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Caribbean SCUBA Diving Guide

A world of wonder awaits SCUBA divers and snorkelers in the Caribbean. From forests of mushroom shaped coral formations to pre-Spanish treasure fleet shipwrecks dating back to 1528, the seas here conceal stories that could take decades to uncover in their entirety.

The Caribbean is home to three of the world’s four largest barrier reefs, so treacherous that a single one is said to have claimed at least 100 ships. The Cayman Islands, dubbed the “birthplace of diving,” lacks a true barrier reef and yet it boasts more than 300 coral reefs and wrecks, many of them marked by buoys as a means of preventing anchor damage.

There are three types of coral reefs in all – barrier and fringing reefs and atolls – and all of them can be found in the Caribbean. Many of them start in relatively shallow waters that can be accessed by snorkelers and beginning divers from shore. Experienced adventurers, meanwhile, might prefer to journey beneath the earth – literally – and into caverns flooded with lucid waters and dripping with rock minerals that also rise from the floor.

The Sometimes Treacherous Barrier Reefs

Coral reefs provide feeding, breeding, nursery grounds and protection for many of the world’s fish, and hard corals such as finger, boulder star and brain corals with appearances that reflect their names are particularly abundant in the Caribbean. Barrier reefs serve also as a breakwater, protecting coasts from crashing waves that can erode them and protecting coastal residents from life-threatening floods.

Belize Barrier Reef

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The Belize Barrier Reef, second in size only to that of Australia, stretches some 237 miles (220 km) from southern Mexico’s Yucatan Penninsula to the Gulf of Honduras near the Guatemala border. This center of the Caribbean’s marine biodiversity is considered among the world’s cultural and natural treasures because of the variety that its shelves, ledges and patch reefs offer, the luxuriant corals that form them flourishing in pristine conditions.

More than 500 species of fish, 350 mollusks can be found among the area’s 178 terrestrial plants, 247 types of marine flora and 65 hard, or stony, corals. Some 300 to 700 West Indian manatees around the Belize Barrier Reef form a population thought to be the world ‘s largest. American crocodiles and green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles inhabit the area as well.

Old Providence Barrier Reef

The 20-mile (32 km) long old Providence barrier reef north of Providencia Island is the world’s third largest, boasting popular dives such as the Blue Hole, with steep walls and kaleidescopic sponges.

Horseshoe Reef

Horseshoe Reef near Anegada in the British Virgin Islands, fourth in terms of the world’s barrier reef sizes, spans 18 miles (29 km) and through centuries has claimed at least 100 ships. They include the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Senora De Lorento y San Francisco Xavier that sank in 1730 while sailing with a fleet en route to Cartagena and Porto Bello; the silver and gold toting 55-gun galleon San Ignacio that wrecked in 1742; the 32-gun Royal Navy frigate Astraea that served in the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars and captured a larger French frigate before running aground in 1808; and the Portuguese slave ship, Donna Paula that wrecked in 1819.

One of the oldest Caribbean wrecks, the Tumbaga, sank off Grand Bahama Island in 1528, taking its cargo of more than 200 silver and gold ingots with it, while the Concepción that sank in 1641 off Hispaniola, cost the Spanish more than 100 tons of silver and gold and is considered one of the most significant of all Spanish wrecks.

Marine Parks and Shore Dives

“Fringe” reefs, as shallow reefs, easily accessed from shore are abound throughout the Caribbean, enveloping islands such as Aruba and Antigua and particularly extensive and well-developed off Cuba and the Bahamian out islands of Andros and Eleuthra.

Consistently ranked tops in the Caribbean are shore dives within Bonaire Marine Park, established in 1979 as a means of protecting a dramatic double reef bursting with color and life. A $25 USD per person fee benefits the reef’s protection. Scorpionfish, eels, spotted drums and other species rarely seen elsewhere can be seen with a mere 5- to 25-minute stroll into the water and a short swim to the reef.

There are marine parks also off Saba, St. Eustatius, the Turks & Caicos and Dominica – the latter, at least, accessed only by boat. Subsea volcanoes, plunging sea walls and a rare variety of fish off Dominica are likely to make the venture worthwhile. The Turks & Caicos, on the other hand, are known in part for a reef wall that drops from shallow waters into deep blue seas.

Bloody Bay Wall off Little Cayman is similar – plummeting from 18 feet to beyond SCUBA depths of more than 1,000 feet (300 meters). Dive sites off the Caymans also include Stingray City, where snorkelers and divers can interact with swarms of resident rays, and the frequently visited Eden Rock, where yellowtails and sergeant majors are more likely to be seen.

Atolls in the Caribbean are farther and fewer between. Of the 10 to 20 of these lagoon surrounding circular reef systems, the majority are between the Yucatan and Nicaragua. The best developed, Glover’s Reef, sits about 50 miles (80 km) off the southern coast of Belize.

Caves and Artificial Reefs

Warm Caribbean waters have typically been conducive to the growth of fringe reefs and atolls, but climate change, acidification, pollution and overfishing are believed to have destroyed as much as 80 percent of the region’s coral.

To create new reefs, ships and other materials have been scuttled so that, over time, they’ll grow soft and hard corals, attract fish. That was the case with the MV Capt Keith Tibbetts, a 330-foot (100.5 meter) Russian warship towed in 1996 from Cuba and scuttled off Cayman Brac in waters 35 to 90 feet deep and the Oro Verde (“Green Gold”) that was loaded with marijuana when it was seized and sunk off Grand Cayman.

Ice ages and rising sea levels on the other hand are believed to have helped form underwater structures such as the Dominican Republic’s Cueva Taina, El Tildo, El Dudu and El Chicho caves, the Yucatan Penninsula’s complex Quintana Roo caves with connected passageways and intricate caverns, caves and tunnels honeycomb all of Grand Bahama Island.

While researchers like those sponsored by an international insurer known as the Catlin Group are surveying coral reefs from Belize and Mexico to the Bahamas, Guadeloupe and the Turks and Caicos to Anguilla and St. Vincent, the Dominican Republic Speleological Society is researching underwater caves and caverns in part, as a means of ultimately preserving them.

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About Author: Michelle Sheldone

Michelle Sheldone is an award-winning writer and the author of "Historic Walking Guides: Florida Keys." She launched her career at Family Circle magazine, where she worked as an entertainment editor. She has since contributed to newspapers, magazines and travel guides and handled marketing for government, education, travel, hospitality, fashion and conservation interests.