Travel tends to take place on land or, at the very least, in the open air. But some of the planet’s most spectacular sights, and many of its most graceful and awe-inspiring inhabitants, are situated many meters down beneath the surface of the sea. There, you can explore submarine cave systems formed by a rift between two tectonic plates; discover a 110-meter wreck wreathed in coral and sea life; and watch in stunned astonishment as 15-meter humpback whales drift by, journeying hundreds of miles through the Pacific, voicing their mournful songs as they go. Even if you’ve never dived before, this list of 10 astonishing sites will galvanise you to stick on a pair of flippers, pop your ears and descend into the salty blue.
In the midst of the shallow, turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, the dark indigo of the Blue Hole forms an ominous yet alluring cylinder. It’s a submarine sinkhole descending 124 meters into the sea bed, its sides composed of jagged limestone cliffs, which are covered with myriad murky underwater formations: caves disappearing into rock walls, multi-colored stalagmites and stalactites, jutting ledges and shadowy depressions. Swishing among all this underwater geology you’ll find several species of shark, most commonly Caribbean and nurse sharks, and sometimes bull and hammerheads. It’s a challenging site, suitable for advanced divers, who can reach the very bottom and explore for an average of eight minutes before they must begin the ascent.
The Red Sea’s warm water, excellent visibility and miles of wildlife-rich reef make it one of the world’s best spots for novice’s to develop their diving skills. But to reach the most spectacular underwater regions, divers need a little more skill. Ras Mohammed marks the point where the Gulf of Aqaba and the Gulf of Suez meet, so the whirling currents can be exceptionally strong. This, combined with the nutrient-rich coral of more than 10 reefs, creates ideal conditions for marine life, of which there is an enormous and kaleidoscopic diversity – a stark contrast to the barren desert of the shoreline Sinai Peninsula. Within the park, you can also dive down to Yolanda Reef, to explore the wreck of a Cypriot freight ship, whose cargo of toilets, sinks and bathtubs remains scattered across the seabed where it sank.
Beqa Lagoon, only an hour’s journey by boat from Fiji’s main island, contains 100 square miles of calm, warm water protected by the rocky arms of 30 km of barrier reef. All this makes it very accessible for less experienced divers, although beginners may be a little taken aback by the lagoon’s main attraction: a vast shark feeding frenzy. Descend into the warm blue water to see up to eight species of shark swarm round a few brave humans, dishing out fish to the sharp-toothed predators. Grey, whitetip, bull, nurse and tiger sharks are among the regular dinner guests, while octopi, eels, rays and hordes of tropical fish can also be observed gliding through the lagoon’s soft, colorful coral.
In 1911, the passenger ship SS Yongala was sailing for Cairns along the Queensland coast when it was caught in a cyclone and sank just south of Townsville. All 122 people aboard the ship were killed, along with a prized racehorse and a famous Lincolnshire bull, in one of Australia’s great maritime disasters. The ship’s final resting place wasn’t discovered until 1958, and in the decades since it has grown into one of the world’s best wreck diving sites. The approach to the wreck, through murky ocean with little but limitless water in sight, is an eerie experience, before the water gradually clears and the huge hulk of the 110-meter ship rears into sight. The wreck is wreathed with coral and, in the midst of relatively barren and empty waters, is teeming with a world of sea life: encounter two-meter giant groupers, sea snakes, rays and trevallies, along with bull, tiger and leopard sharks. This marine life is at its most awe-inspiring in the winter, when minke whales and singing, 15-meter humpback whales glide by the wreck.
Shore dive from Little Cayman Island, and the water is frustratingly shallow, sloping slowly and gently down to around 25 feet. Then, suddenly it drops off and a sheer submarine cliff falls away, plunging to a depth of 6000 feet. This is the Bloody Bay Wall, which frames a string of staggering Caribbean dive sites, all of which have exceptional visibility. The Wall is a mosaic of dazzling colors, covered with coral and home to some of the most flamboyant sponges you’re ever likely to see. There are ledges to perch on, dangling your feet above the inconceivable depths, and there are hundreds of crevices, caves and caverns to dart into and investigate.
Hawaii’s isolated position flung out far in the Pacific Ocean means it has a less diverse array of species than other diving hot spots, but many of the species it does have cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. The waters around Hawaii Island constitute part of a huge marine reserve, laced with colorful coral, and sublime for observing all manner of sea creatures, including giant turtles and, between December and April, huge humpback whales, passing by on their languorous journeys through the Pacific. But Hawaii’s most unique dive takes place at night off the Keauhou shoreline, on the island’s east coast. Here, the glow of the coastal resorts and dive boats attract light-seeking plankton, which in turn bring fleets of huge manta rays, with wingspans of up to 20 feet, gliding above and below you through the darkling, deep blue Pacific.
Swim down into Iceland’s Þingvallavatn Lake and you’ll come to a great fissure in the earth: the Silfra rift, a gap between two tectonic plates and the point where the American and Eurasian continents are slowly cracking apart. Once you’ve reached this chasm, dive into it. You’ll come to a narrow cave known as "the toilet," a vertical tunnel which you’ll have to swim through headfirst. After 16 hesitant meters, the tunnel levels out into Silfra Hall, a submarine cave system of rocks and boulders. Navigate its twists and turns for 30 meters until, suddenly, it opens out in utterly breathtaking fashion into Silfra Cathedral, a vast lagoon with unbelieveable visibility – the view is crystal-clear from one side of the 120-meter lake to the other. Silfra is one of the world’s great submarine explorations, through the space dividing two continents – although with water temperatures frequently below zero and numerous narrow cave systems to navigate, it is a challenge that can be fully undertaken by experienced scuba divers only, a sublime reward for years of practice.
The western Pacific Ocean surrounding the island of Palau is known for its strong currents, generally among scuba diving’s biggest dangers. But with a little expertise these same currents can be harnessed for one of the most fun and fast-paced scuba adventures on the planet. The Ulong Channel is 500 meters long – begin in rainbow-coloured coral gardens, safely moored with reef hooks; then simply release yourself, and let the current grab and carry you on an underwater rollercoaster ride through a riotous world of intricate reefs, prowling sharks, wandering octopi and colorful fish, backdropped by a jagged terrain of peaks, valleys and the sand-bottomed channel. It is quite simply one of the best drift dives in the world.
Barracuda Point is the best of numerous fantastic dive sites dotted around Sipadan Island, just off the western coast of Malaysia. The ocean surrounding the island is immensely populous and famous in particular for its huge schools of jackfish. These pass frequently through Barracuda Point, tight-knit armies of thousands of big fish veering between you and the surface, blocking out the sun whose light shimmers faintly from their silvery backs. Smaller schools of bumphead wrasse swerve through the same water, and, of course, swirling tornadoes of barracuda can suddenly shoot from the dim distance and engulf you in a storm of writhing scales. Among all this frantic activity, three-meter sea turtles, hammerhead sharks,giant trevally and other, stranger creatures can be seen drifting by in solitary tranquility.
Darwin’s Arch acts as a natural lighthouse for ships approaching Darwin Island, marking the point where the shallow, coral-sharp water near the island’s shore drops off into deeper sea. Beneath the arch, lava and coral form a reef slope that merges into a sandy bottom, which slopes downwards away from the island. Strong currents wash around the arch, which can be intimidating for novice divers. But there are a number of underwater ledges at different depths where divers can sit and watch the spectacularly vibrant underwater wildlife, befitting an area named after Darwin. You may see enormous shoals of hammerhead sharks, hundreds strong, cutting a wide highway through the water, or lolling around ‘cleaning stations’ where Barber and Angel fish eat the parasites from their fins.