Divers all dive for different reasons. Ask 20 to list their top 10 favorite dives and you’ll be sure to get 20 different lists.
In order to help you compile your own list of top destinations, here’s a rundown of well-known, unknown, unique and unexpected dive destinations around the world. These destinations were ranked based on the variety of dives available, abundance of marine life, types of diving accommodations, and overall diving experience.
With 13,000 islands, Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, and a top diving destinations whether you’re a world class diver or just getting your first hours of bottom time. Areas like Komodo Island National Marine Park and Raja Ampat are gaining popularity as some of the world’s best liveaboard destinations.
Sulawesi and Bali, which are already world class diving destinations, are also becoming popular locations for PADI dive instruction. With several PADI 5 Star Gold Palm facilities, you can obtain your PADI Open Water certification and move up the rankings all the way to PADI Divemaster and beyond.
Indonesia will not only give you a variety sites to choose from, but you’ll experience an abundance of marine life incomparable to anywhere else in the world. No matter where you dive in Indonesia, the reefs are stunning and provide a marine habitat for some of the world’s most unique marine species.
Micronesia is the collective name given for the 2,000 tiny tropical islands that are scattered over more than 3 million miles of the Pacific Ocean. The eight island groups that make up Micronesia are Guam, the Republic of Palau, the Marianas, Ponhpei, Yap, Truk Chuuk, the Marshalls, and Kosrae – each unique group having its own culture, language, history and attractions.
The 340 islands that make up the archipelago of Palau are the top destinations in Micronesia for divers seeking a wealth of marine life. Palau is rimmed by a barrier reef that separates shallow reef lagoons from sheer walls, hosting more than 1,400 species of fish and 350 species of coral.
If you’re looking for a history lesson during your dive, head over to Truk Chuuk, where you will find some incredible wrecks of Japanese naval vessels from WWII, which have transformed into astonishingly beautiful marine ecosystems. From shore dives, to large drop-offs and walls, liveaboards and dive resorts, the tiny islands of Micronesia are nothing short of amazing.
3. Galapagos Islands
If only Darwin knew what he was missing by not having SCUBA gear! Listed as one of the top 7 underwater wonders of the world, the Galapagos Islands remain relatively unknown among diving afficionados. It is still relatively private, pristine, and unexplored.
Unlike most popular diving destinations, reefs are not the primary attraction in these islands. Instead, areas like Darwin and Wolf Islands are home to several different species of sharks, including Hammerheads, Galapagos, and Whale sharks. Oftentimes, divers will experience schools of sharks numbering in the hundreds.
There are a variety of diving options despite the fact the islands have been flying under the radar. Recently, the Galapagos National Park enforced a liveaboard restriction for most boats in the Galapagos, currently the Aggressor Fleet: Galapagos, and SkyDancer: Galapagos are the only boats approved for liveaboard diving cruises. There are several other land-based dive companies that have been operating out of the Galapagos for over a decade, offering day-trips, 1-2 week dive trips, shore diving, and classes (Nauti Diving, Scuba Iguana).
Located in the Netherlands Antilles off the coast of Venezuela, this island is one of the best destinations in the Caribbean. The waters around Bonaire have been protected by an actively managed marine park for the past 25 years. The island’s location in the south Caribbean gives it an arid climate with little rain fall; consequently, the waters are exceptionally clear and calm all year round, making it a favorite spot for underwater photographers and videographers.
This area is also a National Marine Park, with over 86 designated dive sites and an array of protected coral and fish species. Remember to bring an extra $25 US with you for the Bonaire Marine Park Regulations and Information(Bonaire Marine Park Rules) sessions, which are mandatory for anyone who has not dived here in the last year.
Home to the 1,200 mile long Great Barrier Reef, Australia is undoubtedly on everyone’s “Must Dive” list. There are several shallow reefs that are perfect for beginners, walls and drop-offs that are ideal for more advanced and adventurous divers, and something for everyone in between, including a numerous variety of areas for shore dives and wrecks as well.
Coral Sea, Ribbon Reefs, and Cod Hole are among the most popular sites where you’ll find everything from anemones to Great Whites. With literally hundreds of dive resorts, liveaboards, and PADI and NAUI instructional facilities, (Spirit of Freedom Liveaboard, Taka Dive, Lady Elliot Dive Resort) there is something for everyone at every level.
6. North Carolina, USA
The waters between Cape Hatteras and Cape Fear–called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”–are popular for divers interested in sight-seeing, military and maritime history, underwater photography, and technical diving. The abundant marine life and numerous shipwrecks off the coast of North Carolina are perfect for divers of all levels and interests.
It is advisable, however, that you are at least advanced open water certified with some open ocean diving experience if you plan on partaking in the wreck dives. While checking out one of the 30 or so wrecks, you may run into some of the locals, including Sand Tiger and Nurse Sharks, as well as Manta and Southern Sting Rays.
There’s a good chance you may be approached by a Sand Tiger (don’t worry; although they look like something out of a horror flick, they are generally docile and curious), and this may be something a lower-level diver is not used to. The area is bathed by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, giving you ample opportunity to see tropical species that have made their way up the coast.
7. Red Sea
Apart from Antarctica, no place on earth juxtaposes such extreme terrestrial desolation with such rich and diverse marine habitats. Situated between Africa and Asia, and stretching more than 1,000 miles from the Sinai Peninsula to the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea boasts more than 1,000 species of fish, 200 species of coral and another 1,000 species of invertebrates. It’s also a popular destination for wreck diving, and some of the most intact wrecks can be found in the Gubal Straits. (Emperor Divers, Diving World, Red Sea Dive College)
Liveaboards can take you out to the Brothers Islands, which are considered to have the healthiest and most advanced reef systems in the Red Sea. Shallow reefs are accessible from shore or by dayboat, and nearshore reefs are popular throughout the region with beginner divers and snorkelers. With all of this, and the close proximity to Europe, the Red Sea is a great all around destination.
The only country in Central America where English is the primary language, Belize offers flexibility and variety for divers and non-divers alike. Belize has the Meso-American Barrier Reef System, which is the second largest barrier reef in the world (the Great Barrier being the largest), stretching from the top of the Yucatan Peninsula, past Belize, and down to the Bay of Honduras.
Belize offers 3 of the 4 atolls that are found in the Caribbean, including the Great Blue Hole, a popular destination for divers in the Caribbean. This site offers diving for all levels, with walls descending to 40m, overhead ledges, and stalactites. The waters of Belize are home to hundreds of coral and fish species, including Mako sharks and Caribbean Reef sharks.
Most of the 200+ cayes off the coast of Belize offer resorts with options for dive certifications, dayboats, liveaboards and snorkeling trips. Head over to the mainland to the Placencia Peninsula, where both experienced and non-experienced divers will enjoy one of the only three faro reef systems in the world.(Scuba Diving Belize)
9. Riviera Maya, Mexico
Riviera Maya stretches from Cancun south to Punta Allen. Shallow, nearshore reefs of Playa del Carmen and Tulum are perfect for beginners who will also enjoy snorkeling in the world-famous cenotes, freshwater springs that flow beneath the limestone bedrock of the Yucatan jungle.
For more advanced divers, the cenotes of Dos Ojos allow for incredible cavern and cave diving experiences. Diving facilities range from small shore diving operations to 5 Star Gold Palm PADI facilities and every resort and liveaboard in between.(Dos Ojos Cenotes, Tank Ha, Playa del Carmen, Dressel Divers)
10. British Columbia, Canada
Once you brave the mid-40 degree water you’ll agree that this is one of the most incredible dive destinations in the world. Dry suits are a must in order to stay in the water long enough (more than 2 minutes) to see pods of Orca whales, sea lions, and white-sided dolphins.
Here, you’ll find some of the strongest tidal currents in the world, which sweep into the straits and sounds that surround Vancouver Island. Dives begin at slack tide, featuring sheer rock walls below the surface that are packed with bizarre marine life, including nudibranchs, white ghost anemones, wolf eels and giant Pacific octopi. The water isn’t warm and the currents aren’t gentle, but the experience of diving in British Columbia is something you can’t miss. (Suncoast Diving, Dive Victoria Charters)
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Beth Basinski grew up in New England in a fishing family, where her love for the ocean developed. She's now a marine biologist and PADI Divemaster traveling mostly in Central America and the Caribbean, and devoting her life to Marine Conservation and Education.
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