Tired of the same old dive sites? It's time to seek out some more affordable, exotic locations
Saturday 14 March 2009
Scuba diving is an addictive sport, offering the chance to explore a realm that can be tranquil and electrifying in successive moments. Many divers head for popular destinations such as the Red Sea, but after a couple of trips, the popularity of these reefs takes the edge off the experience.
If you are planning a dive trip, or thinking about learning to dive, it might be time to consider somewhere more exotic. By looking further afield in search of better value for money, you might just find a far greater experience both in water and on dry land.
Here are a few destinations where you can immerse yourself in the marine world without breaking the bank (as well as a few that are worth spending that little bit extra on).
Turtle Bay, Kenya
Underwater: There are turtles, of course. But what most divers cross their fingers for is the sudden appearance of a whale shark. These gentle giants migrate up and down the coast between November and February, and although not common, are seen in calmer waters near the bay. The reefs here are very pleasant, but tides limit diving to mornings only.
On land: Coastal Kenya is lined with attractive but often busy hotel complexes. Turtle Bay is just a short distance from Tsavo National Park and the chance to see animals such as lion and rhino.
Getting there: Check out specialist operator Africa Dive and Safari (020-8879 6178; africa-dive-safari. co.uk) for extensive safari and dive combos.
Value-for-money tip: Pre-book a safari for better prices than those offered in the hotels when you arrive.
Underwater: Like no other tropical destination. These reefs host more colourful fish than you will ever see in an aquarium, from schools of angelfish and gigantic gangs of yellow-striped snapper, to extended families of oriental sweetlips and clouds of ubiquitous powder blue surgeonfish. On the edge of the atolls, stronger currents attract bigger animals such as manta rays. But these move location with the seasons.
On land: Tiny cays are ringed by gorgeous white sand beaches, topped by cool, swaying palms. Resort islands can be busy but have been designed to capture the castaway feel.
Getting there: Maldives Scuba Tours (01284 748010; scubascuba.com) tailor packages that take in seasonal highlights, such as the large manta ray concentration (from July-September).
Value-for-money tip: Resorts with all-inclusive deals are by far the best value. But diving is not included.
Richelieu Rock, Thailand
Underwater: This isolated, submerged hill has it all, from the tiniest of harlequin shrimp to the vast whale shark. Colourful soft corals mask a wealth of smaller creatures.
On land: Phuket's raucous nightlife fades as you sail over perfect turquoise seas towards the Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock.
Getting there: Flights with Thai Airways (0870-606 0911; thaiair.com), diving packs via Dive The World (00 66 83 505 7794; divethe worldthailand.com).
Value-for-money tip: Liveaboards offer best value with five days and four nights on the Similan Islands liveaboard "safari", $712 (£509) per person, including 14 dives, all meals, accommodation, equipment, insurance and expenses, as well as transfers from Phuket hotels.
Coron, The Philippines
Underwater: A dozen or so Second World War shipwrecks litter the seabed in Coron Bay. The remains of a Japanese fleet – principally supply boats rather than warships – make particularly interesting dive sites as they rest in shallow waters with very little current. Most wrecks can be penetrated but they are all safe to dive (provided you have the relevant Padi certification). Corals have grown quickly over their surfaces, turning each one into a lush artificial reef.
On land: Towering volcanic islands sit beside smaller enclaves with rolling hills. There is just one town and a handful of rustic resorts.
Getting there: Flights with Singapore Airlines (0844-800 2380; singaporeair.co.uk). In Coron, see Sangat Island Reserve (00 63 920 954 4328; sangat.com.ph).
Value-for-money tip: Combine with a contrasting destination such as Puerto Galera, a more traditional beach resort ideal for breaking the journey from Manila.
Bali and Lombok, Indonesia
Underwater: Indonesia's most famous dive, the Liberty Wreck, lies at Tulamben on Bali's north coast. This artificial reef is home to both minute pygmy seahorses and rare mola mola (oceanic sunfish). Offshore pinnacles are lush with brightly hued soft corals. In contrast, the Gili Islands off neighbouring Lombok have shallow reef tops, which are perfect for learner divers who always encounter some of the massive turtle population.
On land: Bali's diverse landscapes, unique culture and arts are as impressive as the diving. Lombok's Gili Islands are a classic cluster of youthful holiday havens.
Getting there: The new link from Stansted to Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia (0845-605 3333; airasia.com) connects with six daily flights to Bali. Catamarans connect the two islands.
Value-for-money tip: Book via dive centres to get best value packages: AquaMarine Diving for Bali (aqua marinediving.com) and Manta Dive for Lombok (mantadive.com).
Underwater: The four islands of the Bunaken Marine Park are surrounded by crystal-clear waters. Deep vertical walls are coated in vivid corals and colourful small fish. There are turtles, reef sharks and rays. An hour east, the volcanic sands of the Lembeh Straits are the background for far rarer marine animals. This is where mimic octopuses were first seen pretending to be snake eels or flounders. Other unusual creatures include hairy frogfish and the devil scorpionfish.
On land: Beyond bustling Manado, and behind the seaside and island resorts, the Minahasa Highlands are covered with spice trees and rice fields.
Getting there: Singapore Airlines has good connections. Eco-divers (eco-divers.com) has resorts in both destinations.
Value-for-money tip: It's all-year-round diving, so go when airfares are cheapest, usually between November and March.
Lighthouse Reef, Belize
Underwater: Most people choose to dive in Belize to witness the geological spectacle made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau: the Blue Hole. Located on Lighthouse Reef, this collapsed cave from the Ice Age is a vertical tube which drops down into the depths. Divers only go as far as a shelf at 38m where ancient stalactites indicate the cave was once exposed to air. There is plenty of interesting reef diving on Lighthouse Reef.
On land: Charming resorts sit on nearby Turneffe Atoll. But this is an ideal liveaboard destination.
Getting there: Miami and Houston are the main connecting points; check out dive cruises on Sun Dancer (peterhughes.com).
Value-for-money tip: Liveaboard boats cost more than standard day trips but with four dives a day, meals and drinks included, they can be better value.
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Underwater: Visit the Yucatá*coast for eerie diving in underground freshwater rivers and limestone caves. Known as cenotes, these are caverns glittering with minerals, stalagmites and stalactites, lit by occasional beams of sunlight penetrating fissures overhead. There is little in the way of marine life, just the odd catfish or two.
On land: The Yucatá*Peninsula is the country's top tourist region with mega-hotel after mega-hotel marching down the coast. The resort of Playa del Carmen is quieter and a little more authentic.
Getting there: Charter flights and packages with Thomson (thomson.co.uk).
Value-for-money tip: Avoid the American high-season (mid-December to Easter) as costs rise, especially during Spring Break in March.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Underwater: It's on every diver's to-do list – not so much because of what can be seen as its sheer size. Yet size is a feature of the marine life too. The most celebrated dive is the Cod Hole where giant potato cod approach divers as they enter the water and stay with them for the duration. In winter you can also snorkel with 5m-long, migrating minke whales.
On land: Towns in tropical north Queensland range from practical Cairns to trendy Port Douglas. The Daintree Rainforest is a little further north.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8800; cathaypacific.com) provides the easy one-stop route to Cairns via Hong Kong. Dive with Eye to Eye Marine Encounters (marine encounters.com.au).
Value-for-money tip: Again, it's year-round diving, so take advantage of a low-season flight deal (Nov-Feb).
Underwater: Sharks in abundance, with massive schools of jacks and even more massive schools of barracuda. This is Blue Corner in Palau, the rim of a vertical reef wall where divers hook on to a rock, sit in the current and watch the show. It is a rare treat to be able to see such a spectacle and the one single event that makes the long trip to Micronesia worth every minute and every penny.
On land: Handfuls of green islands are sprinkled over deep blue seas like a scattering of sweets. It makes for a breathtakingly beautiful landscape.
Getting there: Micronesia is difficult and expensive to reach, with Manila being the main gateway, which is accessible on Emirates (0870-243 2222; emirates. com) via Dubai. Ocean Hunter is the top liveaboard (oceanhunter.com).
Value-for-money tip: Combine Palau with neighbouring Yap (for mantas) and Truk Lagoon (for wrecks).
Beth and Shaun Tierney are the authors of 'Diving Southeast Asia' and 'Diving the World', both published by Footprint
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