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The Ultimate Guide to Jacques Cousteau's Favorite Dive Sites

Follow the bubble trail of this scuba diving heavyweight at the sites he made famous.
By Alexandra Gillespie | Updated On June 7, 2021
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The Ultimate Guide to Jacques Cousteau's Favorite Dive Sites

Long before travel influencers crowded Instagram, Jacques Cousteau inspired thousands of globe-trotters through his famous ocean exploration documentaries. A recommendation from this underwater pioneer continues to carry weight even decades later—sites he discovered or praised over 50 years ago remain diving meccas, from Mexico to Thailand.

Here’s how to experience the places that impressed even the biggest name in diving.

1. Sipadan, Malaysia

How Cousteau put it on the map: In his 1989 film Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle, Cousteau said, “I have seen other places like Sipadan 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art.”

What makes the diving special: Over 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral have been identified near the island, which boasts gorgeous drift diving. The volcanic island’s menagerie includes sea turtles, massive schools of barracuda and tuna, manta and eagle rays, and hammerhead and whale sharks. Divers have several sites to choose from, including Turtle Cave, White Tip Avenue and Barracuda Point.

What to know about diving here: Sipadan is a protected island, so you cannot stay there and need a government-issued permit to dive. The government issues permits to dive shops and resorts on nearby islands, such as Mabul or Kapala, and divers work with these businesses to obtain a Sipadan diving permit. Take note that only 176 permits are issued a day, so dive access is not guaranteed. It is recommended divers secure a permit before arrival to ensure a smooth trip. Booking far in advance, a longer stay, and going off-season up your chance of securing access. Sipadan is about a 15-minute boat ride from nearby island resorts. Diving hours are limited from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., so night diving is not permitted, and advanced and drift diving certifications are recommended because of the currents.

Best time to go: The weather and diving in Sipadan are generally great year-round, so the best time depends on what dive experience you want. The currents are strongest between January and March, while turtle nesting and the highest viz are found here from May to August.

2. The Great Blue Hole, Belize

How Cousteau put it on the map: Cousteau declared this site one of the top 10 in the world after he first dived the site in 1971, which was featured in his series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

What makes the diving special: The atypical geology of the underwater sinkhole makes the site unique. The Great Blue Hole is 984 feet across and 407 feet deep, meaning Big Ben could sit in it entirely submerged. It initially formed as a cave system above sea level during the last ice age. Collapsing as the ocean rose during the ice melt, it took the shape that divers around the world marvel at today. Delving below the famously azure surface, divers can explore stalagmites and stalactites looming up to 40 feet long.

What to know about diving here: Underwater rock formations are what divers note about this experience, not animal encounters or decadent reefs. Though divers may spot the occasional shark hanging out in the hole, the focus is the topography. It takes two hours to reach Lighthouse Reef, home of the Great Blue Hole, from Belize City. An advanced diving certification is required to reach the stalactites and stalagmites, which start at a depth of 130 feet.

Best time to go: Belize offers great dive conditions year-round, though March to December is when conditions are ideal for marine life. It is also worth noting the rainy season in Belize is April to October.

3. The Sea of Cortez, Mexico

How Cousteau put it on the map: Cousteau considered the Sea of Cortez, now known as the Gulf of California, as “the world’s aquarium.”

What makes the diving special: This skinny swath of ocean is a cornucopia of animal encounters. Head to Isla San Pedro for hammerheads and Los Islotes to swim with sea lions. Divers may encounter whale sharks in the fall, and winter brings the opportunity to swim with humpbacks, sperm whales, rays and mobulas.

What to know about diving here: Given this is such a large area, there are dives to cater to every experience level. Beginners can check out Cabo Pulmo, La Paz, Los Cabos. For explorers with a few more dives under their weight belt, the Midriff Islands, El Bajo or Gordo Banks are worth a visit.

When to go: This site is a balancing act. Water is warmest August to November, so it is a popular time for liveaboards and hammerhead shark sightings. It is also the rainy season, so trip prices tend to decrease. The water cools down from December to March, making it prime time for spying animals like octopuses, whales and sea lions. The water temperature drop coincides with summer in Mexico, making it the high tourism season—and raising prices.

4. SS Thistlegorm, Red Sea, Egypt

How Cousteau put it on the map: This World War II gravesite was forgotten by all but local fishermen until Cousteau featured the site in The Living Sea, The Silent World in the 1950s.

What makes the diving special: German air bombers sunk SS Thistlegorm in 1941 off the coast of Egypt. Most of the cargo survived, making the site a gold mine of WWII artifacts—motorcycles, guns, trucks, airplane parts and more. Over the decades, a bustling artificial reef developed on the wreck. Animals spotted by divers here include lionfish, hawksbill turtles, morays, barracuda and crocodilefish.

What to know about diving here: Liveaboards are the most common way to dive the Red Sea given the region’s limited scuba infrastructure. This site is a minimum three-hour boat ride from the shore if you’re not visiting via liveaboard. The Thistlegorm is an incredibly popular dive site, seeing over 200 divers a day. Such high traffic means two things: It’s best to do this dive early in the day to mitigate crowds, and the site has begun to degrade from overtourism. Conservation efforts are underway to slow the deterioration. The wreck rests at 100 feet and the area’s current can be strong, so an advanced diving certification and at least 20 dives is recommended. Nitrox certification is useful, but not required.

When to go: March to May and September to November are the best times to visit given the moderate air and water temperatures. Ideal conditions make this the busy season for li*veaboards, so going off-season may provide less crowded waters.

5. Vancouver Island, Canada

How Cousteau put it on the map: Vancouver Island has “the best temperate-water diving in the world and second only to the Red Sea,” in Cousteau’s opinion.

What makes the diving special: The current-fed waters are rich in plankton, drawing a dazzling diversity of ocean life, including giant Pacific octopuses, sea stars, anemones, rockfish and sponges. Underwater photographers love this island because of the rich array of colors and subjects they can capture in one place.

What to know about diving here: With more than 2000 miles of shoreline, the island offers scores of diving options. One of the most noted is Browning Pass Wall, which is covered in corals and anemones. Canadian waters are cold, so divers need a drysuit certification. A dive light is also recommended to retain sites’ stunning colors as you descend. Vancouver Island is best reached from a car ferry leaving from nearby Vancouver on the Canadian mainland. Transportation from there depends on which site(s) you plan on exploring.

When to go: The waters of Vancouver Island are easiest to access in the summer months, when the weather is warmer and the skies clear.

6. Cozumel, Mexico

How Cousteau put it on the map: In the early 1960s, Cousteau said, “Cozumel is one of the best places around the world for diving, thanks to its fantastic visibility and its wonderful marine life.” Schools of divers have migrated to the region consistently ever since.

What makes the diving special: This seascape is famous for its relaxing drift dives through flourishing reefs. Over 25 kinds of coral and over 500 species of fish call these waters home, including several endemic species like the splendid toadfish.

What to know about diving here: Cozumel is an island off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, so you need to take a ferry from Playa del Carmen on the mainland to get there. Divers can stay on Cozumel itself, or make it a day trip. The marine park around Cozumel houses a large number of dive sites, making this site accessible for divers of any level, but a drift diving certification may be useful.

When to go: Cozumel has great diving conditions all year. December to April is generally the most popular time to visit Mexico given its warm winter weather. From May through November, however, the waters are even warmer, the crowds smaller and the prices lower—but note that hurricane season runs from June through November, and historically the chance of a hurricane is strongest from August through October.

##7. Richelieu Rock, Andaman Sea, Thailand

How Cousteau put it on the map: Exactly where the name “Richelieu Rock” came from is disputed, with one version of the story saying Cousteau named the red coral-laiden rock for the famous red robes and hats of 17th-century Cardinal Richelieu. Others say it is more likely named after Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu, the only non-Thai commander in chief of the Royal Thai Navy. Whether or not Cousteau christened this midocean site, the popular conception draws intrepid travelers here year in and year out.

What makes the diving special: Festooned in life, this rock crop is an underwater photographer's amusement park. Nudibranchs, seahorses, shrimp and moray eels all flock to the coral-coated rock. Pelagic animals also frequent the area since the arched formation is a considerable distance from the shore. It is considered one of the best places in Thailand to encounter manta rays and whale sharks.

What to know about diving here: Richelieu Rock is part of the Mu Koh Surin marine park, which is open every year from October 15 to May 15, and closed the rest of the year for the wet season. There is a nominal fee to enter the park, which is usually wrapped into the price of an organized dive trip. Day trips to the rock are available, but most divers opt for liveaboards that include a stop at Richelieu. The formation goes as deep as 115 feet, so an advanced diving certification will give you more access to the site.

When to go: The park is open 24/7 from mid-October to mid-May, when the weather in Thailand is generally hot and dry. The peak whale shark spotting season in the area is from February to April.