For many scuba divers residing in the Americas (and certain other parts of the world), a Caribbean diving holiday provides the premier underwater experience.
This page of our website presents information on key aspects of scuba diving and snorkeling Caribbean coral reefs, along with our choices for the best dive vacation destinations in the region. The vast majority of Caribbean diving is conducted in coral reef habitats, and this is the focus of our discussion here.
The Caribbean Sea is the central portion of the the biogeographic region of coral reef development known as the “Greater Caribbean” or Tropical Western Atlantic.
It is bounded to the north by The Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico), and so does not include the waters and reefs of South Florida, The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, or Bermuda.
While coral reefs throughout the world show many similarities in their basic structure, habitat types, and species interactions, there are some fundamental differences that distinguish reefs of the Greater Caribbean region from those of the Indo-Pacific.
The Caribbean Sea is dominated by fringing reefs. In many cases these are quite extensive and well developed, such as that which runs along much of the coast of Cuba (see photo, below), and those encircling many Caribbean islands such as Bonaire and Saba.
There are only two true barrier reefs in the region. The largest (the Belize Barrier Reef) is about 220 km in length and runs from the Yucatan (southern Mexico) through Belize to the Gulf of Honduras. A smaller barrier reef lies north of Providencia Island (Colombia) in the southwest Caribbean.
There are also only a few true atolls (between about 10-20, depending upon what authority you ask). Most of these lie offshore Central America from the Yucatan to Nicaragua, and most (if not all) appear to have developed in ways other than volcanic island subsidence as is typical of Indo-Pacific atolls. The best developed atoll in the Caribbean region is Glover’s Reef, which lies about 50 miles off shore the coast of southern Belize.
Along with the overwhelming predominance of fringing reefs as the major reef type, Caribbean coral reefs differ from those of the Indo-Pacific region is a number of other distinctive ways.
One such marked difference is the rarity of a prominent algal ridge on Caribbean reef crests. This feature is a well-developed and prevalent component of Indo-Pacific reefs.
Another distinguishing feature of many shallow Caribbean reefs is that they often support an abundant mixture of sponges and octocorals that grow from the hard coral base of the reef (see photo; left).
These additions afford Caribbean reef surfaces added biodiversity and topographic complexity.
Such features are not nearly so common or abundant on most Indo-Pacific reef surfaces, which tend to be mostly composed of hard corals (and microalgae) alone.
The Greater Caribbean became completely isolated from the Pacific Ocean some 3-4 million years ago by the closing of the Isthmus of Panama, and has since developed its own unique coral reef biota.
The diversity of Caribbean coral reef life is considerably poorer than that of the Indo-Pacific region. Here, “only” about 65-75 species of hard corals are recognized and perhaps 500-700 reef-associated fish species.
The center of marine biodiversity for the region lies in the west-central Caribbean Sea, in the neighborhood of the Belize Barrier Reef. Reef biodiversity generally decreases with distance from this center.
For many nations within the Caribbean Sea, coral reefs provide vital protection from the rages of frequent summer hurricanes. Many island and coastal residents are highly dependent on coral reef fisheries for both their food supplies and livelihoods. Coral reef related tourism, particularly scuba diving, also represents a major source of revenue.
Over the last 30 years, Caribbean coral reefs have suffered enormous declines both in terms of overall coral reef ecosystem “health” and the productivity of reef fisheries.
Overdevelopment of coastal areas, overuse of particular reefs for recreational diving and snorkeling, and concurrent declines in water quality have in many cases led to large areas of hard coral becoming overgrown with smothering algae, leaving a devastated underwater seascape where once stood thriving hard coral colonies (see photo, below).
In recognition of the intrinsic value and vulnerability of their coral reef ecosystems, many Caribbean nations are developing more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and increasingly stringent regulations aimed at better protecting their coral reefs and associated marine life, and ensuring the continued quality of Caribbean diving for future generations.
Selecting the very best Caribbean diving destinations at which to explore coral reefs and reef life is not such an easy task, for the Caribbean Sea spans thousands of square miles of ocean and contains numerous islands and coastlines that harbor coral reefs.
Our selections for the Best Caribbean Diving Destinations at which to explore the region’s coral reefs were made using the following main criteria, all of which must be “good to outstanding” for a destination to be included in our list:
Let’s take a moment to more thoroughly explain what we mean by each of the above standards.
The quality and variety of coral reef diving sites refers to the condition (i.e., “health”) of the coral reefs, average underwater visibility, water quality, and diversity of shallow and deep dive sites readily accessible by a short (no more than a 30-45 minute) boat trip.
The diversity and condition of marine life refers to the number of fish, coral, and other invertebrate species you are likely to see while diving at this destination, and their health.
Active coral reef ecosystem management incorporating environmentally responsible diving practices means that the referred destination has designated reasonably sized portions of its coral reef ecosystem(s) and adjacent waters as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
It also means that the dive operators at the destination adhere to sensible, reef-friendly dive practices aimed at long-term protection of the coral reef ecosystems they visit.
For example, at many popular Caribbean diving destinations, divers and/or tour boat operators regularly feed or harass (chase, touch) marine life.
In such areas, the behavior and distribution of these animals and their reaction to divers are dramatically different than at dive sites where such practices are rare or are non-existent.
By good accessibility for international visitors we refer to the availability of regularly scheduled flights from major cities around the world to the final destination available most days of the week.
By acceptable accommodations available at reasonable cost we mean that clean, comfortable and well maintained lodging is available at a cost comparable to that which may be readily found at most major tourist destinations in the region. Of course, some visitors may wish to pay considerably more for luxurious accommodations.
Based upon the criteria defined above, our picks for the “Best Caribbean Diving Destinations” for exploring coral reefs of the region are (in no particular order) the following:
We have devoted a separate page to each of these destinations within this subsection of our website (see “Related Pages”; below).
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