If there’s one destination in the world that’ll see your flippers flung in the suitcase sharpish, it’s the Azores. Diving here puts you in world-class waters with much to see. And yes, the marine life is diverse, beautiful and bountiful, but there’s more to scuba diving than ticking off your pelagic wish list. The wrecks, caves and reefs will tempt you into the water in the Azores – but it’s the unique spots most divers will be desperate to weigh anchor in. Clock up those dive times to get your PADI skills up to scratch for the seamounts. And, if you’ve not got time for that? There’s always the volcanic crater to snorkel or scuba in…
When to go
To the uninitiated, the Azores looks like a diver’s playground. Yes, the marine life is diverse, the underwater archeological parks are doing a grand job of protecting the sunken relics on the sea bed and the eclectic topography is next level. So where’s the catch? There’s one slight sting in the tail of the Azores diving bounty of riches: The Portuguese Man o’War. Drifting in on spring tides, they’re here for the shoals of fish and krill that fill the island’s waters every year, Luckily for anyone wanting to pop on a scuba tank and head below, the influx of krill makes the water visibility so bad, you’ll not mind waiting for clearer seas. The good news? The goldilocks months land between June and October. And, with dive shops on every island (except Corvo), you can add diving to any Azores island hopping itinerary.
Whether intentionally scuppered, or casualties of war and weather, shipwrecks make for extremely atmospheric spots to dive in. Some have resident grouper willing to show you around, others become an entire artificial reef. In the Azores, the value of these wrecks is recognised by the creation of underwater archeological parks. Fishing is generally banned – along with anything that might damage or disturb the underwater architecture.
One of the best examples is the wreck of the Lidador just off the coast of Terceira. The steamer sank in 1878 and has become quite the reef. Lying just 50 metres offshore, at a depth of 8 metres its accessible enough for all levels of divers. And, though you can’t enter the ship, a peer around the nooks a crannies uncovers the usual wrasse, octopus and combers. Keep your eyes peeled for rare gurnard species and planehead filefish.
For the ultimate wreck in the Azores, dive to the São Miguel Island stunner – the MV Dori. The WWII boat took part in several missions before coming to rest in the bay just metres from Ponta Delgada. Rated as one of the top dives in the Azores, it’s a relatively easy one to add to the list. Depths range from 9-20 metres and it’s a popular spot for night dives.
For an unforgettable Azores diving experience, dive over one of the area’s seamounts. Formed by volcanic activity, the underwater mountains provide a whole host of benefits – and challenges for experienced divers ready to experience the ultimate underwater adventure. Their topography often means currents bend to the will of the seamount – but those currents usually bring nutrient-rich waters – and plenty of sea life along with them. In the Azores, there’s a remote dive 20 miles off the coast of Santa Maria. But the added time on the boat gives you a chance to spot whales, dolphins and turtles on route. Once there? You’ll be diving just 5 metres down – to start with, where you can expect to see devil rays sweeping over the top of the mount. Descend further and groupers, hammerheads, tuna, barracudas and manta rays are just some of the large pelagics to look out for.
Expect to also hear about the Princess Alice Bank that lies around 45 miles from Pico. A real technical challenge that doesn’t really get started until you’re reaching depths of 35 metres, the marine life here is exceptional and visibility is usually reaching distances of 40 metres. And, though the real sights don’t appear until later in the dive, there’s often a Galapagos shark or two to welcome you at around the 5 metre mark.
Lava, craters, caves, tunnels and tubes are all big business on land in the Azores. And, when it comes to diving, the ancient lava flows happen to have created some pretty magical spots. The seamounts are great for experienced divers but, happily, there’s a place for the snorkelers and beginners too. In fact, it’s so impressive, you’re bound to spot a few experienced types sneaking in for a scout about. We are, of course, talking about the submerged crater that formed the islet of Vila Franca do Campo. Just a kilometre from the coastline of São Miguel, it’s a prime spot for one of those relaxed holiday dives we rarely treat ourselves too. The crater has left just a small channel open to the sea. So you’ll be swimming in something that resembles a ‘sea lake’.
Currents are, naturally, minimal – so swimmers of all abilities can pop on snorkels for peering down into the clear waters. Though, admittedly, this one’s as much about the stunning scenery above the water as it is what’s happening below the surface.
Azores diving packages just about cover every diver’s wish list, including the chance to swim with a number of different shark species. One of the most exhilarating sharks to spend time with is the formidable Mako – and CW Azores are the people to get you in the water with the 3-4 metre predators. You’ll need at least 50 logged dives for this one – and your PADI Advanced Open Water Diver cert. But all the time in the water leading up to that will be worth the chance to be amongst blue and makos in the Azores. If you’re in the market for a shark species that’s a little more docile, head to the island of Santa Maria. This is the place to spot – and potentially snorkel with, whale sharks. Sightings are on the rare side, so it’s best to drop this in as a potential bonus extra, rather than plan your trip around it.
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to reef dives in the Azores. And, the ones you choose may largely depend on the island you’re staying on. House reefs are the perfect intro to the local conditions and a great starting point for beginners. On Terceira, check out Arraia Reef. It combines a sheltered spot – away from the currents, with a huge amount of sea life. You’ll start the dive around 14 metres from shore, where nudibranchs, octopi and wrasse hang out in the shallows, between the rocks. Venture out a little further and you might catch sight of stingrays, morays and flounder.
Back on São Miguel, there’s a reef to explore that has a few more technical challenges. Baixa das Castanhetas, also known as Damselfish Reef, comes with a network of tunnels to explore. Depths range from 12-45 metres – allowing beginners a peek at this gorgeous reef, while advanced divers get to descend to see devil rays and the pelagics below. You’re not missing out at the 12m level either. Shoals of cardinal fish hang out in the tunnels – along with the larger groupers that love these waters.
Something for everyone…
Almost every top diving spot in the world has its own ‘Cathedral’ – and, you’ll be pleased to hear, the Azores is no exception. As well as being accessible to all levels of divers – strong snorkelers can get in on the action too. For this one, you’ll want to head to Flores, and the Santa Cruz quay. From there it’s just a 5 minute boat ride to the arches and cave that provide a home for groupers and hogfish. For snorkelers, drift on the surface to peer down at the architecture – or hold your breath and go in search of the sea life flitting between the black corals below.