13 family-friendly dive sites for your kids

If you’ve got young explorers at home who dream of swimming alongside Nemo or meeting a sea turtle up close, your next vacation may be the right time to introduce them to snorkeling and scuba diving. At coastal locations around the world, resorts and dive shops tailor programs for families and kids so they can begin chartering their course as the next Jacques Cousteau.

The Basics

Kids as young as 8 can learn scuba, though they must be at least 10 to become certified, according to theProfessional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), which provides certification for scuba divers.

Through PADI’s “Bubblemaker” classes, hosted at many dive centers around the world, kids 8 and older can learn how to use scuba equipment and breathe underwater in shallow environments, usually a pool. When they turn 10, they can be certified as Junior Open Water Divers; a PADI certified adult must accompany them, and they will be limited to a depth of 40 feet. At age 12, the depth restriction is removed.

If you or your children feel they’re not ready yet, snorkeling is a good alternative; they can join the fun and literally get their feet wet for scuba diving.

1. Grand Cayman Island

(Cayman Islands)

Kids will love Stingray City by Grand Cayman Island, where they can pet and swim with stingrays in shallow waters, as well as snorkel. Folklore has it that kissing a stingray gets you seven years of good luck. Other shallow dives in the area ideal for Junior Open Water Divers include the underwater USS Kittiwake, a sunken Navy submarine rescue ship that is best known for its recovery of the Challenger space shuttle debris. Out of the water, families can search for blue iguanas, try stand-up paddleboarding, embark on an authentic pirate ship cruise and more.

2. Bonaire Island

(Buddy Dive Resort Bonaire)

This Caribbean island, known for shore diving (from the beach, rather than from a boat) is a popular spot for divers year-round and has outstanding programs for kids. Divi Flamingo Beach Resort, the largest resort on the island, is a great headquarters for your family vacation. Younger kids snorkel right off the shore and can rent a dive light for nighttime snorkeling in the shallow waters in front of the resort. Children 10 and older can participate in the resort’s half-day junior dive experience or get scuba certified in the junior open water certification course. Oh, and did we mention kids stay free from April through mid-December?

Another hotspot in Bonaire is the Buddy Dive Resort, which has a Buddy Rangers program for kids 5-10. The class combines snorkeling and scuba diving by teaching kids how to snorkel using scuba equipment. Kids 8-10 can join the PADI Seal Team to master a variety of “aqua missions,” like diving a pretend wreck or practicing a search and rescue operation using real scuba gear. Both resorts offer the PADI Bubblemakers program, as well.

Bonaire is ideal for novice divers, as there are no strong currents, no big seas and short boat rides to dive sites. There are also many family-friendly activities like kayaking the mangroves, exploring small caves and children’s kiteboarding.

3. Fiji

(Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort)

At the Vomo Island Resort on a 255-acre private island in Fiji, kids 10 and older can practice scuba in an enclosed area up to 40 feet deep as part of the PADI Discover Scuba Diving course. When kids aren’t underwater or hanging out at their beachfront villa, the resort offers plenty of activities to capture their attention, including kayaking, fish feeding, hiking, volleyball, tennis and golf. They can also head to the specially designed Kids Village with its media room, play areas and craft tables.

At the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort in Fiji, started by the son of legendary diver Jacques Cousteau, teens can participate in dives with adults while also enjoying teen-specific activities, including snorkeling a site called “shark alley,” coral planting, volleyball, lessons in Fijian and spearfishing with local teens in the nearby village. For the younger set, the resort offers PADI’s Bubblemaker program and SASSY, a dive that combines snorkeling and scuba.

4. Monaco

(Ecole Bleue Monaco)

At L’Ecole Bleue (The Blue School) in the principality of Monaco on the French Riviera, you can train with an expert diver. Started by Pierre Frolla, a free diver who holds three world records, the school offers lessons at Monaco’s Larvotto marine park and teaches kids to be good stewards of the sea. The school has training in marine biology, underwater excursions, scuba diving, snorkeling and free diving for beginner to advanced divers. Children’s courses are held between April and October and range from two to five days.

5. Hawaii

(Kauai Down Under)

Hawaii, with its mild weather and abundant activities for all ages, is always a popular destination for families. Take one of the daily complimentary scuba lessons in the Saltwater Lagoon at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa in Koloa and then head out on an ocean dive to a brilliant Hawaiian reef with an instructor from Seasport Divers.

The Sheraton Kauai Resort has its own on-site dive team, which can help guests become dive certified poolside. Once certified, the Kauai Down Under crew ferries divers to dive sites, including the Sheraton Caverns, located just off the shore from the hotel.

6. North Carolina

(UNCW MarineQuest)

The coast of North Carolina is a surprisingly excellent spot for scuba diving, with lots to see in the Atlantic Ocean. At Kure Beach, kids 12 and older dive in waters that are home to 5000 historic shipwrecks, plentiful porcelain plates and prehistoric fossils like megalodon teeth, which dot the ocean’s natural ledges. Plus, if your pre-teen or teen wants to get certified, he or she can do so in as few as three days.

7. Mustique

(The Cotton House)

On the beautiful Caribbean island of Mustique, kids can try the Bubblemaker program out of a pool and actually in the ocean. The Cotton House Resort on the island lets kids practice scuba diving in their “house reef,” located right in front of the resort. There they explore a real ocean environment complete with fish, coral and more. Popular dive sites in Mustique include Coral Glen, Dry Rock, All-awash and Sharks Cave.

8. Australia

(Tourism and Events Queensland)

Scuba diving doesn’t get much better than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Kids 12 and older can join an introductory dive with Calypso Reef Charters, where they’ll learn basic skills and then practice them on a 30-40 minute small group dive in the reef. Families with younger kids (8 and older) can sign up for the SunReef Bubblemaker program. Be sure to keep your eyes open for Nemos (clown fish), anemones, turtles and more as you explore the world’s largest barrier reef as a family.

9. Belize

(Las Terrazas)

If the land down under is too far away for a school break, try Central America. Belize is home to the second largest coral reef system in the world. Las Terrazas Resort, which offers oversized townhomes ideal for families that want the amenities of home, has an on-site dive shop with daily diving and scuba instruction. Kids not only can participate in the Bubblemaker program; they can become Junior Open Water Certified while on vacation. The shop also customizes dives for families to sites that include Ambergris Caye, The Blue Hole, Stann Creek District, The Elbow and Turneff Atoll.

10. Florida

Katherine Wieland snorkels by the the "Christ of the Abyss" statue, an underwater icon for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State park, off Key Largo, Fla. Named after a former Miami newspaper editor, Pennekamp is the nation's first underwater preserve. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Katherine Wieland snorkels by the the "Christ of the Abyss" statue, an underwater icon for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State park, off Key Largo, Fla. Named after a former Miami newspaper editor, Pennekamp is the nation's first underwater preserve. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau) (Stephen Frink/ Florida Keys News Bureau)

Florida’s Paradise Coast is regularly named a top destination for families, and it offers plentiful diving to boot. Explore wrecks and reefs, along with marine life like nurse sharks and sea turtles. Many area dive programs like Scuba Marco in Marco Island offer the Bubblemaker and other junior dive programs.

The Florida Keys boasts North America’s only living coral barrier reef, and a great dive site is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Younger kids can snorkel (see if they can find the Christ of the Deep statue) or take a ride aboard a glass-bottom boat. Junior Open Water certified divers and their adult family members can join one of two daily dive tours from different locations in the park; most sites are no deeper than 50 feet.

Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria Resort in Key West, has a non-certified divers resort course ideal for families who are not certified scuba divers. The course gives participants certification for just one day, starting with a pool lesson in the morning followed by two dives with an instructor in the afternoon to reefs in the tranquil Gulf of Mexico waters.

11. Mexico

(Cabo Adventures)

Another destination that makes for a quick weekend or fall or winter break getaway is Los Cabos, Mexico. The Amazing Snorkeling program at Hilton Los Cabos* is open to ages 5 and older and lets kids “power-snorkel” with water scooters (a personal motorized handheld craft that propels you through the water) in the clear protected waters of a cove in the Sea of Cortes. Kids 12 and older can join introductory dives at the resort, including its 30-minute beginner scuba family activity. Los Cabos offers ideal diving conditions year-round and access to underwater reefs, as well as rock formations in the Gulf of California and the Mexican Pacific. Hilton Los Cabos offers plenty of out-of-the-water activities for kids, as well as Spanish lessons, cooking classes and even a teen Jacuzzi party!

*Due to recent hurricane damage, the hotel is not currently accepting reservations.

12. Bermuda

(Island Tour Center, courtesy of the Bermuda Tourism Authority)

On the Atlantic-based island of Bermuda, you can have an unusual underwater adventure that’s open to kids 5 and older: an undersea walk wearing a “water helmet,” which looks similar to a vintage diving suit. Stroll through the area’s turquoise waters among its colorful fish and golden coral just as if you were on land. No scuba certification required.

13. Mozambique

(Azura Retreats)

At Azura Benguerra, a luxury resort in Mozambique the adventure begins as guests travel to the resort by helicopter. Kids 8 and up can hone their scuba skills in the PADI 5 Star Dive Centre, with a training pool and a full selection of PADI courses. Once everyone is accustomed to safe scuba practices, kids head off with their instructor to dive no deeper than 40 feet in the warm Indian Ocean, where they can explore six reefs that are home to clown fish, green and leatherback turtles, humpback whales, reef sharks, moray eels, whale sharks and manta rays.