Divers are flooded with choice of great scuba spots. Tony Wheeler shares his 10 favourite treasures

Dives are funny things. There are lots of stupendous, mind-blowing dive sites, but very often it's simply what happens on a specific dive which makes that particular dive so special. My 10 favourites that follow are geographically scattered (Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Australia) and feature coral reefs, marine life, shipwrecks and, of course, sharks.

Dives are funny things. There are lots of stupendous, mind-blowing dive sites, but very often it's simply what happens on a specific dive which makes that particular dive so special. My 10 favourites that follow are geographically scattered (Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Australia) and feature coral reefs, marine life, shipwrecks and, of course, sharks.

1. TIPUTA PASS, RANGIROA, FRENCH POLYNESIA

Imagine standing in the middle of the M25 during rush hour and dodging the cars; that's what it feels like drifting through the principal "pass" out of Rangiroa's huge lagoon (the second largest in the world) as the tide changes. Except the cars are stationary, you're the one doing what feels like 70 mph, and the cars aren't cars, they're sharks. This is shark central: they're waiting, mouths open, for dinner to be swept out of the lagoon by the tide. Fortunately tropical reef sharks are not the monsters that movies make them out to be, but when scuba divers swap shark stories this is often number one on the list.

2. BLACKJACK, OFF CAPE VOGEL, PAPUA NEW GUINEA

The Raskol gangs problem has comprehensively scared tourists away from PNG's towns. But this is still a very popular dive centre, with many well-equipped live aboard boats exploring pristine reefs, dense marine life and an exotic collection of Second World War wreckage, including an amazingly well-preserved four-engined B17 bomber. Sitting at 160ft down, this is regularly cited as the best aircraft wreck dive in the world.

3. THE COD HOLE, OFF LIZARD ISLAND, AUSTRALIA

Probably the best known dive on the Great Barrier Reef, the cod hole is famed for its giant potato cod: lumbering great fish which can weigh up to 300 pounds and have been hanging around this location for over 20 years, waiting for scuba divers to turn up and feed them. Fish feeding is not approved of anywhere so there are restrictions on how it's done, but it's hard not to be impressed when you're surrounded by half a dozen of these friendly monsters. If you'd like to try something potentially less friendly, then Shark Alley is nearby.

4. JAPANESE WRECKS, CHUUK (OR TRUK) LAGOON, MICRONESIA

So many Japanese wrecks litter the bottom of this huge Pacific lagoon that it's difficult to choose a favourite. They were all sunk over two days in February 1944 during the Second World War. The relatively shallow Heian Maru is stunning: it's a 510ft passenger ship (that's pretty big - the Titanic was 882ft long) lying on its side in just 80 feet of water. The cargo ship San Francisco Maru is another wow dive. Landing on its deck you're at 160ft, pushing the edge for recreational diving. Three tanks still sit on the ship's deck, and trucks can be seen in the hold below.

5. THE BLUE HOLE, LIGHTHOUSE REEF, BELIZE

Belize used to be a British Central American colony (populated by the descendants of pirates is the popular story) and boasts the second-longest barrier reef in the world. A perfectly circular hole in the reef, the Blue Hole is the result of a collapsed cavern, and the country's number one dive attraction. Once you've dropped down to around 100 feet to swim between the ancient stalactites it's pretty much "been there, seen that", and you can move on to the rest of Belize's countless wonderful tropical dives.

6. ATAURO ISLAND, EAST TIMOR

Bali and the string of Indonesian islands sprinkled to the east, particularly Komodo and Flores, are popular dive spots with a particularly diverse collection of marine life as the Asian region starts to blend into the Pacific. Only with independence in 1999 have divers become aware of East Timor's possibilities. Atauro Island is offshore from the capital, Dili, and apart from colourful reefs and tropical sea life, divers regularly encounter pods of dolphins and pilot whales on their way back from the island.

7. SHARK REEF, RAS MOHAMMED, EGYPT

Off the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, the dramatic drop-offs where the seabed falls away offer some of the best diving in the Red Sea. This is also where the Gulf of Aqaba meets the Gulf of Suez so there are swirling currents to feed the diverse fish life. There are also lots of divers: Ras Mohammed can get crowded. Shark Reef offers great drift diving in the strong currents, a huge variety of marine life species and a litter of bathtubs and toilets from the wreck of the freighter Jolande.

8. SEAL ISLAND, NEAR CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

Tropical reef sharks on Australia's Great Barrier Reef or around Pacific and Caribbean islands are a thrill to encounter, but they're not really dangerous. If you want to find a great white then head to South Africa, where you can observe them from inside the safety of a steel meshed cage.

9. THE ZOO, YASAWA GROUP, FIJI

Whether it's a kaleidoscope of coral colours or a rainbow of fish, Fiji has some of the best diving in the Pacific, and since getting there can be a little difficult the Yasawa group is crowd-free. The Zoo, also known as the Supermarket, offers just about every marine life variety you're likely to encounter in one handy package and it's neatly equidistant between some of Fiji's best value backpacker resorts and Turtle Island, one of the most exclusive and expensive resorts in the Pacific.

10. MADIVARU, SOUTH ARI ATOLL, MALDIVES

Most visitors to the scattered Indian Ocean islands of the Maldives are there for the diving, and Ari Atoll with about 100 islands, half of them uninhabited, two dozen of them with resorts, is dotted with countless popular dive sites. Elegant manta rays, the huge but gentle plankton-eating whale sharks and, at Madivaru, hammerhead sharks are just some of the big fish divers may encounter.

Tony Wheeler is the founder of 'Lonely Planet'

SCUBA TROOPER: WHY I LOVE DIVING

Scuba diving is like skiing. Well, no of course it isn't. In the most obvious of ways it is the exact opposite: you go down to do it, not up. But there are parallels that anyone who does both will see. I would urge anyone who enjoys skiing to have a crack under the seas.

The structure of a scuba holiday is remarkably similar. You do a fascinating physical activity all day in breathtaking surroundings, then you have a good dinner, and then you do it all over again the next day.

The mixture of care, competence and mastery of some basic techniques is also similar. With skiing you need to be able to turn, sideslip, snow-plough and so on. With scuba you must be able to clear your mask, maintain your buoyancy, know when it is time to come up, etc.

You must be careful, for in both sports people do get killed. As so often in life it is the problems associated with the sport - crashes on the piste, being hit by a speedboat's propeller on the surface - that create much of the danger, not the activity itself. But neither is particularly dangerous provided you remain within your limits of competence.

I am not an experienced diver. But as with skiing, you don't need to be to have memorable experiences. Just as anyone who can get down a red run can have a good time in the Alps, anyone who has earned the basic PADI qualification can see some wonderful things underwater.

Best bits? For me it is a toss-up between watching two octopuses mating in Phuket and a wall dive, weaving in and out of the coral wall, at Cozumel, an island just off the Mexican coast. The boy octopus, for those who are interested, pops one of the girl octopus's tentacles into his mouth - I suppose it is a toe-job - but I could not quite see quite how they went on from there as we ran short of air.

The wall dive is truly remarkable because you swim through tunnels in the coral, 80 feet down from the protected area, inside the reef full of multicoloured shoals of fish, to the open sea on the other side where the giant tuna sashay through what seems a bottomless, endless blue.

My spouse prefers to go on night-dives: different creatures come out to feed at night, and the subtle lack of the reference point of light coming from above makes the whole sensation seem different, too. You feel as though you are in outer space, quite alone (though of course you are with a buddy and a team leader), only able to see the things that your torch picks out.

I suppose everybody is thrilled by wreck dives. Wrecks become attractions for all sorts of marine life, and there is also that curious sensation that living people used to crew the boat - all now forgotten. We mammals are gone and have been replaced by an utterly different set of species. It is our privilege for a few moments to share their world.

And that, surely, is the core of it. Yes, the physical exercise is demanding but not too stretching; the camaraderie has often been wonderful; you have to use your head, which is good; and what you see is endlessly interesting. But the sense of privilege is the great turn-on. We are lucky to share this world with these different, wondrous creatures.

Hamish McRae

Comments