6 vacation destinations to add to your scuba diving bucket list

When we travel, we tend to experience the destinations we visit by land — and sometimes by air. And while there’s certainly more than plenty to see that way, there’s also an entire underwater world to explore off the shores of those destinations. Whether you’re an advanced scuba diver or a total newbie, there are countless places to go throughout the world where you can not only enjoy a relaxing vacation by land but also jump in the water and become well acquainted with spectacular subaquatic sites and enchanting marine life. Here are six favorites from experienced, globe-trotting divers.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

In Playa del Carmen, there’s “a mix of beginner, advanced and technical diving — something for everyone,” said Rami Hatamleh, founder of Scuba Sensations. In the winter, he noted, you may encounter eagle rays and bull sharks, the latter of which are a big draw for divers heading to that area.

But perhaps the biggest draw is the Yucatán Peninsula’s vast range of cenotes, or natural, ancient sinkholes. “Cenotes are pretty much magical caves with crystal clear water where you feel like you’re in a complete other world,” said Jennine Cohen, managing director of global sales at GeoEx. Exploring that world through diving can be an incredible experience, though it’s important to do some research in advance and make sure it’s the right fit for your skills and comfort. According to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), you don’t necessarily need an advanced certification to dive cenotes (per the website, “as long as you maintain a minimum of natural light...anyone holding a basic scuba certification can head into this subterranean environment”); but if you’re new to diving, easily get claustrophobic or aren’t keen on trekking to the cenote while lugging heavy dive gear, it might not be for you.

Bay Islands, Honduras

“Honduras isn’t usually the first destination travelers think about when it comes to scuba diving, but just a short ferry ride from the coast lie the Bay Islands, which are truly a diver’s paradise,” said Ben Zweber, an advanced-certified diver and one of the bloggers behind Two Wandering Soles. The islands of Roatán and Utila in particular, he added, are popular spots for new divers to get certified. “With warm waters and incredible visibility, these islands are perfect for beginners,” he said. “And with high chances of glimpsing whale sharks, there is plenty of reason for more advanced divers to flock to these islands as well.”

Hatamleh specifically recommended the dedicated dive and snorkel resort, CoCo View Resort. “The resort sits on its own little peninsula,” he said. “You get a feeling of ‘remoteness,’ but are not that far from civilization.”

Even better, for those who can’t get enough diving: “It’s unlimited diving,” he said. “There are set boat dives for the day, but you can dive from shore 24 hours a day. You have a great mix of deep and shallow, reef and wall dives, a shipwreck you can swim to from shore [and] night diving. It’s perfect.”

Indonesia

Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands, each surrounded by dazzling blue water; and below the surface, it only gets better. “It’s worth every last penny, and much more, to venture to Indonesia for scuba diving,” said Nikki Bruno, who has logged more than 500 dives around the world.

Komodo Island — home to the lizard of the same name, the massive Komodo dragon — is a popular spot, particularly for advanced divers (the cooler water temperatures and currents make the dives more challenging). “On one dive, we spotted a shark, dolphins, manta rays, a school of barracuda and many, many other fish,” Zweber said. “On another dive, our instructor counted 32 manta rays, my new favorite animal.” Zweber recommended booking a liveaboard, which is a multi-day boat trip, to get the most out of your Komodo dive experience.

If you’re still building up your dive skills, there are plenty of other Indonesian spots you can go, like Lembeh Strait and Bunaken. The former, Bruno said, is ideal for muck diving; or exploring areas where wildlife can be found hiding among the sediment at the bottom of the site (rather than near a coral reef). “Muck diving is like a treasure hunt,” Bruno said. “When you first descend to the gray, mucky sand, you think, ‘Why on Earth do people pay to dive here?’ But as you fin along, well-camouflaged alien creatures emerge before your eyes, and you discover that half the species you see on a given dive will be new to you. Beginning divers will especially appreciate the calm waters, shallow depths, and long dive times in Lembeh.” Bunaken, which Bruno said is also suitable for beginners, can provide a completely different — but just as worthy — experience. “If...Lembeh Strait offer[s] a slow reveal of marine life in an unremarkable backdrop, the walls of Bunaken overwhelm divers with technicolor wonder,” she said.

Lembeh Straight, Indonesia
Source: fenkieandreas/Shutterstock

Tsarabanjina, Madagascar

To get to the tiny island of Tsarabanjina, you’ll have to first fly to a different Madagascar island, Nosy Be — but the reward is a dreamy vacation destination and indelible scuba experience. “The waters around Tsarabanjina are still relatively remote – it’s really only the guests at the resort that will be in the area,” said Starla Estrada, the managing director of global sales on Africa at GeoEx. “[The island] also has one of the most professional dive teams in Madagascar. Guests can expect a classic tropical experience — white sand beaches, coral reefs, sunny skies [and] warm water.”

Estrada said Tsarabanjina is doable for divers at all levels; and if you’re not looking to fill your entire itinerary with dives, you can pair your Tsarabanjina trip with some time on mainland Madagascar, where Estrada said you may encounter different types of wildlife, like lemurs.

Malta

This European island, situated between the southern end of Italy and the northern end of Africa, offers plenty of opportunities to dive the surrounding Mediterranean waters. “Malta has a range of scuba diving options for all levels of ability, and the Mediterranean climate means that it’s possible to dive all year round,” said Alex Trembath, an advanced-certified diver and co-founder of Career Gappers. “What makes it a particularly compelling diving destination, however, is the country’s history of involvement in conflict. The Maltese Islands are riddled with authentic wartime shipwrecks to explore, such as the HMS Maori, sunk in Grand Harbour in 1942 during World War II. It’s also possible to dive around some of the country’s iconic coastal landmarks, such as the Azure Window ruins [a rock formation that collapsed into the Mediterranean] and the Blue Grotto.” Keep in mind that, according to Scuba Diving magazine, certain wreck dives may require an advanced certification or a skill check. If you’re not sure of the requirements, or if your skills are up to par, contact dive operators at the sites you want to visit to discuss it before booking your trip.

Blue Corner, Palau

Palau in general is considered one of the best dive spots in the world, with stunning clear waters and an abundance of wildlife — much of which is protected thanks to the 2015 creation of a massive marine sanctuary. But perhaps the best-known dive site is the Blue Corner, where reef walls are home to a vast variety of wildlife, including sharks, barracudas and more. The currents can be pretty strong at the Blue Corner, so it’s best for experienced divers; and, as noted by PADI, divers typically anchor themselves to (dead parts of) the reef so the current doesn’t take over. Lisa Niver, founder of We Said Go Travel, did just that. “The divemaster hooked us into the reef, and we literally hung in the current like kites as sharks and other underwater creatures swam by us,” she said. “It was magical.”