Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver Magazine
By

There’s a ring around the globe — a lush green band that undulates and reaches out from either side of the equator into a world dominated by blue. Along this ribbon the strong hand of nature has formed and molded verdant, feral, flourishing landscapes that rival the beauty of the abundant seas they press against.

In these eco-wonderlands, silvery-white ribbons of water slip through dense rainforests, volcanic lakes gurgle with a suppressed tension, and myriad animals live uninterrupted lives as they have for eons. These are also places where great civilizations have arisen only to fall into obscurity, hidden by thick vines and shadows. Deep-blue adventurers and trailblazing explorers seek out these unique places that spur our desire to fill each moment with the experience of a lifetime.

DOMINICA
The roots of Dominica tap directly into the molten core of the earth: The land runs hot. Nestled near the peak of Morne Nicholls, the Valley of Desolation unfolds below the clouds of steam that rise from the surface of Boiling Lake, the world’s second-largest thermally active lake. The lush green hillsides roar with waterfalls, and underwater gas vents release tiny streams of champagne bubbles, especially at sites like Sulphur Springs off the north coast.

I’m an adventure, nature and dive junkie, and the first time I sailed into Dominica I couldn’t believe it was real. Truth be told, I’m not much for islands and dive destinations that don’t have that “Gilligan” feel. I like thick canopies of foliage that press against the shoreline and crowd the hillsides. I like feeling a sense of the remote, something primal and even mysterious. And even though Dominica is actually quite small, as islands go, in some corners exploration is best left to the professionals.

Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground But as much as this “Nature Island” has for the terrestrial wanderers, the surrounding underwater realm is at least as impressive: It positively comes to life with frogfish, flying gurnards, snake eels, sea turtles, thick aggregations of soldierfish, rivers of creole wrasse and a kingdom of invertebrates. Despite the runoff, viz remains high because the island juts out of the blue folds of the Caribbean like a bullet, with steep slopes for the nutrients to flow over.

The nutrients are like steroids for filter feeders, which seem to grow to the very limits of their abilities. Sponges seem to have an extra bit of inner light on Dominica’s reefs, too. Walls and pinnacles dominate the seascape, and they lack the deep cracks and hideaway crevices typical of most reefs, so life plays out in the open -- lots of life. The most popular diving is just off the southern end of the island; sites like Suburbs are high on divers’ lists. Currents here bring divisions, brigades and whole companies of fish life. Gray snappers, grunts and barracuda really go to school here; sennets flow over the reef. Nothing tops the sponges, though; they’re simply massive.

One of my favorite haunts is a site with the ominous name The Sorceress (La Sorciere). Despite the alleged curse put on this site (or perhaps because of it), I fall under its spell every time I dive it. Abundant invertebrates drape themselves down the wall, and the ever-present chromis and blackbar soldierfish seem to have found a permanent, bewitching home.

If there’s one dive to do again and again, though, it’s Scott’s Head Pinnacle. Dropping off from 35 feet to about 120 feet in the sand, it drips with curtains of sea fans and gorgonians. Take time to search out the small critters that abound here. The highlight of this dive involves parting a sea of blackbar soldierfish and elbowing family-sized lobster while you fin down a swim-through that bisects the pinnacle. Blue and brown chromis have settled in like a permanent snow flurry over the corals. Toward evening, the water runs purple as waterfalls of creole wrasse course over the reef.

There is also a unique attraction off the island’s Atlantic side: sperm whales. While Ahab was traipsing about the Pacific cursing Moby Dick, a permanent pod of sperm whales was taking up residence in the deep waters off Dominica. Though the pod is made up mostly of females and calves, the males show up during mating season. If you’re lucky enough to have an in-water encounter, it’ll be one more addition to the long list of memories of Dominica that you won’t soon forget.

Must Do: Old Boiler
Get a touch (and smell) of the primal nature of the earth at Boiling Lake high above Titou Gorge near Morne Nicholls

Must Dives:
Champagne
Scott’s Head Pinnacle
Suburbs
Crater’s Edge
Scott’s Head Drop-off

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FOR MORE INFO

Castle Comfort Lodge/Dive Dominica
4-7 night dive/lodging packages are available. Boat diving, unlimited shore dives, breakfast and dinner included; pool, hot tub and ocean-view bar on premises. Onsite PADI Dive Center (Dive Dominica) Nitrox, whale watching, discover scuba, referral certifications, equipment rentals, five Dive Boats (57 to 30 feet in length) 888-414-7626, www.castlecomfortdivelodge.com.

HEAD IN THE CLOUDS

Mainland Honduras & Roatan’s Fantasy Island
I had my head in the clouds. On my way to Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras, I had a few extra days built up in the ol’ time-off hopper, so I got off the plane in Tegucigalpa (mainland Honduras) for a five-day expedition to the Sierra de Agalta mountains. An environmental scientist and Explorers Club friend of mine had spent a year in this mist-shrouded forest and actually discovered several species previously unknown to science — animals, bugs and plants that had evolved to survive in this unique corner of the world. That alone appealed to the part of my brain that seeks out primal adventure.

Once I was there, I was struck by the hush. The silence, held by the clouds that press deep through the high canopy, was positively eerie. We hiked up steep slopes along paths that ants would find difficult to follow. Quetzals with their magnificent tails slipped in and out of view through the silken veil. Though none of us saw any jaguars, fresh tracks were everywhere — even right through our camp. I half-expected to see Adam and Eve dash naked through the trees as we rounded a bend in the path.

At 7,500 feet we reached the peak of Mount Picucha just in time for the winds to part the clouds, revealing a view that seldom feels the direct touch of the sun. The intense greens were remarkable. Heading down the mountain was like descending through a fold in time, and when I reached the airport my mountain reverie was still in the grip of the clouds. I’d previously seen the spectacular ruins at Copan, kayaked up the Moskito Coast (didn’t see Harrison Ford) and even rafted down Rio Cangrejal, all of which left lasting impressions on my eco-soul, but the smothered and ancient stillness of the cloud forest made the jump to Roatan all the more surreal.

Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver Magazine
Roatan remains an island that fulfills passions — at least the undersea sort. The island is ruled by the red and white “diver down” flag. Restaurants even accommodate the schedules of the dive boats. Despite all the conveniences of Internet, air conditioning and satellite TV, the main town of West End still has dirt streets and a countenance lost in time. Somehow the modern and the unspoiled exist in harmony — which is why it seemed appropriate that I was headed to a place called Fantasy Island Resort.

On the south side of Roatan, Fantasy Island, like the cloud forest, is a world unto itself. You start breathing from a tank practically the moment you cross the bridge that leads there. The resort has recently been renovated, so everything has that fresh-out-of-the-box smell. With an on-site PADI Dive Shop, it’s easy to get in the water right away.

Being on the French Harbor side of the island gives Fantasy Divers quick access to some of Roatan’s best dives. I never miss nearby Mary’s Place, a lush site that never fails to thrill. Here, crevices and overhands harbor every Caribbean creature imaginable — REEF reports that Roatan is the only island in the Caribbean where you can find every species in the sea. You’ll see grouper, lobster, nurse sharks, seahorses and lots of octopuses. In silverside season, the cracks are packed with mercurial rivers of these tiny fish, as well as the predators that feed on them.

When at Fantasy Island, I also dive as much as I can at the onsite Dive Gazebo. The shop will leave tanks for you day or night, and there’s a nice wreck and a sunken airplane just a giant stride away. The list of dive sites Fantasy visits is extensive, including the Valley of the Kings, CoCoView Wall and the wreck of the Prince Albert[ITAL].

Both the green and the blue -- the adventurous mainland of Honduras and the magical blue realms of Roatan — will feed the inner eco-mad explorer in all of us.

Must Do: Temple of Faces
At the ancient Maya site of Copan on mainland Honduras there’s a temple (called #11) covered in sculptured reliefs of human faces.

Must Dives:
Mary’s Place
CoCo View Wall
The Prince Albert[ITAL]
Fantasy Island Dive Gazebo
The Shark Dive

FOR MORE INFO

Fantasy Island
Onsite PADI dive resort, nitrox, six custom 42-foot dive boats, underwater photo center, gear lockers, full gear rentals.

Resort has 87 rooms, two pools, two restaurants, beachside bars, lighted tennis and basketball courts, hammocks and conference rooms. www.fantasyislandresort.com.

IN THE FLOW

Tobago
The world’s oldest protected rainforest exists on Tobago: The aptly named Tobago Forest Reserve was first designated for protected status in 1776.  A haven for wildlife, the relatively small forest hosts a formidable variety of bird life, more than 100 species of butterflies, two dozen species of nonpoisonous snakes and more than a dozen species of bats — if it flies in the Caribbean, it probably resides here.

But other than the occasional butterfly that lands on my face, and despite my guide resolutely telling me there’s a two-headed golden specked something sitting right on that branch in front of me, it turned out I simply don’t have an eye for birds. We also searched everywhere for Tobago’s official bird, the rufous-vented chachalaca. But as much as I loved asking, “Any rufous-vented chachalaca?” none appeared. Although the reserve was amply rewarding on the primitive scale, I thought I’d better relegate myself to something a little more in line with my uncanny powers of observation: a great big waterfall.

I met my next guide and, inevitably, he started in with all the fauna I still couldn’t see. Sure enough, my mind wondered off, latching onto the more obvious.

“Is it hot, or what?” I mused.          

After passing a massive stand of bamboo, we arrived at Argyll Falls. Its deep pool looked like nirvana in the heat and humidity, and above it the falls slipped over the dark rocks in wispy white ribbons.

Later that night, I got to sit on the sand and watch a rare leatherback turtle painstakingly pull itself from the water and deposit its eggs along Tobago’s north shore. It was truly an ordeal for the turtle, but it was an extraordinary sight. As a diver, though, I knew I’d eventually make my way back to salt water.

The next day I took my game to the sea. Diving in Tobago is courtesy of the Guyana Current, which provides both nutrients and transportation. As a person whose tendencies lean toward apathy, I like nothing better than drift diving — but on the drift-diving scale, Tobago’s dives are generally the “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” variety rather than a gentle trip.

The nutrient-rich current encourages marine overeating on a massive scale. Brain corals are literally as big as VW Beetles, barrel sponges grow to the size of dining-room tables, and even sea fans and rope sponges can be impressive. The buffet-filled current adds to an already impressive food chain, bringing in pelagics, including manta rays. It was impossible to miss the tarpon and barracuda that thrive here. Big sponges get twisted and shaped by the currents into bizarre, Dali-esque structures.

At our first site, Sail Rock, we got a little pick-me-up from the current. Once in my comfort zone, I track down the Caribbean’s only hawkfish, the redspotted hawkfish, in a crevice. Schooling jacks moved overhead, and the brain corals looked downright intimidating. Black coral trees of red and yellow clung to every surface, with angelfish and lots of little critters in between.

During the week we took on the archway at London Bridge, toured the wondrous sponge formations at Japanese Gardens, and even caught a couple of manta rays in the blue water off Little Tobago Island. At Kelliston Drain, we hovered in awe at what is probably the largest brain coral in the Caribbean, at least 20 feet across.

Seemingly designed around the idea that every inch of land and water be packed with life, Tobago is a singular eco-escape. If you can’t see what the guide sees, then you can always do what the people of this island nation do: Go with the flow.

Must Do: Rufous-vented chachalaca
Tobago’s national bird not only has a fun name, it also has a unique call. Look for it in the Tobago Forest Reserve.

Must Dives:
Buccoo Reef
Angel Reef
Flying Reef
Little Tobago Island
Kelliston Drain
www.tobagoscubadiving.com

INLAND & ISLAND

Belize
I’m sitting on an inner tube in a dark cave. As a diver I’m fairly used to being wet, but right now it’s just my bum stuck out through the bottom of the tube, and the water’s a tad chilly. Luckily, the guide motions us over, so we extricate our wet nethers and climb up onto a clay shoreline. There, a few shards of pottery and bone are revealed in the light of our headlamps. Calcium crystals have permanently imbedded them in the rocks where they lay. It’s an eerie and compelling sight, and the silence is interrupted only by the occasional drip of water as it falls into one of the many pools, intruding on the quiet with a PLOP.

We’re in a river cave system that begins at the Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort, located in the jungled interior of Belize about an hour and a half from Belize City. For three miles we’re in and out of the light; we see birds, bats, bugs and low vines and hear the bloodcurdling call of the howler monkey between caves. Ignoring the inner tube and headlights, it’s easy to feel the ancient presence of the jungle, palpable, creeping, wet and thick with oxygen.

You needn’t travel far to reach jungle in Belize; the country probably glows a bright green from space. Dirt roads lead to nearly impassable footpaths. The jungle is so pervasive and unrelenting that it actually engulfed an entire civilization for centuries. Even today, the pyramid cities and temples of the Maya are being extricated from the jealous grip of the forest.

We’d been hiking the impossibly steep steps of the temple of El Castillo at Xunantunich (which translates as “Stone Maiden”) the day before, and we had visited the ruins of Lamanai (“Submerged Crocodile”) and the famous Belize Zoo during the week that preceded our dive plans. Exotic creatures and cultures echo through Belize, and we had to add an extra week just to fulfill our jungle curiosity.

Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver Magazine
After a week of jaguars and howler monkeys, it was time to take on a different primitive world. We headed back to Belize City, boarded the 50-foot Pelagic and took the 2-hour trip to the southern tip of Glover’s Atoll, on the Belize Barrier Reef. The trip took us from the dense world of the jungle to a world of sea breezes that have traveled across the Caribbean to caress our cheeks.

When we arrived at the private island of the Manta Resort, our transformation from explorer to diver was complete. Here, the whims of time and tide are on full display right from your beachside cabana, and the 80 square miles of Glover’s Atoll stretch out before you. The blue water that stretches over the dive sites offers a profusion of marine life and hundreds of virtually untouched places to dive. In fact, a 2,000-foot wall drops off right in front of the resort, and most of the dive sites are less than 20 minutes away from the PADI dive facility at Manta.

You confront an abundance of marine life here. At most sites, there are large tube sponges that erupt from the reef like parts of a pipe organ and bathtub-size barrel sponges. Encounters with eagle rays and turtles are possible on every dive. All kinds of critters, from delicate purple tunicates to chunky groupers, can be seen.

Unlike in the jungle, where stealth allows long life, the ancient chess moves of marine predator and prey unfold before your eyes. And with 150-plus feet of viz and water temperatures around 80 degrees, you’ll be able to hang out and watch the show in the comfort of your own private reverie.

Must Do: Cave Tubing
See ancient pottery shards and bones as you ride an inner tube on a river coursing through the primitive heart of Belize.

Must Dives:
Pinnacles
Long Caye Wall
Emerald Forest Reef
Split Reef
Southwest Caye Wall

FOR MORE INFO:

Manta Resort

PADI facility, rentals available, sea kayaks, snorkeling, sport fishing. All rooms have air conditioning, private porch, hammock; onsite Cantina Restaurant. Phone: 800-326-1724, www.mantaresortbelize.com.

THE PRIMAL SIDE OF HONEYMOONLAND

Moorea and Tahiti
Most people visit Tahiti intent on romance and South Pacific indulgence; one look at the translucent lagoons, picture-perfect palm-tree-lined beaches and lusty volcanic mountains and it’s easy to fall under the spell. Divers, of course, come for the primal thrill of sharks (silvertip, blacktip reef, whitetip, lemon and gray), acres of hard-coral kingdoms, stingrays, turtles, mantas and clownfish galore, all set against a backdrop of water that often exceeds 200 feet in viz.

But beyond the white fringe of the beaches and hidden from the blue lagoons exists a heart born of volcanic upheaval. Just on the other side of the road from the over-water bungalows of Moorea and Tahiti, eco-adventurous dive travelers will find jungle-choked trails and waterfalls and rivers that flow through volcanic lava tubes. On Tahiti and Moorea alone there are hundreds of ancient marae, which mark sacred Polynesian structures, hidden under the shade of the green canopy. Getting to these places requires four-wheel-drive vehicles or a good set of hiking shoes — and sometimes both.

Most visitors skip right through Tahiti on the advice of travel agents who’ve only really seen the main city of Papeete. If you’re into off-the-beach adventure, don’t listen to them. Polynesian Adventures will take you by the bumpiest road on earth to an opening in the side of a mountain near the Papenoo Valley: the Lava Tube. Headlight in place, the guide takes you straight into the heart of the island. Your path is the river, which twists and falls over and through volcanic tubes that formed when the island took its first breath above the surface. Between tubes, the river winds through a rainforest thick with ferns, vines and foliage. It’s a hauntingly primitive vision. At the end of the trail the river’s source erupts from a deep cave; exploring it leaves you muddy from head to toe -- and satisfied to be in that state.

Underwater Tahiti takes a more Zen approach to life. My wife took her first dives here under the sure guidance of Bernard Begliomini, of PADI 5-star TOPDive (which also has shops on Moorea and Bora Bora). One of our first dives was just beyond the buzz of Faa’a. What? You might want to double-check this. I couldn’t find it. Airport, a Catalina flying boat at a depth of about 60 feet. It’s completely accessible from the fuselage to the cockpit, and many a diver has tried in vain to take the controls and lift the ship off for one last jaunt through the clouds.

Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver Magazine
Nearby, the Aquarium, Tahiti’s most popular dive site, is largely manmade. A Cessna, two schooners and loads of interesting coral heads hide clownfish, tiny green and yellow leaffish, pipefish and a macro wonderland of critters.

On nearby Moorea — which, to my mind, is the loveliest of all the Society Islands — you’ll find a trail that takes you on path through the ageless interior. It’s good to go with a guide, especially if you’re hiking the entire route, which cuts through the island from the quiet town of Haapiti all the way through to Opunohu Bay. It’s probably not a good idea to make the hike après dive, as the pass is above 1,000 feet.

Despite being separated by only a narrow pass from Tahiti, the undersea world off Moorea has taken a decidedly different tack. Here, the action stays electric. At the top of the list of dive sites has to be the Tiki. Here, I’ve seen as many as eight lemon sharks, 40-50 blacktips and a few grays sneaking in and out. Some operators actively feed the sharks; others just stuff a fish head in the rocks and let the fellas and their snapper entourage sniff themselves into a frenzy -- at least until some enterprising titan triggerfish uses its teeth to remove the coral hiding the fish head. The resulting explosion of piscine movement is one I’ll never grow tired of witnessing. I’ll also never forget the stingrays and zippy blacktips at Stingray World, which is only about 3 feet deep.

Must Do:The Green Heart

Moorea:Three Coconut Trees Pass. This hike is best done with a guide to take you through the densely forested interior.

Tahiti:Lava Tube. Hike up rivers and waterfalls that pass through ancient lava tubes.

Must Dives:
Moorea
Stingray World
The Tiki (shark dive)
The Roses (PADI advanced)
Opunohu Canyons
Taotoi

Tahiti
The Marado (Tahiti Iti)
The Faults of Arue
La Goelette and the Catalina flying boat
St. Entienne Drop-off
Aquarium

Sidebar: Getting to Tahiti
OK, listen up. Tahiti should be ruled by divers, albeit romantically inclined divers. It’s only 7_ hours from Los Angeles and is in the same time zone as Hawaii. It’s thrill-ride diving is not as far away as you think, and the French people there are nice. ’Nuff said.

Moorea Pearl Resort
Over-water bungalows/garden bungalows/family bungalows, pool, dive center (Moorea Blue Diving Center), conference center, two restaurants, two boutiques (one for pearls; one for general shopping), excursions, watersports, baby-sitting on request www.pearlresorts.com.

TOPDive
PADI 5-Star dive centers in Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Rangiroa, Fakarava, Resort on Bora Bora (nine bungalows and a restaurant), nitrox, rentals (gear and camera), inter-island packages available www.topdive.com.

A FEAST FOR THE SENSES

Grenada
It’s best to approach Grenada by sailboat, with the wind washing over your bow. Even before you see the lush green island, subtle and piquant hints of its presence greet you — aromas of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves waft in, teasing you with their ephemeral touch. By the time you’re within site of the shore, the fragrance has become a full-on bouquet. Flowering trees punctuate the green canopy with fiery strokes of orange, red and white. Waterfalls and rivers pour through the shadowy rainforest, past wild cocoa trees and breadfruit, orchids and Caribbean parrots. The vibrant town of St. George possesses all the energy of a non-stop Carnival. The markets and streets seem to vibrate with the great mix of cultures upon which this island has grown.

The seascapes of Boss Reef and the area off the uninhabited Isle de Rhonde, and the diving off Carriacou (both just north of the mainland of Grenada), feature reefs as lush as the landscape. Especially spectacular is a site called Sisters Rocks, near Isle de Rhonde, where you descend through the turmoil of the surface into an idyllic and unspoiled forest of black coral trees.

I’ve been thoroughly distracted by Grenada’s thriving reefs in the past, but right off the lee side of the island awaits a secret haven of wrecks. On this trip we decided to focus on the numerous interesting wrecks, and we felt that a little diver self-indulgence was in order. Peter Seupel, owner of PADI 5-star Gold Palm Aquanauts Diving, was more than happy to assist us in our artificial-reef immersion.

Like most wreck treks here, we began with a visit to a member of the Caribbean’s wreck royalty, the massive Bianca C. Frequently called the Titanic of the Caribbean, a fire in 1949 caused this 600-foot cruise ship to sink in 165 feet of water. Be sure to get a PADI advanced certification before exploring this behemoth. I’ve dived the Bianca C when the current shortened the dive to about 5 minutes at depth, and I’ve also seen the massive structure in serenely still water. Most dives are somewhere in between, with viz usually in the 60- to 80-foot range.

Peter is the king of the Bianca C and can read the water like no one else. We descended through schools of barracuda and jacks swirling around the mast. Moving over the deck we came to the pool, amidships. Like those before us — and those who’ll come after — we “swam a lap” and “dived” off the side into the deep end. Too soon on this wreck we were out of time.

One of my favorite wrecks was the San Juan. This 80-foot fishing vessel, which sits in the lonely middle of a plateau, probably attracts more marine life now than it did when it plied its trade. And for some reason, nurse sharks love it here. They all seemed massive, some with heads three feet across, and they were lying on one another like sunning sea lions.

Other wrecks on the path included Grenada’s newest wreck, the Shakem, which has an open bridge, cabins, galleys and hallways to explore, plus a wonderfully photogenic anchor and chain. The Quarter Wreck’s propeller and wheelhouse harbored some interesting critters and a bunch of shy squirrelfish, and there’s a nice sloping reef nearby.

For our final wreck, Peter took us on another advanced dive, to the Navy minesweeper King Mitch. Four miles out into the ocean, this wreck attracts pelagics by the dozen: spotted eagle rays, ancient mariner-sized sea turtles and a Nemo nightmare number of barracudas.

Wrecks or reefs, slippery waterfalls or a quiet pool in the rainforest, Grenada is ruled by sensual aromas and visions.

Must Do: Dive In
Nothing quite says “tropical getaway” like a swim in a natural pool beneath a waterfall in the jungle. If you’re lucky, a man who goes by the name “Super Splash” will be there: For a dollar, he’ll high-dive into the pool.

Must Dives:
The Bianca C (PADI Advanced)
The Shakem
The San Juan (PADI Advanced)
Sisters Rock
Frigate Rock

FOR MORE INFO:

Aquanauts
PADI 5-star Gold Palm at three locations (Spice Islands Beach Resort, True Blue Bay Resort, Grand Beach Resort), nitrox, full retail shop, digital photo studio, camera, scooter and SCUBAPRO gear rental, watersports, classroom.

TEMPLES OF THE SUN

Maya Riviera
I’m standing at the top of the great pyramid at Coba. I’ve just climbed about a zillion steps so steep that you could probably base jump off them without worry of hitting anything below. My legs, I hate to admit, are a bit rubbery because I’d hired a mountain bike and sped down the sultry, tropical forest trail to the pyramid like a beserker before taking on the Maya stairmaster. But the view from the top was worth the effort, and it’s easy to see how the constant and insistently encroaching jungle at one time completely obscured this magnificent structure from all view.

Along the stretch of land that extends from Cancun down to Tulum on the Yucatan peninsula, the jungles are thick with memories of Maya warriors and chiefs and gods. Sacred temples and cenotes punctuate the landscape from the beach (Tulum) to the most impenetrable jungle (Chichen Itza and Coba). Most of the rainforest of the Yucatan peninsula in completely in accessible. But when you fly over the area, every cenote you see has remnants of a village next to it. It’s hard to imagine that at one time the population that existed here dwarfed the current population.  And what was once the exclusive playground of Maya Royalty, the Maya Riviera has become one of the globe’s top escapes for divers and non-divers alike.

The show starts in a place completely incongruous to the easy rhythms of the Mexican culture: the non-stop whirlwind of Cancun. Here people and marinelife flock in great numbers. At dive sites such as Herradura and El Tunel thick aggregations of snapper and porkfish roam the reef in parades of silvery blue and gold.  During the months of July and August slow moving bus-sized whale sharks show up by the dozen off the nearby Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres. There’s even a couple of artificial reefs, the C-58 and C-55, which also attract schooling fish in astounding numbers.

A little further down highway 307, the breathless rhythms of Cancun are taken back a notch, then another notch, ratcheting back almost as fast as the miles accumulate until you reach Playa del Carmen.

If they could design a perfect Mexican town, full of saltillo and red roof tile, courtyard sanctuaries, mariachi bands, shady promenades and a slow but impulsive attitude to enjoying life, then the manifestation would be Playa del Carmen. It’s Fifth Avenue pulses with arts and crafts shops and like the nearby reefs, it’s at its most colorful once the sun goes down when music, drinks and warm, salty breezes combine in sensual brew. Along this stretch of the coast, legendary places reign both on land and offshore.

Off the coast are the fabled Chinchorro Reefs. Savvy divers have long whispered about this remote reef system in back rooms of dive shops. It’s a place of sponge-laden coral heads chock full of queen angels, lobster, blue tangs and a load of current riding critters. But the real pulse of blue life around here resides in the lightless and soundless realm of Xibalba, the Maya underworld, which is accessed via jungle shaded cenotes. Here massive ballrooms of stalactites and stalagmites exist within sight of the sunlit pools that provide access to the vast tunnels and flooded rooms that flow beneath the steamy surface like veins. Snorkelers and divers (cave and PADI Cavern certified) quickly fall under the spell of these bewitching realms, where the only describable difference between the crystal clear water and air is the sensation on your skin.

It’s no wonder this place was once the exclusive dominion of chiefs, priests and kings.

VOLCANIC ENCHANTMENT

Maui
The Hawaiian Islands are truly enchanting. When I first saw them from the plane 13,000 feet in the air I could hardly believe they were real. We landed in a mist that seemed to follow us on the surreal drive from the Maui airport to the secluded Kaanapali resort, winding through green mountains and dipping into the sea. Lightning streaked across the distant dark sky but the sun still shined on us, burning deep red as it sank below the horizon. I couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect introduction to this haven for divers, and I could only imagine what lay beneath the surface.

In the morning we headed down to Lahaina Harbor, our gateway to the legendary Molokini Crater. I had seen this crescent-shaped sliver of land from a helicopter once, and I was boiling over with excitement. We boarded Lahaina Divers’ 46-foot custom dive boat Dauntless and cruised over the glassy sea just as the sun rose.

I descended to a site aptly called Butterfly Rock and found myself surrounded by every kind of butterflyfish imaginable. About 33 percent of Hawaii’s marine life, are found only in these waters and a nice chunk of it was on display before my eyes. The crater is a marine sanctuary, so its inhabitants are plentiful and brave inthe presence of divers.

At the eastern tip of the crater we came to a series of outcroppings called Sharks Ledge. I hung in the blue and waited; they came, as if via some magical encantation, straight from the blue: whitetip reef sharks, loads of them. It was thrilling. On the western edge of the crater we had a relaxing wall dive at Reef’s End floating past pennant fish, and schools of moorish idols and snappers and racoon butterflyfish. In the blue edge just beyond this reef finger mantas pass in and out of view and dolphins pass in a clatter of clicks and sqeals. The weather was so cooperative we even had a chance to drift dive the back wall and listen to the soothing and almost ineffable songs of the humpback whales that visit the islands in the winter months.

Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver Magazine
There are so many mind-blowing dives off Maui it was hard to decide where to go next. We explored amazing lava formations at south Lanai, swam with endangered green sea turtles at Turtle Reef on west Maui and got a chance to see massive tiger cowries, squid and Spanish dancers on a night dive. I was overwhelmed by the primal beauty of this island — and I still had a lot left to explore.

Driving along what has been called the most beautiful stretch of road in the world, the Hana Highway, I couldn’t help but pull over every five minutes to admire a waterfall, a verdant stretch of jungle or the mystical bamboo forest. I even braved the 2 a.m. wakeup call to see the sunrise at the crater of Haleakala and bike down the volcano through the eucalyptus-scented air of the upcountry. From mountaintop to ocean floor, Maui is one of the most peaceful and calming destinations I have ever visited. Its primal lure has been calling me back since the moment I boarded the plane home.

Must Dives:
Molokini Crater
Turtle Reef
Cathedrals of Lanai
Pyramid
Lanai

Must Do:
Visit the Tedeschi Winery for some of Maui’s famous pineapple vino. The raspberry dessert wine is to die for.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Amenities
Regular charters to Molokini, the Cathedrals of Lanai and Turtle Reef; nitrox; custom charters available; multi-dive discounts; specialty and instructor development courses; two custom 46-foot dive boats that hold up to 24 divers; discover scuba and snorkeling tours available. 800-998-3483 www.lahainadivers.com.

Join the PADI Diving Society: https://secure.palmcoastd.com/pcd/document?ikey=18901HWW5

As the official publication of the PADI Diving Society, Sport Diver is the magazine divers turn to each month to find out what’s going on in their world. Sport Diver is the ultimate source for up to date information on dive culture, equipment, travel, training and PADI Diving Society activities.

© 2012 World Publications, LLC

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