The Cayman trio of Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman have long catered to Caribbean dive enthusiasts. Grand Cayman bustles with a steady stream of tourists with plenty of distractions, Brac is chiller, and Little Cayman is distinctly sleepy. All offer stunningly clear water, endless underwater walls, and friendly dive operators. The ever-present sea turtles vie with Stingray City’s (a collection of sandbars home to an abundance of southern stingrays) famous residents for most beloved local marine animals. Huge shimmering tarpon are common in the summer and are very approachable.
Left: A Hawksbill sea turtle takes flight while searching for a sponge to snack on in the late afternoon off Grand Cayman.
More than 330 islands and thousands of small islets rise out of the dreamy Southwestern Pacific to make up this archipelago that straddles the International Date Line. Fiji offers tropical diving of such variety that it defies a nutshell description. Topography differs dramatically between sites and regions, as do water conditions and marine life. Fiji is justifiably famous for its often-brisk currents and brilliant soft-coral-adorned reefs with names like Rainbow Reef, White Wall, and Yellow Wall. But shark dives, pinnacles, bommies (an outcrop of coral reef), and even the setting for the film Blue Lagoon all thrill with a distinctly exotic quality. It would take many visits to experience all the different regions of one of the warmest and friendliest nations in the South Pacific, but start somewhere – you won’t regret it.
Left: A reef corner where soft corals and anthias fill the frame with their color, Namena Reef, Fiji Islands.
Far out in the Indian Ocean lies a scattering of jewel-like sand islands a few feet above sea level. Each one is graced with lush tropical growth and surrounded by countless reefs and a marine ecosystem of immeasurable richness. The dive conditions and marine life encounters are directly affected by the two weather seasons: the dry Northeast Monsoon and the wet Southwest Monsoon. Visiting during each distinctive period, a diver can bear witness to what a magnet the Maldives are to denizens of this vast ocean. Schools of tuna, barracuda, eagle rays, and sharks are common, while seasonally mantas and whale sharks are known to gather in spectacular numbers. And when you are not diving, the view in every direction is better than any postcard you can imagine.
Left: A pair of reef manta rays move in unison while they are being cleaned by cleaner wrasse at a coral cleaning station in Hanifaru Bay, Maldives.
Within hours of a short flight to Cancun, you can dive in a fresh-water cenote (a sinkhole-type cavern with beautiful formations), fin over an offshore national park reef loaded with fish, or swim alongside a whaleshark (during the right time of year). The Great Mesoamerican Reef, which runs along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Caribbean Sea, is the world’s second largest reef and one of Mexico’s most popular natural wonders. Diving opportunities abound all along the coast, from Cancun and Isla Mujeres in the north to Costa Maya in the south, with on-land natural treasures to match.
Left: Where currents collide, so does marine life, creating a mixed array of schooling grunt and snappers gathering over large orange elephant ear sponge in Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
Hammerheads, tigers, and reef sharks oh my! The Bahamas boasts some of the best-organized shark dives in the world as well as some of the prettiest diving in the Western Atlantic. An easy hop from US mainland, there are more than 700 islands to explore, filled with easy-going diving on shallow reefs and vertical walls, as well as more adventurous diving through tunnels, caves, fast current cuts, and blue holes.
Left: A curious Caribbean reef shark glides over a colorful sponge encrusted reef off Grand Bahama.
Nestled just north of Venezuela, this still sleepy isle is escapism of the first order with some of the calmest water in the Caribbean. Bonaire’s reefs are so accessible to divers that you don’t even need a boat, but if you really want to explore many of the 100-plus beach dives, you may want to rent a dusty dive truck and pack a picnic. All the surrounding waters are a national marine park with loads of healthy hard and soft coral, schools of fearless fish, and plenty of the hard-to-find stuff like sea horses and frog fish. More dives await after a short boat ride to Klein Bonaire just offshore.
Left: A Secretary Blenny, roughly an inch long, finds a perfect home in the center of a brain coral, Bonaire, Netherland Antilles.
The Philippines is the second largest archipelago in the world, and its 22,000 miles of coastline is embraced by the Pacific Ocean, Philippine Sea, Sulu Sea, South China Sea, and Celebes Sea to name a few. Some researchers have come to believe this may be the very epicenter for marine biodiversity, and with every visit you make it becomes harder to argue against this point of view. Every region seems to provide some fantastically unique marine life or amazing environment – you are almost always guaranteed to add to your species sighting “life list” during any visit. A small island only a few hours from Manilla was home to over 60 never before described species discovered during a month of diving in 2015. Any visit will also be deeply enhanced by the uncommonly friendly Filipino people who will go to any lengths to ensure your experience is wonderful.
Left: Hundreds of anthias and crinoids dance in the current for spellbound divers during a dive off Beatrice Reef in the Cerde Passage near Anilao, Batangas, Philippine Islands.
Cocos Island is situated in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean some 300 miles from the mainland of Costa Rica. Accessible only by live-aboard boat, this rugged and mystically beautiful island is a World Heritage Site and a highlight of Costa Rica’s National Parks. The small island’s highest peak reaches a lofty 2,083 feet, and the undersea topography just about mirrors the uniqueness of its above-land terrain. This is wilderness diving that never fails to surprise and amaze. The massive amount of smaller marine life attracts apex predators including, sharks, whales, tuna, and dolphin. Every dive provides an adventurous display of life in the wild, and divers have a ringside seat.
Left: During an ascent off “Dirty Rock” dive site, a school of baitfish were being devoured by Silky sharks and Bottlenose dolphins in Cocos Island, Costa Rica.
Stretching from the easternmost edge of Papua New Guinea to the northern tip of Vanuatu are the barely visited 900 volcanic isles of the Solomon Islands. This breathtaking “Pearl of the Pacific” remains a largely unspoiled diving Eden that offers almost every type of diving experience. A typical visit will include World War II wrecks, amazing macro life such as seahorses, sea slugs, and other tiny creatures, pristine coral gardens, and parades of migrating fish. Want something different? Perhaps a dive with a constant serenade of underwater volcano eruptions will fit the bill. The water is warm and protected; the local villages will treat you like visiting royalty … you just might not want to ever leave.
Left: A False Clown Anemonefish nestled contently in its host anemone in Florida Island Group, Solomon Islands.
Curaçao is completely surrounded by a fringing reef that begins quite close to its limestone cliffs and shores. Famous for its fascinating cultural and historic heritage, Curaçao provides an equal allure of some 40 moored dive sites where rolling reefs of fans, corals, and sea whips sway invitingly in the turquoise water. The lush and colorful reefs seem to pulse with the same vibrancy of life as the capital of Willemstad with its multihued buildings and international mélange of residents, food, and art. Everything about this island is unique and a well-worth journey.
Left: A school of sweepers converge in an underwater cave off Curaçao's west side.
Papua New Guinea is a land draped in complex tribal tradition, exotic wildlife, and intoxicatingly dense rainforest. It is even more impressive below the surface. It is one of the few places in the world where the only other people you will ever likely see on the water will still be in dugout canoes. Every reef is yours to discover and will still look as vibrant, alive, and cascading with fish as what it might have been a hundred years ago. The only mark of humans underwater is the occasional World War II relic that is now home to torrents of marine life.
Left: Schools of sweetlips and diverse corals are a typical dive at Susie’s bommie in Bootless Bay, Papua New Guinea.
Relatively new to the US diver’s “hot list,” the Cuban Archipelago "Gardens of the Queen" comprises a set of islands, keys, and islets that stretch for 80 miles. The underwater landscapes include canyons, pinnacles, and caves. Healthy mangroves, large sea fans, sea rods, sponges, and scattered hard corals cover the reef. Nassau grouper and Caribbean Reef sharks make regular visits, while schooling fish like creole wrasse and Bermuda chubs remain high on the reef. If you’re brave enough, you may even be able to snorkel with a resident salt water crocodile.
Left: Very curious by nature, a Nassau grouper follows divers around a reef in Jardines De La Reina, Cuba.
Positioned in the heart of the Coral Triangle, no less than 17,500 islands make up this broad expanse of diving wonderland. Indonesia is considered one of the top biodiversity marine regions on the planet with more species of fish, coral, and invertebrates than almost anywhere else. People can and do spend a lifetime exploring this extremely diverse marine paradise that is still revealing discoveries every year. For a first visit, consider some of the remarkable marine parks such as Komodo Island National Park or Raja Ampat Marine Protected Area. The beauty of the kaleidoscopic reefs will take your breath away.
Left: The Bargibant's pygmy seahorse is well camouflaged in its host gorgonian fan. This was the first pygmy seahorse to be discovered in Indonesia and has been followed by many more varieties.
French Polynesia is known for its beautiful people, heavenly fragrances, and water so clear it’s possible to forget you are in water at all. In contrast to the relaxed and serene on-land ambience, below the surface is a high-voltage experience in the unrelenting currents of the atoll and lagoon passes found throughout the islands. These currents are the lifeblood of the marine environment and bring enormous numbers of sharks, rays, dolphins, and other opportunistic predators. The parade of action is second to none. Hold on to your regulator and enjoy the ride.
Left: Hundreds of grey reef sharks line up in the current as divers from all levels pass this wall of sharks in Tumakohua Pass, Fakarava Atoll, Tuomotus, French Polynesia.
Geographically isolated in a unique location with a convergence of currents and upwellings, the Galapagos archipelago is home to an extremely rich and varied marine habitat. In the south, divers can plunge into its fabled waters to play with seals, sea lions, marine iguanas, and even Humboldt penguins. A journey to the northernmost rock islands can serve up spectacles like schooling hammerheads, false killer whales, mola mola (sunfish), and passing whale sharks. Not even Darwin discovered all there is to see here.
Left: A large whale shark and accompanying fish swim near the surface off Wolf Island, Galapagos.
Tanya G. Burnett, a professional underwater photographer with more than 20 years experience, leads scuba photography expeditions to the world's most amazing dive locations with her husband Kevin Palmer.