Dive deep: 11 amazing underwater worlds in the U.S.
The U.S. is spectacular enough above the water, but dive into its depths, and you’re in for an otherworldly treat. Every state in the Union has at least one good diving site submerged beneath a river, lake, or the ocean, and some have incredible surprises in store for you, including sharks, shipwrecks, volcanoes, and manta rays. Whether you’re a certified scuba diver or just learning to navigate the subaquatic landscape, the following 11 sites will make you oooh and aaah into your dive mask.
1. Florida Keys, Florida
Beneath the crystal-clear waters of the 120-mile island chain that comprises the Florida Keys lies the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S., and it’s the third largest such structure in the world. These coral formations are a diver’s delight, teeming with brightly colored fish, green moray eels, and 5,998 other marine species. Coral-encrusted shipwrecks lie on the bottom of the ocean as well, and you can’t dive the Keys without visiting the Christ of the Abyss statue, which stands eerily silent under 25 feet of water just offshore from Key Largo. The Keys are ideal for year-round diving, thanks to the warm water, which is in the low 70s at its coldest.
2. Morehead City, North Carolina
Hundreds of wrecked ships and submarines rest in the warm waters off the coast of Morehead City, making it a popular spot among divers. The wreck of the Caribsea is of particular interest on account of the sand tiger sharks that skulk around its perimeter. When the Gulf Stream pushes in, you can see up to 100 of these creatures, which will probably leave you alone as long as you don’t provoke them. Two other favorites include the Proteous, a 406-foot passenger-freighter that sunk in 120 feet of water in 1918, and U-352, a German submarine scuttled at a depth of 218 feet in 1942. You’ll also be sharing the water with southern stingrays, barracuda, and brightly colored sea fans. Visibility can peak at 100 feet or more, and the waters are in the low 70s and 80s during the peak dive season, which runs from May through October.
3. Puget Sound, Washington
You’ll find more than 75 idyllic shore-diving sites within an hour of Seattle, where the abundant marine life includes sea lions, orcas, and lots of oysters, crabs, shrimp, and sunflower stars. Puget Sound is one of the finest spots in the U.S. for wall dives. And any diver will tell you Day Island Wall and Fox Island East Wall are two of the best. It’s also a good place for drift diving, and the underwater reefs, wrecks, and fjords keep things interesting down below. The water is around 50 degrees all year long, and visibility is best in the winter. You’ll want to avoid the area in the springtime, when algae blooms and glacier runoff make the conditions less than ideal.
4. San Diego, California
Explore haunting, undulating kelp forests off the coast of San Diego. If you put in at La Jolla Cove, you can be swimming in kelp within a few minutes. Alternatively, you can boat out to Point Loma’s kelp beds, which lie between 45 and 120 feet below the surface. Regardless of where you enter the water, once there, you’ll meet plenty of orange garibaldi, harbor seals, seven gill sharks, and sea lions, and the rocky reefs will bring you face to face with a multicolored feast of sponges, bryozoans, and gorgonians. Wreck Alley is a choice spot for divers across the world, who come here to gaze in awe upon the artificial reef. The highlight is the HCMS Yukon, a 366-foot Canadian destroyer whose eternal resting place is beneath around a hundred feet of water. The best visibility is between July and January, with autumn months offering the calmest seas.
5. Monterey Bay, California
California’s best cold-water diving takes place in Monterey Bay, where you’ll see mola-molas, sea otters, wolf eels, and gray whales as well as seal and sea lion rookeries. The depths of the bay can reach 300 feet just yards from shore, which means the swells are subdued and the visibility is sublime. The upwelling of nutrients from the 10,663-foot deep Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon makes the surrounding kelp forests some of the most beautiful in the world, and the Outer Chase Reef features mountainous rock formations between 40 and 80 feet down. Be sure to bring your camera to this reef, because the vibrantly colored sea anemones and other invertebrates make for some great photo ops.
6. Ginnie Springs, Florida
The shining crystal waters of Ginnie Spring basin, a 100-foot wide and 15-foot deep bowl-shaped depression on the Santa Fe River in High Springs, Florida, offer “visibility forever,” in the words of diving royalty Jacques Cousteau himself. Ginnie cavern lies at the bottom of the basin, and happily, its wide entrance and large rooms have been deemed by experts to be safe for even novice divers. The upper room is lit by the sunshine coming through the entrance, and its walls are made of reflective limestone. At the back of the upper room is an opening that leads you to the “Ballroom,” whose limestone ceiling resembles Swiss cheese. Unusual geologic formations abound here, including an impressive, carved phreatic tube. The cave system features more than 30,000 feet of passageways, and certified divers can carry lights and freely explore the deeper reaches of the caves.
7. Kona, Big Island, Hawaii
The waters of Kona, off the western edge of Big Island, are hemmed in by cliffs, which means you’ll get a calm dive that’s richly punctuated with corals, tropical fish, and, sometimes, humpback whales. Occasionally, divers meet Shirley, a 10-foot tiger shark who frequents the area. The lava tubes reaching up from the seabed are a breathtaking sight to behold, and Au Au Crater is a favorite spot for wall diving. But the most incredible sights in these waters can only be seen at night, on the Kona Manta Ray night dive. Tiny, colorful organisms and fish float and swim by, glowing in divers’ lights, but it’s the scores of manta rays diving, looping, twirling, and soaring all around you that make this one of the most beloved night dives on earth.
8. Cathedrals, Lanai, Hawaii
The First and Second Cathedrals are a pair of lava tube caverns off the southern shore of Lanai in Hawaii that form a complex labyrinth featuring skylights, which let the sunlight dramatically illuminate the dark rooms within. The lacy appearance of the lava is reminiscent of stained glass, hence the Cathedral moniker, and the marine life that lives in and around the Cathedrals include white tail sharks, Golden lace nudibranchs, and colorful clouds of tropical fish. On the list of the world’s top ten dive sites for over 25 years, the Cathedrals should ideally be explored November through March, when the humpback whale songs resonate through the water.
9. Flower Garden Banks, Gulf of Mexico, Texas
The salt domes that formed in the warm Gulf of Mexico waters were a welcome habitat for the corals that began colonizing into colorful reefs around 15,000 years ago. Known as the Flower Garden Banks, these reefs are home to nearly 300 fish species as well as numerous crustacean, sponge, shark, and ray species. And, of course, you’ll find lots and lots of coral down here, with some mounds growing as large as small cars. Divers may see loggerhead and hawksbill sea turtles, manta rays, and docile but bus-sized whale sharks, and if you dive between January and early April, you may be lucky enough to witness schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks migrating through the area.
10. Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, Nevada
Lake Tahoe is situated on the California-Nevada border, not far from Reno. The second deepest lake in the U.S., it’s one of the more interesting places to dive, thanks largely to the flotsam and jetsam that lies beneath the surface of Emerald Bay, remnants of Emerald Bay Resort’s dubious practice of using the lake as a dump from the late 1880s to 1953. Divers have reported seeing tires, toilets, sinks, and telephones as well as old piers, diving platforms, and, in the case of one surprised diver, a Ford Model A. All of the artifacts are protected by state law, so don’t even consider foraging for souvenirs here. You’ll also find sunken barges and boats, as well as gigantic boulders, fallen trees, teeny tiny crawdads, and schools of rainbow trout.
11. Milwaukee, WI
Freezing cold temperatures and deep waters make diving the Great Lakes more suitable for experienced divers than for novices. But if you’ve got the chops, the area around Milwaukee is paradise, particularly for shipwreck-obsessed souls. The wrecks off the coast of Milwaukee are very well-preserved, thanks to the cold temps and absence of salt in the water. Two of the most popular are the Prins Willem V, a 338-foot car ferry that sank in 1954 after colliding with a towed barge, and the 181-foot Emba, a schooner barge that was scuttled 7 miles offshore in 1932. The best time to dive Lake Michigan is May through early October, when the water temperature is between 38 and 60 degrees.