The vast majority of scuba diving takes place in the tropics (the Indo-Pacific and the Caribbean), and it makes sense.
Warmer waters, more diverse reefs; if the goal is to see as much in as comfortable a setting as possible, then, of course, you choose will choose tropical over subtropical and cold seas.
Cold water diving is special in its own right, and as someone who grew up on the west coast of Canada, one of the world’s premier cold water diving destinations, I know how much temperate seas have to offer.
I’m not talking about ice diving–that’s something else altogether.
I’m talking about cold water diving in biodiversity hotspots that lie outside of the world’s tropical zones.
Canada’s West Coast
I’m from Vancouver, and I spent my childhood springs and summers in and around the waters off Vancouver Island.
A lot of that time was spent underwater or exploring tidal flats, and I know firsthand how vibrant and interesting these areas are.
With sponge reefs, massive rock formations, and plenty of shipwrecks, Six-Gill Sharks, schools of Dog Fish, Skates, Giant Pacific Octopus, Lumpsuckers, Wolf Eels and much more, Canada’s west coast is very diverse, and the visibility can be surprisingly good.
I’ve had 30m crystal clear visibility around the Gulf Islands during summer before.
For those of you who like the odd stuff
Another great reason to go cold water diving on Canada’s west coast is that you are often diving alongside marine mammals.
It is common for divers to encounter Harbour Seals, Steller Sea Lions, and Harbour Porpoises while diving in the coastal waters off British Columbia.
Popular dive sites in British Columbia
- Race Rocks
- Renate’s Reef
- Porlier Pass
- Flora Islet
- Capilano I
- Sechelt Rapids
- Row and Be Damned
- Stubbs Island
- Hunt Rock
- Nakwakto Rapids
Best time of the year to visit
Winter diving is generally the best diving in B.C., but you also get good conditions during the spring and fall, when 15-30m visibility (50-100 feet) is not uncommon.
In the summer, when British Columbia’s rivers pump the coastal waters full of glacial runoff and sediment, visibility drops drastically (to between 5-20m).
B.C. is definitely one of the best cold water dive sites in the northern hemisphere, and just because I’m from there.
Channel Islands, Southern California
Head south from Vancouver for a couple of thousand kilometres and you reach another of North America and the world’s most impressive cold water dives: the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary in Southern California.
If you’ve ever seen this iconic underwater scenery
You were probably looking at an image of the Channel Islands.
Thanks to upwelling and the islands’ location between warm and cold water bioregions, the Channel Islands Marine Protected Areas are home to incredible diversity, including an abundance of Great White Sharks, and iconic fish species found nowhere else in the Pacific–such as the Catalina Goby.
And the Garibaldi Damselfish
Popular dive sites in and around the Channel islands
- Wyckoff Ledge
- Santa Barbara Island
- Peacock Wreck
- Wilson Rock
- Coral Reef
- Landing Cove
- Rat Rock
- West End
Best time of year to dive
While you can dive the Channel Islands all year, late summer and early fall tend to be the preferred diving season. Ocean temperatures can reach 70F, and visibility of 100 feet is not unheard of.
Many divers are unaware that, when it comes to diving, Australia isn’t just the GBR and Shark Bay.
The waters along southern Australia are subtropical and temperate, nothing like the tropical Indo-Pacific reefs that characterize the tropical seas further north around Shark Bay on the west coast and the GBR on the east.
The Great Southern Reef stretches 8000km from Kalbarri in Western Australia to Tasmania and up into Northern New South Whales.
This is the home of iconic animals like the Weedy Sea Dragon
Giant Australian Cuttlefish
Port Jackson Sharks
And majestic but dwindling kelp forests
Popular Southern Ocean dive sites
- Edithburgh Jetty
- Rapid Bay Jetty
- The Bluff, Victor Harbour
- Port Hughes Jetty
- Star of Greece Wreck Dive
- The Norma Wreck
Best time of year to visit
The general consensus on Great Southern Reef diving is that the best time to explore the region’s various dive sites is between October and May when water temperatures are the warmest.
Sunshine Coast, South Africa
South Africa’s Sunshine Coast is a roughly 300km stretch of Southern Ocean coastline between Port Elizabeth and East London in the Eastern Cape.
These are cold water seas characterized by the same kinds of cold water diving sites as the Great Southern Reef in Southern Australia–rocky reefs, kelp beds and sponge gardens.
A world-class shark diving destination (particularly Great White and Ragged-Tooth Sharks)
The Sunshine Coast is a favourite among both International and South African divers.
Popular dive sites on the Sunshine Coast
- Fountain Rocks
- Fish Tanks
- Soft Coral
- Riet Point
- Bell Buoy
- Bird Island
Time of year to visit
Sunshine coast diving is mainly dependent on sea conditions, which tend to change dramatically from season to season.
Winter (April to August) tends to have the best visibility because that is when the westerly winds bring visibility-promoting westerly currents into the sunshine coast.
Canary Islands, Spain
The Canary Islands, the southernmost region of Spain, are situated off the coast of Morroco and the Western Sahara.
While the marine life is not as abundant or vivid in the Canary Islands as it would be in the Indo-Pacific, it is a cut above the Mediterranean–a convergence of both Mediterranean and Atlantic species–and there is therefore more marine life.
And Marbled Electric Rays
Are common sights around the Canaries.
Popular dive sites
- El Cabron
- Underwater Museum
- Los Chuchos
- Salinas Reef
- Las Cabras
- Punta Guincho
- El Bajon
When to visit
While you can dive the Canary Islands all year round (you won’t get the low temperatures you get during the winter in the Mediterranean), the best visibility and calmest seas are between September and February.
Cold water dive tips
Temperate and cold water diving require some special equipment and considerations.
Diving in cold water (which I would classify as anything under 20 degrees surface water temperature, drains your body heat.
Some of the above destinations contend that you can dive in a thick wetsuit (e.g, 7mm) year-round, all of them also recommend or mention dry suits as alternatives.
Bear in mind that you are actually more buoyant in cold water as cold water is denser than warm, so that, plus the added wetsuit buoyancy, likely means adding more weight to your belt or BCD.
Use the right fins and cold water gear
Cold waters usually require different fins.
Cold water fins are usually larger than warm water diving fins, with thicket blades that produce more thrust, are open heel to accommodate your neoprene dive socks, and are negatively buoyant to compensate for the colder water and thicker wetsuit/dry suit.
You can check out my guide to the best Scuba fins here if you like. My pick for the best cold water fins are the classic and widely used IST Rubber Rockets, which I review more thoroughly in the article.
In addition to the right fins for cold water dive, at least one of the dive site recommendations on the list (Canada) requires a hood and gloves (and maybe even a fluffy neck warmer).
Trying to dive anywhere in Canada or north of the 49th parallel in the winter without either (even summer diving) is going to be very uncomfortable. I would even go as far as to say that normal running socks don’t cut it as far as clothes worn beneath your drysuit go.
Nothing ruins a pleasurable cold water/cold weather dive like frozen feet. Wool is usually better.
**make sure you’ve got a coffee or a hot chocolate waiting for you once you exit the water too.
Wear the right clothing
Staying warm while diving in temperate and cold water is so important, which means having warm, dry clothes on underneath your suit as well as waiting for you onboard, or on shore, once you’re done.
You want to keep both your core body temperature and your central organs warm while cold water diving to optimize your air and energy use.
Even in the subtropics, winter air temperature can get down into the low teens. It’s not freezing cold, but when you add cold air and windchill to the mix, you can quickly become uncomfortable once you surface and change out of your dry suit.
If you’re at a cold dive site somewhere like the west coast of Canada, it’s paramount that you toss warm dry clothes–a pair of gloves and a beanie into your bag–if you want to stay warm.
Eat before diving in cold water
When you dive in temperate and cold water, especially if you’re doing deeper dives into very cold water, then you definitely don’t want to dive on an empty stomach. This means should definitely eat a proper breakfast.
If you dive on an empty stomach, your body gets colder faster.
**always remember that you can call a dive if you get too cold. Hypothermia can happen even in warm tropical water.
Give cold water diving a chance
Cold water diving is underappreciated, as far as I’m concerned.
While if you asked me to create a list of my top 5 bucket list dive destinations around the world, none of them would be cold water diving destinations, I appreciate what the places on the above list (and others have to offer).
These are unique marine ecoregions with habitats and fauna you won’t see in warmer seas and they merit your consideration. Who wouldn’t want to add a Weedy Sea Dragon or a Port Jackson Shark to their list of critters and photography wins?