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Water covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, which means there are multitudes of submerged wonders to explore. Just as hiking trails provide access to mountaintops and canyons, you can also follow snorkel and diving trails to get a fascinating glimpse of what lies beneath the surface. More and more coastal communities are developing underwater trails for locals and visitors to showcase these wonders.
While some underwater trails reveal the diverse marine life of the region, other trails lead you through the human side of a region’s marine history, with circuits that wind alongside shipwrecks and submerged piers. The list of underwater trails is growing all the time — but you can get your feet wet by swimming along on these four standout trails around the world.
Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail (Lake Tahoe, California)
In 2018, California added a new kind of park to its remarkable state parks system: an underwater maritime trail. The Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail — a series of four dive-and-snorkel sites under the cool and clear waters of Lake Tahoe — had been quietly maintained by the state, but the location was not made public until the circuit received official park designation.
One of the sites allows divers and snorkelers to explore two immense lumber barges. They were deliberately sunk after outliving their usefulness once the region transitioned from primarily a rich source of wood for coastal development into a recreational hub. Before their watery retirement, the barges were used as summertime car ferries, but they now provide visitors a glimpse of Sierra Nevada history instead, with underwater signage that provides historic context to what you see.
The other three dive sites on the trail are located in the waters off a long gone vacation camp (complete with a dance hall) that opened in 1907. The sunken treasures here are pleasure craft — fishing boats, skiffs, motorboats, kayaks, and a launch — which were scuttled by the resort as an easy means of disposal.
The cold waters of Lake Tahoe have preserved these boats and ships, and the unusual clarity of its waters — scientists say that a white disk at 70 feet deep can be seen from the surface of the lake — makes the idea of a dive even more inviting.
North West Highlands Snorkel Trail (Scotland)
The icy Atlantic waters off the coast of Scotland may not be the first place you’d think of dipping a toe, but you may find yourself trying on wetsuits when you discover this ongoing project of the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
Nine self-led snorkeling trails along the coast, many in protected bays and sheltered headlands, showcase a surprising diversity of marine life, with kelp beds, sponges, invertebrates, and a wide variety of fish. Even first-time snorkelers who take a dip in these waters — crystalline as distilled Scottish gin — have spotted whales, turtles, jellies, starfish, and sea urchins. More adventurous types can head to some of the stops on the trail that require a little more gumption, like Big Sand, which is only accessible by boat. The journey is well worth it: The site reveals a spectacular coral reef — no, they don’t just exist in warm climates like northern Australia and the Riviera Maya.
If you’re game to take the plunge, download a map and rent an appropriately cozy wetsuit in any of the coastal towns along the way. And be sure to check the weather and tides before you head out into the water. Along with the unexpected marine wildlife you’ll see underwater, exploring this trail will also reveal a pristine 100-mile stretch of Scottish coastline.
Coogee Maritime Trail (Perth, Australia)
Perth, isolated on the sunny west coast of the continent, is thoroughly beach-oriented, so it’s not surprising that snorkeling and diving are popular pastimes. The extraordinary and diverse fish species here rival the Great Barrier Reef, 2100 miles away.
Coogee Beach in the southern Perth suburb of Fremantle is the site of the Coogee Maritime Trail, a 900-foot circuit that offers swimmers a little bit of everything. First, the underwater trail winds through a shipwreck, the Omeo. The iron steamship sunk here in 1905 after a long and eventful life: It was built in Newcastle, England, in 1858, then put to work laying the telegraph cable that linked Australia to Britain via Singapore. The ship was later converted to a sailing vessel for work as a passenger and cargo ship before being demoted to use as a lowly coal hulk. Now, through underwater signage, the Omeo is still on duty, educating swimmers about her long and illustrious service.
The marine trail continues through the surrounding artificial reef, which was carefully designed by marine biologists and engineers to be fabricated from an ecologically sound fiber-reinforced concrete. They created 33 modules along the reef path to attract and support a spectacular variety of Pacific Ocean flora and fauna in terraced displays, as well as cave-like areas, tunnels, and a structure that resembles an underwater temple. Paddle onward to see some of the quirky items peppering the trail, including a massive sea star sculpture you can swim through, a replica cannon, sunken anchors, and interesting antique railroad equipment. The entire circuit is protected from rough seas by a breakwater, and the mostly shallow site can be experienced by all skill levels of snorkelers.
Mid-Lake Michigan Segment of the Wisconsin Shipwreck Trail (Wisconsin)
Maybe beaches and snorkeling are not what come to mind when you think of Wisconsin. But the state’s northernmost point skirts Lake Superior, and its entire eastern border is defined by the beaches along Lake Michigan. Altogether, the Badger State boasts more than a thousand miles of shoreline, and that entire formidable length makes up the Wisconsin Shipwrecks Trail. State historians have established walking and diving trails along the lakefronts, peppering them with interpretive signage above and below the waves. The signs spell out the maritime history of the region, its ships and the people who sailed on them, as well as the culture and industry that kept them afloat — when they were afloat.
The shipwreck trail is broken into five geographic segments. The Mid-Lake Michigan segment — which begins in Racine, just south of Milwaukee, and extends all the way to the mouth of the Ahnapee River on the Door County peninsula — is remarkable for its more than 150 wrecks. Some of the broken hulls are right offshore in shallow water, ready to be explored by casual beach swimmers and snorkelers, while others sunk in deeper waters and were lost to history for years.
One such deepwater wreck, the Rouse Simmons, sank during November 1912 and wasn’t found by a diver until 1971. The schooner — loaded with Christmas trees and lumberjacks — was bound for Chicago to deliver the trees and men for the holiday season. The ship went down under still-uncertain circumstances, and Christmas trees would wash up on beaches.. With the training and proper diving gear to get down to the wreck at 165 feet deep, you can see some of the anchor chain, the windlass, and even remaining holiday trees below deck, some still with needles intact.
Featured Image Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society