JACQUES COUSTEAU was originally responsible for naming the world’s top dive destinations. His Top 10 included a significantly larger number of places than two handfuls – probably approaching 50!
|THE CHIKUZEN, British Virgin Islands|
The Caribbean can be a let-down when you find yourself out there with a dive guide who is determined to show you all the different types of sponges on a reef, but it can also be enchanting and surprising.
But it isnt the wreck but what has adopted it that makes this one of the Caribbeans best dives. Its an isolated habitat in an otherwise featureless submerged plain.
Clouds of snapper and grunt huddle close to the bare hull. Great barracuda school toothily in unlikely numbers above them, prepared to tolerate each other for their share in this epicurean bonanza. Large amberjack and even larger kobia stand off in the blue. Assorted wreckage littering the seabed provides home territory for the full gamut of Caribbean reef life, and the unlit holds are home to a couple of massive wreckfish.
I took a few photographs, but my expired air had started to dislodge rust and detritus from the structure above me.
I made my excuses and left, returning after a few minutes to take a few more shots. I did this repeatedly until I had amassed a huge collection of pictures.
Some of you might think that camera flashes going off in their faces disturb fishes. This grouper didnt budge - it merely observed me in an uninterested fashion, with an unwavering eye.
Diving in the Maldives can be exciting, but its all about understanding what the currents are doing and using them to your advantage. Ari Atoll distinguishes itself among Maldivian atolls by having many channels between the islands that ring it.
This ensures a good flow of water whichever monsoon is prevailing, and plenty of animal action in the lagoon, as well as on the ocean side of the islands.
Mushimasmi is the local name for a small brown fusilier found in huge numbers at this gili, or reef. It is a small oval reef about 100m long and only 60m wide. The reef top comes to within 10m of the surface.
It is usually swept by a strong current as the water from the ocean speeds up to pass over or get round it. This attracts grey reef sharks, which at the steep southern side can pass within a few feet of divers hooked into the substrate.
There is an overhang often known as the Fish Head, and large gorgonia and black coral trees are festooned with featherstars. Blue-line snapper, the signature fish of the Maldives, school in their thousands while a resident super-male Napoleon wrasse pesters divers for attention, still sentimental for the days when so many visiting divers undertook fish feeds here.
When its time to come up, look out for two resident hawksbill turtles that hang around the top. They have become so used to divers that I have frequently passed time during a safety stop hand-feeding one the bits of the sponge to which they are very partial.
Its one of the best-known sites in the Maldives, but every time Ive visited weve had the place to ourselves. It offers high-voltage diving.
|DENISES HAIRBALL, Lembeh Strait|
You may look at something that you think is rubbish, but it may be an animal that looks like rubbish. But if it is rubbish, there is bound to be an animal living within it.
It was the late Larry Smith who first established the luxurious Kunkungen Bay Resort as the worlds centre for muck diving, and a currently fashionable interest in the smallest marine life, some of which can be seen only with the aid of a strong magnifying glass or a macro camera.
The advent of digital photography and the usefulness of modern compact cameras in taking extreme close-ups have given rise to the popularity of this type of diving, and some of the tiny animals are nothing less than bizarre.
The volcanic sand and muck that is the seabed at Lembeh hosts endless varieties of marine life, some of which have only recently been scientifically described.
Denises Hairball, first named by well-known underwater photographer Denise Tackett, has been extended to include Hairballs 1, 2 and 3. Its one of many Lembeh sites.
During my last visit I managed to photograph around 160 different animals within a few days, diving several times a day. Its almost like collecting badges. You get out of the water to view pictures taken by others, and if they are of animals you havent photographed yourself yet, you arrange with your guide to rectify the omission and go there on the next dive.
Of course, you will see groups of divers clustered around a single hairy frogfish or flamboyant cuttlefish - but dont join the melee. There is plenty of other marine life waiting nearby and youll get your chance later, when theyve gone. The animals arent going anywhere. The water isnt very deep either,
so its dive, dive, dive!
Has this become the most popular and oft-visited wreck site in the world Despite being ravaged by souvenir-hunters and ripped apart by the thoughtless mooring of flotillas of heavy dive-boats since it was rediscovered by leisure divers in 1992, its still a great dive.
During the day you might see 20 assorted vessels tied above it, with the water below them a carnage of exhaled bubbles, but be there on a liveaboard that has waited all night and you can be one of the few to slip into the water at first light and see how the Thistlegorm retains all the magic that Jacques Cousteau first discovered in the 50s.
Sunk by Axis bombers in 1941, this large ship was loaded with war materiel that included Bedford trucks and BSA motorbikes, Gloucester Gladiator wings, huge clutch housings for tank transporters, armoured cars, endless racks of Enfield .303 rifles, Bren-gun carriers, two Stanier 2-8-0 steam locomotives and their tenders, water bowsers and a huge amount of heavy ordnance.
Despite incredible damage, its main part ended up more or less upright on the seabed. You can swim along its heavy anchor-chain, down along the hull past the area of massive destruction littered with shells (some of giant calibre), round the propeller at the stern, past two stern-mounted heavy-calibre guns, back up through the coal bunkers still littered with Welsh coal, up under the captains quarters, through the forward holds avoiding the area of the collapsed deck, and up to the forecastle past railway wagons and the remains of a mine-sweeping drone to the heavy forward winches - but not all on one dive, unless you have the gas-duration of a closed-circuit rebreather. Watch out for the resident jacks and hawksbill turtles, too.
Old Red Sea hands may decry the way the wreck has been allowed to deteriorate at the hands of the modern diving industry, but everyone who dives it for the first time comes up drooling.
|MANUELITA ISLAND, Cocos, Costa Rica|
The first time I returned from Cocos, my wife looked over my shoulder as I inspected my film fresh back from the lab.
Eagle rays, turtles, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, whitetip reef sharks and a whale shark - and that was all on one roll from a single dive!
A return trip with her was booked at once. It was the only way to save my marriage. Ive returned four times - Cocos always delivers.
Cocos may be near the Equator, but the deep, cold ocean currents that collide with this tall pillar of rock form upwellings that bring both nutrients and deepwater sharks up to the comparative shallows frequented by divers. Youll need a warm suit.
The liveaboard often spends the night at Chatham Bay, and nearby Manuelita Island offers superb diving.
Once satiated with everything Cocos has to offer by day, do a night dive and enjoy the thrill of 100 whitetips hunting by the light of your lamp.
These familiar animals are seen throughout the tropical marine world, but never in such numbers as at Cocos, and at night they become voracious. The seabed is a writhing mass of grey bodies as they compete for victims. You need absolute control of your buoyancy - you wouldnt want to put a hand down into all that turmoil.
|RIBBON REEF NO 10, Queensland, Australia|
The Australians seem over-obsessed with safety. You trek for miles through virgin rainforest, fighting off predatory leeches and aggressive insects to reach a beautiful waterfall, only to find a nice expanded-metal walkway and a sign that says No Swimming. Its the same with scuba diving.
I went on a giant Mike Ball catamaran to Ribbon Reef No 10 to dive the famous Cod Hole. This is where enormous potato cod form an orderly line to be hand-fed by dive guides.
I noticed that the really interesting-looking dive spot was at the current-point at the opposite end of the reef. It took some persuasion to get the boats dive manager to drop me there in an inflatable. I promised Id be responsible and not allow myself to drift off the reef on the strong current that proved to be exhilarating rather than fearsome.
I bowled past some of the finest table corals I had ever seen, and got investigated by several whitetip reef sharks before a great shadow passed over me. Whale shark No, it was a school of densely packed bumphead parrotfish. They dumped a load of processed coral sand over me before disappearing over the reef top.
It was probably the best dive Ive ever done in Australian waters. What a pity it appears to be thought to be too dangerous for Aussie operators to take their customers there.
Well, the Cod Hole dive is not one to be missed, and you probably wont see grouper bigger than this anywhere else in such benign conditions.
When you get fed up with the sight of these remarkable animals, your comfortable hotel awaits - moored directly above you.
Everyone likes turtles. On my first Sipadan dive, at Barracuda Point, I swam out into the blue with a huge whirling mass of silver-sided fish to fight a strong current before returning to the reef.
Here I discovered a large green turtle browsing. I was careful not to disturb it, and approached it slowly with my camera.
It amazed me that, instead of taking flight, it seemed to be posing for me; something I had never encountered before.
My heart raced. I endeavoured to control my breathing to conserve what air I had left, and took more pictures.
I made close-ups, I made wider shots.
I covered the animal from every angle until I was finally out of film.
I was so excited. What wonderful shots of a green turtle I had captured before it finally swam off almost casually over my head, its underside now cluttered with attendant remoras!
We floated gently away from each other, and it was only then that I realised belatedly that it had been surrounded by 40 other turtles!
All turtle life is here. They eat. They sleep. They mate. They lay eggs. They hatch. Meanwhile they roost everywhere, lethargically scratching their soft undersides on the rough coral, and doing what turtles do when they take it easy.
Its not just about turtles either. There are hordes of whitetip reef sharks that feast on baby turtles, and giant herds of two-dimensional bumpheaded parrotfish that feed on the reef itself.
Sipadan is Malaysias only truly oceanic island, and is a one-off. No longer are people allowed to stay on the island, so divers stay at nearby Mabul, the Sipadan water village or on the liveaboard Celebes Sea Explorer.
|END BOMMIE, Papua New Guinea|
Diving legend has it that ex-British schoolteacher Bob Halstead and his wife Dinah, now thought of as the original doyens of dive-boat operators in PNG, first noticed a pretty frilly fish on their dive sites, and sent a photograph to the Natural History Museum in London with a view to identifying it.
I had a couple of days to spare en route from elsewhere back to the UK, and stopped off at Loloata. I had time for only two dives in the Coral Sea at End Bommie, a coral outcrop attached to a bigger reef by a saddle and swept by a gentle current, but it has to be one of the best sites in PNG. I photographed six examples of Rhinopias in assorted colours here. They came skipping out of the reef on their pectoral fins to greet me, like friendly clockwork fish.
If youre less interested in lacy scorpions, there are also close-knit groups of oriental sweetlips, pygmy seahorses and even leopard sharks to look out for.
The Loloata Resort is on an island close to Port Moresby, so makes a perfect stop-off after a visit to PNG before the long haul home.
|MANTA POINT, Bali|
Balis Manta Point at Nusa Penida is a manta cleaning station just like every other Manta Point in the world, and very popular with divers.
I wasnt surprised to see several other boats already dropping off their divers. We joined them in the plankton-rich water to participate in some disorganised chaos.
My buddy René soon entered the melee, finning frantically, trying to get that elusive picture.
There was precious little current, but Im not great at energetic sports. Seeing my air supply dwindle, I decided to go shallow and hang about near an algae-covered rock in 5m. Then, suddenly, I wasnt so alone any more.
A huge white manta swam up to me, posed nicely and pirouetted before swimming off. Another followed suit, then another. I had stumbled on the mantas favourite spot - and no other divers were near. It was my busiest safety-stop in a long time. Manta after manta lined up for the manicurists and, inadvertently, my camera.
Back on the boat, I showed René my pictures. He looked envious. I viewed the surface of the sea around us. It was empty. The other boats had taken their divers and gone. At last we had the dive site to ourselves. Only the divers from our own boat were still in the water.
Our tanks were already rigged for a dive scheduled to be somewhere else. I looked at René. He looked at me. We knew what we had to do. We put our full tanks on our backs, and René soon found himself in manta heaven.
|RUNWAY, Nassau, Bahamas|
The Stuart Cove operation is slick, efficient and designed to make a lot of money for the owners, yet bus-loads of divers of all abilities (and some with few) line up along the jetty every day, disclaimers in hand, prepared to pay around US $160 to experience a shark feed.
After a five-minute boat ride and an initial short dive along the reef wall so that everyone can get used to seeing the patrolling sharks, participating divers on the second dive are encouraged to kneel in a circle on the seabed at 10m for the shark-feed dive proper.
They are told to tuck their hands under their armpits to avoid inadvertently waving them into the teeth of a passing predator. Theres little or no current, and with no swimming involved, air lasts a very long time.
The sharks turn up on cue and follow the feeder with the box of food down from the boat to where the divers wait. About 30 large animals are regular attendees and the feed, with cuts of fish offered at the end of a short spear, is conducted in an orderly fashion.
A resident videographer who, like the feeder, wears chainmail, moves around the circle recording the event.
You may have seen sharks before, but this is different. These really are in your face. Youll finally subscribe to the notion that you havent really seen a shark until one has shoved you out of the way. People climb back into the boat ecstatic, and rush back to the dive shop to buy the video of the event.
At an extra $80, this makes it one of the most expensive leisure dives youre likely to do - but no-one seems to regret doing it.