My Top Scuba Diving Destination Bucket List

by on April 25, 2014 · 30 comments

in Top 10

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To prepare for last year’s epic trip to the pristine Indian Ocean waters of the Maldives, I became a certified scuba diver – and now, with the Maldives and Australia’s Hamilton Bay under my (weight) belt, I’ll admit that I’m a certified scuba addict!

The world is full of incredible dive sites, but these ten beauties float at the top of my bucket list:

Blue Corner, Palau

Blue Corner, Palau

1. Blue Corner, Palau: This remote island in the Western Pacific (in the neighborhood of Micronesia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) is famous for its deep chasm (over 90 feet!) created by a plunging wall of soft coral. Currents are notoriously strong here, but you can clip yourself to one corner of the wall and hang out, watching schools of (thankfully shy) blacktip and reef sharks, turtles and eagle rays, and trying to spot eels between fan corals and anemones. Across the shelf are sandy channels set back from the drop-off, where currents are calmer and you’re likely to spot red-toothed triggerfish, barracuda, butterfly fish and Moorish idols.

Cenote diving in Mexico's Riviera Maya has some of the best visibility anywhere

Cenote diving in Mexico’s Riviera Maya has some of the best underwater visibility on Earth

2. Gran Cenote, Riviera Maya, Mexico: Found near Mexico’s east-coast Riviera Maya near Playa del Carmen and Tulum, the more than 7,000 ancient limestone caverns called cenotes (pronounced say-NO-tays) were once thought to be a sacred network of entrances to the Mayan underworld. These days, the enormous Gran Cenote is better known as one of the clearest dive spots on Earth, with complete visibility to approximately 30 feet. You have to have a guide in order to explore this site, and groups aren’t allowed to have more than four divers. Set south of Cancun near both Tulum and Coba, it’s easy to combine a dive here with a visit to the Mayan ruins at either site or a stay in Playa del Carmen, where you’ll find Priority Club property Holiday Inn Express Playacar, Fine Hotels & Resorts’ Maroma Mayan Riviera by Orient-Express and Visa Signature’s Fairmont Mayakoba.

A swirl of hammerheads at Costa Rica's Alcyone, off Cocos Island

A swirl of hammerheads at Costa Rica’s Alcyone, off Cocos Island

3. Bajo Alcyone, Cocos, Costa Rica: Only discovered by the Cousteau Society’s Alcyone ship back in 1987, this remote site is set a whopping 341 miles off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Above the surface, the island is a national park with a tropical rainforest, while 85 feet below it features a seamount that attracts whale sharks, hammerheads, dolphins, tuna, and every conceivable type of ray, from giant mantas to mobulas and marbles. Its reef is a popular hangout for octopi, eels and the area’s funny little horned fish, the Cocos blenny – so it would certainly be a popular hangout for me, as well.

Down at the bottom of False Bay in South Africa, the colors are amazing

Down at the bottom of South Africa’s False Bay, the coral colors are (apparently) amazing

4. Miller’s Point, False Bay, South Africa: Set about 15 miles outside of Cape Town (a city I love) on South Africa’s Cape Peninsula, this boat or shore dive has a maximum depth of 42 feet, but visibility extends as far as 50 feet. Most famous for its huge schools of cowsharks and shysharks, the reefs are full of colorful corals and blazing bright nudibranchs. Southern right whales flock here between June and November, and humpbacks migrate here between May and December, so on the way out to the dive there’s a chance you’ll spot yourself a whale or two.

Solderifish hang out way beneath Half Moon Caye in Belize

Solderifish hang out way beneath Half Moon Caye in Belize

5. Half Moon Caye, Belize: Fifty-two miles off the coast of Belize’s Ambergris Caye (pronounced “key”), the spectacular Half Moon Caye is home to plunging walls of colorful coral that attract tons of marine life. Though its neighbor is the more famous Blue Hole, this site is the better place to see a reef in macro action. Visibility goes on for ages, and you’re likely to (very clearly) see loggerhead turtles, tarpon, eagle rays. Swim through caves that shelter groupers, barracudas and Moray eels, and towards the surface you could spot razorfish, conch and garden eels.

The aptly named Rainbow Reef in Fiji's Somosono Strait

The aptly named Rainbow Reef in Fiji’s Somosono Strait

6. Rainbow Reef, Somosomo Strait, Fiji: The South Pacific island of Fiji didn’t earn the title of Soft Coral Capital of the World by mistake, and they don’t call this site Rainbow Reef for nothin.’ The Somosomo Strait’s crystal visibility and strong currents (the name means “good water” in Fijian) make it easy to feast your eyes on drop-dead stunning colors. The reef is especially famed for its Great White Wall, a sheer drop-off that extends to 65 feet and is encrusted with pinkish-white soft corals, but its also known for diveable caves lined with orange, red and yellow soft corals that promise to blow your/my mind.

Schools of fish swarm beneath Darwin Arch in the Galapagos

Schools of fish swarm beneath Darwin Arch in the Galapagos

6. Darwin’s Arch, Galapagos, Ecuador: There are no macros or reefs in this particular slice of the Pacific Ocean  - it’s all about size and scope. Widely considered the best dive spot in the Galapagos, visibility is clear between 40 and 80 feet down, and you’re bound to see massive schools of fish, rays and sharks, from indigenous Galapagos sharks to tigers and hammerheads.

Green turtles are common at Mabul in Malaysian Borneo

Green turtles are common at Mabul in Malaysian Borneo

7. Mabul, Borneo, Malaysia: Near Sipadan, this unique site is best known as a stellar macro destination. Divers wade in along a plain of sand until they start to see seagrass, which provides soft shelter for exotic marine life like fingered dragonets and flamboyant cuttlefish, as well as seahorses and filefish. After the drop-off, you’ll see that Mabul’s rocky reefs are popular with giant frogfish, Moray eels, and crocodilefish, and if you make it down to the sandy bottom you’ll find an old shipwreck. If you’re looking for romance, hang out here and watch bigfin reef squid do their mating dance and lay their eggs in the sand.

Blue Maomao beneath the arch named for them in New Zealand's Poor Knights Islands

Blue Maomao beneath the arch named for them in New Zealand’s Poor Knights Islands

8. Blue Maomao Arch, Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand: About 14 miles offshore from the southeast (or Tutukaka) coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the Poor Knight Islands are a string of 11 million-year-old volcanoes that sit right on the continental shelf and have been water-carved into huge caves, tunnels and archways. Named for a native fish called the Blue Maomao (which rhymes with cow cow), this particular arch marks the site of a well-lit, cathedral-sized aquarium full of, well…blue maomao. I’ve heard that sometimes there are so many of these fish here that you can’t see other divers. Most of the site is pretty shallow, but the bottom drops to 49 feet towards the east end, where you could see free-swimming yellow morays eels, giant stargazers and stingrays, wrasses, blennies and huge grouper. The arch itself is covered with colorful sponges, hard corals and little nudibranchs.

Whale shark, anyone? You'll find them at Nigaloo Reef along Australia's Coral Coast

Whale shark, anyone? You’ll find them at Ningaloo Reef along Australia’s Coral Coast

9. Ningaloo Reef, Coral Bay, Australia: One of the world’s largest fringing reefs, Ningaloo stretches along 162 miles of Western Australia’s mid-north coast. Home to a protected marine reserve, divers can see as many as 200 species of hard coral and 50 of soft coral, as well as over 500 (500!) species of fish.

Coral gorgeousness at Tubbatha in Palawan, the Philippines

Coral gorgeousness at Tubbatha in Palawan, the Philippines

10. Tubbatha, Palawan, Philippines: I’ve always wanted to do a live aboard diving trip, which is when you live on-board a boat and dive every day. They may not be the fanciest vessels, but it’s all about the diving and being able to hit spots that you normally wouldn’t be able to reach during a single dive trip. The Phillipines are known for their far flung dive spots and Tubbatha is one of the premier spots to go reef diving and see large marine life, including sharks (my favorite!).

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  • Newbie to the game

    Hi TPG,
    We are going to cozumel this 4th July and its mainly a scuba trip. I will add the Gran Cenote to my list. I am also a certified scuba diver for 3 years now. Scuba is so much fun and its a different world down there.

  • Mark Schneider

    Good list. Check out Yap, in Micronesia. While in Palau, you must go to jellyfish lagoon, although that’s technically a snorkeling event.

  • JTP

    My hometown has one of the best diving in the world and doesn’t get too much recognition (which is good for the divers). Check out the Kerama Islands off of Okinawa, Japan. It is insane.

  • EBM

    Not for the coral or sea life, but for a weird natural wonder, you have to go to Cenote Angelita, Playa del Carmen Tulum Riviera Maya Mexico. It is suppose to be one of those sites to be seen.

  • clvus

    Not hugely experienced but I highly recommend two islands of Bali, Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembongan. Clear water and amazing sea life.

  • Mr. Cool

    true. was there a few years ago. very cool. at 145ft..need a decent amount of experience i would say

  • tigermark82

    I’ve been to several places in the caribbean and surprisingly my favorite diving has been in Key Largo. It’s known for its diving, but I was surprised to find that I saw a lot more cool stuff than in the caribbean or puerto vallarta.

  • Aclay

    TPG I don’t know how you could have left off Cozumel. Especially since the diving was basically discovered, made famous and called “one of the best places around the world for diving thanks to it’s fantastic visibility and wonderful marine life” by none other than Jaques Cousteau. And now with non stop service on AA from Miami it’s even easier than ever to get to the island, and if you fly into Cancun for the past couple of years there has been the Mayair shuttle from the general aviation terminal in Cancun to Coz for like $50.

  • QRx

    You can’t go wrong with the Philippines. Thought I believe it is written as Tubbataha.

  • Qrx


  • Laurie

    Brian- I had no idea you were certified and liked the sport! I am about 60 dives in, just went to Cozumel. My favorite was the Bahamas on a liveaboard and since you love sharks I’d recommend that- there were plenty and it was beautiful there. also saw a turtle as big as VW bug. insane.
    thanks for this list! a lot are on my top dive sites too. Indonesia was great underwater too – I love frog fish – found out they are like the puppy dogs of the ocean.
    thanks for sharing! I saw you at the NY Times points talk you did there and that was informative and helpful.

  • Josue Sierra

    I hear the Bay Islands in Honduras has some great diving.

  • Stripy Traveller

    I’ll give you one closer to home…Ni’ihau HI (boat ride from Kauai). Monk seals (very endangered) that will come right up to you…stunning walls, EA (Nitrox) diving, sharks and acres of unspoiled (by humans) underwater terrain. Well worth diving…but it’s seasonal.

  • DiffPaul

    Going to Bali/Lombok/Gilis and Phuket this fall. Anybody want to share favorites?

  • Allen

    Real Pirates dive the North Wall at Grand Cayman
    (I’ve got over 1000 dives under my weight belt.

  • Steve |

    Loved it! I’ve been hemming and hawing for the longest time and finally decided enough was enough. I finished my indoor swims and passed my test a couple weeks back. I’m looking forward to joining the certified scuba club!

  • eric

    Gili T is awesome! go diving with manta dive.

  • Frugal4Life

    Although it’s very different diving, Lembeh Strait (Indonesia) is incredible and unique. It’s mostly muck diving and every dive is like a treasure hunt. Very cool photography opportunities and the variety of creatures and finds is amazing.

  • Joey

    TPG. while my wife and I are scuba certified, we have elementary school age children who aren’t old enough for scuba, but enjoy when we take them snorkeling in clear, shallow, and warm open waters. Have you ever considered a similar article for snorkel destinations?

    And as always, thanks for your blog!

  • Dinzie

    There is spectacular diving in British Columbia :)

  • Monika

    Don’t leave out Raja Ampat and Komodo in Indonesia. Live-aboard is the way to dive them. In Palau, Blue Corner is amazing but don’t miss Ulong Channel. This is my favorite dive site in 15 years of diving.

  • KTM

    Great post. The Phi Phi Islands off the western coast of Thailand (near Phuket/Krabi) are some of the best too in my opinion.

  • davep

    The third longest barrier reef in the world is in your backyard – Andros, Bahamas. And it has some great Blue Hole diving too. Also shark diving in Bimini.

  • Scubaotter

    You have some beautiful sites picked out and I would suggest one more – Bonaire. Bonaire is known the world over for easy shore diving and arguably the best diving in the Caribbean. If anyone has Delta Skymiles they would like to use up Delta has two direct flights from Atlanta to Bonaire.

  • Martin

    It’s sad that TPG talks only about diving and not snorkeling opportunities. This article should talk both about diving and snorkeling!!! Many people, especially children, prefer to see the marine life that are less than 10 feet under the water surface. Can anyone suggest the best snorkeling destinations, especially those closer to Florida, that have good visibility and abundant marine life to see???

  • Diver

    Genuinely good list – not the same rehashed “popular” sites that are not necessarily the best (GBR, Cozumel, etc) on most lists. I’ve done 5 of 10 of these, and in my experience Darwin’s arch was by far the most spectacular of any diving I’ve ever done.

    I’d take off Half Moon Caye, Tubbataha, Ningaloo, and Miller’s point and replace with Komodo National Park, Revillagigedo Islands, Sardine Run, and Rangiroa.

  • Diver

    And Monika is right – Ulong Channel is even more special than Blue Corner!

  • Diver

    Nusa Penida to see mola mola and mantas. The magnet dive site off Lombok. But if possible, take a short flight to Labuanbajo and dive Komodo – none of the other dives in the region compare.

  • Nicole Chan

    Hi Brian! Thistlegorm in the Red Sea NEEDS to be on this list! We’re headed to Cyprus to dive Zenobia (another top 10 wrecks of the world) in Sept. Come with us! ;)

  • Donna Roberts Crestejo Ateah

    Im looking for a place to live abroad a few months in Winter.
    We will be travelling from Vancouver, BC, Canada.
    Would like a self contained affordable 2 bedroom house, near
    beach, safe neighbourhood, air conditioning, but walking distance to town for meals, music.
    I’m thinking $1000 per month ?? Is it possible
    Im a certified diver and would like to do some dives also.
    Do you know if there is one site where i could look at rental properties for long stays.

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