Dozens of whale and dolphin species, plus sharks, manta rays, mobulas and sunfish, have put Portugal firmly on the map of bucket list dive destinations. With some of the clearest, bluest waters in the world and stunning islands, diving in Portugal is not to be missed.
New divers will appreciate the shallow, colorful reefs dotted along the mainland, whilst experienced divers enjoy impressive wrecks, deep reefs and blue water dives with thrilling pelagic action.
With so much on offer, it is no surprise that Portugal has won the World’s Leading Destination – Europe award several times. Read on to discover this undisputed marine life mecca in our ultimate guide to diving in Portugal.
9 Great places to go diving in Portugal
1. Northern Portugal
From north to south, Portugal boasts an array of landscapes above and below the waterline. The northern region is greener than the south, with numerous natural parks, historical sites and thriving cities. Together they offer plentiful wine and foodie delights plus stunning architecture.
While diving in northern Portugal isn’t at the top of most divers wish lists, it is well worth diving there. There is a surprising number of wrecks, underwater rock formations, canyons and swim-throughs to explore. All of which are teeming with fish life.
Top dives sites in the area include Bezerros, Pêlo Negro, the sunken cruise ship Ruy Barbosa, and the famous U-1277, a German submarine from WWII.
2. Central Portugal
Portugal’s central region is more mountainous than the north and is swathed in fragrant pine and chestnut forests. History buffs will enjoy the historic villages and old stone castles dotted among Central Portugal’s mountains, whilst divers explore the wind-swept coast.
Big wave surfers flock to world-famous Nazaré in Central Portugal for its epic waves and long beach. Take a short boat ride from Peniche and you’ll be among some of Portugal’s top dive sites. But before you hop on a boat, make sure you dive around Peniche. There are plenty of options for diving off the beach and around Peniche Fortress’s inlets.
3. Berlengas Islands
The Berlengas UNESCO Biosphere Reserve has some of the best diving in Portugal, with crystal-clear waters and a wide variety of fish, including enormous sunfish. These strange-looking fish gather by the hundreds off the Berlengas Islands during summer and are a truly spectacular sight to see.
As well as sunfish, the Berlengas Natura Reserve has large schools of sea bream, groupers, conger eels, visiting dolphins and schools of small colorful fish. With a backdrop of rocky landscapes and wrecks, this is a fantastic destination for diving.
Situated on an idyllic sandy bay in the foothills of the Serra de Arrábida mountains, Sesimbra is a popular tourist resort known for its seafood and soft white sands.
There are dozens of diverse dive sites along the Sesimbra coast, including old communications cables, deep rocky landscapes and current-swept wrecks, plus challenging technical dives.
With caves, canyons and walls covered in bright sponges, plus easy shore dives as well, there is something for every diver to enjoy.
Located just east of Sesimbra, Setubal is a historically-rich area of Portugal with exciting reefs for all experience levels. It is one of the most popular areas for diving in the Lisbon Region.
With easy access to the Arrábida Marine Park just offshore, you can dive in some of Europe’s most biodiverse waters and explore fascinating shipwrecks and rock formations covered in vivid life.
6. The Algarve
The beautiful Algarve is famous for its stunning cliffs and calm, Atlantic Ocean waters that stretch to the horizon. With nearly 200km of coastline, there are seemingly endless opportunities to go diving in the Algarve.
Dive sites all along the coast cater for novices right through to expert divers and include Portugal’s largest reef. The mix of nutrient-rich waters from the Atlantic Ocean and the extensive reefs create unique marine biodiversity dives.
Carrapateira on the western coast of the Algarve offers crowd-free diving among shallow rocky landscapes, with overhangs, walls, and caves that are perfect for advanced divers.
Sitting in warm, shallow waters, the Burgau wreck is a great option for newer divers who want to try wreck diving without committing to anything too challenging. You can also go snorkeling there.
7. Ilhas Do Martinhal
Just a few hundred meters off the coast of Sagres in the southern Algarve, the Ilhas Do Martinhal are a group of barren limestone islets jutting out of the ocean. An important breeding ground for seabirds, these islets host a staggering array of marine life as well.
There are channels full of shoaling fish and canyons covered in anemones, sea fans and crustaceans. Around the islets, you will find caves to explore, sunlit grottoes and sheltered inlets, all surrounded by clear blue waters with few people in sight.
The Azores need no introduction as one of the world’s premier dive destinations. Sitting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by endless blue waters, these famous islands host over 3000 marine life species. Azores diving is hard to beat for megafauna and pelagic fans who want an accessible yet remote destination.
The nine volcanic islands that make up the Azores have huge underwater boulders, pinnacles and seamounts, with marine life large and small. As well as diverse macro life, the Azores hosts schooling pelagic fish, mantas, blue sharks galore, mobula rays, sea turtles and whales.
With water visibility reaching up to 60 meters, diving in the Azores is incredible whichever island you explore. There are deep dives sites, famous WWII wrecks and coastal reefs for all experience levels.
9. Madeira Island
Known as the ‘Pearl of the Atlantic’, Madeira is famed for its subtropical climate and fantastic scuba diving. This small archipelago packs a punch for ocean lovers, with world-class whale and dolphin watching and an abundance of dive sites.
Jacques Cousteau once said he found some of the cleanest waters in the world at Madeira and they are still exceptionally clear. The volcanic landscapes and reefs around the islands host an array of fish life all year, plus passing rays, barracudas, and leatherback sea turtles during summer.
As well as picture-perfect reefs, diving in Madeira includes excellent wrecks. Highlights include the wrecks at the Eco Park and Garaju Marine Nature Reserve. When you’ve finished exploring Madeira’s many highlights, hop over to Madeira’s sister island, Porto Santo, for two of the best wrecks in the world.
10. Porto Santo Island, Madeira
Porto Santo is another diving gem in Portugal’s crown, with water visibility up to 40 meters and two awe-inspiring wrecks: the Madeirense and the Corveta General Pereira d’Eça.
The Madeirense was sunk in 2001 and sits at 30 meters, surrounded by marine life including groupers, kingfish and amberjacks. The Corveta General Pereira d’Eça, a Portuguese Navy warship, was only sunk in 2016 but is already a thriving reef.
As well as wrecks, Porto Santo has striking walls and 50-meter-deep reefs for technical divers.
What marine life can you see when diving in Portugal?
Portugal’s rich and varied waters host a variety of marine life. From classic reef life to schooling pelagics and marine megafauna, Portugal has it all.
Portugal’s reefs and wrecks are encrusted with life, including colourful corals, sponges and sea fans that host a variety of crustaceans. Conger eels, lobsters and octopi are commonly seen on the reefs and there are reef fish of all shapes and sizes.
If you love whales, dolphins, sharks and rays, Portugal scuba diving is for you. They are found in abundance at the Azores and Madeira. Whale watching season is from April to October, though you can see whales there all year.
For the best chance of diving with groups of sunfish, visit the Berlengas Islands during summer.
What experience do you need to go diving in Portugal?
With so many diving hotspots to choose from, Portugal diving is suitable for all experience levels. It is a great destination for family dive vacations, island-hopping adventures and city breaks with diving on the side.
When is the best time to go diving in Portugal?
Diving in Portugal is great all year, though the main dive season runs from April to October. For sunshine and warm waters all year, head south to the Algarve or Madeira.
Kathryn Curzon, a shark conservationist and dive travel writer for Scuba Schools International (SSI), wrote this article.