The Caribbean is just as beautiful below the waves as it is above them. Its tropical undersea world is a diving and snorkelling paradise – if you know where to look.
Sub-marine marvels include 150-year old shipwrecks colonized by coral, underwater art installations, immaculate reef systems and dramatic oceanic ridges, show-stopping aquatic life such as manta ray ballets, and a stunning coral shelf that has bounced back from the edge of destruction. Achieve neutral buoyancy and immerse yourself in natural wonder at one of these seven spectacular dive spots...
Jardines de la Reina, Cuba
Underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau advised Fidel Castro to conserve the riches of this sub-aquatic Eden back in the eighties. Castro – an avid diver himself – subsequently protected more than a quarter of Cuba's coasts under national law. This, and an accident of history that saw industrialization slow and less pollution reaching Cuba's waters, means the Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) are "a living time machine" according to marine biologist David Guggenheim.
The mangrove-laden islets to the south of Cuba are encircled with rainbow-hued underwater rainforests that support a thriving ecosystem of reef dwellers, as well as turtles and goliath groupers and pelagic visitors including whale sharks and manta rays. The presence of rare elkhorn corals and queen conch are a clear indicator of the reef's good health. A dive here is an opportunity to swim through swirling clouds of tropical fish, encounter sharks and experience the Caribbean as it was more than 60 years ago.
Underwater Park, Curacao
Curacao is part of the former Dutch Caribbean "ABC" islands close to the coast of Venezuela and like its sister island Bonaire it offers pristine reefs and some of the world's best diving. For more than 30 years, there has been a protected underwater park off Curacao's south-eastern seaboard close to the colourful capital Willemstad. The island's location on the edge of the Caribbean's hurricane belt means its reefs and slow-growing hard corals have been relatively undisturbed, allowing it to develop a rich underwater ecosystem.
Nurse sharks and sea turtles roam the coral encrusted terraces of the fringing reefs; rays and barracudas loom in the blue; and sandy seagrass flats, lagoons and mangroves act as a nursery for young marine life to flourish. The beaches that rim the park are important turtle nesting grounds and there are 19 marked dive sites within the park including a 100-year-old shipwreck.
Underwater Sculpture Park, Grenada
Named among the Top 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic, the open-water art gallery of Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park is a creative collaboration between nature and man. British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor originally made concrete casts of the local community and anchored them to the shallow sandy seabed of Moliniere Bay on the west coast of Grenada.
Since then more installations have been added to make more than 65 individual pieces including Circle of Children, Christ of the Deep, Un-still life, Lost Correspondent and Fall from Grace scattered across the seascape in the Caribbean's first underwater sculpture park. Snorkellers and divers can explore the crystalline waters to see sunken statues and structures now decorated in coral, grass, starfish and colourful nudibranches that look to the untrained eye like a fossilized underwater city.
Bloody Bay Wall, Little Cayman, Cayman Islands
The Caymans are essentially a coral cap on an oceanic mountain ridge, making their underwater landscape particularly dramatic. World-class dive sites given fairytale names such as Disappearing Canyon and Black Forest encircle each island, but the menacingly-named Bloody Bay Wall is the fairest of them all.
Said to be one of the world's deepest drop-offs, the underwater cliff face offshore from Little Cayman is covered in the most extraordinary array of rainbow-coloured corals and sponges in sunsplash yellow, violet, orange and electric blue. Great schools of jacks, groupers and triggerfish hover beside the wall, while moray eels peer out from crevices, and graceful mantas and curious turtles emerge from the blue. There are several dive hotspots dotted along the wall and local dive operators run trips to them all.
Cades Reef, Antigua
Aerial shots of Antigua's Cades Reef taken by British photographer Tommy Clarke reveal the sheer scale of this natural sub-aquatic structure that skims the island's southern shore. Decimated in a violent storm, part of the coral skeleton was left jutting from the ocean. Yet filmmaker and diving enthusiast Bert Kirchner's recent Scuba Antigua film shows the barrier reef has made a remarkable recovery. The diversity of undersea life here includes nurse sharks, barracudas, black-tip reef sharks, eagle rays and hawksbill turtles.
The film also captures footage of schools of groupers and jacks, angel fish, squirrelfish, flatfish and cuttlefish. While harder corals will take longer to regenerate, neon-coloured reef fish hover around gigantic barrel, sponge corals and anemones, and branching gorgonias fan out towards the surface. A national marine park, it's Antigua's premier dive destination but you can also snorkel the sheltered landward side of the reef with local boat tour operators.
The idyllic little island of Tobago has built a strong reputation for scuba in recent years and its one of those rare places where you can catch a glimpse of an underwater ballet of manta rays gliding along in the currents. The cool Guyana current mixes with the Gulf Stream along the island's eastern stretch of coast making for great drift dives and creating the perfect conditions to nourish a weird and wonderful underwater garden that includes the Caribbean's largest colony of brain corals – the biggest measures more than five metres across.
Boasting some of the most immaculate sub-aquatic flora and fauna in the region, there are no less than 20 dive sites within a short boat ride of Speyside on the north-eastern end of the island. Spots such as Japanese Garden and Cathedral are abundant in giant table coral and barrel sponges with a myriad of technicolour fish dappling the scene.
RMS Rhone Marine Park, British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) boast some excellent wreck dives including RMS Rhone, which has been consistently voted top wreck dive in the Caribbean and is part of a marine park that includes the piratey-named Dead Chest Island.
The Royal Mail steamer ship was slammed against Salt Island's Black Rock Point and cleaved in half by a hurricane in 1867. It sunk with 125 people on board and rests in two or three relatively intact pieces on the sea floor with its engine room, crow's nest, decking, rigging and propeller cloaked with coral and sea life but still easy to make out. Most dive centres in BVI run trips to dive the wreck that lies between 20 and 80 feet below the surface. Said to be haunted, tales of ghostly swimmers making for the surface add an eerie aspect to the site.
Dream dive destinations
Hurricanes, pollution, overfishing and invasive species continue to threaten the marine biodiversity of our planet, not least in the Caribbean. Yet as these precious dive destinations prove, you can still experience the wonder of the underwater world if you look in the right places. At least one of these marine marvels should be on every serious scuba divers' bucket list.