7 Top American Scuba Diving Destinations

Underwater escapes

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For those willing to don an air tank and wet suit, the marine world is one of the last places where it's possible to appreciate wild nature. The coasts of the U.S. mainland have an abundance of diving destinations, while Caribbean territories and the U.S. islands of the South Pacific offer a full menu of diving spots, including shipwrecks like that near St. Croix (pictured), that will excite even the most experienced divers. These world-class diving destinations are worth the trip.

U.S. Virgin Islands

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The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) boast ideal conditions for diving. The clear and warm waters of the Caribbean can be enjoyed year-round, and the coastal areas hold an abundance of colorful and unique marine life. St. Thomas (pictured), the most accessible of the three main islands in the USVI, has a number of shipwrecks and also several reefs that are filled with colorful aquatic life. St. John, likewise, has its share of underwater attractions.

But the real marine magic of the USVI lies off the island of St. Croix. This island, the farthest flung and most natural of the three, features dive sites like the famous Cane Bay Wall. At Cane Bay, divers can leave from shore and explore an impossibly colorful and life-filled reef that sits on the edge of a sheer two-mile-deep drop-off. In addition to the reefs, which sit in up to 40 feet of water, the area is known for its discarded ship anchors, many of which are over 200 years old.

Oahu, Hawaii

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Oahu is the epicenter of Hawaii's tourism industry. The state's most populous island, it holds a majority of the resorts and most of the islands' tourist traffic. However, once you head offshore and drop below the waves of the Pacific, the tourist hordes disappear. In fact, with its wealth of dive shops and resorts that offer scuba tours, Oahu is an ideal place for both novices and experienced divers.

The sheer number of dive sites (from wrecks to reefs) means that it is possible to enjoy the social scene on the sands of Waikiki and still be only a 30-minute boat ride away from quiet, pristine surroundings. Oahu is also an ideal destination for wreck diving as a number of World War II-era planes and ships sit mostly intact in the waters around the island.

Puerto Rico

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Puerto Rico is yet another Caribbean diving destination worth exploring. With a variety of reefs, walls and trenches, and even some underwater caves, there is enough off the shores of the U.S. territory to seduce both novices and expert divers alike. Like the USVI, a number of wrecks rest off the shores of Puerto Rico, further adding to the menu of dive destinations.

Mona Island, a natural paradise with giant iguanas, rare avian species and coral reefs with hundreds of marine species, is also a great spot for PR-based divers. Large sea creatures like turtles, whales and dolphins occasionally make appearances in the area (especially during their migration periods). Another amazing underwater world sits near the main southern city of Ponce. Here, the thin stretch of water between the shore and the miles-deep drop-off features colorful reefs and abundant marine life. A completely different setting and set of experiences and wildlife await along the upper portions of the sea wall.

Barrier islands, North Carolina

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The barrier islands of North Carolina are a playground for in-the-know travelers looking for a quiet beach destination. Unlike many major tropical destinations, these islands remain relatively uncrowded for most of the year. Like the best seaside destinations in the Caribbean, the barrier islands are rich in water-based attractions.

This is a wreck-diver's paradise. Hundreds (more than 600 by some counts) of ships have disappeared off the islands over the past few centuries. The oldest wrecks date back to the 16th century, while a host of more recent wrecks from World War II are also on the menu. Highlights include a German U-boat, sunk during the WWII.

Unlike the Caribbean destinations mentioned previously, the dives of the barrier islands are not ideal year-round. Wintertime dives are still possible, though a heavy wet suit is required. This is a great destination for people who want to combine diving with all the other nature-themed attractions the islands of North Carolina have to offer.

Florida Keys

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The Florida Keys deserve mention because of their warm, clear waters and, more importantly, because they are home to the only living coral barrier reef in U.S. waters. The exotic array of underwater plants and marine animals creates one of the best diving experiences that divers, novice or expert, are likely to have without having to carry a passport.

This is also one of the most well-protected reefs in the world. Yes, the ecosystem is fragile, but a variety of features, including mooring buoys that keep boats from having to drop anchor on the coral, make it possible to explore this place without having to worry about damaging it. The Keys area is also littered with a variety of shipwrecks. Many are located in relatively shallow and clear water, making them ideal for novices seeking an easy first wreck-diving experience.

American Samoa

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American Samoa is one of the most far-flung U.S. territories. Sitting in the South Pacific, this archipelago is considered by many to be a true tropical paradise. This "paradise" is also found underwater in places like the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. This protected area is home to life-filled coral reefs and untouched seascapes that draw a variety of migrating animals as well as provide a protected place for numerous local species. Migrating whales and turtles sometimes pass through the waters of Fagatele, while unusual species such as giant clams call the reefs home year-round.

American Samoa is also a great place for shore diving. This is especially true in the nature-dominated island of Tutuila, which is almost completely ringed by coral reefs. Ofu Island, known for its utterly idyllic beaches, also has an expansive coral reef that stretches for more than 300 acres.

Channel Islands, California

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California's Channel Islands sit off the coast of Santa Barbara, just north of Los Angeles. This is one of the most wildlife-rich stretches of water on the West Coast. The ocean around this eight-island archipelago is home to a number of unique species, including sea lions and dolphins, huge sea bass (some weighing hundreds of pounds), and giant eels. Expansive kelp forests (pictured) provide an unusual setting for diving.

Five of the eight Channel Islands are part of the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary. This is a year-round dive destination, though waters can get as cold as 50 degrees during the wintertime, so a heavy wet suit is in order. Some dive outfitters even use large yachts to bring divers on multi-day trips as they explore the islands' underwater landscapes in depth.