10 Best Warm-Water Scuba Diving Destinations | Sport Diver

10 Best Warm-Water Scuba Diving Destinations

Did you have to put on 10 layers of clothing when you walked outside this morning to get your paper? Did you have to dig your car out of a snowbank? Did your tongue stick to the metal pole? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then it’s time for a dive vacation to a spot with bright sun, sparkling beaches and clear, warm waters home to fantastic animal encounters. These 10 warm-water destinations feature all this and more, and will provide a lifetime of memories so fantastic, we bet you’ll never want to come home.


READ MORE: Top 10 Destinations for Beginners


COZUMEL, MEXICO

cozumel scuba diving

Cozumel

iStockphoto

You want another stamp in your passport. You want postcard beaches and swaying palm trees. You want spectacular diving — and you don’t want to pay through the nose for any of it. What you want is Cozumel, a quick (and direct) flight from plenty of U.S. cities. Though the island hosts multiple cruise ships daily, divers can avoid the crowds by heading to the reefs south of the main town, where the reward is lush hard corals and plentiful fish life. Dive operators along the west coast are within easy reach of dive sites, and an ever-flowing current — sometimes strong — makes for exciting drift dives, wherein you might see multiple turtles but will have time only to wave farewell as you fly past. Must-dos include Horseshoe on Palancar Reef, where you’ll drop in around 35 feet into a coral amphitheater filled with blue tangs, parrotfish, turtles and shy green moray eels. More-advanced divers can head farther south to Punta Sur, a deep wall dive featuring coral tunnels and swim-throughs, as well as turtles, eagle rays and reef tropicals. And those beaches? After you surface for the day, bury your toes in the sand with a well-earned cerveza in hand. — Rebecca Strauss

>> DIVE IT: caribbeandivevacations.com


CABO SAN LUCAS, MEXICO

cabo san lucas scuba diving

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Octavio Aburto

The Gulf of California is home to Baja’s big five: whale sharks, hammerheads, sea lions, mantas and humpbacks. And with Cabo San Lucas sitting on the tip of Baja, where the Pacific meets the Gulf, it’s not only easy to get to but easy to get a glimpse of some of these big guys. Not far offshore, sites like the North Wall dip to about 60 feet. Though the water here is cooler, divers are rewarded with tons of life, including angel sharks, green moray eels and colorful angelfish. Farther out, sites like the Blowhole and Cabo Pulmo usually deliver visits from sea lions and dolphins before you even get your fins wet. Depths plummet to thousands of feet, bringing in schools of hammerheads, soaring mantas and even a humpback or two. Topside, everyone hits the lively downtown bars and restaurants, but for something a little off the beaten path, head to Todos Santos, a small artist’s town an hour up the coast from Cabo. There you can relive your dives over margaritas and fresh ceviche. — Tara Bradley

>> DIVE IT: Manta Scuba, caboscuba.com


GRAND CAYMAN

scuba diving grand cayman

A southern stingray at Stingray City in Grand Cayman.

Andy Deitsch

Perhaps the greatest thing about Grand Cayman is that it offers so much to so many divers — new divers and more-experienced ones, solo travelers and divers traveling with their families or in groups. Whether you like reefs or wrecks, shallow dips or plunging walls, big-animal encounters or little critters, Grand Cayman is the perfect wintertime playground. This 22-by-8-mile island is ringed by hundreds of dive sites, many defined by precipitous walls, towering canyons and reefs laced with swim-throughs. In fact, thanks to the island's Dive 365 initiative, Grand Cayman will soon have 365 moored sites, one for each day of the year. Off Seven Mile Beach on the island’s West End, many of the sites are the stuff of legend — Orange Canyon, Trinity Caves, Eagle Ray Rock and Aquarium — and start in just 60 feet or so of calm blue (and warm!) water. North shore diving is characterized by steep drop-offs along North Wall and shallow sites found in North Sound; Stingray City, Grand Cayman’s world-famous animal encounter, is in only 12 feet of water in North Sound. The action continues on the island’s relaxed East End, where you can dive sites such as Split Rock. Grand Cayman's newest attraction, the Kittiwake is worth making a dive on, no matter where you're staying on the island. Combine all this underwater scenery with countless restaurants, bars and land-based recreational activities, and you’ll likely need more than a week to experience it all. — Patricia Wuest

>> DIVE IT: divecayman.ky


TOBAGO

scuba diving tobago

Tobago

Lill Haugen

Spend a week in Tobago, and it’s hard not to fall in love: with the tall mountains ringed by white-sand beaches; local delicacies like roti, a burrito-like mound overstuffed with curried potatoes and meat; friendly Tobagonians and their sing-songy patois; and the diving, which isn’t just good year-round, it’s warm. “January to December, the water never dips below 80 to 82 degrees,” says divemaster Kerron Ottley of southern Tobago’s R & Sea Divers. In the northern town of Speyside, divers head for world-famous sites like the Sisters and London Bridge. But it’s lesser-known dives like Bookends, Blackjack and Japanese Gardens — a shallow site with hundreds of barrel sponges interspersed among a reef so healthy, you’ll be wondering if you’re actually in the Indo-Pacific — that’ll have you ooohing and aaahing. As good as Speyside’s sites are, the south has its share of awesome dives too. Most divers ask for repeated trips to the purpose-sunk Maverick wreck, and when they tire of that, the boats head for the Atlantic side to current-washed gems like Flying Reef and Diver’s Thirst, which burst with soft-coral life and turtles at every turn. It’s so good you might never want to leave. (And some, believe it or not, don’t.) “Every day we’ve got sun, sand and sea,” says Ottley. “Here on Tobago, we’re living the sunny side of life.” — David Espinosa

>> DIVE IT: tobagoscubadiving.com


BONAIRE

scuba diving bonaire

Bonaire

Jennifer O'Neil

It might not be what many envision when thinking of a tropical winter escape — Bonaire’s candelabra cactuses, exposed cliffs and wild roaming donkeys bear more resemblance to Arizona than to most Caribbean islands — but the laid-back island has been a longtime favorite of travelers seeking refuge from chilly weather. Bonaire’s reputation for 365/24/7 diving just yards from shore is justified, and divers consistently rank it as the world’s best shore-diving location. In 1979, the island’s waters were declared a national marine park; today, more than 60 sites are marked along its 24-mile-long leeward coast. Rent a jeep or truck to take full advantage of the shore diving. As easy as it is to wade in at sites such as Hilma Hooker, Invisibles and Pink Beach, plan a boat dive to nearby Klein Bonaire, an excursion to rugged Washington-Slagbaai National Park and a trip to the island’s playful east side, where you can windsurf or kayak. — Patricia Wuest

>> DIVE IT: Buddy Dive Resort, buddydive.com


PALM BEACH COUNTY, FLORIDA

scuba diving florida

Palm Beach County, Florida

Keri Wilk

There is nowhere else in America you can dive with lemon sharks, explore numerous wrecks and encounter critters like striated frogfish within a few fin kicks of the beach. Dive operators in the Palm Beaches area offer easy access to the county’s nearly 70 dive sites, while the Gulf Stream ensures warm water, excellent water clarity and lots of healthy reef growth. Florida divers have long known about the riches off the Sunshine State's Atlantic coast, but now divers from around the world, including underwater photographers, are getting in on the action. Juno Ledge, a few miles north of Palm Beach Inlet, attracts schooling fish like snappers and plenty of encounters with the big boys, like eagle rays, goliath groupers, barracuda and, in winter, dozens of lemon sharks. Mizpah is a 185-foot former Greek luxury liner intentionally sunk in 1968 in 90 feet of water. Orange cup corals coat its inner structure, while barracuda, jacks and turtles patrol its exterior. Better still, Mizpah, like most Palm Beach diving, is done as a drift — you’ll also explore two other wrecks, PC1170 and Amaryllis, on the same dive. There’s always the chance to see something weird in the shallow waters at Blue Heron Bridge in West Palm Beach, so pack your macro lens along with your flip-flops. Plus, this winter getaway is packed with lots of surface-interval action, including Major League Baseball spring training and kayaking on the Intracoastal. — Patricia Wuest

>> DIVE IT: Pura Vida Divers, puravidadivers.com


BAHAMAS

scuba diving bahamas

Bahamas

Alex Mustard

The Bahamas is one of those magical destinations that even people living in the tropics want to escape to in winter. The country of 3,000 islands, cays and islets features fantastic beaches flanked by glistening five-star resorts and casinos; and though the Bahamas is just a onehour flight from Florida, it exudes a laid-back Caribbean vibe that is worlds away. For scuba divers, the Bahamas has it all, and more. In the Out Islands, you’ll find vertiginous walls packed with colorful reefs and big animals. And Nassau is home to possibly the most famous shark dive in the world — where shark wranglers feed dozens of Caribbean reef sharks — and the Hollywood wrecks of 007. In recent years, more big thrills have surfaced too, with expeditions farther afield to dive with oceanic whitetips and Grand Bahama’s Tiger Beach, where you can dive with one of the oceans’ top predators: tiger sharks. If these striped sharks don’t make an appearance, you’ll have plenty to see with toothy lemon sharks, nurse sharks and the occasional hammerhead. When the day’s diving is over, find a deck, grab a drink and warm to the rays of a sun that seems as if it refuses to set. — David Espinosa

>> DIVE IT: Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, stuartcove.com


SILVER BANK, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

Humpback whales have migration points across the globe where people can spot them breaching and tail-slapping from the surface, but places where divers can slip in alongside them are few and far between. Luckily, one of best in-water encounters happens to be just a short hop from the U.S. — at the Silver Bank between the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos islands. Every winter, this collection of remote, shallow shoals at the edge of the tropical Atlantic sees thousands of humpbacks, who arrive en masse to mate and give birth in the warm water. Altogether, the Silver Bank comprises the largest marine-mammal sanctuary in the northern hemisphere, and a select group of live-aboard operators has special permission to make contact with these gentle giants in the water. These trips permit only free diving — no tanks allowed — but you won’t need scuba gear because the humpbacks tend to hang around on the surface. To maximize face time with these highly intelligent marine mammals, it’s best to float calmly on the surface. Mothers will be watching over their newborns, and they can get spooked if people splash or try to chase them. — Travis Marshall

>> DIVE IT: Turks & Caicos Aggressor II, aggressor.com


FIJI

scuba diving fiji

Fiji

Reinhard Dirscherl

In Fiji, divers get the best of both worlds — a soft-coral paradise and drift dives filled with hammerheads, manta rays and turtles — all in a tropical paradise. And while you might not think of Fiji as “easy” access, direct flights from LAX deliver divers to Nadi International airport on Vita Levu. From there, choose any number of islands to get your dive on, including Wakaya, which features Sunset Wall, just five minutes by boat from the resort. The wall starts at 20 feet, and is home to elusive frogfish hiding under corals and flamboyantly colored nudibranchs flaunting themselves on the reef top. When it comes to the big stuff lurking in the blue, you’ll get showstoppers like blacktip reef sharks and stingrays. Some divers hover on the wall and watch the life go by, but it’s hard to resist going with the current and making it a drift. To get the most from your trip, a live-aboard is a good option. — Tara Bradley

>> DIVE IT: Island Dancer II, dancerfleet.com


OAHU, HAWAII

scuba diving hawaii

Oahu, Hawaii

Chuck Babbitt

The classic vision of Hawaii underwater conjures up winding lava tubes, hard-coral reefs fluttering with endemic butterflyfish, and big creatures like sharks and dolphins. The diving scene in Oahu is different; the best underwater attractions are wrecks. Advanced divers shouldn’t miss Oahu’s renowned wreck trifecta: the former Navy fueler YO-257, Sea Tiger and San Pedro. All three wrecks sit just off Honolulu, and Waikiki-area operators visit them often, usually as part of a morning advanced charter since the wrecks are deep and prone to strong currents. On any of Oahu’s wrecks, it pays to keep watch into the blue — you never know when a squadron of eagle rays, pelagic sharks or pod of dolphin might cruise by. For novice wreck divers, Oahu has a new attraction: Brian Benton of Dive Oahu says he’s recently begun taking divers to the USS Nashua, a 110-foot Navy tugboat sunk as an artificial reef in early 2012. — Travis Marshall

>> DIVE IT: Dive Oahu, diveoahu.com

Latest


Gear


Videos