By Torben Lonne
You’ve seen best-diving-site lists before. This one is a little different because I weighed more than just awesome diving (any of the world’s top destinations can offer that). I considered the variety of dive conditions, social atmosphere, facilities, and infrastructure available locally as well as the variety of activities in each locale.
Too many dive destinations feel tired these days, especially the picturesque tropical destinations that immediately spring to mind when you think “diving.” To earn a spot on this list, the scuba spot met all the above criteria and seemed exciting to explore for divers and non-divers alike.
Here are some of the world’s bestfamily-friendly scuba-diving vacation destinations, in no particular order (I could rank them, but wouldn’t you rather decide for yourself?):
1. Aqaba, Jordan
Scuba diver and Hawksbill turtle in the Gulf of Aqaba. (Photo: F. Schneider/Corbis)
You could easily just say “Red Sea” and be done with it. There probably isn’t a diver in the world who would avoid this place. But the Gulf of Aqaba is something truly special. With more than 20 dive sites accessible from shore — most within a few minutes of the most popular dive centers and resorts — you can dive different conditions for weeks without a repeat experience.
From pristine, shallow reefs thriving with vibrant life (a photographer’s dream) to incredible penetrable wrecks and caves both within recreational limits and well beyond them, Aqaba offers both memories and challenges for divers of all levels with a variety of professional, respected dive facilities to match.
Non-divers enjoy some of the warmest hospitality in the Gulf region with excellent restaurants, hotels, and nightlife just minutes away from accommodations. Aqaba itself is a thriving port town with much to see and do, and you’ll find quiet, private retreats that feel absolutely disconnected but are actually conveniently close to the region’s major attractions.
Pros: Aqaba Marine Park offers world-class recreational & technical diving, penetrable wrecks (including the Cedar Pride), stunning marine life (especially macro) at all depths, excellent hospitality choices, and first-rate dive and medical facilities. There are also beautiful beaches with a variety of activities (ATVs, horseback riding, parasailing, etc.), all in a peaceful, desert cliff setting.
Cons: Many beaches are rocky, and large marine life (sharks) is somewhat scarce. Some dive sites have multiple names, which can be confusing, and some sites require long surface swims. And as a side note, Aqaba town center is very loud.
When to go: Plan to visit any time of year, though it’s slightly warmer during summer months. September and October are the best diving months in the Gulf of Aqaba.
2. Scapa Flow, Scotland
A diver exploring the wreck of the SMS Dresden in the Scapa Flow. (Photo: Phil Mills/Flickr)
Also known as the Orkney Islands, the Scapa Flow is actually the sheltered bay that separates five main islands and more than 70 smaller ones from mainland Scotland. Yes, it’s cold, so you’ll probably want a drysuit. But once you’re warm, you’ll enjoy some of Europe’s most impressive wreck diving.
The bottom is sandy, but the wrecks are positively alive with life — even the deeper ones are thoroughly encrusted with growth housing busy, varied communities of life. You’ll find several unique ecosystems to explore with 10-plus shipwrecks lining the sea floor between 12 and 45 meters.
Most of the Scapa Flow’s shipwrecks were part of Germany’s World War I High Seas Fleet and are accessible to both recreational and technical divers with two important exceptions: the HMS Royal Oak and HMS Vanguard were sunk here by hostile action during World War II. These sites are officially designated as war graves — protected historical sites — and must not be disturbed in any way.
Non-divers in the Orkney Islands enjoy world-famous Scottish hospitality and cultural heritage, with quaint villages, Orkney’s bustling urban center, rugged wilderness, ancient relics and ruins, and white-sand beaches all just a short hop away from each other.
Diving the Scapa Flow leaves all your options open: Enjoy a diving vacation at a first-class hotel, immerse yourself in the charming quiet of a traditional bed and breakfast, or make every dive you can on a live-aboard diving trip. The Orkney Islands absolutely offer something that suits everyone’s fancy.
Pros: Here, you’ll enjoy exploring incredible wrecks and seeing the diverse, healthy marine life. There is a wide range of accommodations and activities, easily accessible from mainland U.K., and the area boasts gorgeous beaches, a rich historic culture, and adventures for cyclists.
Cons: It’s cold in the winter, and a trip here is somewhat expensive, so book your trip well in advance to ensure that you get your choice of facility. Note that a ferry (or plane) trip is required to visit surrounding islands (or the mainland).
When to go: You can visit year-round, but expect slightly warmer water temperatures and better bottom visibility between April and October. Remember, book in advance to avoid disappointment!
3. Isla del Coco, Costa Rica
Scuba divers and white tip shark, Cocos Island National Park, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica (Photo: Bernard Radvaner/Corbis)
You’ve probably heard of this one, too. Isla del Coco, or Cocos Island, is infamous for its schooling hammerheads, but that’s barely splashing the surface.
Costa Rica has some of the best live-aboard dive boats (and fleets!) in the world, and many of them visit Isla del Coco National Park. You might think that at more than 500 km offshore (and offering some pretty intense adventure dives), this site wouldn’t make this list. But the quality of service offered by local operators is truly inspiring, the trip to the island is absolutely stunning, and there’s a lot more to do than just dive.
There are dozens of dive sites dotted around the island that offer a variety of experiences. Big marine life includes not just hammerheads, but also whales, dolphins, and mantas.
While live-aboard dive boats are the preferred vacation setting here, you’ll also find a number of hotels, resorts, and restaurants to enjoy on the island in case of rougher seas or rainy days. The wildlife here is wonderfully diverse. Isla del Coco is known as Costa Rica’s Galapagos, and its unique climate creates an ecosystem to match, unlike any other islands in the area.
Heading back to mainland Costa Rica, you’ll discover some of the best vacation experiences in the world, including cloud-forest canopy ziplines, world-famous surf and beaches, massive parks with incredible waterfalls, and top-tier hospitality throughout.
Pros: At this site, you’ll enjoy incredible dives with large animals, unique ecosystems, and superb live-aboard options. Also, Costa Rica is relatively economical.
Cons: You may have to take a long journey by sea to your destination, meaning it can be quite a distance to medical facilities. There is also the potential that rainy or rough weather may postpone dives, and there are limited (but awesome) non-aquatic/beach activities for non-divers.
When to go: The best diving is June to December, when nutrient-rich upwelling attracts marine life to Isla del Coco from thousands of kilometers away.
4. Ko Tao, Thailand
A diver exploring the varied sea life in Koh Tao. (Photo: Getty Images)
Like many people, you might think of Thailand as a backpacker destination as well as one of the world’s top dive spots. That’s still true — at least, it can be — as modern Thailand provides a level of comfort and diversity of experience that’s matched only by the spectacular reefs below.
And luckily, some of the best ones lie directly below one of the best family diving vacation destinations in the world: Ko Tao.
From gorgeous white-sand beaches to premium dive resorts at economical rates, Ko Tao offers both rustic adventure and luxurious relaxation (bordering on the decadent, in some cases). Enjoy pristine wilderness and jumping nightlife on the same day, in the same spot — it’s rare to see such a diverse spectrum of nature and nurture combined, anywhere.
Divers know what Thailand scuba is all about: outrageously kaleidoscopic reefs so densely packed with life you could spend an entire dive on a single coral head, fill your memory card, and come back for more. Twice. Reef fish school everywhere among multiple turtle species, while rays, sharks, and dolphins patrol the outer fringes of coral gardens, pinnacle reefs, and towering rocky canyons.
You see so much on a single dive, it’s easy to get completely distracted, but keep a watchful eye — nudibranchs, seahorses, and other tiny life are everywhere (and most are true masters of camouflage, especially the weedy seadragon).
Non-divers are in for the ultimate in beach-retreat luxury: Thai hospitality is among the best in the world, and the hotels, restaurants, and other amenities on Ko Tao are some of the country’s best. There’s no shortage of experiences to enjoy and flavors to experience. A diving vacation to Thailand, and especially to Ko Tao, is nothing short of a vibrant sensory experience.
Pros: Home to amazingly healthy marine life, Ko Tao is a perfect photography destination, and it has a good climate year-round. Visitors will enjoy top-tier hospitality and facilities, a thriving nightlife, and a diverse activity roster centered on healthy, natural living.
Cons: Along with monsoon season, you may experience potentially rough seas at this destination.
When to go: While you can dive year-round, seas can be rough at times since the November-December monsoon season generally creates difficult conditions, but even then, some sites remain calm, and visibility remains relatively high.
Related: Wreck Diving for Beginners in Turkey
5. Amalfi Coast, Italy
Gardens of colorful gorgonian coral in the waters off the Amalfi Coast. (Photo: WaterFrame / Alamy)
It can be tough to choose a dive site in the Mediterranean with so much to offer. But one region stands out above the rest for its superior diversity of dive conditions, rich cultural tapestry, and lush, comfortable vacation lifestyle: welcome to Amalfi, Italy.
Italy’s food and wine culture needs no introduction, nor does its long and fascinating history. From ancient cities and ruins surrounded by some of the world’s best vineyards to quaint coastal villages and stunning mountain vistas, Italy is one of the most popular destinations in the world.
But if you’re planning a diving vacation, you’ll want to focus on the Amalfi Coast — home to Pompeii, where you’ll find dozens of spectacular dive sites strung along one of the healthiest, most vibrant shorelines in the Mediterranean.
Intrepid divers will discover vast networks of caves and grottos with endless blue views (if you can spot the ocean between the schooling fish, that is). Tuna and pilot fish are common sightings, and lucky divers swim with the dolphins and turtles.
You’ll find plenty of more relaxing adventures too, as you drift slowly through dolomites and corals. Careful divers with great buoyancy control will spot seahorses, octopi, eels, and a wide variety of macro life, as the Amalfi peninsula is one of the best locations for underwater photography in the Mediterranean.
Divers of all levels will find exciting challenges and magnificent tranquility here with coral gardens, walls, caverns and caves, and even a few wrecks all nearby to explore — some dives begin immediately offshore.
Pros: The Amalfi Coast offers a wide diversity of life and conditions, easily accessible dives, spectacular caverns and rock formations, local culture, history, food and wine, a huge amount of non-diving activities, and world-class hospitality, infrastructure, and facilities.
Cons: Some of the best dives require advanced training, and this area is relatively expensive. And since this is a popular European dive destination, sites can be crowded during peak vacation seasons.
When to go: You can dive here year-round, but you’ll find the best conditions from April to October.
Torben Lonne is a top-skilled PADI MSDT dive instructor who has worked several years in Indonesia and Thailand. He is also the co-founder and chief editor of Dive.in.
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