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Dreaming of the deeps: World's most epic scuba diving destinations

If only salt water -- sweat, tears and the sea -- really was the cure for everything, as Danish author Isak Dinesen once said. Then scuba diving would be jus...

Posted: May 7, 2020 3:59 AM

If only salt water -- sweat, tears and the sea -- really was the cure for everything, as Danish author Isak Dinesen once said. Then scuba diving would be just the antidote the world needed right now.

Until it's finally safe to get out exploring the world again, however, you can dream of where to dive beneath the surface of the ocean for the most wonder-inducing views on the planet.

"There are so many aspects of scuba diving that may be beneficial in directing our minds away from worries, stresses and daily demands," says clinical psychologist and PADI scuba diving instructor Laura Walton, who has dived everywhere from the South Pacific to Scotland.

"In modern life, we are constantly pulled into the past, present and future through our ability to think," she says. "But when we dive beneath the water, our attention is captivated by absorbing experiences of entering another world."

Depending where you descend, that might mean finning through a "Christmas tree forest" of baby corals off the Florida Keys, coming face to face with a wall of sharks on a French Polynesia atoll or having a stare-down with a giant Pacific octopus in the cold waters of British Columbia.

The world's most intriguing dive destinations take intrepid to the next level.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Bali brings the traveling masses to Indonesia. But intrepid scuba divers know to hop another flight east in the archipelago to West Papua, where some of the very best diving on the planet awaits in Raja Ampat.

This archipelago of four main islands (and over 1,500 smaller ones) sits in the Coral Triangle, at the bullseye of the planet's marine biodiversity, with sheer walls, fields of healthy coral gardens and a tremendous variety of microhabitats for divers to explore. Divers can base on land at properties like Misool Eco Resort or travel the region via a live aboard dive vessel such as the Damai II or the new Aqua Blu.

"Raja Ampat is best appreciated by somebody who is truly interested in the sheer variety of marine life," says underwater photographer Brandon Cole, who has visited the remote region many times to dive.

The clear warm waters of the marine protected areas here are home to over 1,300 species of reef fish and veritable fields of corals that are among the most pristine in the world.

"You can come back and say you saw nine species of anthias, five species of pygmy seahorses," says Cole, "Indonesia overall has continued to over-impress fish and coral geeks. But Raja Ampat deserves its position at the top."

Tuamotu Atolls, French Polynesia

Leave Bora Bora to the honeymooning, overwater bungalow crowd and hop a flight northeast from Papeete in Tahiti to get to the Tuamotu Atolls instead -- a chain of 80 islands and atolls that look, from the air, like coral ring life preservers tossed across an expanse of water that could blanket most of Western Europe

When you enter the water on the incoming tide to dive through the passages on atolls like Rangiroa and Fakarava (the latter is designated a UNESCO Biosphere reserve), a very sharky experience unfolds.

"The adrenalin kicks in as soon as you jump from the boat into the clear, warm water," says Bali-based underwater photographer Mike Veitch. "Some 75 feet down on the reef, hundreds of grey reef sharks surround you. And you can enjoy their incredible grace and power as they glide through the water, ignoring the divers around them."

After admiring one of the most impressive and reliable shark aggregations in the world, let the current push you into the atoll's calm, turquoise lagoon, where you might spot a manta ray winging its way across the pristine coral beds.

Palau, Micronesia

You've likely seen Palau and its iconic mushroom-shaped karst limestone islands on a screen saver or two, so staggering are the aerial views. And the newly reopened Jellyfish Lake is another classic Palau calling card.

But until you've submerged underwater in this marine wonderland located some 500 miles east of the Philippines in Micronesia, you haven't seen Palau at all.

The most famous Palau dive site, Blue Corner, is a reef that juts out into the open ocean, with big upwellings that attract passing pelagic fish, reef sharks and schooling clouds of pyramid butterfly fish, among many other species.

Local Palau wildlife guide, marine biologist and diver Ron Leidich has called Blue Corner an "underwater Serengeti," so riveting is the experience of diving in such an abundant confluence of marine life.

Divers use a "reef hook" at sites like Blue Corner to tether themselves to rocks to watch the spectacle of passing reef sharks and clouds of tropical fish in what are often strong currents.

"Palau is hands down the best place we've ever been diving," says diver Frances Gulick, of Dallas, Texas, who usually takes several dive trips a year with her husband. "Nothing compares to watching sharks hunting in front of you while a resident Napoleon wrasse photobombs like a puppy dog of the sea."

Sam's Tours and Paddling Palau offer a range of above water and below-surface expeditions.

Fiji

Get ready to see coral reefs in colors you didn't imagine existed outside of "Finding Nemo" when you plan a dive trip to the islands of Fiji, a South Pacific wonderland of 333 islands known among divers for being the soft coral capital of the world.

"There's something about that Fiji blue water and the yellow, red, purple, green and pink background of the coral reefs and walls that makes the whole scene look like it was painted by an impressionist master," says Cole, "With anthias and fairy basslets schooling on many of the reefs, it's as close to diving in a kaleidoscope as you can get. A truly fractal experience."

Famed dive sites like Beqa Lagoon on Viti Levu, Fiji's main island, draw shark divers to mingle with shark wranglers and eights specie of sharks, with regular tiger and bull shark sightings.

But you'd be remiss not to spend most of your bottom time in Fiji exploring the technicolor reefs and walls within the Namena Marine Reserve, between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, where the colorful corals are truly like no place else on Earth.

The Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort delivers on creature comforts back on land.

Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia

One of the world's top destinations for keen wreck divers is Chuuk Lagoon (previously called Truk Lagoon) in Micronesia, where over 60 Japanese warships were sunk during World War II by the US Navy in Operation Hailstone of 1944.

Tightly packed into the roughly 35-square-mile Chuuk Lagoon, the enormous sunken wrecks attract divers to fin through veritable underwater museums of war graves, tanks, torpedoes, Japanese Zero planes and winding interior passages best explored alongside a local guide who knows all the nooks and crannies (liveaboard dive operators like Odyssey Adventures can arrange that).

The violence that rained down on this beautiful corner of the world is palpable even under water, where the bones of Japanese victims can still be seen fused to the steel wrecks. But the profusion of coral life carpeting cargo holds and crawling up the sunken masts and the clouds of tropical fish swirling all around you drive home the message that life, indeed, goes on.

If you dive just one wreck, make it the 500-foot-long Shinkoku Maru, a former Japanese fuel supply ship covered with a rainbow profusion of sponges, soft corals and anemones.

Key Largo, Florida Keys

Shipwrecks like the 510-foot-long Spiegel Grove and shallow spur and groove coral reefs frequented by sea turtles in warm clear waters -- all just a short drive from Miami -- are among the draws that make Key Largo one of the best and most accessible spots in the United States to dive.

But for something different during your visit to this part of the Florida Keys, join an out-planting excursion with the Coral Restoration Foundation to be part of the largest coral reef restoration effort in the world. You'll learn how to harvest coral from the organization's offshore coral nurseries during a dive, followed by the chance to plant it in a new place on a living reef.

The organization's largest coral tree nursery covers 1.5 acres of sea floor and has more than 500 coral trees holding 60 to 100 corals each.

"Corals are critical for creating habitat for all the marine life we like to see," says Alice Grainger, communications director for the CRF. "All our genotypes were originally collected in the wild, so they're very hardy. The corals we're returning to the reef are thriving."

And diving through a coral nursery, says Grainger, is a singular experience. "It's like swimming through a forest of coral Christmas trees."

Vancouver Island, British Columbia

One of the world's best cold water diving experiences is found in the waters off Vancouver Island. And the bracing water temperatures are worth braving to see what underwater photographer Brandon Cole, who has logged over 3,000 dives in the Pacific Northwest, deems "hot colors in cold water."

"If it wasn't for that 45 to 50 degree Fahrenheit water, you could easily trick yourself into thinking you're seeing the colors of the tropics here," he says, "The invertebrates -- soft corals, anemones and sea sponges -- are particularly colorful."

The best dive sites are on the eastern flank of the 300-mile-long island just west of Vancouver city, with year-round access to famed shipwrecks off Nanaimo, including the HMCS Saskatchewan (a 366-foot long destroyer escort), as well as sheltered dive sites off Port Hardy in the Queen Charlotte Strait.

Two bucket list cold water critters divers come here to see are wolf eels and the giant Pacific octopus -- the largest octopus in the world that averages about 110 pounds and 16 feet across.

"So much of the area is swept by strong currents that act as a conveyor belt for the nutrients and oxygen that supercharge marine life," says Cole, "Learning how to dive the tides is key to enjoying what Vancouver Island has to offer."

Sea of Cortez, Baja, Mexico

It's impossible to talk about diving in the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) without name-dropping a legend. After all, it was Jacques Cousteau himself who referred to the rich waters between the Baja California Peninsula and Mexico's mainland as "the world's aquarium."

Encounters with friendly California sea lions (the juveniles have a tendency to playfully nip at divers' fins) are the most common lure when it comes to in-water interactions. But the more than 800 species of fish and animals that call these waters home also include manta rays, whale sharks, schooling hammerheads and megapods of dolphins.

Head to Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, Isla Espiritu Santo Island and La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur, to score some of the area's best diving.

Cocos Island, Costa Rica

Diving by liveaboard dive boats is the only way to access Cocos Island, a remote Pacific Ocean island that belongs to Costa Rica and lies some 330 miles off the mainland.

"Enchanting is a word that gets kicked around a lot in travel, but if a jungle island ringed with waterfalls right out of Jurassic Park where every dive is a shark dive doesn't do it for you, I don't know what will," says Mary Frances Emmons, editor-in-chief of Scuba Diving magazine.

Cocos Island is an eastern Pacific way station for every kind of creature, she says, from Galapagos and hammerhead sharks to parrot fish, squirrel fish, rays and jacks by the thousands.

'We got the full monty at the dive site called Submerged Rock, a small underwater mountain with a large, fish-filled arch at 65 feet," says Emmons, recalling a trip aboard the Okeanos Aggressor II that delivered all kinds of fish including barnacle blennies, juvenile Pacific creolefish and schools of Moorish idols.

"We got lucky near the end of our dive when we stumbled on a pack of white tip sharks in a hunting frenzy not far from the surface," she recalls, "An unusual daytime glimpse at a top nighttime attraction in Cocos."

Bahamas

The Bahamas, too, is all about sharks -- but what sets the Caribbean archipelago apart from other top shark diving destinations in the world is how accessible it is and the sheer abundance of species that can be seen.

"This is the up close and personal shark diving experience," says Cole. "Long before there was Sharknado on TV, there were sharknadoes in the Bahamas."

Divers kneel on the sandy bottom at the dive site called Tiger Beach, where tiger sharks come in close off the western end of Grand Bahama during one of the Bahamas' most legendary dives. And Cole says there's no better place than here to see the striped apex predators.

But many other apex sharks can be regularly seen and dived with in the mouthwash-clear waters of the Bahamas, too, he says, including great hammerheads, lemon sharks, bull sharks and oceanic whitetips.

Add to that adrenalin rush the Bahamas' many shipwrecks, plunging walls and the chance to regularly snorkel with wild dolphins off islands like Bimini and you've got the all makings for an epic adventure a short jaunt from the US.

Solomon Islands

The world's most fascinating dive destinations blow you away below the water and then again when you surface, too.

Case in point, the Solomon Islands, a remote South Pacific nation of 992 islands and coral reefs best known best for Guadalcanal and for being a major battleground in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

A cultural mix of Melanesian, Polynesian and Papuan influences swirl on land. And for divers, there are endless shipwrecks, downed airplanes and even sunken submarines to explore during expeditions via liveaboard dive boats or from land-based eco resorts.

Add to that abundant fish life, pristine pastures of hard coral and authentic village visits, and you'll find culture, history and marine biology intertwined at every turn.

"The Bonegi II is accessible from Honiara and is a great shore dive," says Florida-based underwater photographer Tanya Burnett about one of the Solomons' most famous WWII wrecks, located in Iron Bottom Sound. "It breaks the surface so snorkelers can enjoy it as well. On a calm day, it can be really spectacular, with visibility from top to bottom and coral growth covering the wreck."

Uepi Island Resort, perched on Marovo Lagoon, offers a comfortable base for divers.

National Park Revillagigedo, Mexico

Another Pacific destination that you'll need to book a berth on a liveaboard dive boat to access, National Park Revillagigedo lies some 250 miles southwest of the Baja California Peninsula and is considered the largest fully protected marine reserve in North America.

"There's a remarkable abundance of large pelagic species such as giant oceanic mantas, humpback whales, dolphins and sharks," says Mexican wildlife film maker and underwater photographer, Erick Higuera, who has been diving the waters around the park's four volcanic islands since 2006.

Sites around the islands of Socorro, San Benedicto and Rosa Partida, in particular, deliver underwater views like no place else, he says. And divers can often see large aggregations of yellowfin tuna, trevallies and jacks as well as several shark species (silvertips, hammerheads, silkies and more) on a single dive.

Most divers, however, are drawn to the area for intimate encounters with giant oceanic manta rays, which typically have wingspans of 23 feet. "But interactions with wild bottlenose dolphins in the water here have become just as good," says Higuera.

Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand

New Zealand's topside views (most from the South Island) get the lion's share of the Hollywood love.

But divers who blow bubbles underwater at the Poor Knights Islands -- a collection of volcanic pinnacles jutting up from the seafloor off the North Island -- have a whole different take on the country's legendary scenery.

Home to thick kelp forests, the waters here don't exactly beckon like Bali (during the southern hemisphere summer, water temperatures average about 72 degrees). But it's precisely the mix of New Zealand's cooler ocean waters mixing with warm currents swept south from the Coral Sea that make for the unusual denizens that cruise the Poor Knights.

"Biologically it's neat because it's a mixing of cold and warm water critters," says Cole, which means you might see parrot fish, moorish idols and sea turtles alongside cool water critters like scorpion fish and the ubiquitous blue and pink maomaos (colorful fish that tend to congregate in arches and shadowy grottoes).

"Folks go to New Zealand for green travel and to be outside, but very few go below the water line," says Cole, "And the water in the Poor Knights is truly tropical blue."

Red Sea, Egypt

If North America divers have the Caribbean at a stone's throw, then the comparable backyard diving Mecca for Europeans is the Red Sea.

Here, off the tip of the Sinai Peninsula between Africa and the Middle East at Egypt's Ras Mohammed National Park, you'll find some of the clearest seas on the planet for scuba diving (there is almost no natural runoff from the Sinai to cloud the surrounding waters).

Extraordinary walls of healthy hard corals abound. And around Dahab and Sharm al Sheikh you can access many dive sites right from the shore, with no boat required.

"Orange anthias are everywhere and not shy with divers, who may also find themselves surrounded by angelfish, butterflyfish and colorful broadtail and Napoleon wrasse," says Emmons.

Wreck divers delight in descending on the famous British Navy ship SS Thistlegorm, the Red Sea's most popular wreck. Emmons says to add the former cargo ship, the Giannis D, to your wreck wishlist, too.

"it's a playfully disorienting jungle gym that suggests diving in an M.C. Escher drawing, come to life," she says.

Dominica

Out-of-the-way Dominica has never caught on with visiting divers the way more trodden Caribbean dive destinations like Grand Cayman and the Bahamas have.

But in addition to its coral-clad walls and reefs, Dominica offers something many Caribbean islands can't -- the chance to swim with resident sperm whales that frequent the waters during specially permitted boat trips.

Even if you come to the Caribbean's Nature Island just to dive the reefs, however, you won't leave disappointed. And the place to see the corals and fish life at their best is within the protected Soufriere-Scotts Head Marine Reserve on the island's southwest tip.

"The diving in Dominica has surprisingly lush reefs. I kind of think of it as the Indonesia of the Caribbean," says Cole. "It's not a place to see big fish on the reefs, but it's a great spot for beautiful sponges, feather stars and weird little fish."

Portugal

Divers needn't venture far beyond Lisbon for some of mainland Europe's most dazzling underwater views.

Some 40 minutes south of the city, just offshore from Portugal's diving capital in Sesimbra, you can find yourself ogling octopus and calm reefs carpeted with waving fans and anemones.

Descend deeper here to dive one of Europe's most exciting shipwrecks. The River Gurara MV, a Nigerian cargo ship, split in the middle when it wrecked during a fierce storm in 1989. The propeller is still intact and conger eels, morays, squid and wrasse all take shelter within the ship's flooded nooks and crannies.

Much farther offshore, the volcanic archipelago of the Azores delivers with open ocean dives and sightings of the resident sperm whales. At the submerged seamount called Princess Alice Banks in the Azores, shoals of mobula rays swim in circles around the pinnacle at a depth of around 90 feet in what can only be described as a vortex of wonder.

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