Snorkeling Desecheo: a forbidden island near Rincon, Puerto Rico

Towering swells ripple across the 12-mile passage between Rincon, Puerto Rico and an uninhabited island. Our submarine climbs the waves again and again and reaches the indigo hills with ease. We plan to snorkel just off the coast of Desecheo Island, a National Wildlife Refuge that was once home to smugglers and pirates, but is now home to a few brown gannets, 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 WWII, the United States used it as a bombing range and unexploded military ordnance now poses a threat to the safety of visitors.

As we close the gap, Desecheo rises from the notorious shifting tides and strong currents of the Mona Passage. When her rugged shoulders come into sharp focus, we drop anchor at thirty feet. I survey the coast where white water flows up through jagged rocks and crashes onto land. There’s something seductive about the mystery of a remote place. I want to explore the wild hills. Don’t get me wrong, I love exploring the bay, but even when I put on my gear and take a giant step off the dive platform, I’m focused on the tiny beach just a short swim away.

The water closes over my head and for a moment I hover at eye level with the fish, suspended between heaven and earth in a gravity-free world. Visibility is over 25 meters and this is a cloudy day. Queen trigger fish floats close to the boat, perhaps hoping to share our sandwiches. They wave their slender fins like girls tossing their hair. After cleaning my snorkel, I lie face-down in the water, watching a tropical fish dance and letting the warmth of the sun seep into my body like Puerto Rican rum. Pink and blue parrotfish tango above the sand and pinstripe sergeant majors cha-cha over limestone ledges. A butterfly fish couples up salsas in a cascading spiral to greet me.

At that moment I see a barracuda staring at me. Barracudas tend to swim close to the surface and if you’re too focused on the distant seabed you tend to miss their menacing presence. Mr. Flashy Teeth is just out of reach. We look at each other for a while and then he wags his tail and disappears into the blue.

I allow myself to float to the beach. Submerged boulders rise below me and the surf crashes over them, limiting visibility to a bubbling two feet. Even if it were safe to set foot on the island, reaching it would be treacherous. I had hoped to get at least close to it, but not today.

Resigned, I kick against the current and head back to the safety of deeper water. Our guide calls everyone back to the boat anyway. Maybe one day I’ll set foot on Desecheo Island. Meanwhile, I have to admit that the snorkeling off the coast is breathtaking. And I’m glad that in my desire to explore the reaches of something unattainable, I didn’t miss the wild encounter that was imminent.

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Information please

EASE

No passport required for US citizens.

Puerto Rico uses US dollars.

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

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

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

GET THERE

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

Desecheo is located 21 miles offshore from Rincon, a small surfing 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, dive or try a diving lesson and dive with an instructor.

WHERE TO STAY

Rincon offers everything from upscale resorts to budget hotels to private homes you can rent.

WHERE TO EAT

You’ll find everything from a Spanish-style tapas bar to the famous Lazy Parrot Rum Shack that hosts Reggae Night every Wednesday. We enjoyed having lunch and watching the surfers at Tamboo Seaside Grill

THINGS TO DO

Visit an art gallery.

Check out Rincon’s eight miles of beaches, most of which are famous for massive surf, especially in the winter months.

Take surfing lessons.

Learn to sail.

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