With more than 350 miles of coastline, Puerto Rico has a great variety of offshore waters, and at sunrise and sunset there is no better place to be than on a beach, watching the sun work its magic over the waves. But at any time of day, you will find magic underwater.
Accessible reefs, multitudes of fish, good to excellent underwater visibility and warm waters make snorkeling and scuba diving in Puerto Rico pleasurable adventures. Most reefs form a fringing pattern as they fan out from shore. Turtle grass, sea urchins and baby fish thrive in the shallowest waters. Where waves break, fire coral often abounds. Beyond is elkhorn coral, the master builder of shallow reefs. These antler-shaped structures can grow up to 10 feet high and provide sanctuary for many small fish. As the water gets deeper, egg-shaped star and brain coral become common. Patches of coral are found off most protected coasts around the Island, but certain areas are renowned for the quality of their reefs.
In San Juan you will find a number of dive operators and stores. Most of these operators offer NAUI and PADI instruction and some offer more technical training such as rebreathers. The San Juan area is used primarily for introductory dives, resort courses and snorkeling. The operators in San Juan all offer sports diving trips to the east coast so that is where we start.
The eastern coast of Puerto Rico, from Fajardo to Humacao and the offshore nature islands of Vieques and Culebra, has been a favorite snorkeling and diving destination for decades. Shallow waters, soft sand, elaborate patch reefs, dazzling reef fish and numerous cays and islets make this region ideal for the beginning diver.
Among the most popular cays for snorkeling trips off Fajardo are Icacos, Palominos and Palominitos (a tiny, plate-shaped sandbar topped by a cropping of palms and sea grapes). Visibility can range from 20 to 60 feet with mild to nonexistent currents. Most of the dives are close to the small cays with depths of 25 to 80 feet.
Culebra is great for snorkeling and shallow dives of 10-50 feet (visibility up to 60 feet). Most of the dives are close to shore, within a 15-20 minutes’ boat ride. The sea is calm, currents are mild to none. Culebra is surrounded by two dozen cays: two of them are open to the public, the rest shelter bird colonies.
Vieques has no local diving operator at the moment, but some operators listed in Fajardo will take you on a special day trip if requested in advance. Both Vieques and Culebra have protected Federal and Commonwealth marine reserves. Reefs here are extensive, healthy, and extremely photogenic with hawksbill turtles sharing the sea with tiny blue chromis.
Southern Puerto Rico offers two types of underwater adventures. One is directly offshore, in waters surrounding the rich mangrove-topped islets that fan out from the coast. For an off-the-beaten-path experience, head east from Salinas and visit the Jobos Bay Estuarine Sanctuary; for more popular outings, head west. The Caja de Muertos island off Ponce has beautiful snorkeling and diving, with nice corals and a visibility ranging between 30 and 60 feet. Currents are mild but change with the weather conditions.
Guánica has its own string of accessible cays, and La Parguera has dozens of mangrove-topped cays and channels from which to choose. Hosts of colorful young fish and other marine juveniles thrive in these protected waters. La Parguera has excellent conditions for all divers.
Several miles offshore of Guánica and La Parguera, the continental shelf drops off, forming the La Parguera Wall, which offers some of the most spectacular diving in the Caribbean. The wall comes closest to Puerto Rico at the village of La Parguera, with more than 30 named sites such as Black Wall, Hole in the Wall, the Old Buoy and Fallen Rock.
The La Parguera Wall begins at 55 to 60 feet. and drops vertically to 130 feet or so before dropping again thousands of feet to the seafloor. The wall is home to trenches and valleys, immense gardens of staghorn and elkhorn coral, deep-water gorgonians, black coral and purple trumpetfish. There is little current and thousands of rainbow-colored fish move over the reefs and through the spectacular azure blue waters. This underwater photographer’s heaven has a visibility that exceeds 100 feet.
The lovely sunset-coast beaches on the west coast have their own patches of coral reef that invite exploration, but the most impressive diving here is found at uninhabited Desecheo Island, some nine miles due-west of Rincón. Desecheo is an oceanic islet with one minuscule beach and more than 24 dive sites scattered around a rocky bottom that slopes to 120 feet. Marine life is pristine and astonishingly abundant, and visibility can reach 100 feet. For beginners to experienced divers, the dives can be great. A trip to Mona (50 miles off the west coast, and not for the fainthearted) requires advanced planning with your dive operator.
Although northwestern Puerto Rico is a surfer’s paradise, it also offers memorable snorkeling. The Island’s best-known artificial underwater kingdom is found along the pilings of the old dock at Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla. Crash Boat is a walk in dive and snorkeling area. At Crash Boat’s Pier the pilings are covered with every color of sponge you can imagine. The waters slope from the beach down to about 30 feet (visibility to 60 feet) and you can find seahorses, colorful bristle worms, feather duster worms, eels and schooling fish.
In nearby Isabela, Bajura Beach faces a breathtaking ring of open underwater caverns offering sanctuary to tropical fish in cathedral-like settings of light and shadow. Do not enter any caves without a local operator or when the sea is not calm. Average depth is 30 feet with a visibility of 30-60 feet.
We wish to thank Capt. Efra Figueroa, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.