The 25 Best Freshwater Dive Sites | Scuba Diving

The 25 Best Freshwater Dive Sites

Our Favorite Lakes, Rivers and Caves for Diving

How clear can we make it? Freshen up your dive locations. We think you'll find these freshwater experiences — including Crystal River, Florida; Lake Lyngstoylvatnet, Norway; Shicheng City, China, Silfra, Iceland; Tobermory, Ontario, Canada; and Pet Cemetery, Playa del Carmen, Mexico — offer an exhilarating change of pace.

Lake Kaindy, Kazakhstan

scuba diving Kazakhstan

Lake Kaindy, Kazakhstan

Valeriy Pak

The algae-draped submerged trees of Kazakhstan’s Lake Kaindy create a surreal mood befitting a fanciful Dr. Seuss book or an eerie haunted house. The electric-green color of the sunken forest is whimsical, yet the way the algae hang is reminiscent of the ethereal gauze of ghosts. Make trip arrangements with the Dolphin Dive Club.

Capo D’Acqua, Italy

freshwater scuba diving in Capo D’Acqua, Italy

Capo D’Acqua, Italy

Franco Banfi

This lake that swallowed the remains of two mills and a village constructed in the Middle Ages is privately owned, which means you need permission and a guide. The nearby Atlantide Divers School offers both, plus a hearty farm lunch after the morning dives.

Tobermory, Ontario, Canada

scuba diving Ontario, Canada

Tobermory, Ontario, Canada

Rolf Hicker/Age Fotostock

“If you’re used to diving salt water, you’re used to asking, ‘Now what is that?’” says Lynn Graham, former owner of Divers Den in Tobermory, a town four hours by car north of Toronto. Graham is referring to how quickly marine corals, sponges and algae knit man-made vessels into an unrecognizable organic patchwork.In the cold waters off Tobermory, little life gathers on downed ships, not even zebra mussels. “Here you can tell what is what — you get an appreciation for all they had to do to get these to sail,” says Graham. “These” are the hundreds of wooden schooners scattered throughout the Great Lakes; the best example in Tobermory is Arabia, a 132-foot sailing barque. Lake Huron’s chilly water — even colder around the mud bottom at 120 feet — helps preserve wooden vessels like the Arabia. The ship’s bow is intact, with a bowsprit and two anchors still in their cradles.

When to Go: The water is most comfortable July through October.

Operator: Divers Den has five dive boats.

Price Tag: The boat trip costs $68 plus tax.

Negro River, Brazil

scuba diving the negro river in Brazil

Negro River, Brazil

Brandon Cole

In Brazil — in Manaus, a town once called “the heart of the Amazon” — find the pink, freshwater dolphins of Negro River, one of the world’s four nonmarine species. They’re unusual for having Big-Bird-like beaks and a boxy shape.

Andros Island, Bahamas

scuba diving Andros Island, Bahamas

Andros Island, Bahamas

Courtesy Small Hope Bay Lodge

Maybe it’s cheating to include the inland blue holes of Andros since the fresh water sits atop denser ocean water. You’ll slip though a halocline and encounter grottoes, stalactites and trees with roots fingering through the fresh water.

Shicheng City, China

scuba diving china

Shicheng City, China

Leigh Chen

Shicheng City became China’s Atlantis, lost in 1959 when the government flooded the Xin’an River for hydropower. Fresh water ran through Han Dynasty-era archways, gates, homes and statues, creating 220-square-mile Qiandao Lake — and a modern legend. News of its existence reached Leigh Chen in 2008 (local divers had discovered it in 2001). The co-owner of the Shanghai-based Big Blue Diving loves exploring the lake, located about five hours west by car from China’s largest city. “The archway is the highlight because it is still standing, and the carvings are still on it,” says Chen of the dragons, lions and other animals embedded in the designs. The city’s survival is impressive, given that it was built in 200 A.D.

When to Go: The lake is 53 degrees F year-round.

Operator: Big Blue Diving offers weekend trips to the Qiandao Lake area.

Price Tag: The three-day trip costs $538.

Pet Cemetery, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

scuba diving playa del carmen, mexico

Pet Cemetery, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Vlada Dekina

“These animals have all disappeared from Mexico,” says Vincent Rouquette Cathala, PADI IDC staff instructor for Phocea Dive Center, of the species that once trod the floor of a cavern called Pet Cemetery, located an hour south by car from Playa del Carmen. “You find animal bones from the last Ice Age — camels and horses.” The artifacts are only one reason Cathala names this site as his favorite cenote among those accessible to those without full cave training. “Everything is so white — the stalactites and stalagmites — that it looks like it’s from space, not made by nature,” Cathala says. The shallow cavern has a maximum depth of about 20 feet, but Phocea Mexico takes only advanced divers because the formations are so delicate — pinpoint buoyancy skills are a must to keep from brushing against them.

When to Go: Year-round — cenotes are not subject to weather.

Operator: Playa del Carmen-based Phocea Mexico dives a variety of cenotes daily.

Price Tag: Phocea Mexico charges $115 for two cenote dives.

Lake Tahoe, Nevada

scuba diving Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Steve Shuey/Alamy

For the best diving in Nevada, put in at Lake Tahoe’s Incline Village and the Sand Harbor Recreation Area — the visibility is 100 feet and beyond. Other highlights include massive boulders, crawdads and the occasional school of rainbow trout. Dive deeper to find a barge and fallen trees.

Lake Baikal, Russia

scuba diving Lake Baikal, Russia

Lake Baikal, Russia

Olga Kamenskaya

It’s big enough to be an inland sea — and it has seals. The world’s deepest and oldest lake, explored by Jacques Cousteau, holds sponge gardens, walls, canyons and train tracks. Overall, its sites and attractions are enough to support several live-aboard dive boats. Note that the sights are impressive, but the visibility often isn’t.

Crystal River, Florida

scuba diving Crystal River, Florida

Crystal River, Florida

Alexander Mustard

They’re the pandas of the oceans: Nobody argues the cute factor of manatees, but they’re also quite intelligent. “If you ever film them and watch the footage on fast forward, you’ll see that everything they are doing is on purpose, and they have clear patterns,” says marine biologist and photographer Alex Mustard. The Crystal River area north of Tampa, Florida, is a hot spot — literally — for these half-ton mammals. Manatees feed here year-round, but only when winter temperatures turn brisk are they reliably found cozying up to springs such as Three Sisters for the warmer water. By law, the encounters are snorkel only, but the usually calm animals are often curious. “You go to see them, and it’s like visiting a Zen temple,” says Mustard. “They do everything slowly — it’s very peaceful.”

When to Go: The best time is just after a winter cold snap.

Operator: American Pro Diving Center runs tours to both the Homosassa and Crystal rivers.

Price Tag: The Homosassa trip costs $59.50, and includes snorkel gear and wetsuit rental.

Silfra Fissure, Iceland

Silfra Fissure

Silfra Fissure, Iceland

Byron Conroy

Silfra Fissure's “Big Crack" is where you can place one hand on the Eurasian tectonic plate, the other on that of North America. Dive Iceland offers day tours from Reykjavik to the tundra of Thingvellir National Park, 31 miles east of the capital. A small staging-area platform leads to the narrow underwater corridor with three major hollows: Silfra Hall, Silfra Cathedral and Silfra Lagoon. The water is 39.2 degrees F at its warmest. In between the jagged rock walls, the glacier-fed water unfurls visibility, stretching to 330 feet by Hossi Elefsen’s estimates. Says the Dive Iceland instructor, “This visibility gives you the feeling of floating in outer space like an astronaut.”

When to Go: Year-round

Operator: Dive Iceland is a PADI Five Star Dive Center in Reykjavik, offering day trips to nearby attractions, including Silfra.

Price Tag: The day trip to Silfra costs $295, and includes transportation, equipment, park fees and a guide.

scuba diving iceland

Nesgja, Silfra's Little Sister in the North of Iceland

Nesgja is Silfra's little sister in the north of Iceland.

Alexander Mustard

Lake Lyngstøylvatnet, Norway

scuba diving norway

Lake Lyngstøylvatnet, Norway

Christian Skauge

A spring avalanche in the western mountains of Norway sent boulders down the valley of Norangsdal, damming the river. And so in 1908, Lake Lyngstøylvatnet, four hours north of Bergen by car, was born. Fortunately, the hundred or so farm residents of the summer village hadn’t returned yet for the season, but the stone walls, homes and fieldstone bridges instantly became a dive site — one that Svein Wollstad has been diving since 1983. Wollstad is the owner of Ålesund Dykkersenter, a dive center in the city of Holmestrand, south of Oslo. He enjoys the site for the scenes he imagines while swimming. “I look — there’s a goat, there are people,” he says. “I imagine how hard this life was. There’s a magic to swimming here. I feel something different every time.”

When to Go: Wollstad prefers the visibility of the mountain lake just after the ice of winter has melted, but summer is a more popular time to go. Says Wollstad, “In summer, algae grow on the trees.”

Operator: Ålesund Dykkersenter offers a day trip to the region that includes two shore dives.

Price Tag: The day trip costs $273.

More Freshwater Dive Sites

wreck diving

More Freshwater Dive Sites

Jo-Ann Wilkins

Niagara River, Ontario You won’t go over the famous falls, we promise. Start near Fort Erie, Ontario, and be ready for 5-knot currents, 40-foot visibility, and encounters with walleye, sturgeon and pike. The site is about three-and-a-half hours north of Cleveland.

Piccaninnie Ponds, South Australia The excitement starts when you enter the “gash in the Earth,” as Darren Walters, owner of Mount Gambier-based Blue Lake Diving Center, calls the narrow opening that leads to interior rooms. You must have cavern or cave experience to explore the white limestone walls of the cathedral and beyond. Contact Walters at 61-408-845-511.

Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming Diving in this national treasure seems equal parts dare and pleasure. At West Thumb Geyser Basin — accessed by boat — you can get as close to the attraction as common sense allows. No boat? Try Firehole River, which empties into Yellowstone Lake. Parks/yeLL.html

scuba diving with manatees

Freshwater scuba diving with manatees.

Alexander Mustard

River Verzasca, Switzerland In southernmost Switzerland is this fast-moving, gin-clear ride known for smooth, unusual rock formations. This is an advanced adventure best explored in the summer months. You will need a guide, as there are waterfalls and other hazards. The sandy bottom is never deeper than 30 feet, and the water temperature is 50 degrees F at its warmest.

Cooper River, South Carolina It’s dark, and you have to time your dive with the tides, but this river outside Charleston continually churns up and carves out prehistoric-shark teeth and other relics; dive this area year-round.

Kingston, Ontario This is one of the more wreck-centric stops along the St. Lawrence River, where you’ll find the PS Comet, a 174-foot twin-paddle-wheel steamer in 80 feet of water.

freshwater scuba diving

More Freshwater Dive Sites

Tobias Friedrich

Lake Walchensee, Germany Stories from this lake 47 miles south of Munich tell of giant catfish and a sunken pot of gold. What’s confirmed are the submerged World War II aircraft, boats, cars and more. It’s a pristine mountain lake where char, whitefish, pike, burbot and perch thrive — if you do see the catfish that’s grown to mythical proportions, take its picture.

Lake Attersee, Austria Highlights of this lake near Salzburg include impressive visibility, an underwater mountain, and a submerged forest where pike, brown trout, eels, carp, and perch have replaced squirrels and birds. Its 30 sites cater to all experience levels; those with technical training can also explore a U-boat.

Lost Villages of Cornwall, Ontario Even the name is haunting: The Lost Villages of Cornwall is a flooded section of communities, including a power plant that became part of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1958. Ron MacDonald, owner of Ron’s Scuba Shop, can give you directions to Lock 21 — the only shore dive — or take you via boat to more-popular sites such as the Mille Roches Power House. Ron’s Scuba Shop, 613-933-1362

Lake Jocassee, South Carolina Take a scuba dip here to see a Civil War graveyard and the Mount Carmel Church. Note that the water level varies: The church sits between 140 and 160 feet. Keep exploring, and you can also swim among the trees in a submerged forest.