Shipwrecks, nudibranchs and terrifying journeys under huge ice sheets all feature in our round-up of the top ten dive sites around the world. If you're unable to travel at the moment because of coronavirus but love scuba diving, our images will keep you underwater dreaming.
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.
Among the best places in the country to witness the Sardine Run is KwaZulu-Natal’s south coast, along which lies the scuba-diving town of Umkomaas. Once under water, it becomes apparent that the sardines have company. They have been tracked by thousands of hungry sharks, dolphins and game fish such as bluefish and tuna intent on gorging themselves silly on an incredibly easy target. The rare, once-in-a-lifetime highlight for the diver is when dolphins herd part of the shoal into a compact mass, known as a “bait ball”, pushing the fish towards the surface where they, along with their hungry co-predators, indulge in a feeding frenzy, darting towards the hapless sardines with gaping mouths.
Tucked between the arid lands of northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea is one of the world’s premier diving destinations, and leading off from its northern tip the Gulf of Aqaba boasts some of its best and least-damaged stretches of coral. The long Egyptian coastline is filled with brash, bustling and rather commercial resorts, and Israel’s slender coast around Eilat can get uncomfortably crowded, but the unsung Jordanian resort of Aqaba offers a tranquillity and lack of hustle that, for many, makes it top choice in these parts.
The water here is nearly always warm and the reefs exquisite. Wide fields of soft corals stretch off into the startlingly clear blue gulf, schools of anthias shimmering over the various fans, sea fingers and sea whips. Huge heads of stony, hard corals grow literally as big as a house, their limestone skeletons supporting an abundance of marine life, including turtles, rays and moray eels. Endless species of multicoloured fish goggle back at you from all sides.
The reeftop 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.
Bloody Bay Wall is over 3km long and 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 turtles patrol the wall. The waters around Little Cayman are among the clearest in the Caribbean, let alone the world, and floating over the drop-off is a unique experience – as close to skydiving under water as you can get.
Teeming with marine life, Palancar is just one small part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which stretches from Mexico to Honduras, but it is in a prime position to flourish. Just off the southwest corner of the island of Cozumel, and part of a larger ring of coral around much of the island, it is washed by slow, steady currents that keep the water clear and bear nutrients from nearby mangrove swamps.
Bumped by clumsy snorkellers, battered by hurricanes and boiled by freakish spikes in water temperature, Palancar not only survives but prospers as a fascinating and complex ecosystem. Any diver, novice or expert could explore this reef for hours – or, if you’re Jacques Cousteau, who put this place on divers’ maps in the 1960s, years.
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 turtles graze on algae; a graceful ray glides by.
The brilliantly turquoise waters here hold over two thousand species of fish, including serpent-like moray eels, bulbous napoleon wrasse and huge, elegant manta rays. With visibility of up to 40m, diving in this remote archipelago, 700km southwest of Sri Lanka, is understandably big business, and established dive centres at most resorts offer reef and drift diving, as well as the opportunity to dive at night.
Reef sharks are one of the main attractions in the Maldives and are reassuringly unlikely to be aggressive towards divers. Often sighted gracefully skimming the edges of the reef, the grey reef shark, distinguished by a lighter strip on its dorsal fin and a black flash across the edge of its tail, can reach up to two metres 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.
The water is clearest Dec–March, but May–Sept 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 bulls – you need to take a deep breath and head to Pacific Harbour on the south coast of Viti Levu. Just offshore is a stretch of water that offers the world’s ultimate shark diving experience – the chance to encounter up to eight species of the ocean’s top predators with no cage or chainmail to protect you. While this could be considered a novel method of suicide, the dive has a flawless safety record and is a great way to learn about these much-maligned creatures.
Having signed a form acknowledging that shark diving “is an inherently risky activity”, participants are given a detailed briefing (no swimming off on your own) before heading out to the Shark Reef Marine Reserve – a protected area funded by money raised from the dive. Here, experienced Fijian divers hand-feed the sharks, while you view the action from a reef-ledge “arena” a few metres below. It’s a bizarre sight: tuna heads and other scraps are served from a giant wheelie bin which soon attracts a swirling vortex of jacks, groupers and giant trevally.
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.
Dive boats spread themselves over fifty recognized dive sites that jointly cover New Zealand’s most diverse range of sea life, including subtropical species such as Lord Howe coralfish and toadstool grouper, found nowhere else around the coast. Near-vertical rock faces drop 100m through a labyrinth of caves, fissures and rock arches teeming with rainbow-coloured fish, crabs, soft corals, kelp forests and shellfish. Blue, humpback, sei and minke whales also drop in from time to time, and dolphins are not uncommon.
A typical day might include an hour-long cruise out to the islands followed by a drift dive through a sandy-bottomed cave populated by stingrays and lit by shafts of sunlight. After lunch on board and perhaps some time paddling one of the boat’s kayaks you’ll head around the coast to a second dive spot, maybe working your way along a technicolor wall of soft corals and a few nudibranchs. As if that weren’t enough, the waters north and south of the reserve are home to two navy wrecks, both deliberately scuttled.
The Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve is 25km off the east coast of Northland.
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