Travel

The Best Places Around the World to Scuba Dive

Take an underwater safari in a whole new world.

Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock
Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock
Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock

Scuba diving is one of those activities that many people find an excuse for, like certification takes too much time and money (it can be less than you think) or snorkelling is just as good (news flash: it’s not). Sure, there are vibrant coral reefs, marine life, and shipwrecks that you can spot from the surface, but there’s so much more to see once you submerge.

One of the first things you’ll hear divers say is how peaceful the experience is. Whether you’re drifting along with the current or following the lead of the dive master, the feeling of being beneath the surface, in an environment so quiet, it’s like you’ve entered a different dimension, is one that’s hard to replicate (unless, maybe, you’re lucky enough to go on a trip to space one day).

If you need a little more convincing, we’ve got just the motivation. Here are nine of the world’s best dive sites-many in locales that may surprise you-that are even more impressive below the surface than they are from above.

Inspired By Maps/Shutterstock
Inspired By Maps/Shutterstock
Inspired By Maps/Shutterstock

Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand

Best for: Experienced divers, cold-water divers
This rocky chain of small, volcanic pinnacles off the North Island is rich with life and among the top scuba diving locations. Here, warm currents from the Coral Sea sweep south into cooler waters, resulting in a remarkable diversity of species. You might see such unlikely pairings as sea turtles and parrot fish (typical warm-water critters) alongside cold-water denizens like scorpion fish and the ubiquitous schooling blue Mao Mao. Nudibranchs-psychedelic soft-bodied mollusks that look like colourful oceanic caterpillars-also make an appearance around these magical isles. When you’re back onshore in Tutukaka, where the dive boats depart from, have a celebratory drink or meal at Schnappa Rock-the best cafe in town.

Kyung Muk Lim/Shutterstock
Kyung Muk Lim/Shutterstock
Kyung Muk Lim/Shutterstock

Southern Line Islands, Republic of Kiribati

Best for: Marine biology nerds, bucket list tickers, pristine coral reefs
Among the most isolated atolls on the planet, the Line Islands sit on both sides of the equator. Five on the southern side-Malden, Starbuck, Vostok, Flint, and Caroline (a.k.a. Millennium)-comprise what’s usually referred to as “the line.” Coral around the world may be bleaching and dying, but in these remote waters, it’s thriving.

“There are places in pretty much any Caribbean island that, if you went in the 1970s or even the 1990s, would look vastly different,” says long-time National Geographic contributing photographer Brian Skerry, who has spent more than 10,000 hours with his camera underwater. “The reefs have been overfished, bleached, there are algae growing because the herbivores are gone, but the Southern Line Islands, way out in the Pacific, are just off the charts in terms of pristine coral environments.”

One of the best places to dive here is Christmas Island, famous for the annual migration of red land crabs every October or November. While diving, you’ll also spot manta rays, eagle rays, and spinner dolphins gliding in water that often exceeds 100 feet of visibility.

For a glamping experience like no other, reserve one of the luxe eco tents at Swell Lodge, a wilderness retreat run entirely by solar power on Christmas Island’s western tip.

Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Bali, Indonesia

Best for: Shore divers, muck divers, beginners
Boat diving isn’t for everybody-especially people who get seasick easily or would rather just suit up and step right out from a sandy shore. This is where Bali comes in with one of the best shore dives on the planet.

The USS Liberty is a sunken cargo ship from World War II located in shallow waters just off Bali’s east coast (one of best places to visit in Southeast Asia) in Tulamben. The wreck is essentially a reef now, since it’s covered in coral and sponges with more fish than you’ll ever be able to identify. Everything from schooling jacks and beautiful juvenile sweetlips to batfish, butterfly fish, and anemone fish (Nemo!) are regularly spotted in the clear waters surrounding the wreck-and within its twisting metal nooks and crannies.

The wreck is less than a five-minute swim from the shore and sits at a depth of 20 to 100 feet, which makes it one of the most accessible wreck dives in the world. As if it couldn’t get more convenient, Tulamben Dive Resort is a dive-friendly property located within steps of the Liberty Wreck.

Muck diving, another pursuit that brings divers to these waters, refers to the search for macro (small) and unusual bottom-dwelling creatures that live in sand and muck as opposed to on the coral reef. Famous muck sites in Bali include Secret Bay, where you can usually find oddities like sea moths and ghost pipefish, and the jetty in Padang Bai, where rhinopias and giant frogfish, with their incredible camouflage skills, lurk.

Michele Westmorland/Stone/Getty Images
Michele Westmorland/Stone/Getty Images
Michele Westmorland/Stone/Getty Images

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

Best for: Shark fanatics, cold-water divers, experienced divers, marine biology nerds
Charles Darwin gave us so many reasons to visit the Galápagos Islands. Those giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies are pure magic, but if you just stick to land, you’re only seeing half the picture.

The site called Darwin’s Arch at Darwin Island is as epic as diving gets, with sea lions and turtles frequently spotted in the shallows and huge shoals of schooling fish, eagle rays, and even whale sharks deeper down. June through December is whale shark season in these parts, so if that’s a bucket list wildlife encounter for you, consider your calendar marked.

Since whale sharks can often be as large as a bus, getting a photo of the two of you together isn’t as hard as you might think. “The reality with [photographing] sharks, which I think most folks don’t understand, is that you need to get within a foot or two to really make a great picture,” Skerry says.

This sometimes involves the ethically murky practice of cage diving, a method for divers to get up close and personal with sharks with a safety barrier between them. But you don’t have to worry about that with whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea. The famously gentle giants are known for passing close to divers-and they definitely won’t eat you.

frantisekhojdysz/Shutterstock
frantisekhojdysz/Shutterstock
frantisekhojdysz/Shutterstock

Mozambique

Best for: Fans of whale sharks, kaleidoscopic coral, bucket list tickers
Mozambique gets a lot of attention for its beaches, and yes, these are definitely worth the trip alone. But off the coast-which stretches more than 1,200 miles-the Indian Ocean ringing the archipelagos is teeming with some of Africa’s most colorful and diverse marine life. From the most southern point, near the South African border, the tiny village of Ponta do Ouro is considered one of the world’s top shark diving spots, where tiger, hammerhead, bull, and blacktip sharks are sure sightings.

In the north, the Quirimbas Archipelago is home to five of the ocean’s seven marine turtles-plus the largest marine protected area in Africa. If you’re visiting between June and October, you’ll catch humpbacks as they migrate through Tofo, also known as one of the top spots to sight whale sharks and manta rays, particularly around aptly named Manta Reef, which lies just 13 miles offshore.

orangecrush/Shutterstock
orangecrush/Shutterstock
orangecrush/Shutterstock

Bermuda 

Best for: Fans of shipwrecks, intrepid divers, beginners
With more than 300 identified wrecks in its waters, Bermuda is an epic place to dive and a quick hop from the US. The waters are gin-clear, both in the shallows and at depth, sometimes exceeding 150 feet of visibility- and there’s plenty to see.

If you dive just one wreck in the wreck capital of the Atlantic, make it the Mary Celestia. This was a blockade runner ship for the Confederacy during the Civil War that met its demise after hitting a reef in 1864. The ship is the site of a massive aggregation of parrot fish each June, which come here to spawn after the full moon.

There are 25 pristine reefs to dive at around Bermuda, too, with swim-throughs and enormous barracudas among the dazzling views. For a post-dive celebratory toast, get the island’s iconic cocktail, the Rum Swizzle, at its oldest pub, The Swizzle Inn.

Vaclav Sebek/Shutterstock
Vaclav Sebek/Shutterstock
Vaclav Sebek/Shutterstock

Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Best for: Marine biology nerds, bucket list tickers
For experienced scuba divers, there’s everywhere else-and then there’s Raja Ampat. The “Four Kings” islands are located in Indonesia’s West Papua province. You have to be committed to reach this remote part of the world, but you’ll find yourself at the epicentre of marine biodiversity.

More than 1,300 species of reef fish live in the waters here-that’s about 50% of all the world’s known reef fish species, a number that makes Caribbean waters positively pale in comparison. And the diversity of habitats underwater include everything from coral gardens and mangroves to sheer walls, current-swept passages, sheltered bays, and more.

“Raja Ampat is best appreciated by someone who wants to look beneath the hood at the inner workings of the marine biodiversity machine,” says professional underwater photographer Brandon Cole, who has dived here many times. “It deserves to be the diamond in the whole necklace. You’re checking off so many new species you’ve never seen before on every dive.”

For an eco-friendly stay in Raja Ampat with access to great diving out the door, reserve a bungalow built on stilts within a short swim of the house reef at Misool Eco Resort.

Danita Delmont/Shutterstock
Danita Delmont/Shutterstock
Danita Delmont/Shutterstock

Vancouver Island, British Columba 

Best for: Cold-water divers, octopus hunters, shipwreck fanatics
If there’s any cold-water dive destination that’s well worth layering on the neoprene for, it’s Vancouver Island. Water temperatures hover around the 50-degree Fahrenheit mark, so you’re best off being certified as a dry suit diver before making the trek here.

But the rewards are manyfold: walls of spectacularly colourful sponges and anemones and the chance to come face to face with the largest octopus in the word, the great Pacific octopus, often seen in the waters off Port Hardy. Then, there are some classic wrecks in the waters off Nanaimo on the eastern shore, including the HMCS Saskatchewan, an artificial reef covered with plumose anemones and crawling with crabs.

“You have to work with the tides to orchestrate your dives here,” says Cole, “but doing so opens the opportunity to see especially stunning invertebrate life like anemones, sea stars, and sponges.”

Don’t leave Nanaimo without trying the famous sweet called a Nanaimo Bar, which you can sample at spots like Nanaimo Bakery & Café.

Magic Orb Studio/Shutterstock
Magic Orb Studio/Shutterstock
Magic Orb Studio/Shutterstock

Sipadan Island, Malaysia

Best for: Shark fanatics, advanced divers
Located in the Coral Triangle, Sipadan Island, off the east coast of Sabah in Malaysia, is home to Barracuda Point, a coral reef that rings the rim of a dormant underwater volcano. Like its name suggests, there are indeed barracudas-tons of them. You’ll also be surrounded by nearly 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of types of coral, plus turtles and reef sharks.

While many divers claim this spot trumps the others, don’t write off the rest of the island just yet. There’s 12 different dive sites to choose from, and one in particular-The Drop Off-sits right off the beach. While more suited to advanced divers, this spot has an impressive wall that dips down 2,000 feet and attracts everything from whitetip reef sharks to jacks and barracudas. Even better, the visibility is spectacular year-round. The island is also never crowded with divers-a permit is required, and the number is capped at 176 per day (and three dives per diver).

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Kastalia Medrano is a freelance journalist and avid traveler. Follow her on Twitter.

A freelance travel writer since 2001 when she quit her desk job in Florida to travel the world and live in Australia and New Zealand, Terry Ward has written for such publications as The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, and Scuba Diving Magazine.

Lane Nieset is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.