8 Amazing Scuba Diving Destinations in the U.S.

School of grunts in front of a scuba diver off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.
Scuba diver in the protected waters off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.

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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 submerse yourself in wild nature. There is a stunning world of sea life that can only be explored by spending time in the ocean. 

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. Whether your ideal dive destination includes shipwrecks, artificial reefs, or living coral reefs, there is someplace that will excite even the most experienced divers.

Here are eight world-class diving destinations in the U.S. that are worth the trip.

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U.S. Virgin Islands

sea turtle gliding over a coral reef in St. Croix with fish in the background

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The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) boast ideal conditions for scuba 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 has a number of shipwrecks and several reefs that are filled with colorful aquatic life, and St. John has its share of underwater attractions.

But some of the best diving lies off the island of St. Croix. The farthest flung and most natural of the three islands features dive sites like the famous Cane Bay Wall. At Cane Bay, divers can leave from the shore and explore a 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 over 200 years old.

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Oahu, Hawaii

school of striped fish swimming along a coral reef in 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 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.

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Puerto Rico

coral reef filled with yellow, black and white striped, and iridescent tropical fish

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Puerto Rico is 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 attract both novices and expert divers. A number of wrecks rest just off Puerto Rico, further adding to the menu of dive destinations.

Mona Island, a natural paradise with giant iguanas, rare avian species, and abundant coral reefs, 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 set of experiences and wildlife await along the upper portions of the sea wall.

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Channel Islands, California

harbor seal underwater in a kelp forest off of Anacapa Island in California's Channel Islands

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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, and giant eels. Expansive kelp forests 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; however, 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 multiday trips as they explore the islands' underwater landscapes in depth.

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Barrier Islands, North Carolina

school of small silver fish swimming in the shipwreck Papoose off the coast of North Carolina

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North Carolina’s barrier islands are a wreck-diver's paradise. Thousands 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 suitable for diving. Highlights include a German U-boat, sunk during WWII.

Unlike Caribbean destinations, the dives of the barrier islands are not ideal year-round. Wintertime dives are 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.

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Florida Keys

sun shining through the water's surface with a large school of yellow fish and various types of coral in the Florida Keys

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The Florida Keys, known for its warm, clear waters, is 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 carrying a passport.

This is also one of the most well-protected reefs in the world. A 3,800-square-mile stretch of waters from Miami’s Biscayne National Park to Dry Tortugas National Park off the coast of Key West is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Measures to protect this fragile ecosystem, including mooring buoys that keep boats from having to drop anchor on the coral, make it possible to explore this remarkable place without having to worry about damaging it.

The Keys are also home to several shallow-water shipwrecks, which are ideal for novices seeking an easy first wreck-diving experience.

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American Samoa

bright blue tan-faced parrot fish swimming in bright blue water on a coral reef off of American Samoa

NOAA Photo Library / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

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 also exists 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 Bay while unusual species, such as giant clams, call the reefs home year-round.

The islands of American Samoa are also great 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.

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San Diego, California

View from below looking up at divers floating over the interior of the wreck Ruby E in San Diego, California

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Located at Sunken Harbor, Wreck Alley is a series of six artificial reefs created from submerged vessels. The largest and most famous is the Yukon, a decommissioned Canadian Navy destroyer sunk in 2000. This 366-foot-long ship rests at a depth of 100 feet and hosts anemones, scallops, crabs, starfish, nudibranchs, and other species. Advanced certification is necessary to enter the Yukon, but there is plenty for divers to see on the exterior. 

Another popular attraction at Wreck Alley is the Ruby E, a former Coast Guard cutter, that has served as an artificial reef since 1989. Abundant sea life can be found on the ship, which sits at about 65 to 85 feet underwater.