Shipwrecks, nudibranchs and terrifying journeys under huge ice sheets — scuba diving offers a unique view of nature. Here is our guide to the top ten diving places in the world.
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It may be a humble creature, but the sardine can put a pride of lions or a herd of buffalo to shame. Almost every year around June, enormous shoals of the fish, millions strong and kilometres long, swim up the South African coast towards Mozambique. It's one of nature’s greatest spectacles.
This large school of fish attracts plenty of hungry sharks, dolphins, blue fish, tuna and more. A highlight for many divers is the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the "bait ball". This is when dolphins heard part of the shoal into a compact mass, pushing the fish towards the surface- making it easier for them and their co-predators to feed.
Tucked between the arid lands of northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea is one of the world’s premier diving sites. Leading off from its northern tip the Gulf of Aqaba boasts some of its best and least-damaged stretches of coral reefs.
The water here is nearly always warm and the vibrant coral reef exquisite. Huge heads of stony, hard corals grow literally as big as a house. Their limestone skeletons support an abundance of marine life, including sea turtles, rays and moray eels. Scuba divers are sure to enjoy the site of shimmering reef fish as they swim over the various fans, sea fingers and sea whips.
The waters around Little Cayman are among the clearest in the Caribbean, let alone the world.
The reef top is fairly flat and relatively shallow – around 8m deep – but when you swim to the edge you are looking into the abyss, 2000m straight down a vertical wall of coral. Floating over the drop-off is a unique experience. A scuba dive through this great blue hole is as close to skydiving underwater as you can get.
Bloody Bay Wall is over 3km long and is one of the best dive places in the world. This area is dotted with coral arches, chimneys and sand chutes. Giant barrel sponges as tall as a man cling to the wall, while barracuda, Nassau groupers and sea turtles patrol the wall.
Just off the island of Cozumel and teeming with marine life, Palancar is just one small part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Experienced divers and novices alike will find hours of fascinating exploration of this fascinating and complex ecosystem.
Lobsters pick their way delicately along outcrops, feelers blown by the current, while blue-green parrotfish gnaw at the coral with their beaky mouths. Striped clownfish hide in the protective tentacles of an anemone, immune to its toxic sting. Mellow sea turtles graze on algae as graceful rays glide by. Here you will find some of the best diving in the world.
The brilliantly turquoise waters here hold over two thousand species of fish, including serpent-like moray eels, gigantic whale sharks and huge, elegant manta rays. With visibility up to 40m, this diving site is where one can find some of the best diving in the world.
Reef sharks are one of the main attractions in the Maldives and are reassuringly unlikely to be aggressive towards divers and grow to be two meters in length. Once immediate thoughts of Jaws have been banished, gliding through the sparkling Indian Ocean only metres from a great predator as it slinks its way around the coral is thrilling.
Here there are plenty of established dive centres. Most offer reef and drift diving as well the opportunity of taking a night dive. The water is clearest Dec through March. However, MaySept is the best time to see manta rays, as a rise in plankton attracts them to the reefs.
If you’re looking for some of the most adventurous and thrilling scuba diving in the world, Tubbataha Reef Marine Park in the Sulu Sea is the place to start. Well out of sight of land and almost 200km southeast of Puerto Princesa in Palawan, this World Heritage Site is only accessible on live-aboard boats when seas are favourable between March and June. Its very isolation means it’s not overrun by package-tour divers, and even during these peak months you’ll probably be on one of only a handful of small boats in the area.
Rise at dawn for a quick dive among the turtles and small sharks before breakfast. Afterwards there’s time for a visit to Shark Airport, where sharks “take off” from sandy ledges like planes, before it’s back to the boat for lunch and a snooze. You can do deep dives, night dives, drift dives, all kinds of dives. Or you can simply fossick gently along some of the shallower reefs, home to so many varieties of coral and fish that it’s hard to know where to look next. For a real buzz, dive deep over one of the many coral walls that seem to plunge into infinity, and hang out for a few minutes with giant manta rays, black-tip reef sharks and, just possibly, cruising hammerheads.
Every diver who comes to Sipadan will see something that they haven’t seen before. Famous for its large resident population of green and hawksbill turtles as well as healthy numbers of reef sharks and magnificent coral, Sipadan is Malaysia’s only oceanic island. Sitting in the Sulu Sea off the northeastern coast of Borneo, it’s also a great base for exploring the nearby shoals of Kapalai and the island of Mabul, well-suited for voyeurs who are tantalized by the mating habits of mandarin fish and frogfish and other cryptic reef dwellers like sea-wasps. Above water, on Mabul you’ll also meet the indigenous “sea-gypsies” – the Badjao – who live either in stilt-houses perched over the lagoon or on their tiny fishing boats which ply the Sulu Sea as far as the Philippines.
Most divers catch a glimpse of a shark in Fiji, usually a small blacktip or nurse shark prowling the edge of the reef. But to see the big boys – 4m tiger sharks or mean-looking bull sharks – you need to take a deep breath and head to Pacific Harbour. Just offshore is a stretch of water that offers the world’s ultimate shark diving experience, and some of the best diving in the world.
Here you will find amazing dive sites with the chance to encounter up to eight species of the ocean’s top predators with no cage or chainmail to protect you. While this is certainly terrifying the dive has a flawless safety record. After signing a waiver to acknowledge that scuba diving with sharks “is an inherently risky activity”, participants are given a tour of the waters. Experienced Fijian divers hand-feed the sharks, while you view the action from a reef-ledge “arena” a few metres below.
Jacques Cousteau championed the Poor Knights Islands as one of the top ten dive sites in the world. And with their warm currents, crystal-clear visibility and a host of undersea attractions, his judgement is understandable.
This area features New Zealand’s most diverse range of sea life. The near-vertical rock faces drop 100m through a labyrinth of rock arches and sandy-bottomed caves. In addition to rainbow-coloured fish, crabs, and soft coral reefs - blue humpback whales are also known to drop in from time to time.
This area is also known for wreck dives. The waters north and south of the reserve are home to two navy ships wrecks, both deliberately scuttled.
How to go ice diving when travel is possible again? 1. Fly to Moscow. 2. Board a 28-hour train north to Chupa, a polar station in the northernmost stretches of the European continent. 3. Head out by Chinese jeep to Polar Circle Lodge in the remote wilderness of northern Russia. 4. Zoom from the lodge out over the frozen White Sea by snowmobile. 5. Saw through the 1.5m-thick ice. 6. Jump in.
Russia’s far north is a landscape of wonder and wandering once the colder months settle in and the unforgiving landscape freezes over, and ice diving in the White Sea – an open body of water that freezes over completely in the wintertime – is probably the most memorable time you’ll ever spend under water. Although the winter air temperature in the Arctic can drop to an extremity-shrivelling –25°C, the water in the sea is thankfully a bit balmier: just below 0°C at ice level and only a few degrees colder towards the bottom.
With base layers, undersuit and dry suit on, the only part of your body to get cold will be your face, but make no mistake: it will be numb within seconds. Connected to the world above via a single safety rope, use your underwater torch to follow your guide down past ice hummocks, rifts, cavities and caves, minnowing under tall arches and vertical rocks overgrown with sea anemones and sponges. After you surface, let yourself be guided along the frozen land by the glimmering northern lights above as you retire to a Soviet-era cottage for some real Russian hospitality, comradeship and – if you’re lucky – a sauna in the buff.
Ice diving is best between February and April.
Top image © Fiona Ayerst/Shutterstock
It's difficult to stop at ten diving spots, as there are countless more we could have mentioned here. Scuba diving offers such a unique view of what is below the surface, and each site offers such different scenery. If you're ready to make the trip of your dreams happen, check out our Rough Guides Dropdown content. With our guidebooks, you can learn more about the best time to go, the best places to visit, and the best things to do in the countries you plan to travel to.
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