Travel is all about discovery — and what better way to find new places and creatures than underwater. These are not just our favorite places for scuba diving — but our favorite travel destinations that also happen to have incredible dives. From red-lipped batfish and tomato clownfish to sugar-bearing ships and large freshwater sinkholes, there’s plenty to see here.
Costa Rica, Central America
Costa Rica is surrounded by three major bodies of water: The Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea. So it’s no surprise it boasts impressive opportunities for diving. Any trip to Costa Rica should include a visit to Caño Islands. Seek out Costa Rica Dive and Surf, a local tour company that leads day trips to Caño from Dominical and Uvita. Why is Caño is a must? First, its location: According to National Geographic, Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula is “the most biologically intense place on Earth.” Thanks to strict government regulations restricting the number of boats and divers allowed to visit the island each day, Caño remains unspoiled. With year-round clear waters, expect to see moray eels, orcas, and manta rays there. Be prepared to swim alongside a school consisting of upwards of 100 fish — and don’t forget to admire the colorful coral.
For the most enthusiastic scuba divers, Cocos Island National Park is one of Costa Rica’s favorite dives — and is 300 miles off the mainland. Those committed to seeing the UNESCO World Heritage Site that boasts more than 25 species of fish embark on a 36-hour liveaboard trip and are rewarded with White Tip Reef Sharks, Hammerhead Sharks, and Red-lipped Batfish. There’s memorable diving closer to home too, where half-day excursions can net some of the same species. Those staying in the laid-back surf town of Tamarindo have a great option nearby in the Catalina Islands, a mere 19 nautical miles and 25 minutes offshore. For such a short trek, visitors are blessed with a visit from Pacific Manta Rays, the largest type of ray in the world.
Riviera Maya, Mexico
There’s much more to Riviera Maya than beaches, resorts, and nightlife — an entire underwater world awaits discoverers and those new to scuba diving alike. You may also know Mexico’s Atlantic coast for its amazing cenotes, which lead to underwater cave systems and are among the best in the world. It’s these cenotes that make Riviera Maya the world capital for cave and cavern diving. The crescent-shaped Gran Cenote near Tulum is easily one of the area’s most popular. Its crystal-clear shallow waters contain plenty of fish and marine life, but above the surface there are turtles. Bats, and an entire garden of plants that line the cavern.
Aside from cenotes, Riviera Maya benefits from the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which stretches 620 miles from Isla Contoy on the Yucatan Peninsula down to Belize, so its dive sites are sprinkled with marine life. And its warm, clear blue waters paired with typically calm conditions make for great visibility under the surface. What can you see exactly? It depends where you go. Large bull sharks head to Playa del Carmen to breed between November and March. Pared Verde, one of the area’s only dives that exceeds beginner-level, is packed with coral and sponge life. But the main draw of the Riviera Maya is its cenotes, limestone sinkholes filled with freshwater, underground tunnels, and stalagmites and stalactites formed over millions of years.
Most divers that have been to Thailand agree that Richelieu Rock is the pinnacle of its diving. The iconic dive site discovered by the father of modern scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau, is home to an impressive volume of marine life, and its horseshoe-like structure is decorated with beautiful purple corals. About 125 miles northwest from Phuket in the Andaman Sea, Richelieu is best visited on an overnight boat trip. Speedboats can reach it more quickly for a day trip, but those experienced with the site would agree it’s better to take your time there.
Start your checklist with manta rays, devil rays, ghost pipefish, frogfish, tomato clownfish, a species only found at Richelieu Rock. For an easy win, head to the northeast portion of the dive site — that’s where whale sharks are known to gather and don’t go very far from home base. Make sure to carry an underwater torch so you don’t miss some of the pipefish and harlequin shrimps that tend to hide in small crevices and dark overhangs. All the good diving here occurs between October and May; the rest of the year is simply too dangerous to risk as its middle-ocean location makes it susceptible to violent monsoons during the summer.
Belize, Central America
Belize is one of the smallest nations in Central America, but that couldn’t keep it off this list. When it comes to scuba diving, this small piece of paradise won’t be denied. First of all, it shares the world’s second longest barrier reef, the massive MBRS (mentioned above) with Riviera Maya. But the portion of the reef that lines the Belize border, known as the Belize Barrier Reef, accounts for one-third of the system, and it’s the Belize portion that owns 80% of the marine life. The reef runs along the entire Belizean coastline but gets closest to shore near Ambergris. Dive the reef in search of whitespotted toadfish — a creature unique to Belize.
If you’ve always wanted to swim with whale sharks, Belize between March and June rarely denies any visitor that opportunity. Adding to its impressive resume, the Belize reef claims three of the Western Hemisphere’s four atolls, which are ring-shaped coral reefs with a lagoon in the middle. Belize’s signature dive is what’s called The Blue Hole, the largest sinkhole in the world. It was popularized by Cousteau in the 1970s, and just recently was dived by Cousteau’s grandson along with businessman Richard Branson.
The Bahamas, Caribbean
Because there’s more to life underwater than fish and coral, we urge you to consider what else you can see below the surface. One of the best reasons to go for a dive is to see shipwrecks, and the Bahamas have some of the best wreck diving known to the Caribbean islands. One of the great benefits of Bahamas wreck diving is its great shallow options, which can be a little more accessible to beginners. The Sugar Wreck is a classic just to the west of Grand Bahama Island. Only 20 feet deep, the wreck benefits from increased sunlight which aids visibility of not only the old sailing ship (which had been carrying sugar, of course) but also the snappers, angelfish, and parrotfish that surround it.
For the more experienced, deeper wrecks exist too, and in fact they tend to remain in better condition since they’re further from the potential destruction of storm season. Walker’s Cay is a tiny island north of Grand Bahama, and here you’ll find Esther K. and Dorothy H — sunken tugboats that were purposely dropped down there, more than 100 feet below, for exploration.