Those who don’t scuba dive are only getting one angle on all of the world’s best views. The world simply appears different down in the quiet of the deep—and through the underwater looking glass of a scuba mask.
With more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface covered by water, the best places in the world to go scuba diving are as varied and interesting as any topside wildlife or nature attraction.
Here are 10 of the very best, from the current-washed passes of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia to the many sun-dappled coral reefs and shipwrecks closer to home in the Florida Keys. Dive in for inspiration, and then dive down in these places for fun.
1. Tuamotu Archipelago (aka Tuamotu Islands), French Polynesia
For scuba divers, a trip to the islands of Tahiti is best spent going through as many tanks as they can in the atoll passes of the Tuamotu Archipelago. On the incoming tide at Rangiroa’s famed Tiputa Pass, on the atoll’s northwest side, the visibility turns clear and illuminates a spectacle of schooling fish that might include unicorn fish and pompano, as well as surprise appearances by the atoll’s resident dolphins (they often play with divers underwater). Rangiroa Diving Center makes the short boat trip to Tiputa Pass daily.
To explore farther afield on Rangiroa, family-run eco-outfitter Tereva Tana e Vahine whisks travelers 16 miles south across the lagoon to Blue Lagoon for day-long trips that include lunch, snorkeling with lemon sharks, and isolated sand bar strolls.
Also in the Tuamotus, Fakarava’s south pass, Tetamanu, is famed for its wall of hundreds of gray reef sharks. Elsewhere in Tahiti, dive with black tip reef sharks around Moorea and the main island of Tahiti or snorkel with humpback whales in those waters and around Bora Bora, too, from around August to early October.
Trinidad’s beachier and wilder sister island, Tobago is a favorite among scuba divers. Nutrients from the Orinoco Delta make Tobago’s waters particularly enticing to the abundant marine life lured here and helps the island’s barrel sponges grow particularly huge, too. Visitors can even get the ultimate underwater photo stretching their arms and legs out in a superman pose while practicing their neutral buoyancy above the world’s largest brain coral (16 feet in diameter), in the waters off Speyside with Tobago Dive Experience.
Closer to the airport in the island’s south, base at Coco Reef Resort & Spa, Tobago’s grande dame oceanfront resort. The on-site dive shop, Undersea Tobago, runs daily trips to dive nearshore reefs as well as the wreck of the Maverick, a former passenger ferry sunk in 100 feet of water that’s now home to free-swimming eels and octopuses.
3. Socorro and Revillagigedo Islands, Mexico
“If you dream of magical manta encounters and being surrounded by schools of hammerheads while being buzzed by an orca, then the Revillagigedo Islands are perfect for you,” says Julie Andersen, senior director, Global Brand and Media for PADI. For experienced divers, high-adrenaline diving awaits in these remote volcanic islands that can only be reached by live-aboard dive boats that venture some 285 miles south off the tip of Cabo San Lucas on trips that range from 5 to 17 nights.
November to May is the best season to dive at this spot. January into April especially so, as this is when humpback whales are often seen migrating through the waters of the Revillagigedo Islands. Take part in citizen scientist expeditions when aboard the 16-passenger Quino el Guardian, a former research vessel that’s among many dive live-aboards cruising this incredible place.
4. Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Pretty much at the bull’s-eye of the marine world’s biodiversity in the Coral Triangle, where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet, Raja Ampat lies in the eastern Indonesian province of Papua. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed destination composed of roughly 1,500 islands is a far-flung place many experienced divers dream of visiting at least once in their lives.
Its waters are home to roughly 75 percent of the world’s coral species and over 1,500 different species of fish. Simply put, the views in Raja Ampat are the stuff of dive dreams—pristine pastures of corals, manta ray encounters, and schools of tropical fish so thick they nearly block out the sun.
Base on land in a local village at Meridian Adventure, which won PADI’s Green Star award for its environmental efforts, or at the inimitable Misool Eco Resort with its on-site conservation center. Aqua Expeditions offers luxury expeditions through Raja Ampat aboard the Aqua Blu from December to February.
5. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galápagos Islands, a storied destination for nature lovers, has so much more to offer when experienced as a certified scuba diver. Andersen says to bring the whole family here—dive sites promise something for beginner and advanced divers alike. For the latter group, she says channels around the islands work like pelagic highways, attracting more than 3,000 different marine species.
Plan to dive by live-aboard boats to visit the most legendary sites, including Darwin’s Arch. “It’s a paradise for any diver, with hundreds of hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, eagle rays, dolphins, Galapagos sharks,” says Jenny Waack, founder of Galapagos Shark Diving, which leads shark conservation dives in the Galápagos. “I once finished a safety stop there with a group of dolphins and boobies staring down from the surface.”
Ecuadorian company Ecoventura’s 16-passenger Galapagos Sky offers expedition cruising and dive trips year-round to Wolf and Darwin islands as well as other sites known to attract mantas, eagle rays, and whale sharks.
“A reformed hunting ground for sperm whales is now known for their abundance,” says Andersen about the Azores Islands, another intrepid hot spot for scuba diving where conservation efforts have led to the protection and rebound of the deep-diving cetaceans. This autonomous region of Portugal, located roughly 1,000 miles off the mainland in the mid-Atlantic, is known for clear waters surrounding nine volcanic islands. And while it’s rare to see sperm whales while diving, there are plenty of other highlights.
“The region’s location at the meeting point of warm and cold ocean currents creates a unique ecosystem,” says Arlindo Serrao of Portugal Dive, which works with local operators to showcase the best underwater views around islands like São Miguel, Pico, and Faial. Book a berth aboard the eight-passenger Water and Wind catamaran and sail to Azores dive sites, including Princess Alice Banks, where huge schools of jack, tuna, and barracuda cloud the seamount. For land-based diving, Haliotis Dive Center operates guided boat trips from Santa Maria.
7. Poor Knights Island, New Zealand
Off the coast of North Island, the Poor Knights Islands (Tawhiti Rahi in Māori), now a marine reserve, are volcanic remnants of part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. The waters here drew praise from Jacques Cousteau as one of the world’s best diving destinations. Bathed by subtropical currents, they harbor abundant kelp forests and interesting tropical fish not usually found this far south, including mosaic eels, red-banded shrimp, and Lord Howe coral fish.
The most breathtaking sight, however, might be the schooling blue and pink fish at Blue Maomao Arch that flood the sightline alongside clouds of kingfish, snapper, and other species. The staff at Dive! Tutukaka include marine biologists and naturalists. Stay nearby in a quiet valley at Lodge 9, a boutique dive lodge with a cedar wood sauna and upcycled decor elements made from marine debris.
Slip on a mask and roll off a dive boat in Fij, and some of the world’s most colorful and bountiful soft corals await. The waters here are home to a mindblowing 42 percent of the world’s coral species, according to Coral Reef Alliance.
Off Viti Levu’s southern coast in Beqa Lagoon, divers marvel at the sight of tiger sharks, nurse sharks, bull sharks, lemons, and more. “What makes this dive site even more magical is that the massive shark gatherings will take place amongst the vibrant hues of healthy coral,” Andersen says. Coral reefs to visit include the Great Astrolabe Reef around Kadavu Island and Namena Marine Reserve, between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, the country’s largest no-take reef.
Pair the diving trip with a stay at an eco-minded property like Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, Six Senses Fiji, or Vomo Island, all of which run coral restoration programs and have resident marine biologists to help with deeper diver education, including youth programs.
9. Florida Keys
The Florida Keys is the ultimate underwater smorgasbord. Here, divers can knock off their very first open-water ocean dive after getting certified as easily as going for an advanced certification (perhaps testing their tech diving skills in the bowels of a wreck).
Part of the third largest living coral barrier reef system in the world, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is home to 6,000 animal species, many of which swim above spur-and-groove reefs (corals separated by channels of sand) that rarely dip below the 45-foot mark.
Wreck divers delight in descending into the rusty world of the many wrecks sunken in these waters both on purpose and in storms. Dive nine of them on a road trip through the Florida Keys along the Florida Keys Wreck Trek, starting with the 510-foot-long Spiegel Grove, a former U.S. Navy landing ship covered with corals and teeming with fish life that was sunk off Key Largo in 2002 to form an artificial reef.
Consider giving back to the area by volunteering with the Coral Restoration Foundation for projects that might involve outplanting corals onto the reef or building coral trees on land (the latter doesn’t even require dive certification).
10. Palau, Micronesia
Snorkelers know Palau mostly for its famous Jellyfish Lake. But for scuba divers heading underwater in these remote waters of Micronesia roughly 800 miles southwest of Guam, seeing schools of tropical fish and scores of reef sharks during wall and drift dives are the runaway highlight.
The currents can move so swiftly at famous Palau dive sites like Blue Corner that divers need to use a reef hook to attach to a dead part of the reef just to stay put to enjoy the show. The spectacle that unfolds can be likened to an underwater wildebeest migration—where the wildebeest are tropical fish and the predators are sharks.
German Channel is a famed site for reliable manta sightings, and Ulong Channel has gorgeous walls of lettuce corals lining a sandy channel and a conveyor belt of marine life passing through. Longstanding operators that have Palau’s waters wired for diving include Sam’s Tours and Fish ‘n Fins. In October 2023, the Four Seasons Explorer, Palau, which moved here after several years in the Maldives, will launch luxury scuba diving and snorkeling expeditions through these UNESCO World Heritage islands.
Terry Ward is a Florida-based travel writer whose work appears in CNN, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and the Washington Post, among many other outlets.