Diving the Caribbean is more than a rite of passage; with so many sites to experience, it’s a lifetime’s work, says Karl Cushing
The Caribbean’s dive smarts don’t end with its excellent visibility and famously abundant and diverse marine life. From wreck and shark dives to subterranean sinkholes and epic walls, it truly is a one-stop shop for divers of all abilities.
Accessible options for newbies eager to tick off a good range of sightings include Cozumel. With dive sites such as Colombia Wall and Palancar Reef, the Mexican island is a certified crowd-pleaser that caters to all-comers. Top picks for more advanced divers include the islands of St Croix and Saba, off St Maarten, while Bonaire, in the Dutch Caribbean, has long been heralded as the region’s top spot for shore diving, backed by sites such as 1,000 steps and Alice in Wonderland.
One of the region’s bucket-list staples is Belize’s Great Blue Hole. Typically coupled with nearby dive sites such as Half Moon Caye Wall, which offer more variety of marine life, including pelagics, the sinkhole spans 300m across and descends around 125m into the seabed.
Whale sharks are one of the big seasonal star turns, with April and May the best time to see them in Belize. Other hotspots include the waters off Cancun, Mexico and Utila, in Honduras, where your best chances of seeing some of the world’s biggest fish are March to April and August to September.
Other Honduran high points include diving with Caribbean reef sharks at Cara Cara, off the island of Roatan. Speaking of sharks, Bimini Island in the Bahamas remains one of the ‘go to’ places to swim with great hammerheads, large numbers of which gather offshore each February.
Spots to look for humpback whales include the waters off Silver Bank, in the Dominican Republic, where pregnant mothers come each spring to calf and mate. Head to Dominica in January or February and you can spot male sperm whales off the coast, as well as the more commonly seen female and baby ones. The only hitch is you’ll have to free dive – or try to spot them from the surface – as scuba gear is prohibited.
Popular wreck dives include the USS Kittiwake – a purposefully sunk, 251-foot ship off Grand Cayman, known for its marine life, rich wall dives and shark encounters at East End. Sitting at 65 feet below the surface, the Kittiwake is mere minutes by boat from Seven Mile Beach.
Other accessible, intentionally sunk wrecks include Lesleen M, easily accessible off Anse Chastanet, St Lucia’s prime base for divers. While you won’t find big pelagics off Anse Chastanet, you will find impressive corals and humungous sponges.
Grenada is another notable wreck destination, with popular sites including the enormous former passenger ship MV Bianca C. Other sizeable options include the Antilla in Aruba’s Malmok Bay, a 400-foot-long scuttled Second World War wrecked German freighter.
Some dive sites tick several boxes. Take the Bahamas, where you can enjoy shark encounters while diving the Ray of Hope wreck off Nassau before going on to spy all manner of marine life diving the nearby wall.
For a twist, try securing a permit to dive Jamaica’s infamous Pirate City of Port Royal, lost beneath the waves in the late seventeenth century.