If writing the new National Geographic book 100 Dives of a Lifetime: The World’s Ultimate Underwater Destinations taught me anything, it’s that the diversity of environments in the water rivals that on land. Although ocean covers more than 70 per cent of the planet’s surface, we’ve explored a mere five per cent of it. So for those looking to channel their inner adventurer, our aquatic realms offer abundant opportunity. Yet only some three per cent of the ocean is protected, which is why National Geographic works with researchers such as Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, who launched the Pristine Seas initiative with the goal of saving the ocean’s last wild places. Here are 19 dive sites spanning the globe that provide insight into the undersea world we’re striving to protect.
With some 500 species of coral, including gorgonians and sea pens, Raja Ampat is diving fit for a king—or four kings (Raja Ampat translated). Pro Tip: For easy access to the reefs, stay on a liveaboard boat.
Little Cayman Island’s Bloody Bay Wall feels like an undersea spacewalk, as the blue abyss plummets more than a thousand feet. Pro Tip: Tour the research facilities of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute.
Aliwal Shoal hosts species from nudibranchs to humpback whales, but it may be most famous for the annual sardine run, when millions gather to spawn. Pro Tip: Ask local dive operators about the specific timing.
Dives below the frozen Antarctic surface reveal agile penguins and octopi with blood pigments to help them survive the numbing temps. Pro Tip: You’ll need special freeze-protected regulators.
The underwater pinnacles surrounding oval-shaped Ari Atoll attract whale sharks and manta rays, which feed in the plankton-rich channels. Pro Tip: The best time to see these marvels is February to May.
Once revered by the Maya, cenotes in the Yucatán are now treasured by divers. Strange rock formations and potential archaeological finds lend an Indiana Jones vibe. Pro Tip: Vet the dive operators well.
Share the warm, crystalline waters of Tiger Beach with beautifully patterned tiger sharks that swim around a shark feeder who’s clad in protective gear. Divers kneel in fixed positions on the white sand behind the feeder to watch the show. (If you’re an especially intrepid traveller, book a trip to Port Lincoln, Australia, the only place where you can dive in an ocean-floor cage with great whites.) Pro Tip: Don’t get complacent with these extraordinary—but wild—creatures.
In Los Jardines de la Reina marine reserve, accessible only by liveaboard, divers have the opportunity to see elkhorn coral, silky sharks, and saltwater crocodiles. Pro Tip: Obtaining a Cuban visa for an Indian traveller can be cumbersome; visitors are advised to go through an established travel agent.
Within the lagoon of remote Bikini Atoll lies a graveyard of battleships and destroyers—the legacy of U.S. nuclear tests in the mid-20th century. Pro Tip: Hone wreck-diving skills at easier sites first.
With the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, Florida, divers help “plant” corals and monitor new growth on the reef. Pro Tip: Learn about upcoming volunteer dive programs at coralrestoration.org.
Known for wrecks, reefs, and rich marine life, British Columbia’s Barkley Sound has become a cold-water hot spot. Pro Tip: The sheltered location allows for year-round diving.
Swooping through the inky black waters, manta rays with 20-foot wingspans feed on plankton while divers look on from the sea floor near Kona, Hawaii. Pro Tip: Let the mantas dictate the interaction.
Dive in and touch both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Silfra fissure in Thingvellir National Park is literally a place where worlds collide. Pro Tip: A dry suit is a must.
In Fiordland, a layer of freshwater on top of saltwater chokes off light, causing creatures of the deep to rise to viewing level. Pro Tip: The road out is a mountain pass, so add extra time to decompress.
Julian Rocks Marine Reserve lies off Australia’s most easterly point, near Byron Bay, and smack in the middle of the East Australian Current. Sea creatures migrating along the coast—humpback whales, manta rays, sand tiger sharks—stop in for a visit, joining the resident population of cuttlefish, wobbegong sharks, and turtles. Byron Bay is a top destination for experienced divers as well as newbies learning the ropes. Pro Tip: Don’t miss a hike up to the Cape Byron Lighthouse, one of the world’s best places to spot migrating whales.
Hurricane Maria pummelled Puerto Rico, but it also gave the sea a breather from tourist traffic, making this a good time to go. Pro Tip: The vast majority of island hotels and businesses have reopened.
At the Bonaire National Marine Park, get up-close looks at frogfish, banded coral shrimp, and Seuss-like nudibranchs. Pro Tip: Divers pay a one-time entrance fee and attend an orientation dive.
Where can you dive with marine iguanas, sea lions, whale sharks, and hammerheads in the same day? It’s got to be the Galápagos. Pro Tip: To protect the fragile environment, diving is restricted; plan ahead.
Channels act as underwater slides between the open ocean and the atolls of the Tuamotu Islands, allowing divers to glide along with triggerfish and wrasses. Pro Tip: Practice with currents beforehand.