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To prepare for last year’s epic trip to the pristine Indian Ocean waters of the Maldives, I became a certified scuba diver – and now, with the Maldives and Australia’s Hamilton Bay under my (weight) belt, I’ll admit that I’m a certified scuba addict!
The world is full of incredible dive sites, but these ten beauties float at the top of my bucket list:
1. Blue Corner, Palau: This remote island in the Western Pacific (in the neighborhood of Micronesia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) is famous for its deep chasm (over 90 feet!) created by a plunging wall of soft coral. Currents are notoriously strong here, but you can clip yourself to one corner of the wall and hang out, watching schools of (thankfully shy) blacktip and reef sharks, turtles and eagle rays, and trying to spot eels between fan corals and anemones. Across the shelf are sandy channels set back from the drop-off, where currents are calmer and you’re likely to spot red-toothed triggerfish, barracuda, butterfly fish and Moorish idols.
2. Gran Cenote, Riviera Maya, Mexico: Found near Mexico’s east-coast Riviera Maya near Playa del Carmen and Tulum, the more than 7,000 ancient limestone caverns called cenotes (pronounced say-NO-tays) were once thought to be a sacred network of entrances to the Mayan underworld. These days, the enormous Gran Cenote is better known as one of the clearest dive spots on Earth, with complete visibility to approximately 30 feet. You have to have a guide in order to explore this site, and groups aren’t allowed to have more than four divers. Set south of Cancun near both Tulum and Coba, it’s easy to combine a dive here with a visit to the Mayan ruins at either site or a stay in Playa del Carmen, where you’ll find Priority Club property Holiday Inn Express Playacar, Fine Hotels & Resorts’ Maroma Mayan Riviera by Orient-Express and Visa Signature’s Fairmont Mayakoba.
3. Bajo Alcyone, Cocos, Costa Rica: Only discovered by the Cousteau Society’s Alcyone ship back in 1987, this remote site is set a whopping 341 miles off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Above the surface, the island is a national park with a tropical rainforest, while 85 feet below it features a seamount that attracts whale sharks, hammerheads, dolphins, tuna, and every conceivable type of ray, from giant mantas to mobulas and marbles. Its reef is a popular hangout for octopi, eels and the area’s funny little horned fish, the Cocos blenny – so it would certainly be a popular hangout for me, as well.
4. Miller’s Point, False Bay, South Africa: Set about 15 miles outside of Cape Town (a city I love) on South Africa’s Cape Peninsula, this boat or shore dive has a maximum depth of 42 feet, but visibility extends as far as 50 feet. Most famous for its huge schools of cowsharks and shysharks, the reefs are full of colorful corals and blazing bright nudibranchs. Southern right whales flock here between June and November, and humpbacks migrate here between May and December, so on the way out to the dive there’s a chance you’ll spot yourself a whale or two.
5. Half Moon Caye, Belize: Fifty-two miles off the coast of Belize’s Ambergris Caye (pronounced “key”), the spectacular Half Moon Caye is home to plunging walls of colorful coral that attract tons of marine life. Though its neighbor is the more famous Blue Hole, this site is the better place to see a reef in macro action. Visibility goes on for ages, and you’re likely to (very clearly) see loggerhead turtles, tarpon, eagle rays. Swim through caves that shelter groupers, barracudas and Moray eels, and towards the surface you could spot razorfish, conch and garden eels.
6. Rainbow Reef, Somosomo Strait, Fiji: The South Pacific island of Fiji didn’t earn the title of Soft Coral Capital of the World by mistake, and they don’t call this site Rainbow Reef for nothin.’ The Somosomo Strait’s crystal visibility and strong currents (the name means “good water” in Fijian) make it easy to feast your eyes on drop-dead stunning colors. The reef is especially famed for its Great White Wall, a sheer drop-off that extends to 65 feet and is encrusted with pinkish-white soft corals, but its also known for diveable caves lined with orange, red and yellow soft corals that promise to blow your/my mind.
6. Darwin’s Arch, Galapagos, Ecuador: There are no macros or reefs in this particular slice of the Pacific Ocean – it’s all about size and scope. Widely considered the best dive spot in the Galapagos, visibility is clear between 40 and 80 feet down, and you’re bound to see massive schools of fish, rays and sharks, from indigenous Galapagos sharks to tigers and hammerheads.
7. Mabul, Borneo, Malaysia: Near Sipadan, this unique site is best known as a stellar macro destination. Divers wade in along a plain of sand until they start to see seagrass, which provides soft shelter for exotic marine life like fingered dragonets and flamboyant cuttlefish, as well as seahorses and filefish. After the drop-off, you’ll see that Mabul’s rocky reefs are popular with giant frogfish, Moray eels, and crocodilefish, and if you make it down to the sandy bottom you’ll find an old shipwreck. If you’re looking for romance, hang out here and watch bigfin reef squid do their mating dance and lay their eggs in the sand.
8. Blue Maomao Arch, Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand: About 14 miles offshore from the southeast (or Tutukaka) coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the Poor Knight Islands are a string of 11 million-year-old volcanoes that sit right on the continental shelf and have been water-carved into huge caves, tunnels and archways. Named for a native fish called the Blue Maomao (which rhymes with cow cow), this particular arch marks the site of a well-lit, cathedral-sized aquarium full of, well…blue maomao. I’ve heard that sometimes there are so many of these fish here that you can’t see other divers. Most of the site is pretty shallow, but the bottom drops to 49 feet towards the east end, where you could see free-swimming yellow morays eels, giant stargazers and stingrays, wrasses, blennies and huge grouper. The arch itself is covered with colorful sponges, hard corals and little nudibranchs.
9. Ningaloo Reef, Coral Bay, Australia: One of the world’s largest fringing reefs, Ningaloo stretches along 162 miles of Western Australia’s mid-north coast. Home to a protected marine reserve, divers can see as many as 200 species of hard coral and 50 of soft coral, as well as over 500 (500!) species of fish.
10. Tubbatha, Palawan, Philippines: I’ve always wanted to do a live aboard diving trip, which is when you live on-board a boat and dive every day. They may not be the fanciest vessels, but it’s all about the diving and being able to hit spots that you normally wouldn’t be able to reach during a single dive trip. The Phillipines are known for their far flung dive spots and Tubbatha is one of the premier spots to go reef diving and see large marine life, including sharks (my favorite!).