Scuba diving is a sport with restrictions–not only on how deep you can go and how long you can stay underwater, but limits on just how far your own nerves will take you, too.
For divers who dare, there’s nothing quite as thrilling as finning through the bones of a shipwreck, exploring hidden chambers, and coming face-to-face with waterlogged moments in time.
Truk Lagoon, Micronesia
The wrecks of more than 60 Japanese warships destroyed by American forces in 1944 lay at the bottom of a pristine lagoon in Micronesia. And while Japanese families still arrive to pay their respects to the many lives lost here, divers come from all over the world for an underwater window into World War II history. Japanese cargo ships, fuel supply ships, and Japanese Zero fighter planes inside cargo bays can all be seen. Underwater photographer and avid scuba diver Brandon Cole says to be prepared for a sobering experience, however. “Diving here means coming to grips with the tragedy of war. Finding little domestic things–a toothbrush, a boot, scraps of clothing–had a profound impact on me,” he says. “It wasn’t all about the guns and ammo and tanks. Penetrating inside some wrecks can be a bit scary and very exciting at the same time.”
An abundance of shallow reefs have made the British Virgin Islands a scuba diver's paradise—and a boat captain's nightmare. Here, the wreck of a tugboat rests in its sandy Caribbean grave.
Scapa Flow, Scotland
It’s worth braving the icy water of the Orkney Islands for the chance to see some of the best preserved World War I wrecks. Over 70 warships from the German Imperial Navy’s High Seas Fleet were scuttled here in 1919. And while many were eventually salvaged, there’s still plenty to see beneath the surface at Scotland's Scapa Flow, including battleships and cruisers, in water between 100 and 130 feet deep. Resting on its starboard side in about 80 feet of water, the SMS Karlsruhe is considered the area’s most accessible wreck. But divers should proceed with caution among so many tons of deteriorating steel. “The exteriors are in remarkably good condition, with turrets, battle bridges, and other features easily recognizable, says Mark Richard Evans, Editor-in-Chief of Scuba Diver Magazine, “But after nearly 100 years on the seabed, penetration into the immense wrecks is not recommended.”
Florida Keys, USA
A long maritime legacy paired with the many shallow reefs surrounding the Florida Keys makes it one of the best places on the planet for wreck diving. “Ships transited these waters, sometimes running perilously near the offshore coral reefs trying to avoid Gulf Stream currents,” says Stephen Frink, Publisher of Alert Diver Magazine. “Many were unlucky, and their remnants have now become dive attractions, encrusted with coral and hosting abundant marine life.” Near Florida's Islamorada on the wreck of the the 287-foot-long Eagle freighter, divers sometimes spot bull sharks and elusive sawfish. And the intentionally sunk Spiegel Grove off Key Largo–once a Navy landing ship–offers divers much to see in the 80-to-90-foot depth-range, including schools of midnight parrot fish and patrolling barracuda.
Great Lakes, Michigan, USA
Even beginners can find many shallow and easily accessible shipwrecks in Michigan’s Great Lakes. Thousands of ships wrecked in the fresh waters here span everything from steamships sunk in horrific gales, to schooners in water shallow enough to snorkel. Underwater photographer Andy Morrison directs beginners to the wreck of the Nordmeer, which stranded on Thunder Bay Island Shoals in 1966. “Until a few years ago much of the vessel remained above water and people would camp overnight on her,” he says of the wreck, which lies in 40 feet of water with plenty of twisted hull to explore. And for technical divers with advanced training, the Detroit in Lake Huron’s Thumb Island Bottomland Preserve went down in a storm in 1873 in 200 feet of water and has two side paddle wheels and a steam engine to investigate.
Oahu, Hawaii, USA
In the waters right off Diamond Head State Monument in Hawaii, the scuttled Navy refueling vessel Yo-257 is often washed with strong currents that bring in eagle rays and white tip reef sharks. And another top dive off Waikiki Beach is the wreck of the Seatiger, an erstwhile Chinese fishing vessel that was intercepted and con-fiscated in the early 1990s for human trafficking which experienced divers can penetrate.
Home to some of the best diving in the Mediterranean, the clear waters of the Sea of Cagliari are the final resting place for several ships sunk by mines and submarines during World War II. The Entellaan Italian freighter that was transporting coal in 1943 when it was felled by a torpedo from a British submarine rests on a sandy bottom and makes an excellent photo subject thanks to good light conditions and abundant marine life. A British mine was responsible for the demise of another top wreck, the Romagna, an Italian steamship broken in two parts and covered with sponges, eels, and grouper.
With more shipwrecks per square mile than anyplace on the planet, Bermuda is the wreck capital of the Atlantic. The island’s razor-sharp coral reefs are to blame for most of the sunken ships, which number over 300 in surrounding waters. One of the most storied is the Cristobal Colon, a Spanish luxury cruise liner that ran aground on a coral reef in 1936. Divers delight in exploring the submerged boilers, coiled pipe, and iron beams strewn across the ocean floor. “What makes [diving in Bermuda] even more exciting is that there is still so much more to be discovered,” says PADI dive instructor Tara Bradley Connell. “You never know when another current or storm will uncover something new.” [Read more about the best places to visit in the Caribbean.]
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Red Sea, Egypt
The clear waters off Egypt are the resting place of one of the most thrilling wrecks in the world says experienced diver Travis Marshall, who names the SS Thistlegorm among the shipwrecks every diver should see. A British merchant Naval ship that sank in 1941, it was discovered by none other than Jacques Cousteau during explorations in the 1950s. “It’s really special because all the cargo holds are still fully loaded with the supplies the ship was bringing to Allied troops in Alexandria,” says Marshall. “When you explore the wreck, you can see where the German bombs hit and all the cargo holds are like time capsules packed with Bedford trucks, BSA motorcycles, rifles, ammo, and mounds of Wellington boots spilling onto the seafloor.”
Outer Banks, North Carolina
The chance to dive through World War II history at the site of a sunken German U-boat is reason enough to plan a dive trip to the Outer Banks. Downed by a Coast Guard cutter in 1942, the wreck of U-352 is North Carolina’s most storied dive site—and quite accessible, too, in just 110 feet of water. The sub’s conning tower is still clearly visible on the rusting exterior and divers often see sand tiger sharks patrolling the depths. Other popular Outer Banks wrecks include the USS Schurz, a captured German gunship from World War I where you can fin across the boilers within clouds of schooling baitfish.