Enjoy the Beautiful Waters of Virgin Islands National Park
Please Use Reef Safe Sunscreen! Always look at ingredient lists to make sure reef-damaging substances (such as oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate and 4-methylbenzylidine camphor, all of which have been shown to cause coral bleaching even at low levels) aren't included.
Where's the Best Snorkeling?
Over 40% of Virgin Islands National Park is underwater. Mangrove shorelines, seagrass beds, fringing and patch reefs offer an ample and diverse array of snorkeling opportunities. However, defining the "best" is highly subjective, based on factors such as individual snorkeling/swimming abilities, water and wind conditions and the marine life particular to a given site. This guide describes a variety of potential snorkeling areas so that you can determine what's best for your own interests and expertise. It highlights areas easily accessed by road or trail and is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to all St. John snorkeling spots. A simple internet search will provide you with a list of other guides.
North Shore Beaches:
Salomon/Honeymoon Bay, two white-sand beaches, can be accessed by a short hike from the Virgin Islands National Park sign off North Shore Road, Caneel Bay or by boat. A narrow reef follows the shoreline east of Honeymoon to Caneel Bay. In the clear water off the rocky point in between the two beaches, you will find several species of coral (brain, lettuce leaf, elkhorn, mustard hill, and pillar corals). Many colonies of finger coral can be found on the fringing reef west of Salomon. These reef areas provide shelter for a wide variety of colorful fish and other marine creatures.
Hawksnest Bay offers three fingers of mostly Elkhorn coral reefs. It is not advisable to snorkel directly over the reef. The Elkhorn corals are a federally protected species and extremely fragile. Snorkeling around the fingers you will see many juvenile fish and other reef creatures in and among the branches of the Elkhorn corals.
Trunk Bay with the Underwater Trail is a great place for beginners and anyone who wants to learn about marine life by reading the plaques along the trail. The trail follows the west side of Trunk Bay Cay for about 300 feet before making a U-turn back to the beach. The coral and fish are well represented here. The reef continues beyond to the cay's northern tip, however do not venture past where you are in view of the lifeguards. The farther out you go, the rougher the water is.
Cinnamon Bay and the small cay in the middle of the bay offer shelter to fish, crabs and other invertebrates and perhaps a lobster or two. Snappers and other fish often inhabit the nooks and crannies of the cay's steep slopes and deeper waters on the east, north and west sides. A few small pillar coral colonies adorn the northwest corner. The shallow sandy areas on the south side of the cay provide safe resting spots before returning to the beach.
Maho Bay is the place to go for sea turtles. The seagrass beds in the middle stretches of this shallow bay provide habitat for the green sea turtles that are seen more frequently in the early morning or late afternoon. There's coral and fish along the western (left if facing water) waters of this long beach, they are more abundant the closer you get to the point between Maho and Cinnamon. To the north east, the rocks and reef supports abundant fish populations, including angel fish. If you are lucky you may see octopus in the coral crevices. Both Maho and Francis Bay can get stirred up reducing visibility when there is a north swell but in general are less affected by winter swells than elsewhere on the North Shore.
Francis Bay is ideal for beginners, with its calm waters stretching from the west end of the beach all the way to Little Maho Beach. You will find schools of juvenile fish and small coral heads. Francis is usually a good place to view sea turtles, pelicans and large predator fish chasing schools of smaller fish "fry." Along the northwest shoreline to the tip of Mary Point you will find gorgonians, tube sponges and patches of colonial anemones in about 10 feet of water. Beyond the point at the beginning of Fungi Passage, scattered hard corals appear in deeper water.
Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay are accessed by the Leinster Bay Trail. A 10-minute walk from Annaberg Parking lot brings you to a narrow stretch of sand where entry is gained to a shallow reef of coral heads sitting on a sandy bottom that is habitat for all kinds of fish and other creatures. Swim a little farther out to find a steep drop off, where Blue Chromis, sea turtles and gorgonians are seen. A 10-minutes hike farther down the trail brings you to the main beach of Leinster Bay. From here snorkel over the seagrass bed or hug the eastern shore to snorkel out to the Cay but beware of the long-spine urchins and rocks as you enter the water. For a shorter swim continue down the hiking trail and enter the water closer to the cay. You will find a variety of fish, corals and gorgonians on your way and more encircling the cay. A strong current runs on the Tortola (north) side of the cay so it is best if you stay on the southern side. A sandy spit of beach on the cay's southern tip offers a place to rest or warm up. Remember stand only in sand! Waterlemon is one of the few places on St. John that is home to the large cushion sea stars.
Brown Bay is accessible by trail or boat, (no anchoring though). For a longer hike take the trail from Leinster Bay heading east along North Shore, continue past the Johnny Horn Trail intersection. For a shorter hike take the Brown Bay Trail off East End Road. After your hike you will enjoy a swim in this remote Bay. It has a narrow beach with very little slope and the water here is shallow, in the middle of the bay is an extensive shallow seagrass bed, home to conch and other invertebrates. To the east there are gorgonians and to the west, towards Leinster Bay, at the fringing reef you may find the rare staghorn corals, waving and plenty of fish.