The oceans cover most of the planet Earth. If you are in the middle of the ocean, there is only an endless water space around you, only a blue surface and a blue sky above it. But what is below the surface? What can you see if you dive into the water? Yes, in most of the oceans you will see just a bottomless abyss. But there are shallow places where you can discover a fantastic new world. You can do it by scuba diving. Let’s make a journey to this geographical kingdom– the best places for scuba diving on the Earth!
The underwater world
The underwater world in the Earth’s oceans and seas can be divided into three parts- shallow waters, deep waters, and just bottomless waters below the surface. The last of these is the water in the open sea, where the bottom is from 200-300 m to 11 000 m (the bottom of the Mariana Trench) below the sea level.
You can enjoy its highest layer and its sea inhabitants, but you can’t reach and see the seafloor- it is too deep, hidden in darkness, coldness, and extremely high pressure. Currently, you can reach it only inside a special device called bathyscaphe. Yes, it would be a fantastic experience, but only a few people have an opportunity to try it.
But the most beautiful part of the underwater world is the shallow water areas when you can reach the seafloor just by scuba diving. It is full of colorful life covering the bottom and filling the water above it. And it is always light during the daytime unless you enter a sea cave. So, this is the ocean zone that we are looking for.
When you dive into the shallow waters of the Earth, you can see various kinds of underwater views- rocks, sand floors, cliffs, sometimes covered by seaweed. But the most beautiful underwater places are the coral reefs. They are full of shapes and colors, rich in marine wildlife, and formed by the specific nature of the corals. For this reason, the coral reefs are the best places for scuba diving.
Coral reefs exist in warm waters- almost entirely within the tropical and equatorial zones of the Earth, and with some rare exceptions in colder zones. There are several types of coral reefs, formed in different ways, according to the tectonic process in the area.
The most common type of coral reefs is the fringing reefs, located around many coastlines in the tropics. There are also barrier reefs, platform reefs, atolls, as well as some other types, more or less similar to these. And all of these reefs exist in crystal clear waters. Thus, the combination of clear water and the whole variety of life and landforms creates a breathtaking beauty like on another planet.
Scuba diving is the best way to explore this fantastic world. Yes, you can see the corals from a boat, but it is like watching a landscape through the nylon. A much better way is to do it by snorkeling, wearing a mask- now you can see it real, as it is. But again, it is like entering a big hall with treasures, staying only at the gate.
Only by scuba diving, you can get full access to this amazing world. Today, everybody who is in proper condition can dive to 40-50 m depth, just by scuba equipment and some basic skills. Only the professional and more experienced scuba divers can dive deeper. The world record is more than 300 m depth, but you don’t need to go such deep to explore the coral reefs since the reefs and most of their beauty is located within 40-50 m
Today, scuba diving is a well-developed sport. You even don’t need to buy your own equipment (although if you buy it, would be much better), but you can just rent it from a diving center or a liveaboard boat. And they not only offer rental scuba gear but also provide proper training by scuba professional instructors.
This is the most proper way to travel to the best places for scuba diving, although it can be expensive. If you just go to a resort, rent your scuba equipment and hire your diving instructor, you can usually dive only near the resort. But the wildest and most beautiful diving destinations are often located far from the civilization, and the only way to reach them is by boat, sometimes traveling for several days or even weeks.
Liveaboard vessels are normally well-designed for diving, with decks for diving jumps into the water, with air bottles and other equipment, and some of them even with decompression chambers. And since liveaboard trips are longer, the vessels are turned into floating hotels, providing not only access to the best diving sites but also enough comfort during the whole trip.
So, let’s go on a journey to the best places for scuba diving, focusing on the coral reefs.
The 10 best coral places for scuba diving
These places are located mainly in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, but also can be found in the Caribbean Sea. Some of them are barrier reefs, but there are also fringing, platform reefs, and atolls. Now we start with the largest coral reefs on the Earth- the Great Barrier Reef.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
This is the largest coral reef system on Earth. It is located northeast of continental Australia, in the Coral Sea. The system is more than 2300 km (1400 miles) long and consists of hundreds of reefs and islets. Today, it is proclaimed as World Heritage Site.
The Great Barrier Reef is a coral paradise, as a vast maze with the size of Germany or Finland. Exploring it in detail and crossing it from end to end is like exploring another planet. It features various types of reefs formed by the coral growth and the specific movement of the Australian continent.
How to explore the Great Barrier Reef
Today, due to the vulnerable ecological situation of the Great Barrier Reef, tourism is limited to prevent harming the coral ecosystem. The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is divided into inner and outer parts. The inner part is accessible from Queensland, Australia, within a day, and in general, it is more crowded.
But if you are looking for a wild marine adventure and feel like an explorer, aim to the Outer GBR, by joining a several-day liveaboard trip. The most popular boats are Coral Sea Dreaming, Pro Dive Cairns, and Rum Runner, all with excellent reviews. They will guide you to the most amazing spots of the GBR, like Osprey Reef, Ribbon Reefs, Milln, and Flynn Reefs, and the rarely visited Bougainville Reef.
Great Blue Hole, Belize
If you look at the map, or better, the satellite image of the Caribbean coast of Central America, you can notice a long coral reef system stretching along the coast of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. This is the so-called Great Mayan Reef, stretching for 1120 km.
Zoom at the reef’s Belize part. This is the Belize Barrier Reef, located near the coast of the country. Then zoom further at one of the Belize reefs, called Lighthouse Reef. If you stare at the middle of this reef, you can notice a small dark ideal circle. This is the Great Blue Hole- a 318 m wide and 124 m deep sinkhole, surrounded by a maze of corals.
How to explore the Great Blue Hole
The Great Blue Hole is a unique phenomenon, located in the middle of a coral paradise. There is no oxygen and almost no life on the bottom of the hole. And due to its depth, only professional divers can reach its deepest point. But although an ordinary scuba diver can’t descent there, just staying on an otherworldly abyss with mysterious stalactites, surrounded by the colorful beauty of the reef is a fantastic experience.
You can reach the Great Blue Hole by joining the local liveaboards Belize Aggressor III and IV. And if you join their tour, they will guide you not just to this spot, but you will explore more of the reef system, mainly Lighthouse Reef. No wonder that this fantastic place is one of the most important destinations in the world for scuba divers.
Red Sea, Egypt
The Red Sea is one of the most beautiful seas on Earth. Its waters are some of the saltiest, and some of the clearest, and most transparent. At the same time, it is located in the sub-tropical and tropical zones.
The sea washes the shores of Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Its warm waters (yes, it is much warmer than other bodies of water in the same geographical zones) are excellent for coral life. As a result, it presents a lot of stunning coral reefs. And the most beautiful of them are those in the Egyptian section of the sea.
How to explore the Red Sea of Egypt
In general, the Red Sea of Egypt can be divided into two parts- northern and southern. The main entry points (ports) for the northern part are Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada. In the north, you can see stunning coral reefs and reef formations, along with several popular shipwrecks, such as Thistlegorm and Abu Nuhas.
In the south, there are not famous wrecks, but the coral reefs are even more beautiful and exotic. The best of them are Fury Shoals, Daedalus Reef, and St. Johns Reef, accessible from Marsa Alam. You can visit most of these reefs just by a private boat, but the most remote and fantastic of them are accessible only by liveaboards, like Tillis, Emperor Asmaa, Blue Adventurer, Sea Legend, Emperor Superior, Emperor Echo, and many others.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Now, let’s go to the far east of Indonesia, the largest island country on the Earth. Look at the extreme northwestern tip of Papua Island. You can see a cluster of small islands, surrounded by coral reefs. This cluster, consisting of 1500 (!) islands, islets, and reefs is called Raja Ampat and is one of the most beautiful marine destinations, not only in Indonesia but on the Earth.
The name “Raja Ampat”, which means “Four Kings” comes from a legend, related to the four main islands of the archipelago- Salawati, Batanta, Waigeo, and Misool. This area features one of the richest marine ecosystems on Earth, with hundreds of types of fish, corals, and other marine creatures.
How to explore Raja Ampat
There are many spots in the area that you can focus on. The most beautiful of them are Misool, Waigeo, Mansuar, and Chendrawasih Bay. Misool is the most colorful one, presenting mainly smaller creatures. If you are especially looking for fish life, Waigeo is the best place, although the currents there are stronger. Mansuar is the best place for mantas and turtles. And Chendrawasih Bay is where you can enjoy a meeting with whale sharks.
Reaching Raja Ampat is a bit complicated because you have to changes at least two or more flights. But once you arrive there, you have plenty of options for wandering around the archipelago. There are many liveaboards for all kinds of budgets, like Emperor Raja Laut, Ambai, Coralia, Mermaid I and II, and the exotic Calico Jack boat, looking like an old pirate ship.
Sipadan Island, Malaysia
Now we go to the easternmost frontiers of Malaysia, near the northeastern tip of Borneo (Kalimantan) Island. Here is the Celebes Sea, surrounded by Kalimantan, and the islands of the Philippines. And here is one of the ends of the Asian continental shelf.
Here you can find an island, rising 600 m directly from the seafloor, beyond the edge of the continental shelf. This is Sipadan Island, a remnant of an extinct volcano- the only ocean island of Malaysia. It is turned into an underwater coral paradise, presenting one of the richest marine life areas on Earth.
Sipadan is a small island, surrounded by shallow coral reefs. This shallow coral area ends with an edge. The bottom slope beyond this edge steeply descends into the dark depths of the sea. Both the shallow and the deep area form a fantastic marine world, revealing stunning beauty for the scuba divers.
How to explore Sipadan Island
The island is located not far from Semporna, one of the easternmost cities of Malaysia, in Sabah State. Once you arrive there, you can reach Sipadan Island by speed boat for about an hour. But have in mind that the island is a natural park, so there are no places for accommodation there- no hotels, no resorts. That’s why the visitors usually go to the nearby Mabul Island.
However, if you join a liveaboard trip, you can spend several days and nights at Sipadan Island. The number of visitors is limited to 176 per day, which is also considered by liveaboard crews, and the time for diving is permitted only between 6:00 am and 4:00 pm. During this time, you can enjoy at least 12 different spots for diving, including the most spectacular of them- the Barracuda Point.
Now, let’s go northeast, to the neighboring Sulu Sea, between Malaysia (Sabah), the islands of Palawan, Negros, Mindanao, and the other smaller islands around them. There are several small islets in the middle of the sea, but the most spectacular of them is the reefs of Tubbataha.
Tubbataha, as well as the nearby smaller Jessie Beazley Reef, are formed on the top of an extinct underwater volcanic mountain. As a result, there are three atolls, isolated from the rest of the Philippines Archipelago. They are uninhabited, without drinking water, therefore well-preserved from human exploitation. And the marine wildlife around them is extremely rich. For this reason, Tubbataha is designed as a World Heritage Site, a natural park with limited access.
How to explore Tubbataha Reef
Due to its remoteness and its natural park status, the only way to reach Tubbataha is by liveaboard trip. These trips start from Puerto Princesa, Palawan Island. The boats travel 10 to 12 hours until reach the atolls and spend 6 to more than 11 days for diving and enjoying the fantastic tropical and underwater nature, far from the civilization. In fact, the only sign of human presence there is the ranger station, built on one of the sand bars of Tubbataha.
The other sand bars of the reefs are restricted for visiting to protect the unique nature there. But you can enjoy the local diving spots. These spots are located around the three atolls, and each of them offers its own unique natural world. Among the best liveaboards are Seadoors, Discovery Palawan, Infiniti, Solitude One, Discovery Adventure, and Narayana.
Blue Corner Wall, Palau
Our next coral scuba diving destination is Palau Islands in the Pacific. Palau is one of the archipelagos of Micronesia, consisting of one large island, and many other smaller islands, islets, and reefs. The State of Palau is established on the archipelago, and now it is a popular destination for visiting and exploring.
Palau features coral reefs, limestone formations, tropical rainforests, and incredibly beautiful beaches. There is also a Jellyfish Lake with harmless jellyfishes. The underwater world offers a lot of coral diving sites, as well as some shipwrecks, mainly dating from World War II. Another site is the artificial German Channel, which today well-fits the natural features of the islands. But the best diving site is the Blue Corner Wall.
How to explore Palau and the Blue Corner Wall
Palau has air connections to many countries, mainly in East Asia. Once you arrive in its biggest city Koror, you can travel by local transport around the main island, or join local ferries or other boats to explore the other islands. But again, the best way to visit and experience the Palau diving sites is by joining a liveaboard trip.
The Blue Corner Wall is a combination of coral reefs and underwater cliffs, extremely rich in marine wildlife- coral, fish, and other marine creatures. Another natural spot is the Chandelier Caves- underwater caves with stalactites and stalagmites. Along with the human artificial sites, you can explore all of them by liveaboard boats, of which the most popular are Solitude One (the same that goes to Tubbataha too), Black Pearl, and Ocean Hunter 3.
Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Bahamas
Now, let’s go to the Atlantic Ocean. Except for the Caribbean Islands, it lacks the multiple coral reef systems of the Pacific, and partially in the Indian Ocean. But the geological structure of the Caribbean archipelagos provides an excellent environment for coral reefs development. And some of the best coral reefs can be found in the Bahamas Islands.
These islands are quite flat, and the sea between them quite shallow. At the same time, they are located in the tropical geographical zone. As a result, here we can find one of the most beautiful coral reefs on Earth. And the best place to find them is Exuma Cays- a chain of islets and reefs in the middle of the archipelago.
How to explore Exuma Cays
The Exuma Cays are included in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Natural Park. Here you can see some of the best-preserved and untouched coral reefs on the Earth, with a great variety of marine species. Most of the area is accessible only by liveaboard trips. The islands are sparsely populated. So, you can’t see crowds of people there, which is a big plus.
There are many diving spots in the park, but the best ones are Jeep Reef, Amberjack Reef, The Washing Machine, some shipwrecks like Austin Smith Wreck, and finally the most unique one- the Lost Blue Hole- a 60 m deep sinkhole. All of these and many more can be explored for 7-8 days liveaboard journeys by some of the best boats like Aqua Cat, Blackbeards Morning Star, and Bahamas Aggressor.
Ari Atoll, Maldives
The Maldives is the country in Asia with the smallest land area, and the lowest elevation- its highest peak is only 2.4 m above sea level. But this land area is only a very small percent of the whole country’s area. The rest of it is ocean- shallow waters with incredibly beautiful coral reefs, a rich variety of fish, and other marine creatures.
Maldives Archipelago consists mainly of atolls. It is located in the equatorial geographical zone of the Earth. So, we can expect a great variety of coral wildlife, and there really is. All of the atolls have a lot to offer, but maybe the most popular and amazing is Ari Atoll. This is because creatures like whale sharks, manta rays, turtles, and many others are best presented here, due to the unique topography of the area.
How to explore Ari Atoll
Ari Atoll is around 50 km long and consists of 105 islands, islets, reefs, and sand bars. It is located southwest of the capital Male. The liveaboard trips to Ari Atoll are usually between 7 and 12 days, and their itineraries normally include other destinations too, but still focus mainly on Ari. The atoll is administratively divided into North Ari and South Ari, and the trips usually stay longer time in one of these parts.
There are a lot of diving sites in Ari Atoll, of which the most beautiful one is Maaya Thila. It is one of the underwater pinnacles, inhabited by a rich variety of wildlife. There are several depth zones of the pinnacle, each one with its own local ecosystem. The deeper zones present also caves and overhangs. Other great diving sites are Fish Head, Donkalo Thila, Maamgili, and many others. And the most popular liveaboards are Emperor Serenity, Scubaspa Yang, Scubaspa Ying, Eco Blue, Carpe Vita, and Emperor Explorer.
Namena Marine Reserve, Fiji
Now we go to the last of the best places for scuba diving. It is located in Fiji- an exotic island country, located deep in the Pacific Ocean, the easternmost archipelago of Melanesia. Fiji consists of two big islands- Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, and hundreds of other, smaller islands, islets, and reefs.
One cluster of these islets and reefs is Namena Barrier Reef, located south of Vanua Levu Island. It is around 16 km long, and consists of one bigger island- Namena Island, surrounded by an arc of reefs.
It is directly exposed to the currents from the open sea, and sometimes it can make diving difficult. However, these currents produce incredibly rich marine wildlife. For example, four of the seven kinds of sea turtles can be seen here. Today, this amazing place is turned into a marine reserve.
How to explore Namena Marine Reserve
To explore Namena Marine Reserve, you have to arrive in Suva, the capital of Fiji. This is where the liveaboard trip starts from. Currently, there is only one boat traveling to the marine reserve- it is the Nai’a boat. It departs once every week, and the trip usually proceeds for 1 week, including not only Namena but also some other neighboring sites.
During your trip, you would visit some of the best spots in Namena- Chimneys, Grand Central Station, Blue Ribbon, Magic Mound, and North Save a Tack. Each of them presents its own variety of features, like hard and soft corals, pinnacles, fish schools, bommies, and many others.
These are the 10 best coral places for scuba diving. But of course, there are many other places too. I would mention the coral reefs around the other Caribbean islands, around Madagascar, in Thailand, Indonesia, the western coast of Australia, and especially the wonderful, but more difficult access coral areas in French Polynesia, Marshal Islands of Micronesia, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Vanuatu.
Exploring this fantastic underwater world is different than traveling to any other place on Earth. This is like exploring another planet. Yes, it is usually not cheap, but it can be always a unique experience of a lifetime.
Get more impressions from some of the prettiest coral reefs on the Earth!
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