Its Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest "superorganism," and yes, you can see it from space--however, underwater with a mask is preferable. More than 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of corals and 5,000 species of mollusks are found here. Whale sharks--and thus divers--are drawn to Western Australia. Great white encounters off South Australia are some of the best on earth.
Boats depart for the GBR from ports up and down the coast, including the Whitsunday Islands, Townsville, Cairns and Port Douglas. Day boats will let you get two tanks on the reef and be back on land for dinner. Three- and four-day live-aboard trips offer a few days of solid diving. Where to dive on the GBR? The outer reefs offer steeper drop-offs, huge bommies and more pelagics. Or you can opt for a full-blown live-aboard cruise, either to the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef or a couple hundred miles out into the remote Coral Sea, for some of the country's best diving. There are two fairly reliable seasons for finding great white sharks off South Australia, in summer (from late December through February) and from late May through October. Whale sharks congregate on Ningaloo Reef, off Western Australia, from late March to July.
The Coral Sea. Many of the most spectacular underwater photos of Australia you see were taken not on the GBR but out in the Coral Sea. Expect throngs of sharks and big schools of trevally.
Weather: Seasons are reversed--December through February is summer; June through August is winter.
Average Water Temp: Mid-80s in summer throughout the central and northern Great Barrier Reef; mid-70s in winter.
Average Visibility: Water clarity inside the Great Barrier Reef is affected by tides and surge, and averages 40 to 60 feet, with an occasional high of 100 feet. Outside the reef, vis averages 50 to 100 feet and can exceed more than 200 feet in the Coral Sea.
Travel Savvy: A passport and visa are required. Short-stay visa forms can be downloaded at www.eta.immi.gov.au. Allow 30 days. Nonstop flight time from Los Angeles to Brisbane (BNE) and Sydney (SYD) is about 14 hours. Departure tax is usually included in airline ticket price.
SS Yongala. What To Expect: Sunk in 1911, this 360-foot steamer is the highlight of Coral Sea diving. It boasts a jungle of hard and soft corals and a spectacular complement of marine life, including eagle rays, sea snakes, turtles and sharks.
Milln Reef. What To Expect: A trio of bommies off Cairns known as the Three Sisters rises 108 feet off the sand. The pinnacles are home to schools of fusiliers and snapper.
Agincourt Reef. What To Expect: Located off Port Douglas, this reef is packed with giant clams, a towering pinnacle known as Nursery Bommie, shallow reefs and clouds of tropicals.
Cod Hole. What To Expect: Live-aboards schedule entire itineraries around a visit to this gathering place for giant cod in the GBR's Ribbon Reefs. The 300-pond monsters are joined here by Maori wrasse and schools of pyramid butterflyfish.
Oublier Reef. What To Expect: Huge plate corals, stellar visibility and plunging walls in the Whitsunday Islands.
Pixie Pinnacle. What To Expect: A soaring pinnacle in the Ribbon Reefs that reaches within 10 feet of the surface. Look for tuna and barracuda cruising by.
Ningaloo Reef. What To Expect: From March to June, seasonal visits from whale sharks off Western Australia.
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
New Providence and Grand Bahama put the "dive" in diversity, and the possibilities read like a list of specialty courses: shark encounters, diving with dolphins, wreck diving, reefs and walls. From the urbane resorts of urban Nassau to eclectic Grand Bahama, there's enough to keep you busy for a hundred dive vacations. Best of all, it all starts just 50 miles east of Florida with dozens of reasonably priced flights each day--what are you waiting for?
The legendary Tongue of the Ocean, a deep oceanic trench that drops to 6,000 feet and extends to the south for more than 100 miles, wraps around the western side of New Providence, providing mile after mile of stunning wall dives. The popular diving reefs bordering Grand Bahama Island range from beginner-friendly coral gardens in as little as 20 feet of water, to deeper spur-and-groove coral formations as deep as 80 feet. Bahamas dive operators were among the first to offer shark-feeding dives and today run some of the safest and most electrifying shark encounters in the world. Want something a little more laid-back? New Providence has a host of easily accessible shallow reefs and an armada of photogenic wrecks. Among the favorites of the wreck set: Ray of Hope, a 200-foot freighter that's home to sharks and stingrays, and the heavily encrusted Willaurie. Off Grand Bahama, most diving is done on shallow- to medium-depth reefs, where several excellent wrecks are found, including Theo's Wreck and Sugar Wreck.
Snorkeling. If you've got a nondiving traveling companion or you're looking for something to do the day before you fly home, both islands have vast stretches of shallow, fish-filled reefs to keep you happy. Off the western tip of New Providence is Goulding Cay, a small island surrounded by reefs that feature huge stands of elkhorn corals. Though Paradise Cove Beach Resort suffered some damage during Hurricane Wilma, Deadman's Reef, a short swim from the resort, experienced very little damage and is an excellent place to see hundreds of tropical reef fish.
Weather: In winter and early spring, temperatures range from 60 to 75 degrees, while summer temps are in the low to mid-80s.
Average Water Temp: Summer water temps peak in the high 80s; winter temps drop to the 70s.
Average Visibility: 80 to 100 feet.
Travel Savvy: A passport is required. Nonstop flight time from Miami (MIA) to Nassau/Paradise Island (NAS) and Freeport, Grand Bahama (FPO) is about 35 minutes. Nonstop flights are also available from many U.S. gateways. Inter-island flights are readily available. Departure tax for Grand Bahama is $18; $15 for New Providence.
Shark Wall and Shark Arena. What To Expect: This dive has become the most popular New Providence site for encounters with Caribbean reef sharks. Operators make the first dive on the sponge-draped wall, and then make a second dive at the Arena, a coral rubble patch in 45 feet of water. Once the dive group has assembled on the sand bottom, the shark feeder uses a spear to deliver chum to the gathered sharks.
Razorback and Playpen. What To Expect: Off New Providence, Razorback sits on the edge of the wall that is decorated with profuse clumps of purple tube sponges. Schools of Atlantic spadefish patrol the reef. Playpen is adjacent to Razorback, and dive operators often visit both on the same dive. Playpen is packed with blue chromis, French grunts and creole wrasses.
Willaurie. What To Expect: One of the many wrecks in New Providence's waters, the Willaurie's colorfully encrusted propeller is a compelling photo subject. Large turtles frequently take refuge in the bow.
Southwest Reef. What To Expect: A pristine sprawl of large elkhorn, brain and star corals found in 25 to 35 feet of water off New Providence.
Theo's Wreck. What To Expect: Lying on its port side in 110 feet of water off Grand Bahama, Theo's Wreck offers easy penetration of its cargo holds and is home to horse-eye jacks, green morays and groupers.
Picasso's Gallery. What To Expect: A shallow site off Grand Bahama with isolated coral heads that merge into a solid reef as you move deeper on the gradual slope.
Bahamas Out Islands
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
From freewheeling Bimini to secluded San Salvador, the Out Islands of the Bahamas offer as many different travel experiences as there are points on the map.
Here's a look at the most popular dive areas to help you pick the island that best suits your ideal:
- The Abacos: This horseshoe-shaped archipelago at the northeast end of the island chain offers several popular dive spots, including Marsh Harbour and Green Turtle Cay. Shallow, sunlit coral gardens make the area popular with new divers.
- Andros: This large, barely populated island offers deep wall diving and both ocean and inland blue holes to explore.
- The Biminis: Just 55 miles west of downtown Miami is a chain of small islands that sit front and center on the Gulf Stream. Come for the active shallow reefs and deep drop-offs; stay for the small-island charm.
- Cat Island: Remote shallow reefs and wall diving are found off this island in the central Bahamas.
- Eleuthera and Harbour Island: Quaint Harbour Island is the diving epicenter for its neighbor Eleuthera. Wrecks, reefs and inland blue holes--as well as the Current Cut, an exhilarating drift dive--are yours to explore.
- The Exumas: You can dive this long string of islands fronted by shallow reefs and ocean blue holes from land or by live-aboard boat.
- Long Island: Long Island offers shark diving, reefs, wrecks and day trips to the near-virgin walls of Rum Cay and Conception Island, plus miles of beaches.
- San Salvador: This island offers sheer vertical walls and a better-than-average chance of encounters with big pelagics, including hammerhead sharks.
The Hermitage on Mt. Alvernia. Set on a cliff on Cat Island, this picturesque monastery offers panoramic views of the island.
Weather: In winter and early spring, temps range from 60 to 75 degrees; summer temps are in the low to mid-80s.
Average Water Temp: Summer water temps peak in the high 80s; winter temps drop to the 70s.
Average Visibility: 80 to 100 feet.
Travel Savvy: A passport is required. Flights to the Out Islands are available from the three international airports--Nassau (NAS), Freeport, Grand Bahama (FPO) and Georgetown, Exuma (GGT). Departure tax is $15.
Conception Island Wall. What To Expect: Pristine vertical walls adorned with huge coral heads begin in 45 feet of water and drop off into the deep blue.
San Jacinto. What To Expect: The first steamship ever built in the U.S. met its fate on the reefs near Green Turtle Cay; the encrusted remains rest in 40 to 45 feet of water.
Maxi Cave. What To Expect: Heads of mounding star and brain corals are topped by sea fans in this sun-dappled maze off Marsh Harbour.
Ocean Blue Hole. What To Expect: There are three levels to the most famous of Andros's many oceanic and inland blue holes, but the safest dive is a guided tour of the top level where the eerie mood created by rugged rock formations and giant boulders is heightened by haloclines of blue seawater and green fresh water.
Tuna Alley. What To Expect: Northwest of South Cat Cay in the Bimini Islands, this sloping field of coral canyons is furrowed with gulleys, cracks and tiny swim-throughs. Atlantic spadefish and bluestriped grunts swarm above the pinnacles that peak at 40 feet.
Tartar Bank. What To Expect: A challenging, current-swept dive, Cat Island's Tartar Banks features a pinnacle, measuring three-quarters of a mile in diameter and rising from nearly 2,000 feet to 40 feet from the surface.
Current Cut. What To Expect: You don't know drift diving until you've dropped 60 feet into the eight- to 10-knot current that gusts through Eleuthera's Devil's Backbone.
Angelfish Blue Hole. What To Expect: Off Stocking Island in the Exumas, this blue hole in a quiet lagoon drops to 90 feet before branching off into horizontal caves. Sponges coat interior passages filled with angelfish.
|Photo by Franco Banfi|
|Photo by Franco Banfi|
From the southern half of the 800-mile-long Baja peninsula, divers have access to the best of two worlds--the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. West coast or east coast, the large ocean animals found in these waters are legendary: whale sharks, dolphins, giant manta rays and schools of sharks like scalloped hammerheads.
The Sea of Cortez, a slice of sea hidden between the peninsula and the west coast of mainland Mexico, contains a microcosm of Pacific marine life--750 species in all, including big-ticket animals like gray whales, whale sharks, hammerheads, giant Pacific manta rays and sea lions. While there is diving to be explored from any village on the Sea of Cortez, the best variety is found in the southern sea, from the towns of Baja Sur--Loreto, La Paz and Los Cabos.
If you're looking for even more adrenaline-pumping action, hop a live-aboard for the remote Socorro Islands, also known as the Revillagigedos, 220 miles southwest of the peninsula's southern tip. These uninhabited volcanic islands are the realm of advanced divers and big pelagic species including tuna, jacks, sharks and the area's signature species, the giant manta ray.
Cage diving with great white sharks is popular off Guadalupe Island, about 180 miles west of Ensenada, Mexico. There may be as many as 100 white sharks around the island in season, usually between the months of August and November.
Hiking and Biking. Baja's starkly beautiful desert landscape is a striking contrast to the richness of the surrounding seas. To explore the area's incredible rock formations, sprawling vistas and wildlife, bring a good pair of hiking boots or rent a mountain bike once you're here. Desert hiking is best in the winter when temperatures are in the 70s. One popular excursion is a combination ride and hike to the hot springs above the little town of Santiago.
Weather: Highs in the 90s in summer; cooler in winter.
Average Water Temp: The best time to dive in the Sea of Cortez is late June to early November, when surface temps hit the mid-80s. In the Socorro Islands, November through May is optimal as water temps are in the 70s and 80s. Guadalupe Island's water temp averages between 65 and 70 degrees.
Average Visibility: In the Sea of Cortez, vis peaks at 60 to 70 feet in late summer. In the Socorros, vis can reach 100 feet, but pockets of plankton can cloud the water. Guadalupe's vis often exceeds 100 feet.
Travel Savvy: A passport is required. San Jose del Cabo (SJD) and La Paz (LPB) are served by a number of U.S. airlines. Live-aboards that visit the Socorros are based in Cabo San Lucas. Live-aboards offer trips to Guadalupe from August to November, departing from Ensenada, Mexico, and San Diego.
Los Islotes. What To Expect: These two large rock islets off La Paz feature a natural arch, undercuts and grottoes, and are home to a colony of California brown sea lions. Expect dense schools of sardines, king angelfish and yellow surgeonfish among golden cup corals.
Salvatierra. What To Expect: This cargo ferry sank in 1976 off La Paz and much of its freight is still visible in 60 feet of water. Cortez angelfish, moray eels and the occasional manta ray are highlights of a dive here.
Cabo Pulmo Reef. What To Expect: It's a two-hour boat ride from Cabo San Lucas to East Cape, but the payoff is the only hard coral reef on the western coast of North America. The four separate sections of the reef are packed with brightly colored tropicals.
The Blowhole. What To Expect: The main attraction at Los Cabos's Blowhole is an enormous rock marked by deep crevices and covered with gorgonians. Keep an eye out for nurse sharks and eagle rays.
Gorda Bank. What To Expect: This open-ocean seamount eight miles off San Jose del Cabo is a magnet for all the big boys--schooling hammerheads, manta rays and even whale sharks. Because of the depth (the seamount tops out at 110 feet) and unpredictable currents, this is a site for experienced divers only.
Piedra Blanca. What To Expect: A jumble of massive boulders in the shallows and a steep drop-off starting at 60 feet here at the north end of Isla Coronado. Watch for schooling tuna and big bumphead parrotfish.
Great White Shark Encounter. What To Expect: Guadalupe Island is the only place in the western hemisphere where you can be surrounded by great white sharks in a submersible cage 20 feet below the surface. Expect a 20-minute, heart-pounding experience--and don't forget to bring your camera.
The Boiler. What To Expect: This seamount off Isla San Benedicto in the Socorro Islands rises vertically from 120 feet and tops out onto a 100-foot-wide plateau. The top and walls of the seamount teem with life, but the big draw here is the succession of giant mantas--which can grow to 22 feet from wingtip to wingtip-- that cruise by regularly. Also expect hammerhead, white-tip and silky sharks.
|Photo by Ethan Gordon|
Off Honduras's Caribbean coast, mountains rise from the seafloor to form a group of islands--Roatan, Utila, Guanaja and 65 other small cays--that is legendary among divers. The draw? Dramatic pinnacles that soar upward and canyons that plunge downward, and the most reliable spot in the Caribbean for one of diving's most jaw-dropping encounters: swimming with whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea.
Dive operators on both Roatan and Utila try to cater to small groups by placing few divers on their boats. On Roatan, you'll generally dive the sites that are no more than a 15-minute boat ride away from where you're staying. The shallow fringing reefs along Roatan's north shore slope down to a vertical wall starting at 40 feet, while the drop-off on the south shore starts in 25 feet of water. Utila, however, has a more unpredictable nature. European backpackers love this tiny island for its funky nature and its diving diversity: fringing reefs, dramatic walls, a string of small cays and submerged seamounts. You also have a chance to spot whale sharks in season (March-April and August-September) off the island's northern shore. A live-aboard boat can get you to some of the more remote sites in the islands, including the protected Cayos Cochinos.
Swim With the Dolphins. On Roatan, you can snorkel with the dolphins at Anthony's Key Resort (part of the package if you're a guest at the resort; other resorts arrange day trips). Accompanied by a dolphin behaviorist and videographer, a maximum of 10 snorkelers interact with the dolphins in 20 feet of water. The entire encounter lasts about one hour.
|Photo by Marli Wakeling|
Weather: Year-round temperatures are typically in the mid-80s, but can drop to the high 60s after a rain shower. The rainy season runs from October through early January with frequent, brief downpours.
Average Water Temp: Usually in the low 80s, but can drop to the mid-70s in winter.
Average Visibility: Vis is usually around 60 feet, but can reach 100 feet and beyond.
Travel Savvy: A passport is required. Keep the tourist visa you'll be issued on arrival--you need to turn it back in when you leave. There are nonstop flights from many U.S. gateways to Roatan (RTB). There are also nonstop flights from U.S. gateways to San Pedro Sula (SAP) on the mainland; from San Pedro Sula there are direct connections to Roatan, Utila and Guanaja. There is a $30 departure tax.
Destination Links: www.bayislandstourism.com.
Herbie's Place. What To Expect: This site, located off Roatan's western end, features deep cuts in the wall.
Odyssey. What To Expect: The massive 300-foot-long Odyssey, off Roatan's north coast, is developing into a living reef, and the barracuda and jacks that patrol the superstructure thrill divers.
Spooky Channel. What To Expect: Off the north shore, this channel is hollowed out of the reef; its bottom at 95 feet, making for an eerie dive.
Calvin's Crack. What To Expect: A tunnel-like crack in the reef off the island's south shore leads to an opening on the wall at about 70 feet.
Forty-foot Point. What To Expect: Schooling fish are found near the surface in the sand channel that flanks this site off Roatan's south coast. The deep, steep wall turns north, catching an upwelling that feeds deep-water gorgonians. J mary's place. What To Expect: Roatan's signature dive--a sheer vertical fissure cut deep into the wall--is so popular that dive operators schedule time for visiting it. Beautiful specimens of black coral.
The Great Wall. What To Expect: Huge barrel sponges adorn this spectacular wall off Turtle Harbour on the island's north shore.
Black Hills. What To Expect: This seamount off Utila's east end is swarmed by schools of jacks and chub.
Don Quickset. What To Expect: Two canyons split the reef; bring a dive light to find crabs and lobsters in the crevices.
Pelican Point Wall. What To Expect: Off Cochino Grande in the Cayos Cochinos, a terraced wall with grottoes and cracks, schooling fish and colorful tropicals.
|Photo by Scott Johnson|
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
Belize is living proof that big things can come in small packages. Within its borders is enough eco-adventure to fill an entire season's worth of programming on the Discovery Channel--let alone a single dive vacation. From Ambergris Caye's spur-and-groove reefs in the north, to the wild, South Pacific-esque atolls off central Belize, to the whale sharks of the rarely dived southern portion of the nation's enormous barrier reef, there is literally something for everyone.
No matter where you are in Belize, the diving rocks. Ambergris Caye, off the mainland's northeastern shore, is to Belize what Cozumel is to Mexico--the focal point for the country's dive activity. The barrier reef is closer to Ambergris than any point on the coast, and because of this, there are more dive operators in San Pedro than anywhere else in the country. In addition to diving Ambergris sites, operators run day and overnight trips to Turneffe Islands Atoll and Lighthouse Reef Atoll, including the Blue Hole.
Beyond the barrier reef, 30 to 60 miles off the mainland, lie the country's three atolls: Turneffe Islands, Lighthouse Reef and Glover's Reef. These oblong coral rings each surround a central lagoon. More than 200 small cayes top Turneffe Islands Atoll, the closest to the mainland. The eastern shore of Turneffe is protected by a 35-mile-long wall that is a magnet for fish, including horse-eye jacks, cubera snappers and black-tip sharks. Lighthouse Reef Atoll is home to the world-famous Blue Hole and has a very healthy reef system. Glover's Reef Atoll is circled by 40 miles of reef, including drop-offs to 2,000 feet and an 80-square-mile shallow lagoon with more than 700 patch reefs. Dolphins, turtles and spotted eagle rays can be seen year-round. You can stay at a dive resort located on one of the atolls, make day-long trips from mainland departure points including Ambergris and Hopkins, or opt for one of the live-aboards that offer atoll itineraries.
About 100 miles south of Belize City is Placencia Peninsula. Between the peninsula and the southern reaches of the barrier reef is a vast inner lagoon, which supports one of only three faro reef systems in the world. These steep-sided shelf atolls rise from the continental shelf and enclose a central lagoon. Twenty-nine miles from Placencia's coast is Gladden Spit, a hot spot for whale shark encounters.
Mainland Mayan Sites. Visit ruins on the mainland at Xunantunich, Altun Ha or Lamanai. Your resort will help you arrange transportation.
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
Weather: Summer temps are from the mid-70s to mid-80s; in winter, high 60s to low 80s. The rainy season is June to November.
Average Water Temp: Low to mid-80s in summer; mid-70s in winter.
Average Visibility: Off Ambergris Caye, water clarity averages 50 feet. Visibility off the atolls is best from April to June, when it reaches 60 feet. Vis off southern Belize peaks in spring (60 feet), with lower vis November through January. Outside the barrier reef vis is a reliable 100 feet or better.
Travel Savvy: A valid passport is required. There are nonstop flights to Belize City (BZE) from many U.S. gateways. From Belize City, connections can be made to Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, Dangriga, Placencia and Punta Gorda. There is a $35 departure tax, payable only in U.S. currency.
Hol Chan Cut. What To Expect: The cut is part of the five-square-mile Hol Chan Marine Reserve off Ambergris Caye. Strong tidal currents make it tricky to dive this site, but also supply food to filter feeders such as sea fans, sponges and gorgonians and to fish like grunts and mutton snappers. Novice divers should make this dive during periods of slack tide.
Mata Cut. What To Expect: A dramatic pass through the barrier reef, a few miles north of Punta Arena Canyons off Amerbris Caye. Remains of an old barge lie just inside the reef in less than 10 feet of water. Snappers are usually found schooling on the rusted hull.
The Elbow. What To Expect: Ranked among Belize's best wall dives, this drop-off at Turneffe Islands Atoll's southern tip is a busy intersection of currents, divers and big fish. You'll see schools of jacks, permit and oddly sculpted barrel sponges.
Blue Hole. What To Expect: Yes, it's a hole and yes, it's blue. This 412-foot shaft at the heart of Lighthouse Reef Atoll has achieved dive-cult status.
Half Moon Caye. What To Expect: The walls off Lighthouse are shot through with innumerable tunnels and swim-throughs, and packed with huge barrel and tube sponges. The marine life includes yellowtail snappers, eagle rays and garden eels.
Southwest Caye Wall. What To Expect: The wall off Glover's Reef Atoll is a deep, dramatic drop-off that starts in 50 feet of water and plunges into the deep blue.
Laughing Bird Caye. What To Expect: You can take along the nondiver in your group to this popular snorkeling and sunbathing site off Placencia. Offshore, tranquil reefs are populated by tunicates, anemones and lobsters.
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
|Photo by Clay Wiseman|
|Photo by Scott Johnson|
Five centuries' worth of shipwrecks are found off Bermuda--most got here by running aground on the island's broad, shallow reef, which happens to be the northernmost coral reef system in the western hemisphere.
There are three types of dives on Bermuda: historic wrecks, artificial wrecks and reefs. Historic wrecks are either buried in the sand or swallowed by the reef, but pay close attention to the dive briefings and features of the wrecks will pop out at you. A handful of modern steel hulls have been intentionally sunk for divers, and offer plenty of great photo opportunities and safe penetration. The reefs around Bermuda are heavy on sturdy brain and star corals. Coral heads grow large enough to form archways, tunnels and canyons. Divers can choose to dive with a land-based operator or or from a live-aboard (from April to December).
Snorkeling. Bermuda's reef system covers 230 square miles and forms canyons, tunnels and archways that rise to meet the water's surface--perfect for snorkeling. You'll find the usual collection of reef fish, from small blennies to big parrotfish. Enjoy the freedom of snorkeling at favorite sites like Church Bay, John Smith's Bay and Tobacco Bay.
Weather: Bermuda has two seasons: a May-to-November summer (85 degrees during the day; in the 70s at night) and a spring-like winter from December to April (60s to 70s during the day; 50s to 60s at night).
Average Water Temp: From 75 to 85 degrees in the summer; dipping to the mid-60s in winter. Dive operators recommend a full 3mm wetsuit for summer; and a full 5mm to 7mm for late fall, winter and early spring.
Average Visibility: 70 to 100 feet of vis is normal, with an occasional 150-foot day.
Travel Savvy: A passport is required. Nonstop flights to Bermuda (BDA) originate from many U.S. gateways. Departure tax is usually included in airline ticket price.
Destination Links: www.bermudatourism.com.
Mary Celestia. What To Expect: The boilers and skeletal remains of this twin-paddle-wheel Civil War blockade runner lie in the sand. She was carrying a load of corned beef and rifles when she hit the reef and sank in 1864.
Montana. What To Expect: Both paddle wheels and boilers of this coral-covered 236-foot Civil War blockade runner make good photo ops. The wreck lies in 30 feet of water on solid reef.
Constellation. What To Expect: This four-masted schooner was bound for Venezuela when it sank in 1943. Today, the cargo of cement bags it was carrying forms a hardened mountain for marine life in 30 feet of water.
Hermes. What To Expect: Intentionally sunk in 80 feet of water in 1985, Bermuda dive operators have opened up this fully intact World War II steel buoy tender for penetration.
Minnie Breslauer. What To Expect: This 300-foot English steamer's maiden voyage from Portugal to New York ended on Bermuda's southwest reefs in 1873. The stern section is still largely intact at 65 feet.
L'Herminie. What To Expect: This 60-cannon French frigate was a potent symbol of naval power when it sank in 1838. Today, 25 of the cannons are still visible under 30 feet of water.
Xing Da. What To Expect: You'll need more than one dive to see all of this 221-foot Chinese freighter, which was scuttled upright in 1997 in 106 feet of water.
Pollockshields. What To Expect: This 323-foot British munitions carrier sank in a storm in 1915. The steamer's scattered remains lie on either side of the breaking reef line in 15 to 40 feet of water. The wreckage includes boilers, a spare propeller and live munitions.
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
Bonaire is the home of DIY diving where the dive drill is what you make of it--grab a tank, throw it in the back of the rental truck, drive to one of 80-plus shore sites, dive, repeat. If you're one of those prima donna divers who abhors touching your gear until checking in for the flight home, go elsewhere. If you don't mind a little bit of sand in your booties and want to dive when the mood strikes, this is it.
Bonaire's small beaches continue under water in a sandy plain dotted with coral heads that slopes down to 30 feet. The reef drops off gradually to another sandy plain at about 140 feet. These reefs are pristine and healthy thanks to the protection afforded by Bonaire's marine park authority, STINAPA, which strictly enforces its rules. Expect to pay $25 for a marine park tag, get a lecture on regulations and make a park-mandated checkout dive before setting off on your own. Be sure to take at least one boat ride to Klein Bonaire, about 500 yards off Bonaire's west coast. This uninhabited island offers another two dozen or so sites.
Washington Slagbaai National Park. If you've got the stamina, make the one- to two-hour hike up Subi Brandaris, Bonaire's highest peak (784 feet).
Weather: Temperatures range between 75 and 85 degrees.
Average Water Temp: Water temps average 80 degrees in summer and mid-70s in winter.
Average Visibility: 60 to 100 feet or greater, depending on currents and plankton.
Travel Savvy: A passport is required. Continental offers Saturday-only nonstop flights from Newark to Bonaire (BON). There is one-stop service (via San Juan, Montego Bay, Aruba or Curaçao) from many U.S. gateways. Before your first dive, you'll be required to make an orientation dive and purchase a $25 marine park dive tag. Departure tax is $20.
Red Slave. What To Expect: The surf can be a bit rough at Red Slave, but past the sandy plain, you'll find a gorgonian forest followed by the drop-off.
Hilma Hooker. What To Expect: Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds. It's a bit of a challenging swim, but the 236-foot-long freighter, lying on its side in 100 feet of water, is worth it.
Eighteenth Palm. What To Expect: This site just off Plaza Resort is one of the island's easiest entries. Look for tarpon at about 90 feet.
Bari Reef. What To Expect: Just off Sand Dollar Condo Resort, this is a great place to make a night dive.
1,000 Steps. What To Expect: There aren't 1,000 steps down to the water, but it will feel that way on the climb back to your car. This dive begins from a sheltered cove.
Ol' Blue. What To Expect: This site is crammed with yellow pencil and star corals, and an abundance of reef fish like queen angels.
Forest. What To Expect: At this site off Klein Bonaire, the sandy beach meets a lush reef; over the drop-off, thick masses of star and brain corals lead to a sheer wall.