The Caribbean boasts two of the world's longest barrier reefs -- in the Bahamas and off Belize -- a dizzying array of shipwrecks, and healthy reefs that in many places have benefited from marine park protection for years. Add in sunken ocean caves, aka blue holes, and some jaw-dropping walls, and the deep blue doesn't get more enticing.
Luckily in the Caribbean, ``deep'' also doesn't have to mean better. There are a plethora of dive sites that start a mere 20 feet or so underwater and run to 100-plus feet below.
I've scoured the Caribbean in search of the ultimate dives, at one point even becoming a divemaster between corporate jobs, certified to guide dives. So which are my favorites?
My list of top dives includes well-known sites as a well as a few less ``discovered'' locales, the latter often meaning the ecological imprint is also better preserved. All of the sites have launching points that can easily be reached via Miami.
Here is my Top-Ten list:
1. The Elbow, off Turneffe Island, Belize. Hands down, the Elbow is one of my all-time favorite dives. The site is located off Turneffe Atoll, an ancient underwater volcano rimmed in coral that at one point juts out into the wild, exposed ocean, cornering at the Elbow.
Here, currents nearly sweep divers away but are filled with rich nutrients that attract a kaleidoscope of enormous schools of fish -- snapper, jacks and pompano numbering in the hundreds intermingled with sharks and grouper. The scene set against a backdrop of gigantic sea fans, sponges and sloping walls is majestic while surreal.
Coping with currents and the dive depth of 60-80 feet requires experience.
• Recommended dive operation and accommodations: Turneffe Island Resort, www.turnefferesort.com , 800-874-0118. Three-night packages including five dives, dive equipment and all meals start at $1100 per person, double occupancy.
• Getting there: American Airlines flies nonstop to Belize City from Miami; resort transfers guest from the airport for 1 1/4-hour boat ride.
2. Ocean Blue Hole off Andros Island, the Bahamas. If Jules Verne journeyed to the center of the underwater world, the Ocean Blue Hole is what he might see. This dive site was once an enormous cave, but ocean water seeped through its walls, causing the cavern roof to collapse and the sea to fill the expansive circular hole that was created.
Underwater, the site now appears as though the earth's crust has shifted, creating massive chasms along the cave's walls that can be navigated by divers at 100-120 feet. In the middle of the hole are huge coral boulders, what remains of the ceiling.
It's an amazing dive for the sheer spectacle of the geological architecture, but is for advanced divers only.
• Recommended dive operation and accommodations: Kamalame Cay, www.kamalame.com , 800- 790-7971. Rooms at this private island resort start at $400 per night with all-inclusive dining/beverage packages beginning at $880 per person. Personal dive trips with private guide and boat start at $115 per tank.
• Continental flies nonstop from Fort Lauderdale to Andros Town Airport twice a week; Watermakers Air (www.watermakersair.com ) provides charter service from Fort Lauderdale. Or fly to Nassau (six airlines fly nonstop from Fort Lauderdale or Miami) and connect to Watermakers for the flight to Andros Town. It's a short drive and ferry ride to the resort.
3. Wreck of the Antilla, Aruba . Imagine it's World War II and a German commercial freighter, the Antilla, is secretly supplying subs lurking off Aruba, a Dutch Caribbean island near Venezuela. Hitler suddenly attacks Holland, and the Dutch demand surrender of the Antilla. The captain instead sabotages the 400-foot ship to keep it out of enemy hands, blasting a hole and dumping ammunition overboard so that all is lost to the sea.
Seventy years later, the Antilla is an endless labyrinth of mysterious corridors swarming with silverside fish, making for a mesmerizing wreck dive. The ship's sheer size is overwhelming but fortunately for divers it is in just 60 feet. Its mast breaks the surface, delighting snorkelers as well.
• Recommended dive operation: Red Sail Aruba, www.RedSailAruba.com , Tel: 305-454-2538. One-tank dive is $49, two-tank $79.
• Where to stay: Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, www.marriott.com , 800- 223-6388. Rooms start at $279 per night.
• Getting there: American Airlines flies nonstop to Aruba from Miami.
4. Bloody Bay Wall off Little Cayman, Cayman Islands. Most wall dives start relatively deep but Bloody Bay Wall begins at just 25 feet before plunging like a cliff 3,000 feet into the abyss. Peering over the precipice must be akin to being weightless in space at the edge of the earth.
My favorite spot is Mixing Bowl, where Bloody Bay corners with Jackson Wall, the resulting currents attracting prolific marine life along reefs that are by far some of the most pristine in the Caribbean. Get ready to see spotted eagle rays, turtles, lobster, crabs, scorpionfish and more. The shallow wall depth means ample air for plenty of wall.
• Recommended dive operation and accommodations: Pirates Point Resort, www.piratespointresort.com , 345-948-1010. Seven-day dive and meal packages (including wine) start at $1,795 double occupancy; triples and quads available for a lower per-person price.
• Getting there: American and Cayman Airways fly nonstop from Miami to Grand Cayman; from there, fly Cayman Airways to Little Cayman.
5. Mayreau Gardens, Tobago Cays, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The Grenadines are not particularly known for diving so I had tempered expectations on my visit. What a surprise!
Maybe it is exactly because the islands are low on the radar screen that the reefs are so amazingly plentiful -- the healthiest I've seen in the Caribbean in a decade. And there's no better spot than by the Tobago Cays, a string of uninhabited islands surrounded by coral reefs that are a protected marine park.
Mayreau Gardens is exceptional, a stunning drift dive in 40-60 feet over a sloping coral wall with nurse sharks, stingrays, lobster, eels and more, a dizzying spectacle to say the least.
• Recommended dive operation: Grenadines Dive, www.grenadinesdive.com , 784-458-8138. One-tank dive is $66, two-tank $121. ``Rendezvous diving'' pick-up from privately chartered boats at no additional charge.
• Where to stay: Petit St. Vincent Resort, www.psvresort.com , 800- 654-9326. Luxurious private-island cottages start at $675 per night, double occupancy, including gourmet meals (diving pick-up charge of $60 is applicable). More affordable accommodations are available on Union Island at Kings Landing Hotel beginning at $83 per night, single occupancy including breakfast, www.kingslandinghotel.com , 784-485-8823.
6. Wreck of the RMS Rhone, Tortolla, British Virgin Islands. This British mail carrier ship went down in a hurricane in 1867. At the time, it was customary to strap in passengers to keep them falling from their bunks. As a result, all perished but a few crew and a lucky Italian whose brass porthole is now teaming with fish.
The wreck spoils were torn even more by more recent hurricanes and are now scattered over a football-field size area in 20-80 feet but with more than a century's worth of vibrant coral formation. The wreck's support beams now resemble encrusted Greek columns. Other features are still easily identifiable, including the crow's nest, huge propellers and the Italian's porthole that divers rub for good luck.
• Recommended dive operator: Blue Water Divers, www.bluewaterdiversbvi.com , 284-494- 2847. Rendezvous diving available. One tank dive is $70, two-tank $100.
• Where to stay: Nanny Cay Hotel, within a marina, is inexpensive with rooms starting at $130 per night, www.nannycay.com , 284-494-4895. For more luxurious lodgings, Sugar Mill Hotel has deluxe studios starting at $240, www.sugarmillhotel.com , 800-462-8834.
• Getting there: From Fort Lauderdale, JetBlue flies nonstop to San Juan, then catch a Cape Air flight to Tortolla. American flies from Miami with a change of planes in San Juan.
7. Carvel Rock, St. John, United States Virgin Islands. This dive site is an underwater paradise, an enormous rock formation jutting out of the ocean. From below, sunlight illuminates the crashing waves overhead while enormous shiny tarpon rock to and fro to the rhythm. The dive site is circumvented at around 50 feet and includes a cut through a beautiful rock gorge.
The currents usually merit intermediate-level diving experience or a heck of a fin kick. But for novice divers, nearby waters offer a wide selection of easy, pretty dives in just 30-60 feet, making the area a great destination for introductory dive experiences.
• Recommended dive operation: Low Key Watersports, www.divelowkey.com ; 800-835-7718. Two-tank dive is $81.
• Where to stay: Gallows Point Resort, www.gallowspointresort.com , 800-323-7229. Spacious one-bedroom villas with kitchens and stunning views start at $265 per night.
• Getting there: American Airlines flies nonstop to St. Thomas from Miami, Spirit flies nonstop from Fort Lauderdale. From there, take a taxi to Red Hook (45-minute ride), then catch the 20-minute ferry to St. John.
8. Bianca C, Grenada. Dubbed the ``Titanic of the Caribbean,'' the Bianca C was a 600-foot cruise ship sailing off Grenada in the southern Caribbean in the '60s. Suddenly, the engine room exploded and the ship caught fire. All the passengers were rescued, but the dark waters swallowed the ship.
It's now an amazing dive site where you can peruse the promenade deck, fringed with black coral and sponges, and even ``dive'' right into the swimming pool, though it's at 130 feet. Resident eagle rays gracefully fly by, and schools of shimmering horse-eyed jacks and mackerel swarm the mast, which is still upright, piercing 70 feet.
The site is for advanced and experienced divers only.
• Recommended dive operation: Aquanauts Grenada, www.aquanautsgrenada.com , 800-513-5257. One-tank dive is $55, two-tank $95.
• Where to stay: Spice Island Beach Resort, www.spiceislandbeachresort.com , 473-444-4258. This ultra-luxurious resort has suites starting at $860 per night, double occupancy, including gourmet meals & wine. For affordable, diver-dedicated accommodations, True Blue Bay Resort offers rooms starting at $160, www.truebluebay.com , 473-443-8783.
• Getting there: American Airlines flies nonstop from Miami to Grenada.
9. Northstar, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. The north shore of St. Croix has a spectacular wall that runs parallel to shore for seven miles and is easily accessible from the beach. It reaches its closest point to shore at a site called Northstar, which features dramatic underwater vistas, teeming schools of fish and larger marine life such as turtles and sometimes sharks.
The site is for all experience levels with dive profiles ranging from about 30 to 100 feet. Northstar is also done as a boat dive.
• Recommended dive operation: Cane Bay Dive Shop, www.canebayscuba.com , 800-338-3843. One- and two-tank beach dives are $40 and $65; add $30 for boat dives.
• Where to stay: The Buccaneer, www.thebuccaneer.com , 800-255-3881. Rooms start at $288 per night and include breakfast, guest activities, and kids camp.
• Getting there: American Airlines flies nonstop from Miami to St. Croix.
10. Champagne, Dominica. The island of Dominica, about halfway down the chain of Caribbean islands, is well known for its natural hot springs. But who could imagine enjoying such springs from an underwater perspective?
The Champagne dive site is truly unique, featuring warm streams of bubbles that seep through volcanic cracks in the coral and rise toward the surface, like diving in a huge glass of bubbly.
The dive site, accessible from shore, is pleasant and easy in just 15 feet of water and can be snorkeled as well. Champagne also makes for a pretty night dive.
• Recommended dive operation: Dive Dominica, www.divedominica.com. One-tank boat dive is $55 or $60 for the night dive.
• Where to stay: Papillote Wilderness Retreat, www.papillote.dm, overlooks gardens, mountains and waterfalls with rooms beginning at just $110 including one with its own private mineral bath.
• Getting there: American Airlines flies from Miami to Dominica with a change of planes in San Juan.