Best Scuba Diving Destinations: Shore Diving
Bonaire has an unbroken string of No. 1 titles in our annual “Top 100 Readers’ Choice Awards” that dates back to 1994. And no wonder — all you have to do is rent a truck, load it with tanks and pull off at any of the yellow-painted stones that mark dozens of sites, most of them along Bonaire’s leeward west coast. After suiting up, you’ll wade into water as calm and clear as the swimming pool at the YMCA. At southern sites like Alice in Wonderland, Pink Beach and Invisibles, the beaches continue under water in a sandy plain that gradually reaches 30 feet in depth. Beyond, the reef slopes down to a sand bottom at about 130 to 150 feet. Even making a shore dive on Bonaire’s most popular wreck, the 235-foot-long Hilma Hooker, is an easy affair. Diving locations clustered on the northern and southern tips of the west coast — among them, Willemstoren Lighthouse and Red Slave Huts to the south and Boca Bartol and Playa Benge to the north—are subject to more current, so entries and exits are trickier. On every site on the island, which enjoys strictly enforced marine park protection, you’ll find abundant grunts, yellowtail snappers, angelfish, parrotfishes, rock beauties, squirrelfish and butterflyfish, and dense stands of corals and gorgonians.
2. Oahu, Hawaii
Surfers and honeymooners aren’t the only people drawn to Oahu’s scenic coastline — warm, cobalt-blue water and easy diving off the island’s southern end attract shore divers too. Surface conditions are almost always calm, and vis runs in the 80- to 100-foot range at Hanauma Bay, on the island’s southern end. This scenic bay is popular with snorkelers and swimmers, especially on the Inside Reef. Find the passage through this reef line to get to the Outside Reef, which offers better vis and fewer snorkelers. On the southwest side of the bay, Witch’s Brew features a coral garden in front of a small peninsula. The site gets its name from wave action and currents, so divers need some experience to enter and exit here. In winter, the island’s north shore is pounded by huge swells and isn’t diveable, but during the summer months, shore divers take advantage of calmer conditions and explore the caverns at Shark’s Cove and the spectacular lava seascape at Three Tables.
With outstanding reefs close to shore and a conservation-minded marine park authority, it’s no surprise to find Curaçao on this list. The island offers shore divers numerous beach-accessible sites from its southwestern coast. A shallow shelf leads to Oswaldo’s Drop-off, only a few minutes swim from shore. Piles of varied corals make Oswaldo’s an interesting dive, and the site is jammed with blue chromis, yellowtail snappers and sergeant majors. Divers find easy entries and exits at Janthiel Baai. The drop-off is similar to other sites off the island, with lots of star coral, gorgonians, sponges and wire coral. Near the island’s northwest tip lies a well-sheltered cove, Playa Kalki (also known as Alice in Wonderland), which features gentle slopes to deeper water. It’s possible to dive the Superior Producer, Curaçao’s signature wreck, from shore, but you’ll need calm weather conditions because of its exposed location outside Willemstad’s bustling harbor.
4. Orange County, Southern California
There’s plenty of shore diving all along the Golden State’s Pacific coastline, but we decided to focus on the O.C. Laguna Beach has at least a dozen sites perfect for shore diving and snorkeling, with average depths of 20 to 50 feet. The underwater portfolio includes the mini-wall reefs of Diver’s Cove and Mermaid’s Grotto in Fisherman’s Cove, and if you’re good on air, you can do both on a single tank. Look for garibaldi and spiny lobsters. Crescent Bay’s Seal Rock is a nearshore site where divers can interact with juvenile sea lions. The eastern side of Little Corona, a marine reserve in Corona del Mar State Beach, offers a productive reef system that is located about 100 yards out from the cliff overlooking the beach. A successful kelp restoration project here in the 1990s has made this a dynamic place to dive. The kelp shelters garibaldi, opaleyes and seniorita wrasse.
We can only begin to scratch the surface in writing about the shore-diving possibilities of this vast island nation; we have the same dilemma when Indonesia is included on any Top 10 list. The Tulamben region of East Bali offers excellent shore diving, including the World War II supply ship Liberty, which is only a two-minute swim from the beach. Though the vessel is not intact, it is one of Indonesia’s most stunning artificial reefs, coated in corals, sea fans and enormous barrel sponges. Shore divers get lots of bottom time in the shallow waters of Secret Bay, off western Bali near Gilimanuk. All the critters that Indonesia is famed for can be found here: camouflaged pipefish, juvenile lionfish, batfish, weedy scorpionfish and, during night dives, mandarinfish, mimic octopuses and frogfish.
6. Maui, Hawaii
Though Hawaiian reefs are not as densely packed with coral as those found in the Caribbean and other areas of the Pacific, the variety of tropical fish species are found here, including ornate butterflyfish, Potter’s angelfish and porcupinefish, will not disappoint divers. Off Maui, top-notch shore diving is found along the leeward western coast. Both sides of sheltered Honolua Bay, on the island’s westernmost tip, feature well-developed coral reefs that are separated by a sand bottom. About two miles north of Lahaina, Ka’anapali Beach offers easy access to Black Rock, a craggy, lava peninsula that reaches several hundred feet from shore. You have a good chance of spotting sea turtles here.
7. U.S. Virgin Islands
St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas, the trio of islands making up the U.S. Virgin Islands, are renowned for their postcard-perfect sand beaches, which are often the ideal locations for divers to wade in and access reefs only a short distance away. Off St. Croix’s north side, Cane Bay Beach offers a spectacular coral- and sponge-coated wall and clouds of tropical reef fish about a 100-yard paddle from the boat ramp. St. John’s Trunk Bay is an excellent shore dive, though it’s also popular with the cruise ship crowd. For a quieter, more secluded spot, try Flanagan’s Cay off the island’s southeastern coast. Off St. Thomas’s east end, Coki Beach offers a fringing reef and aquarium-like conditions for reef fish like yellowtail snappers, blue tangs and parrotfish less than 100 yards from shore.
8. Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras
With the fringing reefs off Roatan only a 300-yard swim from shore, many of the island’s resorts offer 24/7 diving on reefs just a few fin kicks from their docks. It’s a leisurely swim to the Prince Albert, a 140-foot-long island freighter located in CoCo View Resort’s “Front Yard,” on Roatan’s south-central coast. Just east of the Bay Islands Beach Resort is Spooky Channel, a huge, otherwordly tunnel in the reef that begins off Sunnyside pier and bottoms out at about 95 feet. Anthony’s Key Resort’s house reef is packed with blue tangs, parrotfish, angelfish and damselfish.
9. Grand Cayman
Though many of Grand Cayman’s famed reefs and walls can be reached only by boat, there are a number of beach-accessible gems to explore. On the island’s west end is Eden Rock and Devil’s Grotto, a maze of grottoes and caverns where schools of silversides and silver tarpon hang out. It’s a long swim — about 150 yards — but well worth it to reach Babylon, just east of Old Man Bay on Grand Cayman’s East End. It’s best to paddle out to the buoy and then drop down on the wall. Be sure to also check out the shore dives available at Sunset House, Cobalt Coast Resort and Lighthouse Point with Divetech.
This island nation has more than 7,000 islands and an endless list of great shore-diving sites. For starters, it’s an easy swim from the beach to Coral Garden off Mindoro Island’s Sabang Beach; look for immature white-tip reef sharks, surgeonfish, triggerfish and moray eels. Smack in the middle of the Philippines is the Visayas, a group of islands including tiny Mactan off Cebu Island, where many of the resorts offer shore diving on house reefs. Bas Diot, off western Cebu, is a stairstep drop-off that is home to clownfish, lionfish and anthias.