The Ultimate Dive Holidays
By Victor Borg
May 21, 2004
Imagine feeding reef sharks or kissing dolphins in the Bahamas, exploring underwater caves and tunnels in Malta, swimming with hammerheads in the Galapagos, wandering through the Royal Navy's HMS Proselyte (which sank in 1801) at St Martin, or witnessing the coral polyps releasing clouds of sperm and eggs on Aprils' full moon in Western Australia. The undersea is, in many ways, the world's last frontier.
There is a whole new world to be discovered beyond the sea's surface, and what better way to see it than take a scuba diving holiday? At least one dive in a lifetime is worth it just to experience the feeling of weightlessness underwater, the closest we could come to experiencing the non-gravity of space. And scuba diving is easier than the uninitiated imagine: it only takes five days to learn to dive, and half of the course is spent exploring the undersea at your exotic destination of choice.
But we're jumping ahead of ourselves here. Before you can dive, you need to be certified fit by a medical professional; this involves a quick, standard test which you can either have at home (ask at your local clinic) or once you arrive at your destination (arranged by diving schools). Most people pass the test easily, although some conditions, like asthma, automatically put you on the borderline. Once certified fit, most people like to have a try before paying for a whole course. Diving schools have thought of this: most offer a 'taster dive' which, for about £20, takes you down to depth of ten metres for thirty minutes, the idea being that afterwards you can decide whether scuba diving is for you or not. Most people get hooked, and enrol on a course straightaway.
The five-day open water course, which includes theory followed by practice, costs about £160, although this can be higher or lower depending on which part of the world you take the course. On completion of the course, you get the C-card-your diving qualification. (For world-wide recognition of your C-card, make sure the particular diving school is affiliated with one of the major international schools of instruction such as PADI, CMAS, and BSAC, among others).
Courses are pretty standardised the world over; your choice is where to go diving, and whether to opt for an all-inclusive package or organise the travel and accommodation and food independently. If you aren't sure whether you want to take a course before you go, it might be safer to include scuba diving as just one of the activities you might do alongside land-based sightseeing. If cost is a factor, remote places (the Galapagos, Seychelles, Maldives) are expensive, while proximity and accessibility (Malta, Egypt) will keep prices down, and so will destinations in developing countries (Cuba, Thailand, Borneo). Here is a starter guide to the best scuba diving regions in the world:
The Red Sea
Stretching from the Bab El Mandab (between Yemen and Ethiopia) and the point where the Sinai peninsula splits into Eilat and Suez, the vast Red Sea is one of the world's most popular diving spots: it offers a wide range of marine life, warm water, good visibility, coral formations, and both shallow and deep diving. One of the best (and most popular) spots in the Red Sea is Ras Mohammed, where you'll find impressive shoals of barracuda, snapper, jackfish, and batfish, and their predators, sharks, hammerheads and dolphins. There are also elaborate coral growths, and sheer drops into deep waters that lead to upwelling, the phenomenon of fast-rising water which brings up fishes and gives you a great sensation as it flows past you.
The most accessible place in Asia is Thailand, and the best spots in Thailand are some of the islands off the west coast of the Thai peninsula. Thailand has the standard tropical trappings of colourful coral and sponge-encrusted boulders, caves and swim-throughs, and an array of colourful fish, plus a Thai speciality-live-aboard holidays, where you get to lodge on a boat and dive pretty much most of the day. Other less-crowded destinations in Southeast Asia include most sea-bordering countries such as Mynamar, Borneo, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and the Micronesian islands (Palau Micronesia is especially good).
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most extensive and colourful reef systems in the world, and the outer sections of the reef are best. The waters are warm (though visibility is not great), and you'll find extraordinary animals, shapes and colours-anything from snails crawling on the sandy bottom, turtles and rays gliding through the sea, and foraging sharks. On the western side of the continent, the Ningaloo Reef is less known and less crowded, home to whale sharks, the world's largest fish, who come close to shore to feed on the sperm and eggs of the coral polyps: some divers insist the Ningaloo Reef is more spectacular than the Great Barrier Reef.
Hundreds of islands in the Caribbean-Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Bahamas, Bonaire, Tobago, Cuba, and many others-are known for their colourful coral formations, warm waters, and abundant fishes, ranging from the enthralling colours of small fish (such as parrotfish, demselfish and hogfish), and to friendly large fish, including sharks and dolphins, that have got used to divers feeding them. In many places, there are some underwater cliffs that drop sharply to a depth of up to 4,000 metres deep, causing upwelling.
Accessibility from Europe make the shores of the Mediterranean extremely popular with divers. Although the Med lacks the abundant array of fishes and colourful coral of more exotic destinations, it has warm water and stunning sea-scapes (caves, gullies, chimneys, ledges, gorges) eroded in the soft limestone. Malta is billed as the best scuba diving destination in the Med, with excellent visibility of up to 45 metres. It's a good place to take a course before you venture further afield.
In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives and Seychelles are one of the world's top-class destinations whose economy is based on the diving industry. The Maldives, made up of twenty-six coral atols that have grown on submerged volcanic mountains, have a staggering 900 fish species. The Galapagos, in the Pacific, consist of a chain of 19 islands (the largest almost as large as Corsica) where you can see seven species of whales and three species of dolphin-and 50 endemic (unique) species. The Galapagos are best suited for experienced divers, however, as visibility is poor, the water deep and cold, and the currents strong.
Editor's Note: This article was first published in the March 2003 issue of the British website www.handbag.com.
Victor Paul Borg is freelance travel writer who's had hundreds of articles published around the world. He is also the author of the Rough Guide to Malta & Gozo-the leading guidebook on Malta. At present he is in Asia writing a book about the backpacker scene in Asia and Australia. For more information visit his website at www.victorborg.com