You may picture Cancun in your mind and see beach revelers at fiestas along the shore, but what you may not realize is the vast diving world available in this tourist destination. Cancun offers dozens of diving locations to explore, including great barrier reefs, tunnels filled with sharks, shipwrecks, and even an underwater museum!
How to Scuba Dive in Cancun (And 7 Best Spots) will be about signing up for a course that aligns with your level of expertise. You will dive with a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Certified instructor or become PADI certified yourself for open water diving. The 7 best spots in Cancun for diving are:
- El Muso Subaquatico De Arte (MUSA)
- The Cenote Chikin Ha
- Carey Dive Center – Dive with Whale Sharks in Isla Mujeres
- Mesoamerican Reef
- The USS Harlequin Shipwreck Dive
- Cenotes Dos Ojos
- Reefs Around Cancun and Isla Mujeres
Use this guide to understand everything that Cancun offers in regard to diving, snorkeling, and exploring beneath the water. We will provide you with diving tips, safety regulations, the best diving locations around all of Mexico, and all the hacks to make this getaway your best one yet!
Is Cancun Good for Scuba Diving?
Often pigeonholed due to its reputation of being a party destination, Cancun offers more than meets the eye.
Just a few reasons why diving is so popular in Cancun are:
- You can dive in the ocean as well as the crystal-clear fresh waters of the Cenotes (there are over 6,000 cenotes to swim through in the Yucatan)
- Second largest barrier reef in the world
- 30 dive sites within the highly popular Cancun National Marine Park
- Varied sites such as coral reefs, shipwrecks, or the art-filled statue museum
- Shallow waters
- Children can dive as young as age 10-12 (depending on the rules of each diving facility), and there must be a Certified professional and guardian present
- Able to experience new marine life such as Turtles, Sting Rays, Rainbow Fish, Nurse Sharks, etc.
- An affordable and unique experience that will offer memories for a lifetime.
There are dives for all levels of expertise and age groups.
Most diving will take place by driving out to a diving location by speedboat with your certified instructor. A few dives (such as the cenotes) can be accessed from the shore.
If you are overwhelmed by the idea of diving, feel free to grab a scuba mask and just swim around the shore for a shallower depth and no dive tank. The snorkeling scene in Cancun is just as lively (if not more) than the diving scene.
Choosing Your Diving Experience
When selecting where you want to dive and learn about the skill, you can choose experiences such as the following:
- Reef Diving – Most will choose to remain within the Cancun National Marine Park, which will be predominantly comprised of reefs. With over 30 dive sites, you’ll have plenty of ground to cover and locations to choose from.
- Wreck Diving – Many divers use Cancun for this purpose as they are filled with marine life, coated in unique marine flora, and offer a hauntingly beautiful look at an underwater ecosystem. These will be deeper, and often the water-pressure at this elevation can be difficult for beginner divers. This will depend on each unique location, and the recommendations from the PADI certified professionals that lead the dives. Read their notes to understand the difficulty level and if it is suited to your group’s level.
- The Underwater Museum – A must-see for any tourist in Cancun. With 400 statues surrounded eloquently by vibrant aquatic life, this is a majestic scene that will transport you to another world.
- Open Water Diving – This will be best suited to advanced divers that have already completed an open-diving certification and their coursework. This is because there are greater depths being reached and higher water pressure; however, there are beginner-level open diving courses that you can shop as well.
- Cavern Diving – Mexico is filled with an underwater labyrinth of caves and cenotes. If you are diving into a cave that extends beyond the reach of sunlight, you will require a Full Cave Certification. If you are diving into a cave that is exposed to sunlight at the entrance of the cave, then an Open Water Diver Certification will suffice.
Explore each package, service, and recommendations from PADI professionals to determine which diving site is best suited to your groups:
- Wants and desires for the overall experience
Where to Begin
Once you’ve decided that you want to incorporate diving to your Cancun itinerary, it is time to determine how serious you are about diving.
Your options will be to:
- Sign yourself and your group up with a PADI certified diving instructor – The world-wide standard for diving certifications that will be accepted globally.
- Become PADI certified yourself – In which case, you will be certified for life and able to dive anywhere, even in international waters where allowed. You can still dive with an excursion and group once certified, but your skills will be much more honed for a safer and more enjoyable diving experience
There are countless beginner diving courses in Cancun, and the best way to dive could be to start your PADI training. It will look the same as a general excursion, but your money will actually go towards a certification instead of just an experience.
How to Scuba Dive in Cancun
Now that we’ve covered the various types of dives you can experience in Cancun, let’s discuss how to dive! In the next sections, we will discuss the incredible importance of PADI certification to diving.
Breaking these down into basic steps that relate to your curriculum material within PADI’s school, the steps to scuba dive are as follows:
Before You Dive
- Practice Your Breathing – Breathing through an oxygen mask will feel different at first compared to breathing above the sea-level. It may feel a bit strange at first but attempt to breathe naturally and normally.
Rule #1 in scuba diving is to never hold your breath. This can cause your lungs to injure through overexpansion and pop like an air balloon. It can also lead to pressurized issues that alter your blood’s natural level of CO2. If you are breathing quickly or feel nervous, do your best to calm down and steady your breathing to an average pace.
- Double Check All Gear – Once all equipment is attached and ready, you should always complete a double-check. This has and can save lives. The steps to do a pre-dive safety check for yourself or any diving companions will be:
- Check the BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device), which will be more comfortable to adjust before you put it on. Confirm the functionality of all inflators and releases. Examine the over-inflate valve.
- Check the tank strap and confirm it can tighten properly, so avoid slipping off of you.
- Confirm that all weights are fitted and in place. Confirm nothing is hindering your belt from releasing in case of an emergency.
- Look at your R-Releases and confirm they are secure (the equipment hanging from the BCD).
- Know how to deploy your DSMB (Delayed Surface Marker Buoy) which will mark your diving spot on the water’s surface for passing boats.
- Most importantly – Check your air supply and that the tank is fully supplied and secured. As Rushkult says, “You will often still read that the turn back is a safety precaution. However, it is responsible for some deaths. The tank valve should be either fully open or fully closed.”
If diving at night:
- Turn your flashlight on and off to ensure batteries are functioning properly. If it is chargeable, ask yourself if it has been fully charged enough for the amount of time you plan to dive.
- Bring a backup light
- Confirm your air mix is calibrated if enrolling in a nitrox dive.
While You Dive
- Maintain a neutral buoyancy – If you are not there, release or obtain air within your BCD.
Your buoyancy and breathing will be related as your breath will make you more buoyant when your lungs are filled.
- Propel Forward with Fins – Some tips for swimming with fins are:
- Don’t work too hard or you will create an irregular breathing pattern that is dangerous. Keep an even-pace that feels comfortable and not overly strenuous.
- Keep your legs straight and don’t touch the ground as there could be sharp coral, ecosystems easily damaged, or wildlife hidden beneath the sand.
- Don’t doggie paddle; simply move your legs back and forth which will launch you forward.
- Arms and hands won’t be required for diving so you can comfortably leave them at your side or use them to swim. A beginner may be more likely to use arms while diving, but this can throw off your buoyancy. Practice using only your fins and it will become second nature more quickly.
- Start Out Shallow – In the shallower waters, less compressed nitrogen will be present to enter your bloodstream and decrease your oxygen levels. Essentially, the closer you stay to the water’s surface, the easier the dive will be and the longer the oxygen tank will last.
Safety Tips While Diving
While diving, safety should be at the forefront of everything you do. A few tips to keep in mind while diving are:
- Never Outpace Your Group/Instructor – If you are diving in a group setting, you may need to swim in reverse and wade a bit to keep rhythm with your group. You don’t want to end up separated so do your best to watch the instructor and follow their example on diving speed. Since air must be retained for slow breathing, you should not be racing around or overly exerting yourself.
- Breath – Since one of the most common reasons for diver’s injuries or death is due to lack of oxygen, you must prioritize your breath. Keep in mind that your lungs will expand as you ascend towards the surface, but they will contract and grow smaller as you descend towards the bottom of the sea where pressure will be at its highest. Excess air will disperse and escape from your suit as you dive, but if you attempt to hold your breath you can rupture a lung. Do not take this lightly as holding your breath while diving can be fatal.
- Ascend slowly – Do not ascend faster than 30-feet per minute. You will follow your instructor’s example for ascension speed, but it must be gradual. By rising too quickly, you can force an extraneous amount of nitrogen into your bloodstream, which can cause decompression sickness (also known as the ‘bends) that will cause air bubbles to become trapped in the joints, potentially fatal.
- Hydrate Before and Afterwards – Dehydration can be a precarious state to be in if you are diving. You can be sweating as you dive, on top of the very dry oxygen that will come through your tank. Reasons why you must drink water throughout the diving process are because being dehydrated can lead to:
- Red blood cell malfunction
- An increase of nitrogen-concentration within the blood
- Bodily cramps that could cause you to drown (especially important if diving alone)
- Sinus clog if you are already stuffed-up/sick. This can make ascending and descending even riskier due to the pressure; therefore, it is advised not to dive while sick.
All of these skills will be taught in PADI training and we recommend that anyone that dives should become PADI certified.
Is it Illegal to Dive Without Certification?
It’s not illegal to dive without a certification, but it is dangerous.
Based on expert opinion, you really should not dive without a certification.
There is no law against it but many diving locations will have rules about allowing you to dive, restricting those that are not PADI certified.
Do not be surprised if they will not allow you to dive without a certification. This will be up to the discretion of each diving location in Cancun. They have the valid right to decline you or not accept your money if you are not certified, especially for upper-level dives that are more advanced.
You should always dive with a PADI professional or become certified yourself. Having a certification is the safer option.
What is PADI?
PADI (The Professional Association of Diving Instructors) is self-described as the world’s leading scuba training organization with “more than 6,600 PADI Dive Centers and Resorts, and 137,000 individual PADI Professionals who have issued more than 27 million certifications around the world.”
There are a few other Scuba certification brands (such as SSI, RAID, and BSAC); however, the reason that we recommend PADI above all other diving schools is because they are the most globally-accepted certification that will allow you the most international flexibility.
As you noticed in the last section, a certification may be required for specific dives that you’d like to do. We would love to encourage everyone to become PADI certified before diving because you will be a much safer and skillful diver.
Since the certification never expires and will be valid for life, you can use this in all of your future travels, as you’re sure to fall in love with the immersive hobby. Even with a basic certification, you will be cleared for dives not exceeding 40-feet, and you will feel much more confident in your abilities for a safe dive.
What You Will Learn in PADI Enrollment
A few tips/notes/details on the information you will receive during your PADI training are:
- You will learn things such as:
- Buoyancy skills for descending and ascending
- How to breathe underwater
- How to stay warm underwater
- How to dive with a buddy safely
- How to swim properly
- How to avoid life-threatening potentials that occur underwater
- How to boat dive
How Do You Get Certified by PADI?
The process can take as much or as little time as you’re seeking to commit. Some people will spend a year on the coursework; others will complete it in a weekend.
It is recommended that you get certified before your travels to Cancun; however, there are PADI locations in Cancun, such as The Cancun Scuba Center’s Open Water PADI Certification Course.
In this local Cancun course, you will receive:
- Certification that lasts a lifetime
- 4 dives included
- All equipment as rentals
- All exams
They state that you will need a minimum of 4 days to complete the course for around 10 hours of pool work for 4 reef dives for hands-on training. You must be 10 years old for this course, but other schools in the same city will state a minimum of 12 years old. Due to this range, you must always check the fine print if you are diving with children.
How Much Will a PADI Certification Cost?
The PADI Open Water course linked above will only cost $425. Quite affordable for a certification that is active for a lifetime anywhere you may seek to dive, as well as 4 separate diving excursions.
There are other courses, such as the Beginners Scuba Diving Course, which will only cost $105.
The cheaper course will not include PADI certification, so weigh out the cost/benefit of spending a few extra hundred dollars to get 3 additional dives as well as a globally-recognized certification that doesn’t expire.
Also, keep in mind that there will be a diving tax in Mexico of 16%. This tax is often added to your diving experience’s bill (whether you’re becoming PADI certified or just taking a diving excursion) and you will see it listed as an included item along with things like:
- A PADI-Certified tour guide
- Rental Equipment
- Transportation, etc.
Explore different diving schools to find the right one for your preferences, but always seek out a PADI-Certified professional scuba diving school or diving affiliation that is on par with the PADI-standard.
Tips for PADI Certification and Swimming Competency
- If you are a beginner, start with PADI Scuba Diver training or a Junior-Level beginner course before upgrading to Open Water Diving Courses. The Open Water courses will involve longer theory training sessions and pool examinations. The Junior courses will be a warm-up for Open Water courses, (the Open Water courses being required to dive into advanced sites such as the caves and deeper shipwrecks).
- You will also want to get PADI certified if you’re going to interact with dolphins and other marine life at a greater depth than Cancun’s typically very shallow waters.
- Swimming isn’t necessarily part of diving and most say there is no correlation in your swimming ability to your diving competence. You are not trying to stay above water; you are moving through it which will only require fin/foot control.
Scuba school will not require you to pass a swim test, but you should have reasonable swimming capabilities and be of generally good health and possess basic athleticism. The starting age for diving is 10, which should give you some indication that you don’t need to be an Olympian. It is only recommended that you are capable of controlling your body sufficiently without the need for a floatation device.
- You do not need to be incredibly in-shape or physically fit to dive, but it will help. Some things to keep in mind about body fat and diving is that:
- Increased buoyancy will interfere with a dive, and a dive-belt could be required to weigh down a person that is over-weight.
- Body fat requires oxygen which will take away from the oxygen you need to continue and maintain energy.
- A physically fit diver will have a considerably easier time diving than someone with a high percentage of body fat.
7 Best Diving Spots in Cancun
The best locations to dive in Cancun Mexico will be plentiful and gorgeous.
As home to the Great Mayan Reef, you will experience the stunning coastal waters that can be enjoyed from open-water locations or directly on the shore.
The best diving locations in Cancun will be:
- El Muso Subaquatico De Arte (MUSA) – This is a highly-sought after excursion in Cancun and an incredibly ambitious art installation that was created for underwater viewing. With nearly 500 statues of people of all ages, this exhibition was created by Jason deCaires Taylor. He sought to develop an essence of the ocean, using these statues as ‘defenders of the sea.’ With over 750,000 visitors each year, this stop should surely be added to your bucket list.
- The Cenote Chikin Ha – Cenotes are scattered throughout Mexico and should be added to your diving itinerary. It will appear as a tropical pond from above, but once you dive into the cave, you will find an underwater cave into another world. With many caverns being flooded over 13,000 years ago, they are filled with stalactites and stalagmites. There are three cenotes surrounding the park, this Chikin Ha tour reaches maximum depths of 50-feet and includes two cenotes.
- Carey Dive Center – Dive with Whale Sharks in Isla Mujeres – As a location that also offers PADI courses, this is an incredible Cancun attraction if you are visiting during the whale shark migration period which extends from June 1st until September 15th. This tour is top-rated by Trip-Advisor and includes all diving equipment along with a certified guide.
- Mesoamerican Reef – Protected by the World Wildlife Organization, this is the second-largest barrier reef in the entire Western Hemisphere. Encompassing over 700-miles of reef, this beautiful environment should be at the top of your list to dive if you are looking for colorful reefs and exotic marine life.
- The USS Harlequin Shipwreck Dive – This C-58 sweeper lies at the bottom of the ocean about 85-feet below the surface. It will require a 40-minute boat ride as well as an Open Water Diving Certification, but that is because this is one of the best dives in Cancun. This ship dates back to WWII and was sunk intentionally by the Mexican navy in the 1980s when they sought to create an artificial reef. You will find countless fish varieties and unique wildlife, distinctive flora, and 500+ eagle rays that pass through annually during each migration season.
- Cenotes Dos Ojos – As one of the largest cavern systems in the Yucatan peninsula, this cenote’s name translates to ‘Two Eyes Cenote.’ This oasis is a 400-meter passageway into a wide-open underwater cavern. For a very affordable entrance fee, you can swim here freely. Rentals are available for diving equipment at a separate cost. Explore this website for more information on the cenotes of Mexico, which they call the ‘Underwater Water of the Mayas.’
- Reefs Around Cancun and Isla Mujeres – There are dozens of locations surrounding the Isla Mujeres, where you can also discover countless cenotes. Explore these areas and consider trying something like night-diving once you are a bit more acclimated with the process or have received certification.
Best Time to Visit Cancun
There is no wrong time to dive in Cancun. Diving is open year-round but a breakdown of each period and check out this post on weather in Cancun:
- The best time is considered from November to May because the ocean is calmest at this time. The water will be coldest from August to October
- The best time for cenotes will be between May and September as there is optimal lighting for cave photographs.
- During Summer, it will be the warmest, busiest, and therefore the most expensive. This is when children are out of school, so prices are raised for travel and lines will be longer. You will want to reserve earlier for a better rate during the Summer but keep an eye on weather updates due to Hurricane season.
- June to September is the period to book between for whale shark sightings during their migration period.