Top Diving Destinations
The conditions that make for great diving—warm, translucent water, good weather, and tropical locales—also make for a terrific getaway vacation. You'll find great bargains at the big Carribean resorts, while exotic destinations such as Borneo and Micronesia promise true underwater adventure.
Fiji: South Pacific Paradise
Ask divers who have sampled most of the world's leading dive spots where they would go for a perfect dive vacation, and more often than not, Fiji is the answer. Topside, Fiji is Polynesia at its best—unspoiled and uncrowded. The water is warm and clear, and there is every imaginable shape and variety of coral in all colors of the rainbow. The variety of dive sites is staggering—from the air, Fiji appears as a vast patchwork of coral, covering hundreds of square miles.
Fiji is one destination where there is no clear choice between live-aboard and land-based options. Both offer advantages and disadvantages. On a live-aboard you will be able to explore the more remote dive sites, and log the most dives per day. On the other hand, you will miss the experience of living on a tropical island, which is one of the best reasons to visit Fiji in the first place. The outer islands are quiet, idyllic retreats where civilization truly slips from your consciousness. The Fijians are a wonderful people, fun-loving and warm-hearted.
The hotbed of Fijian diving is the northern group of islands including Vanua Levu, Matagi, and Taveuni. The Fijian dive resort of choice and the best for experienced divers is Dive Taveuni. The diving is among the best in Fiji (though currents can be strong), and the lodge has been recently upgraded. If you want a little more luxury, you should consider the Namale Plantation, a perfect honeymoon getaway spot. It is a good all-around resort. The Kontiki resort is more rustic, but offers plenty of topside activities, and is one of the few Fijian resorts offering three-tank boat dives. Marlin Bay is the destination of choice for the Beqa Lagoon. The two leading live-aboard boats are the 85-footMatagi Princess II and the 120-foot Nai'a. The Nai'a is based in Suva, but it sails a diverse route visiting good dive sites from Beqa all the way north to Taveuni and beyond. The Nai'a is probably the best choice overall for a Fiji live-aboard holiday. It boasts the best on-board facilities and ventures to the least-crowded dive sites. The Matagi Princess II, based in Matagi Island, visits only the northern islands, including the Somosomo Straits. It does offer combined land and live-aboard vacations however.
Those with limited time may wish to dive the main island of Viti Levu. Despite strong currents, the Beqa Lagoon is easily the best dive area on Viti Levu, boasting fascinating cuts, passages and overhangs, and vividly colored soft coral walls. Lagoon dive trips can be arranged upon arrival.
For diversity of speciesin the water, on land and soaring overheadyou just can't beat the Indopacific. Scientists estimate that for every 50 species of tropical fishes, ferns, orchids or birds in the Caribbean, you will find 500 in the Indo-Pacific. Those impressive numbers translate into exotic and fascinating as the marine life as wellas rich topside culturethe makings of world-class adventure.
Though land-based options are available, a live-aboard is the best way to explore Indonesia, a collection of about 15,000 islands. In addition to the convenience and appeal of virtually round-the-clock diving, the uncrowded islands and the undiscovered dive sites are all easily accessible. On an Indonesian live-aboard expedition, more often than not, the divers from your boat will be the only ones in the water with you. You won't find this kind of solitude in the Caymans or Cozumel.
Many good dive vessels operate from the island of Bali, the Sea Contacts I and II offer dedicated dive trips around Bali and in nearby waters for about $225 a day. Also consider a dive voyage on the Pelagain, a beautiful boat delivering all the amenities for $2,750 per week. It sails June through October, the best dive months int he region.
If you prefer to spend more time shoreside, there are some attractive land-based tours that will still let you sample the spectacular diving found in this part of the world. Manado, on the north side of Sulawesi, has several fine dedicated dive resorts, as well as a full range of hotels. At the Kungkungan Bay Resort, designed by and dedicated to divers, a seven-day package with 12 dives costs $1,575. The Murex, a family-run resort, offers a diving package priced at $100 per day. Either hotel can be booked through Tropical Adventures (800.247.3483. www.divetropical.com). For a more Western-style resort experience, the Tafik Ria Hotel offers a seven-night package, including dinners, for $800.
From the bustling waterfront city of Manado, you can also make an easy day trip to Bunaken Island Marine Park. An extensive fringe reef borders the park. Beyond, there's a steep drop-off where divers often catch a glimpse of large pelagicswhales, mantas, and whale sharks. Big schools of jacks and barracuda are an everyday occurence. Inside the reef, it's a tropical aquariummore species of coral and fishes than can be counted.
The water is neither as clear nor as warm as in the Caribbean or Indo-Pacific, but it doesn't really matter. Big sea creatures are what Baja diving is all aboutsea lions, mantas, and schooling hammerheads, even whales.
The two major dive hubs in Cabo are Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. In Cabo, the oldest and by far the best dive shop is Amigos Del Mar, which coordinates the diving at many of the major resorts. In La Paz, a half-day to the northeast, the diving is done from beach resorts. Although the shoreside resorts are appealing, for serious divers, a live-aboard is the best way to go. It opens the opportunity to dive at the better-known Sea of Cortez sites, such as the Salvatierra wreck, El Bajo sea mounts (mantas and hammerheads), and Los Islotes Island (sea lions), which are quite a distance from the beach resorts. With a live-aboard, you avoid time wasted in transit, permitting you four or five dives a day, rather than just two.
A longer live-aboard tripusually eight to ten dayswill give you the chance to experience what one world-renowned photographer called the "best place I have ever dived." Located in the Pacific about 250 miles south of the tip of Baja California, Socorro and San Benedicto Islands are part of the Revillagigedo chain. Known as the Mexican Galapagos, a trip out to these volcanic islands offers the chance to get up close and personal with large speciesgiant mantas, schools of hammerheads, whale sharks, bottlenose dolphins, tiger sharks, enormous schools of tuna, and more.
The best time to visit the Revillagigedos is November through May. In the late fall, the water is warmer, usually about 80 degrees, the hurricane season has ended, and the visibility averages 100 feet. Be careful when choosing your outfitter; only a few live-aboards have permits to run dive trips to this protected area.
There's something about diving with large gentle sea creatures that has an almost universal appeal. The crystal waters of Hawaii make most anywhere an ideal diving spot. But if you're looking for a thrilling family adventure vacation, check out the manta ray night dives on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Surrounded by very deep water (about 18,000 feet), the Hawaiian Islands are a natural magnet for large sea creatures. Green and hawksbill turtles, spinner and other species of dolphins, and the occasional whale frequent these waters, as well as more than 600 species of reef fishes. However, one hotel, the Kona Surf, has discovered a way to gather some of these big pelagics, notably the Pacific manta ray, for night feeding by shining spotlights down into the water near shore. Large quantities of plankton swarm to the lit area, and of course, plankton-eaters like the manta aren't far behind. These mantas have a wing span that averages five to eight feet, but can grow to more than 14. Watching them swoop in, gliding, even somersaulting through the sea, using their enormous fins to funnel water and plankton into their open mouths is a diving thrill you won't soon forget.
Divers typically gather in a circle on the bottom, shining their dive lights into the center of the open water column, which further concentrates the plankton and allows the mantas plenty of area in which to maneuver. Non-diving members of the family may join in, as a number of the operators welcome snorkelers as well. Snorkelers remain at the surface, also at the perimeter of the circle.
All the operators who make this night dive follow established guidelines for the manta encounter. Protecting the animals is the primary focus of these rules, and touching the mantas is strictly prohibited. A number of dive operators in Kona offer manta dives, and it's advisable to make reservations, especially during peak season. Price averages $60 to $150, depending on extras, operator and season. WiSoem outfitters offer a two-tank, two-location dive that includes a light supper and all gear. Make the first late-afternoon dive at another site, then move to the Kona Surf for the main attraction. This is an excellent way to get comfortable if you haven't made many night dives before, or if it's been awhile since you were last in tanks.
While there are a number of swim-with-dolphin programs that use captive creatures in enclosed pens, at present the Bahamas is the only place where tourists can interact with dolphins in the open ocean.
Since 1979, UNEXSO (Underwater Explorers' Society), a Freeport-based dive center, has conducted a unique program that allows humans to swim with dolphins both in saltwater pens (as assistants to the trainers) and the open ocean. The big attraction, however, is the ocean dive program. Several times a week, UNEXSO's dolphins are released to sea. The participants, who must be certified divers, board a launch to rendezvous with the dolphins at an offshore coral reef.
After being released into the ocean, UNEXSO's dolphins meet up with the dive boats a mile from the island. Under the supervision of the dolphin handlers, a group of from ten to 15 divers swim with the dolphins for about 20 minutes, taking turns interacting in close quarters with the dolphins. The dolphins are friendly and quite responsive, having been taught hand commands used by the divers. It is all fairly businesslike (the dolphins perform their duties in response to hand signals), but it is still the experience of a lifetime for most divers. UNEXSO has been criticized for keeping dolphins in captivity, but it is to be remembered that once the dolphins are released into the sea, nothing compels them to return.
For non-swimmers, UNEXSO has a Close Encounter program that may suit you. At Sanctuary Bay dolphins approach people who are standing in the water.
If UNEXSO's program seems too artificial, it is also possible to dive with wild dolphins off Grand Bahama, although contact with the creatures is not such a sure thing. One of the Bahamas' leading live-aboards, an 80-foot catamaran, makes regular seven-day trips to the shallow turquoise banks north of Grand Bahamathe favored playground of wild spotted dolphins. On a good day, dolphins surround the boat by the time the anchor is secure. Familiar with the operation, the wild mammals circle around the dive ladders, and often swim close to the divers during the entire session.
If you are interested in a more serious, multi-day dolphin encounter, take an eight-day cruises between to study wild spotted and bottlenose dolphins off Grand Bahama Island. Non-disruptive observation of dolphins is a goal on these expedition, conducted as part of an ongoing research effort, focusing primarily on the behavioral ecology of spotted dolphins. One past participant described her experience: "The water was the temperature of my skin, and I lost all sense of boundaries. A five-foot dolphin calf came to me and started corkscrew turns down to the ocean floor. I circled with him, down, then catapulted to the surface, exhausted and delighted."
Costs for these programs vary by season and desired length of stay; UNEXSO's ocean dives run approximately $125, while the Close Encounter program costs around $30 for a two-hour outing. The catamaran trip, which commonly stretches over seven days, runs about $1,200, while the observation cruises, commonly held May through September, can run as much as $2,000 for eight days.
The Caymans are the most popular dive destination in the Caribbean, and despite the heavy use, there are few better dive locales in the Northern Hemisphere. The water is warm, the wall-diving is world class, and the visibility is consistently excellentthe best in the central Caribbean.
While the Caymans have countless good dive sites, Grand Cayman can be crowded, and those in the know prefer Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. The coral is less chewed up, and there are more fish. Little Cayman's Bloody Bay Wall is spectacular, while favorites on Cayman Brac include Sea Fan Wall and Butterfly Reef.
No trip to the Caymans would be complete without a chance to dive with stingrays in the shallows of Grand Cayman's North Sound. At Stingray City and Sand Bar, divers can hand-feed the rays in crystal clear 10- to 15-foot waters. While on Grand Cayman, don't miss its famed North Wall. But dive with some caution; it starts fairly deep, at 70 feet, so you must monitor your dive times carefully.
The quality of the dive shops in the Caymans is higha result of the intense competition. You won't go wrong with any of the top operators. Most offer day-trips and longer, live-aboard programs that will give you a wide sampling of the treasures offered below the waves.
The Federated States of Micronesia, which includes the islands of Truk, Pohnpei, and Yap, is on everyone's list of top 10 dive locales. Here you will find unequaled wreck-diving, great visibility, large sea creatures, and thick schools of tropical fish. And the neighboring archipelago of Palau will fill in whatever aquatic absense you may feel after your Micronesian exploration.
Truk, (or "Chuuk" as natives say), the site of one of World War II's great air and sea battles, is a wreck-diving site without peer. In all there are over 80 diveable wrecksyou could spend a month here and not see it all. Truk's underwater world is not just rusting hulks. With time the wrecks have become artificial reefs alive with corals and sea life. Scuba Times magazine has written: "Truk Lagoon is the absolute ultimate.... Dive it and be spoiled forever." Unfortunately, most wrecks are fairly deep, between 60 and 90 feet, so the lagoon is not the best destination for novices.
Those looking to explore the most interesting wrecks and log the most dives should seriously consider a live-aboard. Most ships are comfortable, well-equipped vessels with quality crews. Stay anchored in the lagoon, or explore the outer atolls and reef walls , providing a needed break from wreck-diving.
After Truk, Palau is the region's leading attraction. Indeed, Palau has been ranked as one of the best all-around dive sites in the world. A large atoll with over 200 islands, Palau offers diversity found nowhere else. The variety of dive sites in a small area is staggering, with 60 great drop-offs starting at surface levels and dropping to 300 meters. Water is 82 degrees, with visibility regularly 125 to 200 feet. Palau boasts a dozen blue holes, and a famed five-chambered cave system. The sea life is superb1,000-pound clams, thick schools of reef fish, and large pelagics.
If you have time left after Truk and Palau, we recommend a two- or three-day visit to Yap. Yap's Mil Channel is perhaps the best place in the world for giant mantasclose encounters are virtually guaranteed.
An eight-day live-aboard trip runs about $2,000; the ship features double staterooms with private heads. Smaller boats may be a more attracgive option; they can sit right on the dive so you don't have to swim long distances or be ferried and you can rack up more dives each day.
At 2,000 kilometersabout 1,200 milesthe Great Barrier Reef of Australia's northeastern coast is the only life form to be seen from the moon.
The biggest misconception about the reef is that it's one long unbroken fence of coral. Instead, there are actually 2,900 individual reef systems, which hook together like a giant Paint-by-Numbers painting. It's up to the individual divers to fill in the space, with their own experience.
The GBR is not only the largest reef system in the world, it's one of the healthiest. And its biodiversity is nearly off the charts as the result of its clean, toasty, shallow waters and its sheer isolation from landand the associated human impacts. Compare it to the Florida Keys, for instance, where the list of fish species is 400; along the GBR, it is 1,500with 4,000 types of mollusks and 400 species of hard and soft corals. Staghorn corals, a reef builder that may average an inch or two back in the Caribbean, can grow eight to l2 inches yearly here.
The entire reef is now protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, a worldwide pioneer in zoning the reef by usage and closely monitoring impacts.
As a general rule, from Cairns northward, waters are warmer and calmer and the reef is closer to shore. The reef in the far south begins 120 miles from shore; at Port Douglas just north of Cairns, it's only 20 miles way. High-speed 300 passenger catamarans zoom out to the reef edge from both Cairns and Port Douglas (carrying only a small portion that are actually divers). Beyond that, the northern reef is mostly the territory of live-aboards, all the way up to the Torres Straits.
On this reef, everything is big and colorfulthe coral, the fish (including the 500-pound Queensland groper), even the giant tridacna clams, the ones with the iridescent mantles. As for shark attacks, you should worry more about the box jellymore die from it than Great Whites. The dive skin was invented here for that reason!
Australia is a haul to reachat least 18 hours from Los Angelesso be prepared. If you're lucky, you can find a direct flight on Quantas or Air New Zealand from L.A. to Cairns for $1,000 (round-trip) and under. Once you get there, you can low-budget it with European backpackers at the many hostelsor book a private room at any of the many motels and hotels. A hostel bunk will cost you $10 to $15 a night, usually with a communal kitchen with $2-3 meals. Single rooms will go from the low end of $50 to $500 at the exclusive resorts. Cairns has the best selection and widest range of rates. Live-aboards, booked before your trip, give you the best look at the reef, but it's a shame to go that far and not sample at least some of what Aussies call the exotic "Reef and Rainforest Coast" of Far North Queensland.
When Charles Darwin explored the Galapagos aboard the Beagle some 150 years ago, he took away with him the genesis of his theory of natural selection. Today, this set of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean is regarded as a living laboratory of evolutionwhere the giant tortoises and finches and a great many topside creatures have been gradually changed by their unique environment.
But that uniqueness extends underwater as well, with a Noah's Ark full of critters either transformed by their local environment, or simply made more dramatic by their presence here. Among them are colonies of sea lions, sea turtles, penguins, endemic tropical fish, and great schools of pelagicsdeep water denizens including hammerheads and the massive Galapagos shark.
Sited some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, these islands are often mist shrouded anddespite being on the Equatorcooled by the Humboldt current flowing up from Antarctica. Originally charted by the Spanish as Los Islas Encantadas (The Enchanted Isles), the Galapagos have become one of the classic oceanic destinations for veteran divers. The oceanic pinnaclesincluding the northernmost isles of Darwin and Wolfare the best for the charismatic megafauna. About 20 percent of the fish are endemic to these islands; so are strange animals like marine iguanas and flightless cormorants, which dive to 60 feet and more to catch fish.
Since 98 percent of the 13 major islands here are protected as national parks, the only practical way to experience themtopside or underwateris from a boat. Live-aboard dive boats roam the islands equipped with compressors and staffed with Ecuadorian divemasters trained in local ecology and certified by the park service. But don't expect Love Boat-style accommodations or diversions. People come to these islands for the rare, in-your-face nature, not luxury. Make your reservations well in advance with a reputable company. Beware: There are many inexpensive and marginally safe dive boats that run day trips out of the tourist towns on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. The longer a boat or tour wholesaler has been operating, the better.
You can fly to the mainland jumping off points of Quito and Guayaquil in Ecuador from major American ports like Miami, New York and Los Angeles, via American and Saeta, the Ecuadorian national airline. Saeta jets will also shuttle you out from the mainland to the two airports in the Galapagos, on San Cristobal and Baltra, adjacent to Santa Cruz. It's often necessary to spend a night coming and going on the mainland. (Some use this as opportunity to schedule extra days to visit the cloud forests and Highlands of the surrounding Andes.) An 11-18 day cruise can be priceyfrom $2,500 to $6,000, depending on whether airfare from the U.S. is included.
There are snorkeling opportunities for non-divers, but for the more hard-core dives, you should have some active scuba experience under your beltcurrents can be tricky and the waters cold, with thermoclines sometimes dropping the temperature another ten degrees at depth. Bring a wetsuit and a hood.
What you'll have is Cuba, a place time-locked by a U.S. embargo prohibiting American investment and even tourist travel here since 1961. It is an island is bigger than all the other islands in the Caribbean combined, locked inside a 2,000-mile-long coastline.
Oddly, Cuba has been protected by its economic and political isolationthe people are far friendlier than Jesse Helms would have you believe, and the bargains among the best you will find in the Caribbean. Indeed, well-traveled divers compare it to the Caymans 20 years and more ago, in both the quality of the waters and the pre-Americanized affordability.
Generally, Cuba has much more undersea potential than it has dive infrastructure to support it. There are four main areas served by dive shops and boatsthe Sabana and Camaguey island chains on the north, the Archipielago de los Colorados on the northwesterly cape; Jardines de la Reina on the south; and the Isla de la Juventud, the massive southerly island due south of Havana.
Some of the best visibility is off the most remote pointssuch as the leeward edge of the westerly limestone and sand peninsula called Cabo San Antonio. For best visibility, avoid sites near harbors, and where rivers and streams run into the sea, especially off mountain ranges like the Sierra Maestras.
Safety and poorly maintained rental gear is not the problem it was ten and even five years ago. Today, there are at least 11 recompression chambers around the island, and increased demand by Italian and German divers has resulted in better gear.
And Fidel himself, El Commandante, is a scuba diver, although at 72, most of his best dives are in his logbook. He's also an ex-spearfisherman whorecognizing the dangers spearing can have for larger, mature fishhas banned all spearfishing here. A number of no-take marine preserves are also set up around the island, some of which even require permits to visit.
It is illegal for American citizens to spend money in Cuba via the Trading with the Enemy act. Yet, an estimated 5,000 Americans visit here yearly, and that will increase as the restrictions on travel are loosened. All agree travel and investment restrictions will be dropped when Castro leaves the scenealthough sport divers should hope that new prosperity doesn't retrofit the pristine marine environment with concrete and bulkheads.
For now, the easiest way in is through any foreign countryCanada or the Bahamas providing the most routine access, with regular flights. For a real bargain, take a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish with you and get outside the tourist areas. Good hotels in downtown Havana, like La Valencia, have $40 a night rooms; clean but more spartan hotels will be half that. A big meal of Cuban picadillo with espresso can cost $2.