Travel: Where to find the best dives - and the best deals

From the Red Sea to the eastern Pacific, Gavin Anderson, in the first part of a two-page report on diving, goes in search of some underwater gems

THE WORLD'S oceans are approximately three times larger than its continents, and trying to decide where and when to go for a diving holiday can be daunting for the beginner. One problem is that a lot of the best diving tends to be on the other side of the world - in places like Australia, Indonesia, and the Pacific Islands. Nearer-to-hand places, like the Caribbean, cannot really compare with these (though they are still spectacular for a beginner). If you can't travel far however, you should not despair: there is at least one world class destination relatively close at hand, which is also the best value, namely the Red Sea. Here is a run-down of the world's top diving spots.

The Red Sea

For many years the Red Sea has been one of the favourite spots for British divers. Not only affordable, it is also relatively close to the UK. The highlight is of course Sharm El Sheikh, where the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aquaba meet - practically unheard of 15 years ago, this is now one of the most popular dive destinations in the world. Although it has become a little overcrowded, sites like the famous Ras Muhammad, Sha'ab Abu Nuhas and the Straits of Tiran continue to thrill even the most experienced divers. An extra little excitement is the wreck of the Thistlegorm, a Second World War cargo ship sunk in 1941. She is a three to four hour boat trip away but if you fancy exploring holds full of motorbikes, jeeps and trucks, don't miss it. Sharm El Sheikh can also be a great place for a land-based holiday (this is sunny Egypt after all), but if it's sheer, unadulterated diving you are after then you might book yourself on a Liveaboard (ie "live-aboard" which means living on a boat rather than in a hotel). Some of these venture further south towards Sudan and the Yemen where you can explore mysterious wrecks hardly ever dived, and glide through huge shoals of jack, snapper or squadrons of rays. An increasing number of boats operate in this area, from around May through to November. The Northern Red Sea is accessible all year round although from December to April you'll need at the very least a 5 mm wet suit to keep you warm. The best time to visit is from May to November.

For: soft coral, marine life and world class wrecks. Accessible and affordable - Direct flights to Sharm El Sheikh (and Eilat, Israel) from London take no more than 5 hours. A week in the Red Sea, will cost between pounds 370 and pounds 599 shore based and between pounds 499 to pounds 1,000 liveaboard.

Against: becoming a little too popular. To avoid the crowds you'd be best booking a liveaboard.

The Caribbean

If you're prepared to travel a little further the Caribbean and the Bahamas are probably the next most accessible warm water diving area. You can even fly direct to many of the islands including the Caymans, Cuba and New Providence Island (Nassau) which is one of the most popular of the Bahamas.

On New Providence Island you can dive on James Bond wrecks, rent an underwater scooter or if you prefer swim with a bunch of Grey Reef Sharks on a specially arranged shark feed. For the ultimate Shark experience however you'll need to catch a flight to the tiny Island of Walkers Cay which offers a dive with up to 100 sharks. It is called the Shark Rodeo.

The Cayman Islands, with their brilliant underwater visibility, dramatic walls, Stingray City and the recently sunk Russian Destroyer, is the most popular dive location in the Caribbean. You can dive here all year round. Note that although the Caymans are a British crown colony the atmosphere on the islands is highly American.

Belize is home to the world's second largest barrier reef and the famous Blue Hole. The reefs are some of the best in the Caribbean with thick gorgonian forests and huge sponges, fishlife is also good. Turneffe Island and Lighthouse Reef are the places to head for, flights are via Miami or Houston. If you are looking to get away from the crowds and wish to take in some topside attractions, too then Belize is for you, its Mayan ruins, waterfalls and rain forests are brilliant. Flights are via Miami or Houston.

Other Caribbean hot spots worth checking out are Bonaire, Cuba (as good as the Caymans but without the Americans), the Island of Puerto Rico and Cozumel in Mexico. A week's diving holiday in the Caribbean will cost anywhere from about pounds 700 to pounds 1500.

For: reasonably affordable, accessible, direct flights or good connections via Miami. Good choice of resorts and dive experiences, especially the Bahamas and Caymans. Warm water all year round.

Against: the Caribbean lacks the marine life diversity of the Red Sea Pacific and Indian oceans. Some Islands like Grand Cayman are becoming overrun with tourists.

The Indian Ocean

Moving a little further away from the UK the Indian Ocean Islands of the Seychelles and Maldives do involve long haul flights but both are proving big hits with British divers. Package holidays for the ordinary sunseeker have brought prices tumbling down. The Seychelles is a nicer, more attractive place generally for a holiday but the Maldives offers the better diving. The reefs are stunning, there's an abundance of soft corals and fish and a great chance of seeing sharks and Manta Rays too if you go between November and March.

For: there is a huge choice of dive resorts, the marine life is equal to if not better than the Red Sea. Affordable Package holidays for non- divers. Prices as low as pounds 699. Liveaboards are recommended if you want to dive a wider selection of good sites, expect to pay between pounds 1200 and pounds 1600, including flights.

Against: strong currents and not very much to do when you are not diving.

Southern Africa

Also in the Indian Ocean but straight south from the UK South Africa and neighbouring Mozambique are two new diving destinations well worth heading to. With the way the South African Rand is heading, dive holidays here might end up as cheap as the Red Sea. The choice of experiences is amazing: you can dive with every breed of shark: great whites in Cape Town, zambezis, hammerheads and sand tigers (known locally as raggitooths) at Protea Banks, south of Durban and with whale sharks off Mozambique, just north of the South African border. Oh and in-between all those encounters why not visit a game park (on land)?

For: only a two hour time difference, and very affordable - flights from pounds 399 to Johannesburg (an extra pounds 100 will fly you on to Margate). Dive/Hotel packages from pounds 459. A variety of experiences available, still yet to be really discovered by overseas visitors. Best place anywhere for diving with sharks, especially Protea Banks or Aliwal Shoal between August and November (prepare to be surrounded by Raggis).

Against: the difficulty of getting around war-damaged Mozambique. You'll need some backpacking experience for this one.

South-east Asia

Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines lie right in the centre of the most diverse and prolific marine life area on our planet. It's not surprising then that these countries have some superb diving. In recent years they have suffered from overfishing and a degree of dynamiting but if you're prepared to do your research there are still many untouched areas where diving is very special. Thailand's Similan Islands are the place to head to during March and April if you wish to see Whale Sharks, Manta Rays and large Pelagic schools. If you are into smaller creatures you will not find many better places than Manado or Ambon in Indonesia. From tiny gobies to colourful neudibranchs (sea slugs), and from rare pipefish to bizarre scorpion and leaf fish, you'll have no problem filling up your log book with exciting sightings. What's more the dive holidays are incredible value right now.

For: rare Marinelife. value for money. A couple of week's holiday can cost as little as pounds 974, or even less if you just fly out and make your own arrangements.

Against: to reach the best resorts often involves two or three flights. In some areas the seasons are fairly short so its best to get the full picture from your travel agent before you go.

Australia

Australia's famous Great Barrier Reef is still worth visiting despite being over populated with divers. But if you have the time, take a liveaboard to the Coral Sea: it is dived less often and is as a result more untouched. The best time weather-wise is between October and December. On Australia's colder southern coast lies the legendary Dangerous Reef where during February and March those who are lucky enough (and can afford the crazy prices now charged) can dive with great white sharks. On the West coast well north of Perth and Exmouth lies Ningaloo reef where between March and May divers turn up to dive with a very different type of shark, the majestic whale shark. Ningaloo has become so popular that you are advised to pre- book your dives, several months ahead! If your diving Ningaloo or the Great Barrier reef a 3 mm dive suit will be fine but for Dangerous Reef a thicker 5 or 7 mm suit is well advised.

Flights to Australia can be ludicrously cheap if you are flexible about when you travel. Return prices sometimes dip to as low as pounds 300 though around pounds 650 is more realistic. Additional flights and car hire will most likely take this closer to pounds 1,000 all in. A week's diving and accommodation will cost pounds 500-pounds 800 per week.

For: unique dive experiences like great whites and whale sharks off Australia. Cheap cost of getting to Australia.

Against: long flying time; too many divers in the Great Barrier Reef.

Melanesia

If you are planning on diving Australia and can spare an extra week (or month!) you are only a stone's throw away from the Melanesian Islands of Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomons and Papua New Guinea. I've just returned from two months in this area, but I could have stayed my whole life. The diving is incredible, especially in the Solomons and PNG, where the reefs are jam packed with colourful soft corals, sea stars and gigantic sea fans. Vanuatu is great too - it happens to contain the world's greatest wreck dive, the SS President Coolidge. She was a luxury liner converted into a troop carrier during the Second World War and sunk while entering Santo harbour after hitting two friendly mines. Only an hour and half's flight from Australia, Aussie divers return here year after year, spending their entire week's holiday just diving on her. She's so large and full of interesting features, that it takes several separate trips to cover the whole wreck in its entirety! Fiji is the most developed of these four destinations. A few of its reefs are showing signs of being overdived, most notably the Coral coast area, nevertheless it is known as the soft coral capital of the world and certain Islands and liveaboard trips still offer truly world class experiences.

The South Pacific may seem impossibly far away and expensive to reach but it needn't be. Air Pacific and Air New Zealand offer competitive fares to Fiji, starting at as low as pounds 699 in the low season, via Los Angeles and Honolulu, or even Auckland New Zealand. Free stop-overs are sometimes included. Vanuatu and the Solomons are best reached through Australia, and PNG either via Singapore, Manila, or also Cairns in Australia. You will need to add at least another pounds 250 or pounds 350 to your Australia fare to get to and from Vanuatu or the Solomons and between pounds 400 to pounds 600 to PNG, depending on the time of year. You'll also need another pounds 150 to pounds 250 for internal flights to your chosen island(s). Flying via Singapore is presently the most popular way of reaching PNG, flights are in excess of pounds 1000.

For: the worlds best diving area, most species of marine life, most pristine reefs and least diver numbers. Unique dive experiences like Silver tips and plane wrecks of the Solomons and PNG .

Against: distances and time changes, you'll need at least 2 to 3 weeks holiday to make it worth while. Although Fiji can possibly be dived for pounds 1500 for two weeks including flights, Vanuatu the Solomons and PNG are expensive to get to and a two-week holiday will cost well in excess of pounds 2000. Malaria can also be a problem in the Solomons, PNG and Vanuatu. PNG is also ridden with violent crime.

Micronesia

To the north of Melanesia is Micronesia another world class diving area miles away from the UK. Here the Islands of Yap, Palau and Truck offer some unforgettable experiences. Yap is where you can join dozens of Manta Rays from November to May, Truck Lagoon is where the Americans successfully attacked and sunk countless Japanese ships and Palau is simply a divers paradise, with Blue holes, Jellyfish Lake and the famous Blue corner, which literally swarms with fish. To get to Micronesia it's currently cheaper via Manilla in the Philippines, alternatively flights go from Los Angeles.

For: unique dive experiences, Manta Ray and wreck capital of the world.

Against: price tag/distance. One week's land-based dive holiday in Truck will cost as much as pounds 2000, a liveaboard trip pounds 2600.

Eastern Pacific

Probably the world's greatest dive sites are located of the eastern side of the Pacific, a few hundred miles west of South America.

These are three island groups - the Cocos, Malpelo and Galapagos - all very isolated, and each group two to three hundred miles away from the other.

At the islands, divers can become totally mesmerised by amazing squadrons of hammerhead sharks several hundred strong. They are the main attraction of these remote islands but there is lots more to see besides this. Manta rays, enormous Pelagics schools and several other shark species are often encountered. The Galapagos of course are also home to the most unique and unusual land creatures found anywhere on our planet - reason enough for going there. Divers can not only swim with sealions, penguins, marine iguanas and galapagos sharks, but on land they can check out the giant tortoises and unusual birds.

Flights for the Galapagos from the UK require at least two changes - usually in Miami and Quito, Ecuador. For Cocos and Malpelo, flights are via Miami and San Jose.

For: a totally unique marine life experience - a trip of a lifetime.

Against: cost and time. You'll need to save up at least pounds 3000 and allocate an absolute minimum of two weeks to your holiday.

diving contact numbers

The Red Sea

Explorers Tours, Tel: 01753 681 999

Oonasdivers, Tel: 01323 648 924

Caribbean, Bahamas

Explorers Tours: 01753 681 999

Divequest: 01254 826 322

Hayes and Jarvis: Tel: 0181 748 5050

Maldives

Hayes And Jarvis, Tel: 0181 222 7840

Maldives Scuba Tours, Tel: 01449 780 220

Aquatours, Tel: 0181 255 8050

Indian Ocean, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines

Explorers Tours Tel 01753 681999

Divequest Tel 01254 826 322

Sport Abroad, Tel: 01306 744 345

Sure Dive, Tel: 01704 573 714

South Africa, Mozambique

Hayes And Jarvis, Tel: 0181 222 7840

Oonasdivers, Tel 01323 648924

SAR Travel, Tel: 0171 287 1133

Galapagos, Cocos, PNG, South Pacific

Scuba Safaris, Tel 01797 270910

Divequest, Tel: 01254 826 322

Sure Dive, Tel: 01704 573 714

Truck, Micronesia, Australia

Explorers Tours, Tel: 01753 681 999

Divequest, Tel: 01254 826 322

Sure Dive, Tel: 01704 573 714

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