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There is little more exhilarating than strapping on a mask and oxygen tank and plunging into the deep blue waters to check out an eclectic and exotic underwater world. We check out the world’s top 10 scuba diving destinations that guarantee a unique experience for seasoned divers and absolute beginners.
10. Bali, Indonesia
Why: The jewel of Indonesia allures with dazzling aquatic vistas set against a backdrop of sun-kissed beaches, mighty volcanoes and rice paddy terraces. This much-celebrated dive destination boasts some of the world’s best marine biodiversity and plenty of deep-sea surprises.
What to see: The southern side of the island attracts drift diving fans with white sand punctuated by coral bommies whilst the more volcanic north offers an exceptional underwater tapestry of sea life. Bali’s dive sites offer great diversity; from limestone shorelines and vertical walls to volcanic outcrops and coral-covered ridges. Underwater marine sights include the hairy frogfish, pygmy seahorses, cockatoo leaf fish, bumphead parrotfish, mantra rays and reef sharks. The mola mola, often called the ocean sunfish, is best seen between July and October; resembling big floating blobs, these bony fish can grow more than 10 feet long.
Best dive spot: The world-famous USS Liberty shipwreck at Tulamben on Bali’s north east coast was a cargo steamship that was sunk by a Japanese torpedo in 1942. Located 40 metres out from the beach and 30 metres below the surface, she is hailed as Indonesia’s most beautiful artificial reef and widely considered to be the world’s safest shipwreck. The marine life swirling around the coral-encrusted wreck includes sweet lips, thorny oysters, a resident school of jackfish and – occasionally – the great barracuda.
9. Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
Why: Located on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, this diving destination satisfies every demand; from spellbinding coral reefs lurking below the surface of the Red Sea to the legendary SS Thistlegorm Wreck which was discovered by French explorer Jacques Cousteau in the 1950’s.
What to see: Boasting over 40 dive sites that stretch from the Straits of Tiran to the Ras Mohammed National Park, Sharm’s crystal-clear waters reveal spectacular coral in all shapes and sizes. Most impressive are the exotic fish that weave in and out of the reefs and shipwrecks; most easily sighted are the delicately-striped angelfish, coral groupers and parrotfish. The Sinai peninsula is surrounded by terraces of coral up to 100 metres deep where underwater marvels include turtles, dolphins, mantas, napoleons, tuna, hammerheads, barracudas, pelagic sharks, tiny clownfish, humphead wrasse and blacktip reef sharks.
Best dive spot: Accessed by boat, Ras Mohammed National Park is Egypt’s first protected marine environment set 25km southwest of Sharm El Sheikh. Supposedly named for a wind-carved cliff in the area that resembled the head of the Prophet Mohammed, the park is characterised by Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef (great for spotting scorpionfish) and also Anemone City, a fascinating underwater world filled with a magnificent array of hard and soft coral.
8. Koh Tao, Thailand
Why: Once a colony for political prisoners, this enchanting tropical island near the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand offers a wealth of underwater treasures. It is also renowned as one of the world’s cheapest spots for scuba fans to get their open-water dive certification.
What to see: Blessed with crystalline waters and coral reefs that are shallow enough for beginners to explore, Koh Tao is also home to deep granite pinnacles and shipwrecks. Commonly sighted marine life includes the mighty barracuda, bat-fish, giant grouper, moray eels, turtles, sting-rays, cuttle-fish, angelfish, blacktip reef sharks, large green turtles and the occasional harmless leopard shark. Lucky divers at Southwest Pinnacle and Chumphon Pinnacle may get to live the dream and spot a majestic whaleshark; these huge fish make fantastic swimming mates.
Best dive spot: Located just off the south coast of Koh Tao, Shark Island – named after its resemblance to a dorsal fin – has several rock boulders covered by brightly fluorescent blue, purple and green soft coral and a huge variety of hard encrusted coral. It is most famous for the ‘fish junction’ at its northern end where blue spotted rays, leopard sharks, scribbled filefish, starry pufferfish and the somewhat aggressive Titan triggerfish linger. Although Shark Island is suitable for divers of all levels, the current here can be quite strong.
7. Oman, Middle East
Why: Set on the south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula surrounded by the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, the oldest independent state in the Arab world still remains a blissfully little-known diving paradise boasting an exceptionally diverse marine life.
What to see: Emerging as a diving hotspot with sea life similar to that found in the Red Sea, Oman’s most prominent diving areas include Al Khayran, Al Fahil Island, Dimaniyat Islands, Al Makbara Bay (Old Muscat) and Al Jissah Beach. The eye-catching marine life includes over 350 varieties of coral, 22 species of whale and dolphin and an abundance of sea turtles and tropical fish. A group of up to 100 humpbacks reside in Oman’s waters and can be frequently spotted between October and December.
Best dive spot: Accessed by boat from the capital Muscat, the beautiful state-protected Daymaniyat Islands are a cluster of nine tiny uninhabited islands that lie around 11 miles off the Batinah Coast. Placed under the protection of UNESCO, the park covers a total of 100 hectares (247 acres) and delights with crystal clear waters, rare coral reefs and 280 different species of fish. Lucky divers will also spot the odd whale shark, depending on the season. This vast nature reserve is also home to many bird species and a large numbers of sea turtles who lay their eggs and nest here. Access to the islands is restricted and special diving permits are required.
6. Kenya, Africa
Why: The raw beauty of this East African state goes beyond its pristine wilderness, stunning landscape and legendary safari parks. The Kenyan coast is fast becoming the most recognized area to spot magnificent whale sharks and its underwater world is equally as thrilling as its game parks.
What to see: Kenya’s calm coastal waters offer over 140 types of coral and plenty of offshore reef sites that date back to colonial times. The best site for wreck diving is the 80-metre MV Dania, located off Nyali Beach just a short distance from Mombasa. With depths ranging from 12 to 32 metres, this three-storey former carrier was deliberately sunk in 2002. It now lies at the watery heart of Kenya’s Mombasa Marine park, home to large colonies of eels, barracudas, squids, tube-worms, crabs and more.
Best dive spot: Set at the southern part of Malindi Marine Reserve, the Watamu Marine National Park features some incredible coral reefs and abundant fish-life just two kilometers offshore from Watamu. Accessible by a glass-bottomed boat, divers of all abilities can plunge in to discover underwater treasures; from colorful nudibranchs, ghost pipe fish, leaf fish and amazing critters to fringing reefs, coral gardens, sea grass beds, platforms and islets. This protected park is also a crucial area for green sea turtles who lay eggs on Watamu’s beaches at several times a year.
5. Bahamas, Caribbean
Why: An archipelagic nation made up of over 700 islands and more than 2,000 cays and rocks, The Bahamas includes a mesmerising underwater world of sunken Spanish galleons, iconic shipwrecks, underwater caves and psychedelic reefs teeming with vibrant marine life.
What to see: Located in the Atlantic Ocean some 50 miles off the Florida coast and just north of Cuba, Christopher Columbus’ fabled islands guarantee exciting diving experiences; from weaving through challenging caves to navigating complex reef systems. The fringing-barrier reef lying to the east coast of Andros Island in The Bahamas is the second largest reef complex in the western North Atlantic and the third largest in the world. Extending for a distance of approximately 200km (124 miles), it boasts over 164 species of fish and is most famous for its deep water sponges and schools of red snappers.
Best dive spot: Eleuthera Island is 110 miles long and offers more natural wrecks than any other island in the The Bahamas. The top diving sites here include Devil’s Backbone, a shallow and jagged reef extending across the island’s northern edge that is famous for wrecking ships, and also the Current Cut Dive, a high-speed drift dive that propels divers through the water whilst riding the current through fish, eagle rays, large schools of jacks and the odd shark.
4. Maldives, Indian Ocean
Why: A series of ancient coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, this tropical paradise is teeming with rich biodiversity. The Maldives has become one of the world’s compelling scuba diving destinations complete with an abundance of dive sites, coral reefs and superb warm waters.
What to see: Maldivian diving beckons with huge shoals of butterflyfish and oriental sweetlips, white tips, hammerheads, whalesharks, eagle rays, giant napoleons and blue marlin, many of which inhabit vast reef-formations. Located 10 minutes from Male’ (pronounced mar-lay) lies the wreck of the Maldive Victory, a 110-metre long cargo ship that hit a reef and sank in 1981. The bottom of the wreckage now sits about 30 metres below the surface and is home to coral, sponges, tubastrea and large schools of fish. North Male atoll and South Ari atoll also impress with sharks, turtles and schooling game fish.
Best dive spot: Fish Head, also known as Mushi Mas Mingili, is one of the most famous dive sites on the planet. Once a shark feeding site – until the government declared it a Protected Marine Area and banned shark feeding, anchoring and fishing – the reef is in fact a small pinnacle that stretches from 10-12 metres at its shallowest point down to a depth of 35 metres. The underwater scenery is splendid with plenty of sightings of grey reef sharks, dog-toothed tuna, white tip reef sharks and napoleon wrasse.
3. Tobago, Caribbean
Why: A beautiful tropical island measuring 26 miles long by eight miles wide, Tobago offers exhilarating drift dives and a rich variety of sea life. Most impressive is the island’s claim to the world’s largest brain coral – aptly named for its spheroid shape and grooved surface that resembles a brain.
What to see: Tobago’s underwater world tempts with premier sites such as Angel Reef, Flying Reef, London Bridge, Black Jack Hole, Kelleston Drain and Japanese Gardens – all of which are home to many exotic sea creatures and neon-colored tropical fish. There are three wrecks located around its shore, the best of which is the Maverick Ferry, a former 350-feet long ferry which rests perfectly upright on the sea floor around 100 feet off Mount Irvine Point. More spectacular scenery entices at Buccoo Reef; rated as the world’s third best reef by Jacques Cousteau this protected marine park between Pigeon Point and Buccoo Point is great for spotting angelfish, blue chromis and manta rays.
Best dive spot: Coral Gardens, just off Little Tobago, leads divers to the ‘World’s Largest Brain Coral’, a massive ancient colony that measures 10 feet high by 16 feet wide. Also known as Kelleston Drain, the coastal waters are home to a variety of hard and soft corals, barracuda, trunkfish, sponges, eels, black margates and other intriguing creatures.
2. Grand Cayman, Caribbean
Why: The largest of the three Cayman Islands, Grand Cayman is located on a plateau in the middle of the western Caribbean Sea measuring 22 miles long by eight miles wide. Rising straight from the mid-Caribbean seafloor, this paradise island offers over 200 diving sites.
What to see: Many sites are defined by towering canyons, precipitous walls, reefs laced with dramatic swim-throughs and abundant marine life including sea turtles, tarpon, eagle rays, nurse and reef sharks, eels and barracuda. Most sea-worthy is Tarpon Alley, named for the many tarpon (also known as silver kings) who find food refuge in the reef, and also Grand Cayman’s newest scuba diving attraction, the wreck of the USS Kittiwake, a 251-foot submarine rescue ship which plied the seas between 1945 and 1994.
Best dive spot: Considered the world’s ‘Best Twelve Foot Dive’, Stingray City is a unique series of shallow sandbars located in the North Sound area of Grand Cayman. Together with the nearby shallows known as the Sandbar, this site attracts divers from across the globe and provides the only natural opportunity in the world to interact with over two dozen tame and super-friendly Atlantic Southern Stingrays who eagerly await to be hand-fed chunks of squid meat.
1. Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Why: The staggeringly beautiful World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is the largest and most bio-diverse coral reef ecosystem on the planet – it is even visible from outer space. Stretching around 2,300 kilometres along the northeast coast of Australia, from the northern tip of Queensland to just north of Bundaberg, the world’s largest living structure measures 135,135 square miles and encompasses 2,900 individual reef systems, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays.
What to see: The reef hosts 5,000 types of mollusks, 500 types of seaweed and 125 kinds of sharks. Most awe-inspiring for divers is vast expanse of coral, much of which is believed to be 8,000-years-old and has built up on top of dead corals and algae dating back over 500,000 years. Emerging out of this natural wonder is the breathtaking Heart Reef, an iconic heart-shaped coral formation discovered by an Air Whitsunday pilot in 1975. Measuring 17 metres in diameter, visitors are unable to snorkel or dive there due its protected status so it is best experienced from the air by helicopter or seaplane. There are three broadly defined regions of the Great Barrier Reef: Ribbon Reef, where most popular dive site is Cod Hole, famous for its resident population of friendly potato cod, Northern Coral Sea, where the ocean bed is dominated by dramatic reefs, gigantic sponges and pristine coral formations and Southern Great Barrier Reef where the waters are teeming with rainbow-colored fish and marine life. Throughout the waters, divers may encounter 1,800 species of kaleidoscopic fish ranging in size from tiny gobies to massive tiger sharks, manta rays and whale sharks. Most popular are damselfish, wrasses, tuskfish, blennies, scorpion fish, hawkfish, surgeonfish butterfly fish, triggerfish, cowfish, pufferfish, angelfish, anemone fish, coral trout, seahorses, sea perch and sole. There are also 23 species of marine reptiles that inhabit the Great Barrier Reef including 17 species of sea snakes and six species of sea turtles.
Best dive spot: One of the best diving spots is the coral-encrusted wreck of luxury vessel SS Yongala, located in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. She famously sank about 55 miles southeast of Townsville in 1911 and lay undiscovered for over half a century. Nowadays giant Queensland gropers, barracuda, nudibranchs, sea snakes, turtles and eagle rays are just some of the sea life inhabiting this biological wonder which begins 14m below the surface and extends to 28m. Described as an ‘Oasis in the desert’, this is one of Australia’s most diverse dive sites and only accessible to PADI Open Water divers or equivalent who have a minimum of six logged dives.
Article written by Michelle Dunn.