Have you noticed that all the lists featuring great diving destinations in the world contain pretty much the same names? There’s obviously a good reason why you’re seeing the Raja Ampat Islands, Galapagos Islands, and Malapascua Island, for example, listed everywhere. They are truly stunning, indeed. But what if we told you there are still some phenomenal diving opportunities beyond the obvious?
We researched the lesser-known diving destinations that are terribly underrated. These picturesque places offer some of the best diving opportunities on Earth, but minus the crowds of divers you can’t help but bump into at the most popular destinations in the world. Take a look at the secret gems of scuba diving that are worthy of your time.
1. Sanganeb Atoll, Sudan
Sudan may not be a popular travel destination, but the scuba diving here has never disappointed. One of the lesser-known diving destinations in the world, the untouched Sudanese Red Sea can impress even the most traveled scuba diver. The diving that takes place in Sudan is defined primarily by the diversity and number of sharks, which includes silky, grey reef, hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, tiger, and whitetip reef sharks.
The Sanganeb Atoll, part of the Sanganeb Marine National Park, is the only atoll in the Red Sea. The atoll is characterized by steep slopes that rise from a depth of 800 meters (2,600 feet) and high endemism. More than 80 species of coral in 35 genera have been recorded at Sanganeb, and the hard and soft coral fauna is considered among the richest in the Red Sea. The coral reef fish life is also highly diverse, numbering over 250 species. There are also a number of pelagic fish such as Napoleon wrasses, tuna, barracudas, manta rays, and sailfish to be seen here.
Other interesting dive spots in Sudan include the Umbria shipwreck and the Precontinent II, both in the Port Sudan area. SS Umbria is a large Italian vessel that sank in 1940 on its way to Eritrea. Tons of ammunition and explosive, as well as half a million worth of Maria Theresa thalers still lie in its cargo holdings. The Precontinent II was part of a marine village for scientific experiments built by Jacques Cousteau and his research team. The epicenter of the site is the Starfish House, a futuristic construction still very much intact.
When to visit: February through May
Diving conditions: The water temperature ranges from 24° to 33° C/75-91° F and the visibility from 10 to 35 meters (33-115 feet). The currents are usually mild but depending on dive site, they can get strong.
2. Ha’apai Group, Tonga
Tonga is a Polynesian archipelago comprising over 160 idyllic islands divided into three groups – Vava’u, Ha’apai, and Tongatapu. The superb dives one can enjoy here are not so much of a secret for the neighboring Australian and New Zealander scuba divers, but the remoteness of this island state did not help in getting the recognition it deserves. Especially considering that Tonga is one of the very few places in the world where you can swim with the humpback whales in their natural environment.
The Ha’apai Group is known for its diverse topography, beautiful coral reefs, and the variety of fish life. There are numerous caves, caverns, tunnels, and canyons, impressive walls, and vast coral gardens to be discovered around the islands of Ha’apai. The sea bed is riddled with yellow sea fans and anemones with their photogenic clownfish inhabitants. Ha’apai is also the most pristine and uncrowded region in Tonga.
Some of the diving highlights include the Arch of Ofalanga, a coral arch formed during the last ice age, the Hot Spring Cavern, inside of which divers can find the hydrothermal vent that supplies the cavern with warm water, and the J-Caves adorned with massive bommies on the outside and overhangs on the inside. The humpback whales visit the islands of Ha’apai every year and during the season, the whale watching trips depart from Pangai.
When to visit: Year-round diving, but the humpback whale season runs from July to October.
Diving conditions: The water temperature ranges from 23° to 29° C/73-84° F and visibility often reaches 30 meters (100 feet) in the summer and up to 70 meters (230 feet) in the winter.
3. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is one of the least dived areas of the Red Sea, with most tourists taking to the more popular diving destinations such as Egypt and Jordan. This is due to the nation being a mystery to many tourists, as its doors were wide open for business but not so much for tourism. However, the Kingdom is now looking to expand the number of tourists through a number of ambitious development projects.
Scuba diving in Saudi Arabia is a growing activity, albeit still not easily accessible due to the restricted entry regulations. The country has the longest coastline on the Red Sea, and presumably the largest number of reefs in the sea, with much of the reefs still unexplored. Furthermore, these waters have yet to be affected by tourism and large-scale commercial fishing, which is why the reef here remains the most pristine in the Red Sea.
The main diving areas in Saudi Arabia are Jeddah and Yanbu, two major ports in the western part of the country. Jeddah, in particular, offers excellent reef diving, wall diving, and wreck diving. The Ann Ann Wreck, Cable Wreck, Boiler Wreck, and Miss Marie Wreck are among the most appealing dive sites in the region, with still much of the structure intact, healthy coral growth on the ships, and good marine life. Around Yanbu, the stars of the show are the hammerhead sharks that inhabit the area all year round.
When to visit: Saudi Arabia is a year-round scuba diving destination.
Diving conditions: The water temperature ranges from 22° to 30° C/72-86° F and visibility is typically great, ranging from 20 to 30 meters (66-100 feet).
4. Dahlak Islands, Eritrea
Located in the Horn of Africa on the Red Sea, Eritrea is yet another hidden gem of the diving world. A diving holiday in this African country is most likely not the first thing that comes to anyone’s mind, but despite the inhospitable political climate, Eritrea welcomes the rule-abiding tourists. The small number of travelers that did venture off the beaten track and dived the superb waters of the Eritrean Red Sea can attest to the high quality of the scuba diving that takes place here.
The Dahlak Archipelago, comprised of more than 200 islands of which only four are inhabited, is an unspoilt haven for scuba divers. The pristine coral reefs, spectacular marine life that includes sharks, dolphins, dugongs, sea turtles, hermit crabs, and many other different species, and the historical shipwrecks make this part of the Red Sea an unforgettable experience.
When to visit: Year-round diving. The manta ray season runs from March through June.
Diving conditions: The water temperature ranges from 20° to 29° C/68-84° F and visibility is outstanding. Some locations receive strong currents.
5. Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand
Known among the locals as one of the best diving spots in New Zealand, the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve was also named one of the world’s top ten diving locations by renowned explorer Jacques Cousteau. The islands are situated in an area that that receives the warm subtropical current of the South Pacific Ocean, bringing along species of fish that are normally found further north. The waters around Poor Knights Islands are the richest in New Zealand, numbering more than 120 species of fish and invertebrates, of which some are endemic.
The diving at Poor Knights Islands is defined by the abundance of caves, caverns, tunnels, chimneys, and arches. The amazing topography of the islands created a true playground for divers. Of all caves, the most impressive is Rikoriko, reportedly the largest sea cave in the world. Among the most unusual ones is Bernie’s cave that contains a pocket of air where divers can surface and breathe.
The great variety of underwater experiences also includes steep cliffs, pinnacles, kelp forests, sponge gardens, and vast fields of gorgonians. A myriad of fish, rays, urchins, shellfish, and anemones call these formations their home. There are also two shipwrecks sunk on purpose for divers – the HMNZS Waikato and the HMNZS Tui – located just outside of the Tutukaka Marina.
When to visit: Peak season is January to April.
Diving conditions: The water temperature ranges from 15 to 20° C/59-68° F and it’s the warmest during the peak season. Visibility can be anywhere between 12 to 30 meters (39-100 feet) depending on location and time of the year. Some current and surge may be present.
6. Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
Divers love exploring the warm and colorful waters of the Caribbean Sea, but with most tourists choosing renowned diving locations like Roatan and Bonaire, the Dominican Republic is somehow never on anyone’s dive bucket list. However, diving off the town of Bayahibe is known to exceed expectations thanks to the attractive reefs populated with healthy corals and fish life. There are plenty of dive sites to cater to the needs and wants of novice, advanced, cave, wreck or technical divers.
The underwater seascape near Bayahibe features caves, swim-throughs, steep walls, mangrove forests, beds of seagrass, extensive coral formations, and wrecks. Sharks, dolphins, manatees, eagle rays, lobsters, sea turtles, and a myriad of other sea creatures can be seen in these waters. Dive trips to Catalina Island, a good wall diving destination, and Saona Island, where the big fish are, can also be booked from Bayahibe.
When to visit: December to May for best conditions and June to November to avoid crowds of tourists.
Diving conditions: The water temperature is a balmy 25-30° C/ 77-86° F year-round and visibility often exceeds 25 meters (82 feet).
7. Pohnpei, Micronesia
The Pohnpei island group is Micronesia’s hidden secret. While some divers venture off to the Chuuk Lagoon for its world-renowned WWII wrecks and dive off the more popular Yap island group, Pohnpei still maintains its exclusivity. With about 11 marine-protected areas and continuous conservation efforts, the islands remain nearly untouched. The best diving occurs on the north side of the islands, but there are plenty of great dive sites to explore all around Pohnpei.
Stunning drop-offs, passes, channels, hard coral gardens, outer atolls, and the cleaning stations that attract the big stuff are some of the things that should get any diver excited about diving off Pohnpei. Dozens of grey reef sharks are known to appear at dive sites such as Palikir Pass and Dauenai Pass. Napoleon wrasses, bumphead parrotfish, groupers, eagle rays, and sea turtles are quite a sight as well.
The absolute stars of Pohnpei are the manta rays. The recorded population numbers over 100 individual mantas, but it is thought to be even larger. About 40 percent of the manta rays are black morphs. The local legends claim that the mantas are the guardians of the ancient capital of the Saudeleur Dynasty, Nan Madol. The manta rays frequent the cleaning stations and channels, and Manta Road off the island of Mwahnd Peidak is the most famous dive spot in all Pohnpei.
When to visit: Year-round destination, but July to early November is considered the main diving season.
Diving conditions: The water temperature averages 29° C/84° throughout the year and visibility is outstanding, averaging 30 meters (100 feet). The currents range from mild/none to strong, creating some great drift dives in some locations.
8. Carriacou, Grenada
Carriacou is a small island that’s still an insider’s secret. The island offers unspoilt dive sites, and unlike other destinations in Grenada, it was spared by the effects of mass tourism. The marine life and diving conditions around Carriacou are just as anywhere else in Grenada, but the peaceful atmosphere and uncrowded dive sites are an added bonus. With over 30 diverse dive spots, including world-class wreck dives, this lesser-known scuba diving destination does not disappoint.
The warm, tropical waters surrounding the island are home to a variety of hard and soft corals, sea sponges, and sea fans. In fact, even the word “Carriacou” means “island surrounded by reefs” in the Kari’nja language. The colorful reefs are home to a myriad of sea creatures, including nurse sharks, barracudas, stingrays, eagle rays, sea turtles, moray eels, octopus, and even the elusive black seahorse.
When to visit: December to May.
Diving conditions: The water temperature ranges from 26 to 28° C/79-82° F year-round with variable visibility depending on the dive site, but typically very good. The currents on some of the spots ensure great drift diving.
9. Pulau Weh, Indonesia
Indonesia is one of the best diving destinations on Earth. Unfortunately, this also means most of the top-rated dive locations are crowded to the point you cannot fully enjoy your experience. Luckily, there are still places in Indonesia where divers can explore the underwater world with all its treasures in a more laid-back setting without traveling to more remote areas. The active volcanic island of Weh to the northwest of Sumatra is one of those places.
Pulau Weh is well known for the variety of moray eels, such as the fimbriated morays, blackcheek morays, and snowflake morays. The reef sharks are also abundant, and so are the eagle rays, trevallies, tuna, snappers, and different species of tropical fish. One may come across the occasional manta ray.
Wreck divers can explore the massive Sophie Rickmers shipwreck that measures approximately 134 meters (440 feet) in length and rests in the sheltered Pria Laot Bay. The huge German freighter was sunk in 1940 and is now covered in coral and teeming with fish life. Those that are not certified deep divers can dive the shallower Sabang tugboat wreck that it often done as a second dive.
When to visit: April through October.
Diving conditions: The water temperature usually does not drop below 26°/79° F and can reach up to 31°/88° F. Visibility is typically excellent, with an average of about 20 meters (66 feet) but often exceeding. The currents can be challenging.
10. Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar
The Mergui Archipelago in the southern region of Myanmar remains a rather unknown destination to this day, having been opened for foreign travelers at the end of the 1990s. The archipelago comprises over 800 mostly uninhabited islands in the Andaman Sea. Dive sites are still being discovered but their popularity is growing, so divers should be quick in booking their trip while these unspoilt islands are still crowd-free.
In Myanmar, divers can find most of the species of marine animals common to the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, the archipelago was not entirely spared of human exploitation and some areas have seen damage due to unethical fishing methods. Fortunately, fish life remains abundant. Mergui has healthy populations of manta rays, gray reef sharks, nurse sharks, silvertip sharks, and zebra sharks. The critters, a delight for underwater photographers, include frogfish, ribbon eels, pipefish, and all sorts of crustaceans.
Myanmar’s most famous dive site is Black Rock, where during peak season it is possible to see dolphins, various species of sharks, giant manta rays, whale sharks, and even whales. Western Rocky is also among the most exciting spots, with its diveable passage that is considered one of the most stunning swim-throughs in the Andaman Sea. Without a doubt, the best way to explore the archipelago is via a liveaboard, so you can discover as much of it as possible.
When to visit: October to May
Diving conditions: The water temperature ranges from 25° to 30° C/77-86° F and visibility averages 15 meters (50 feet) and is quite poor during full moon. Many of the dive sites are drift dives because of the currents, so divers should have some experience if they wish to dive here.
What’s your secret scuba diving destination? Leave us a comments below!