Local Intelligence 2

As we plan back-to-reality overseas trips, dive-pros from all over the world pitch their favourite sites to visit – will one of them sway your decision?

Appeared in DIVER August 2020

the national marine park off Alonissos Island is an underwater gem, and 15 minutes by boat from the port of Alonissos, on the deserted island of Agios Georgios, Gorgonian Gardens is a wall-dive with a stunning garden of yellow and red soft corals.

These species are part of a coralligenous marine habitat that hosts the highest concentration of biodiversity in the Mediterranean Sea. They thrive in places with strong currents that create a nutrient-rich habitat for native species, and a passing refuge for migrating schools of fish. Gorgonians grow only 2cm per year, so it’s a real natural monument.

You submerge along a rocky wall with a steep slope covered in red algae, complex pink and purple structures that build biogenic clusters, a base for the growth of other organisms.

The wall is full of cracks and holes in which you can find crabs, molluscs and sea-squirts. You’ll be amazed by the plethora of different nudibranchs, with their extraordinary colours.

At 26m you start seeing the yellow gorgonians. As you reach 32m these start entwining with the purple ones, creating a surprisingly colourful scenario for the Mediterranean.

The deeper you go, the richer the gardens become. Be alert, because here you can encounter grouper, forkbeards and red scorpionfish camouflaged on the algae.

On ascent, don’t forget to look out into the blue, because this site is a passage for migrating fish.

You might see yellowfin tuna and amberjack – sometimes in groups of as many as 30-40 individuals.

over my 25 years as a diving instructor, many fellow-divers have asked me to name my favourite dive-site in Mauritius. Without hesitation I say: “My yoga dive.”

This reply tends to generate a certain amount of curiosity, so I explain about the Emily and Waterlily wrecks, two small sugar barges that were used to create artificial reefs in the early 1980s.

They were sunk about 10m apart on a sandy patch of seabed just off Trou aux Biches, and lie 25m deep.

Nearly 40 years on, I can say that they are the epitome of how an artificial reef should look.

This is not a large dive-site, the barges being only 12m long, but the compact nature of the sites makes for a very interesting dive because

a multitude of critters, large and small, can be found there.

The proximity of the barges to any of the hotels situated in the north-west of the island makes the site a quick 10-15-minute boat-trip out, and the fact that there are no rivers in the vicinity ensures that the water is always clear.

It is also sheltered from the prevailing south-easterlies, and there is never any current under water. That’s why I love this site: loads of fish, including some very rare sightings, no current, crystal water – it all makes for the perfect yoga dive.

black rock is on the western side of Kawe Island in Raja Ampat. It is only just in the Southern Hemisphere – the Equator is very close!

We always make sure to visit Black Rock on our day-trip to the Wayag islands, before crossing into the Northern Hemisphere.

The origin of the name of this dive-site is very obvious as you approach. A sharp, jaggedy rock rises above the surface and it looks black!

Even though the area around this rock is quite extensive, we tend to dive one particular part.

To the north of the rock that breaks the surface is a long ridge.

It rises, then slopes down again as it extends north, some parts coming all the way up to 5m deep at low tide.

We usually jump close to the rock on the west side and then head north out to the ridge. On the way we swim through a forest of big, bushy black corals. There are also many small, colourful seafans.

The ridge is where all the fish congregate. Baitfish shelter within the black corals and big schools of surgeonfish, butterflyfish and sweetlips hang out here.

Barracuda, tuna and mackerel patrol when the current is running.

Coral heads, also known as bommies, are scattered around the plateau. We can look under these for wobbegong sharks and higher up, hiding within hydroids, Pontohi pygmy seahorses (below).

Another highlight of this spectacular site are the manta rays that can often be seen swooping around the ridge and cleaning on the plateau.

There’s nowhere else in Raja Ampat that looks like Black Rock. It’s an adventure to get there and an adventure to dive there!

this dive-site is located just off Necker Island. A lot of people hear about it but only a few get to dive it, because the weather conditions need to be right.

It consists of two underwater pinnacles teeming with marine life, big schools of fish swirling in and around the crevasses.

Start your dive at a depth of 11m, swimming through soft corals towards the pinnacles. Once you reach the first underwater rock, which towers up towards the surface, you start circumnavigating in a clockwise direction.

You’ll be greeted by lobsters hiding in the cracks and schools of grunt under the overhangs. Occasionally look out into the blue for sharks or eagle rays passing by.

Then it’s time to start looking up at the big schools of bar and horse-eye jack and barracuda.

After a couple of ledges with more schooling fish, the chub will come to greet you. It’s time to make your way into the big boulders with tons of grunt and some beautiful yellow cup coral along the big boulders.

Next head into the deeper water to the sand in about 18m and wait for the spadefish to swarm around you before waving them goodbye and starting to make your way back shallower towards the pinnacle wall.

Big trumpetfish blend with the soft corals along the wall, pointing you towards your final turn to the cresting-wave rock formation for a farewell on your way back to the boat.

Not only is this an awesome dive during the day but it is also the best night-dive I have done anywhere in the world.

It’s also where the local turtles find a bed for the night – divers see up to 15 sleeping turtles on a dive.

birds singing, leaves rustling in the trees, the sound of divers sipping their coffee and talking in low voices as they wait for the gates to open – these are all typical things to hear while waiting to enter Blue Springs, our local state park and spring.

The gates open at 8am, and because of the popularity of the dive-site, the best bet for getting in the water is to get there 30-45 minutes early. This also means that the best parking will be available.

After assisting each other into our gear, my dive-buddy and I walk down to the diver’s entrance.

I’m wearing my 5mm wetsuit, and sweat begins to bead around my forehead. All I can think about is how good that 22°C water is going to feel.

Once in, there’s a short wade against a small current to reach the head of the spring. The spring is Category 4, which means that there is a strong upward flow. The spring head is shaped similarly to a bowl, sloping downward until the entryway is reached.

A few fallen logs cover the entrance, and then the spring begins to take on an hourglass-like shape, opening up before closing in, then opening and closing in again. Photographers should be quite excited about the wonderful photo ops, because you can look up and see the rays of the sun peeking through the logs.

At about 23m, the spring opens up into a cave, perfect for those with the proper certifications.

Afterwards, divers can float along with the current to the exit, where there is a whole lot to see! Lots of freshwater turtles munching on vegetation, Florida gar floating along right next to you, and of course, the manatees (above)!

Although touching them is not allowed, they have no problem swimming right up to you, and nothing is cooler than getting to dive with baby manatees.

the elphinstone reef is one of the most famous dive-sites in the southern Red Sea. It’s more than 300m long and around 25m wide and is located in blue water around 15 miles from the reef coast of Marsa Alam and reachable by boat.

It’s one of the few places on Earth where you can dive with oceanic whitetip sharks (above) as well as, if you’re lucky, hammerhead sharks.

The main reef starts directly beneath the water’s surface and offers you the whole colourful world of the Red Sea from the moment you enter the water.

Thousands of orange anthias dance from a metre down, which makes the safety stop really special. Several plateaus in the north and south and walls full of healthy hard and soft corals swarming with fish make every dive different.

Those clouds of anthias, butterflyfish, hundreds of fusiliers, trevally and barracuda surround you and make you feel part of the ocean. If the current allows, you can move to the end of the plateau in the north.

Looking down to 45m, you can enjoy beautiful formations of fan corals, and look into the blue to spot sharks of all kinds. Elphinstone is a must-do for any experienced diver.

After more than 25 years and 11,000 dives in Puerto Galera, known as the centre of the centre of marine biodiversity, of all the amazing dive-sites I’m still enthralled by the Canyons. Divers from all over the world come for that big wow moment diving Puerto Galera’s signature site.

The Canyons is often an exciting heart-pumping drift-dive that brings out all the bigger schools of bigger fish, and you really get that feeling of flying.

At slack tide I’ve been able to appreciate the beauty of the topography and the colourful soft corals that are so abundant. That’s when you can take your time and get the photos you want.

The three “canyons” are textured in gorgeous corals and sponges. As you drift to the dive-site you look up to see giant trevally and schools of tuna.

You duck into the Canyons, take a break from the current and can then just cruise through the site and enjoy the show.

Primarily it’s the large schools of drummers, snapper, emperors, sweetlips, barracuda, jack, trevally and even sharks that make this such an exciting dive.

It ends at a 1.5m anchor embedded in the coral, where the group can gather before being swept off for a bluewater ascent to the safety stop in the current.

The Canyons makes a great wide-angle dive because of all the photogenic seafans and whip corals – but sometimes it’s nice to bring a macro lens and look for pygmy seahorses and nudibranchs too.

We pull up at the mooring in Lighthouse Bay. The water is clear and inviting. The white beaches of the bay lead up to the picturesque Vllaming Head Lighthouse that marks the tip of Exmouth Cape. Below wait the marine residents of Ningaloo Reef.

We descend the mooring-line to the sand at 9m and swim east to the ridge. A maximum depth of 14m makes this site accessible to all and allows for long bottom-times.

The abundant glassfish become prey for bigger mouths, with feeding frenzies of mackerel, trevally and tuna adding excitement.

Whitetip reef sharks rest on the sand while wobbegongs hide under ledges. Creep up on the resident silver pearl perch and they might accept you into their school.

For the keen-eyed there are nudibranchs of all shapes and sizes, egg cowries and hermit crabs, juvenile waspfish, scorpionfish and octopuses.

Look out for the sailfin catfish, a species endemic to Ningaloo, dark with a tall dorsal fin and six whiskers upfront. They can be shy under table corals or out foraging in the nearby sand.

The site is also frequented by manta rays in the winter months, gliding by effortlessly or circling over your bubbles, and the occasional dugong sighting will give you bragging rights for life.

From July to October your dive will be a noisy one, as humpback whales sing constantly to you. Might you be lucky and see one cruise by?

The ridge is a magnet for life. Sand surrounds the site for hundreds of metres on either side and the variety and number of fish living there is thrilling.

Sting rays hide in the sand. Turtles sleep under ledges, waking to swim alongside you before heading to the surface for the first breaths of the day. As you ascend, the mooring-line provides entertainment for your safety-stop. Life on the line can include juvenile batfish, crabs and small gobies, juvenile squid showing off their colours, nudibranchs and colourful sponges.

You’ll be amazed by the diversity of life at Blizzard Ridge – it’s a surprise and a delight.

We’re the only operation offering day-diving to West Komodo, Sangeang and the Sumbawa coast, and it’s been our pleasure to explore the surrounding islands and find new playgrounds. We discovered Kalimaya Canyon while searching for dive-sites during our soft opening in 2016, and it’s a thrilling mix of surge timing and pristine coral beauty.

Located in the middle of the Sape Strait that separates Komodo Island from Sumbawa, the site benefits from both Pacific and Indian Ocean influences.

Accessible only for a few days each month when the current is just right, this split island presents an unforgettable diving experience available to divers at any level.

Back-rolling in front of the rock face where the water appears calm, we descend a sloping coral reef to reach a cavernous entrance and bottom out at 22m.

The entrance is populated by bamboo (left) and whitetip sharks, with the occasional turtle swimming through.

As we enter the canyon the rocks overhead gradually close in, leaving us one way to go and a small window of light to swim towards. We enjoy the scenery as the animal life switches to macro, with numerous crabs and nudibranchs coating the walls.

As we approach the exit, the rocks close in overhead and the canyon narrows to a cave only a few metres wide. We slowly swim forward, enjoying the majestic topography as the surge picks up, propelling us forward and back, forward and back, until in a final blast of energy it spits us out.

Emerging into the light, we arrive safely on a shallow reef protected from current and surge.

The rest of the dive is spent exploring this protected coral ecosystem and looking for critters taking a break from the current, including banded sea kraits, marble rays, peacock mantis shrimp and schooling anthias, while pelagic fish swim past in the blue.

Our guests often ask which is our very best dive-site and, while the question is difficult to answer, this cenote is a place like no other. It lies about 10-15 minutes’ drive south of the small town of Tulum through lush green jungle. In this part of the Riviera Maya there are few cars, traffic or people. It’s off the beaten track, which we like!

Angelita is not a typical overhead cenote, but more like a water-filled open crater that allows sunlight to penetrate deep into the water.

People are captivated by the magical atmosphere of the site and the awe-inspiring deep blue water, surrounded by lush green tropical forest. At around 30m depth you reach a hydrogen sulphide layer, and tree branches mystically reach up through it from below.

Because the water is so clear, hovering here feels like being in the sky above clouds. The layer is about 2m thick, and once inside or below it gets pitch-black, as the cloud filters out all the sunlight.

Yes, it’s a sulphur cloud so you get that rotten-egg smell or taste, and if you’re carrying silver jewellery you’ll notice after the dive that it’s turned black. It’s a beautiful dive but it is also an advanced one, and we don’t do it with our divers on day one.

It extends far deeper than 30m and we do provide the training for those who want to do it.

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