Surprising Places You Can Dive in USA

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Three destinations you might not have considered  by Jennifer Idol

When you think of scuba diving, you probably imagine swimming with sea turtles in the Caribbean or exploring rich coral reefs in the Coral Triangle. While these are top destinations, unique and rich sites are also found throughout the United States. I share a few surprising, if not downright shocking destinations in the U.S. in this recap.

The Lone Star State

How does a person from Texas become an underwater photographer? As a native Texan, I’d be remiss if I overlooked the places that helped me discover our underwater world. Texas is a surprising destination for some of the most diverse diving in the country. From wrecks in the Gulf of Mexico like the USTS Texas Clipper to springs in central and west Texas, I’ve seen tremendous variety as I built my dive skills.

I highly recommend diving with American Diving in South Padre Island to explore the 473 ft (144 m) USTS Texas Clipper. This merchant marine training vessel served three lives before it was sunk as an artificial reef. Tropical fish congregate on the wreck and occasional large animals swim by like the sea turtle I observed on my ascent.

Balmorhea State Park in west Texas is home to San Solomon Springs, a small clear spring in the Chihuahuan Desert. I bring a cart to wheel equipment to the edge of the water because the parking area is about 100 ft (30 m) from the spring.

Two endangered fish are endemic to the San Solomon Springs, the Pecos Gambusia and the Comanche Springs pupfish. Mexican tetra, headwater catfish, and softshell turtles are found throughout. The McDonald Observatory opens their collection of large telescopes to public viewings of the sky each night. This popular attraction requires advanced reservations.

This hawksbill sea turtle slides past the USTS Texas Clipper resting on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Ben Castro ascends in crystal clear water in San Solomon Springs.
Mexican tetra follow divers in schools hoping for fins to stir up the bottom.

Plentiful life in the smallest state

Size contradicts the wealth of aquatic life from the shores of Rhode Island. The Gulf Stream sweeps tropical species into the bays of the smallest state in the country. I dove from Fort Weatherill State Park where I saw a first horseshoe crab for the first time. They are surprisingly related to arachnids and not to crabs. Strange animals like the clearness skate passed through the bay. I toured the historic fort after my dive and learned a wall of mines were strung across the bay to keep unauthorized boating traffic out during WWII.

Charters can also take divers from the shores of Rhode Island to dive wrecks like the U-853. When in season, blue sharks can be found in deeper waters off the coast.

We descended in Jamestown, Rhode Island during high tide.
Starfish crawl along the seafloor in Rhode Island.
A female horseshoe crab wanders along the bay outside Fort Wetherill State Park.
A clearnose skate tries to blend in the sandy bottom in Rhode Island.
The shallow bay in Rhode Island makes dives easy to enter.

A great wilderness in the north

Possibly the last great wilderness in the United States can be found both above and below the waterline in Alaska. Five of the largest National Parks protect habitats that support countless animals including sea otters, harbor seals, puffins, bald eagles, Stellar sea lions, humpback whales, and orcas.

South of Anchorage in Seward, I chartered a boat with Dive Alaska to explore Resurrection Bay. The abundance of life was delightful. Lion’s mane jellyfish floated in the water column. I passed by kelp swaying in the current and stopped at 100 ft (30 m) when I reached a pinnacle full with giant plumose anemones.   

Alaska was not the coldest of my diving experiences as I traveled the United States, but it did require I wear a dry suit. I also wore a jacket on the surface even though I visited in August. I especially appreciated it when I floated by Exit Glacier, so large I felt cold emanating from the ice.   

The Alaska Sealife Center, Alaska’s only permanent marine mammal rehabilitation facility, was an educational and inspirational way to learn more about local wildlife after my dives. I could spend months in Kenai Fjords National Park, but took time to travel inland and experience Denali National Park’s wonders. I saw grizzly bears, caribou, moose, and wolves in this visit inland.

A lion’s mane jellyfish ascends from the deep in Alaska.
Kelp flows in the current along Little Mary’s Rock.
A sea otter casually glances my way while floating in Resurrection Bay.
A harbor seal awakes from a nap on the rocks in Kenai Fjords National Park.

Extra preparation required but rewarding

Nearly all the dives in the United States require diving with a wetsuit or drysuit to keep warm. Only the geothermically warmed Homestead Crater, the hottest destination in the United States,  can be comfortably visited in a swimsuit. However, these locations can otherwise be visited within recreational limits with ease. In exchange for a little planning, I explored fascinating life I’d never see on a coral reef and actively pursue revisiting a dozen or more of the destinations I visited.

Jennifer Idol is author of An American Immersion and the first woman to dive all 50 states. She is an underwater photographer, designer, and is widely published in periodicals.

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August 3, 2016 |

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