more you look, the more you’ll see – small colorful corals
and sponges encrusted to the mangrove roots, oysters, baby lobsters, shrimp, crabs, sea cucumbers, sea urchins and conchs. You may find it amusing to observe the tiny barracudas, some just an
inch or two long, exhibiting the same fierce behavior as their larger counterparts, lying almost motionless in the water waiting for the opportunity to dart out and devour fish that are even tinier than themselves.
The long white strands that look like thread or thin spaghetti
belong to a class of tubeworms aptly named spaghetti worms.
Gently touch the strand and watch it withdraw slowly back into
Another strange creature that inhabits the underwater mangrove
environment is the upside-down jellyfish. Jellyfish are in the same family as corals and exhibit many of the same traits, the main difference being that jellyfish live individually while corals live in communities.
The upside-down jellyfish supplements its diet of whatever it can trap within its tentacles with food produced through photosynthesis by single-celled algae that have a symbiotic relationship with the jellyfish. As compensation for sharing their food, the algae are allowed to live, secure from danger, inside the poisonous tentacles of the jellyfish. The upside-down jellyfish spends most of its life lying upside-down on the bottom of mangrove lagoons, allowing the algae to get sunlight.
The scientific name of the upside-down jellyfish is Cassiopeia frondosa. Virginia Barlow in her excellent book, The Nature of the Islands, gives this explanation of the origin of the name: “Cassiopeia was a mythical queen who was turned into a constellation by a group of gods who favored her. She was then positioned in the sky by another group of gods who were her bitter rivals. These gods placed her so far north that she appeared upside-down for much of the year, a punishment for her vanity.”
Also commonly seen on fringe forest mangrove snorkels are several
varieties of algae with descriptive names such as Neptune’s
shaving brush, white scroll algae, mermaid’s fan, and the sea
pearl, an iridescent algae, which is one of the largest one-celled
organism in the world. They can be as big as a ping pong ball.
Haulover Bay (North)
Haulover Bay lies three miles past the Coral Bay Moravian Church going east on the East End Road (Route 10). Park on the south side of the road alongside the small sand and coral rubble beach.
Haulover is a narrow, flat strip of land separating Coral Bay on the south from Sir Francis Drake Channel on the north. The name Haulover came about because it was often easier to just “haul” small boats over this stretch of land than to make the long sail around East End, notorious for strong currents, gusty winds and rough seas.
The Northwestern Side
To reach the northern section of Haulover Bay, take the trail on the other (north) side of the road. It is an easy path about 100 yards long that goes over flat terrain, passing by a small salt pond about half way along the trail.
This snorkel is recommended for experienced snorkelers only. On most days, waves break along the shoreline and over the shallow reef, so try to choose a day when the sea is calm and the water is not churned up.
You can enter the water at the rock beach at the end of the trail. The water is shallow at first and the bottom is made up of small rocks and coral rubble. Watch out for black spiny sea urchins hiding here.
The reef rises up close to the surface near the shore and then slopes down to a depth of about thirty feet. Several varieties of hard coral including star, brain, elkhorn, staghorn and pillar coral can be found here as well as gorgonians, such as sea fans, sea plumes and dead man’s fingers. Commonly seen fish on the reef are tang, snapper, grunts, parrotfish and angelfish.
Look under ledges and in holes to see lobsters, eels and small fish seeking protection in their little hiding places.
Green turtles, stingrays and conch can be seen over the grassy areas, which make up most of the central portion of the bay.
The eastern end of Haulover Bay can be reached by following the shoreline east for a little less than a half a mile where you will find a small sand beach. When entering the shallow water, take care to avoid sea urchins and living coral.
Snorkel out along the eastern coast toward the point. Close to the shore are patches of sand and grass with scattered coral heads. The grass environment attracts rays, green turtles, starfish and conch.
There is a small fringe forest of mangroves along the coast. Just past these mangroves, you will come to an underwater hillside garden of coral. This beautiful environment continues out and around the point. You will see many large, purple sea fans and other gorgonians as well as hard corals, such as star, elkhorn and brain coral. In some areas, exquisite corals and sponges of every color imaginable encrust the underwater rock faces. Fish, such as parrotfish, snappers, jacks, grunts and schools of blue tang, abound just about everywhere along the reef, as do anemones, feather duster worms and sea cucumbers.
Haulover Bay (South)
The southern side of Haulover Bay lies just off the side of Route 10. This beautiful bay was featured in the movie Big Blue. The southern bay is calmer than its counterpart on the north, has an easier entry, and is more suitable for beginning and intermediate snorkelers.
Snorkel along the western shore toward the point and around the offshore rocks, called the blinders. Sea cucumbers are particularly plentiful here. Soft starfish, red sea urchins and bristle worms can be seen under the rocks in shallow areas.
Blue Cobblestone Beach Snorkel
The Blue Cobblestone Beach snorkel offers the opportunity to
explore an underwater environment that usually occurs further
offshore and in deeper waters. Ram Head Point protects the bay
from winds and waves leaving the reef in clear, calm water.
From the Salt Pond Bay Parking lot, take the short trail down
to the bay. Walk to the other end of beach and start out on
the Ram Head Trail, which begins as a shoreline walk along
the west side of the Ram Head Peninsula and take the trail
as far as the Blue Cobblestone Beach.
Enter the water at the north end of the beach near the large
black rocks. The bottom is cobblestone and getting into the
water is almost as easy as from a sandy beach.
Begin by snorkeling around the large rocks at the corner of
the beach. These rocks are encrusted with the mustard yellow
fire coral, which is very attractive but can give snorkelers
a mild sting if touched. There are also many colorful sponges
and various types of hard coral in this area.
As you continue north around the point, you will start to see
underwater channels known as spur and groove systems and the
fringing reef along the rocky coast gets larger, deeper and more
colorful. At the seaward edge of this reef is a channel of sand
about ten yards wide that separates the fringing reef from a
neighboring patch reef farther offshore. The patch reef is surrounded by sand and lies in about twenty-five feet of water forming a pinnacle, which rises to a depth of about six feet.
This area is full of life, diverse and colorful. To fully appreciate
it, the snorkeler should have the ability to pressurize and dive
down in order to explore the lower areas of the reef.
There is a good deal of fire coral encrustation, but true hard
coral varieties are also plentiful. Look for pillar, star, staghorn,
elkhorn and lettuce corals. Try to identify all the different
colors of sponges found here. Gorgonians, such as sea fans, sea
whips, sea rods and sea plumes grow on many sections of the reef
and sway gracefully with the currents.
This healthy reef community supports a diverse fish population
including grazing reef fish like parrotfish and blue tang and
fast swimming predators such as Spanish mackerel, yellowtail
snapper , blue runners, barracudas and tarpon.
On the fringing reef across the sand channel from the patch
reef is an area where the coral forms a ledge a few feet above
the sea bottom. Dive down and explore under the ledge to see
different species of coral and interesting marine life.
The Tektite snorkel is one of the absolute best snorkeling spots
on the island of St. John, and, contrary to popular belief, it
can be accessed by land with relative ease. The name, Tektite,
refers to a research project conducted at Beehive Bay a small
cove on the southeastern tip of Great Lameshur Bay.
Getting there is part of the fun. The first step is to get to
Great Lameshur Bay on St. John’s south coast. Take Salt Pond
Road (Route 107) past Salt Pond Bay. The road heads west and
goes up and then down a the steep hill. Great Lameshur Bay
lies at the bottom of the hill. Park near the big tamarind
tree at the entrance to this large cobblestone beach.
Walk to the eastern end of the beach. A quarter-mile hike and
rock scramble along the western shore of Cabritte Horn Point
will take you to a remote and isolated coral rubble and sand
beach called Donkey Bight. This bay, an inner bay of Great Lameshur,
lies just to the north of Beehive Cove, the bay where the Tektite
project took place.
There are no particularly difficult areas to negotiate. The hike,
even carrying snorkel gear or light packs, is relatively easy,
scenic, and just challenging enough to add a little excitement
to the journey, without putting yourself in too much danger.
Nevertheless, be careful and watch your footing at all times!
The beach at Donkey Bight can be a destination in itself. It
is an idyllic little cove hardly ever frequented by anyone other
than yachtsmen who may tie up to the single mooring located about
thirty yards offshore.
Put on your gear and enter the water from the sand on the southern
end of the beach. Beehive Cove lies on the other side of the
small rocky point to the south.
You will be snorkeling in a location that is somewhat far away
from a convenient place to get out of the water, and there may
be areas of rough seas. For these reasons, this snorkel is recommended for experienced snorkelers only. For a full appreciation of this area, one should also have the ability to free dive in order to investigate the environments under ledges, beneath coral heads and within caves and tunnels. The snorkeling is best on calm days, when there is good visibility underwater.
Between Donkey Bight and Beehive Cove, you will find only scattered coral heads and small reefs, but there is usually an abundance of other interesting sea life such as tarpon, small reef fish, squid and sea cucumbers in this area.
As you approach Beehive Cove, the snorkeling becomes more exciting and more colorful. On the north side of the point, there is a
small cave with an exit to the surface. The walls and ceiling of the cave are covered with beautiful cup corals and sponges. As you snorkel around the point, or headland, which defines Beehive
Bay, you will see a line of large rocks, which seems to attract a good share of fish.
On the Beehive Cove side of the point, the water gets deeper. There are two rooms or chambers with rock walls on three sides. The second room is the most interesting, although both are beautiful. The eastern wall of the second room is encrusted with sponges and cup coral.
Because there is low light within the room, some of the coral animals may have their tentacles extended as if it were night on the reef. The thin yellow tentacles protruding from the small bright orange cups make the corals look like flowers.
Further along, there is a narrow channel in the rocks. On the
eastern side is a cave with an outlet to the other side. There
is at least one large dog snapper that likes to frequent this
cave, and he is quite an impressive fellow. At the far end of
the narrow channel is an exit to the other side over shallow
coral. It is possible to snorkel over it, but great care must
be taken, as there is usually a surge, which complicates things.
Depending on the roughness of the sea, it may be better to explore
the channel and then turn around and go back the way you came.
Around the next set of rocks is a wall encrusted with fire coral,
sponges, and cup corals that descends to a depth of about twenty
feet. Many small colorful fish can be seen along this wall, so
take the time to look closely. On top of this rock, above the
surface of the water, are concrete footings, which are all that
remains of the Tektite project.
Further from shore, you will see many beautiful coral heads,
which are the basis of fascinating marine communities.
There is a wide diversity of fish in the general area, which
include some of the fast swimming silvery fish such as mackerel,
jack, tarpon and barracuda.
Although you may want to continue along the coast to explore the rocks around the next point called Cabritte Horn Point, remember that you are getting quite far from your starting point.
A good time to return is after you pass the fire coral encrusted wall, where you can utilize the passage on the other side of the wall between the rocks and the shore as a loop for your U-turn.
Yawzi Point Snorkel
This exciting snorkel takes you around the rocky headland at
Yawzi Point, the peninsula that separates Great Lameshur and Little Lameshur Bays. The best snorkeling is relatively far from convenient entry and exit points. The seas can be choppy, and there can be some current. This snorkel should only be attempted by advanced snorkelers, and preferably, by those with the ability to free dive. It is also best to snorkel on calm days, or when the wind is out of the north.
Take the Yawzi Point Trail about half way to the end (0.2-mile). There will be a spur trail to the left that leads to a small well-hidden cove. Enter the water here and snorkel south towards the point.
All along this coast are a series of large rocks with beautiful
coral encrustation. Further out, in deeper water, are patches
of coral heads. There are many fish in the area and quite often
you will see large tarpon, mackerels and barracuda.
At the rocky southern tip of the peninsula, are steep large
rocks, some of which extend above the surface. There are several
classes of colorful hard corals, such as pillar, elkhorn, star
and boulder coral. The rocks and coral heads are close together
and form ledges, caves, arches, tunnels, grooves and channels.
Corals and sponges encrust most of the rocky overhangs and undersides of tunnels and arches. One short tunnel has an extremely beautiful blue sponge encrustation on the rock walls at the entrance.
Sea fans, sea plumes and sea whips add to the spectacular underwater scenery.
You can return the way you came or continue around the point
to the beach at Little Lameshur Bay. If you do continue on to
Lameshur Bay, think about shoes for the walk back on the Yawzi
Point Trail, notorious for small low-lying cactus, called suckers.
If there are beginners in your group, Little Lameshur has nice
easy snorkeling around the rocks just off the beach in calm shallow
water where they can snorkel while the more advanced snorkelers
can explore Yawzi Point.
Hawksnest Beach is the best place on St. John to observe beautiful elkhorn coral, which is still in fairly good condition. Unfortunately I have not seen any without signs of coral bleaching as evidenced by the white areas on the coral. Enjoy it while you can!
It is best to snorkel Hawksnest on days when the bay is calm and there are no north swells to churn up the water and diminish visibility.
To the right facing the water, there is a formation of black rocks that separates Hawksnest Beach from Gibney Beach. Snorkeling around these rocks is an excellent way for beginning snorkelers to practice and gain confidence in a safe, shallow and non-threatening environment while still being able to observe colorful fish, corals and sea creatures. Look for schools of small fish such as grunt, fry and goatfish. Watch the parrotfish grazing the algae and the spunky damselfish defend its territory against all intruders regardless of size.
Snorkeling Gibney Beach
Snorkeling is best from the Oppenheimer section of the beach. The entry into the water is on soft sand and the snorkel is suitable for beginners.
Right off the Community Center (the old Oppenheimer house) is a shallow reef, which occasionally breaks through the surface of the water. Much of this reef was negatively impacted when a heavy rain occurred during the excavation for the Myrah Keating Smith Clinic. Tons of earth were washed down into Hawksnest Bay and the resulting turbidity damaged much of the coral in the bay. Today the reefs are coming back to life and you will see some colorful elkhorn and boulder coral, along with fire coral and other examples of reef life. Schools of small fish such as, goatfish, grunt and tang can commonly be seen in the area.
A narrow fringing reef runs along the eastern coastline. Close to the beach is a section of beautiful brain coral. The reef here is colorful and there is an abundance of small and medium size fish. Look for parrotfish, angelfish, squirrelfish, trunkfish and trumpetfish. Also, observe the predators such as yellowtail snapper and blue runners prowling the reef edges on the lookout for fry and other small prey.
More experienced snorkelers can continue along this eastern coast to the point and around to Perkins Cay and Denis Bay. Along the way is a small beach where you can stop and rest. Just before you come to this pocket beach you may see the remains of a sunken sailboat. As you progress northward along the coast you will encounter scattered areas of colorful coral, sponges, fish and other marine life in depths of about six to ten feet. Snorkeling here is best in the summer when there are no ground seas to churn up the water.
The bay is well protected by extensive fringing reefs. From the sea, there is an open channel leading to the center of the beach where there used to be a dock.
When the seas are calm, there is decent snorkeling around the reef especially on its seaward side and around Perkins Cay.
Snorkeling about ten yards offshore of the east side of the remains of the old dock, you can see the coral encrusted fluke of a very large and very old anchor protruding from the sand.
Sunken Aircraft at Little Cinnamon
At Little Cinnamon, snorkelers may find the remains of an old light aircraft that crashed and sank years ago. The propeller, the engine and one of the wings are visible most of the year. The wreck is in shallow water and can be found by snorkeling out from the eastern portion of the beach between the old stone wall and the first set of coconut palms.
Snorkeling Haulover Bay – North Side
Haulover Bay lies three miles past the Coral Bay Moravian Church going east on the East End Road (Route 10). Park on the right side of the road alongside the small sand and coral rubble beach.
Take the trail on the other (north) side of the road. It is an easy path over flat terrain about 100 yards long that goes past a salt pond to reach the coral rubble beach that lies on the south side of the Sir Francis Drake Channel that separates St. John from Tortola.
This snorkel is recommended for experienced snorkelers only. On most days, waves break along the shoreline and over the shallow reef, so try to choose a day when the sea is calm and the water is not churned up.
You can enter the water at the rock beach at the end of the trail. The water is shallow at first and the bottom is made up of small rocks and coral rubble. Watch out for black spiny sea urchins hiding here.
The reef rises up close to the surface near the shore and then slopes down to a depth of about thirty feet.
Several varieties of hard coral including star, brain, elkhorn, staghorn and pillar coral can be found here as well as gorgonians, such as sea fans, sea plumes and dead man’s fingers.
Commonly seen fish on the reef are tang, snapper, grunts, parrotfish and angelfish.
Look under ledges and in holes to see lobsters, eels and small fish seeking protection in their little hiding places. Green turtles, stingrays and conch can be seen over the grassy areas, which make up most of the central portion of the bay.
The north eastern end of Haulover Bay can be reached by following the shoreline east for a little less than a half a mile where you will find a small sand beach.
When entering the shallow water, take care to avoid sea urchins and living coral.
Snorkel out along the eastern coast toward the point. Close to the shore are patches of sand and grass with scattered coral heads. The grass environment attracts rays, green turtles, starfish and conch.
There is a small fringe forest of mangroves along the coast. Just past these mangroves, you will come to an underwater hillside garden of coral. This beautiful environment continues out and around the point. You will see many large, purple sea fans and other gorgonians as well as hard corals, such as star, elkhorn and brain coral. In some areas, exquisite corals and sponges of every color imaginable encrust the underwater rock faces. Fish, such as parrotfish, snappers, jacks, grunts and schools of blue tang, abound just about everywhere along the reef as do anemones, feather duster worms and sea cucumbers.
If you snorkel out to on the western shore of Kiddel Bay, you will come to a reef which extends out off the point. A series of rocks rises above the surface.
This area is extremely interesting. There are deep depressions, grooves and arches and tunnels full of colorful corals, and sponges where you will invariably see a vast array of tropical reef fishes. The arches and tunnels are about 15 – 20 feet deep and are usually full of small fish. It’s a great challenge for free divers who can swim through one or a series of tunnels depending on their skill. For less skilled snorkelers the rock lined coasts on both sides of the bay still offer plenty to see and to enjoy.
Another cool snorkel option is to continue the snorkel from Kiddel Bay to Grootpan Bay. Starting from Kiddel Bay, snorkel around the point, proceeding west along the rocky coastline to Grootpan Bay. Bring waterproof footwear with you and you can enjoy a nice walk back to Kiddel.
The sand and coral beach on the western side of Ditleff Point offers fine snorkeling for those of all levels of experience. The water near shore is shallow and deepens gradually, providing an easy entry over sand and seagrass.
Beginners can stay in the shallow, grassy area just offshore or snorkel along the fringing reefs located on either side of the beach. Much of the coral is in good condition and colorful. There are many small fish to observe around and under the coral heads. The grassy area just off the beach is a habitat for turtles, squid, rays and starfish. If you see piles of shells around the coral reef, look for an octopus in nearby holes or crevices.
Those willing to venture out a little further, can explore the undersea grasslands of Rendezvous Bay. There are acres of grasslands in the Ditleff Point and Rendezvous Bay areas found in about 15 feet of water. Although the basic environment does not change much, if you snorkel this area long enough, (about 10 – 15 minutes) you will begin to see the interesting animals that frequent the seagrass meadows. There are many green turtles here. The larger ones may be accompanied by remora who attach themselves to large sea creatures such as turtles or sharks.
Also commonly seen here are rays. The southern stingray is dark gray in color, and it is often accompanied by a jack, who swims just above the ray.
There are also at least two large, impressive and graceful spotted eagle rays. They are black with white spots, have a defined head and a long thin tail.
You may also find conch, starfish and squid. During the night, lobster and octopus come out of the reef and frequent the grasslands in search of food.
One of the most exciting snorkeling areas on St. John can be found on the seaward side of the fringing reef, south of the beach. Beginning about half way between the beach and the southern tip of the point are a series of incredibly beautiful ledges formed by the outcropping of the coral. The base of the reef is in about 15 feet of water. The ceiling of the ledge ranges from about three to six feet and extends laterally approximately the same distance. To appreciate this area, you must be able to dive down to the bottom and still have enough breath to explore under the ledge.
This is a unique and fascinating environment, combining the color and beauty of the various corals and sponges with an abundance of fish, eels, lobsters, octopus, shrimp, crabs, plume worms and other creatures which are attracted to the shelter of the ledge.
The rocky area at the end of the peninsula can be explored when the seas are calm and there is a minimum of surf breaking over the shallow reef. This extremely exciting area is only recommended for the experienced, confident and physically fit snorkeler.
Around and between the huge rocks are channels, arches, underwater canyons, chambers, tunnels and “painted” walls. As you will be in relatively open and unsheltered water, you will probably get to see bigger fish than those commonly found closer to shore.
Hurricane Hole Anchor
Elliot Hooper from Tall Ship Trading told me about a huge anchor that lies in only 15 feet of water in Hurricane Hole. The anchor that dates back to the 1800s was inadvertently moved from Virgin Islands National Park waters and subsequently recovered and returned through a team effort of Elliot, the VI National Park and the Friends of the Park.
This was no mean feat. The anchor measures 15 feet in length with a cross bar eight feet long and weighing some 2500 pounds was in 80 feet of water. The task was accomplished by floating the anchor using lined 55 gallon drums into which air was pumped and once free of the sea bottom it was dragged by dinghies to its current resting place in Hurricane Hole.
If you’d like to find it, it’s relatively easy to do. The anchor rests at a depth of about 15 feet just off the peninsula between Princess Bay and Otter Creek.
The GPS Coordinates are 18°21’7.20″N by 64°41’38.40″W, but its easy to find following Elliot’s simple directions:
Look for a green bush with a fallen rock on the peninsula. Believe it or not it’s the only bush unless you count mangroves. Then snorkel straight out (west) until the water starts to get deeper. Look around; you’ll find it.
A great resource for St. John marine life identification and photography see SnorkelSTJ.com
Choosing Your Equipment
Snorkeling is easy to learn and requires only three pieces of relatively inexpensive equipment: mask, fins and snorkel. The quality of this equipment, however, will be instrumental to your enjoyment of the sport.