On a happiness scale, the best snorkeling trips rank as close to pure, calming bliss as most any activity on Earth. Floating quietly in crystalline waters, you'll gaze upon gently waving corals and fluttering swarms of rainbow-colored creatures darting in and out of nooks, crannies and caves. Amidst the undulating waves, it's easy to forget the cacophony and chaos of the world on land.
While it's possible to leap into the water, snorkel gear in hand, from any beach or island and take a gander at the sea life below, some islands offer unparalleled experiences. With a little planning and some basic gear -- snorkel tube, goggles and flippers, to be exact -- you'll experience the extraordinary underwater world from these 5 stellar islands.
Schools of rainbow-colored fish flit throughout Hanauma Bay, Hawaii's most famed snorkeling spot, creating a brilliant collection of underwater eye-candy, easily visible in the bay's shallow water. Once the mouth of a volcano crater, crescent-shaped Hanauma now lies at the edge of a sprawling 2,000-foot-long stretch of golden shore, a stunning location with ample species of sea life enjoyed by both newbie and experienced snorkelers. The bay's easy access and calm waters allow visitors to wade waist-deep and simply peer down to gaze at more than 50 types of Hawaiian sea creatures, such as milletseed, raccoon and threadfin butterflyfish. Of course, for close-up views and heightened exploration of the coral reef's nooks and crevices, bring your own snorkel gear, or join a tour with one of the many outfitters that offer Hanauma Bay excursions, such as Hanauma Bay Snorkel Adventures.
2. Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
You'll hardly be alone if you snorkel the waters surrounding Grand Cayman; the island is one of the Caribbean's most popular. Still, there's a good reason crowds flock here; the island's stunning shorelines, like Seven Mile Beach, and warm clear Caribbean water make for a brilliant vacation. A favorite destination for snorkelers, Stingray City allows swimmers a close-up encounter with scores of stingrays that have grown accustomed to humans' attention -- and feeding. The iconic experience has become a must-do for visitors to the island, and offers an unforgettable means to witness these stunning creatures. Of course, the waters around the island teem with other tropical fish, such as angelfish, puffer fish, trigger fish and cowfish, which you can see at other popular snorkel spots such as Eden Rock and the Wreck of the Cali, a sunken schooner. Still, for the easiest access to incredible snorkeling, head straight into the waters from Seven Mile Beach, where flourishing coral reefs lie just offshore. For optimum convenience, stay at one of the resorts that line this stretch of sand, such as the Westin Grand Cayman, which recently underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation and lies a short walk and swim from the Governor's Reef snorkeling site.
3. Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Typically, travelers to Australia and its islands who hope to snorkel the 1,250-mile-long Great Barrier Reef must join a boat tour taking them out to the reef, sometimes on hours-long excursions. Save yourself the journey by staying at Heron Island's, where snorkelers need look no farther than the edge of the island's sandy shores to explore the Great Barrier -- the island is actually located smack dab on the reef. Simply gear up in your goggles and flippers, and enter the water to find yourself in the midst of vibrant reefs swarming with all manner of colorful fish, including parrotfish, surgeonfish, anemones, sea cucumber and starfish. In fact, the reefs around Heron Island are believed to contain 900 different species of sea life. The island was designated a national park in 1943, ensuring protection for the surrounding waters and wildlife. Turtle lovers, take note! Heron Island is also a known haven and nesting ground for loggerhead turtles and giant green turtles.
4. Santa Catalina, California
Spartan7W, Wikimedia Commons
West Coasters needn't travel cross-country to the warm Caribbean or south to Mexico to experience quality snorkeling. Just 22 miles off the Los Angeles coast lies Santa Catalina, an otherworldly island and respite from the bustle of L.A. Surrounded by clear water and billowing kelp forests, the island is home to a variety of sea life, including so-called flying fish, Garibaldi (California's state fish), perch, anemones and spiny lobsters. It's also no surprise to swim past enormous sea bass, sea lions and harbor seals, which have a nifty tendency to nip at your flippers. Heading into Catalina's waters from any section of its coast will yield wonderful snorkeling, but Lover's Cove Marine Preserve is easily the finest spot to explore the greatest array of sea life. Also noteworthy, Casino Point Marine Park, behind the Catalina Casino, was the state's first designated underwater marine park and offers spectacular snorkeling, though its convenient location means it can get extremely crowded. For travelers preferring to join a snorkeling boat tour, there are a number of operators, including Snorkeling Catalina, which offers 1- and 2-hour snorkel trips.
5. Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles
Bonaire doesn't automatically pop into the novice snorkeler's head as a stellar site for a Caribbean swim, but those in the know realize that the waters around this island have been a protected national marine park for more than 30 years, guaranteeing well-preserved corals and abundant, colorful sea life. The typically calm waters offer fantastic visibility, perfect for eyeing up parrotfish, angelfish, surgeonfish and turtles, as well as a variety of hard corals and sponges thriving in the sea. Two of the more popular dive sites include 1,000 Steps, which, yes, snorkelers reach after walking down stairs to the water, and Just a Nice Dive, located by Kleine Bonaire, a tiny islet off Bonaire's coast. To visit these sites, book a snorkel trip with one of the island's many tour operators, such as Woodwind Cruises, which offers guided snorkel tours. If you've rented a car, have your own (or rented) snorkel equipment and feel adventurous, you can visit many of the island's snorkel sites straight from the coast. While driving along Bonaire's coastal road, keep an eye out for yellow-painted stones along the side of the road. These markers indicate that a snorkel site is right off shore; park your car, grab your gear, hit the water and enjoy.