The entire island of Vieques is surrounded by shallow reefs and pristine beaches. The US Navy’s use of the island for bombing practice protected 2/3 of the island from people up until about 20 years ago. The Navy is still in the process of cleaning up the northwest part of the island, so there is still no public access there. There are no facilities in the wildlife refuge; no toilets, no food/drinks, no beach chairs or umbrellas, no waiter to bring you a pina colada, nothing except what you bring with you. This, combined with the sheer number of beaches, means that even in high season people are scarce. Because it’s an on-your-own kind of place, a little planning is in order. I couldn’t find much information about local snorkeling before we went and you can’t really follow the crowds to find the reefs. Here’s what I learned.
On our first and last days we snorkeled at Coco beach, literally across the road from our guesthouse in the town of Esperanza. We saw a couple of other people (and some horses) on the beach but no one else in the water. There is a rocky bluff that juts out into the water and a lot of habitat near shore and as far out as you want to swim. There are coral mounds and rocky mini canyons and some areas of sandy bottom.
We saw eels, spiney lobster, a variety of coral, barracuda, urchins and many, many different kinds of carribean reef fish. Even far from shore, the water here is pretty shallow, we were out 1/2mile or so and it was still only 10-15 feet deep. This was one of our favorite spots.
On the second day we picked up a rental Jeep. I would recommend having transportation to get to the snorkeling beaches. There were only two decent sites that are accessible by foot from Esperanza. Daily bike rentals and scooter rentals only cost about $10 less than a jeep. Taxis (Publicos) are expensive in the refuges (they don’t like to drive on the gravel roads) and there is no cell service, so you have to schedule the return trip in advance. Get the Jeep.
In the Jeep we headed to the north side of the island. Our first stop was Punta Arenas on the westernmost edge of the island. Usually the trade winds here blow from the east, so Punta Arenas can be a good place to snorkel even on windy days. I think here is a reef here that we didn’t find (or know to look for) so I think we missed the best snorkeling here. The mostly sandy bottom is full of live conchs leaving their trails in the sand. There were some corals and fish. I glimpsed a ray swimming off in the distance. There was a sailboat anchored here when we arrived and a few groups of people on the beach, but again, no one in the water. The beach is beautiful. The sand fleas/no-see-ums will drive you away early and late, but we didn’t notice them mid-day. And of course, they don’t bother you in the water!
Then we headed to the mile long Mosquito Pier. There are two places on Vieques that are popular for snorkeling tours and this is one of them. Aside from the very end of the pier, which is on wood pylons, the bulk of it is a road build upon rubble rock. There are steps on the left-hand side right before the chain-link fence. They offer easy access into the water over the boulders. It was atypically windy causing the visibility to be poor. We saw sea stars, which I’d never seen while snorkeling before, many sand divers hunting along the bottom, a tang with a remora attached to it and some smaller schools of fish.
There is a large drop-off away from the pier that we couldn’t see out into and lost sight of the bottom pretty quickly. When we got out to the start of the pylons and open water, I turned back. I couldn’t see well enough to be comfortable out there and wouldn’t be able to see far enough to see a turtle anyway (the turtles are the main attraction). We didn’t stay here long. However, we did see a manatee (!) before we got in and a dolphin after we got out. Manatee sightings are uncommon, but a friend of our host saw one while on a dive at the pier later in the week. I don’t think I’d be real comfortable near one in the water!
The third day was unbelievably windy (15-20mph winds). White caps were rolling over the cement pier with swells of at least 5 feet in the bay at our first stop. We moved on to another beach where the swells were only 3 feet, once you got out past the breakers! We drove all over the island looking for a calmer place to snorkel and eventually chose a beach on the north side, parked in the shade and swam into calm waters. We never got past the sea grass and never got deeper than 4-5 feet, despite swimming far from shore. There’s a lot of life in the sea grass; sea stars, young coral, sea cucumbers who dress themselves in the grass, urchins and some small fish. Visibility wasn’t very good. Rob explored the sea grass floor and I bobbed around in the warm sun.
Later we headed back to the wildlife refuge to La Chiva #15 where there were 3 foot swells this morning. This is the most popular snorkeling beach on the island. We swam out, into the waves, to a rock outcropping/small island on the east side of the bay. There was a lot of sea fan coral waving in the surf, urchins and fish. Visibility still wasn’t very good, but it was shallow here and if I swam with the waves, it wasn’t too choppy. There is an island in the middle of the bay, Isla La Chiva, that is 3/4mi around and that’s where the snorkel tours go. One reviewer said its a 5-10 minute swim from the beach, shallow enough that you could walk the whole way but you shouldn’t be stepping on the sea grass/baby coral. However, our host said that unless you have 3ft fins, its too far to swim. With the wind and poor visibility it didn’t make sense for us to try to get out there.
Day four. What a difference a day makes! The forecast was for 10-15mph winds the rest of the week. We weren’t optimistic. Once the ocean gets churned up and cloudy, how long can it take to settle?!? We were quite surprised today by calm water and good visibility! We went back into the refuge to our first stop yesterday, La Chiva #1. Its just beautiful. This beach consists of smooth, dark rocks and pebbles with cacti on the bluffs overlooking the crystal-clear water. There was easy access into the water. We swam in on the right side of the old boat launch (which is teeming with scurrying crabs) and explored out to the middle of the bay. There was a lot of coral in small reef outcrops between sandy stretches. It is a little deep for exploring from the surface straight out from the beach access so we swam along the right-hand edge of the bay along a reef. There is a lot of variety of coral and a lot of fish, including a lion fish and a steely-eyed barracuda staring at me from the surface.
Near the outlet if the bay was a beautiful wall of coral starting in a few feet of water and descending deep into the blue. We worked our way back past the boat launch where the lobsters hang out. A tour group of snorkelers was just getting into the water and found a southern stingray milling about the bottom. We lingered with the ray a bit and then followed the group out a ways.
The habitat on this side of the bay is quite different from where we started. It is shallow for a long way out, grassy with coral outcroppings and tons of large schools of fish. We swam straight out pretty far so engrossed by the sea life that we lost track of the snorkeling group. We were in the water here for 2 hours!
After lunch and some warming up in the sun (the water is cooler here than other places I’ve been in the Carribean), we headed a bit further into the refuge to the western edge of Playa Chiva. We had explored the eastern edge in the waves yesterday. This area was one of Rob’s favorite snorkeling spots. There was no one else here. We saw a camouflaged barracuda hanging out in the reef. I didn’t know that they changed color to camouflage as I have only ever seen them shiny silver near the water’s surface. This one looked like a salty northern pike!
Just past him, there was a huge southern sting ray mostly buried in the sandy bottom. Even though he was 15 feet below me, I gave him wide berth because he was bigger than me!
Every time we got in the water in Vieques, I saw a fish that I hadn’t seen before. There was such a diversity of coral stretching from shore as the coast gave way to the sandy-bottom deep blue sea. We explored in the water from La Chiva #2-#4, any access would be just as good as the next. (However the beach at #4 has an inukshuk section that is worth checking out!).
Day 5 we revisited the Mosquito Pier on the north side of the island to see what the fuss is all about. Visibility was better. The sea life along the rock-base pier is just okay. Its shallow against the rocky pier, so there’s opportunity for close-up snorkeling. Once we got out to the wooden pier visibility wasn’t as good. The plankton in the water scattered the sunlight like high-beams on a foggy night. Underneath the pier in the shade, visibility was better. However, It was kind of rough to be swimming there.
Rob said it took some work to keep safely away from the pylons in the waves. I’m not comfortable in the waves being that close to anything fixed whether its the pier or rocks in the water, so I didn’t go under the pier. There were some large schools of fish and Rob found a green sea turtle for me!
It’s a better dive spot, for sure. And if the visibility was better, maybe it’d be a good snorkeling spot, too. I think people just come here to see turtles, which are always here, its just a matter of finding them. It’s not a bad reason to snorkel here.
After returning the rental jeep we headed to the Esperanza beach, a quick walk from our guest house. There is a short pier here where some people snorkel, although there isn’t much to see. Some small schools of yellow-tail snapper, a school of cuttlefish and small, pretty corals on the pylons pretty much cover it, but its on the way to island Cayo Afuera so its worth a browse.
Also about 1/3 of the way to the island are two buoys marking the location of a sunken sailboat in about 10-15 feet of water. Its on it’s side on the sea floor and the hull is full of yellow-tail. Its a pretty scene and worth a stop, but not really a destination in itself. As we passed the channel and approached the island, a spotted eagle ray swam out and circled us in a wide path, seemingly watching us watching him. The rays are so graceful.
The island is surrounded by the prettiest coral reef I’ve seen here. It’s in in about 10 feet of water with some of the reef so close to the surface that you’d have to swim around the corals. Rob spotted this neat little pile of conch shells on the coral “like someone put them there”. “That’s an octopus’ home!”, I exclaimed. They decorate the entrances to their dens with the “bodies” of their victims. Sure enough, on closer look, there’s a suckered arm visible at edge of this hole!
Our host recommended swimming around this island, “Go around the left side and when you get to the outside of the island just let the current take you around back to where you started. Don’t try to swim around to the right, you’ll wear yourself out.” As we started getting to the outside edge, the surf was really picking up. I felt like I was swimming out into the open ocean. As the only ones in the water and no one else in sight, we decided to turn back.
Back past the octopus and our friendly ray. This was one of my favorite spots. A tour group will take you out here on kayaks to snorkel and they say sometimes they see turtles and nurse sharks here, too.
In summary, go to Punta Arenas for it’s reef, rays, tons of conch and occasional turtle. Also go to La Chiva #1 for it’s diversity of habitat, rays, sometimes turtles and a beautiful coral sea wall and check out Playa Chiva, too, if you can. Cayo Afuera is worth it if you’re a fairly strong swimmer. It’s so shallow that all off the sea life is close-up, you might see rays and turtles. Coco Beach on the west edge of the Malecon is also shallow, lots of urchins, lobster, an eel or two and many fish among good coral – also a favorite spot. I wasn’t impressed with the Pier and we didn’t make it out to Isla La Chiva. Don’t forget your reef-friendly sunscreen!