Warm, clear water? Check. No currents? Check.
It’s pretty easy to spin the globe and put your finger on a locale delivering confidence-building conditions. But they’re not all equal. Some offer big-animal thrills or wreck encounters right off the bat, and other pack reputations for night life and all-aboard welcome wagons. Here are our picks for the best scuba diving destinations for beginners.
1. Best For Bonus Wrecks: British Virgin Islands
“It’s difficult to find sites deeper than 80 feet here,” says Marcus Lyng, a dive instructor for Cuan Law, a liveaboard based in the British Virgin Islands. Lyng goes on to explain that other than the north coast of Tortola (the main island) and parts of Jost Van Dyke, it’s all fair game for beginners. This underwater real estate couldn’t be more sheltered: Along the Sir Frances Drake Channel, spanning the south shore of Tortola, is a string of seven islands — that’s a lot of protected coastline and reefs. The playing field for beginner divers in the BVI also includes the RMS Rhone, the region’s most famous wreck, as well as the ships of Wreck Alley off Cooper Island. And while that doesn’t mean you’ll perform a regulator recovery while inside the Rhone’s hull, you can easily explore the wreckage during the tour portion of certification dives three and four. “I turn it into an artifact hunt,” says Lyng. As new divers seek out the teaspoon and the lucky porthole, they’re building confidence in wreck environments — and in themselves.
2. Best for Out-of-the-Gate Bonding: Bahamas
Gary Vanhoeck isn’t surprised by all the couples he sees holding hands on the dive boats of Stuart Cove’s operation on Nassau. “I got into this to dive with my wife,” he says. The pair is on staff together at Stuart Cove’s, where they enjoy warm, clear water with visibility averaging 80 feet.
The conditions are so reliable that Vanhoeck says he often meets folks who have tried to get certified elsewhere and gave up. Most recently, he certified a wife who had just returned with her husband from a botched dive trip in South America, where visibility proved too frustrating. “She hated it because she couldn’t see,” he says. Vanhoeck knew the Bahamas would be just the ticket to make the dive experience a happy one — so much so he’s willing to bet that diving the Bahamas might very well soon replace couples counseling.
3. Best Bang for Your Baht: Thailand
It’s not just the U.S.-favorable exchange rate that makes Thailand an obvious choice for getting certified. Scuba class costs are driven down even further on islands like Koh Tao because of the concentration of dive centers. This bubble hub has more than 50 operators on a roughly 12-square-mile patch. It’s simple supply and demand: You can get two certifications on Koh Tao for the price of one elsewhere — which is what most divers end up doing. “It’s common for people to finish their open water and immediately start an advanced course,” says Andrea Warren, an instructor at Buddha View Dive Resort. The Canadian was backpacking with friends when she found the island, a dive center, and soon, a new career choice.
4. Best for Reef-Critter Distractions: St. John
You must be able to clear a flooded mask to get certified. “It can be frightening — it assaults one of your senses,” says Ann Marie Estes, owner of Low Key Watersports on St. John. Recently, a family of four came to the dive shop, ready to get certified all together. But the wife couldn’t complete the mask drill, panicking when water hit her eyes and nose. “Back on the surface, she looked so sad,” Estes says. “We asked if she’d be OK if separated from her family for a bit, then gave her one-on-one instruction.” The dive group of two headed to Lovango Cay, one of Estes’ favorites, which starts in 6 feet of water. The wife submerged to find her instructor pointing out a southern stingray and, minutes later, an octopus. “She was so distracted, she lost all that fear — seeing the incredible animals put her in the moment.” Estes says that the woman then completed the skill set right away. “You could just see how excited she was,” says Estes. “She didn’t want to not be part of the experience.” divelowkey.com
5. Best for Training-Day Animal Encounters: Key Largo, Florida
“One of the nice things about instructing here is that we’re able to go to our best reefs with our students,” says Rob Haff, scuba instructor and owner of Sea Dwellers Dive Center in Key Largo, Florida. The destination’s sites largely fall within the 25- to 40-foot depth range in waters free of currents. Haff’s favorite target for training dives is Molasses Reef, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. “It’s hard to beat,” he says of the area, rich with goliath grouper, snapper, tarpon and snook. “I was in a sandy area with students when a loggerhead turtle came lumbering up.” Haff reports that the turtle wove between the students, staying a few feet away, for the next 25 minutes. “The students were in awe — that was their first dive ever.” He’s also taken new divers to French Reef and had a school of eight eagle rays glide slowly past the first-timers. “The students think we see that all the time,” says Haff, who has been teaching scuba in Key Largo for 21 years. For him, the hardest part of the certification process is explaining that encounters like that happen a lot — but not every day. seadwellers.com
6. Best for Learning Focus: Maui
If you have ADD, Maui is a challenging place to get certified. Green turtles are so numerous that it’s always been part of the predive talk to remind everyone — newbies and otherwise — that touching these charismatic creatures isn’t just poor form, it’s illegal in the 50th state. But Steve Juarez, instructor and one of the owners of Dive Maui, knows the temptation can often prove too great.
He’s had students reach for their mask to start the flood-and-clear drill, but instead, start swimming over his head. Juarez is a patient man. Grabbing them by tank, weight belt or whatever else, he pulls them back in line. “It’s sensory overload here in Hawaii with the corals and turtles, so I understand that the hardest thing for students is to concentrate,” he says. He has also certified students in California, where there wasn’t much to see beyond sand, so the process proved quicker. In Hawaii, mid-dive, he wags a finger and pencils a note: skills first, tour second. Back on the boat, Juarez talks conservation. Learning to clear a mask is good, but better is the lesson in protecting that which we’ll love for a lifetime. goscubadivemaui.com
7. Best for Racking Up Big-Animal Gratification: Heron Island, Australia
“Diving here is super, super easy, but we don’t tend to certify a lot of people,” says Stü Ecob, instructor at Heron Island Resort. The coral cay off the Queensland coast of Australia is better known as a nesting site for green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles. “I’ve seen 50 turtles in an hour,” says Ecob — though he wasn’t on scuba at the time, but in the resort’s semisubmersible. Still, this concentration of wildlife might make it too difficult to do much beyond staring. Luckily, conditions accommodate that, offering drift diving at lazy-river speeds. “You don’t have to swim too hard,” says Ecob, “and you don’t have to worry about navigation either — the reef is always on one side of you.” Each dive tends to include at least four turtles, plus quite a few potato cod, mantas, and lemon and gray reef sharks. He adds, “If you’re a newbie diver, you likely won’t have a better dive like this in your life — you’ll see many animals that it takes other divers years to see.” heronisland.com
8. Best Front-Yard Training Grounds: Bonaire
“Shore diving is Bonaire’s main attraction, but so many new divers are afraid of going out on their own,” says Augusto Montbrun, scuba operations manager at Buddy Dive Resort. Every week, Montbrun tells resort arrivals that a house-reef checkout dive is required before they can board the boats bound for offshore island Klein Bonaire.
Sometimes panicked faces stare back. “If they go straight to shore diving, it may not work,” he says of these folks. Montbrun encourages them to log more time on the house reef. As part of the prep talk, he explains natural navigation, how to find mooring lines, and where the weirder critters, like frogfish and seahorses, reside. “The minute they enter the water and see it’s a swimming pool filled with fish, everything changes,” he says. “They pop out, grab a tank, and go right back out.” And when they do, even the way they enter the water has changed. The resort offers three options for entry: shore, ladder and giant-stride. Montbrun has seen many people swear off a giant-stride — then, still wet from that first dive, opt to start their second with a jump from one of the resort’s two piers. “Poco, poco, these conditions build confidence.” buddydive.com
9. Best Après-Dive Scene Utila
Roughly 200,000 newbies a year earn C-cards on Utila, one of Honduras’ Bay Islands. Its main street stretches no more than seven Manhattan blocks, but it’s enough to contain six PADI IDC centers. There’s traffic here all right, but it doesn’t run on gas. Credit the backpackers for keeping the place hopping and the prices low. “When I first came here in 2001, you could get certified for $200,” says Adam Laverty, dive instructor at Laguna Beach Resort. In the past decade, the price has increased by roughly $100, but the scene hasn’t changed much, he says. “Most dive shops have their own social activities going on, like barbecues, and then everybody goes to the bars together at 9 p.m.” And when he says everybody, he means everybody, adding that if you’re connected to the shop at all, you’re included. “Young, old, gay, straight — every- one is part of the family, made to feel welcome.” So much so that it’s a party many visitors hate to leave — and thus never do. “A lot of people come just to get certified, but end up staying here, going on through to become instructors. I’ve been here 12 years with no plans to leave.” utilalodge.com
10. Best for Building Multitasking Confidence: Grand Cayman
It might seem easy to write off Grand Cayman as a destination best left to advanced divers thanks to its legendary wall — but that would mean overlooking the 20-some sites on the West End alone that max out at 60 feet or shallower. It could also mean you’re selling yourself short. Tahvo Laukkanen, instructor at Sunset Divers, reminds his just-certified charges that wall diving isn’t a prize earned by jumping through specific hoops, but rather an experience available to all who deem themselves ready. PADI recommends that open-water-certified divers limit depths to 60 feet, and on Grand Cayman, the wall starts at 50 feet in many areas. There, the sheer drop-off is punctuated with tunnels and narrow sand-lined slits that create mini buoyancy-obstacle courses. Laukkanen never pushes, but reminds new divers that he won’t always be a part of their future plans, and that challenges are an integral step toward independence. After they exit a swim-through, he says, “You always see smiles behind the regulators.” sunsethouse.com