When we think of national parks, we often envision the land – Half Dome in Yosemite, Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia or the Grand Canyon. With so much to see on solid ground, it can be easy to forget that the National Park Service protects millions of acres of submerged parkland as well.
We asked PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Chief Brand Officer Kristin Valette-Wirth to recommend some of her favorite places to scuba dive in the national parks. Here’s what she had to say.
Kelp forests and sea caves make for extraordinary diving within Channel Islands National Park, particularly around Santa Barbara, Anacapa and eastern Santa Cruz Islands. Expect to see a host of marine life, including sea lions, bat rays and sea bass.
“Living in Southern California, I am fortunate to have the Channel Islands just a short boat ride away,” says Valette-Wirth. “The giant kelp forests in their waters provide a unique dive setting unlike anywhere else on the planet. Sun rays shimmering through towering kelp provide an awe-inspiring ambiance. And the rocky reefs teeming with life – sea lions, lobsters, sea bass and a plethora of other fish – offer unforgettable experiences I never tire of.”
Visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys will find history above and below the ocean’s surface. “The park is lively with fish, mollusks and crustaceans – and dozens of wrecks for divers to explore,” explains Valette-Wirth.
Among the most popular dives in the park is the wreck of the Windjammer, a three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship that wrecked in 1901. The park visitor center sells laminated underwater maps for a self-guided tour of the wreck.
“For history lovers and explorers, one of the most unique diving opportunities is the ability to dive the Graveyard of the Atlantic off of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where more than 600 ships have sunk since 1526,” suggests Valette-Wirth. “Not all these wrecks are dive-able but many are. Divers can explore U-boats, tankers, freighters, Civil War wrecks, sailing ships, artificial reefs, fishing vessels, among others, to get a unique perspective of these waters’ robust history.”
San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
The United States and Great Britain nearly came to blows over claims to these islands in Puget Sound. While the park is best known for the remnants of military facilities, there’s plenty more just beneath the water’s surface.
“The chilly waters of the San Juan Islands offer incredible underwater biodiversity. Divers can swim through kelp forests to encounter nudibranchs, giant Pacific octopuses and wolf eels. Puget Sound king crabs, plumose sea anemones and sea stars scatter across the seascape, and sea lions and seals offer a topside spectacle between dives,” says Valette-Wirth.
This national park property on the Kona Coast of the Big Island was established to protect and interpret the ancient fishponds built by early Hawaiians.
“Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park’s offshore lava tubes and clear water teeming with life – from reef fish and turtles to pelagic manta rays and sharks – draw divers from near and far,” explains Valette-Wirth.
Virgin Islands National Park and Virgin Islands Coral Reef Monument
The biggest problem for divers in the U.S. Virgin Islands is deciding where to dive first. The Trunk Bay Underwater Trail was among the first of its kind in the world. A variety of protected bays offer plenty for snorkelers to enjoy as well.
“Spectacular dive sites are scattered throughout the islands,” says Valette-Wirth, “ranging from protected shallow bays and reefs to drift dives and wrecks. St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix all offer unique experiences to excited divers of all experience levels and interests.”
“Abundant sea life, shallow waters and easy access from Miami make Biscayne National Park an ideal location for beginning divers and families,” says Valette-Wirth.
The park protects miles of coral reefs and shipwrecks – a habitat for more than 600 species of tropical fish. The park borders the popular John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and offers a quieter alternative.
When you think of Montana’s Glacier National Park, you probably imagine snowy mountain peaks, alpine meadows and turquoise lakes. What you probably don’t imagine is spending some time underwater.
“Divers (with experience diving at high altitude and in cold waters) can discover submerged trees, underwater geology and wrecks, including a 100-foot stern paddle-wheeler,” says Valette-Wirth.
Photo courtesy of iStock / orava
Acadia National Park, Maine
Geological forces have been shaping this Maine park’s landscape for some 500 million years.
“Acadia National Park’s topography continues below the surface, covered in mussels, barnacles, anemones, sea urchins and sponges for divers to encounter,” says Valette-Wirth. “Divers of all experience levels can do a shore dive in Somes Sound, the only fjord found on the east coast of the United States.”
If you’re interested in learning how to dive in America’s National Parks, contact your local PADI dive center. During these times of social distancing, it’s even possible to begin a certification course from home thanks to PADI eLearning.