1. Florida Keys
Credit the Gulf Stream with the popularity of the Florida Keys. The current that keeps the Caribbean waters warm and stocked with life also sweeps along these islands, ushering in many of the same fish and marine life species, from green morays to angelfish.“It’s the only Caribbean diving you can drive to,” says Jeff Gneiser, owner of Amoray Dive Center on the island of Key Largo.
“A lot of Caribbean destinations have nothing on Molasses Reef,” he adds. This popular stretch of reef, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is largely spur-and-groove formations, thick with elkhorn and soft corals. “It’s very unusual that you don’t see some megafauna on a dive there,” says Gneiser, referring to regular sightings of nurse sharks, turtles and eagle rays.
More recently, the current has regularly brought in the unexpected, including hammerheads near the Christ of the Abyss statue and Caribbean reef sharks on the deck of the USS Spiegel Grove
wreck. Even manta rays and bottlenose dolphins were in the mix last summer.
- Amoray Dive Resort, Key Largo, Florida Keys
- Courtyard by Marriott Key Largo, Florida Keys
- Holiday Inn, Key Largo, Florida Keys
- Marina Del Mar, Key Largo, Florida Keys
- Captain Hook’s, Florida Keys
- Horizon Divers, Key Largo, Florida Keys
- Islamorada Dive Center, Florida Keys
- Rainbow Reef, Key Largo, Florida Keys
Indonesia’s centrality to the Coral Triangle, home to the planet’s highest level of biodiversity, cements the country as a diver’s paradise. This island chain is stretched long and thin, acting as a sea wall sheltering much of its waters from weather. “It really is number one for biodiversity,” says Karen Stearns, a spokesperson for Wakatobi, a private-island dive resort. “Divers return again and again for the promise of experiencing some of the world’s finest and most spectacular reefs.”
The Wakatobi region itself has some of the country’s most pristine reefs thanks to early protection efforts dating back more than 25 years that led to creating the Wakatobi National Marine Park. “We dedicate a portion of the resort’s revenue to local fishermen in exchange for honoring no-take fish sanctuaries, and the government appreciates that, so there’s a lot of support for conservation in this
area,” Stearns says.
- Wakatobi Dive Resort, South Sulawesi,Indonesia
Extreme isolation and the convergence of three major ocean currents have resulted in a flourishing ecosystem home to abundant endemics as well as seemingly disparate marine life. “We have everything from penguins to whale sharks,” says Gustavo Reyes, of Calipso Galapagos Expedition and Diving.
This hot-and-cold ecosystem is the result of the mixing in Galapagos of the Humboldt Current, which flows north, bringing cold water and an abundance of deep-water nutrients from the southern tip of Peru, with the much warmer Panama Flow and Cromwell Current.
“We have everything you want,” says Reyes, referring to schooling hammerheads and mobula rays, plus more unusual ocean dwellers, such as the red-lipped batfish and the marine iguana—an especially rare treat, as it’s the only lizard that braves the ocean.
The penguins as well are endemic, unique in that they are “very small, and very fast at swimming,” says Reyes. But it’s not just the penguins that make this destination well worth suiting up for water temps as low as 66 degrees. Schooling hammerheads, giant manta rays and mola mola all migrate with the flow of cold water.
- Galapagos Shark Diving Humboldt Explorer, Galapagos
4. Cayman Islands
Wall diving, some of the best ocean visibility on the planet and an artificial reef spanning more than 250 feet make the Caymans a favorite among under- water photographers, dive groups, shore divers, tec divers and, well, pretty much everyone certified to use a regulator.
And there is literally something for every diver. “We are proud to say we have 365 dive sites across all three is- lands,” says Hannah Ebanks, with the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism. The lineup offers quite the mix, including a 330-foot Russian destroyer sunk in 1996 off Cayman Brac.
Little Cayman, a tiny island with a few oceanfront resorts, restaurants, a tiny post office and not much else, is most famous for its sheer drop-offs, including Bloody Bay Wall, the most famous of them all. It’s depth—it starts at about 20 feet and drops down to more than 1,000—is the stuff of legends, and it’s dense with life, including sailfin blennies, Nassau grouper and tarpon.
Grand Cayman has it all: pinnacles, wrecks, walls, reefs, small grottoes, swim-throughs and a wealth of life. Clouds of silversides, tarpon, eagle rays, Caribbean reef sharks and much more keep the reefs pulsing with life.
- Cayman Brac Beach Resort, Cayman Islands
- Reef Divers, Cayman Brac, Cayman Islands
Thailand is one of the hottest spots for new divers thanks to exchange rates that favor Western tourists and the competitive prices made possible by the sheer volume of travelers getting certified here every year. “We’re lucky as people tend to gravitate back to where they did their Discover Scuba Diving experience or Open Water Diver course,” says Darren Gaspari, owner of Aussie Divers, with locations in both Phuket and the island of Koh Tao. “Pre-Covid, we had 10 million people coming to Phuket,” he says.
Thailand is an incredibly popular destination for beginner divers for the aforementioned reasons, as well as the warm water and easy conditions. “When you talk about learning to dive, the conditions should be as easy as possible for someone to learn,” says Gaspari. “We don’t have big currents or big tidal changes, and the water is so warm that you can roll in with just board shorts and a rash guard.”
The water conditions favor marine life as well. “We have a relatively active reef, with big schools of snapper and barracudas,” he says. “And we’re not short on turtles, moray eels, octopuses or cuttlefish either.”
Mexico packs a variety of adventure into a span of 100 miles along the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. From Cancun to Tulum, you’ll find cenotes, which are naturally formed caverns and sinkholes in the region’s interior. Some, such as Dos Ojos and Carwash, are well suited to Open Water certified divers, and some, such as Ox Bel Ha, a system stretching 167 miles, are open only to highly trained tec divers.
Playa Del Carmen serves up reef diving alongside massive loggerhead turtles, as well as wintertime dives with bull sharks. And the island of Cozumel, a legendary destination both for beginner divers and the advanced set, offers sheer walls and drift diving for two times the adrenaline.
More recently, Cozumel enacted progressive measures to protect the beauty of its reefs and walls. “The island uses a rolling rotation of reef closures, so each reef can go on vacation for a couple months,” says Stacey Burton, of Dive with Martin, an on-island dive operator since 1994.
Allowing the reefs a respite has seen a return of life at every scale. “We are now seeing so many more macro critters, including nudibranchs, seahorses and, believe it or not, frogfish,” says Burton. “Macro photography has become huge in Cozumel.”
- Allegro Cozumel of Barcelo Hotel Group,Mexico
- Casa Del Mar, Cozumel, Mexico
- Cozumel Hotel & Resort, Mexico
- Iberostar Hotels & Resorts, Cozumel, Mexico
- Secrets Aura, Cozumel, Mexico
- Aldora Divers, Cozumel, Mexico
- Dive Paradise, Cozumel, Mexico
- Dive with Martin, Cozumel, Mexico
- Dressel Divers, Cozumel, Mexico
- Pro Dive International, Cozumel and Riviera Maya, Mexico
- Scuba Club Cozumel Dive Center, Mexico