For those who are willing to forsake the land and don an air tank and wet suit, the underwater marine world is one of the last places where it is possible to appreciate the truly wild nature of this planet called Earth. The coasts of the U.S. mainland have an abundance of diving destinations, while Caribbean territories and the U.S. islands in the South Pacific offer a full menu of diving spots that will excite even the most experienced divers. If you are looking for some world-class diving destinations without having to dig out your passport, these destinations are worth the trip.
Oahu is the epicenter for Hawaii’s tourism industry. The state’s most populated island, it holds a majority of the resorts and most of the island’s tourist traffic. However, once you head offshore and drop below the waves of the Pacific, the hordes of tourists disappear. In fact, with its wealth of dive shops and resorts that offer scuba tours, Oahu is a premier destination for both the novice and experienced diver. The sheer number of dive sites (from wrecks to reefs and everything in between) means that it is possible to enjoy the social scenes on the sands of Waikiki and still only be a 30 minute boat ride away from the quiet, pristine surroundings. Oahu is also an ideal destination for wreck diving as a number of World War II era planes and ships still sit mostly intact in the waters around the island.
The U.S. Virgin Islands boast ideal conditions for diving. The clear and warm waters around the Caribbean can be enjoyed year-round, and the coastal areas hold an abundance of colorful and unique marine life. St. Thomas, the most accessible of the three main islands, has a number of shipwrecks and also several reefs that are filled with colorful aquatic life. St. John, likewise, has its share of underwater attractions. But the real marine magic lies off the island of St. Croix. This island, the farthest flung and most natural of the three, features dive sites like the famous Cane Bay Wall. At Cane Bay, divers can leave from shore and explore an impossibly colorful and life-filled reef that sits on the edge of a sheer two-mile deep drop off. In addition to the reefs, which sit in up to 40 feet of water, the area is known for its discarded ship anchors, many of which are over 200 years old!
The barrier islands of North Carolina are a playground for in-the-know travelers looking for a quiet beach destination. Unlike many major tropical destinations,
these islands remain relatively uncrowded for most of the year. Like the best seaside destinations in the Caribbean, the barrier islands are rich in water-based attractions. This is a wreck-diver’s paradise. Hundreds (more than 600 by some counts) of ships have disappeared off the islands over the past few centuries. The oldest wrecks date back to the 16th century, while a host of more recent wrecks from World War II are also on the menu. Highlights include a German U-boat that was sunk during WWII. Unlike the Caribbean destinations that were previously mentioned, the dives of the Barrier Islands are not ideal year-round. Wintertime dives are still possible, though they require a heavy wet suit. This is a great destination for people who want to combine diving with all the other nature-themed attractions the islands of North Carolina have to offer.
The Florida Keys deserve mention because of their warm, clear waters, and more importantly, because they are home to the only living coral barrier reef in U.S. waters. The exotic array of underwater plants and marine animals creates one of the best diving experiences that divers, novice or expert, are likely to have without needing a passport. This is also one of the most well-protected reefs in the world. Yes, the ecosystem is fragile, but a variety of features, including mooring buoys that keep boats from having to drop anchor on the coral, make it possible to explore this place without having to worry about damaging it. The Keys area is also littered with a variety of shipwrecks. Many are located in relatively shallow and clear water, making them ideal for novices seeking an easy first wreck-diving experience.
California’s Channel Islands sit off the coast of Santa Barbara, just north of Los Angeles. This is one of the most wildlife rich stretches of water on the West Coast. The ocean around this eight-island archipelago is home to a number of unique species, including sea lions and dolphins, huge sea bass (some weighing more than hundreds of pounds!), and giant eels. Expansive kelp forests provide an unusual setting for diving. Five of the eight Channel Islands are part of the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary. This is a year round dive destination, though waters can get as cold as 50 degrees during the wintertime, so a heavy wet suit is required. Some dive outfitters even use large yachts to bring divers on multi-day trips as they explore the islands’ underwater landscapes in depth.
Before traveling to dive around the U.S. and across the world, get certified.