Night snorkeling may sound a bit like a silly idea or maybe even a bit scary, but let me assure you that if you do it right it’s neither, and it can in fact be a highly unique and extremely cool snorkeling experience!

Best Strategies for Night Snorkeling

Aerial view of exposed coral reef

The best places to do a night snorkel are on shallow reefs in a calm bay where you’ll have constant protection from waves and current. On just about all of our tours we do our night snorkels on the resort’s house reefs which work perfectly as we have the resort’s pier to help us in and out of the water whenever we want. We usually plan for a couple group night snorkeling experiences on all of our tours. Just to make the whole experience a bit less scary for anyone who’s never done it before we typically plan to start our snorkel just before the sun sets so there is still enough light in the water so that we can slowly accustom ourselves to the darker waters. By the time the last light has left the water people are so engrossed in the snorkel that they haven’t even noticed that it’s gone completely black.


lights behind coral reef at night

Of course, everyone will have their own underwater flashlight to take with them. For those that don’t have their own the resorts will have one you can borrow or rent. One of the cool things about night snorkeling, aside from the amazing thing you’ll see, is how your focus on the reef changes. During the day snorkeling sessions the ambient light from the sun illuminates the entire reef, but at night you are focused only on the small area that your hand-held light lights up. Most guests find that having a refined field of view of the reef really helps them find the interesting critters as they are not consistently distracted by the enormity and overall beauty of the reef during the day. Also, because you are focused on only one small piece of the reef at a time you go much slower, once again helping you find those cool reef dwellers like the crabs and shrimps you wouldn’t otherwise see in the daytime.

The Night Shift

squid in black water

The shift from day to night brings out a whole new cast of characters. The brightly colored reef fish you were chasing around in the day are now for the most part non-existent as they have crammed themselves into every crack and crevice they can find so as not to be eaten by the night time predators like octopus, cuttlefish, lion fish, and moray eels—which are now out on the prowl for a tasty morsel. Other things you can expect to see are nudibranchs, tons of different species of crabs and shrimps, and with a bit of luck you might find some really cute shark species like juvenile nurse sharks if you are in the Caribbean, or a species known for walking on it’s pectoral fins instead of swimming, called walking sharks, which are sometimes found in the shallows of Indonesia. For those of you whose hair just stood up on the back of your next at the mention of swimming with sharks at night, there is absolutely nothing to fear. If you lucky enough to come across one of these very shy sharks who don’t get much bigger than a couple feet and are covered in brilliant polka-dots, fear is the opposite thing you’ll be feeling.

That one hour period or so where the sun seems to hover just a few inches above the horizon is an incredible time to go snorkeling. Not only does the sharp angle of the sun on the water’s surface create a memorizing display of dappled light over the reef, but the marine life and it’s behavior is in a transition period which is pretty amazing to witness!

The Light

While the available day light in the is significantly less than our morning and afternoon snorkel sessions, there is still enough natural light in the water—at least for the first half of the snorkel—for you to still see clearly without the use of an underwater flashlight/torch. This stunning and more dramatic lighting is my personal favorite thing about sunset snorkels. The sun’s beams cut through the still water and just bathe the reef in this outstanding light which makes for some postcard perfect photos. As the light begins to fade toward the second half of the snorkel session it’s a good time to turn on that underwater torch we’ve provided you with and start investigating the reef’s inhabitants because you’ll quickly see that a lot has changed.

The Night Shift

Just as the sun is starting to set, fish species like damsel fish and butterfly fish which were casually swimming about in the day time now have suddenly disappeared. Well, they haven’t disappeared they’ve just gone into hiding as the larger predatory creatures like the lion fish, moray eels, sting rays, and especially cephalopods like cuttle fish, octopus, and squid all come out to hunt the smaller reef fish. The creatures which were more active in the day are now tucked into every hole and crevice while the creatures like octopus and moray eels are now out in full view as they try to pry the colorful reef fish from their hiding places.

Predatory behavior is not the only thing to change during the night, mating behavior is also more likely to take place around dusk, with mandarine fish being the most active performers. If you are lucky enough to have a colony of mandarine fish right up in the shallows like we do in Alor Indonesia, then you are in for a real treat. These small but lavishly colored fish mate on just about every single evening just before the sun dips below the horizon. You have to be pay careful attention though as the actual mating can be over in a matter of seconds, but if you’re able to find and follow the larger male as he tries to woo one of the females in his harem then you can watch the entire sequence of events, from the awkward courtship behavior to the sudden flash of color that is the physical act of mandarine fish mating.

mandarin fish

Whale sharks are easily one of the most recognizable fish in the ocean. Not only are they the largest species of shark in the ocean measuring up to sixty feet in length, but they are covered in giant white polka dots and only eat plankton and tiny fish! What more could you ask for, a giant shark you can swim with that is completely adorable with it’s spots and is also completely harmless. Now, the only thing is where to find them. Whale sharks inhabit just about every tropical and temperate ocean on the planet, but they tend to be live quite nomadic lives and can travel large distances making them somewhat difficult to find. They can of course turn up at any point during a snorkel, but a lot of times this is a quick pass by lasting just a few seconds to a couple minutes at most. However, there are a handful of places where whale sharks do congregate, and we as snorkelers have as close to a guarantee as you can get in the natural world for being able to snorkel with them for an extended period of time. As I said there are a few of these places where whale sharks hang out in larger groups, but one place that offers solid chances of snorkeling with several whale sharks at a time but also fantastic reefs is in Triton Bay, just south of Raja Ampat.

whale shark swimming

Whale sharks are dispersed all over Indonesia, but the reason they congregate here in this large bay is because for years and years local fishermen have been fishing in a way that has ultimately evolved into a symbiotic relationship between the fishermen and the large sharks. Silversides are a type of very small fish, very much like an anchovy, and are fished throughout the island nation using a bagan, or a large bamboo platform with giant nets that are raised and lowered from the bagan. At night the fishermen on the bagans lower the nets beneath the platform and then use a set of very bright lights to lure in large shoals of these tiny fish. Just before the sun rises the fishermen bring in the nets along with the fish. What they found over the years was that whale sharks were routinely following the nets up to the surface, and even sucking on the nets as these small fish are part of the whale sharks diet. Because these fishing platforms attract the small fish, the whale sharks are then attracted to the smell of small fish and come to suck on the nets and hoover up the left over scraps. The local fishermen appreciate the whale sharks presence as it they typically though of as a good omen for their catch. Along with that, now that this relationship has been discovered, tourism has brought an influx of money to the local communities, as well as well as conservation efforts to reinforce protection for the large sharks.

close up of whale shark and snorkeler

For us snorkelers, this is an excellent and very unique opportunity to get in the water and swim with one or more of these whale sharks at at a time as they suck up the the tiny fish that have managed to escape the net. As I said earlier whale shark encounters are normally quite fleeting, so to be able to locate them, but also float next to one or more for extended periods of time is a very unique experience. Not only that, but being able to witness this relationship between the local fishermen and the sharks, where both are benefitting is the icing on the cake.

At the moment there are two distinct species of manta ray, the larger oceanic manta ray (manta birostris) and the slightly smaller reef manta (manta alfredi).  To keep things simple I’m going to just refer to them as mantas as they are found in the same areas with a few exceptions. Mantas inhabit just about any temperate, tropical, and sub tropical water world wide, with the exception of the Mediterranean. This gives us lots of options for being able to find them, however, to narrow things down I’m going to just list a few places around the world where mantas have a long standing reputation of turning up on a regular basis, and also just so happen to be snorkel venture destinations.

4. Indonesian Borneo—Sangalaki Island

A few miles off the coast of Kalimantan-Indonesian Borneo, is an idyllic island known as Sangalaki which tends to regularly host manta feeding and cleaning parties. While mantas do spend a fair amount of time roaming the open ocean, it’s easiest to find them by waiting next to their cleanings stations or by scanning the surface where mantas are known to feed. Cleaning stations are just giant coral heads that host colonies of different types of small fish, most commonly referred to as cleaner fish, who love to pick off the parasites of mantas. There are a few of these cleaning stations just off the white sand beaches of Sangalaki makiing this a very predictable place to encounter individuals and larger groups of mantas. Along with that, the ocean currents bring healthy amounts of plankton up to the surface around the island where you’re likely to find the mantas hoovering up the plankton with their giant mouths.

3. Palau

Snorkelers with manta in Komodo
Palau is another excellent place to find mantas, with one site known as German Channel as being the go to place. This channel was actually created by the Germans in WWII as a more direct route from the lagoon to the Pacific Ocean. Mantas can’t help themselves when it comes to narrow passage ways for a number or reasons. These bottlenecks in the ocean not only condense all the plankton into one area where the mantas just have face into the current with an open mouthes and let the plankton dense water flow through, but these geographic features also increase the current. Mantas are in incredibly dense animal and if they were to stop flapping they would quite literally sink. When a manta is cleaning they need to be as calm as possible for the cleaner fish to approach and do their work. So, in order to remain as motionless as possible without sinking they will approach a cleaning station while facing into the current and soar just above it using the current and their wings the same way eagles use the wind to keep them gliding. German Channel not only acts as a popular all you can eat buffet but also as a communal bath house for the mantas.

2. Raja Ampat

many mantas feeding on the surface
Raja Ampat is one of the world’s first manta sanctuaries and also happens to be one of the few places in the world where you can see both oceanic mantas and reef mantas together in one site. While there are specific cleaning stations scattered all over the area with more being discovered all the time and channels where mantas congregate to feed, they can be seen just about anywhere. This is one of the beautiful things about Raja, you just never know when they are going to turn up, and sometimes you’ll find yourself suddenly surrounded by fifteen or more of these gentle ocean giants as they go about their feeding ballet.

1. Komodo

Manta rays congregating in Komodo National Park
Komodo is one of my personal favorite places to snorkel with mantas as it just seems to always deliver in a big way. Komodo is like Raja in that you never know when one is going to casually pass you by as you cruise over the reefs, but it just seems to happen so much more frequently. That’s for the sites which aren’t really known as ‘manta sites.’ For the sites where mantas are known to congregate regularly, aka manta sites, the number of mantas can be quite astounding. Back when drones were still allowed in the park I was able to capture over seventy mantas on the surface in one photo. There are dozens and dozens of cleaning stations all over the park and multiple areas where the feeding behavior is predicable.  So, if they aren’t cleaning or feeding in one area we can move to the next where they are likely to be. Also, because there are so many mantas within the Komodo Natioanl Park you also regularly get the adrenaline pumping courting behavior which can involve up to forty mantas all competing for a single female. This type of behavior is not uncommon in the various manta sites around the world, but I’ve never witnessed it so frequently and with such an abundance of mantas as I have in Komodo.

Indonesia is a massive country with over seventeen thousand islands so it’s understandable when people get confused about what location is where. To help with that this short video will break down all of Indonesia’s top snorkeling destinations including what you can see and how we arrive. Don’t hesitate to ask any further questions, we are always happy to help!