Treasures of the Deep > Diving/Snorkeling > Puerto Rico
Even the most reluctant travelers come alive when let loose in Puerto Rico’s underwater world. Eyeball to eyeball with schools of blue tang, mountains of hard coral, the occasional sea turtle and other marine organisms, they can’t get enough of the colorful creatures of the sea.
With over 350 miles of coastline, Puerto Rico is known for its numerous and accessible reefs, multitudes of fish, good-to-excellent-underwater visibility, and, of course, warm Caribbean waters. Dive shops, snorkeling, sailing and watersports operations are found around the Island, making these attractions available to all ages and abilities.
Several dive operators and shops may be found in San Juan. Most 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. All operators here offer sport diving trips to the east coast, so let’s go there next.
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 sandbar topped by a cropping of palms and sea grapes. Visibility ranges from 20 to 60 feet, with mild to nonexistent currents. Most dives are close to the small cays, with depths of 25 to 80 feet.
Culebra is great for snorkeling and shallow dives of 10 to 50 feet, with visibility up to 60 feet. Most dives are close to shore. The sea is calm, currents are mild to none. Culebra is surrounded by two dozen cays; two of them are open to the public during the day, 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 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. Caja de Muertos Island off Ponce has beautiful snorkeling, 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, including the immensely popular Gilligan’s Island, 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.
Photos: Mona Island/Frazier Nivens
The other type of southwest-coast adventure is found several miles offshore of Guánica and La Parguera. Here the continental shelf drops off, forming 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. Beginning at 55 to 60 feet and dropping vertically to 130 feet or so before plunging 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 exceeding 100 feet.
The lovely sunset-coast beaches on Porta del Sol (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. This National Wildlife Refuge (under the management of the US Fish & Wildlife Service) is some nine miles due-west of Rincón. Desecheo is an oceanic islet with 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 Island (50 miles off the west coast, and not for the fainthearted) requires advanced planning with your dive operator. Mona is a major nature reserve under the management of the Department of Natural Resources of Puerto Rico. It is often referred to as the Galapagos of the Caribbean.
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. The pilings are covered with sponges in every color imaginable. Waters slope from the beach down to about 30 feet, with visibility to 60 feet, and you 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 to 60 feet.
We wish to thank the diving community of Puerto Rico for their assistance in the preparation of this article.