Into the Big Blue
Written by Oryx
While December in the northern hemisphere is synonymous with shorter days and the promise of a welcome blanket of snow, in warmer climes the only ‘winter’ worry is usually which sun hat and ‘shades’ to wear. Expand your dive book this winter with epic underwater experiences at four exceptional dive spots – from Brazil to Phuket – which offer the aquatically inclined a serene escape.
If there was a Hollywood blockbuster for diving locations, then the Andaman Sea would provide the all-star cast: Burma Banks, Mergui Archipelago, Similan and Suri Islands, Andaman Islands, and Phi Phi Islands. Expect crystal-clear waters that exceed 30m visibility in 28˚C-warm waters, and a consistent array of aquatic life at both ends of the size spectrum.
While liveaboards are to be found the world over, the combination of dramatic topography, ongoing reef protection, and exceptional dive boat charters all add up to an unmatched experience. This is one of the few places where you need never get wet to thoroughly enjoy the liveaboard experience.
To the northwest of Phuket lie the most popular sites, including the nine islands that form the Similan group; but venture another 180km northwest of here, and you are rewarded with the relatively unexplored Mergui Archipelago (comprising 800 islands, some the size of Singapore and mostly uninhabited) and the Burma Banks – a group of underwater ‘mountains’ rising from 350m below to skim the surface.
Some 350km farther still are India’s Andaman Islands, a vast array of untouched reefs dotted among a ribbon of islands that run north–south. On these islands where some of the last stone-age peoples on earth dwell – including the Sentinelese – no visitors, journalists, or even researchers have set foot. The untouched reef enjoys the same protection, with extremely limited access enforced.
Extinct volcano, 160km north of Barren Island
Four-metre barrel sponges, fan corals twice the size of those in the Similan Islands, herds of manta rays – everything here is alive, healthy, and in abundance. It is both a diver’s paradise and a photographer’s nightmare – because you can’t buy a memory card big enough to capture what’s here!
Aptly named, this is the place for that ‘Finding Nemo’ encounter. Vast fields of sea anemones cling to every conceivable surface, and swing and sway with the current, creating the illusion that it is a giant living rock. Spot enormous schools of tropical fish, along with larger game fish and the occasional leopard shark. The reef is also famed for groups of up to a dozen lionfish at a time.
If it’s variety you’re after, this is the right place. The top of the food chain gets corralled daily for the exhilarating experience of cage diving with six-metre Great White Sharks. Boats leave Gansbaai and False Bay and chum the ocean to draw these prehistoric beauties up close; for the more adventurous, Protea Banks in June and July offers shark diving with neither bait nor cage.
For even bigger ‘fish’, Plettenberg Bay from November to January hosts the return leg of humpback whale migration from the feeding grounds of the Antarctic. The coastal town of Hermanus welcomes Southern Rights, Bryde’s whales, and even Orcas (killer whales) through the season, with September the date for the annual Whale Festival.
For sheer scale, you can’t miss the sardine season at Aliwal Shoal, Protea Banks, and Rocky Bay, as they migrate northward along the KwaZulu Natal coastline, usually in late June. Colossal numbers can gather, and with them their respective predators, including great pods of dolphin, and placid Ragged Tooth sharks, which choose this season to mate.
For something micro-sized, Cape Town offers sheltered coves where you can simply step off the beach into the water. Endemic species of invertebrates such as nudibranchs, anemones, octopi, sponges, cuttlefish, and starfish jostle for prime reef position with crabs and lobsters.
Finally, Sodwana Bay flourishes from the warm tropical Mozambique Current, forming the most southerly coral reefs in the world. A safe bay for divers, it is situated in a marine reserve that forms part of the World Heritage-classified Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park. With visibility rarely less than 15m, you can revel in a world of soft coral, sponges, moray eels, thousands of reef fishes, potato bass, turtles, mantas, and even the ethereal whale shark, in 19–24˚C waters.
Cape Town, South Africa
Seal Island, near Hout Bay
Rest in just 5m of water as hundreds, or even thousands, of seals dart all around. Juveniles are very inquisitive and will come right up to your camera.
Part of the 600m-long Vulcan Rock reef (much of which is unexplored), Di’s Cracks has amazing caves and deep cracks to get into at about 24m, down to 39m. Stunning corals and fish life.
A long boat trip, or difficult shore entry, ensure that this exceptional site is seldom dived. Numerous groups of underwater rocks (10–18m) create a breeding ground for an abundant garden of hard and soft corals in brilliant pink, yellow, orange, purple, and red.
The Red Sea
Synonymous with snorkelling and diving, the world’s northern-most tropical sea is truly a 5-star experience. The incredible diversity of life (more than 1,200 species of fish have been recorded so far) lives along the 5,000–7,000-year-old fringing reefs, offshore atolls, and sunken wrecks.
A ‘must see’ diving experience since the expeditions of Hans Hass in the 1950s, and later Jacques-Yves Cousteau, tourism flourishes – generally along its length, but especially off the coast of Egypt. Take your PADI course at Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada, and you may never find time to cruise along the Nile to see the pyramids of Giza.
Wreck diving is just one of the major drawcards here, and the SS Thistlegorm is justly acclaimed as one of the finest wrecks in the world. Lying in only 32m of seabed, this cargo ship is more like a World War II museum, with jeeps, trucks, rows of motorcycles, and even railway locomotives to be found in the holds or on the adjacent seabed. Sadly, souvenir hunters have stripped much of what could be seen, from number plates to steering wheels, and the sheer number of boats puts a strain on the wreck’s hull.
From December through to February you’ll need a 3–5mm wetsuit, but the cooler waters ensure smaller crowds so it’s well worth the inconvenience. Otherwise head for Saudi Arabia’s west coast, one of the last few frontiers of unspoilt diving. With limited dive tourism and small- scale commercial fishing, large stocks of reef and pelagic fishes go undisturbed.
Redmah Wall, off Jeddah
Usually a drift dive (9–12m), there is barely a square metre of the 150m wall that isn’t smothered in soft corals, which give way to coral outcrops, short shelves with huge tabletop corals, and exceptional marine life.
Shark and Yolanda Reef, Ras Mohammed National Park
The most southerly point of the Sinai Peninsula, this well-managed protected area is awash with life, as the nutrient-rich waters provide rich feeding grounds. The current is strong, and will sweep you past the tiny atolls of Shark Reef, illuminated by swarms of orange and purple anthias and black-and-white pullers, and then onto Yolanda, where you’ll see sea life in rainbow colours. It’s possible to spot hammerheads, barracuda, giant tuna, and thousands of batfish and jackfish.
Ras Ghazlani, Ras Mohammed National Park
Starting at around 5–8m and dropping to 25m-plus, this is possibly the most healthy and prolific site within the park. Coral heads can reach several metres in height, and are alive with hard yellow corals and plush purple teddy bear corals, while the small reef fish life is scintillating. If it exists in the Red Sea, it’s probably here.
Abrolhos Marine Park, Brazil
Welcome to carnival! The costume designers and dancers of Brazil’s famous annual parade could draw inspiration from this lesser-known jewel of Brazil.
The Abrolhos reef system is ecologically unique. Located 80km off the coast at Caravelas, Bahia, the Abrolhos Archipelago consists of five islands of volcanic origin – Saint Bárbara, Guarita, Sueste, Siriba, and Redonda – and is home to the greatest chains of coral reefs in the South Atlantic.
Filled with marine life found nowhere else, the recently discovered area’s foundation is the endemic coral, called chapeiroes, whose giant mushroom tops grow together to form reef banks that can span distances of 20km. It’s unlike anything you would have dived before. The whole area is now a national marine park, where any type of fishing or hunting is banned.
The best time to dive is from December through to April, as the crystalline waters are warm, and visibility at its best (10–20m); and given the distance, you have to stay overnight on the diveboat.
São Paulo, Brazil
Fernando de Noronha
Outside the Abrolhos, Brazil’s main dive attraction is the 21-island archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, also a protected marine park. Locals will tell you that the marine life here is in perfect balance, and the profusion, variety, and abundance can’t be missed. Visibility around the archipelago can reach 50m from July through to October, yet it can be dived year-round. Advanced divers can seek out the warship Nael Ipiranga, which sits in idyllic conditions 60m down.