COVID Travel Requirements for Scuba Diving Vacations
Now that vaccines in the United States are as plentiful as surgeonfish under a snorkel boat, some of the world’s most popular dive destinations are welcoming travelers back with open arms—or those with shots in theirs, at least. As a volunteer EMT, my early jab allowed me to dip my fins in and test the waters. Talking with locals about their pandemic experiences was fascinating, but the sea life seemed to have its own story to tell (or sing, in the case of the three humpback whales that joined us during one Hawai'i dive).
Understandably, locals in these destinations have mixed feelings as they welcome back visitors. This is a time to appreciate the chance to dive amazing reefs again, not pull the “but back at home…” card when it comes to local policies and protocols. A little sensitivity goes a long way in making everyone feel safe and happy to be back to bubbling.
Information about COVID restrictions and protocols was accurate at time of publication but subject to change. Check local government websites and the State Department's travel advisory page for the most up-do-date information before traveling. Travelers returning to the Untied States are required to test negative before re-entry.
Here’s what some beloved dive destinations are doing to get visitors back in the water—and how the diving’s changed.
A nurse shark cruises the bottom of a Cozumel reef.
Mexico isn’t singling out the vaccinated for special quarantine-free entry—in fact, it’s not imposing restrictions on any visitors. This relative ease of movement has led to high COVID numbers in some areas, so waiting to head south of the border until you’re fully vaccinated is a good idea not only to protect yourself but everyone else involved too. Continually updated information is available at mexicancaribbean.travel/covid-19.
Traveling to Mexico was, on the surface, the least stressful of trips. There was no potential for a false positive to pop up at immigration, or for picking the wrong PCR option or having labs not come in on time and getting turned away at the boarding gate—because there were no tests required. This led to a different concern, knowing this destination was the one people might come to without precautions. Even with an armful of juice, I used the JetBlue app to move my seat in real time and create my own space on the plane. The flight attendants made protocols clear and enforced them immediately when they were broken, which led to a peaceful flight for all.
The then-once-a-day ferry to the Iberostar Cozumel hotel offered similar organization, with rubber mats filled with antiseptic to step onto in every doorway and a cute COVID-cartoon PSA playing on monitors (which also noted that all ferry employees were checked for symptoms with a pulse oximeter on arrival). Diving with nearby Dressel Divers meant we could stroll right to the dock rather than hop in an enclosed taxi or bus.
We dropped in for our first dive, and the finger channels were rich with vibrant corals. With the lower number of tourists (no cruises!), we took our time to enjoy the nooks and crags and arches to swim through rather than worry about bunching up or inadvertently mixing with another group. We saw more free-swimming eels, green moray and white-spotted, than the previous trip, and the fish life seemed even more abundant than usual with nursery bommies playing home to a variety of mini-me babies and their kin. Several nurse sharks gave us the once-over as they lazily cruised past and the turtles lounged without a care. The second dive offered the classic Cozumel drift where we got to see even more of the healthy Caribbean reef.
“The reefs have improved with the rest they had, and look more healthy and colorful than in a long time,” says Nathalie Cano, of Dressel Divers. “The ferries not coming in definitely had a big impact.”
We capped off our trip at the Riviera Maya. A Dressel Divers shop in Playa del Carmen operated the popular bull shark dive and excursions to freshwater cenotes with shockingly clear, glowing blue underground rivers to explore.
Mild temps around 79 in winter heat up to 84-plus degrees Fahrenheit in summer. Visibility is crystal clear in Cozumel, reaching 120 feet; the Riviera Maya coast averages about 80 feet. Viz in the always 73-degree cenotes is virtually unlimited (when no one is kicking up silt).
A humpback whale swims near the surface of the water.
Visitors coming from any U.S. state or territory with proof of vaccination received within the U.S. and her territories are welcome to the Aloha State. Vaccination records must be uploaded into the Safe Travels before the trip or a hard copy must be presented upon arrival in Hawaii. A pre-travel test is another way to skip the 10-day quarantine, but timing your test in the 72-hour window before the trip could still turn into a nail-biter. Given that this is U.S. state, makes Hawai'i a safe destination should anything go awry and a worthy dream dive getaway for Americans. Continually updated information is available at hawaiicovid19.com/travel.
When my teenage son/dive buddy and I visited in February, we divided our trip between perennial dive favorite Maui and the laid-back, less populated northern Kohala Coast of the Big Island. For a change of pace, we first headed to the Big Island, using the Fairmont Orchid in Puako as home base for topside excursions, such as a pandemic-splurge Paradise Helicopters tour over the bubbling lava caldera of actively erupting Kīlauea, before we got into the diving.
A fair portion of my 3,000-plus lifetime dives took place in Hawai'i, most off Lana'i with Maui Dive Shop, where I earned my PADI Divemaster. Every winter, we’d spend our sunrise trip across the channel to the dramatic Cathedrals caverns dodging humpbacks who had traveled down from Alaska to mate or have babies in these deep, protected waters. Hundreds of dives were accompanied by their songs, but never once did we see the mammoth beauties under the surface. This was the discussion on our way out to Ulua Caverns, a Big Island site with a massive swim-through under the boat mooring that is prone to consistent current, making it a nudibranch lover’s dream. We dropped into the impressive cavern, saying hi to Bob, the resident sponge crab. A number of frilly blue dragon nudibranchs trailed along the shallow shelf leading to a drop-off where ulua trevally and other jacks flashed silver as they darted past. Eyes peeled for frogfish, we admired a whitemouth moray tucked into the crags before making a sweeping turn back toward the boat.
I don’t play the lottery, but I am always a fan of looking into the blue. I turned to do so and hit the big one. Two humpbacks gazed calmly at me as they cruised by a mere 20 yards away. My son was within arm’s reach, so I grabbed his shoulders and spun him around toward the whales and scrambled to alert the others. Turning, I faced the fins of both instructors and 10 divers kicking away, too far to reach in time. With no clanger on hand, I resorted to flailing and yelling through my reg. It was not pretty, but as the divers turned to rescue the deranged wild woman, they spotted the two whales gracefully perform a tandem backflip to come back. As the divers raced over, a third large humpback emerged from the blue to join the others.
I can’t help but attribute this once-in-a-lifetime experience to a renewed sense of curiosity in the wildlife following a dearth of divers over the past year. Rebekah Kaufmann, president of dive operator Kohala Divers, agrees, adding, “It seemed to me the creature who noticed visitors were missing most were the dolphins. They have gotten very accustomed to boats pursuing them. Local fishermen were not doing this during shutdown, so dolphins seem to approach our boats with more interest now.”
If you’re looking for big value with little stress, Maui offers a variety of sites reachable sans multiple entries and flights. And with 3 million fewer tourists pouring in due to early travel restrictions, we noticed improvements in the local reefs and dive sites. From Maui you can shore-dive turtle habitats on the west side or the aquariumlike Mala Boat Ramp with woman-owned Maui Diving Scuba & Snorkel Center; cross your fingers on the back wall of Molokini Crater for whale shark, manta ray or humpback spotting with Maui Dive Shop; tour the famous Lana'i Cathedrals with Lahaina Divers; or hop on a scooter to explore Five Caves/Five Graves with Maui Dreams Dive Co.
Water temps average in the low- to mid-70s in winter and 77 to 80 degrees in summer on Maui and the Big Island. Both have excellent viz, which can top 120 feet.
Tiger and Caribbean reef sharks put on a show for a group of divers in the Bahamas.
The Bahamas has waived all test and quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers with proof of a Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson or AstraZeneca vaccine after the two-week immunity period. Unvaccinated travelers older than 11 must get a negative PCR test within five days prior to arrival, complete daily health questionnaires and retest on the fifth day. Continually updated information is available at bahamas.com/travelupdates.
Baha Mar in Nassau made headlines earlier this year as the only resort to offer a courtesy private jet home for any guest who tests positive for COVID-19. In cheerier news, the adjacent, brand-new 15-acre Baha Bay luxury water park is set to open in July, with over 24 slides and a 500,000-gallon wave pool to occupy any nondivers in the group as the tank-toters head to Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas for premium wreck diving. More than 30 coral-covered sunken vessels surround the island of New Providence, including two famous James Bond film sites often filled with silversides or a lurking Nassau grouper.
November to May is prime natural shark-spotting season, and plenty of shark dives can be had in the Nassau area before flying to another island or picking up a liveaboard. Stuart Cove’s offers a two-tank shark dive. The first, along a reef, does not include shark feeding, but the sharks tag along—they know what is coming on the second dive. That’s when divers can kneel in the sand to watch them feed. Even nondivers can get in on the action at Atlantis Paradise Island Resort, donning helmets to walk along the Mayan Temple shark tank floor.
Waters off New Providence provide drop-offs that are close to shore, blue holes, caves, historical wrecks and shark diving, but venturing to the Abacos, Exumas, Andros or Eleuthera offers endless Bahamian bubble fun.
Average water temps are 80 degrees year-round, with 80- to 100-foot visibility.
A ghost pipefish in the Andaman Sea.
As of July 1, fully vaccinated tourists arriving from the United States in Phuket are not required to quarantine. Starting October 1, fully vaccinated travelers arriving in 10 provinces, including Phuket, Krabi and Chiang Mai, will not have to quarantine. Continually updated information is available at tatnews.org.
Fringe reefs, slices of deep granite wall, caves, tunnels, dramatic drop-offs, coral-covered pinnacles—Phuket, which is acting as a pilot destination for welcoming back tourists, will be as happy to see you as you are to see it. Thailand aims to vaccinate more than 70 percent of its residents by the time Phuket reopens, and to let large pelagics like manta rays, whale sharks and tuna draw back the crowds. If not, tiny macro critters such as seahorses, ghost pipefish and harlequin shrimp might entice divers with a penchant for perusing coral nooks.
Divers come for the boulder formations and thriving coral gardens, and stay for the access to gorgeous out islands in the Andaman Sea. Snorkel or dive trips off Phi Phi and the Similan Islands can be done from the boat, so making landfall isn’t necessary. The season for liveaboard diving in Similan, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai and Richelieu Rock begins in November and ends the first week of May. Limited permits tied to passports are required for some trips, so planning ahead is best. (Starting January 2022, all areas of Thailand are projected to be open to vaccinated visitors.)
“During March and April, Thailand’s hottest period, liveaboard diving in Similan and Surin Islands is the most exciting as the sea temperatures cause plankton blooms,” according to the Crissey Group, which owns Phuket shop All4Diving. “Diving during this period results in encounters with schooling chevron barracuda, giant trevally and reef sharks as well as eagle, marbled and manta rays.”
Water temps average in the low 80s almost year-round, while viz consistently hovers around 80 feet. March and April can bring a drop to both as plankton blooms and the sea cools at depth.
Uninhabited Mamelles Island towers over a granite dive site in the Seychelles.
The Seychelles requires all visitors, vaccinated or not, to provide proof of a negative PCR test taken within the 72 hours leading up to departure, as well as travel health insurance that covers common COVID expenses, including quarantine, isolation and treatment. Vaccinated travelers must also provide proof of vaccination when applying for permission to enter the islands. At time of publication, travelers who have visited South Africa, Brazil, India, Bangladesh Nepal or Pakistan in the past 14 days cannot enter. Continually updated information is available at advisory.seychelles.travel.
This archipelagic country off the eastern African coast comprises 115 scenic islands in the Indian Ocean. Silhouette Island is the third largest of 42 granite isles, home to the Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa and Labriz Dive Center. Silhouette Island, covered by lush jungle, boasts dramatic scenery complete with cloud forest and numerous mountain peaks. The hotel’s seven restaurants serve up catch of the day from local fishing boats, along with traditional Creole specialties. Guests may relax after a dive and big meal in plunge-pool villas tucked into the verdant tropical foliage. (And if you’re traveling with the fam, CampCation and the Little Islanders Program will happily occupy your pre-divers.)
Labriz is right on a protected marine park, offering full access to unspoiled sites. Black Rock’s small cave and granite boulders cascading to the seafloor offer habitat for whitetips and passing pompano or bluefin trevally. Stingrays and lionfish often make an appearance. As with any site bordering the deep blue, keep an eye out for the big ones. In this case, Napoleon wrasse. Several atolls in the Seychelles were deemed prime recovery grounds for this giant endangered fish.
“Since the onset of the pandemic and with Seychelles being affected with less water-based tourism, myself and my colleagues have noticed that more large marine life, such as bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins, are coming in closer to some of our shallow dive sites, which are more inland along the coast of the island,” says Anthony Collins, of Labriz Dive Center. “In depths of 20 to 40 feet, it has been pretty exhilarating to see and hear them underwater during dives. The pod sizes we have seen so far normally range from four to 18 individuals; most of the time calves are present as well.”
Some of the best things to see on a dive here are the large green humphead parrotfish, which can be found in groups of six to 12 on some of the deeper sites, such as Grand Barbe. They are so huge and majestic in the blue, yet sometimes follow divers like docile puppies as they swim along. These one-of-a-kind encounters are what make a trip to the Seychelles most memorable.
Temps range from 77 to 84 degrees October through June and dip to 75 to 77 July through September. Visibility reaches about 100 feet during the calm-sea months of April, May, October and November.
A school of snappers and fusiliers adds a flash of color to an already vibrant reef.
More than 90 percent of tourism front-line workers in the Maldives have been vaccinated, according to the Ministry of Tourism. After briefly closing its borders to those traveling from South Asia, this Indian Ocean archipelago is welcomingboth vaxxed and unvaxxed visitors with proof of a negative PCR test taken within 96 hours of their flight as of July 15. Don’t have a shot yet? Once vaccines have been offered to all local residents, the country intends to roll out a 3V (Visit, Vaccinate, Vacation) tourism plan that will provide inoculations for visitors on-island. Continually updated information is available at tourism.gov.mv/covid19.
A trip to the Maldives had always been the dream. The distance, airfare and tempting luxury digs all added up to putting it off till some vague unknown future event worthy of such a splurge. The pandemic taught many lessons, among them not banking on anything “expected” down the road. I rerouted the funds from my son’s Class of 2020 canceled graduation dive trip to Bali (and canceled graduation party, senior trip and prom costs), took advantage of an Etihad Airways deal, and we went big.
The Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani resorts are splashed across many a social media page for their Wonka-esque two-story waterslide villas, eco-fabulous sustainability and world-class culinary fare. They also happen to be located in prime dive territory: the UNESCO-designated Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve.
“The Maldives is perhaps the most complete diving destination worldwide,” says Thomas Walechi, director of on-site Soleni Dive Center. “Warm waters and good visibility enhance its unique seabeds and reefs. The generosity of nature is still evident in the Maldives. Divers immerse themselves in an enthralling underwater world of about 25 nearby dive sites, and another 15 farther away.”
A few favorites during our trip were Kuda Tila, Kakka Tila and Maa Dhoo Giri. Our journeys to these sites were often sweetened by pods of dolphins, skittering flyingfish and, in one case, a mola mola on the surface. Eagle rays, stingrays, turtles, reef sharks—the variety and pure abundance of reef fish is stunning. Had we arrived with a list, it would have been well checked off. But that is not the Soleni way. “Small groups of four, buoyancy control and respect for underwater creatures are standard practice on every dive. We do not pre-schedule sites. This encourages diving in order to appreciate nature, instead of ‘ticking off’ seen species, which puts stress on animals and distorts the philosophy of diving.”
The everyday stewardship of this piece of paradise means pandemic slowdowns made little difference, but visiting these “COVID-free” private islands like the Before Times made an already unforgettable trip priceless.
More Reefs to See, Quarantine-Free
Looking for more dive destinations open to travelers? Check out what these six locales have to offer, along with safety protocols, requirements for entry and how to get tested before returning home.
“Our healthy population of nurse sharks follow divers like puppies on certain sites,” says Adam Clarke, manager of Dolphin Dive on Little Corn Island.
- COVID Protocols: No official guidelines. Wear a mask and practice social distancing as you would at home.
- Entry Requirements: Negative PCR test within 72 hours of travel.
- Testing: PCR, $150. Available at Hospital Conchita Palacios in Managua.
Bay Islands, Honduras
“Low diver volume and our marine-reserve-fringing reef keep us untouched by tourism,” says Mark Walker, vice president of Clark’s Cay Dive Center at Villa at Dunbar Rock on Guanaja.
- COVID Protocols: Trip insurance is highly recommended to defray the cost of a possible quarantine at $1,000 per week.
- Entry Requirements: Proof of full vaccination, or negative PCR test within 72 hours.
- Testing: PCR tests available at Clark’s Caye. Prices vary for PCR and rapid antigen tests on Roatan and Utila.
“The Great Blue Hole, an aquatic sinkhole Jacques Cousteau named one of the best dives in the world, is one of 70 area sites,” says Michaela Feinstein Simonyan, owner of Blackbird Caye Dive Resort.
- COVID Protocols: Masks are mandatory in public spaces. Distancing measures and capacity limits are in place.
- Entry Requirements: Proof of full vaccination, or a negative PCR test within 96 hours or negative rapid antigen test within 48 hours.
- Testing: Up to $75, PCR and RA tests widely available in nearby San Pedro and at the international airport.
“Our ecosystem has always been very strong and healthy,” says Michael Kucharski, owner of Guanacaste’s Rocket Frog Divers. “The nearby Catalinas offer Pacific giant manta rays (and occasional orca, whale shark and humpback sightings).”
- COVID Protocols: Masks required indoors.
- Entry Requirements: Submission of a health questionnaire in the 72 hours before the trip and travel insurance for $2,000 quarantine and $50,000 medical care. Insurance requirements apply to vaccinated travelers.
- Testing: PCR tests run from $50 to $130. Testing sites are widespread, including inside airports.
“We saw an initial increase in fish and dolphins [with fewer tourists],” says Guillermo Veghazi, of Bocas Dive Center in Bocas del Toro.
- COVID Protocols: Masks required at businesses. Government will cover quarantine at the hospital or a sanitary hotel if visitor tests positive.
- Entry Requirements: Negative PCR or Antigen test within 48 hours or on arrival.
- Testing: Forty-minute PCR test available at Tocumen International Airport for $50.
“Our dive guides report increased marine activity” during the pandemic, says Carlos Zapata, CEO of liveaboard operator Calipso Galapagos Diving.
- COVID Protocols: Masks are required in public. Most tourism workers have already been vaccinated, Zapata says.
- Entry Requirements: Proof of completevaccine or negative PCR test within 72 hours to enter Ecuador; proof of vaccination and a negative PCR or rapid antigen test within 72 hours for the Galapagos.
- Testing: PCR tests at the Galapagos Biosafety Agency ($45).
Safe Travel Tips
Many destinations do not offer wide access to vaccinations or the health care infrastructure to deal with a COVID outbreak among the local population. In the remote settings that often make for the best diving, an onslaught of newcomers can leave residents vulnerable. The best way to give peace of mind and show respect is to continue following COVID protocols such as distancing, mask wearing, and washing or sanitizing hands when asked without complaint. You might be vaccinated, but the boat could also include divers who arrived through testing procedures. It would be stressful for crew to keep everyone compliant if you flout the rules because you believe yourself to be safe.
- Bring your own water and snacks as some boats have nixed refreshments.
- Travel with your own snorkel and reg or wipes to clean rental mouthpieces, and bypass the communal rinse tank.
- Pack a small medical kit for minor maladies to avoid adding to the patient load at the local clinic (and possible COVID exposure or illnesses that could sideline you during temp checks).