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Snorkeling Desecheo: A Forbidden Island Off Rincon, Puerto Rico

Snorkeling Desecheo: A Forbidden Island Off Rincon, Puerto Rico

Towering swells surge across the 12 mile passage between Rincon, Puerto Rico and an uninhabited isle. Our dive boat crests the waves time and again, summiting the indigo hills with ease. We plan to snorkel just off the shores of Desecheo Island, a National Wildlife Refuge that was once home to smugglers and pirates but now shelters a scrap of brown boobies, three species of lizards found nowhere else in the world, and a healthy population of introduced Rhesus monkeys.

Unfortunately the island itself is off-limits. During WW2 the United States used it as a bombing range and unexploded military ordnances now pose a threat to visitor safety.

As we close the gap, Desecheo rises from the notoriously shifting tides and strong currents of the Mona Passage. When her rugged shoulders come sharply into view, we drop anchor in forty feet. I survey the coast where white water funnels up through jagged rocks and crashes onto the land. There is something tantalizing about the mystery of a secluded place. I want to investigate the wild hills. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to explore the bay, but even as I slip into my gear and giant-step off the dive platform, I am focused on the small beach just a short swim away.

The water closes over my head and for a moment I am suspended eye-level with the fish, hanging between heaven and earth in a gravity free world. The visibility is over 80 feet and this is a cloudy day. Queen trigger fish hover close to the boat, perhaps hoping to share our sandwiches. They wave their slender fins like girls tossing their hair. After clearing my snorkel, I lounge face first in the water, watching a tropical fishy dance and allowing the warmth of the sun to seep into my frame like Puerto Rican rum. Pink and blue parrot fish tango above the sand and pinstriped sergeant majors cha-cha over limestone ledges. A butterfly fish couple salsas in a cascading spiral up to greet me.

That’s when I notice a barracuda eyeballing me. Barracuda tend to swim near the surface and if you are too focused on the distant sea floor you are apt to miss their menacing presence. Mr. Flashy Teeth is just beyond arm’s reach. We watch each other for a long moment and then he flicks his tail and disappears into the blue.

I allow myself to drift toward the beach. Submerged boulders rise beneath me and the surf crashes over them reducing the visibility to a bubbly two or three feet. Even if it were safe to set foot on the island, reaching it would be treacherous. I had hoped to at least get close, but not today.

Resigned, I kick against the current and head back to the safety of deeper water. Our guide is calling everyone back to the boat anyway. Maybe someday I will set foot on Desecheo Island. In the meantime, I must admit, the snorkeling off shore is breathtaking. And I’m glad that in my longing to explore the reaches of something unattainable, I didn’t miss the wild encounter at hand.

Information Please


No passport needed for US citizens.

Puerto Rico uses US dollars.

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

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

US cell phone coverage is pretty good, especially along the coast. We didn’t need to do anything extra to use our cell phone and since we have a nationwide plan, we weren’t even roaming!


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

Desecheo is 13 miles off shore from Rincon a small surf town on the western tip of the Island 20 minutes from the airport.

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


Rincon offers everything from fancy resorts to budget hotels to private house 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 Rincon’s 8 miles of beaches, most of which are famous for huge surf, especially in the winter months.

Take surfing lessons.

Learn to sail.

Go deep-sea fishing. Marlin, sailfish, swordfish, tuna, dorado, wahoo and shark all wait to tangle with you in the blue waters off Rincon’s Caribbean coast.