Dive Into Puerto Rico’s Blissful Waters
As you descend through the water column, the underwater world surrounds you. While you might see fields of seagrass or colorful coral reefs, you will not see lines demarcating boundaries between the open ocean and safeguarded places called marine protected areas (MPAs).
There are more than 1,200 MPAs in U.S. waters, usually co-managed by federal, tribal, territorial, state or local agencies. Their primary function is to conserve marine resources, but most allow diving.
Let’s briefly explore three great MPA diving opportunities in waters protected by the government of Puerto Rico — off the coasts of Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, Desecheo National Wildlife Refuge and Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.
“I grew up here,” says Jan P. Zegarra, a 43-year-old U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has been diving off Puerto Rico since he was a teenager. “We’re surrounded by the ocean on all sides, so it feels almost natural to be in the water here.”
Coastal water temperatures around Puerto Rico range from 74 degrees to 80 degrees, often with visibility of more than 100 feet. About 800 species of fish inhabit the waters, as do hard and soft corals, turtles, sponges, sea fans, nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays, large slipper lobsters and the occasional manatee or bottlenose dolphin. Winter may bring the sound of humpback whales singing.
The result for divers, Zegarra says, is “that feeling of bliss, that feeling of freedom of being in the water and just floating and being in another element. It’s that feeling of being on another planet.”
Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, an island off Puerto Rico’s east coast, is known for verdant waves of seagrass and “very nice, shallow, close-to-shore reefs,” says Zegarra. “Almost every day, you’ll see green sea turtles feeding on these beautiful seagrass meadows.”
Desecheo National Wildlife Refuge is a 377-acre island off the west coast of Puerto Rico. In 2017 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners completed a decade-long effort there to eradicate invasive rats. Researchers have found that islands cleared of non-native rats have healthier coral reefs with more fish and greater resistance to warming.
“It has this rich blue clear water. I always love going there because the photography comes out really nice,” Zegarra says of Desecheo. “It’s a tiny little island, and there’s no development. There’s no one there. It’s just you and the reef and the fish.”
Zegarra is based in the Caribbean Ecological Services Field Office at Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge on the southwest tip of Puerto Rico.
He doesn’t dive often at Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, off Puerto Rico’s east coast. But when he does, he says, “I always see the biggest rays that I have ever seen.”
On Vieques island, he also recommends the Mosquito Pier area, a popular dive spot with sponges growing on the pier’s pilings, starfish along the bottom, sea turtles feeding and schools of fish.
Vieques is a former U.S Navy site. Divers should know that some areas are off-limits because of unexploded ordnance that still has not been removed.
Beyond that, Zegarra offers a few other tips and reminders:
- There are not many places to go shore diving off Puerto Rico; diving off a boat is better.
- Puerto Rico is dotted with dive shops that provide gear and training.
- Never dive alone.
- Follow basic dive safety protocols.
- Beware of strong currents.
- Check with local authorities and dive shops about regulations, especially within marine protected areas.
Note: This article was adapted from “Dive Into an MPA,” which appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Alert Diver Online. Alert Diver also featured stories about diving within Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and with manatees at Florida’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in its Spring 2019 issue.