Top diving destinations

From the marine-rich waters of the Galápagos Islands, to the glacial lakes of Iceland, here are seven of the world's best countries for diving, and an overview of their best sites.
A shawl of trevally jack, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Photo: Shutterstock
A shawl of trevally jack, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Photo: Shutterstock

Malaysia

Just off Borneo's northern coast are the best diving sites in all of Malaysia. On every diver's list is Sipadan Island, renowned for its schooling fish. The coral wall here falls steeply into a plateau; the currents build in the depths, bringing an abundance of food for the smaller tropical fish, which attract schools of larger fish including barracuda. Tuna, trevally and reef sharks can also be spotted here in large quantities. Occasional sightings of hammerhead and thresher sharks keep large fish enthusiasts interested. Explore the waters off Sipidan with a tailor-made trip to Malaysia, by Insight Guides.

Lankayan Island offers a mixture of muck diving and big fish spotting. Here divers can search the seabed for hours, looking for nudibranchs and other macro life or encounter rays, leopard sharks, moray eels and the gigantic whale shark. Wreck diving is also available at the nearby mosquito and lankayan wrecks. 

The man-made island of Layang-Layang is surrounded by crystal-clear water, creating excellent visibility, even in the depths. Very little human activity in this area has allowed the reef to thrive and the corals here are healthy and full of algae, which create a bright array of colours. Large sea animals, such as hammerhead sharks and manta rays patrol these waters, feeding on the smaller life that flourishes here. 

From the Malay peninsula, Terengganu offers the best diving, albeit more suitable for less advanced levels. It's a good place to do an open water course, or for novices to gain confidence.


Mexico

Mexico’s position between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean creates a variety of diving that is difficult to match. The Yucatán Peninsula is the diving hot spot of the Caribbean coast – explore it with a tailor-made trip by Insight Guides  .  Here, divers will find an abundance of small tropical fish and plenty of colourful coral among the classic flat-top reefs near Playa del Carmen. This is a great place for novices or snorkelers, as the diving is easy and relaxed and most sites are relatively shallow. More experienced divers have the opportunity to dive with bull sharks between November and March, when the waters off Playa del Carmen teem with them. 

Just off the coast near Playa del Carmen is Cozumel Island, where deep wall dives are plentiful. Palancar Reef stands out as one of the best spots to dive here; stronger currents make for some interesting drift dives along the coral wall. 

Slightly inland from Playa del Carmen, divers can explore one of the world’s largest submerged cave systems. To reach the cave, divers must enter through cenotes – sinkholes that have revealed the underlying water and opened up entrances to underground tunnels. Fresh water, unusual limestone formations, stalagmites and stalactites await those who enter. 

The Pacific coast of Mexico is wild, and a much more tricky place to dive. Open water brings the larger pelagic species, such as manta rays, humpback whales, hammerhead and whale sharks as well as wreck diving and hardier, rocky coral reefs. One of the best places to dive off the west coast is around Socorro Island.


Diving in the crystal-clear waters of Silfra, IcelandDiving in the crystal-clear waters of Silfra, Iceland. Photo: Shutterstock


Iceland

Iceland offers some of the world’s most unique diving.  One of the most notable spots is Silfra. Located in Þingvallavatn Lake, Silfra is a crack between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Nowhere else in the world is there a landscape quite like this. Glacial water fills the lake, having been filtered through the volcanic rock at the surface, and gives a visibility of more than 100 metres (3,280 ft). The dive site consists of four sections: the big crack (the main crack between the plates), Silfra hall, Silfra cathedral and Silfra lagoon. Explore Silfra with a tailor-made trip to Iceland, by Insight Guides

Kleifarvatn Lake is home to another unusual dive experience. Here, as you swim from the lake shore, you will see the sandy bed begin to erupt with the rumbling of hot springs. Colourful sulphuric deposits dress the lake bed, as the vibrations get stronger and you start to feel them racing through your bodies. 

Diving in Iceland's oceans is different again. Kelp forests grow in the nutrient-rich water, interspersed with sandy patches where divers can spot flounder nestling and soft corals in hues varying from orange to red to pink. 


The Galápagos Islands

The best way to ensure you don’t miss any of the best dive sites in Galápagos is to tour the archipelago on a live-aboard boat tour. Camaño Islet is a popular site off the main island of Santa Cruz. Located just off Academy Bay, it is the perfect spot for learning to dive as the current remains fairly moderate. Reef fish can be found here in abundance, but there is also the possibility of seeing turtles, sea lions and various species of sharks. Gordon Rocks is a site for more advance divers, located not far from Santa Cruz. Here there are stronger currents, much deeper depths, and the possibility of seeing schools of hammerhead sharks. Experience it for yourself, with a personalised live-aboard tour of the Gálapagos Islands, by Insight Guides. 

The shores of North Seymour Island offer reef sharks aplenty, turtles, and various species of rays including eagle, manta and devil. 

Isabela is the largest island in the archipelago and home to Roca Redonda, a small, steep-sided remaining section of a volcano. The Galápagos shark is a resident of Roca Redonda as well as hammerhead sharks. 

Fernandina Island’s Cape Douglas is the best site for mingling with some of the native species such as Galápagos sea lions and marine iguanas. 

Darwin and Wolf are two tiny islands that sit to the northwest of the archipelago, which can only be reached by live-aboard. These two islands are surrounded by even more marine life than the other islands. El Arco, El Arenal and Shark Point are must-visit sites. Here, unusual geological formations, hammerheads, reef sharks and whale sharks can all be spotted.


A whale shark followed by a diver, in the waters off Darwin and Wolf, the Galápagos IslandsA whale shark followed by a diver, in the waters off Darwin and Wolf, the Galápagos Islands. Photo: Shutterstock


Thailand 

Thailand is a dream destination, both above and below the water. The islands that face the east and west coasts boast a wide variety of marine life and underwater topography. Off the east coast in the Gulf of Thailand is the island of Ko Tao, where you will find diving in shallow bays, wrecks, among limestone cliffs and coral gardens. Sail rock is one of the best sites here, and is located about an hour and a half from Ko Tao and about an hour from Ko Phangan. Grouper, batfish, trevally and barracuda are all found here in abundance, plus the occasional whale shark. One of the best features of the rock is the almost vertical swim through within it, which range between 5–18m wide. 

On the west side of Thailand in the Andaman Sea sits Richelieu Rock, one of the best dive sites in the world according to the French explorer, Jacques Cousteau. Richelieu Rock is best visited on a live-aboard from Khao Lak. Colourful corals adorn the pinnacles protruding from the rock with schools of tropical fish swimming about them. The location of this site, in the open ocean, attracts larger species too; it is one of the best sites in Thailand to spot the majestic whale shark, with other species such as devil and manta rays also making an appearance. 

Slightly further south is Phuket island where shore diving is popular. Here, divers can find a variety of spots to dive, ranging from shallow sites to wrecks. Some of the top sites include Rocha Island, which is good for beginners and Koh Dok Mai, where macro divers can get their fix.


Maldives

Situated on the equator in the middle of the Indian Ocean is the idyllic paradise of the Maldives. Not only is this group of atolls idyllic above sea level, but it also offers more than any diver could hope for below the water. There are hundreds of pristine dive sites, suitable for all abilities. Shore diving or boat diving is possible in the Maldives; however, the easiest way to see all the best sites is on a live-aboard. 

Ari atoll is one site packed with pelagic species. Expect to see hammerhead sharks, manta rays and whale sharks in abundance. Ari also offers varied topography, with pinnacles to explore and channels to swim through. With Ari’s exposed position, currents can be a strong, so it is only recommended for experienced divers. Another site in the northern atolls is Dhaalu. Here, there are plenty of deep caves and drops offs to be explored. 

Further south is Fuvahmulah atoll, where divers have the chance to sight some sharks that are not often seen in this area, such as tigers, threshers and oceanic white-tips. 

One of the top sites in not just the Maldives, but also the world, is Maaya Thila. A great site for any diver, this Maaya Thila is packed with nudibranchs, frogfish, stonefish, sea fans, hard and soft coral and plenty of other colourful reef fish. As you enter the lower reaches, turtles, grouper and moray eels start to appear; lurking in the deepest sections are grey and oceanic white-tip sharks. See it for yourself, with a tailor-made trip to the Maldives


Snorkelling in shallow waters at Bunaken Islands, IndonesiaSnorkelling in shallow waters at Bunaken Islands, Indonesia. Photo: Shutterstock


Indonesia

Of Indonesia's many thousands of islands, perhaps the best-known for diving are the Raja Ampat Islands. Made up of 1,500 islands, this tiny group is home to astonishing numbers of marine life, from tiny nudibranchs to small reef fish, parrotfish, tuna, trevally and barracuda. Seahorses, lion fish and wobbegongs can also be seen and, at times, manta rays and whale sharks grace these wild waters. 

The Komodo Islands are a popular place to visit in the hope of seeing the komodo dragon. However, the calm surrounding waters are home to shallow reefs that are alive with colourful coral and reef fish. Sharks can also be seen circling the coral walls and pinnacles at certain sites. See them yourself with a tailor-made trip to the Indonesia

For some larger, more unusual underwater creatures, travel to the Bunaken Islands. Here lucky divers can seize the opportunity to swim with five different species of sea turtles, white and black tip reef sharks, sea crocodiles and dugongs. The transparent water that washes the islands’ shores gives endless visibility to spot these animals in the distance. 

Bali and Lombok are the most popular islands for tourists and, as such, diving for all abilities is possible; divers will find a mixture of deep drop-offs, coral ridges, wrecks, volcanic rock, seagrass beds, reefs and pinnacles.