Pinel Island (Ilet Pinel) Area
Pinel Island (also referred to as Pinel Islet and Ilet Pinel), has long been considered one of the best snorkeling locations on Saint Martin. The island lies just offshore from French Cul-de-Sac, and although it is subject to Atlantic Ocean waves on its Eastern side, the Western side is unusually protected where it faces the shallow bay. There are at least four main snorkeling areas that are accessible depending on the conditions, including the nearby Little Key, also known as Petite Clef. The map below is shows the entire area. Pinel Island is accessible by ferry from the mainland, which costs 5 euro or 7 dollars per person, round-trip. The entire area is part of the Marine Reserve (although it is the most developed, with three restaurants). Refrain from touching or taking any of the corals or wildlife.
Pinel Island – South Side
The south side of Pinel has three primary snorkeling areas: the designated snorkeling trail, the extremely shallow area near the dock and the southern beach on the Atlantic side of the island.
The designated snorkeling trail can be reached by footpath by heading to the right when arriving at the dock. The hut built by Wakawa can be seen from the dock and main beach area. While anyone is still free to snorkel the area at no charge, there is currently the option to rent rather expensive snorkel sets with a built-in audio tour from Wakawa. I personally have not done this. In general, the area covered by the snorkel course is poor condition, especially compared to how it was even five years ago. The part of the course that is protected from Atlantic waves is largely devoid of living coral, although many tropical fish can be seen.
The extreme shallows near the dock are a favorite location of ours. The area is primarily ridges of rock which are encrusted with seaweed and small corals, at many places six inches or less below the surface. The area is full of juvenile fish and, with patience, nudibranchs, crustaceans and sea hares may be seen here. Visibility varies widely even in this small area. The parts closest to the dock may be cloudier after the arrival/departure of ferries. Extreme care should be taken in this area to avoid damaging wildlife or hurting yourself in these extremely shallow waters.
The southern beach on the Atlantic side is an excellent location for snorkeling if the sea is calm. Off the center of the beach is a sandy area with scattered coral heads, which is surrounded on either side by larger coral reefs. In addition to looking at the surf before entering, keep an eye out for sea urchins, which are common here and can create nasty wounds if touched. If conditions allow snorkeling, you will find some lovely soft corals and a wide variety of sea life including all the usual suspects. If you are lucky, you may also see southern stingrays, caribbean reef squid or scrawled filefish. We’ve even seen a goldspotted eel here.
Pinel Island – North Side
The north side of Pinel features a large beach that is accessible by taking a path over the island from the dock. On the right side of the beach is an area with many large, shallow tide pools that are home to algae and small fishes. On the left side is a sandy beach which is a good spot to get into the water. The area directly offshore is a lagoon protected by a barrier reef extending in an arc around the beach. As you can see from the map below, waves break around this reef, leaving the lagoon relatively calm. Inside lagoon, a sandy bottom slopes down to about fifteen feet, and compared to the area off the south beach, it is not particularly exciting.
Passage outside the barrier reef can be made through a large channel that is just to the left of the center of the beach. Once outside, the reef descends in a small wall to about 30 feet and is quite beautiful, with many corals and fishes. Because this area is relatively exposed, caution is a must, but it is a very rewarding site.
Pinel Island – E.S.S. Drift Zone
I recently stumbled upon one of the most unique snorkeling sites on Saint Martin. It is between the north beach and the south beach on the side of Pinel opposite the dock. It is a large area, several hundred feet across, that is two feet deep or less throughout. Waves break outside this area, so it isn’t bumpy, but a constant flow of water creates a strong current pushing you south. The extreme shallow conditions and strong current have left this area with stunted, bent-over corals that resemble trees growing on a windy shore or mountainside.
Ideally, enter the water as far to the north side as you can and swim out from the island against the current. Then you can drift through the area. If you can keep the current from pushing you to shore earlier, you can exit into the reef area off the south beach. In the meantime, you will have seen loads of coral and sea life living in a unique underwater environment.
Because of the shallowness and strong current, this site is recommended for advanced snorkelers and strong swimmers only. Be on the lookout for fire coral and sea urchins. When drifting with the current, face in the direction you are traveling to avoid surprises.
Little Key is the small, undeveloped island you pass on the ferry to Pinel. Visiting Little Key requires a swim (or kayak) from Pinel, and it is very important to beware of boat traffic when making the crossing. If the water is calm, it is possible to circumnavigate the island, which offers a variety of different marine habitats. On the outer side, there are large undersea boulders that are covered with corals, as well as large, dead elkhorn coral heads that are covered with soft corals. Rounding the protected side, shallower corals give way to seagrass and extremely shallow areas near the one beach on the island. Because it is less accessible, the corals here are in much better condition and the sea life is abundant. We did see a scorpionfish here in the shallow coral area, so use caution. Other tropical fish, like trumpetfish and parrotfish are abundant. During your swim to and from Pinel, keep an eye out for spotted eagle rays in the sea grass beds.