Winter is coming, so break out the scuba gear and head south.
Almost one in 10 North Americans planning a vacation want to include diving and snorkeling, according to a
survey released earlier this year. But the decision to swap a board meeting for a reef dive is the easy part of the vacation. The hard part is deciding where to go.
Hurricanes, coral disease and too much tourism have turned many Caribbean reefs into algae-covered aquarium rubble. As an island becomes known for diving, it attracts more tourists and development, which can hurt coral reefs. Toss in warmer water, which plays havoc on reef ecosystems, and a few big hurricanes, and you end up with a coral reef that doesn't live up to promises in guide books.
But you can still find gorgeous places to dive. Here are a few spots to consider:
Located in the middle of the arc of the Lesser Antilles, Dominica is consistently ranked as one of the top dive destinations in the Caribbean, if not the world. The island provides an incredible variety of diving terrain that can challenge both beginners and experts. Sites feature wall diving, pinnacles and open reefs, all in excellent condition. The downside: There aren't any luxury accommodations on the island, so you'll have to settle for standard, but comfortable, digs during your stay. And Dominica is not the easiest of Caribbean islands to get to. Only flights from San Juan, Jamaica and a few smaller islands connect to Dominica.
Located off the coast of Venezuela, this diving island is just that: an island whose economy is dominated almost exclusively by diving. Limited development means these reefs are as close to pristine as you'll get in the Caribbean. And since most Americans will require multiple connections and almost a day of travel to get there, it is likely to stay that way. The reefs themselves aren't as spectacular as those near some of the other islands, but countless pristine sites are easily accessible, often from right off the beach.
Turks and Caicos
The island of Provo (Provienciales) in Turks and Caicos offers incredible visibility and amazing shallow-water dives, despite being the most developed of the Turks and Caicos islands. A multitude of islands and smaller cays in the Turks and Caicos offer plenty of dive sites, but Provo has the healthiest reefs. The reef systems are postcard-pretty, and they remain undamaged from hurricane Ike, unlike the hotels and reefs of Grand Turk. And getting there isn't a problem. It's just a 90-minute flight from the U.S. mainland.
The Bahamas offers fantastic diving. Some of the best wall diving can be found near San Salvador, one of the easternmost, and least developed, islands. Also called Columbus Isle, the island boasts sheer cliffs with incredible biodiversity. Schools of hammerhead sharks patrol the waters, as do white-tipped reef sharks and nurse sharks. Plenty of caves and crevices are open for diving, if you're willing to head out to the barrier reefs.
Peter McDougall is a freelance writer who lives in Freeport, Maine, with his wife and their dog.