There's no finer way of starting a 'discussion' on a dive boat than proclaiming one destination or another to be the home of the 'best diving in the world.' Not to be the ones who shy away from controversial topics, we're going to try to tackle this hot topic in a very general way. Each of the dive destinations on our list has something spectacular and out of the ordinary to offer, but they may offer very different types of diving from one another. Whether you're looking for fast drifts, plentiful megafauna, pristine coral gardens, or prefer slow-paced muck diving, somewhere on our blue planet is home to your 'best diving in the world'...
The Azores, Portugal
All too often, Europe gets overlooked in favour of more distant shores when it comes to discussions about the best diving in the world. The Azores may lie almost 1,000 miles to the west of continental Europe, but the volcanic archipelago is an autonomous region of Portugal and offers the chance to dive alongside manta rays, dolphins and blue sharks, while there's always the chance of a passing mako or whale shark.
If you like your marine life big and bountiful, and at the end of a short-haul flight, then maybe the Azores could become your best diving in the world...
For those who like their marine life to be big and toothy, getting up close and personal with tiger sharks and great hammerheads in the Bahamas will be a memorable experience. While these impressive shark species can be seen in other locations around the planet, the Bahamas allows for unnervingly close encounters in relatively shallow water.
Tiger Beach, an hour's boat ride from the West End of Grand Bahama, is arguably the best place to see tiger sharks on the planet. This small, shallow sand flat is renowned for its population of tiger and lemon sharks, and the sharks aren't shy.
A short distance to the south of Tiger Beach is another legendary shark-spotting location, Bimini. As the setting for the Bimini Biological Field Station, known colloquially as the Shark Lab, you can rest assured there are plenty of sharks in the surrounding waters, but one species in particular is responsible for us including the Bahamas among the best diving in the world-the great hammerhead. These fifteen-foot sharks hang out in eight metres of water and are happy to pass very close to divers.
If diving with big sharks is your thing, then the Bahamas could very well be your best diving in the world...
Cocos Island, Costa Rica
The jewel in Costa Rica's crown, Cocos Island, may be one of the more remote diving destinations, but with big numbers of scalloped hammerheads, pods of friendly dolphins and a total of 14 species of sharks reported in the Cocos Island National Park, it simply must get a place at the table when discussing the best diving in the world.
The schooling hammerheads may be the show stealers, but with healthy numbers of silkies, Galapagos sharks, white-tipped reef sharks, silvertips and blacktip sharks (the pelagic ones, not the reef sharks), shark lovers will have no problem citing Cocos Island as the best diving in the world.
It may take an epic journey to reach French Polynesia from the UK, but fast-paced drifts through the shark-infused passes surrounding the atolls more than make up for it. As the nutrient-rich South Pacific rushes into the expansive lagoons which surround the atolls, the relatively narrow passes throng with grey reef sharks surfing the currents, as white- and black-tipped reef sharks, tiger sharks, great hammerheads and lemon sharks also make an appearance.
The luxuriant lagoons and prolific passes, complemented by some of the planet's very finest resorts above the waves, ensure French Polynesia is regularly mentioned in lists of the best diving in the world.
Sitting at the very top of many divers' bucket lists, the Galapagos Islands need little introduction. The Ecuadorean archipelago has captivated imaginations since the publication of Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle in 1845. Named after the islands' endemic giant tortoises, aside from being visited by the planet's largest whale sharks, the islands are famed for their reliable sightings of schooling hammerheads, freediving iguanas, playful sea lions and tropical penguins.
Mentioning the Galapagos in a discussion about the best diving in the world is seldom met with a rebuttal. This is the one destination that pretty much every diver agrees upon as being incredibly special and a true biodiversity hotspot.
The Lembeh Strait, Indonesia
The island of Lembeh sits off the north-eastern tip of Indonesia's Sulawesi Island, and the narrow stretch of water between the two islands is known as the Lembeh Strait. The mile-wide strait is often cited by macro photographers as offering the best diving in the world, as there is nowhere else with such an impressive concentration of the ocean's most bizarre and peculiar critters.
Lembeh Strait lies in the shadows of Tongkoko volcano, and its black sand is littered with cryptic critters and colourful nudibranchs. While the dark sand helps the masters of camouflage, it also provides a beautiful contrast to the rainbow-hued nudis inching their way along the strait. Mimic octopus, wonderpus, blue-ringed octopus and the coconut octopus are all commonly encountered, while the recently discovered Lembeh pipedragon, hairy frogfish and pygmy seahorses all act as magnets for the slew of photographers that are drawn to this special location.
Mozambique: The Bazaruto Archipelago
The Mozambique Channel acts as a megafauna superhighway; its nutrient-rich waters regularly play host to whale sharks, manta rays, bull sharks, reef sharks, dugongs and all five types of marine turtles. Southern Mozambique's Bazaruto Archipelago is a superb base from which to dive with these majestic marine monsters, and if you want to see even bigger creatures, a trip between the months of July and October will coincide with humpback whale season.
With so many big fish and mammals in the water, which rarely drops below 26°C and often boasts 40-metre visibility, Mozambique flies the flag proudly for Africa on the list of the best diving in the world.
Fans of fast-paced drift dives will love the uninterrupted walls and channels in the Micronesian nation of Palau, the home of the reef hook. The island nation is also the home of the world's first shark sanctuary, and Palau's reefs are seeing the benefits of that sanctuary. Grey reef sharks in particular enjoy the safety of Palau's waters, and they are seen on almost every dive.
Blue Corner is the most famous dive site in Palau, and it features a triangular plateau jutting out from a deep wall. As the currents push along the wall, they hit the plateau and sweep over the top, creating perfect reef hook conditions. As you hook on to the edge of the wall and add a little air to your BCD, you are lifted up to enjoy a spectacular hands-free view of dozens of grey reefs effortlessly riding the currents.
Aside from Blue Corner, Palau's collection of WWII wrecks, channels, caves and colourful, soft-coral encrusted walls coupled with its superb marine biodiversity make Palau an ever-present when listing the best diving in the world.
New Guinea: Raja Ampat & Papua New Guinea
The world's second-largest island, New Guinea, sits at the centre of the Coral Triangle, and at either end are two locations that both make a reasonable claim to being the home of the best diving in the world. At its western extreme, in the Indonesian half of the island, lies the regal archipelago of Raja Ampat, while the eastern half of the island belongs to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and boasts equally impressive diving.
Raja Ampat comprises myriad small islands and cays surrounding the four main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo. These four islands are the 'four kings' that the famed destination is named after, and they are home to some truly epic diving. Raja has a bit of everything: pristine hard and soft corals, 1,700 species of reef fish and 17 species of dolphins and whales. Whale sharks and mantas are common visitors, and there's seldom a shortage of reef sharks cruising by.
Travelling across the Indonesia-PNG border and swathes of virgin rainforest to the island's east coast leads you to more of the most untouched and best diving in the world. PNG, often touted as the home of muck diving, boasts a plethora of diverse dive sites and all manner of creatures, great and small.
Milne Bay, where the term 'muck diving' was first coined, offers superb macro diving and the legendary wreck of the Blackjack, a B-17 bomber, while heading out to the islands of New Britain and New Ireland brings bigger rewards, with hammerheads and silvertips on the cards. You can expect to see plenty of grey reef and white- and black-tipped reef sharks, while there's also no shortage of critters either. Nudibranchs, leaf scorpionfish, mandarinfish and ghostpipefish will keep the macro photographers engaged and ensure PNG's spot on the list of the best diving in the world.