Antigua is truly a gem of an island for a Caribbean snorkeling vacation. Here, miles of some of the finest beaches in all of the Caribbean border warm, clear waters filled with small islets and shallow coral reefs a short distance from shore.
The northern, southern, and eastern coast of Antigua is bordered by a shallow submarine shelf, providing a good platform for coral reef growth and excellent conditions for shallow snorkeling.
An extensive and complex system of fringing reefs, small lagoon islets, and patch reefs are present along these shores. These factors combine to make Antigua snorkeling ideal for children or the inexperienced.
There is generally minimal current in many snorkeling sites, and the water temperature averages a perfect 80 F (25 C). Underwater visibility generally ranges from 50-140 feet.
Antigua’s Coral Reefs
Antigua has the most extensive coral reef habitat of any Caribbean island east of Hispaniola. This is in no small part due to the fact Antigua sits upon a limestone base and is a low dry island, whereas the inner high islands of the Lesser Antilles are of volcanic origin.
Also, the island’s location exposes it to ocean waters transported by the trade wind driven currents from the open Atlantic Ocean, and places it up current of all but locally generated sources of land-based pollution.
A large portion of Antigua’s east, north and south coast is protected by fringing reefs that either grow almost from the shore (see photo, left) or further offshore.
In the latter case, the shallow back reef area behind the reef (where the best snorkeling is generally found) typically supports a diverse array of hard corals dominated by small to mid-sized boulder coral colonies (e.g., Manicina spp., Diploria spp., Porites spp., and Montastrea annularis). Colorful octocorals, particularly sea fans, are also generally quite abundant in these areas.
Some decline in coral reef health has been observed on the North Coast, most likely the result of increasing sediment loads from coastal development accompanied by removal of mangroves, along with impacts from anchor damage, hurricanes, and coral disease and bleaching.
Best Antigua Snorkeling Sites
Among the best of Antigua snorkeling sites is Cades Reef, an offshore reef formation that that runs parallel to the southwest coast of Antigua and extends for over 2 miles. This site is just under an hour boat ride from Antigua’s capital of St. John’s. Here you will find an abundance of soft corals and reef fishes, and a variety of coral reef formations.
Cades Reef is now protected from many harmful activities through designation as Cades Bay Marine Reserve (established in 1999), and includes the entire ecosystem consisting of beaches, reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves.
Great Bird Island forms part of North Sound National Park, and is one of the best places to spend a day of snorkeling and island exploration in Antigua.
The surrounding coral reefs are close to shore, in shallow water, and protected from waves by the island itself.
All in all, these conditions make for perfect Antigua snorkeling for reef explorers of all ages and abilities.
The reefs here support many large coral colonies many of which reach 3-4 feet in diameter. Coral reef areas further offshore are still dominated by healthy stands of staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), a rarity nowadays.
Paradise Reef, a mile long reef formation north of Dickenson Bay, is another of the island’s favorite snorkeling sites. This site is fairly close to hotels and crowded beaches, but you need a boat ride to get to the reef so it is often not at all crowded.
Perhaps Antigua’s most beautiful beach, Half Moon Bay (which lies just east of English Harbour) stretches for nearly a mile along Antigua’s southeastern coast. An offshore reef shelters the protected lagoon waters from the normally somewhat rough seas created by the trade winds. The area is part of a national park and ideal for a day of snorkeling and “beaching”.
Directly north of Half Moon Bay, Long Bay fronts the Atlantic on the far eastern coast of Antigua. Reef snorkeling can be found from about 100-400 ft. from the beach. At the outer limit, the reef drops off steeply into deep water.
Not far from Long Bay, Pineapple Beach also is a good choice. Clear, turquoise-blue waters make this a great Antigua snorkeling site.
Antigua Travel Information
The island nation of Antigua and Barbuda is located in the eastern arc of the Lesser Antilles between Saint Martin and Guadeloupe.
Antigua is roughly elliptical in shape, about 14 miles long by 11 miles wide. It is mountainous in the southwest but fairly flat in the central lowlands. The northern and eastern landscape is composed mostly of rolling hills and valleys.
The island has a highly complex coastline with many bays, headlands, and natural harbors (see photo, above), making it a favorite among the yachting crowd. As one might expect on such a sailor’s favorite, Antigua has no shortage of fine restaurants and “watering holes”.
Temperatures generally range from the mid-seventies in the winter to the mid-eighties in the summer. Steady northeast to southeast trade winds sweep across the island from the open Atlantic. Annual rainfall averages only 45 inches, making it one of the dryer of the islands of the Lesser Antilles.
Compared to much of the Caribbean, the island also experiences relatively low humidity year-round. Antigua is struck by a hurricane only about once every 20 years.
V.C. Bird International Airport is the main point of entry for air travelers. There are numerous direct flights and connections (through Puerto Rico and St. Martin) from North America, and daily flights from London via British Airways. Currently, the major scheduled airlines that fly to Antigua from North America include Air Canada, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta, and US Airways.