Shipwrecks, nudibranchs and terrifying journeys under huge ice sheets — scuba diving offers a unique view of nature. Here is our guide to finding the best diving in the world.
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1. The great sardine run of South Africa
It may be a humble creature, but the sardine can put a pride of lions or a herd of buffalo to shame. Each summer enormous shoals of the fish — millions strong and kilometres long — swim up the South African coast towards Mozambique. Such a spectacle is sure to be an impressive spectacle for even the most seasoned scuba diver.
This large school of fish attracts plenty of hungry sharks, dolphins, blue fish, tuna and more. A highlight for many divers is the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the "bait ball". This is when dolphins heard part of the shoal into a compact mass, pushing the fish towards the surface — making it easier for them and their co-predators to feed.
- To stay at the dive site: Aliwal Dive Centre and Lodge. This lodge is just above the dive centre and offers double rooms and backpacker accommodation. Rooms come with a balcony, some facing the sea.
Where to stay in South Africa:
- For those who like more privacy: Agulhas House. This B&B is centrally located and offers simple en-suite rooms with fridges and private entrances.
2. The untouched Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan
Tucked between the arid lands of northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea is one of the world’s premier diving sites. Leading off from its northern tip the Gulf of Aqaba boasts some of its best and least-damaged stretches of coral reefs.
The water here is nearly always warm and the vibrant coral reef exquisite. Huge heads of stony, hard corals grow literally as big as a house. Their limestone skeletons support an abundance of marine life, including sea turtles, rays and moray eels. Scuba divers are sure to enjoy the site of shimmering reef fish as they swim over the various fans, sea fingers and sea whips.
- Tala Bay Resort occupies a beautiful sweep of golden sand beaches, 15 km south of the city. Rooms include private balconies overlooking the Red Sea and the resort's beautiful pools.
Where to stay to explore the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan:
3. The great blue hole of Bloody Bay Wall, Little Cayman
The waters around Little Cayman are among the clearest in the Caribbean, let alone the world.
The reef top is fairly flat and relatively shallow – around 8m deep. However, when you swim to the edge you are truly looking into the abyss — straight down a 2000m vertical wall of coral. Floating over the drop-off is a unique experience. A dive through this great blue hole is as close to skydiving underwater as you can get.
Bloody Bay Wall is over 3km long and is one of the best dive places in the world. This area is dotted with coral arches, chimneys and sand chutes. Giant barrel sponges as tall as a man cling to the wall, while barracuda, Nassau groupers and sea turtles patrol the wall.
Dreaming of seeing the world's unusual sites? Check out our guide to the 11 most exotic places to travel.
4. Palancar Reef, Mexico — some of the best diving of the world
Just off the island of Cozumel and teeming with marine life, Palancar is just one small part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Experienced divers and novices alike will find hours of engrossing exploration of this fascinating and complex ecosystem.
Lobsters pick their way delicately along outcrops, feelers blown by the current, while blue-green parrotfish gnaw at the coral with their beaky mouths. Striped clownfish hide in the protective tentacles of an anemone, immune to its toxic sting. Mellow sea turtles graze on algae as graceful rays glide by. Here you will find some of the best diving in the world.
- For a value: La Cosona Real — so long as you love orange and yellow, you'll appreciate the excellent value at this modern hotel.
- For something cosy: Tamarindo B&B — a quaint B&B with whimsical touches and the excellent cooking of the owner as the included breakfast.
Where to stay to explore Palancar Reef in Mexico:
5. Close up with sharks in the Maldives
The brilliantly turquoise waters here hold over two thousand species of fish, including serpent-like moray eels, gigantic whale sharks and huge, elegant manta rays. With visibility up to 40m, this diving site is where one can find some of the best diving in the world.
Reef sharks are one of the main attractions in the Maldives and are reassuringly unlikely to be aggressive towards divers. They grow to be two meters in length. Once immediate thoughts of Jaws have been banished, gliding through the sparkling Indian Ocean only metres from this great predator as it slinks its way around the coral is thrilling.
Here there are plenty of established dive centres. Most offer reef and drift diving as well as the opportunity of taking a night dive. The water is clearest from December through March. However, May through September is the best time to see manta rays, as a rise in plankton attracts them to the reefs.
- Varu by Atmosphere: an all-inclusive resort with unforgettable views of turquoise waters.
Where to stay in the Maldives:
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6. The isolated Tubbataha Reef, The Philippines
If you’re looking for some of the most adventurous and thrilling scuba diving in the world, Tubbataha Reef Marine Park in the Sulu Sea is the place to start. Well out of sight of land and almost 200km southeast of Puerto Princesa in Palawan, this World Heritage Site is only accessible on live-aboard boats.
One of the best diving places in the world, Tubbataha Reef offers night dives, deep dives, drift dives and more. Its very isolation means it’s not overrun by package-tour divers. Even during peak months, you’ll probably be on one of only a handful of small boats in the area. You'll find here coral wall dive sites that seem to plunge into infinity. Come here for the opportunity to see manta rays, black-tip reef sharks, and just possibly, cruising hammerhead sharks.
Dreaming of going on a real adventure? See our guide to the best daredevil travel experiences in the world.
7. Dive with sea with turtles – Sipadan, Malaysia
Sipadan island is Malaysia's only oceanic island, and at this dive site, you are sure to see something that you haven't seen before. This diving place is famous for its large resident population of green and hawksbill sea turtles. It also hosts healthy numbers of reef sharks and magnificent coral.
Sitting in the Sulu Sea off the northeastern coast of Borneo, it is a great base for exploring the nearby shoals of Kapalai and the island of Mabul. These warm and crystal clear waters make for some of the best diving in the world.
- Stay at nearby Kapali island — occupied by a single beautiful resort perched on stilts and surrounded by crystal clear turquoise waters.
Where to stay to explore Sipadan island in Malaysia:
8. For adrenaline seekers — Pacific Harbour, Fiji
Most divers catch a glimpse of a shark in Fiji, usually a small blacktip or nurse shark prowling the edge of the reef. But to see the big boys – 4m tiger sharks or mean-looking bull sharks – you need to take a deep breath and head to Pacific Harbour. Just offshore is a stretch of water that offers the world’s ultimate shark diving experience, and some of the best diving in the world.
Here you will find amazing dive sites with the chance to encounter up to eight species of the ocean’s top predators with no cage or chainmail to protect you. While this is certainly terrifying the dive has a flawless safety record. After signing a waiver to acknowledge that scuba diving with sharks “is an inherently risky activity”, participants are given a tour of the waters.
Experienced Fijian divers hand-feed the sharks, while you view the action from a reef-ledge “arena” a few metres below.
- For a beautiful view: Beqa Lagoon Resort. Infinity pools, koi ponds and more are set amongst the paradisiacal surrounds of a palm-tree-covered island.
- For golfers: The Pearl South Pacific Resort. A beautifully renovated resort with an 18-hole championship golf course and a swim-up bar.
Where to stay:
- For more recommendations, don't miss our guide to the best places to stay in Fiji.
9. The underwater caves of Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand
Jacques Cousteau championed the Poor Knights Islands as one of the top ten dive sites in the world. And with their warm currents, crystal-clear visibility and a host of undersea attractions, his judgement is understandable. This area features New Zealand’s most diverse range of sea life. The near-vertical rock faces drop 100m through a labyrinth of rock arches and sandy-bottomed caves. In addition to rainbow-coloured fish, crabs, and soft coral reefs — blue humpback whales are also known to drop in from time to time.
This area is also known for wreck dives. The waters north and south of the reserve are home to two navy ships wrecks, both deliberately scuttled.
- For campers: Whangarei Top Ten Holiday Park — a small and tranquil place where one can either camp or rent a cabin
- For something elegant and modern: Lodge Bordeuax. Relax in the air-conditioned rooms or at the hotel spa.
Where to stay to explore Poor Knights Island in New Zealand:
10. Take a dive in the frozen White Sea, Russia
Ice diving in the White Sea is probably the most memorable time you'll ever spend underwater. Russia’s far north is a landscape of wonder and wandering once the colder months settle in. It's during these months that the White Sea completely freezes over, attracting divers.
This underwater adventure is spent connected to the world above via a single safety rope. With the use of an underwater torch, one will discover ice hummocks, rifts, cavities and caves, winnowing under tall arches and vertical rocks overgrown with sea anemones and sponges. Once back to the surface, enjoy the glimmering northern lights above.
Ready to explore the frozen lakes of Russia? Try our guide to Baikal — Siberia's epic frozen lake.
It's difficult to stop at ten diving spots, as there are countless more we could have mentioned here. Scuba diving offers such a unique view of what is below the surface, and each site offers such different scenery. If you're ready to make the trip of your dreams happen, check out our Rough Guides. With our guidebooks, you can learn more about the best time to go, the best places to visit, and the best things to do in the countries you plan to travel to.
Or skip the hassle of planning and booking. Our tailor-made trip service makes creating your dream trip easy. Our itineraries are planned by local travel experts and are completely customisable.
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