Watch out: After your first taste of diving, that thrill of breathing underwater and floating through that alien world can quickly become an obsession. Any destination has its special thrills, and just floating through the sea can be simultaneously exciting and wonderfully calming. However, if you’re looking for some truly unique experiences, read on. Below is a selection of some of the most amazing dive sites you may not have heard about. Whether you like diving in tropical waters or wintry wastes, looking for wrecks, reefs or fish, there’s a dive site perfect for everyone.
Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands
Scapa Flow is a sheltered natural harbour and has been in use as far back as Viking times, 1,000 years ago. Now though, it is best known as having been the UK’s chief naval base during WWI and WWII. This history makes the area a fascinating dive spot, the shallow (20-50 metres) sandy bottom is home to 78 German ships, all scuttled post-war to prevent their falling into British hands. Divers are permitted to enter these wrecks, and the limited visibility can sometimes increase the thrill of discovery as you meander through a very real, and sobering, piece of history.
Stay: The Diving Centre in Scapa Flow has accommodation.
Ari Atoll, Maldives
The Maldives are world renowned for their tropical, idyllic beaches, and the underwater scenery is now beginning to rival this as a draw to the area with a growing reputation of its own. The multitude of channels in the area result in constant currents sweeping nutrients around the islands, so divers can enjoy watching the large numbers of fish enjoying this moving feast. In the channels you can explore the caves, caverns and overhangs to look at the soft corals along with myriad fish such as napoleon wrasse, parrotfish, snappers, barracudas, jacks and sweetlips, with rays and sharks lurking further out from the reefs. This is an especially great spot for underwater photography, due to the huge variety of sealife, and the visibility, which can often reach to 20m.
Stay: The Maayafushi Island resort.
Port Sudan, Sudan
Many experienced divers shun the Red Sea, a popular area for beginners‚ because of its touristy reputation. However, the Red Sea is busy for a reason, with many beautiful sites, and so is definitely worth a look. If you do want to avoid the crowds, a good bet is to head to out on a liveaboard from Port Sudan. It’s a tough area to get to, but the one flight a week means that you will have the sea almost to yourself. The diving in the area combines wreck diving with sea life. The Blue Bell, a ship that sank loaded with Toyotas is legendary amongst dive photographers, due to the anomalous sight of the cars which have been made home by an incredible variety of small and large game fish.
Stay: Coral International.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Famous as the site where Charles Darwin had his evolutionary epiphany, the Galapagos Islands unsurprisingly have a huge variety of animals to see under the water as well as on land. Since 2001 the islands have been a protected natural Heritage site, and so this is one of the few complete areas in the world you can explore where you’ll find no commercial fishing, and thus little damage and an abundance of sea life. It’s an amazing experience to night dive in this area, seeing giant turtles, crabs, starfish and fur seals, all seen without lamps by the light of the fluorescence.
Stay: Swissotel, Quito.
Saba, Dutch Caribbean
Saba was formed through violent geophysical upheavals, and the island remains mountainous, with Mount Scenery, a potentially active volcano, offering beautiful views of the surrounding ocean. This volcanic activity also formed Saba’s famous pinnacles, stunning underwater spikes of rock rising from the deep, up to about 80-100 feet below sea level. These rocky outcrops are surrounded by coral and sponges, and alive with fish and pelagics which swim almost vertically up and down the pinnacles too engrossed in feeding to let the divers disturb them. This makes for a stunning, and unusual, diving experience, with a backdrop to the dive of pure blue, and a feeling of floating between pinnacles far from the sea bed.
Stay: The Cottage Club.
Farne Islands, UK
Just north of Newcastle, the Farne Islands offer fascinating local history, a huge number of sea birds, and grey seals lounging on the surrounding rocks at low tide. The dive sites are littered with wrecks, or there are more scenic dives during which you can experience some fantastic interaction with the local colony of four to five thousand grey seals, which can be found in the Farnes year-round. The younger seals often come up to the divers and have been known to even nibble on fins, whilst an encounter with a 300kg mature bull can really get the heart pumping! There are also some relatively unusual species that can be seen in this cooler water, including the lumpsucker, Norwegian topknot, yarrel’s blenny, and maybe even a wolf fish.
Stay: The Old Ship Inn.
Pemba, just off the coast of Tanzania is often overshadowed by its larger neighbour, Zanzibar. However, for those in the know, Pemba is the place to experience the best diving in East Africa. There are two very different types of diving experience on Pemba, with the West Coast offering sheltered reefs with beautiful reef fish, and a pretty wreck towards the Southern end of the island. The East Coast is for more experienced and adventurous divers, offering some phenomenal drift diving where you can spot large game fish, as well as slightly more frightening encounters with hammerhead sharks. The currents are strong, and a fifty minute dive can result in over a kilometre of drift. One amazing experience around this area is to go on a liveaboard dhow boat, sailing between dive sites and really enjoying the East African approach to life.
Stay: Kervan Saray beach resort.
Similan Islands, Thailand
Comprising nine granite islands covered in tropical jungle, surrounded by white sand beaches and clear blue ocean, the Similan Islands are considered the most beautiful and diverse dive sites in Thailand. The East side of most of the islands tends to be relaxed, allowing plenty of time to explore the soft corals and swarms of small fish. The West side, in contrast, offers strong currents swirling around sunken granite rocks, these form a series of arches, tunnels and swim-throughs between colourful soft corals. The reason for the Similan islands popularity is this diversity, and as a result the diversity of marine life meaning you can experience a lot in a single holiday. Leopard and whitetip sharks make regular appearances, as do tiny ghost pipefish, turtles, and giant bumphead parrotfish.
Stay: Sunrise Divers liveaboards.
Famous dive sites are often picture-perfect, only blighted occasionally by the vibrations of passing dive boats and other groups obscuring your view of the most sought-after sea life. You can escape all this through visiting Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago, where less than 10 percent of land has any vegetation. Under the water though, is a magic flower garden of soft coral and anemones. Most exciting, is the chance to dive with whales and walruses, as well as see polar bears from the liveaboard ships. This is a different experience from the other dives here, a dry suit is required to avoid the icy touch of the water, but an unforgettable experience to spice up your log book!
Stay: Probably on a boat! But you might also like the world’s northernmost full-service hotel.
Curaco, Dutch Caribbean
Curaco, another stunning dive destination in the Dutch Caribbean, also has a playful side, with one beach dive having the navigation aid of King Triton, to guide you back to land. As well as swimming with the Gods, it is possible to swim with turtles, shipwrecks, and many other fish. With more than 60 spectacular dive sites and 40 breathtaking beaches, Curaco is an especially incredible destination for those with the equipment, confidence and know how to dive without a guide or instructor, since many sites, including the famous SS Mediator, a wreck older than the Titanic can be reached through a short surface swim.
Stay: The Hilton, Curacao.