The Five Best Destinations for Your Next North American Scuba Diving Vacation
When planning a scuba diving vacation, it’s easy to let your mind wander to distant locations like Australia’s world-famous Great Barrier Reef, the luxurious liveaboard boat tours of the Maldives, and the full moon dive parties of Thailand’s east and west coasts. However, there are many excellent dive sites located close to home in North America. They offer several important advantages over more distant dive sites, including shorter (and direct) flights, opportunities to pay with US dollars and operators who are familiar with the safety and customer service expectations of North American divers.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
Ambergris Caye is the largest island in Belize, and it is connected to the country’s capital city by charter airline or regular fast ferry service. Life on the island is leisurely. Most roads are still paved with sand and the most popular form of transportation is a rented golf cart. Twenty-five dive shops on the island provide PADI scuba certification courses and fun dive packages. Ask your shop to take you to Tackle Box, a popular dive site where curious nurse sharks like to check out visiting divers, or Punta Arena Caverns, which combines easy swim-throughs with opportunities to see lobsters, shrimp and even sand sharks. If you visit Ambergris Caye with a snorkeler make sure to visit Shark Ray Alley, a baited swimming area where the shallow waters are packed with nurse sharks and stingrays.
Technically speaking, Bonaire is in South America, as it lies just off the north coast of Venezuela. However, many North American airlines treat it like a regular North American or Caribbean destination by offering regular direct flights from major Canadian and American airports. Bonaire has the world’s best shore diving, so scuba divers don’t need to adhere to a boat operator or dive shop’s schedule. Just grab your gear and head to one of the sixty sites on the island where you can wade right into the underwater marvels. Two of the best shore diving sites are 1000 Steps, a shallow dive site that is frequented by sea turtles (and really, there are only 67 limestone steps, not 1000) and the Hilma Hooker, a purposefully sunken cargo ship where you can expect to see snapper, barracuda and garden eels.
Cozumel is Mexico’s diving paradise. The island is located in the Caribbean Sea, about ten miles away from the mainland and fifty miles south of Cancun. Cozumel’s main city is San Miguel de Cozumel, which is home to a large cruise ship terminal, a full range of accommodation options and forty-five PADI-certified dive operators. The best dives in Cozumel are drift dives, where the current gently pushes you along the edge of the reef as you take in the underwater sights. Expect to see loggerhead turtles, moray eels and reef sharks on most of your dives. Several Cozumel dive shops also partner with shops on the mainland to organize full-day scuba diving excursions to the region’s famous cenotes, which are networks of underground rivers, caves and caverns.
Roatan is the largest of the three Bay Islands situated off Honduras’ Caribbean coast. There are two attractive destinations for scuba diving fanatics: West Bay, where the beachfront all-inclusive resorts often have their own dive shops, and West End, a typically Caribbean beachfront village with dozens of independent hotels, restaurants and dive shops. The island’s iconic dive site is the El Aguila shipwreck, which is now home to curious moray eels and gigantic groupers. Advanced divers with previous night diving experience may be interested in partaking in a night dive that takes place in open water more than a mile deep. On the night dive, bizarre jellyfish, larval eels and squid are illuminated by the natural bioluminescence (and a flashlight, if you feel so inclined).
If you’re ready to dip your toes or fins into colder waters, head to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Victoria is located on Vancouver Island, about 55 miles south of Vancouver and 75 miles north of Seattle. You’ll need a dry suit to dive the best sites on the Pacific Coast, though you’ll be rewarded with the opportunity to interact with species of marine life that are hard to find in warmer waters. The Saanich Inlet is a good option for Open Water (OW) divers, as the still waters are home to sponges, anemones, rockfish, dogfish and octopi. Advanced Open Water (AOW) divers love Race Rocks, a protected marine environment that is home to California and Stellar sea lions that love to swim and play alongside scuba divers. Although the sea lions are inquisitive and often make contact with divers, there is a strict “no touch” law at Race Rocks that prohibits divers from making the initial physical contact with any sea lions.
Throughout the year, many airlines offer discounted fares to these five North American scuba diving destinations. If you see a good deal you should book it quickly, as sale prices tend to be short-lived and prices rise again in the months and weeks leading up to prime scuba season. Before you reserve any accommodation, email local dive shops to see if they offer stay and dive packages. With the money you save, you could invest in a new dive computer or a round of beers for the dive shop staff!