Snorkeling in Desecheo: a forbidden island off Rincón, Puerto Rico

Towering swell rises along the 12-mile passage between Rincón, Puerto Rico and an uninhabited island. Our dive boat crosses the waves again and again, reaching the top of the Indigo Hills with ease. We plan to snorkel near the shores of Desecheo Island, a National Wildlife Refuge that was once home to smugglers and pirates, but is now home to a patch of brown boobies, three species of lizards not found anywhere. another part of the world and a healthy population of introduced insects. Rhesus monkeys.

Unfortunately, the island itself is off-limits. During World War II, the United States used it as a firing range and unexploded military ordinances now pose a threat to the safety of visitors.

As we close the gap, Desecheo rises from the notoriously changing tides and strong currents of the Pasaje de la Mona. When his sturdy shoulders are clearly visible, we drop anchor from twelve meters. I gaze at the shoreline where white water seeps through jagged rocks and crashes to the ground. There is something tantalizing in the mystery of a secluded place. I want to investigate the wild hills. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to explore the bay, but even as I put on my gear and step off the dive platform, I focus on the small beach just a short swim away.

The water closes over my head and for a moment I am suspended at eye level with the fish, hanging between heaven and earth in a gravity-free world. Visibility is over 80 feet and this is a cloudy day. The queen triggerfish hover near the boat, perhaps hoping to share our sandwiches. They flap their thin fins like little girls waving their hair. After cleaning my snorkel, I lie face down in the water, watching a dance of tropical fish and allowing the heat of the sun to seep into my body like Puerto Rican rum. Tango of pink and blue parrotfish on sand and striped sergeant major’s cha-cha cha-cha on limestone ledges. A couple of butterfly fish dips in a cascading spiral to greet me.

That’s when I notice a barracuda staring at me. Barracuda tends to swim close to the surface and if it is too focused on the distant sea floor, its menacing presence is likely to be missed. Mr. Flashy Teeth is beyond the reach of the hand. We stare at each other for a long moment and then he wags his tail and disappears into the blue.

I let myself go to the beach. Submerged boulders rise below me and the surf crashes into them reducing visibility to two or three bubbling feet. Even if it were safe to set foot on the island, reaching it would be dangerous. I was hoping to get closer at least, but not today.

Resigned, I kick against the current and return to the safety of deeper water. Our guide is calling everyone to get back on the boat anyway. Maybe one day I will set foot on Desecheo Island. In the meantime, I must admit that the snorkeling off shore is impressive. And I am glad that in my yearning to explore the limits of something unattainable, I did not miss the wild encounter at hand.

Information please


A passport is not required for US citizens.

Puerto Rico uses US dollars.

English is widely spoken, although Spanish is the traditional local language.

Puerto Rico phone numbers can be dialed without an international code from US phones.

Cell phone coverage in the United States is quite good, especially along the coast. We didn’t need to do anything extra to use our cell phone and since we have a national plan, we weren’t even roaming!


Fly to (BQN) Rafael Hernández Airport in Aguadilla, on the west side of Puerto Rico.

Desecheo is 13 miles off the coast of Rincón, a small surf town on the western tip of the island, 20 minutes from the airport.

Taino Divers is the only officially allowed dive shop in the waters around Desecheo. You can snorkel, dive, or try a scuba class to discover and dive with an instructor.


Rincón offers everything from luxury resorts to inexpensive hotels to private homes that you can rent.


You’ll find everything from a Spanish-style tapas bar to the famous Lazy Parrot Rum Shack, where every Wednesday is reggae night. We enjoyed having lunch and watching the surfers at Tamboo Seaside Grill


Visit an art gallery.

Check out Rincón’s 8 miles of beaches, most of which are famous for great surfing, especially in the winter months.

Take surf lessons.

Learn to navigate.

Go deep sea fishing. Marlin, sailfish, swordfish, tuna, dorado, wahoo and shark await to tangle with you in the blue waters of the Caribbean coast of Rincon.

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