Cruise ships may offer epic buffet spreads and rooftop water slides, but they’ll never allow you to get up close and personal with, well, anything — especially coral reefs and the diverse ecosystems that thrive within them. The best way to experience sea life and reefs, sans SCUBA certification, is via one of mankind’s most brilliant ideas: the glass-bottomed boat. By removing the visual barrier between passenger and native sea life, glass-bottomed boats provide an overhead experience unmatched by any that keep you so dry and warm. These are the most unique such tours in North America.
1. Sharkey’s Glass Bottom Tours — Madeira Beach, Florida
Sharkey’s Glass Bottom Tours offers one of the most unique experiences you’ll ever have on the water: an LED-illuminated nighttime tour in a glass-bottom kayak. As you paddle the waters offshore of Florida’s west coast, you’ll have the chance to feed the fish by hand and view species like crab and shrimp that are aplenty in the waters near Tampa and St. Petersburg. The 1-1.5 hour tours ($50 per person) also allow you to get a bit of exercise while sightseeing and are the only nighttime sealife-watching experience in the area. And because Sharkey’s developed its own lighting system for the boats, it may be the most unique such offering anywhere in the world.
2. Key Largo Princess — Key Largo, Florida
Coral reefs look better from above. The Key Largo Princess is all the proof you need. A two-hour tour on the boat ($40 for adults, $15 for kids when booked online) takes cocktail-wielding cruisers 45 minutes offshore to view hundreds of types of fish and living coral that surrounds Key Largo. The area is known for marlin, wahoo, dolphins, barracuda, and more, but it’s the beautifully preserved reefs that steal the show on the Princess. Weather permitting, you may even catch a glimpse of wreckage that — like the fish themselves — would go totally unnoticed from the sixth floor of a cruise liner.
3. Safe Tours Cozumel VIP Glass Bottom Boat “Cubana” and Snorkeling — Cozumel, Mexico
Safe Tours Cozumel escorts you aboard its glass-bottomed ship, the Cubana, across three coral reefs to check out the sea life of Cozumel’s Marine Park, and then puts you even closer to it with a snorkeling experience. The Marine Park circles the southern part of the island, known as Punta Sur, and is home to more than 200 types of fish including eels, groupers, and a rainbow of smaller fish. Keep your eyes peeled for sea turtles, as well. The tour costs $29.99 for adults and $19.99 for kids when booked online. And to top it all off, the tour includes free beer once you’ve finished snorkeling. Now that’s worthy of a toast.
4. Kona Glass Bottom Boat — Kona, Hawaii
Captain Ralph Jewell hand-built his ship the Marian and staffs local naturalists to properly explain to his guests what they are seeing as the glass-bottomed boat cruises the reef surrounding Kona. Kona Glass Bottom Boat puts you close to rays, dolphins, and many types of fish in the turquoise Pacific waters off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. Guests frequently spot pods of dolphins swimming and jumping near the boat, an experience that is often more of an attraction than the glass peephole itself. There’s no better place to witness firsthand the fact that when it comes to cutting loose and having fun with the crew, no species does it better.
5. Catalina Island Glass Bottom Boat Voyage — Catalina Island, California
Off the California coast near Los Angeles, Catalina Island is an easy getaway for southern Californians and visitors to the area. This trip heads into the romantic Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve to glimpse the thriving marine ecosystem that surrounds the island — the experience feels a world away from the hectic congestion back on the mainland. The tour lasts 40 minutes and costs $19.99 per person.
6. Lost Sea Adventure — Sweetwater, Tennessee
You may have done a double-take reading that this tour is in Tennessee. In addition to being in a landlocked state, the Lost Sea Adventure is the most unique glass-bottomed boat tour on this list as the boat tour is only part of the adventure. The full tour, which lasts an hour and 15 minutes and costs $22.95 for adults, $13.95 for kids, guides visitors through a series of underground caverns and to a hidden lake — the “Lost Sea” — that lies 14 stories below Earth’s surface. You won’t be eyeing brightly colored tropical fish on this tour, but you will see some eerie underground life that you won’t find anywhere else.
7. Blue Heron Cruises — Tobermory, Ontario, Canada
This scenic glass-bottomed boat tour passes Devil Island and two 19th-century shipwrecks, as well as Cove Island and the Otter Islands. You’ll see Big Tub Lighthouse, among the most iconic on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. When you’ve had your fill of viewing marine life, head upstairs to the open-air roof deck and gaze out at the deep blue of Lake Huron or back towards the dancing pines on land. The tour lasts 90 minutes and is offered from July to early September, weather permitting. Adult tickets run about $50; kids run about $40.