Coral reefs are some of the most complex ecosystems imaginable, their intricate living structures supporting unfathomable biodiversity and dazzling divers with a kaleidoscope of colour. But which of the world’s reefs are worthy of a place on your dive bucket list?
From sun-soaked coral gardens to spectacular forests of colour, we’ve searched the oceans for the top ten coral reefs for scuba diving - which one will you visit next?
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Cozumel is Mexico’s largest island and lies off the Yucatan Peninsula’s eastern coast, along the magnificent Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. This popular tourist destination has become popular amongst divers and snorkelers alike for the impressive coral gardens which thrive along its shores.
The reefs here are so healthy that their significance was realised with the creation of the Cozumel Reefs National Park more than 25 years ago. This 12,000 hectare protected area begins just below the city of San Miguel de Cozumel in the west and wraps around the island’s southern point before ending near Punta Chiqueros on the wild east coast. It’s thought that the marine park is home to around 105 different types of coral and 262 species of fish, gifting divers with fantastic underwater displays of shape and colour.
More or less every reef around the island of Cozumel is great for diving, but a handful stand out above the rest. If you have to pick just a few, the western and southern spots of Villa Blanca Wall, Paradise Reef, Chankanaab Reef, Santa Rosa Wall, Palancar Reef are not to be missed. Bear in mind that sections of the national park can be closed for months at a time and may not be accessible to divers and snorkelers.
Lighthouse Reef, Belize
Lighthouse Reef is a large oblong-shaped atoll located around 80 kilometres from the mainland. This atoll marks the easternmost edge of the UNESCO World Heritage Belize Barrier Reef, which itself is but a part of the vast Mesoamerican Barrier Reef – a globally recognised hotspot of marine biodiversity.
Best known for its iconic Great Blue Hole which plummets vertically to a depth of 125-metres, Lighthouse Reef is also home to some of the Caribbean’s healthiest corals. The varied topography has created a series of interchanging environments, from reef flats and walls to rutted grooves, caves and caverns. The colours of this reef are simply captivating, with purple sea fans, citrus sponges, and pastel-like hard coral colonies forming incredibly intricate structures as far as the eye can see.
Divers visiting Long Cay, in the far south of the atoll, can spot brain and boulder star corals, huge barrel, tube and vase sponges, and swaying sea fans of all shapes and sizes. Yet, arguably, the far smaller Half Moon Caye, located further east, is home to the best coral reef diving in Belize, if not the entire Caribbean. The caye’s sandy slopes are bejewelled with mound and boulder corals, while the wall itself is festooned with fans and punctured with beautiful swim-throughs.
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Bonaire, Lesser Antilles
Bonaire is a small Caribbean island located off the coast of Venezuela, within the Lesser Antilles chain. The island delivers a unique dive vacation experience with drive-through dive centres, convenient cylinder delivery and over 50 clearly-marked shore dives open for self-guided exploration.
An impressive fringing reef is what originally positioned Bonaire as the world’s leading shore diving destination, with expansive hard and soft coral gardens just a few fin-kicks from the beach. Some 60 different coral species can be found around the island, including bulbous brain corals, towering stag and elkhorn corals, and gigantic gorgonians. Other interesting inhabitants include multicoloured barrel, tube and elephant ear sponges and gardens of anemones.
Some of the best shore diving and easiest conditions can be found on the island’s west-facing leeward side. 1,000 Steps is one of Bonaire’s most iconic sites, featuring a shallow, easy-to-navigate reef packed with elkhorns, sponges and sea fans. Nearby Karpata delivers a markedly different experience. Divers can find star, brain and pillar corals dotting the sandy slope, before reaching a dramatic drop-off festooned with whip corals, finger corals and sea plumes.
South Egypt, Red Sea
The Red Sea’s corals have been captivating divers and snorkelers for many years, and the remote nature of Egypt’s southern reefs have allowed them to flourish. Located between the Ras Banas peninsula and Egypt's southern border, these formations are truly remarkable and should be high on the list of any diver visiting the Red Sea.
An area known as Foul Bay lies directly south of Ras Banas and incorporates the somewhat legendary St. John’s Reef – considered by many to deliver the best coral reef diving in the Red Sea. Due to its isolation, this region is best explored via liveaboard. Itineraries typically visit other thriving southern reefs such as those found in the Zabargad and Rocky Island marine parks, as well as Fury Shoal a little further north, allowing divers to fully satisfy their coral cravings.
The obvious health of the hard and soft corals is a key highlight of diving at St. John’s Reef, promising breathtaking underwater vistas and a bounty of bustling fish - the stuff of dreams for wide-angle photographers. Within the wider Foul Bay area, divers can explore an area where many large cracks in the reef have formed a maze-like complex of interconnecting tunnels.
Aldabra Group, Seychelles
It stands to reason that the further you stray from the beaten path, the more wild and natural your surroundings become. Situated around 1,000 kilometres from the Seychelles’ salubrious inner islands, the Aldabra Group is certainly beyond the typical tourist’s radar. And, as a result, this group of outer island atolls remain in an almost untouched state, catering primarily to scientists and natural historians, alongside a handful of the most adventurous holiday-makers.
Within this group, Astove Atoll is home to some of the most mind-blowing underwater scenery on the planet. Diving is centred around a six-kilometre wall which plummets from waist-deep water to well beyond recreational depths. Large plates of hard coral like armour line the wall’s vast rock face, while scar-like splits in the reef are full of colourful soft corals.
In contrast, Cosmoledo’s topography is less dramatic and the diving here is more typical of an atoll, focusing on the channels which penetrate the outer reef between the islands. But, the diving is arguably even better, as this remote and underexplored destination plays host to well over a hundred species of coral, including some of the Seychelles’ healthiest hard coral reefs within its channels.
Tubbataha Reefs is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site in the middle of the Sulu Sea. Surrounded by nothing but deep open water for hundreds of kilometres, this dive destination is often touted for its exhilarating big fish encounters. But Tubbataha’s isolation has also allowed its reefs to flourish, guaranteeing an extraordinary dive expereince whether the pelagics appear or not.
Positioned within the northern apex of the Coral Triangle, Tubbataha’s dive sites are about as biodiverse as it gets, with an astonishing 360 individual coral species colonising the reefs. Whip corals and gorgonian fans are emblematic of Tubbataha and can be found throughout both the North Atoll and South Atoll, often harbouring pygmy seahorses amongst their sinuous branches. Seafan Alley, as the name suggests, is a particularly stunning site, with its sizable swaying forest that stretches off into the darkness.
Found around 20 kilometres north of the two main atolls, Jessie Beazley Reef is a smaller, more exposed structure. The shallow reefs here are covered with unspoilt hard and soft corals and clouded in colourful anthias, while the slopes promise flawless staghorn fields.
Alor is the largest island in its namesake archipelago, located at the eastern end of Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands chain at the edge of the vast Banda Sea. The defining feature of Alor’s diving is its diversity, with world-class muck diving sites just a stone’s throw from steep walls patrolled by schools of hammerhead sharks.
Lying in the heart of the Coral Triangle, it’s no surprise the same powerful, nutrient-rich currents that have created such a diversity of marine life here have also fuelled extraordinary reef development. The proliferation and assortment of species is simply staggering.
A popular site in the Pantar Strait, known as Clown Valley, is said to harbour more anemones than any other reef in the world - a fact you’ll find hard to dispute as your gaze over the endless sea of small boulders, each adorned with anemones. Another site, Alcatraz, starts with a strange forest of pink soft coral trees, sprouting from the reef like bizarre alien broccoli, before moving onto a wall festooned with black coral bushes, sea whips, and gorgonians. The Great Wall of Pantar is another vibrant dive, where soft coral trees, sponges, and sea fans fade between iridescent orange and pastel pink.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Raja Ampat is a protected archipelago located off the Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua, Indonesia. Situated squarely within the Coral Triangle, Raja Ampat straddles both sides of the equator and is swept by nutrient-rich currents, creating the perfect conditions for marine life to proliferate.
Among scientific circles, Raja Ampat is widely recognised as the global epicentre of marine biodiversity. Over 1,400 fish species call this area home, alongside around 540 species of coral - that’s roughly 75% of all the coral species known to the world! One particular dive site even holds the record for the most fish species documented on a single dive. And, the entire area is a hotspot for endemism, so it’s no wonder people describe Raja Ampat as a ‘species factory’.
The coral formations in Raja Ampat vary greatly between the northern and southern sections of the park, creating an intricate network of atoll, patch, barrier and fringing reefs. Interesting hard corals that thrive here include smooth cauliflower, cactus, brain, and laminar corals, as well as stag and elkhorn corals. Towards the south of the park, soft corals flourish, with sea fans, whip corals, crinoids and stinging hydroids alongside beautifully hued sponges, tunicates, and leather corals.
Ningaloo Reef stretches for around 260 kilometres along Australia’s western coast, roughly located between the towns of Coral Bay and Exmouth. While its eastern counterpart – the Great Barrier Reef – gets most of the attention, Ningaloo is actually the largest fringing reef in the world and offers some of the planet’s best underwater experiences.
As a fringing reef, Ningaloo is located remarkably close to shore and can be reached with a brief swim in some places. Nowhere else can you access such an expansive coral system so easily. Despite its proximity to shore, Ningaloo’s ecosystems are still incredibly healthy, in part due to its protection as a marine park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thankfully, it has also experienced minimal bleaching, meaning the corals remain vibrant and varied in their colour.
The diversity here is simply spectacular, with up to 300 documented coral species on offer. Hard corals are most prevalent, particularly finger coral, staghorns, cabbage, and brain corals. A scattering of stunning soft corals can also be seen, particularly in the deeper sections and around the Muiron Islands. These include gorgonian sea fans, leather corals, sea pens, tree corals, and a huge variety of sponges.
Somosomo Strait, Fiji
The Somosomo Strait is a narrow passage between the islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni. Vast amounts of water flow through the strait, funnelling nutrients into the channel and creating strong currents. As a result, the Somosomo Strait is home to some of the most colourful and fascinating reefscapes you'll ever see.
After just one dive here, you’ll understand why Fiji has been dubbed the ‘Soft coral capital of the world’. Massive fan corals, sponges, and a kaleidoscopic selection of soft corals is why the Somosomo Strait has become so well known – and as the current flows, the reefs come alive, upping the ante from beautiful to breathtaking. Spindly multi-hued polyps stretch out from every direction, swaying in the water column as they feed on barely visible plankton.
The aptly named Rainbow Reef lies just off the Vanua Levu coastline and features a full spectrum of colourful soft corals. In contrast, the famous Great White Wall is covered in a thick blanket of white Dendronephthya corals, creating a view reminiscent of a snow-capped mountain. This wall drops well below recreational depths, with the soft coral trees blushing a light lavender colour the deeper you descend.