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Ten best diving adventures

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Pulau Weh, Indonesia by Charlotte Boan

Our small wooden vessel rocked gently on the water, revealing little of the wild currents sweeping over the coral reefs below. On the signal of our experienced dive guide Arun, we rolled off the boat and descended into the cobalt ocean.

Flying with the fast water flow, we raced past a forest of brightly coloured giant gorgonian fans and traversed through a labyrinth of large volcanic boulders. Every few minutes we clung to these rocks to watch tiny creatures taking shelter in the coral reef, and to stare into the blue. It wasn’t long before a blacktip reef shark appeared. The sleek figure moved closer, up to 10m away, before disappearing into the depths. It was a thrilling hour of high-energy diving.

I was on the northernmost edge of Pulau Weh, a remote jungle island off Sumatra. Once part of the Sumatran mainland, Pulau Weh became separated during the last volcanic eruption more than a million years ago. It is surrounded by healthy and vibrant coral reefs, and its waters harbour a diverse mix of Indo-Pacific marine life.

These exposed, nutrient-rich waters attract ocean giants. Sunfish, manta rays and the largest of all fish, the whale shark. Thresher sharks have also been sighted by divers passing over deep volcanic channels, as has the extremely rare and elusive megamouth shark. Weighing up to a tonne and growing to five metres in length, this deep-dwelling shark was discovered only in 1976. Few megamouths have been seen since – only 42 sightings recorded to date worldwide. In Pulau Weh, however, the prehistoric-looking creature has been spotted twice by divers in the past four years. One washed ashore on the Gapang Beach house reef in 2004, another swam by a shipwreck at 50m the following year.

After five days, I realised I was not set to join the elite club of megamouth spotters, but had thrilling encounters with turtles, curious reef sharks and huge Napoleon wrasse. The diving here offers something for all skill levels, with reef walls, deep and shallow shipwrecks, sloping house reefs, underwater hot springs and excellent drift dives. A giant stride from the dive centre, the house reef is teeming with macro life, including ghost pipefish, seahorses and psychedelic nudibranchs (sea slugs).

I was particularly struck by the impact of Sharia law, controversial to many in the west. I was told that Sharia had all but eliminated illegal fishing here – a rare situation in southeast Asian waters. Most of the dive sites are in marine protected areas, where fishing is forbidden, and illegal fishing operations are frightened by the prospect of heavy punishment handed out by Sharia courts.

Despite its wealth of underwater attractions, Pulah Weh is not an instantly familiar destination to divers. Until recently, both political and environmental turmoil had deterred the average diver tourist from making the journey from the city of Banda Aceh on the mainland. Conflict between the Acehnese independence movement and the Indonesian army, which ended in 2005, made it impossible for tourists to fly to Banda Aceh, as they wouldn’t be granted an Indonesian visa. Instead, adventurous divers flew to Medan, took a ferry to Banda Aceh, before the two-hour ferry to the island and a bumpy two-hour taxi ride, and had to do so by police escort. Now you can arrange in advance to collect a visa in Banda Aceh, flying there via Kuala Lumpur.
Banda Aceh was also the closest major city to the epicentre of the earthquake which triggered the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 in which around 130,000 Indonesians died. It’s still emotionally and physically scarred by the tsunami. A massive ferry that washed 5km inland sits in a village as a striking reminder.
Miraculously, no one at Lumba Lumba or the surrounding village was killed. Buildings were swept away, but the main structure of the dive centre stood firm. The steely determination of the Dutch owners, Ton Egbers and Marjan van der Burg, who set up the centre in 1998 after diving and backpacking through the region, has seen dive tourism pull through difficult times.

Lumba Lumba is very much part of the Pulau Weh community. Locals have been trained for free as divemasters and now work for the centre. Beach houses and classrooms were built and serviced by local hands, using generations-old techniques, and only natural materials found on the island.
Visiting divers are a valuable source of income here, and it’s sure to attract eco-friendly and socially conscious travellers, looking for raw adventure where few have finned before.

Dolphins and turtles, Greece

From April to September, the Tethys research station at Galaxidi on the Gulf of Corinth helps small groups of visitors learn about marine life. Local species include bottlenose, common, striped and short beaked dolphins. There are also loggerhead turtles, sunfish and occasionally monk seals.

Dugong spotting, The Philippines

Dugongs – aka sea cows – are increasingly rare. At Dimakya Island in the remote Palawan archipelago of the Philippines, they are attracted to the verdant beds of sea grasses. Divers and non-divers can see them feeding – and there is excellent diving at Apo Reef Marine Park, too. Peak viewing is from March and July, though sightings aren’t guaranteed as the dugongs are timid.

Unspoilt reefs, Tanzania

If you want good diving without the crowds then try southern Tanzania. Marine biologist Martin Guard has opened the first PADI five-star centre at Mikindani, Mtwara, where the reefs are healthy and genuinely little-dived. Large pelagic fish, turtles and giant groupers are common, with more than 400 fish species and 250 types of coral.

Manta rays, The Maldives

Seeing manta rays is a dream for many divers. In February and March, manta experts Matt and Anne-Marie Kitchen-Wheeler lead dive safaris in the Maldives with virtually guaranteed sightings and the chance to join research dives. Cruise manta spots on the western side of North Male and Ari Atolls aboard the Sea Quest luxury live-aboard, sleeping 16 guests.

Hammerheads and sea lions, Mexico

The waters of the Baja California peninsular are very rich. Divers staying in the colonial resort town of La Paz can make boat dives to El Bajo – famous for schooling hammerheads – or go north to Magdalena Bay to see grey whales. Los Islotes is home to large California sea lions, which will approach you underwater. Manta rays may be seen from May-October, and in late summer plankton draws whale sharks.

Killer whales, Norway

Each winter, large groups of migratory killer whales follow the herring shoals into the fjords of northern Norway. These are fierce marine predators, but you can get into a dry suit and snorkel with them. They also often “spy hop” vertically in the water to observe you. Combine with the ice hotel in Kiruna, Sweden, to see the northern lights.

Sardines and sharks, South Africa

May and June see one of the world’s greatest marine spectacles: the northern migration of hundreds of millions of sardines off the KwaZulu-Natal coastline of South Africa. The sardines attract several shark species, dolphins, seals, sailfish and even whales, as well as seabirds in a feeding orgy that lasts several weeks.

From rays to whale sharks, Oman

The Musandam peninsula waters are rich in plankton, and though not always clear, are abundant in healthy marine life. In recent years, many divers have had good encounters with whale sharks, stingrays and eagle rays. The desert and mountainous coastal ravines make a spectacular setting.

Drift diving, Micronesia

Drift diving, dramatic undersea walls and hordes of sharks make Palau, Micronesia, high on a diver’s wish list. Dive sites such as Blue Corner and Ulong Channel are famous, and the offshore reefs offer Maori wrasse, reef sharks and some of the best macro-life. Palau also has second world war wrecks which are now vibrant reef colonies.

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