The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been one of the most destructive on record, with $188 billion in damages estimated before the season has even run its course. Not since 2005 have there been so many major hurricanes in a single year, with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria each causing untold devastation. Of these, Hurricane Irma was arguably the worst, rivaling the 1935 Labor Day hurricane as the strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the Atlantic Basin. As a result of this year’s tumultuous weather, the many Caribbean islands have been adversely affected. On islands like Barbuda, St. Maarten and Puerto Rico, infrastructure will take many months to recover.
Divers planning to escape to the Caribbean over the festive season need to choose their destination carefully. Several islands are currently plagued by airport closures, while many hotels and dive centers have been forced to close temporarily while rebuilding takes place. In this article, we look at five rewarding Caribbean dive destinations that are still welcoming visitors in the wake of this year’s hurricanes.
Part of the Dutch Caribbean, the paradise island of Bonaire is located to the west of the region’s primary hurricane belt. It escaped this year’s major hurricanes unscathed, and airports, resorts, and dive centers are open for business as usual. Bonaire is also one of the Caribbean’s best dive destinations. The reefs that surround the island are protected in their entirety by the Bonaire National Marine Park and have been since 1979. As a result, Bonaire’s reefs teem with life, providing a home for more than 350 fish species and 57 species of hard and soft coral. There are 63 official dive sites on Bonaire itself, and another 26 on the smaller island of Klein Bonaire. Many of these are prime shore diving sites, helping to make the island one of the Caribbean’s most affordable dive destinations. Highlights include Bari Reef, known for its incredible diversity of fish life; and the wreck of Dutch freighter Hilma Hooker.
Where to Stay: Coral Paradise Resort, because room rates include the rental of a four-door pickup for exploring the island’s shore diving sites.
Although its shores are washed entirely by the Atlantic Ocean, Bermuda is still marketed as part of the Caribbean. Its location far north of the main hurricane belt saved it from this year’s destruction – and in fact, the island is actively welcoming refugees from its beleaguered southern neighbors. As a diving destination, Bermuda is especially famous for its shipwrecks. Dating from the 1600s to the end of the 20th century, there are more than 300 vessels to be discovered beneath the island’s waves. The most famous wrecks include the Cristóbal Colón, a luxury Spanish liner sunk in 1936; and the Aristo, a Norwegian freighter known for its astonishing coral cover. As well as its fascinating fleet of shipwrecks, Bermuda boasts 200 square miles of coral reefs, swim-throughs, underwater caverns, and caves. Its plunging shoreline drops away quickly, putting world-class deep diving sites within a 15-minute boat ride of the beach.
Part of the Lesser Antilles island chain, St. Lucia also emerged from this year’s barrage of hurricanes and tropical storms with minimal damage. This is the perfect destination for those that want to combine their underwater adventures with top-side excursions into the island’s lush rainforest interior. The majestic twin Piton mountains are part of the island’s postcard-perfect charm, and beneath both of them lie a series of dramatic coral walls perfect for drift diving. St. Lucia’s abundant coral is showcased by sites like Grand Caille, where deep water gorgonians, brain corals, barrel sponges and sea whips provide a striking background for underwater photos. Beginner divers and macro photographers should head to Anse Chastanet. Here, the reef slopes from five meters to 45 meters, providing ample opportunities for training dives and photo sessions amidst 150 different species of fish. Intentionally sunk wreck the Lesleen M is also within reach of new divers.
The Cayman Islands were left untouched by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Tropical Storm Nate came a little closer, causing surge strong enough to topple iconic Grand Cayman wreck USS Kittiwake, which remains temporarily closed while the damage is assessed. However, the rest of the islands’ dive sites are intact, and with 365 of them to choose from, you could pick a new one for every day of the year. Grand Cayman is perhaps the most popular choice for divers, with highlights including Stingray City and the North Wall. The former is famous for its southern stingray encounters, while the latter plunges to depths of over 1,800 meters and allows for stunning wall diving. Those disappointed by the closure of the USS Kittiwake should head to Cayman Brac instead, where Soviet frigate MV Captain Keith Tibbetts acts as a worthy alternative. For splendid corals, try the Bloody Bay Wall Marine Park off laid-back Little Cayman.
Where to Stay: Compass Point Dive Resort on Grand Cayman, for its friendly atmosphere and dedicated dive amenities.
The southernmost islands of The Bahamas were ravaged by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, with Ragged Island sustaining the worst of the damage. Further north, the main diving centers of New Providence and Grand Bahama were left relatively unharmed, and are once again open for business. Off the coast of Nassau, a bevy of incredible dive sites await – including shipwrecks, walls and shallow coral gardens all washed by crystal clear waters. For film aficionados, the James Bond wrecks are a must, including the replica Vulcan bomber featured in Thunderball and the tugboat used in Never Say Never Again. Nassau stalwart Stuart Cove also offers baited shark dives for those that want to see Caribbean reef sharks up close. Grand Bahama is the ultimate destination for shark lovers, though, thanks to legendary dive site Tiger Beach. Here, tigers, lemons, Caribbean reef sharks and great hammerheads (in season) can be photographed in a natural white sand arena.
Where to Stay: Check out Aggressor’s liveaboard options for itineraries that allow you to see as much of The Bahamas as possible.