The Caribbean Defined

Squid in Bonaire
Two squid in Bonaire (Nathan Borchelt)

It used to be that putting a mask to water almost anywhere in the Caribbean earned you face time with schools of fish and fields of healthy coral. But decades of rising sea temperatures, increasing diver pressure, mismanaged developments, and (in some places) irresponsible reef management have winnowed the options somewhat. Still, the Caribbean is home to some of the world's best diving. The destinations below have numerous world-class dive sites, meaning outfitters can almost always find you quality bottom time, regardless of wind direction.

Bay Islands, Honduras
This triad of islands just off the north coast of Honduras doesn't draw the casual Caribbean vacationer, but it has been on the scuba diving hit-list for years. Roatan, Utila, and Guanaja are ringed by underwater features—from sea mounds to crevices to sheer walls—that are part of the Latin American Barrier Reef system. Utila, a flat, mellow island centered almost exclusively on the dive scene, earned a reputation as a backpackers' haven and one of the cheapest places in the world to dive. Prices have since risen somewhat, but deals abound. Roatan is more upscale and more diverse, with attractive beaches, resorts, tiki bars, and activities to pass surface time. Because of their proximity to deep water, the Bay Islands are a favorite haunt of whale sharks, benign plankton-eating fish that can grow up to 60 feet, the largest fish species in the world.

The Cayman Islands
The Cayman Islands—Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac—are the time-leveled peaks of underwater mountains that, in one respect, mimic the Himalayas; just offshore of these unassuming islands the mountains drop off a 25,000-foot cliff into the Cayman Trench and the deepest seas in the Caribbean. Visibility is crystalline, even in the heavily dived sites around Grand Cayman, and sea life abounds, from brilliant corals and sponges to the occasional 12-foot hammerhead shark. The topside scene on Grand Cayman is modern and expensive, with cruise passengers flooding George Town regularly and young British bankers (the heart of the workforce in this financial center) energizing the bar scene far into the night. Cayman Brac is more laid back, and Little Cayman is an oasis of quietude, save for the sounds of your heart racing when you face off with the denizens of the reef.

Diving doesn't get much easier—or better—in the Caribbean. More than 20 years ago the Dutch Antilles island recognized the myriad values of the coral reef system that rings the island, and it established a marine reserve within a 30-mile radius of the main island, its sister islet, Klein Bonaire. As a result, divers find some of the healthiest, most diverse marine life in the region. And you don't even need a boat to reach a number of Bonaire's famed dive sites; yellow rocks line the coastal roads with the names of the dive sites painted in distinctive black lettering. Simply find a site that intrigues, from wrecks to walls to drift dives, drive up, walk down to the beach, don your gear, and get wet. The postcard-sized town, flocks of brilliant pink flamingos, and prime windsurfing offer a few topside distractions, while the Dutch expat scene delivers just the right touch of tropical-by-way-of-Europe disorientation.

Other Notables:
Turks & Caicos (massive walls), Belize (Latin American Barrier Reef), Cozumel, Mexico (Palancar Reef and wreck dives)

Published: 9 Nov 2009 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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