Image: Grand Cayman’s Stingray City
Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver
Southern stingrays fly in to get their share of treats from divers at Grand Cayman’s Stingray City.
By
updated 3/13/2007 8:16:04 PM ET 2007-03-14T00:16:04

I was sipping on a Mudslide in Grand Cayman about a month ago, watching the sun slide toward the horizon with a couple of divers from England. We were comparing notes on our trips in, and when the subject turned to flights, I mentioned that my total airtime, Florida to Grand Cayman, was well under an hour and 45 minutes.

That got me agape. We started talking about other destinations in the Caribbean, and I rattled off flight times from major U.S. gateways: Dallas to Cozumel, two hours and 30 minutes; Miami to Trinidad, three hours and 40 minutes; Houston to Honduras, three hours. …

“That close?” one of my companions gasped. “And that brings you to this?” He waved an arm, taking in palm trees, blue water gleaming, dive boats riding at their moorings and happy divers emerging from their shore dives. I nodded.

“Man,” he sighed. “You blokes don’t know how good you’ve got it.”

I lifted a glass in a salute. Sure, maybe we’re spoiled on this side of the pond. Need a change in latitude? Just hop on a jet and you’re knee-deep in paradise in less time than it takes Paris Hilton to pick out a collar for her pooch. Better than that, you’ve got your choice of great places to go.

And what can I say? If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Here are seven of our favorites.

Hunting the Mermaid
Grand Cayman, The Cayman Islands
Our boat is moored at North West Point Drop-Off, off the northwest tip of Grand Cayman. We splash in, follow the mooring line down in steady but manageable current and discover an amazingly healthy and thriving reef crowning a wall that drops down into blue-shadowed infinity. Kicking lazily into blue water, we plummet down to 100 feet of depth and begin working our way up past sea fans the size of card tables and brain corals that look as if they are awaiting transplant into the Jolly Green Giant.

We are diving with better than 100 feet of visibility. Rock beauties, black triggerfish, platoons of sergeant majors and clouds of blue chromis all add their own animation to the vertical seascape. When we shine a dive light into a nook or a cranny, squirrelfish and lobsters stare back at us. And when we arrive back at the reef atop the drop-off, we are greeted by parrotfish industriously converting coral to sand, and cruising green sea turtles. Later this same day, after the dive boat has dropped me off and I’ve had my daily bacon cheeseburger and Diet Coke at My Bar, a couple from San Diego approaches me with a request.

“We’ve been out on Sunset Reef a couple of times,” the husband says, waving a hand in the direction of Sunset House’s front-yard shore dive. “And it’s been great but we, uh … we can’t find the mermaid. Can you tell us how to get there?”

He’s referring, of course, to Amphitrite, the 9-foot-tall bronze mermaid sculpture that stands in 50 feet of water at the edge of the reef. I check the dive computer on my wrist.

“I’ve offgassed enough to make another dive,” I tell him. “Why don’t I just take you out there?”

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Ten minutes later, we’re giant-striding into the entry basin and exchanging OKs. Swimming slowly and comfortably, I lead my new friends over parallel ridges of tongue-and-groove reef and into a series of coral-choked canyons and ravines. We crest a ridge and there’s our mermaid, hands out as if dancing to the music of the deep.

As we go, I can’t help but reflect that, between dives such as North West Point Drop-Off, Trinity Caves and the deep wall dives of the East End, and engrossing shore dives such as this one, Grand Cayman not only has something for both experienced and newer divers—it’s a place where the only limits on your time in water are your surface intervals and the need for sleep and meals. It’s little wonder that most of the traveling divers I know have lots of Cayman Islands stamps in their passports. This is one of those islands that’s a staple.

Two if by Sea
Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles
“Bonaire rocks.”

Wait. Let me re-phrase that.

“Bonaire. Rocks.”

That seems to be the prevailing wisdom when people talk about diving Bonaire; rent a car (or a truck), load up the back with scuba tanks and dive gear, drive until you find a yellow rock marking a shore dive, and jump in.

I’ve built some great memories that way. One day, while shore-diving on Karpata, I came upon a moray eel and a Nassau grouper hunting together. Presumably the moray was entitled to anything that tried to escape into the nooks and crannies, while the grouper had first dibs on anything that bolted for the blue. But apparently the grouper didn’t like the way the arrangement was working, because halfway down the slope, he darted in and … ate the moray. Or at least he tried to. The two were still tumbling along, half the eel in the grouper’s mouth, when they disappeared into the depths.

Great stuff. But while it’s true that ample shore diving is the icing on the cake when it comes to diving Bonaire, it helps to remember to eat a little cake while you’re at it, as well. And on Bonaire, “cake” comes in a dive boat.

“My personal recommendation,” says Bruce Bowker, “is to divide your time up between the two.”

Bowker, who came to Bonaire in 1973 to work for Capt. Don Stewart with the old Aquaventures dive operation at the Hotel Bonaire, was the first full-time instructor on this Dutch Antilles island. A pioneer who found and named many of today’s dive sites, Bowker started his own resort — the well-known Carib Inn — in 1980, and today is as much a fixture on the island as the iguanas and the flamingos. He notes that some of Bonaire’s sites, including Rappel (which Bowker once reached by roping down a cliff) are only practically accessible by boat.

“Then there’s Klein Bonaire,” Bowker adds. “I’d say that about half of the charters that leave our dock are headed for sites on or around Klein Bonaire.”

Klein Bonaire, the smaller sister of Bonaire, is part of the Bonaire Marine Park and is a sea turtle nesting area. Turtles are often seen on dive sites around it – none of which are reachable by rental car. Slideshow: Caribbean way of life

But even on the main island, there are still advantages to be had in boat diving.

“For a couple or a pair of friends visiting Bonaire, diving by boat compares very favorably to the cost of renting a car or truck, and for that, you get local-expert insight on how to dive the site,” notes Bowker.

He notes, for instance, that the wreck of the Hilma Hooker (a drug-running freighter that sank at its moorings back in 1984 while the courts deliberated its fate) sits in 100 feet of water, often leading to divers going lower than they’d intended on the wreck.

“Because of the depth, we only dive the Hilma Hooker with our boats in the morning,” he notes. “And we also advise people on how to safely navigate the wreck. This is not an artificial reef project that was cleaned and ‘safed’ before sinking. We advise people on what not to miss and what to steer clear of, so they can avoid entanglement hazards.”

Then again, there are some Bonaire classics that preclude the use of a boat. Town Pier, often described as the world’s most famous 15-foot dive, has to be dived with the harbormaster’s permission and in the company of a divemaster, and rewards the patient with diminutive frogfishes, seahorses and a host of other macro-size sealife.

“Carib Inn gets a lot of return business, and many of our repeat visitors like to visit sites by boat first each season, to see what’s new and what’s changed,” Bowker says. “Then they rent a car and come back to take a second look at their favorites, at their leisure. That’s a uniquely Bonairean experience, and one that really helps you to enjoy the character of our diving.”

Voted On the Island
Roatan, Honduras
It’s the sort of dive that IMAX producers dream of. The dive party is swimming along a narrow underwater canyon. Purple and violet gorgonians — sea fans — cover the walls and create eerie shadows in the depths. Down below, white sand winds along the floor like a river. Then the canyon opens up and surface light floods back in.

That’s a quick look at Mary’s Place, a Bay Islands classic on the south shore of Roatan, and one of the reasons that, for many divers, a trip to this sea-surrounded bit of Honduras has become an annual ritual.

Many of those “repeaters” also have a favorite resort, and for many of them, that place is Fantasy Island.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the resort is literally on its own island,” says Nick Palandra, general manager for Fantasy Island’s American booking office. “That, plus we have a great white-sand beach, which is rare in the Bay Islands. The word’s also out about our new, 130,000-gallon theme pool. And divers love the fact that they can step off that beach and be on the wreck of the Prince Albert or on any of three world-class wall dives in just a matter of minutes.”

David Benz  /  Sport Diver
Great wall dives are accessible from shore on Roatan.
There’s that, and then there’s the ambience. Fantasy Island’s designers didn’t shove the environment to the back burner when they created the resort. Monkeys swing in the trees along the footpaths. Peacocks strut along the grounds. There’s even a small zoo in the center of the resort.

Roatan in general is an extremely family-friendly destination, and the on-its-own island security of Fantasy Island just makes the place that much better for parties that include young bubble-blowers. There’s even a Kids Adventure and Exploration Programs that includes fun hands-on learning about Roatan’s history, environment and wildlife, lots of snorkeling, sand-castle competitions and more — all done while mom and dad are off diving their brains out on Roatan’s reefs and walls. And grown-up nondivers have a choice of activities that include on-the-beach massages.

“Roatan diving is legendary,” says Nick Palandra. “And here at Fantasy Island, we wanted to complement that with a resort experience that’s both beautiful and memorable. Our visitors tell us that we’re right on target in that regard.”

Get My Drift?
Isla Cozumel, Mexico
Fresh from an underwater encounter with a spotted eagle ray, complete with a black-coral backdrop, I’m kicking slowly upward in 100-foot-plus visibility. The dive site we’ve just finished on is called Palancar Deep, although I’m quickly learning that any Cozumel dive site with “Palancar” or “Colombia” in its name is a pretty good candidate for the whoa-dude-best-dive-so-far-this-year category.

There is no downline to return to. The boat, in fact, is not anchored. We have been drift-diving, easily the most effortless way to cover topography underwater. We’ve been swimming only two directions — first down, and then up — and allowing the currents to take care of the propulsion. Today, the current has moved us at a rate that is slow enough to admire the blennies, gobies, shrimp and other small stuff that populates the sponge- and coral-festooned wall, yet fast enough to continually present new wonders for our inspection: a gape-mouthed eel wondering who’s come a-knockin’, a crab of dinner-plate proportions, a Crayola assortment of fish of all sizes, all on a moving tableau of underwater Cozumel.

Slideshow: Marvelous Mexico Rather than gathering on a line, our group — four divers and a divemaster — ascends together and falls into an easy hover at 15 feet.  From his BC, the divemaster takes a safety sausage and a line reel, inflates the orange sausage and sends it up on the line. Soon it is standing like a crash-orange totem pole on the surface, marking the location of our still-drifting group. Five minutes later, we hear the dive boat pull up nearby and we surface and clamber back in. After roll-calling in our bottom times and depths, the divemaster says, “What do you want to do for the surface interval? Maybe hit the beach and pick some coconuts for a snack?” We all nod like kids at FAO Schwartz. Life is good. Very good.

“The world is getting out that Cozumel has not only recovered from last year’s storms, but we’re better,” says Ramiro Ferriol, general manager of PIRA member Sand Dollar Sports. “Many of the public and private facilities that were damaged have been replaced by work that is better, more modern, more extensive or more pleasant than what was here previously. In some places, it’s like a brand-new island.”

That includes Sand Dollar Sports’ base of operations, Reef Club Cozumel, which is now operating at 100 percent of capacity, and has just reopened its Caribbean-themed swimming pool.

“On some of the shallow dives, you can still detect storm damage — part of the natural cycle of life on shallow reefs,” says Ferriol. “But Cozumel is fortunate in that so many of our signature sites are wall dives and deeper dives, and those came through with flying colors.”

Ferriol’s not alone in that opinion. He says that a significant proportion of his visitors this year have been people who’ve visited Cozumel and dived with Sand Dollar Sports before.

“And I keep hearing the same thing,” he says. “They tell me, ‘I heard you were up and running and I’m glad I came.’ And they leave here planning next year’s trip. It’s the beginning of a great new era for Cozumel.”   

Up From the Underground
Riviera Maya
Among scuba divers, the Riviera Maya — that part of Mexico that stretches from Punta Bete in the state of Quintana Roo all the way down to the border with Belize in the south — has long been known for cenotes and cave diving. The reputation is well deserved; the Nohoch Na Chich cave system, in the heart of the Riviera Maya, is arguably Mexico’s most spectacular cave, with stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone galore, and Nohoch is also one of the largest underwater cave systems in the world.

But to concentrate exclusively on the Mayan Riviera’s cenotes is to ignore entirely the area’s most obvious asset — the beautiful and often wild Caribbean coastline, and the 600 miles of the Great Maya Reef (a barrier reef that extends all the way south past Belize and Guatemala to Honduras).

The Riviera Maya’s coastal waters offer diveskin or rashie-friendly temperatures, spectacular blue water with Caribbean-quality visibility, and all the coral-encrusted, turtle-populated, tropical-variety diversity you could yearn for, served up with beautiful white-sand beaches that, in many cases, are still wild and deserted.

Not that you’ll be the first one here. In Tulum, you’ll find Mayan ruins in an amazingly beautiful seaside setting, and evidence of the area’s earlier civilization is everywhere, from carved stelae standing in the middle of the jungle to the ancient names that some of the area’s towns still bear.

And yes, when it comes to sheer natural beauty, the Riviera Maya is still the cenote- and cave-diving capital of the known universe. Open-water and cavern divers can experience water so clear that diving in literally like finning and floating in air: an experience that some have compared to flying in water. For those who adventurous enough to be cave certified — or those who come here for world-class training — the more than 70 cave systems of the Riviera Maya offer mile after mile of amazing passage, most in learner-friendly, low-flow environments. For those who want to walk the cutting edge, new passage is being mapped and explored every day, much of it by certified Full Cave divers who are volunteering vacation time.

But whether you’re kicking long with the turtles on the reefs, taking in the stupefying clarity in the cenotes or just walking on the sort of beach that screams “postcard,” it’s easy to understand why the ancient Mayans considered this coast the garden center of the universe. A visit to the Riviera Maya definitely takes beauty to the spiritual level.

Bottom Time in the Blue Hole
Ambergris Caye, Belize
It’s the kind of underwater geology that inspires speculation about aliens creating geometrically perfect anomalies.

The truth is more prosaic. The Belize Blue Hole is a sink — a place where, deep in the prehistoric past, what is now the bottom of the sea literally fell away, exposing a then-dry cave system. A thousand feet in diameter, almost exactly circular, and some 400 feet deep, the Blue Hole exacts different reactions from different divers. Novices kick unconsciously with all that watery nothing underneath them and check their depth gauges every 10 seconds, hoping Archimedes was right about the whole displacement and buoyancy thing. More adventurous divers will peek into cave tunnels that branch off in triple-digit depths.

Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver
The Belize Blue Hole.

Nobody’s sure if Belize’s ancient people, the classical Mayans, were the first to say, “@#$&%! I just dropped my knife in that hole.” But they certainly made their mark on the nearby mainland. And that’s why it’s so appropriate that, on Ambergris Caye, Ramon’s Village Resort has looked to Belize’s Mayan heritage for its inspiration. Sixty-one authentic thatched-roof cabanas set the perfect patch-of-paradise theme. “Rey Ramon,” a 12-foot carved rock outcropping, sets a Mayan-mask theme next to the pool. The menu includes local cuisine. Host Ramon Nunez was born in nearby San Pedro and places local authenticity right next to hospitality on his must-do list.

For divers, a major plus is that the largest barrier reef system in the northern hemisphere is just off the beach. Hol Chan marine preserve and the world-famous Shark Ray Alley are also easily dived from Ambergris Caye. And for that last-day-of-the-trip shore day, nearby San Pedro offers shopping and dining in a historic Belizean fishing village, just a five-minute stroll up the beach from Ramon’s.

Just Right
British Virgin Islands
Goldilocks may not have been open-water certified, but she had a diver’s mentality.

Ask traveling divers to describe their ideal Caribbean destination, and they’ll probably have a host of things that they want to find “just right”— a tropical location (less than 25 degrees north of the Equator) for burgeoning coral and fish life, a country where English is spoken without a phrasebook and dollars are accepted at par, seas with low tidal flow for gentle currents, a place where the best dive sites are shallow enough to allow ample bottom time, where the visibility is impressive, the water is blue and the landscape postcard-beautiful, and where it’s still possible to find a deserted beach for a picnic lunch.

Oh — and shipwrecks. They’ll probably want shipwrecks.

Discerning divers will find every single one of those requirements satisfied to “just right” proportions in the British Virgin Islands.

“This tends to be easy but interesting diving,” says Duncan Muirhead, owner of the luxury live-aboard sailing trimaran Cuan Law. “We have divers who began diving with us when they were just newly certified and are still coming back now that they are extremely experienced. I think that speaks volumes about the quality of the diving here.”

Probably the best-known of BVI dive sites is the wreck of the Royal Mail Steamship Rhone, sunk by a hurricane off Salt Island in 1867 and resting today in two main sections near Black Rock. It’s still impressively recognizable as a coral-encrusted ship after almost 140 years underwater; the Rhone’s bow was used to film underwater portions of the feature film The Deep. Divers looking for the giant man-eating green moray from that film will be disappointed (it was a latex puppet, and now resides in a museum in Bermuda), but they may find themselves puppy-dogged by “Fang,” the wreck’s resident barracuda.

“The Rhone was 310 feet long and had more than 300 passenger cabins. It’s such a huge wreck that the many visitors spend one entire day diving it — a first dive on the bow, which is deeper, followed by a dive on the stern and then a night dive.”

Nearly as impressive is the wreck of the Korean refrigerator vessel Chikuzen, which burned and sank 7.5 miles northwest of Tortola. Resting today in 75 feet of water, the 246-foot wreck is a homing beacon of sorts for sharks and rays, and a whale shark has even been encountered at this site.

In a word — or two words — just right.

And who knows? With a destination like this, Goldilocks just might get her Open Water certification.

It’s that sort of place.

PADI Diving Society, Sport Diver

© 2012 World Publications, LLC

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