The Best Places Around the World to Scuba Dive
Take an underwater safari in a whole new world.
Scuba diving is one of those activities that many people find an excuse for, like certification takes too much time and money (it can be less than you think) or snorkeling is just as good (news flash: it’s not). Sure, there are vibrant coral reefs, marine life, and shipwrecks that you can spot from the surface, but there’s so much more to see once you submerge.
One of the first things you’ll hear divers say is how peaceful the experience is. Whether you’re drifting along with the current or following the lead of the dive master, the feeling of being beneath the surface, in an environment so quiet, it’s like you’ve entered a different dimension, is one that’s hard to replicate (unless, maybe, you’re lucky enough to go on a trip to space one day).
If you need a little more convincing, we’ve got just the motivation. Here are nine of the world’s best dive sites—many in locales that may surprise you—that are even more impressive below the surface than they are from above.
Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand
Best for: Experienced divers, cold-water divers
This rocky chain of small, volcanic pinnacles off the North Island is rich with life and among the top scuba diving locations. Here, warm currents from the Coral Sea sweep south into cooler waters, resulting in a remarkable diversity of species. You might see such unlikely pairings as sea turtles and parrot fish (typical warm-water critters) alongside cold-water denizens like scorpion fish and the ubiquitous schooling blue Mao Mao. Nudibranchs—psychedelic soft-bodied mollusks that look like colorful oceanic caterpillars—also make an appearance around these magical isles. When you’re back onshore in Tutukaka, where the dive boats depart from, have a celebratory drink or meal at Schnappa Rock—the best cafe in town.
Southern Line Islands, Republic of Kiribati
Best for: Marine biology nerds, bucket list tickers, pristine coral reefs
Among the most isolated atolls on the planet, the Line Islands sit on both sides of the equator. Five on the southern side—Malden, Starbuck, Vostok, Flint, and Caroline (a.k.a. Millennium)—comprise what’s usually referred to as “the line.” Coral around the world may be bleaching and dying, but in these remote waters, it’s thriving.
“There are places in pretty much any Caribbean island that, if you went in the 1970s or even the 1990s, would look vastly different,” says long-time National Geographic contributing photographer Brian Skerry, who has spent more than 10,000 hours with his camera underwater. “The reefs have been overfished, bleached, there are algae growing because the herbivores are gone, but the Southern Line Islands, way out in the Pacific, are just off the charts in terms of pristine coral environments.”
One of the best places to dive here is Christmas Island, famous for the annual migration of red land crabs every October or November. While diving, you’ll also spot manta rays, eagle rays, and spinner dolphins gliding in water that often exceeds 100 feet of visibility.
For a glamping experience like no other, reserve one of the luxe eco tents at Swell Lodge, a wilderness retreat run entirely by solar power on Christmas Island’s western tip.
Best for: Shore divers, muck divers, beginners
Boat diving isn’t for everybody—especially people who get seasick easily or would rather just suit up and step right out from a sandy shore. This is where Bali comes in with one of the best shore dives on the planet.
The USS Liberty is a sunken cargo ship from World War II located in shallow waters just off Bali’s east coast (one of best places to visit in Southeast Asia) in Tulamben. The wreck is essentially a reef now, since it’s covered in coral and sponges with more fish than you’ll ever be able to identify. Everything from schooling jacks and beautiful juvenile sweetlips to batfish, butterfly fish, and anemone fish (Nemo!) are regularly spotted in the clear waters surrounding the wreck—and within its twisting metal nooks and crannies.
The wreck is less than a five-minute swim from the shore and sits at a depth of 20 to 100 feet, which makes it one of the most accessible wreck dives in the world. As if it couldn’t get more convenient, Tulamben Dive Resort is a dive-friendly property located within steps of the Liberty Wreck.
Muck diving, another pursuit that brings divers to these waters, refers to the search for macro (small) and unusual bottom-dwelling creatures that live in sand and muck as opposed to on the coral reef. Famous muck sites in Bali include Secret Bay, where you can usually find oddities like sea moths and ghost pipefish, and the jetty in Padang Bai, where rhinopias and giant frogfish, with their incredible camouflage skills, lurk.
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Best for: Shark fanatics, cold-water divers, experienced divers, marine biology nerds
Charles Darwin gave us so many reasons to visit the Galápagos Islands. Those giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies are pure magic, but if you just stick to land, you’re only seeing half the picture.
The site called Darwin’s Arch at Darwin Island is as epic as diving gets, with sea lions and turtles frequently spotted in the shallows and huge shoals of schooling fish, eagle rays, and even whale sharks deeper down. June through December is whale shark season in these parts, so if that’s a bucket list wildlife encounter for you, consider your calendar marked.
Since whale sharks can often be as large as a bus, getting a photo of the two of you together isn’t as hard as you might think. “The reality with [photographing] sharks, which I think most folks don’t understand, is that you need to get within a foot or two to really make a great picture,” Skerry says.
This sometimes involves the ethically murky practice of cage diving, a method for divers to get up close and personal with sharks with a safety barrier between them. But you don’t have to worry about that with whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea. The famously gentle giants are known for passing close to divers—and they definitely won’t eat you.
Best for: Fans of whale sharks, kaleidoscopic coral, bucket list tickers
Mozambique gets a lot of attention for its beaches, and yes, these are definitely worth the trip alone. But off the coast—which stretches more than 1,200 miles—the Indian Ocean ringing the archipelagos is teeming with some of Africa’s most colorful—and diverse—marine life. From the most southern point, near the South African border, the tiny village of Ponta do Ouro is considered one of the world’s top shark diving spots, where tiger, hammerhead, bull, and blacktip sharks are sure sightings.
In the north, the Quirimbas Archipelago is home to five of the ocean’s seven marine turtles—plus the largest marine protected area in Africa. If you’re visiting between June and October, you’ll catch humpbacks as they migrate through Tofo, also known as one of the top spots to sight whale sharks and manta rays, particularly around aptly named Manta Reef, which lies just 13 miles offshore.
Best for: Fans of shipwrecks, intrepid divers, beginners
With more than 300 identified wrecks in its waters, Bermuda is an epic place to dive and a quick hop from the US. The waters are gin-clear, both in the shallows and at depth, sometimes exceeding 150 feet of visibility— and there’s plenty to see.
If you dive just one wreck in the wreck capital of the Atlantic, make it the Mary Celestia. This was a blockade runner ship for the Confederacy during the Civil War that met its demise after hitting a reef in 1864. The ship is the site of a massive aggregation of parrot fish each June, which come here to spawn after the full moon.
There are 25 pristine reefs to dive at around Bermuda, too, with swim-throughs and enormous barracudas among the dazzling views. For a post-dive celebratory toast, get the island’s iconic cocktail, the Rum Swizzle, at its oldest pub, The Swizzle Inn.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Best for: Marine biology nerds, bucket list tickers
For experienced scuba divers, there’s everywhere else—and then there’s Raja Ampat. The “Four Kings” islands are located in Indonesia’s West Papua province. You have to be committed to reach this remote part of the world, but you’ll find yourself at the epicenter of marine biodiversity.
More than 1,300 species of reef fish live in the waters here—that’s about 50% of all the world’s known reef fish species, a number that makes Caribbean waters positively pale in comparison. And the diversity of habitats underwater include everything from coral gardens and mangroves to sheer walls, current-swept passages, sheltered bays, and more.
“Raja Ampat is best appreciated by someone who wants to look beneath the hood at the inner workings of the marine biodiversity machine,” says professional underwater photographer Brandon Cole, who has dived here many times. “It deserves to be the diamond in the whole necklace. You’re checking off so many new species you’ve never seen before on every dive.”
For an eco-friendly stay in Raja Ampat with access to great diving out the door, reserve a bungalow built on stilts within a short swim of the house reef at Misool Eco Resort.
Vancouver Island, British Columba
Best for: Cold-water divers, octopus hunters, shipwreck fanatics
If there’s any cold-water dive destination that’s well worth layering on the neoprene for, it’s Vancouver Island. Water temperatures hover around the 50-degree Fahrenheit mark, so you’re best off being certified as a dry suit diver before making the trek here.
But the rewards are manyfold: walls of spectacularly colorful sponges and anemones and the chance to come face to face with the largest octopus in the word, the great Pacific octopus, often seen in the waters off Port Hardy. Then, there are some classic wrecks in the waters off Nanaimo on the eastern shore, including the HMCS Saskatchewan, an artificial reef covered with plumose anemones and crawling with crabs.
“You have to work with the tides to orchestrate your dives here,” says Cole, “but doing so opens the opportunity to see especially stunning invertebrate life like anemones, sea stars, and sponges.”
Don’t leave Nanaimo without trying the famous sweet called a Nanaimo Bar, which you can sample at spots like Nanaimo Bakery & Café.
Sipadan Island, Malaysia
Best for: Shark fanatics, advanced divers
Located in the Coral Triangle, Sipadan Island, off the east coast of Sabah in Malaysia, is home to Barracuda Point, a coral reef that rings the rim of a dormant underwater volcano. Like its name suggests, there are indeed barracudas—tons of them. You’ll also be surrounded by nearly 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of types of coral, plus turtles and reef sharks.
While many divers claim this spot trumps the others, don’t write off the rest of the island just yet. There’s 12 different dive sites to choose from, and one in particular—The Drop Off—sits right off the beach. While more suited to advanced divers, this spot has an impressive wall that dips down 2,000 feet and attracts everything from whitetip reef sharks to jacks and barracudas. Even better, the visibility is spectacular year-round. The island is also never crowded with divers—a permit is required, and the number is capped at 176 per day (and three dives per diver).