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The warm, clear Caribbean and crystalline cenotes; great white-infested waters in Cape Town, mantas in the Maldives, the Great Blue Hole in Belize, and Tonga’s mating humpback whales—these are just a few of the world’s most iconic diving sites, and sights. Our oceans, seas, and even some lakes, are so ripe with life it’s hard to know where to start. But for certain veteran divers or even those just beginning, there’s definite appeal in discovery, a sense of surprise—that feeling you’re seeing something new or rare, a creature or shipwreck that hasn’t already been viewed by all your friends. For those who seek unbeaten paths for their adventures, but still want a dash of luxury, there are plenty of lesser-known places to consider. Some are frigid, others spooky, and many absolutely dazzling. Here, 11 of the most unique and unexpected scuba ports of call that offer travelers plenty above the surface, too.
Wrecks are the main event in Scotland, especially in the Orkney Islands, where the Scapa Flow harbor was responsible for sinking 51 German ships at the close of World War I. The visibility is not what it is in, say, the Cayman Islands, but the fact history-loving divers can enter the wrecks for intimate exploration makes up for it. Oban is another excellent source of wrecks, from the Bredaand Thesisto recently discovered Flying Boats that have hardly been surveyed. Beyond the inorganic, there are diverse kelp forests, carpets of soft coral and abundant walls. Dive Oban also takes experienced clients to the Special Area of Conservation in the Firth of Lorne to drift dive at the Corryvreckan whirlpool.
As travel to Egypt starts to surge once again, it’s a good time to remember the country is not only for those looking to check out pyramids. The North African nation’s position on the Red Sea means its warm, clear waters (even in winter, water temps are usually at least 70 degrees, and visibility can reach 130 feet) are rich in many things. The Red Sea reefs are close to pristine, especially in the marine reserve Ras Mohammed National Park, where the colors are eye popping. Luxury liveaboards grant access to a bevy of WWII and more recent shipwrecks, not to mention plankton blooms (May to June) drawing whale sharks and manta rays, plus megafauna like dugongs and spinner dolphins.
Most diving is about exploring the wonders found in water, but in Iceland, where the American and Eurasian continental plates meet—at Thingvellir National Park—and are forming a rift, it’s about peering into the earth. The water in Silfra Lake is chilly since it comes from melting glaciers that filter through volcanic ash for great clarity, and there are no fish. But what divers get is access to the deep fissure, into which they can descend (Classic Journeys has an experience where travelers can swim between the plates, which are moving apart at a rate of 2.5 centimeters per year). There are also advanced dives to the geothermal chimney at Strytan, and underwater hot springs where divers can feel vibrations caused by its pressure through the lake’s crater.
The Great Lakes
Sometimes you don’t even know great diving is right in your backyard. America’s Great Lakes, one of the world’s largest surface freshwater ecosystems and a commercial shipping hub for centuries, are home to great history in the form of time capsule-like shipwrecks, well preserved in the chilled, clear water. Lakes Ontario, Erie, Superior, Huron, and Michigan all have fascinating ships to dive, with some such as the Canadian freighter Kamloops shrouded in mystery.
If whales are where your interests lie, Sri Lanka is the destination for you. The Indian Ocean island claims 13 species in its waters, warm and in a range of dreamy blues. There are whales of all shapes and sizes—humpbacks, sperm, blue, melon-headed, pilot, beaked, and even false killer whales, not to mention whale sharks—cruising along atop and amid a couple hundred shipwrecks whose remains are decorated with vibrant corals. In other parts, it’s possible to find massive humphead wrasse and technicolor nudibranchs.
Italy isn’t exactly known as a diving destination, but Sardinia is indeed an excellent place to do it, especially for adventurous types and in the summertime. The most exciting aspect of diving here is its special topography, including a network of caves. Grotta del Nereo is a series of caves and tunnels that extend more than 1,150 feet, where divers find slipper lobsters, octopus, red corals, nudibranchs, and huge fan mussels while swimming through the chimney. The area also has several sunken tankers, ships and freighters, and Grouper Reef, a dive site protected by some 50 territorial fish weighing about 70 or 80 pounds each.
Oman is a newer addition to divers’ wish lists, thanks to its great diversity, warm water, and untouched limestone coast. Its 2,000-kilometer coastline on the Arabian Sea offers many similar corals and creatures as the Red Sea—mobula rays, a proliferation of reef fish, and almost two dozen whale and dolphin species (the latter mostly found in Mirbat)—but with far fewer people. Hawksbill turtles nest at the Daymaniyat Islands, while Al Fahal Island is a hot spot for black tip reef sharks, eagle rays and mobula rays, and Bandar Khayran is full of honeycomb moray eels. Six Senses Zighy Bay is in a prime spot on the Musandam Peninsula for diving with whale sharks.
Diving at this icy island country is seasonal, concentrated around the springtime when icebergs float in the beautiful blue water some 150 feet down. It may seem the below-freezing water would be the indelible part, but instead, it’s the singular experience of viewing these cerulean ice sculptures from below, along with the potential for kelp walls, sea butterflies, Arctic fish, jellyfish, sea hedgehogs, starfishes, and even seals. Polar temperatures are actually a breeding ground for odd flora and fauna you’ll likely not find elsewhere.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
Surprisingly, there are estimated to be several thousand shipwrecks—going back to the Spanish fleets of the 1500s—along North Carolina’s coast. (The legendary pirate Blackbeard’s house is actually in Beaufort.) Its nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic” is apropos, and draws divers to its Gulf Stream waters to check out not only sites like the USS Huron, but massive grouper, lobster, and fossil shark teeth.
In one country, New Zealand offers seemingly every sort of diving experience there is. There are wrecks encrusted in jewel-like anemones; prolific fish and seahorses hiding in kelp forests; underwater cliffs and canyons filled with sea squirts, sponges, and shellfish; shipwrecks with intact corridors and decks, fur seals, and sperm whales; plus fjords where pods of dolphins play amid black coral trees and boulders. Poor Knights Islands, a protected marine reserve off the coast of the North Island, is where the world’s largest sea cave is teeming with wildlife living happily in immaculate environs (beachfront luxury hotel Helena Bay Lodge’s private helicopter and yacht are available for diving excursions there).
French Polynesian islands like Tahiti and Bora Bora are far more known than the volcanic Marquesas, also in the South Pacific and wild, with horses running across them. The subaquatic world is just as untamed, thanks to geographical isolation that’s made for great biodiversity. Diving journeys in the open ocean by Nuku Hiva is fertile ground for impressive manta and eagle rays, many types of sharks, jackfish, tuna and swordfish. A pod of several hundred melon-head dolphins are frequent diving mates, living close to the coast.