The World's Most Incredible Scuba Dives

The World's Most Incredible Scuba Dives

Just a bit over three miles east of Key Biscayne, near Miami, Neptune Memorial Reef features a man-made, imagined replica of the Lost City. The series of pyramids, towers, and sculptures is spread out across 16 acres of the ocean floor, 40 feet beneath the surface. The structures were designed to promote coral growth, but here, the reefs aren’t the main attraction—Neptune Memorial Reef is an underwater cemetery. Many of the divers here are visiting recently deceased loved ones. Those who choose to be buried at Neptune are first cremated, and then their remains are “carefully mixed with non-porous cement, sand, and water,” according to the organization’s website. Finally, that mixture is poured into a mold of the person’s choice (conch shells and starfish are two options), and a bronze plaque bearing their name and life dates are attached. For now, there are 200 plots, but plans are underway to accommodate as many as 125,000 watery graves. The company recommends eight local operators, which lead diving trips to Neptune. For now, you can tide yourself over with a video tour.

Cancún’s frenetic Spring Break scene feels a world away from the tranquil sculpture garden just offshore, set up on the seabed between the coasts of Cancún and Isla Mujeres. The Museo Subacuático de Arte is home to some 400 life-size replicas of people, modeled after members of the local community. The solemn-faced statues are permanently installed and spread across about 1,600 square feet of the ocean floor. They’re made from a pH-neutral marine concrete that’s resistant to erosion and encourages natural coral growth. The one-of-a-kind gallery was started in 2009 by British sculptor and diver Jason deCaires Taylor and now draws snorkelers from around the world. It’s said to be the biggest artificial reef attraction in the world. Countless Cancún-based outfitters offer daylong excursions here, including Aqua World.

Iceland’s Thingvellier National Park has been a famed destination long before scuba diving was even thought up as a sport: As far back as 930 A.D., Thingvellier—literally “Parliament Plains”—was the meeting site of the country’s general assembly. Today, Thingvellier attracts visitors from around the world with less bureaucratic—but equally ambitious—aims: to swim between two continents. The park, it turns out, sits alongside the Silfra fissure, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates intersect. As the plates slowly move away from each other—by some estimates, at the rate of two centimeters per years—divers can swim between the two and lay claim to bragging rights of epic proportions. The fissure is submerged within the cold, clear waters of Lake Thingvallavatn, which is fed from a glacier high atop Hofsjokull Mountain. (Watch out, though: Some divers say the extremely transparent waters can cause vertigo.)  Permits for self-guided scuba tours can be obtained at the park.

Few creatures are as mythic as narwhals, the ivory-tusked whales that dwell exclusively in the frigid waters of the Arctic. Their bodies grow up to 18 feet long, but those tusks, found only on males, can add an extra 10 feet in length. They’re found usually in the Atlantic and Russian parts of the Arctic Ocean, where coastal Inuit communities have relied on them as a primary food source for more than a thousand years. But outside of those small populations, few humans ever set sight on the animals. You can catch a glimpse—and even dive alongside them—on specialty outfitted trips to far northeastern Canada. Waterproof Expeditions offers two-week journeys to the ice floe edge of Lancaster Sound, on Baffin Island, where diving with these creatures is possible. Not ready to brave the freezing waters? You can (warmly) watch footage here.

A few miles from Mahangetan—part of the volcanic, North Sulawesi island chain in Indonesia—a ripple of bubbles on the ocean’s surface marks the spot of Banua Wuhu, a submerged peak that rises over 1,300 feet above the ocean’s floor. Banua Wuhu is so tall, in fact, that it nearly reaches the surface; there are less than 16 feet of water above its cone. In lieu of lava, at Banua Wuhu divers can watch streams of hot silver bubbles being released, the belch of sulfur gas escaping from deep inside the earth. (The water temperatures are just as hot, at about 100°F.) Wallacea Dive Cruise is one Indonesia-based outfitter offering diving excursions to Banua Wuhu.

Privately owned and closed to most outsiders for more than a century, Hawaii’s rugged Niihau—or the “Forbidden Island,” as it’s often called—still has the feel of an uncharted territory. Only 150 or so residents call it home, and access to outsiders continues to be limited today; special permits are needed to visit, and traveling to the 70-square-mile island from its closest neighbor, Kauai, 17.5 miles northeast, can take three hours in high, choppy waters. So, why bother? Thanks to its isolation, Niihau is home to some of the most pristine dives in all of Hawaii, with crystal-clear visibility at 120 feet or deeper. The advanced sites include giant arches, vast caves, mazes of lava tubes, and one 280-foot wall dive where, as you descend, you float through almost every level of sea life: large pelagics (Galapagos and white-tip reef sharks), a rainbow of reef fish, and floor-dwellers, like lobster. In between, you’ll likely see spotted eagle and manta rays, eels, red lionfish, octopus, and even the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, one of the rarest creatures in the sea. Kauai-based Seasport Divers leads one-day trips with three dives at Niihau.

In 1911, the passenger cruiser Yongala steamed straight into the path of a cyclone, en route between Melbourne and Cairns, and sank, killing all 122 people onboard. It was one of the most notorious maritime disasters the world over—that is, until the Titanic sank a year later. That British ship may have gone on to be more famous (thanks, Kate and Leo), but the Yongola’s accessibility and abundant sea life makes it, today, arguably the best wreck dive on the planet. The 360-foot steel ship—discovered only in 1958, off the coast of Townsville, Queensland—is now home to sea snakes, rays, and bull, tiger, and leopard sharks. Time your visit to Australia’s winter, and you can even spot minke whales and 55-foot-long humpbacks. The Ayr-based outfitter Yongala Dive specializes in outings to the wreck.

In most cases, the term “shark diving” means cowering in a fenced-in, submerged box surrounded by bloody bits of chum, with flashes of fin and gnashing teeth only occasionally visible through the murky red water. That somewhat violent experience is a world away from what’s offered at SharkSchool, an immersive course led by one of the leading shark researchers in the world. Erich Ritter, Ph.D., hosts small groups of divers for multi-day field studies in Grand Cay, Bahamas, home to black-tip, Caribbean reef, lemon, nurse, and bull sharks. The goal of SharkSchool is to introduce people to as many types of sharks as possible, with multiple snorkel and scuba outings each day. You’ll walk away with plenty of bragging rights of photo ops—but also a better understanding and appreciation for the animals.

Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Geological Survey

The appropriately named Great Blue Hole in Belize was made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau in the early 1970’s, when he first visited the oddity and deemed it one of the ten best scuba sites in the world. (And he would know, right?) The GBH, found 43 miles off the coast of Belize City, measures an astounding 985 feet wide and 410 feet deep, and its symmetrical shape is as neatly circular as a suburban swimming pool. In fact, it’s not a hole at all, but a submerged network of caves that was flooded when the world’s sea levels started rising some 150,000 years ago. Today divers come to go underwater spelunking, plumbing the limestone formations’ depths alongside giant groupers, nurse sharks, reef sharks and more. Belize Diving Services specializes in excursions to the GBH.

Just a few miles off the coast of Kailua Kona, on Hawaii’s Big Island, an industrious group of divers strung up a series of lights on the ocean floor. Their soft glow attracts light-seeking plankton at night, which then draws large manta rays in to feed. Now, nighttime divers armed with high-powered headlamps can be treated to an eerie, surreal spectacle, when only the ghostly-white wings of the rays—many of which top out at 3,000 pounds, with 20-foot wingspans—are visible in the pitch-black Pacific. Kona Huna Divers leads night trips especially geared toward seeing the rays.

Deep in the Pacific waters surrounding the Yaeyama Island chain, off of Japan’s westernmost shores, lies a diving site fit for Indiana Jones and his ilk: an underwater pyramid structure said to be some 8,000 years old. Named after the closest-lying island, the Yonaguni Monument is made up of a 60-foot-high, 160-foot-long series of stone steps and terraces and a range of megaliths adorned with intricate carvings and, on one, a massive stone resembling a carved turtle statue. Rumors abound as to the monument’s origins: Is it the relic of a long-list civilization, a kind of sister city to Atlantis? The work of amphibious aliens? A freak geological phenomenon? For now, no one knows for sure. What’s certain is that Yonaguni is a one-of-a-kind spectacle, one that’s the exclusive domain of experienced divers (the ruins are located in open waters with strong currents). Reef Encounters leads outfitted trips from Okinawa to the wonder, for both English- and Japanese-speaking divers.

You might think the most extreme waters in the world would be devoid of all life, nothing but a freezing expanse of ice-pocked ocean, with the occasional penguin bobbing through. But in fact, once divers drill an entrance hole through the ten-foot-thick ice, they’re treated to bright yellow cactus and green globe sponges, starfish, sea urchin, jellyfish, sea anemone, colorful soft coral, and yes, even Emperor penguins. Divers can access this life-list experience at McMurdo Sound, a 35-mile-long bay alongside Ross Island, some 850 miles north of the South Pole. It’s close to the principal U.S. research station on the continent, and in fact, those lucky enough to dive here are often scientists. Divers also must be experienced using drysuits and willing to take on the 28°F waters. You can find more information on McMurdo excursions and research here.