Flying gurnards, bandtail sea robins, pink see-through fantasia –they sound like the names of creatures found on an alien planet, or the sort of mythical steampunk genus Captain Nemo encountered on his voyages in the Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In fact, Nemo’s undersea journeys are closer to the truth, as these are the real names (not the mythical genus) of some of the stranger and more exotic species of marine life one chances upon during a diving expedition. The world below the water has always held a magical attraction; from oceanographers like Jacques Cousteau to treasure hunters like Mel Fisher, putting on a mask and fins and grabbing a bug bag and canister light to explore the unknown is akin to setting foot on Mars. Coral reefs colonies and gorgonian sea whips, sunken ships and half-forgotten treasure trails –scuba diving allows one to experience the ethereal beauty of an underwater dreamscape. So, where are the best places to get wet and ride the hook? These 10 world-class dive spots are what guys like Nemo, Cousteau, and Fisher dream about at night.
10 10. Sistema Dos Ojos, Play del Carmen: Mexico
Despite that 100 tourists a day descend on the waters of Siestema Dos Ojos, it doesn’t detract from the fact it’s one of the most spectacular dive destinations in the world, especially for a novice getting the feet wet for the first time.
The flooded, freshwater cave is filled with haunting rooms and passages, many of which have been named: the Next Generation Passage, the Wakulla Room, Jill’s Room, and Bat Cave. Candle-drip stalactites hang from green, blue, and purple caverns, and each room has is own distinct marine life. Siestema Dos Ojos is famous for being the site of a record-breaking 150-meter free dive, which was accomplished by Carlos Coste in 2010.
9 9. Richelieu Rock, Surin Islands: Thailand
Richelieu Rock is actually a horseshoe of rocky pinnacles. There are large schools of jacks, barracuda, batfish, frogfish and seahorses, and the spot is popular for Macro photography. Nevertheless, Richelieu’s Rock is famous for its whale shark sightings.
These gentle, slow-moving creatures are huge –the largest on record is 41.50 feet –and many divers spend their lives trying to find one of these ancient sea creatures, a species that is believed to have originated over 60 million years ago. Whale shark sightings at Richelieu Rock are so common that locals call the area “whale magnet.”
8 SS President Coolidge, Vanuatu
The SS President Coolidge is a WWII luxury liner. It was originally launched for the mega-rich in 1931, and like the Titanic it had several state-of-the-art amenities: salt water swimming pools, smoking room, beauty salon, barbershop, gym, and private telephones. In 1942, on its approach to Espiritu Santo, the SS Coolidge accidentally hit one of America’s own minefields; it sunk 90 minutes later, there were only two casualties.
Today, the beautiful 198-meter wreck is almost fully intact and includes jeeps, trucks, guns, cannons, and chandeliers. Diving highlights include a statue of “The Lady” (a porcelain relief of a woman riding a unicorn) and a mosaic tile fountain.
7 Maaya Thila, Maldives
The Maldives is comprised of 26 atolls (ringed-shaped reefs) and 1,192 islands. Despite the fact there are 85 resorts in the Maldives, tourism is strictly controlled and not every resort caters to divers. Maaya Thila, however, is called the “White Tip Reef Shark Capital of the World,” and it’s the perfect place to back roll. Positioned 20 minutes from Maayafushi Resort Island, Maaya Thila boasts a various selection of tropical fish. Angel, butterfly, clown, parrot and trigger fish are common to the site, as well as the black, yellow and white striped Moorish idol.
6 Big Brother, Red Sea: Egypt
The Brothers, or El Akhawein, are two small islands with deep-sided cones. The islands were formed by volcanic activity caused by the spreading of the Red Sea rift. Big Brother and Little Brother are a 5-minute boat ride apart, and both of the islands feature wrecks. Beneath the waters surrounding Big Brother, the Aida II, a 75-meter ship that sunk in 1957, is home to large shoals of fish and colorful coral. However, what makes the spot stand out from other dive sites is the presence of the Napoleon wrasse fish. The species can grow to be two-meters in size; it has thick, fleshy lips and humps above the eyes (which grow bigger as the fish ages), and its staggering size and unusual appearance make it look like one of the creatures extreme angler Jeremy Wade would fish for on River Monsters.
5 Great Blue Hole, Belize
Diving is a year-round recreation in Belize, but the best time to plunge into the 124-meter Great Blue Hole is between April and June. Visibility is at its best, and there is little or no wind. As its name suggest, the Great Blue Hole, which is located in the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, is a 300-meter wide submarine sinkhole that was formed during the ice age. The “Hole” is comprised of karst limestone formations, colored stalagmites and stalactites, submerged caves and grottoes, and ledges that fall away into deep-blue shadows and depressions. While there are giant groupers, tuna, nurse sharks and Caribbean reef sharks in the Great Blue Hole, divers come to the spot for its network of caves.
4 Thistlegorm, Red Sea: Egypt
Located in the Strait of Gobal, north of Ras Mohammed on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the 130-meter SS Thistlegorm is like an aquatic museum. The British transport ship was attacked from the air and sunk in 1941; it was hauling a variety of cargo from Glasgow to Alexandria including railway freight cars, armored cars, BSA motorbikes, radios, machine guns, and torpedoes, all of which are encased in silt at the bottom of the sea.
The wreck is in good condition, and it’s easy to see the large hole where the German bomb hit. Divers can swim inside the Thistlegorm with a flashlight, survey the engine room, and explore the wreck’s silt-wrapped war supplies. The sound of anchor chains banging eerily against the boat’s bent and broken rails adds to the experience.
3 Barracuda Point, Sipadan Island: Malaysia
Barracuda Point is located northeast of Sipadan Island and only 5 minutes by boat from the beach. According to diving enthusiasts, fish are so abundant at Barracuda Point that they stream, dense and colorful, like traffic in New Delhi. The experience can be intimidating for novice aquanauts, especially if they find themselves at the center of a barracuda tornado –a phenomenon particular to the area.
However, there’s more to Barracuda Point than barracudas. Green sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, lace hydroids, and batfish all make their home in this chaotic aquarium, as well as the eccentric-looking bum head parrotfish. Antler coral, black coral, tube sponge, and feather of stars create an otherworldly universe.
2 Yongala, Queensland: Australia
The SS Yongala sank in a tropical cyclone in 1911 with 124 passengers onboard. The 110-meter wreck was found in the 1950s, and in 1981 the Yongala was given official protection under the Historic Shipwrecks Act. Located 90 km southeast of Townsville, and 10 km from Cape Bowling Green, CNN Travel and Scuba Travel continually rate Yongala as one of the World’s Best Dive Sites. Divers are forbidden to enter the wreck (those who do will be arrested and fined), but it doesn’t matter as the beautiful coral-encrusted structure has become home to an array of exotic marine life. Giant groupers, trevallies, and schools of cobia dart in and out of the wreck. Sea snakes slither around the stern. Expect to see sea turtles, manta and eagle rays, bull sharks, tiger sharks, and clouds of colorful fish. Winter sightings of minke and humpback whales are also common.
1 Blue Corner Wall, Palau: Micronesia
In February 2014, Scuba Travel rated the Blue Corner Wall, in Palau, the number one dive site in the word, a prestigious title Australia’s Yongala wreck has held for several years. Palau is a 100-mile long archipelago southeast of the Philippines; it became a nation state (Micronesia) as recently as 1994. Palau has sea walls, sheer drop-offs, caves, and such a wealth of bright, colorful sea life that it looks like a screensaver of an underwater setting. Electric blue red-toothed triggerfish and pyramid butterfly fish gather in the thousands. Reef sharks and bigeye jacks swim through the current. Tuna, snapper, and green sea turtles are common sights. There’s a sizable colony of soft and hard coral, and gorgonian sea whips flutter in deep canyons like colorful Chinese fans.