New Caledonia’s Signal Island (Ilot Signal) sits within what Conservation International lists as the world’s largest marine park.
Appropriately named the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, the marine park protects 1.3 million square kilometers (502,000 square miles) of marine ecosystem that includes the world’s second longest double barrier reef and the world’s largest marine lagoon.
Within this park and nestled a mere 20 kilometers (just under 12.5 miles and 8 nautical miles) from New Caledonia’s capital city of Noumea, Signal Island is a unique marine reserve that offers its visitors unprecedented snorkeling in close proximity to a diversity of coral and tropical fish as well as hiking among sea birds and flora that is not easily replicated anywhere else in the world.
There is a nearly 1-mile trail around the island (passing near a coral block tower that was used as a landmark by ships heading to Noumea in the late 1800s). It can be easily walked (or run) at an easy stroll in 30-60 minutes, depending on your fitness, desired pace and how much you stop to enjoy the scenery. Part of it even includes boardwalk built to keep you away from nesting birds. There are frequent signs in both English and French (New Caledonia is a semi-autonomous French territory, after all) that help guide the walk and describe the flora and fauna you will likely see. This can be a great break from the water or a way to stretch your legs after being on a boat.
If sitting on a white sandy beach is all you feel up to, there is plenty of white sand to be had. Please do NOT forget to apply copious amounts of sunscreen!
It is the snorkeling that makes Signal Island special
But it is the snorkeling that can bring plenty of day-trippers from cruise ships docked in Noumea, cruisers on small yachts, and motorboats with family from New Caledonia out for a day. We were of that day-tripping category since in 2014 we were guests of friends on their boat, the SV Reality. Some folks also moor overnight from floating buoys located around the island.
Once you slip into the water, either from the sandy beach or the transom on your boat, you will feel as if you have entered into a kaleidoscope that feels at once colorful, mystical, alien and alive with energy.
Coral around Signal Island is thriving, free from the bleaching and crown-of-thorns starfish infestation that is plaguing so many other coral reefs around the South Pacific. And as a result, the colorful walls, canyons, fans and brain-like protrusions are dazzling (but don’t touch!!!).
As you glide through the water, sometimes on the surface, other times diving down through schools of fish, you will marvel, as we did, at the extraordinary number of marine species in such close proximity – groupers, clown fish, parrot fish, banded sea snakes (poisonous but you really have to work at it to get bitten), cod, feather starfish, Moorish idol (made famous in the movie Finding Nemo), leopard sharks and green turtles to name but a few.