This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, autumn 2019, issue 110
Explore historic shipwrecks, mingle with manta rays, try cave diving and go face to face with great white sharks. Here are 10 of the world’s best underwater experiences…
1. Discover World War II wrecks
The war in the Pacific saw some of the bloodiest naval battles of World War II, leaving behind hundreds of wrecks scattered from Vanuatu in the south to the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and further north to the Philippines and Micronesia. Over the past 75 years they have become artificial reefs, teeming with marine life as well as the fascinating artefacts of war to be found hidden in their submerged cabins and cargo holds.
Some of the most impressive wrecks can be found in Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, covered in colourful soft and hard corals. In the Solomon Islands, the wrecks of Japanese Zeros and American Hellcats lay in shallow lagoons and there are so many wrecks hidden in the depths of Savo Sound, the stretch of water that runs by Guadalcanal, it was renamed ‘Iron Bottom Sound’ by allies.
2. Swim with whale sharks
Whale sharks are the gentle giants of the oceans. They spend time feeding in deep, plankton-rich waters, occasionally emerging in the shallows to bask in warmer waters, giving divers a chance to swim with them.
There are various places around the world where you can swim with whale sharks, including Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef. Some are natural seasonal aggregation points, such as Playa del Carmen and Socorro in Mexico, the Maldives and Galapagos. Others, such as Oslob and Donsol in the Philippines and Cenderawasih Bay in West Papua, have developed as whale sharks followed fishermen back to port to feed off the discarded by-catch.
There is only one known year-round natural aggregation, and that’s South Ari Atoll in the Maldives, a ‘secondary nursery’ where juveniles stay for around 20 years until they reach breeding age.
3. Snorkel with manta rays
These graceful underwater ballerinas are a delight to snorkel or dive with, looping the loop in formation as they feed on microscopic plankton. One of the best places to see manta rays is right here in Australia: at Lady Elliot Island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef. More than 700 individual reef mantas have been identified here and its home-base for research centre Project Manta.
The Maldives, particularly Baa Atoll’s Hanifaru Bay, is another manta hotspot. Between May and December, divers and snorkellers are often joined by groups ofover 200 reef mantas.
4. Explore sea caves and caverns
Around the rocky coastlines of Asia Pacific’s volcanic islands, there are plenty of sea caves and caverns to explore. The caves have names that evoke grandeur, such as Chandelier Cave in Palau, Cathedral Cave in Vanuatu and Thundercliff Cave in Australia’s Christmas Island.
The Solomon Islands has Tulagi’s Twin Tunnels, two lava tubes that descend from 10 to 30 metres deep, Leru Cut and Mirror Pond in the Russell Islands, which have openings at their apex, shaded by the island’s tropical jungle greenery.
Fish Rock on the NSW mid-north coast is rated one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. It’s entered at around 28 metres and from there, you ascend through a narrow ‘chimney’ into a cavern with an air pocket at its peak, and out through wide opening into a basin called the ‘Aquarium’, so-called for the abundance of marine life it holds.
For freshwater caverns, nothing quite beats Mexico’s Cenote Cave system, with water so clear divers appear to be flying. The vast cave system is mainly accessible to qualified divers, but some can be dived with standard open-water dive qualifications.
5. Stand-up paddle board with dugongs
Once mistaken for mermaids by (presumably rum-soaked) sailors, dugongs are notoriously shy creatures so it’s rare to get up close and personal. On the Queensland coast, there are large populations in Moreton Bay and Fraser Coast’s Great Sandy Strait, best viewed from a kayak or stand-up paddle board.
Over in the Americas, the manatees of Florida and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula are really approachable. In winter they head upstream to warm freshwater springs, with the largest aggregation points in Crystal River and Kings Bay.
6. Marvel at underwater ruins
There are several ancient towns lost to the sea. Some were destroyed by geological events such as Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, which was destroyed by a severe earthquake. A similar situation occurred for Port Royal in Jamaica, home base to the real Pirates of the Caribbean.
In remote Yonaguni Jima, the most westerly island in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, lies an underwater mystery – the Yonaguni Monument. The jury is still out on whether this enormous underwater structure is man-made or not.
7. Search for seahorses
From the giants of the sea to some of the ocean’s tiniest critters, seahorses can be hard to find. Some, such as the pot-bellied pygmy seahorse, are mere millimetres in length.
Pygmy seahorses and pipefish can be found in the nooks and crannies of coral reefs, latched onto soft corals and sea fans. Although hard to find, they live on most coral reefs, especially in the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Their larger cousins can be found in Sydney Harbour, hiding among the sea grass and on the netted swimming areas in Manly Cove and Mosman’s Clifton Gardens.
8. Marvel at vibrant soft coral gardens
Soft corals are the flowers of the sea, and there’s no better flower beds than Fiji, with five soft coral hotspots: the Taveuni’s Rainbow Reef, Beqa Lagoon, Bligh Water, Savusavu and the Namena Marine Reserve. In the Andaman Sea off Thailand, divers can enjoy the soft coral reefs of the Similan and Surin Islands. Further south, for a touch of luxury, Pimalai Resort & Spa near Thailand’s Krabi takes divers to explore the stunning soft corals surrounding the remote islands of Hin Daeng, Hin Muang and Koh Ha.
9. Swim with humpback whales
The majestic humpback whales migrate to warmer waters each year to breed. In the sheltered bays of Tonga, people have been swimming with them for more than 20 years. The experience has become so popular that operators in other parts of the world have introduced whale swim experiences, including Queensland’s Hervey Bay, Coffs Harbour on the mid-north coast of New South Wales and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia.
10. Dive with the ocean’s predators
Fiji has four shark-feeding dive sites, where you can watch bull and tiger sharks compete with smaller reef sharks for offerings of tuna heads held out for them by Fijian shark whisperers. There are similar shark dives in the Bahamas and Mexico’s Playa del Carmen. For the ultimate adrenaline rush in South Australia’s Port Lincoln, South Africa’s Cape Town and Mexico’s Guadalope, divers and snorkellers can enter submerged cages to dive with great white sharks.
Visit diveplanit.com for information on how to book a dive holiday.