The Caribbean is the perfect place for every level of scuba diver (or snorkeler) to explore the easily accessible, and abundant, marine life found in these crystal-clear waters.
The sea is warm year-round, the crystal-clear waters provide visibility up to 100 feet or more, and the marine life is varied, colorful, and—in many cases—protected. Some of the Caribbean islands are said to have the best diving waters in the world—which, of course, may be subjective. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue otherwise. And while you can dive or snorkel at most of the islands, these options offer the best underwater adventures.
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Even though it’s surrounded by stunning beaches and beautiful clear water, many people still don’t think of Anguilla as a diving or snorkeling destination. But diving and snorkeling is relatively easy here—there’s a long barrier reef, sunken wrecks, mini-walls, and seven designated marine parks. Boat trips (dive boat or public shuttle) to nearby cays are another option. Off Dog Island, spot colorful critters in grottos and around a massive coral garden with formations up to eight feet tall. Rays, turtles, lobsters, and moray eels populate the reef off “deserted” Sandy Island. And Prickly Pear, a pair of uninhabited islands, has calm, shallow waters that are particular nice for snorkelers.
Divers like to explore the intriguing coral formations and rather spectacular shipwrecks found in Aruba’s shallow waters, including the World War II-era, 400-foot German cargo ship Antilla that lies on its side in about 60 feet of water. Parts of the wreck are close enough to the surface for snorkelers to get a good look at the ship and the octopus, moray eels, groupers, and schools of fish that call this place home. Divers and snorkelers alike will find walk-in opportunities at beaches with shallow water (perfect for youngsters), fascinating corals and sponges, and lots of colorful fish—especially at Baby Beach and around Boca Catalina and Malmok.
More than two-dozen dive sites attract scuba divers to the reefs and wrecks off Holetown on the island’s west coast and Carlisle Bay in the south. Barbados’ calm waters are also ideal for snorkeling. On the west coast, Dottin’s Reef is easily accessible from shore—especially from the beach at Folkestone Underwater Park & Marine Reserve, where divers can explore marine life some 40-60 feet down and snorkelers can follow an underwater snorkeling trail and swim with giant sea turtles. Carlisle Bay, a natural harbor surrounded by Garrison Historic Area south of Bridgetown, conceals a half-dozen shipwrecks close enough together to explore on a single dive, along with submerged anchors, cannons, and cannonballs.
A diver’s paradise, Bonaire is encircled by fringing reefs, all part of the protected Bonaire National Marine Park, which teams with a spellbinding array of marine life—an endless variety of hard and soft corals, brilliant sponges and anemones, schools of multicolor fish, an occasional octopus, ray, or eel, perhaps a seahorse. Best of all, Bonaire has nearly 60 walk-in dive sites—which are great for snorkelers, too. You can actually shore dive a 236-foot wreck, the Hilma Hooker, a Colombian cargo vessel carrying 12 tons of pot and cocaine that was seized by the government and scuttled. One of the best sites on Bonaire, though, is 1,000 Steps (actually only 72 steps down to the beach), where divers and snorkelers can swim over stands of magnificent coral; divers can then head out over the sloping wall, which begins 50 feet from shore.
British Virgin Islands
Divers can explore the rather spectacular corals and sea life within the British Virgin Island’s system of marine parks, colorful reefs teeming with fish just below the surface, and some amazing wrecks. Around Virgin Gorda, for example, scuba divers (and snorkelers, too) head for The Baths, the North Sound, and the Dogs (Great Dog Island and West Dog Island). Near Salt Island, across the channel from Road Town on Tortola, the RMS Rhone, a 310-foot royal mail steamer that sank during a hurricane in 1867, is extraordinarily well preserved. The ship’s various sections lie at various depths, making the wreck fascinating to both scuba divers and snorkelers. The Caves at Norman Island and The Indians, nearby, are also terrific snorkeling sites.
Due to their dramatic underwater topography and exceptional visibility, the Cayman Islands have become one of the Caribbean’s (if not the world’s) leading dive destinations. More than 200 dive sites, many close to shore, include soaring pinnacles, precipitous walls, beautiful coral-encrusted caverns and grottos, swim-through arches, and fascinating wrecks. Grand Cayman’s North Wall plunges more than 6,000 feet, for example, while coral reefs (with little or no current) offer shore diving and snorkeling opportunities. Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Wall Marine Park has dramatic drop-offs, walls, and swim-throughs, along with vibrant underwater colors that reflect the park’s name. And divers and snorkelers of all abilities enjoy exploring the reefs around Cayman Brac—where divers can also inspect the MV Capt. Keith Tibbets, a 330-foot Russian frigate purposely sunk in 1996.
About one-third of the southern coast of Curaçao is Curaçao Underwater Marine Park, a protected marine park, with a couple of wrecks, wall diving, and more. High on the list of boat dives, though, is Mushroom Forest, just off the island’s northwest shore, where the coral heads resemble giant mushrooms. Nearby, the Blue Room—an air- and water-filled cave—is worth exploring. For snorkelers, one of the most popular spots is a small sunken tugboat in shallow water at Spanish Water; it’s often included in a boat tour but also accessible by land. Divers and snorkelers alike enjoy taking a boat trip to Klein Curaçao to explore healthy hard and soft corals and lots of other marine life.
A dramatic underwater landscape lures scuba divers to the “Nature Island”—one of the top 10 dive destinations in the world, according to PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors). Dominica has three marine reserves: Cabrits National Park Marine Section in the north; Salisbury Marine Reserve off the central west coast; and Soufrière-Scotts Head Marine Reserve at the island’s southwestern tip, which arguably has the best dive sites. Soufrière Bay is actually a submerged volcanic crater with vertical drops ranging from 800 to 1,500 feet. Pinnacles and canyons are everywhere—along with some active underwater fumaroles. Especially for snorkelers, the geothermal activity at Champagne Reef—home to seahorses, parrotfish, and colorful soft coral and sponge gardens—provides a unique opportunity to snorkel through warm, bubbly water above an active volcano.
Grenada and its sister island, Carriacou, offer some of the region’s best diving opportunities in the form of wrecks, reefs, and drift dives. The most intriguing site is the Bianca C, a 600-foot luxury ocean liner that sank off the coast in 1961 and now sits at a depth of 75 to 165 feet, top to bottom. On the west coast of Grenada, scuba divers swim around—and snorkelers swim above—50 life-size figures installed on the ocean floor at Molinère Underwater Sculpture Park, the world’s first underwater environment of its kind and a perfect site for beginners. Nearby Carriacou has 20 dive sites, 15 within a marine protected area, and a pair of intentionally sunk wrecks. At Twin Sisters near Isle-de-Ronde, between Grenada and Carriacou, experienced divers follow the strong currents around the two huge rocks to explore walls and marine life—and often some very big fish.
While dive sites are scattered all around the island, Cousteau Underwater Park is Guadeloupe’s main diving and snorkeling area. In fact, Jacques Cousteau loved diving there. Les Saintes, one of Guadeloupe’s offshore islands, is also a great place to dive and snorkel; the island is known for its underwater hills, caves, and trees that actually sway. Marie-Galante, another nearby island, has colorful reefs to explore. Some sites are reserved for advanced divers—such as the legendary Sec Pâté between Guadeloupe and Les Saintes, with its coral-covered pinnacle, varied schools of fish, and huge turtles—but there are many sites suitable for beginners, too.
INSIDER TIPFrench is the national language of Guadeloupe, so you may have to search for an English-speaking guide or a translator.
La Parguera—a biobay with glow-in-the-dark water off Puerto Rico’s southwest coast —attracts divers to two particularly scenic sites: The 22-mile-long Wall of coral, with drop-offs of more than 1,500 feet, stretches all the way to Ponce. Nearby, Fallen Rock is an upright pinnacle in the ocean floor populated by sharks, octopus, moray eels, and strikingly beautiful black coral. Many divers and snorkelers head to Culebra or Vieques, two small islands east of Puerto Rico, to explore the colorful underwater world in the company of turtles, dolphins, manatees, spotted eagle rays, puffer fish, and sometimes nurse sharks.
Divers have pretty much kept this tiny cone-shaped island a secret, but ecotourism is key here. Saba National Marine Park—protected waters that encircle the island—is home to prolific marine life, offshore pinnacles, seamounts, and hot springs. Within a half-mile of shore, the underwater walls drop to 1,000 feet or more. Saba has no beaches, and the swift surf crashing on the steep, rocky shoreline discourages large boats and other waterborne activity from getting too close. As a result, the underwater visibility is extraordinary, and the shoals and reefs are rich with healthy corals, fish, and other sea creatures. A few marked spots with shallow waters around the reefs and rocks are marked for snorkelers, including Torrens Point on the northwest side of the island.
Superb dive sites are found near the Pitons, on the island’s southwestern coast, including a beach-entry site at Anse Chastanet where a stunning coral wall drops from 20 feet to nearly 140 feet. Perhaps the most dramatic site, though, is “Supermans Flight,” a dramatic drift dive along the steep walls that are the foundation of the Pitons. (The name of the site comes from the 1978 Superman movie, in which Superman “flew” between the Pitons to Diamond Botanical Gardens to pluck a flower for Lois Lane.) At the base of Petit Piton, the wall drops to 200 feet. Snorkelers especially enjoy exploring the reefs at Anse Cochon, a usual stop on day sails between Rodney Bay and Soufrière. Also near Anse Cochon, the Lesleen M, a 165-foot freighter, was deliberately sunk to become an artificial reef; the wreck sits in 60 feet of water.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Calling itself “The Critter Capital of the Caribbean,” St. Vincent is ringed by one long, almost continuous, reef populated by eels, squid, seahorses, and other “critters” living among the gorgonians. The island’s most unusual dive site, The Bat Cave, is a half-submerged cave filled with hundreds of bats. In the Grenadines, 35 dive sites are within a 15-minute boat ride from Bequia, the largest Grenadine and the closest one to St. Vincent. Farther south, off Mayreau, the wreck of the 1918 British gunship Purini is submerged in only 40 feet of water. Whether based in St. Vincent itself or anywhere in the Grenadines, most boat trips head for Tobago Cays, a group of five uninhabited islands and everyone’s idea of a tropical paradise. Snorkeling or diving there—or just swimming with the resident giant sea turtles—is, in a word, fabulous.
Turks and Caicos
The pristine waters surrounding the Turks and Caicos islands—and more than 70 miles of barrier reefs and walls off Providenciales alone—provide some of the region’s best diving opportunities. Many of the sites are in protected areas, so the coral remains vibrant and the marine life is plentiful—sea turtles, lobsters, eels, eagle rays, and schools of colorful tropical fish. Divers often view nurse sharks and reef sharks swimming around French Cay, southwest of West Caicos, along with—beware—the occasional hammerhead or other dangerous sharks. Grand Turk and Salt Cay are known for their dramatic wall diving. Shallow reefs throughout the islands provide exciting snorkeling relatively close to shore.
U. S. Virgin Islands
Diving off St. Thomas reveals coral-encrusted reefs, archways, caves, rocks, pinnacles, a couple of intriguing wrecks, and tunnels at Thatch Cay—all home to beautiful schools of fish (up to 500 species) and somewhat less beautiful barracuda. On St. John’s east end, Eagle Shoals is such a beautiful dive (when the sea is calm) that it has been the venue of several underwater weddings. And on St. Croix, a shore dive from Cane Bay reveals coral heads, 19th-century anchors, a colorful reef, and an almost bottomless wall. Every beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands offers great snorkeling, but Trunk Bay Beach on St. John has a marked underwater trail that is especially appealing to beginners. A snorkeling trip to Congo Cay, just off the north shore of St. John, is a popular day sail. And on St. Croix, the mostly submerged 19,000-acre Buck Island National Monument, a short boat ride from Christiansted, has a beautiful beach, an underwater snorkel trail, and abundant marine life.