PRO DIVER

Local Intelligence 3

Eighteen dive professionals weigh in with descriptions of their personal favourite local
dive-sites – and we apologise in advance if they make you want to leave at once…

Appeared in DIVER May 2021

In attempting to outrun the San Narciso hurricane on 29 October, 1867, the RMS Rhone smashed against Black Rock Point on Salt Island and broke in half, following an explosion in which her hull was breached and seawater hit her superheated boilers.

The wreck has become the most renowned dive-site in the BVI, and one of the Caribbean’s best wreck dives. It’s located at 10-24m, so easily accessible to divers of all levels.

A two-tank dive is best to fully explore the bow and stern sections, which are about 30m apart at a 90° angle, while a night-dive is spectacular and not to be missed. The wreck and surrounding area became the BVI’s first national marine park in 1980.

The 94m-long Rhone was one of the first iron-hulled ships, powered by both sail and steam.

As well as her two masts, she had a single compound steam-engine to drive a gigantic three-bladed bronze propeller, only the second bronze propeller ever built. Today this provides a great swim-through and photo opportunity.

The wreck is home to diverse sea life, including Fang the barracuda, octopuses, nurse sharks, turtles, moray eels, reef sharks, pufferfish and occasional rays and dolphins. There are many coral gardens, cleaning stations and nurseries.

Highlights of the bow section include the foremast and crow’s nest, main deck supports, bowsprit, exposed keel, lifeboat davits, encrusted signalling cannon and the condenser, the deepest point at 23-24m.

The stern section, between 10 and 18m, includes the aft mast, boilers, deck-supports that appear as vertical columns, wrench set, embedded silver teaspoon, gearbox, drive-shaft, propeller and “lucky porthole” – give it three rubs and make a wish.

On your next trip to the BVI, you’ll find us on Tortola at Hodge’s Creek Marina or the Moorings or on Cooper Island (or arrange a rendezvous) and can join us on one of our custom Newton dive-boats for an epic dive on this wreck.

sailcaribbeandivers.com

Cap Norfeu, or “El Gat”, is one of the most famous dive-sites and landmarks in the marine park of Cap de Creus.

The pinnacle rises from a depth of 48m to within 12m of the surface, and its walls are covered with red coral and gorgonians.

Barracuda and grouper welcome you on every dive. You can observe how each of them behaves in protecting its own territory, and divers who are patient and resist the temptation to touch them can enjoy being investigated by these inquisitive fish.

You descend on the mooring line to a shallow plateau at 12m, then fin parallel with the coast to reach the pinnacle, circling it in accordance with your personal depth limits.

Staying at 18m it takes a good 15 minutes to cover, while if descending to 30m it would take about 30 minutes to circle. By ascending gradually towards the top of the pinnacle, however, deco can easily be avoided.

During the ascent you can still observe the grouper, as well as octopuses hiding from them. Wandering around you’ll see moray eels sharing their space with other creatures, rock cod and hundreds of barracuda. Occasionally we enjoy visits from sunfish, which share their cleaning stations with dentex, dorada and corvina.

And if you have enough air you can also take in the Garage, where Flabellina nudibranchs and other invertebrates graze the rocky walls. It’s the Mediterranean at its best.

Euro-Divers Cala Joncols, euro-divers.com

Plunging into the middle of the sea, you see nothing but the abyss. The water is cold, there is no sign of life and your breathing is seemingly the only thing you hear.

After a few minutes, you begin to wonder if perhaps your dive-guide got lost and you’re in the wrong spot, heading nowhere.

Then suddenly a plane wreck emerges from a haze right before your eyes. It’s a Hayabusa Nakajima or “Peregrine Falcon”, a Japanese fighter that has sat at the bottom for more than 70 years.

Discovered only in 2016 by Sea Scan Survey, the Nakajima is believed to be one of several casualties of the Japanese Imperial Army during WW2 off Busuanga Island in Coron Palawan, the wreck-diving capital of the Philippines.

However, unlike other wrecks in the area, it is relatively intact and untouched, because of its late discovery and location further out to sea. It also lies about 40m deep.

It boasts a brightly coloured cockpit and an almost intact engine-room. To avoid stirring up sediment, you carefully glide around the wreck and, as you point your torch under the wing, you see the undercarriage exposed and teeming with life.

A number of species of corals, marine invertebrates and fish dwell within and around its structure.

Only a few examples of this Nakajima model have survived. What happened to its pilot and why it sank remains a mystery waiting to be solved. The fighter wreck is almost exclusive to our dive-centre, which offers a second, shallow dive to seagrass beds nearby where dugongs, the gentle giants of the sea, can be seen – if you’re lucky!

dugongdivecenter.com

Portofino marine park is located in the north of Italy, just half an hour from Genoa, and it’s an area of very high biodiversity that includes 20 beautiful dive-sites.

For me, Colombara is one of the most special in the marine park.

The dive begins in a shallow bay. Once we reach the bottom we head east and at a depth of 22m join an extraordinary vertical wall that descends to 45m.

The wall is completely painted in red coral, an endemic species of the region. At 35m we find an arch that forms the entrance to a small cave, where there is time for a brief penetration before returning outside.

Along the wall we keep a look out into the blue, because amberjack and snapper are likely to be there hunting the thousands of small anthias that throng the wall.

The red-coral covering on the wall is now accompanied by huge branches of red gorgonians which, with the blue of the deep water, creates an unbelievably colourful display.

Now it’s time to start ascending to the top of the wall where, at 16m, we find an exciting swimthrough with a white sandy bottom. Once out of there, majestic brown grouper lurk as if waiting for you.

Returning to the bay, we find at 8m a big rock concealing a small entrance to another swimthrough.

This one will guide you up to the surface, where you will be able to admire another cave, this one complete with stalactites.

dgportofino.com

Costa Rica attracts divers from all over the world who come to enjoy the prolific Pacific Ocean marine life, but if you’re particularly keen to dive with schooling giant Pacific mantas, the world-renowned Catalina Islands are the place to go. The main island is just a 30-minute boat-ride from the Gulf of Papagayo’s mainland.

It’s not uncommon to see one or two giant mantas with 5-7m wingspans throughout the year but the optimum time to see schooling mantas visiting this cleaning station is November to May.

Divers are blessed at times to see herds of cow-nosed rays in schools so large that they can take a full 5-8 minutes to pass by, filling the ocean from surface to floor.

Mobula rays appear in smaller groups of 25-500, and are seen from the boat leaping high in the air and splashing onto the water’s surface.

And if that isn’t enough ray action, southern sting rays and squadrons of eagle rays hang there too.

Rays aren’t the only marine life divers encounter. Whitetip sharks, horse-eye jack, Pacific barracuda, tarpon, snapper and many other species of schooling fish reside there, but share the space with macro life such as colourful nudibranchs and dorids, translucent blue tunicates, blennies, gobies and seahorses.

These nutrient-rich waters make it a prime breeding ground for humpback whales. Antarctic whales arrive in late July and can be seen through early November, while the northern whales coming from Alaska and California pass through from December through April.

Pods of pilot whales, false killer whales and orcas turn up too.

This diver’s playground and tons of adventure activities can be accessed from beach resorts just 20 minutes from the Liberia Airport.

billbeardcostarica.com

A volcanic black sandy beach backed by giant palm trees greets you as your traditional Philippine banca outrigger dive-boat pulls up to the mooring. We’re diving Masaplod Norte, a site with something for both the macro-spotters and coral-lovers among the small group patiently listening to the briefing.

A shallow seagrass bed full of tiny hairy frogfish blends into a sandy slope being scoured by the sharp-eyed guide looking for tiny creatures. Soon enough, the pops of giant strobes reveal isolated huddles of divers intent on capturing the perfect image of a pair of hunting flamboyant cuttlefish, a curious wunderpus peering out of a borrowed burrow, or a dainty harlequin shrimp feasting on starfish.

Dauin is famous for its muck-diving, but there’s nothing dirty about the gently sloping reef that marks the beginning of the Sanctuary proper.

Clouds of anthias, chromis and damselfish jostle for position above Acropora table corals, while foraging Flabellinas and assorted exotic nudibranchs root about in crevices and sponges from the shallows down to 25m.

A few more kicks bring us to an isolated coral patch layered with a swirling school of five-lined snapper, Vanicoro sweepers and cardinalfish holding the next batch of eggs in their mouths. A sudden explosion from the sand nearby reveals a blue-spotted sting ray making a fast exit.

Back at the mooring, a scratching post in the shallows is occupied by a giant male green turtle attempting to rub off a persistent barnacle.

Back on the boat, the excited chatter confirms that everyone seems to have got what they wanted out of the dive, and Masaplod Norte has delivered again. Talk turns to where to take the second dive, and it’s no surprise to be asked: “Can we do it again?”

mikes-beachresort.com

Not far from the main entry to our house-reef bay is the small tip of the main reef. This forms a plateau, starting from 2m and sloping down to 18m.

We’re then outside in the Red Sea, dipping to about 25m at the edge before dropping to 40m or so.

To reach this site we usually take a short ride in the Zodiac, and the driver gives us the signal to roll back into the water. After a brief check on the current we head straight down to the edge.

If there is only slight current, usually from the north-east, you can swim against it and enjoy the fish-life. Thousands of anthias and fusiliers move in and out, a school of tuna patrol the tip and at times you can spot a Napoleon wrasse passing at depth.

Usually there is current around the south plateau, so the corals there are in amazing shape.

Some bigger coral blocks are “growing” on top of it, with a lot of lionfish hiding inside during the day, waiting for nightfall to hunt.

Moving a bit shallower, you find soft coral in which one of the most sought-after Red Sea fish can be found – the longnose hawkfish.

Before we swim back to the main reef we visit a big coral block that stands alone around 15m from the main reef. Here at Erg Guddi you’ll find four kinds of cleaner shrimp, clownfish in a big anemone at the top and sometimes a big moray eel hiding inside as it enjoys the cleaning service.

Reaching the main reef, we move up a bit towards 10m to find a wall covered with typical Red Sea hard coral. Octopuses and morays hide inside, bannerfish and batfish school around the blocks, a turtle searches for soft coral and, in the deeper area, eagle rays or dolphins sometimes pass by.

After around 35 minutes we’re back in the south area of the house-reef bay and finish in the shallow waters of our sandy lagoon, looking for double-end pipefish, flatfish, scorpionfish and crocodilefish.

• Euro-Divers Utopia Beach Club, euro-divers.com

This marine sanctuary is one of the most famous dive-sites in the diving paradise known as Anilao, and it’s easily accessible from shore as well as by boat.

The two seamounts that give it its name teem with colourful coral and species of fish including clownfish, barracuda, parrotfish, trumpetfish, damsels and lionfish.

Nudibranchs, eels, octopuses, crabs, shrimps and sea turtles are also regularly sighted in this underwater haven, and macro and wide-angle photographers alike can appreciate the species variety and seascapes.

There is also a bed of giant clams just a few metres from a sunken barge covered in hard and soft coral, and more nudibranchs and sometimes frogfish are spotted there.

Mantis shrimps are often seen scurrying around in the open. Banded sea snakes can be seen hunting for their next meal – and all of this can be enjoyed within the space of an 80m swim and depths ranging from 5-18m.

With a comfortable average water temperature of 27°C, a 3mm wetsuit is more than enough for an easy 60-minute fun dive in clear water with up to 20m visibility.

It’s always an exciting dive, too, because sometimes special critters such as blue-ringed octopuses, harlequin or tiger shrimp and rare nudibranchs turn up in the area.

buceoanilao.com

Cirkewwa, situated along the northern coastline, offers some of Malta’s most fascinating dive-sites, with the mv Rozi topping my list.

Albeit overshadowed by the larger neighbouring P29 wreck, what the Rozi lacks in size it makes up for in beauty.

The wreck is accessible from the shore. A giant stride leads you into the clear waters and a relatively short swim leads you to the tugboat. Built back in 1958, following retirement it was scuttled in 1992, yet it still lies intact at a maximum depth of around 34m.

Its compact size gives you plenty of time to cover every angle and allows you to absorb it all.

Shoals of various fish species call the wreck home and give it plenty of life. Keep your eyes peeled for any eels, scorpionfish or rays that might be lurking in the sand.

The dive then proceeds to the picturesque Cirkewwa Arch. Once a cavern, the roof has collapsed and made way for a spectacular arch with a depth of around 18m.

It’s common to see shoals of amberjack and barracuda around.

After passing through the arch, a slow ascent towards the exit point follows, with a lovely swim beside Adrian’s reef. The verdant meadows of Posidonia provide a rich habitat that teems with life. Finally, a swim through a short tunnel leads you towards the area named Susie’s Pool for the safety stop.

Fascinating light and wonderful turquoise waters help these few minutes to fly by. Once out of the water, head to the snack bar for a traditional Maltese ftira, and enjoy the warm sun and fabulous views until it’s time for the second dive.

maltaqua.com

Magic Mountain is one of Indonesia’s most talked-about dive-sites. It’s located in the deep south of Raja Ampat inside the Misool Marine Reserve and takes around 20 minutes by boat from Misool Resort.

Also known as Shadow Reef, the site is a submerged ridge, and its exposed position and currents make it a magnet for marine life.

It starts in the shallows and extends out to a deeper section, dropping off to more than 40m.

Some areas are sloping; others have dramatic wall sections. The west is swathed in soft corals and gorgonians. There are at least two manta ray cleaning stations and the site is a year-round hub for mantas.

Magic Mountain is one of the only places on Earth where you can see both giant oceanic birostris and the smaller reef manta, alfredi.

A typical dive starts with a descent along the ridge to the deeper section. This is a great place to look for grey reef and whitetip sharks patrolling in the blue.

It’s also common to see manta rays gliding in from the blue to visit the deeper cleaning station.

As bottom-time decreases, divers can gradually follow the reef back up to the shallows.

Along the way, expect to encounter schools of striped snapper, batfish, bigeye trevally and several lone Napoleon wrasse.

Look for other pelagics in the blue, such as barracuda and giant trevally. If the current allows, take some time to peek beneath the huge table corals to see if you can spot juvenile whitetips – you might even spot one of our resident wobbegongs (above)!

Manta action is not limited to deeper areas of the site.

One cleaning station is located in the shallows and, if the mantas are present, you could easily spend the whole dive watching them while gathering ID shots for the Misool Manta Project.

Magic Mountain represents a rare combination of “sure thing” and “wild card” – you never really know what might turn up, but you can be sure that it will be Magic!

misoolecoresort.com

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dive-sites from the dive-professionals!