South of Cancun and southeast of Playa Carmen off the Mayan Riviera, the snorkeling in Cozumel is popular for the extensive offshore reef formations. While world renowned for scuba diving, the snorkeling can be a little challenging off Cozumel due to water depths, constant currents and shore reef damage from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. While the tourism agencies and guide services heavily promote the Cozumel snorkeling, most experienced snorkelers leave disappointed. And, due to the constant currents, Cozumel snorkeling is not well-suited for beginner snorkelers or children. With that said, there do happen to be several popular snorkeling dives sites located along the west coast of Cozumel.
The most popular and well-known snorkeling dive site on Cozumel is Chankanaab Reef. It is located within Chankanaab National Park and offshore of Chakanaab Beach Adventure Park about 9km south of San Miguel. It is on the road to Punta Sur near Laguna Beach and should be well signed. For snorkeling on the reef, there is shore-access via concrete steps and ladders into 10 foot deep water. There is good visibility of up to 50 feet in water that ranges up to 30 feet deep and is known for its mild north to south currents. There is gentle snorkeling is good for beginners and families. There are patchy coral reef heads found in sand flats. In the sand flats before reaching the coral, watch for old anchors and old cannons. Also, about 250 feet directly offshore of the concrete steps, there is an old wrecked fishing boat and, in the past, its mast was still sticking out of the water. Another main attraction is the underwater Christ Of The Abyss stature. During Chankanaab Reef snorkeling, you may encounter damselfish, angelfish, spotted moray eels, grunts, snapper, lionfish, french angelfish, peacock flounders, stingrays and turtles amongst isolated coral head formations along the sand flats. If you arrive into San Miguel and don’t have transportation, there are regular boat tours from San Miguel down to Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park. If you feel like paying up, there is a dolphin swim encounter opportunity within the Adventure Park. TIP - since this destination is very, very popular with cruise ship tourists, you’ll want to come on a day when there isn’t a cruise ship docked, or plan to come very early or late in the day.
In addition to the tourist-friendly Chankanaab, there are a dozen other good snorkeling dive sites spread around Cozumel. These destinations are described below from the north side of the west coast heading down to the south and around the point.
The Coral Princess Reef snorkeling dive site is located north of San Miguel off the Coral Princess Hotel in waters from 10 to 30 feet deep. It is the northernmost snorkeling dive site on the west coast. The current in this region is usually running northward along the coast, so this can become a drift dive. While snorkeling at Coral Princess, you may observe stingrays, angelfish, damselfish, trumpetfish, moray eels and eagle rays.
The Pico’s Reef snorkeling dive site is known for its artificial reef. It is not generally considered one of the more popular destinations, but if you have a week here, you may want to check it out. Also, known as Barracuda Reef, it is located off the Barracuda Hotel and the Dive Paradise Pier. This shore-accessed dive site is known for its wind, surf and currents. The depth ranges from surface to 25 feet deep, and the visibility is typically around 50 feet when calm. The marine life consists of conch shells, small coral heads and anemones.
The La Villa Blanca Reef snorkeling site offers good marine life but there isn’t much coral growth. Again, its not one of the more popular dives, but could be of interest if you are here for a week. It is located off the La Villa Blanca Hotel. This shore-accessed dive is in water depth ranging from surface down to 20 feet deep. There is good visibility up to 50 feet when the water is calm. During La Villa Blanca snorkeling, you may encounter peacock flounder, grunts and stingrays.
The Gorgonian Flats snorkeling dive site offers a long patch reef with sea fans and brain coral. It is located off the La Perl Hotel. Due to the sand, the visibility is usually low and under 35 feet. The sand flats descend to a fringing reef with sea fans. The water depth ranges from 10 to 30 feet deep.
The Paraiso Reef North snorkeling site is a popular dive due to its close proximity to San Miguel. Also known as the Paradise Reef, it is located just north of the Puerto Maya Cruise Ship Pier and starts offshore of the El Cid La Ceiba Beach Hotel (just south of the Hotel Sol Caribe/Crown Paradise). Some snorkelers refer to this as La Ceiba Reef Reserve. There are three coral reef ridges about 600 feet offshore that run parallel to the coastline. The coral reef ridges consist of star coral, brain coral, fire coral, pillars, sea fans and sponges. From the coastline to the start of the series of coral reefs, there is a long sand-flat (aka Airplane Flats or Junkyard) that has the twin-engine DC-3 place wreckage of a sunk airplane for a movie production in 1977 (along with other trash now). The plane is now dispersed and scattered in the sand flat. Among the dispersed 15 foot tall coral heads in the sand flats, the water depth ranges from 20 to 40 feet deep. With a strong southbound current, you’ll want to keep track of your position since it is illegal to get too close to the cruise ships. So, while this snorkel site is called beginner by many dive shops, it is probably better for experienced and strong snorkelers. Beginners might enjoy accessing from a dive boat instead of from shore. While you can swim out, many snorkelers use a dive boat to check out the blue chromis, sergeant major, queen angelfish, butterflyfish, damselfish, trumpetfish, grunts, snapper, smooth trunkfish, barracuda, grouper, scorpionfish, spotted moray eels and spotted eagle rays. Keep in mind that with the proximity to the cruise ship docks, there is heavy boat traffic in the region.
The Paraiso Reef South snorkeling site is located just south of San Miguel and south of the Puerto Maya Cruise Ship Pier. The Paraiso Reef South has two long coral ridges running end-to-end parallel to shore. The coral reefs are located among sand flats in 30 to 50 foot deep waters. Since this reef is visited by charter dive boats, you’ll want to use a diver down flag to be safe. During Paraiso Reef South snorkeling, you may encounter grunts, hogfish, filefish, french angelfish, gray angelfish, squirrelfish and occasional turtles. If there is a northbound current, make sure to watch your position and don’t get too close to the cruise ships since it is illegal to swim into the Puerto Maya Cruise Ship Pier.
The Dzul-Ha snorkeling dive site is another popular destination. Also known as Las Palmas Shallows, it is located south of San Miguel, and just south of the El Presidente Hotel but north of Fiesta Americana Hotel. The underwater topography is a gently descending limestone shelf extending about 600 feet offshore. While the best snorkeling is in waters from 10 to 30 feet deep, once the water reaches about 40 feet deep, the shelf hits the wall and drops significantly. For this shore-based snorkeling dive, the best water access is down the concrete boat ramp next to the snack bar / snorkel rental shack. Since this is a popular snorkeling tour destination, you’ll want to keep an eye out for tour boats coming and going. A diver-down flag might be a good idea. During Dzul-Ha snorkeling, you may encounter wrasse, queen angelfish, parrotfish, cornetfish, blue tangs, sand rays, flounder, parrotfish and lobster among the small coral heads with sea fans.
The Playa Corona snorkeling dive site used to be quite popular, but since the last hurricane, the quality of the reef and marine life have declined greatly. It is only mentioned here just because there are old references to it in past literature, and it is not recommended to snorkel here anymore. It is located south of San Miguel and south the Money Bar in water depth ranging from 20 to 40 feet deep. The nearby landowner has been known to charge a fee to anyone entering the water. While there is very limited marine life here, you might see a parrotfish, eagle ray or moray eel.
The Cardona Reef is a popular snorkeling site since the currents tend to be lower. The water depth varies from 25 to 40 feet deep, and the water visibility can be over 50 feet. The Cardona Reef is located offshore of the Allegro Cozumel Occidental Hotel and southwest offshore of the Nachi-Cocom Beach Club. It is best to access by boat since it is pretty far offshore of the resort. During Cardona Reef snorkeling, you may encounter squirrelfish, cardinalfish, grunts and parrotfish.
The Palancar Reef is considered to be the best snorkeling on Cozumel. This boat-accessed destination is located off the south western coast of Cozumel off Playa El Cielo. The 5km long Palancar Reef area is typically divided into five zones, but the best snorkeling can be found in either The Shallows zone or The Garden zone where the water ranges from 10 to 35 feet deep. The water visibility can be up to 75 feet. During Plancar Reef snorkeling, you may encounter butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish, damselfish, snapper and grunts among the coral, tube sponges and stovepipe sponges. Since this reef is popular with dive boats and fishing boats, a diver-down flag is highly recommended. This snorkeling dive site is so magnificent that its worth spending an entire day here.
The Punta Celerain snorkeling dive site is a must-do for experienced snorkelers. Located off the southwestern tip of Cozumel in the Punta Sur Eco Beach Park, this is an all-day adventure since it is a long drive down to the lighthouse parking area. Luckily, there are snack bars, restrooms and beer vendors at this small beach. The snorkeling dive site is about 1,200 feet south offshore of the lighthouse. Some snorkelers will rent a kayak to paddle out to the dive site. The water depth ranges from 5 to 20 feet deep, which is pretty shallow for dives around Cozumel. The healthy reef is about 300 feet long. During Punta Celerain snorkeling, you may encounter snapper, grunts, parrotfish, damselfish, turtles and resting nurse sharks. This dive site is best when the wind is coming out of the north for calm southshore surf conditions. With the offshore currents, this will most likely end up as a drift dive where you’ll come out about 1km away from where you went in. To reach the Punta Celerain snorkeling dive site from San Miguel, head south on the highway for about 20km to the Punta Sur Eco Beach Park entrance (there is an entry fee per person). From the entry station, continue south another 5km to the lighthouse. At the lighthouse, it is best to ask where the road to the snorkeling beach is located since it is a one-way road on which they manually stop traffic to let only one direction traffic through for another 5km.
The Playa Punta Chiqueros snorkeling dive site sits within a sheltered lagoon with plentiful marine life. It is located on the southeast ocean coast of the island. This shore-accessed snorkeling dive site is best early in the day before wind when the surf is known to be calm. It can be accessed by boat, but it is a long ride around the island. The water depth ranges from surface to 20 feet deep. There is low visibility here that is typically under 35 feet. The Islotes snorkeling dive site is a popular boat-accessed dive site on the northeast coast. It can be affected by rolling surf and low visibility, so it is best tried on calm windless days. As a boat-accessed site, it is a long boat ride from the west coast. Watch out for the strong, variable currents. The water depth ranges from 10 to 35 feet deep.
To reach the snorkeling at Cozumel from the mainland, there is a daily ferry from the Playa del Carmen Federal dock located south of Cancun (30 min). If you’d like to fly directly into Cozumel, there are non-stop flights into Aeropuerto Internacional de Cozumel (CZM) from the following US cities: Denver, Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Newark and Minneapolis. Plus, there are daily air shuttle services from Cancun Airport to Cozumel airport. From the Cozumel airport, you can take shuttle buses or rent a car to your hotel.
While you may be tempted to stay in the main town of San Miguel, which is located on the northwest coast, there aren’t many snorkeling dive sites nearby. Matter of fact, there are very few water access points in San Miguel since there is such a huge cruise ship port taking up much of the waterfront. If you are really into snorkeling, you may want to stay closer to the snorkeling dives you are most interested in exploring. The main transportation on the island is either a rental car, rental moped or possibly expensive taxis. If you do choose to stay in San Miguel, keep in mind that there are usually three large cruise ships coming in to port each day with thousands of passengers coming ashore. With regards to safety on the island, many feel that Cozumel is safer than the mainland Mexico. The locals attribute this to the fact there is only one drug cartel currently on the island, which creates stability.
Off shore of Cozumel, the reef formations are populated by elkhorn coral stands with sponges, sea fans and sea whips. Where there is coral in the shallows, you may also encounter fast growing fire coral, so be careful. During Cozumel snorkeling, it is common to encounter parrotfish, triggerfish, grunts, damselfish, sergeant majors, wrasses, butterflyfish, angelfish, moray eels, baracuda, grouper and yellow stingrays. In addition, Cozumel is known for its occasional bull sharks, which should be given wide berth since they can be unpredictably aggressive. Check with the dive shops on the current situation.
TIP: For the best water visibility when snorkeling around Cozumel, try snorkeling at least three days after the last rainfall on the island. Also, along the west coast of Cozumel, there are strong currents especially as you go further offshore. With the heavy boat traffic along the west coast, a diver-down flag is highly recommended.
Overall, Cozumel is the 1st most popular snorkel dive spot of all 40 snorkeling dives in Mexico.