With access to gorgeous reefs, a multitude of wrecks, expansive underwater cave systems, and both warm and cold waters, divers of any type can find something to their liking. Here’s a quick tour of the top 10 US dive destinations, in no particular order.
Sea fans, hard and soft corals, lively tropical fish and clear waters make the Florida Keys a natural fit for one of the top US dive destinations.
The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, at 70 nautical square miles, has helped preserve the natural and artificial reefs in the Keys. These reefs feature depths as shallow as 25 feet, offering a beginner-friendly introduction to the underwater world. Topside, temperate weather and gentle, salty breezes set the stage for relaxing vacations. But the reefs aren’t all the Keys have to offer.
Over the centuries, an estimated 1,000 ships sank along this barrier reef. Some of these wrecks are former 16th-century Spanish treasure galleons; some were sunk intentionally as artificial reefs. Nine are members of the Shipwreck Trail from Key Largo to Key West. Finally, a few are great sites for beginners to cut their teeth, while some are only suitable for advanced divers due to depth and currents. Both reefs and wrecks make a visit to the Sunshine State worthwhile. Start your dive training at one of the countless dive shops; update your skills with advanced classes, or just hop in immediately and take advantage of all the Keys has to offer below and above the waves.
North Carolina’s Outer Banks
Otherwise known as The Graveyard of the Atlantic, the sometimes perilous waters of the North Carolina coast have contributed to an estimated 2,000 wrecks. These tragedies have become the foundation of a diverse underwater landscape for sensitive local ecosystems, and a wreck-diver’s dream. The well-preserved wrecks are easily accessible and brimming with diverse marine life.
Schools of baitfish, amberjacks and barracuda swarm around nearly all of the wrecks. Consequently, the ever-present, but mellow, sand-tiger sharks take advantage of the plentiful buffet. Some of the wrecks are fine for novices, but you’ll need advanced training or experience for many, thanks to their depth or surrounding currents. Tankers, cutters, steam liners and German U-boats litter the waters around the barrier islands, and rarely is a dive site crowded. While unsuitable for year-round diving, the season is reasonable in length and worth the sometimes chilly waters. If the wrecks aren’t enough to catch your interest, a lucky dive on the Caribsea wreck could bring you face-to-face with over 100 sand-tiger sharks during their annual mating season.
Lake Huron, Michigan
The wreck diving in the U.S. isn’t limited to the salty seas. Lake Huron holds over 100 wrecks, 50 in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary alone. Some are as shallow as 40 feet, but many others rest beyond recreational limits, such as the virtually untouched Defiance sitting at 185 feet. Nearly all of the wrecks in the lake are for advanced divers only due to depth and low visibility. Chilly waters also pose an obstacle for some, ranging between 41 F and 73 F. For those willing to brave the murky depths and the chill factor, the schooners, steamers and barges at the bottom of Lake Huron are remarkably well-preserved time capsules that present intriguing exploration opportunities. A charming coastline dotted with lighthouses offers even the non-divers in the group something worth admiring.
No respectable U.S. dive-destination list could be complete without including Hawaii at least once or twice. Maui is home to dramatic walls and so much marine life it’s difficult to know where to look first. An underwater Garden of Eden, the waters surrounding Maui feature arches, caverns and tunnels born from lava. Golden-sand beaches lead out to coral reefs full of parrotfish, surgeonfish and whitetip reef sharks. Shore dives are possible from multiple locations, but the star of the show is Molokini Crater.
Two miles off the coast, this tuff cone has 100-foot visibility year-round. It’s also home to two distinct dive environments: inside the crater, and the backside of the crater. The shallow reef inside is full of yellow tang, butterflyfish, whitetip reef sharks, and the Hawaiian state fish, the reef triggerfish — look up the name in Hawaiian before visiting.
The dramatic outer wall plunges over 300 feet and can put you in the middle of mantas, pods of spinner dolphins, monk seals and humpback whales during whale season. Not ones to miss the fun, whale sharks also make an occasional appearance. Whether you want to swim inside lava tubes, listen to whale songs, or hang 10 with turtles, Maui offers all of that and more.
Puget Sound, Washington
Some people mistakenly overlook Washington State when considering the best U.S. dive destinations. Diving in Puget Sound is not for the faint of heart. The nutrient-rich waters, however, provide a perfect habitat for diverse creatures, large and small. This is the home of the Giant Pacific octopus. Need I say more? Witnessing just one of these enormous and intelligent beasts free-swimming off the coast of Washington would make the entire trip worthwhile, and if you make the effort to dive here, there’s a good chance you’ll see one.
The dives off Puget Sound are dramatic, with walls that plunge from 90 feet to forever, regular 3-knot currents, and frigid 40 F waters. Throw low visibility into the mix and you’ll need the right gear and experience. But the curious wolf eels, occasional orcas, playful harbor seals, and a host of other interesting marine life make it worth the extra work. I’ll say it again in case you missed it the first time: giant Pacific octopus.
Monterey Bay, California
Any place that has as many successful whale-watching tours as Monterey is bound to be a good diving spot. The upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water from the 10,000-foot Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon floods the entire area with enough food to feed countless dolphin pods, sea-lion rookeries, harbor seals, otters and whales. Mola molas aren’t uncommon, and turtles visit frequently.
The massive kelp forests in the area present an unusual diving experience and photographic opportunities to snap over 350 species of fish and the larger animals that feed on them. Water temps top out in the upper 50s at the surface, but the abundance of active and robust marine life make every chilly second underwater worthwhile — that is unless you’ve got no interest in swimming through a kelp forest with dozens of playful sea lions.
You can do most dives from shore and, aside from the kelp-forest dives, many are wall dives that can be as deep as you want. Giant sunflower sea stars, purple and black sea urchins, anemones at every corner and curious wolf eels are just a few more of the stars here. Whether you head to Breakwater, Point Lobos, or Lover’s Point, you will not be disappointed and will certainly never be alone underwater in Monterey Bay.
Flower Garden Banks, Texas
This is one of those secret spots that no one seems to know about. When divers want to see mantas, whale sharks, or hammerheads, they generally head somewhere other than the U.S. But right off the Gulf Coast, mantas grace the water year-round, along with schools of scalloped hammerheads, spotted eagle rays, and silky sharks. Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is home to a healthy coral reef that covers over half of its 56-square-mile area. Large schools of chubs, jacks, and creole fish fill the waters while loggerhead turtles, dolphins and queen conch make frequent appearances.
Visit in August for the magnificent coral spawning. While here, look closely for the small squid that like to hang out on the reef during that time. You’re likely to see large schools of scalloped hammerheads in the early part of the year, and the summer months bring in whale sharks. Multiple ray species glide through the waters here all year. Eels and crabs dot the coral and sponges. The occasional currents in the Gulf make this spot unsuitable for novices, but it’s not exactly advanced either. Save money on airfare and head to Texas to see some of the best diving the U.S. has to offer.
Channel Islands, California
Not to be outdone by Monterey, the Channel Islands off the coast of California offer everything the Bay does and a little bit more. Similar cool, rich waters bathe these eight islands and nurture massive kelp forests, sea-lion rookeries and coral banks. If swimming with sea lions isn’t your thing, maybe the plethora of colorful nudibranchs will pique your interest instead.
The waters here are fairly clear, allowing divers the opportunity to see horn sharks, sea bass, endless schools of fish and occasional mola molas. Lobsters, sea stars, and anemones also dot the rocky pinnacles underwater. Thanks to a convergence of warm- and cold-water currents, water temps run from the 50s in the winter to the 70s in the summer, making the diving a little warmer than other West Coast dive spots.
The early months of the year feature the gray whale migration, but the summer offers the warmest waters. If wrecks are your thing, the Channel Islands have a few of those too, including a World War II Avenger plane. And as if kelp forests, marine mammals, reefs and wrecks weren’t enough, the islands also have caves, caverns, lava tunnels and other interesting underwater landscapes to explore. Snorkelers, novice divers, and advanced divers alike will find something interesting in the Channel Islands.
The most productive aquifer in the world covers 100,000 square miles and extends under a good portion of Florida. Millions of gallons of limestone-filtered water flow through Florida springs every single day. The waters, 72 F year-round, are some of the purest and clearest anywhere. In northern and central Florida, this water is accessible in over 600 natural springs, some of which plunge to over 200 feet deep.
A few have elaborate cave systems, some are mere sinkholes, and others form rivers that are great for family tubing and swimming. While the non-river springs are mostly devoid of underwater creatures, some do have mullet, turtles, crayfish — and the occasional alligator.
Ginnie Springs offers year-round diving classes, camping, showers and cabins. There are many others to choose from though; some are easily accessible and right off of main roads, others require more intimate knowledge of the area. All have unlimited visibility, interesting rocky caverns, and soft, sandy bottoms. Most of the springs are quite beginner-friendly. They also offer endless possibilities for advanced tech divers who enjoy exploring underwater cave systems. Regardless of your diving experience and inclination, Florida’s springs are an inexpensive, easily accessible destination to learn how to dive, hone your skills, or learn exciting new ones.
It’s no surprise that the islands of Hawaii make our list a second time. Novice and experienced divers alike can find treats in Oahu, the most populous island in the Hawaiian chain. There are almost as many dive shops as hotels, and with good reason. Healthy reefs, marine life and wrecks are a big draw for divers of all skill levels and interests.
The wrecks off Oahu are well preserved, and include WWII planes, minesweepers and oil barges. Dense schools of snapper swarm around spotted eagle rays, green sea turtles and butterflyfish while tiger sharks hunt the area. You can snorkel and dive from shore, but you’ll take a short boat trip to reach some of the best sites. Giant trevally, parrotfish, whitetip sharks, hammerheads and manta rays all appear along the walls, canyons and reefs. Deep-sea caves might lure the advanced divers, but overall Oahu offers memorable and easy diving experiences for beginners, with enough marine life on reefs and wrecks to keep everyone engaged.