Holidays on water: The world's top dive sites

It's the ultimate way to see the sea. Sink below the surface of the ocean and you enter a magically alien domain. Nick Hanna selects 10 of the world's top dive sites and takes a sybaritic trip to the Red Sea
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The Independent Travel

1 Sharm El Sheikh

WHY GO? The steep-sided reef walls, particularly those of Jackson Reef, offer some of the best diving in the northern Red Sea.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? The current-swept reef has a profusion of corals.

CONTACT: Abercrombie & Kent (0845 0700612; abercrombieandkent. co.uk) offers a week at the Four Seasons Resort Sharm El Sheikh from £995.

2 The Maldives

WHY GO? The warm, shallow lagoons are ideal for beginners; fast-flowing currents bring thrills and spills.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? Snorkelling with whale-sharks, gentle plankton-eating giants.

CONTACT: Maldives Scuba Tours (01449 780220; scubascuba.com) offers one week from £1,395 including flights, 3/4 dives per day and meals.

3 The Galapagos

WHY GO? Unique creatures almost unchanged since Darwin's day.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? Abundant marine life: dolphins, seals, sharks, whalesharks, manta and eagle rays.

CONTACT: Scuba Safaris (01342 851 196; scuba-safaris.com) offers one week on 'Galapagos Aggressor' with flights, transfers and full-board from £3,000.

4 Manado Sulawesi

WHY GO? Manado is the gateway to Bunaken Marine Park.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? Manado offers some of the best diving in Asia amid 3,000 fish species and over 500 corals.

CONTACT: Snooba Travel (0870 162 0767; snooba.com) offers trips with return flights, seven nights' b&b at Tasik Ria Resort, transfers and 12 dives, starting at £920.

5 Scapa flow

WHY GO? Probably the most dramatic wreck-diving in Europe.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? The German High Seas fleet, scuttled in 1919.

CONTACT: Scapa Flow Diving (01856 874761; scapaflow.com) offers guided dives from around £35 per trip through the wreck.

6 Sipadan, Borneo

WHY GO? This island off Borneo is a draw for marine life.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? Hundreds of turtles, jacks, barracuda, and sharks.

CONTACT: It's now prohibited to stay on Sipadan, but Mabul Island is just a short boat ride away. A seven-night stay starts at £1,299, including return flights, full board and three boat dives per day for six days with Regaldive (0870 2201 777; regaldive.co.uk).

7 Dominica

WHY GO? An unspoiled island, with unspoiled diving.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? It has some of the most prolific marine life in the Caribbean, ranging from seahorses and frogfish to dolphins and whales.

CONTACT: Divequest (01254 826322; divequest.co.uk) offers a week including flights, transfers and five days' diving, from £1,128.

8 Protea Banks, SA

WHY GO? This is one of South Africa's top dive sites.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? An amazing array of sharks as well as mantas, giant bass and over 1,200 types of fish.

CONTACT: Scuba Discovery (0870 420 5915; scubadiscovery.com) offers one week's b&b at the Robin's Nest Hotel including flights, transfers, and five days' diving from £1,339.

9 Oman

WHY GO? It's just opening up to diving, so the reefs are pristine.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? Dramatic reef walls and coral gardens teeming with fish, as well as the chance to see whalesharks, dolphins, whales and turtles.

CONTACT: Regaldive (see entry six for details) offers seven nights from £789, including flights, transfers, and half-board. Five days' diving costs £150.

10 Turks & Caicos

WHY GO? These flat Caribbean islands have no fresh water run-off, so visibility is excellent.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? Excellent wall diving with underhanging gardens of seafans, sponges and corals.

CONTACT: Harlequin Worldwide Travel (01708 850330; harlequindiving. com) offers seven nights' b&b at Sibonne at Grace Bay on Providenciales with flights and transfers from £945 .

As I roll backwards off the dive boat and deflate my buoyancy jacket, my field of vision changes from sky to sea. It's a glorious feeling, that first dive of any trip, as you descend into clear blue water and the outlines of a coral reef start to materialise below you.

Here are the bright blue fingers of Acropora, the green mounds of Porites, and the convoluted contours of brain coral. Bushy gorgonians and sea whips wave back and forth in the currents. Fusiliers hover in shoals just off the reef, and butterfly fish flit between the corals.

This arena is Jackson Reef, which lies alongside Tiran Island at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. It offers some of the finest diving in the northern Red Sea. As I descend further, a turtle passes me on its way up for some air. Thankfully, I have at least an hour before I have to do the same: ample time to enjoy the profusion of hard and soft corals that thrive in this amazing environment. Schools of barracuda and jacks hang out in the open water, and I even spot a juvenile shark cruising around in the blue.

Britain's nearest accessible coral reefs lie in the Red Sea. The main gateway to the region is the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh, back to normal after last July's bombings. When I first dived these fabled reefs nearly 20 years ago, Sharm's Naama Bay boasted one hotel, a petrol station, one dive shop, and a bar. Today it has 141 hotels, 164 dive centres, and more than 300 dive boats.

Because of Sharm's spectacular growth there is a twice-daily scrum at the two public jetties while divers board in the morning and disembark in the evening. But you can avoid this at the Four Seasons resort: the hotel has special permission to operate dive boats from its own jetty. In addition, the resort's dive centre is equipped with an extremely powerful Zodiac which makes the trip out to Tiran in a record-breaking 15 minutes. On an early morning dive, you can beat the crowds and be back in time for breakfast.

These facilities make a huge difference to the experience of diving these legendary sites. On top of this, it really is deluxe service: you don't have to lift a finger (or a scuba tank) if you don't want to, all your kit is taken care of, and a dry towel or a cold drink is offered as a matter of course the minute you step out of the water. Five-star diving indeed.

Unfortunately, everybody still has to put up with the overcrowded conditions at Sharm El Sheikh airport - at least until a new terminal opens in 2007. But that is relatively easy to forget once you're speeding out to your chosen site and ready to drop down into those blue waters.

The author travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent (0845 0700612; abercrombieandkent.co.uk) and Four Seasons Resort Sharm El Sheikh (00 20 69 360 3555; fourseasons.com)

Nick Hanna is the author of 'The Art of Diving' (Ultimate Sports), to be published in March 2006

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