Are you for scuba? If you’re reading this, chances are high that you are. And that you like to travel, as well, and not spend the entire vacation underwater. A significant portion, perhaps, but not the entire time—it does become maddening (though strangely comforting) to listen to the repetitive sounds of your own distorted breaths. And although there are a plethora of stories about the top dive sites to visit on planet earth (or, shall we say, planet water), we wanted to identify the best locations for the trip itself. To that end, we compiled places that combine the best of both worlds—a paradise underwater, as well as above. And, naturally, they all just happen to be islands. From the Arctic to the tropics, here are eight islands to add to your diving bucket list—no Nitrox, no problem.
The Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
The Galapagos Islands are a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many reasons, and feeling like you’re living in a David Attenborough documentary is one of them. Witnessing Darwin’s theory of evolution firsthand is another, and the spectacular diving is certainly one more. Though the whale sharks, who linger between Wolf and Darwin Island, tend to get all the attention—perhaps unavoidable given their enormity—we are partial to the sea lions, who are as plentiful as pigeons in New York City and as playful (and mischievous) as the monkeys in Kathmandu. If the latter part of that analogy sounds chaotic and/or uncomfortable, so is the experience of twirling underwater with a 500-pound sea lion. Highly recommended—especially as a day tour via Pikaia Lodge, which combines eco-friendly initiatives with sophisticated luxury in the heart of the Galapagos. (After several days of trekking and diving, you’ll appreciate the chance to rest in your luxury suite.) Cheers!
Bonaire (Dutch Caribbean)
The famed diving destination of Bonaire may be our first, but certainly isn’t our last, island selection in the Dutch Caribbean. Similar to the Galapagos Islands, conservation efforts have established Bonaire as an underwater paradise. 100% of the water surrounding Bonaire is federally protected—visitors must pay a $45 fee to swim. As a result, the surrounding Caribbean is teeming with vibrant coral reefs and schools of hundreds of fish. Bonaire is famous for its offshore diving, and first/time visitors will likely be perplexed by the sight of all the pickup trucks parked along the side of the road. Divers pack equipment in the bed of their truck before venturing off the coast for a scuba session. We recommend diving at night, as the light attracts the magnificently large tarpons, who use the illumination for hunting their prey—while we use the light to watch them do so. Symbiosis in action!
Huvahendhoo (The Maldives)
No stranger to traveler’s bucket lists—including our own—the Maldives is undoubtedly the most luxurious destination to appear on our list. And what better way to relax after an early morning dive than a quick catnap on the veranda of your overwater bungalow? Situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the island chain is a wonderland of turquoise-ringed islands clustered together in far-flung atolls (formerly underwater volcanoes). And while there is no bad place to dive in the Maldives, we recommend the island of Huvahendhoo on South Ari Atoll for adventurers eager to explore the most remote waters in one of the most remote destinations on the planet. (You’ll be reminded of that fact once you board your third flight en route to the aforementioned bungalow.) Expect coral seamounts and gardens, rays, white tip reef sharks, turtles, and—if you’re lucky—hammerhead sharks.
Ambergris Caye (Belize)
Belize is a hidden gem replete with Mayan Mountains and lush Cayes overlooking the Caribbean Sea in Central America. And it is also a diver’s paradise, home to the second-largest barrier reef in the world. Belize is also the site of the Great Blue Hole, a 410-foot underwater sinkhole that looks spectacular when viewed from above on one of the nation’s inter-island Tropic Air flights—and is even more fascinating when observed under the water’s surface. As it is such a deep and dark dive spot, you don’t dive the Great Blue Hole for the marine life, but for the spectacular underwater formations that look like they belong on another planet—expect 40-foot stalactites. Divers can stay in the nightlife capital of San Pedro, in Ambergris Caye, or in nearby Caye Caulker for easiest access to the Great Blue Hole dive site. Placencia and Turneffe are slightly further afield, but each destination has its charms. You better Belize it.
The Great Blue Hole in Belize may not be all about marine life, but that’s not the case with our next destination. On the Norwegian island of Skjervøya, just west of the Kvænangen fjord, divers can swim with orcas and witness the Northern Lights. (Hopefully not both at the same time, for fear of sensory overload.) If this doesn’t define bucket list travel, we’re not quite sure what does. Would-be visitors must complete their Dry-Suit Diver certification in advance of their arrival—though it’s unclear what could possibly prepare one for the frigid cold of the Arctic Circle. Momentary discomfort, of course, is a small price to pay for a majestic experience with the apex predator of the ocean. Just remember that an orca has never harmed a human in the wild, only in captivity. Though you may want to avoid watching Blackfish before jumping in these Arctic waters, the cold never bothered you anyway.
Curacao (Dutch Caribbean)
Scuba diving in Norway may be all about overcoming fear—of frostbite, of killer whales, of sunlight deprivation, etc.—but at our next destination, everything is ‘dushi.’ In Papiamentou, the native language of the ABC islands (which includes both Curacao and our previous choice, Bonaire) dushi means sweet, perfect, lovely, all good. And it’s a term that could also be used to describe the dive conditions in Curacao, making it the perfect place for divers to advance their certification or beginners to acquaint themselves with oxygen tanks for the first time. The island features a mixture of both off-shore and boat diving and, while in Norway attention is (rightly)focused on orcas and humpbacks, in Curacao it’s all about the small things—which, in this instance, includes seahorses, banded coral shrimp, Caribbean lobster, and more. And the exceptional clarity in the waters off Curacao makes such an appreciation possible—and even delightful. Closely observing a single fish attempt to navigate its way through a chaotic school is to experience the meditative pleasures so distinct to scuba diving. Don’t miss a trip to Shipwreck Point. The unlucky resting place of two tugboats and a West India Company trading ship is now home to a myriad array of tropical fish and fluorescent coral reef.
We are transitioning from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to the French island of Corsica, located between Italy and Sardinia. The fourth-largest island in the Mediterranean, Corsica’s central location made the waters off the island’s coast prime for World War Two shipwrecks and cargo wrecks, including the bomber shipwreck located near the Revellletta peninsula. Corsica is also famous for its rockfish, and underwater formations which the locals call “cathedrales”, as well as the magnificent Bonifacio Marine Reserve. Would-be visitors should be aware that France has its own separate system of scuba diving, and should coordinate their dive plan in advance. Happy travels!
Our final destination is one of the smallest countries in Europe—but what Malta lacks in size it more than makes up for in natural beauty and underwater adventure. The Maltese Islands—Malta, Gozo, and Comino—are located in the Mediterranean, and their central location makes the waters a prime location for shipwrecks. Of these, two wrecks in Cirkewwa are not to be missed. The first is Tugboat Rozi, an old Maltese tugboat, originally built in Bristol, UK, that was decommissioned and scuttled in 1992. The second is P29, a Kondor I-class minesweeper built in East Germany that was sold to Malta in 1997 and then scuttled in 2007. It still retains its machine gun at the stern, which makes for some fun underwater selfies. In Gozo, the Blue Hole and the Inland Sea are both worth diving for their varied underwater rocky terrain and 50 meter coral wall that separates them. It's possible to dive them separately or go from one to the other, if you have enough gas. Wherever you dive, you’re unlikely to go wrong. The archipelago is filled with ideal off-shore diving locations—no boat necessary.