Think live-aboard diving is nothing but eat-sleep-dive? Sure, if rock ’n’ roll is only music and a Harley is just a motorcycle. On these ten live-aboards, you eat like a king, sleep in spacious, air-conditioned comfort and dive the far reaches of our water planet as easily as falling off the dock. These mini-ships are the ultimate in diving: the most convenient, the most luxurious, the most remote and the most spectacular, all rolled into one experience. Live-aboards have converted me, and I'll bet one trip will change the way you think about diving forever.
Oh, and one other thing: Maybe you’re thinking these ultimate live-aboards are just for the five-a-day dive fanatic with five thousand dives under the weight belt and “Born to Go Deep” tattooed on a bicep. Not true. Although some destinations are more rigorous than others, divers of all kinds go on these trips, and most of them don't hit the water every time the dive bell rings. Live-aboard diving is all about the fun — dive until you’re waterlogged or work on your tan, it’s up to you.
A STYLISH EXPLORATION
British Virgin Islands — Cuan Law
The Cuan Law doesn’t look like any other live-aboard dive boat — except her sister ship, the Lammer Law. Both of these boats represent Duncan and Annie Muirhead’s unique take on how to explore the ocean realm in style, and they succeed like no other operation. My first impression of the Cuan Law was, “Wow, that’s big!” The trimaran’s twin masts tower over a deck area the size of several tennis courts, but the clean lines and low structure give the craft a certain sleekness.
The Cuan Law’s unusual design continues belowdecks, where the cabin layout provides spacious cabins, all with outside windows and overhead deck hatches. In the center of the boat is an enormous salon and bar, comfortably furnished with real couches and easy chairs. Perhaps the most innovative feature is the way the teak aft deck is used both to suit up for diving and to sit down for dinner. In minutes the crew transforms the aft deck into a covered, open-air restaurant for each meal, which always provides a splendid view of the islands.
Diving from the Cuan Law lets you reach the more remote dive sites of the BVIs, like Santa Monica Rock, the wreck of the Chikuzen, Anegada and even Sombrero Cay — but my favorite part is the “Rhone Day.” An entire day is dedicated to diving this superb wreck, and the big advantage is hitting the water when the crowds are not there. The first Rhone dive is in the early morning, before breakfast. This is the best time to see the bow section, when it appears ghostly on the sand in the muted light with not a soul around. Two more dives during the day, timed between the shore boats, gave us time to explore the bow again and take our time on the stern. The dive not to miss, though, is the night dive on the bow section. Swimming through the dark hull was an eerie experience, and in silence I could almost hear the howling wind and frantic shouts of that fateful night in 1867 when the ship went down.
On the adventurous side, the Cuan Law sometimes includes Blond Rock on its itinerary. Sitting exposed in the middle of the channel between Salt and Dead Chest Islands, these two pinnacles attract a variety of passing critters. Expect to encounter sea turtles, barracuda and jacks. If you’re lucky, you might see the sharks that sometimes pass by to check out the selection of prey. Be sure to bring your dive light; the color is almost explosive, with cup coral lighting the undercuts and overhangs on fire.
Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground One of the nice things about a trip to the BVIs is that the whole experience is so easy. Passages are short and generally smooth, and early each evening the Cuan Law is anchored in a protected bay so you can sleep like the proverbial rock. The dinghies “dock” in slots next to platforms on the Cuan Law’s stern, making entry and exit a breeze. A few dives, like the wreck of the Chikuzen, are out in the open, but most are in calm areas behind the islands.
MUST DO: SEARCH FOR PIRATE BOOTY
Rumors of hidden pirate treasure have been swirling around Norman Island since the 18th century. No one has found the fabled booty, but it’s sure fun to walk the island with a sharp eye out for the tell-tale glitter of a gold doubloon.
- The RMS Rhone
- The Chikuzen
- Carval Rock
- Blond Rock
Coco Island, Costa Rica — Okeanos Aggressor
The mainland is 375 miles away, but after the long ride over from Puntarenas in Costa Rica, it feels like you’re a million miles from the nearest civilization. The mysterious, jungle-covered island looks like something straight out of the Jurassic, which is fitting since the hammerhead sharks schooling below the boat have scarcely changed since then.
Hammerheads may be the specialty, but they are not the only item on the Okeanos Aggressor dive menu. Up close, a giant manta is even stranger and more magnificent than a hammerhead. Somehow they always look to me as if they’d be as comfortable in outer space as they are in the ocean. At night off the lee side of Manuelita Island, hundreds of small whitetips gather in packs to hunt. It’s one of the most unbelievable and memorable sites you’re ever likely to dive.
Sometimes it seems that every creature here comes in packs. Marbled rays roam the reef in such numbers that after a few dives you cease to ogle in fascination. Jacks and snapper school by the hundreds. Whale sharks frequent the open waters, as do silvertips and bull sharks. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the chance to drop in on a bait ball to watch as pelagic billfish, sharks, skydiving sea birds and enterprising sea lions pick the ball apart to the very last oily scale.
Like the other boats in the Aggressor fleet, the Okeanos Aggressor dishes out some great meals. Too bad diving seems to burn so few calories — if I come out even weight-wise at the end of the week, I consider it a victory. Besides the good food, though, I’m always struck by the hand motions at dinner. Divers are as bad as fighter pilots when it comes to replaying the day’s adventures with their hands.
The Okeanos Aggressor offers nitrox as an alternate breathing gas, and I always take that option. Like most divers I use it with an air computer for a greater margin of safety against DCS rather than for extended bottom time. Rebreather divers are also welcome on the Okeanos Aggressor, and that’s a tempting alternative. Bottom time and stealth!
If you’re at all worried about the limitations of visiting a single island on a dive trip, don’t be. The Okeanos Aggressor has dive sites all around Coco, including dozens of small islands, rocks and seamounts. There’s plenty of diversity in depth, profile and sea life. Diving is done from the two custom 22-foot dive dinghies. The surface chop, currents and surge can be somewhat challenging, so come prepared for more rigorous conditions than some other destinations — and bring enough neoprene to stay warm. I like the layered approach because the temperature can vary from day to day and even from dive to dive. In this part of the world, I generally start with a hooded vest and add layers as needed.
MUST DO: SHOWER UNDER A WATERFALL
Almost every trip includes a land excursion down a narrow, fern-choked path to a Jurassic-looking waterfall, where you can swim right up to the base of the falls.
- Manuelita (night dive, too)
- Dirty Rock
- Bajo Dos Amigos
DIVING A LA CARTE
St. Vincent And The Grenadines — Yankee Clipper
Not ready for the total live-aboard commitment? Try Windjammer Barefoot Cruises’ Yankee Clipper for a different take on live-aboard diving. Aboard this 197-foot-tall ship, diving isn’t the center of the universe — it’s just one of the many moons you can explore if you choose.
The ship sails from Grenada to St. Vincent, visiting Carriacou, Union Island, Mayreaux, Bequia and the Tobago Cays along the way. At each stop you can sign up for dives hosted by local dive operators —sort of an a la carte menu. Although this isn’t a dedicated dive boat like most live-aboards, it worked out nicely when I was traveling with my non-diving family members. While the Yankee Clipper swings on her anchor, a locally operated dive boat comes alongside, whisks you off for the dives and delivers you back in time for pre-dinner drinks with everyone else.
PADI Gold Palm Ecodive handles the diving off Grenada, which includes both reefs and wrecks along the protected leeward side of the island, including the must-dive (for advanced divers only) Bianca C, the largest natural shipwreck in the Caribbean. Other Grenada wrecks include the fully intact Shakem and the nurse shark-filled San Juan.
One short hop to the north, don’t miss Carriacou, where PADI Gold Palm Carriacou Silver Diving will guide you on some of the region’s most exciting dives where the Atlantic collides with the Caribbean. Glenroy Adams of PADI 5-Star Grenadines Dive knows the waters around Union Island and the Tobago Cays like the proverbial back of his hand, so don’t skip this day’s diving. PADI 5-star Dive Bequia will come alongside in Admiralty Bay at Bequia Island, ready to show you one of the dozens of dive sites within 20 minutes’ travel time. Bill Tewes of PADI 5-star Dive St. Vincent can show you more critters than you can shake a snorkel at, in addition to some superb walls and the unique bat cave.
If it sounds like there aren’t any dives you should miss, that’s the beauty of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Each island has its own attractions, both above and below the water. One day it’s lush shallow reefs, the next it’s blue water and big fish, then it’s time for seahorses and mantis shrimp. You’ll just have to be up early every day.
The Yankee Clipper carries one crew member for every two passengers, up to 64 passengers. You can choose from four levels of accommodations, all with private heads and showers. The admiral’s and captain’s cabins have windows, mini-fridges and elbow room; the deck cabins and standard cabins are smaller, with bunks and portholes.
Bring your bare feet — you’ll need them to dance on deck and walk on the beach when they’re not filling out your fins.
MUST DO: FALLS OF BALIENE
Right along the leeward coast of the main island of St. Vincent, the Falls of Baliene offer a good excuse to act like Tarzan with a wild leap from the rocks into the pool at the base of the waterfall.
- Bat Caves (St. Vincent)
- New Guinea Reef (St. Vincent)
- Bullet (Bequia)
- Mayreaux Gardens (Grenadines)
- Sail Rock (Grenadines)
Sea Of Cortez and Socorro Islands— Solmar V
Now and then I lead Ocean Life Images Photo Tours to places where the imagery is especially memorable, and in 2006 I’ll be aboard the Solmar V in the Socorro Islands. In addition to the lush and exotic teakwood world of this unique luxury boat, the reason for picking this particular live-aboard is simple: big animals.
Giant mantas are the premier species, showing up time after time to entertain the divers for hours. Typically, mantas are encountered while they are feeding, but in the Socorros they can be seen cleaning and playing. The Solmar V’s other invited guests include bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales and sea lions. You can expect to see all the sharks you can handle, too, including schooling scalloped hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, whitetips, silvertips and — if you’re lucky — the big daddy of them all: whale sharks.
November through May is the Solmar V’s time for the Revillagigedos, also known as the Socorro Islands. These islands have been called the Mexican Galapagos, and there are many similarities between the island groups. The bottom consists mostly of slopes and ledges of lava rock with endemic corals, barnacles and encrusting sponges. As in the Galapagos, water temperatures and visibility vary on a daily basis, but the currents are generally more mild here. Getting to the Soccorros involves a day’s steaming by boat from Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja Peninsula.
From July through October the Solmar V sails to the Sea of Cortez, where the water is warm and the seas are generally calm. Endlessly playful and curious sea lions and their new pups are almost enough reason alone to take this trip. A variety of shark species, including hammerhead, is also encountered, and the Sea of Cortez is frequented by several species of whales. Even orcas are sighted on occasion. The Sea of Cortez — which has been called the Fish Trap of the Pacific — harbors more than 830 species of marine life.
MUST DO: GET YOUR GROOVE ON
While in port at Cabo San Lucas, head out to the Gigglin’ Marlin, Squid Roe or Cabo Wabo for some rump-shaking night life.
- Los Islotes (Sea of Cortez)
- El Bajo Seamount (Sea of Cortez)
- Cabo Pulmo (Sea of Cortez)
- San Benedicto (Revillagigedos)
- Roca Partida (Revillagigedos)
THE RED CARPET
Maldives — Four Seasons Explorer
It wasn’t enough that the idyllic island nation of Maldives already exists in the rarified air of ultimate tropical escapism. And that the diving exists, seemingly, for the sole purpose of spoiling all who witness these seas. It certainly wasn’t enough for the Four Seasons. From their silky perch on the beach at the Kuda Huraa resort, they kept looking out to sea until finally they decided to take their game afloat, building the Four Seasons Explorer for the most discerning of divers — especially those for whom a massage, gourmet meals prepared by a culinary team, and relaxing in a Four Seasons stateroom is part of the daily dive experience.
It doesn’t take long to get into the dive experience, either. A few minutes from the Kuda Huraa dock off North Male, at Lion’s Head, you’ll find schooling gray reef sharks and loads of soft coral. The best person to tag along with on the dives, of course, is the resident marine biologist. He or she can usually take you straight to whatever you’re looking for, and in the Maldives there’s enough to keep your head on a swivel throughout every dive. You can go big with the sharks, or go small and find well-camouflaged leaf fish and wild-looking nudibranchs — you’ll even have a good chance at spotting napping hawksbill turtles.
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Another North Male site that sits atop most divers’ wish lists is the nearby Lankanfinolhu Faru (dubbed Manta Point). Actually a massive cleaning station, during the south swell season giant mantas show up here in droves, and legions of wrasse give the big guys a thorough polish. Like most other Maldives sites, even if the main attraction fails to make an appearance, there are a few scene-stealing sideshows.
Between diving remote sites such as the renowned Ari, Felidhoo and Baa Atolls, divers can loll away the surface intervals like Robinson Crusoe with lunches served on tiny, uninhabited atolls or like kings with diver-specific massages — you’ll soon take this pleasure for granted. It’s OK to do so.
MUST DO: GET HIGH
The best way to appreciate the stunning beauty of this island nation is from the air. From this vantage, the islets and atolls look like stunning gems in a field of blue.
- Banana Reef
- Lion’s Head
- Manta Point
- Maya Thila
- The Maldive Victory
SILENCE OF THE GUNS
Micronesia — Truk Odyssey
Officially called Chuuk (pronounced “Chook”), one of the four Federated States of Micronesia, this famous lagoon is still known as Truk to most of us. And who doesn’t have the wrecks of Truk Lagoon on their lifetime dive list? Guess I’d better cross that out and pencil in “Chuuk,” because whatever you call it, this place is still on my list.
This is the place for wrecks. More than 50 World War II ships and aircraft have been marinating in the sea for over half a century, turning the disasters of war into coral commemorations. Many ships fall within a 40- to 120-foot profile, although there are both deeper and shallower wrecks, as well. For instance, both the Shinkoku Maru (500 feet long) and the Unkai Maru (360 feet long) lie at 130 feet, with the shallowest structures at 30 feet. The massive Rio de Janiero Maru lies between 40 and 120 feet. On the deeper side, the destroyer Fumitzuki (320 feet long) and the Yamagiri Maru (437 feet long) start at 80 feet and bottom out at 120. Others lie deeper still, but within range of a well-equipped and well-trained tec diver.
There were reefs before the wrecks, and Truk’s — I mean Chuuk’s — are still lovely and lush. Blue Wall and Pizon Reef are a couple of superb walls that start very shallow and end somewhere well beyond the sport-diving limit. Shark Pass and Twin Peaks are full of life and are great places to see sharks, especially during feeding dives.
Nitrox is a no-cost option for nitrox-certified divers aboard the Odyssey. There is a large, open platform for direct entry or for boarding one of the large dive tenders. Tec divers will find excellent support for their deeper or longer pursuits in the form of doubles, deco bottles and other equipment. One of the great conveniences about diving from the Odyssey is the staggered start: You get in with your buddy at your discretion, so you’re not waiting for six other divers to get to that perfect photo op.
MUST DO: READ A BOOK
Read about Operation Hailstone before your trip. There’s no better way to immerse yourself in this world than knowing the story behind the wrecks.
- The Shinkoku Maru
- The Unkai Maru
- The Fumizuki
- The Rio de Janiero Maru
- The Yamagiri Maru
Not many years ago, the interior of this tropical Pacific island was unmapped and unknown. Its geographical secrets have since been unlocked by satellite, but much of its culture and people remain a mystery even today. PNG, as Papua New Guinea is known to savvy divers, is still an underwater frontier, too, so I jumped at the chance to spend a week exploring Milne Bay from Mike Ball’s custom live-aboard, the Paradise Sport.
The trek took us from Florida to Cairns, Australia, for a couple of nights to do a little Down-Under sightseeing, then it was on to Port Moresby by jet and to the western tip of the main island of New Guinea by puddle-jumper to the city of Alotau, where we boarded the boat.
It’s hard to imagine a destination with more marine and cultural diversity than Milne Bay. There are walls, bommies, big creatures, small creatures, unique creatures and massive gatherings of marine life. There’s also the distinct possibility of sighting a denizen that can best be described by the magical term “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Topside attractions include bat-filled caves crammed with skulls, bubbling hot springs which reveal a world teetering on the edge of the ring of fire, Stone-Age villages where people live traditional lives, spirit-filled jungles and a population that speaks more than 900 distinct languages.
On the dive deck, the Paradise Sport’s wide catamaran design provides plenty of elbow room for gearing up and getting off. Diving is done from a pair of fast inflatables or directly from the stern. The crew does all the work and makes it look easy. The water was so warm that I spent the entire week in a Polartec wetsuit and never got chilled — although jumping into one of the hot showers on the dive deck still felt good.
At Dinah’s Beach, one of PNG’s premier critter dive spots, I discovered just how nice live-aboard diving can be. With the Paradise Sport anchored bow out and the stern over the beach, we had about 20 feet under the dive deck. With our divemasters spotting for us, we found dozens of exotic creatures, including sea horses, spiny waspfish, demon stingers, pipefish, mantis shrimp, gobies and nudibranchs. Almost the entire day was spent underwater, with brief surface sojourns to change film, get new air and hear who found what where. Somewhere along the way I’m sure I stopped long enough to eat lunch.
Other sites, like Kathy’s Corner, yielded waves of exotic critters in a lush gorgonian forest. There’s a unique and photogenic airplane wreck of a P-38 Lightning in diveable depth, but one of the top descents of the weeks takes PADI Advanced Deep Divers to a magical site in deeper water.
In addition to the superb underwater treasure-hunting, diving the B-17 Blackjack was one of the highlights of the week. The residents of the local traditional village of Boga Boga have a spiritual and protective connection to the wreck because their grandparents helped save the men who survived the sinking during WWII.
It was Wednesday morning when we arrived in the area, and I wondered how the crew would arrange a 150-foot dive for us in the middle of a multi-dive week. As it turned out, they set it up beautifully: We were escorted to the wreck in pairs or trios and each had time alone with the relic. Seeing that aircraft mostly intact on the bottom brought goose bumps — eight minutes wasn’t enough, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
That sentiment sums up the PNG dive experience.
MUST DO: MT. HAGEN SING SING
Head into the primitive central highlands to Mt. Hagen, where native tribes don their best feathered headdresses and paint to do mock battle. It’s a must see.
- B-17 Bomber
- Dinah’s Beach
- Kathy’s Corner
- Banana Bommie
- Nautilus Dive
This year saw my first trip to Fiji, but I’ll bet I can instantly pick out any underwater photograph taken there. The Fiji seascape is lush with color in a way few other reefs can match. On almost every dive you see purple, yellow and orange rainbows of small fish dancing over the tops of thick, equally colorful soft corals and brilliant sponges. Even the sunlight- and color-absorbing seawater can’t mute the volume of Fiji’s symphony of hues.
Pinnacles are Fiji’s primary underwater structures. They are often situated on the edge of a deep wall, where the outstanding visibility lets you see the whole thing rising dramatically from around 100 feet nearly to the surface. Some are skinny enough that I could circumnavigate them several times on a single dive; others were so large in diameter that they seemed more like curved walls. Some of the Nai’a’s other stops were on long, straight walls, vast sloping reefs and narrow passages where the current really zipped.
Dinghy diving is the name of the game aboard the Nai’a. Each boat went out with a divemaster and a dinghy driver. We could be guided by the divemaster, which came in handy when trying to locate frogfish, ghost pipefish and other hard-to-spot exotics, or we could explore on our own. In any case, navigation was never a difficult task because the dinghy would pick us up wherever and whenever we surfaced.
A visit to one of the remote villages is scheduled on each Nai’a trip, and ours was to a small village on the island of Gau. The adults were truly welcoming, and the happy children won our hearts in a second. The kava (a slightly narcotic drink that tastes vaguely like dirty water) they served took a bit of getting used to, but the ceremony and singing that accompanied it were a blast. The same hospitality and pride extended to our crew, which considers the Nai’a their village. That cultural richness is a pleasant extra. The food service is on a par with any boat afloat, and each meal is a sit-down affair rather than a buffet.
The Nai’a’s dive deck and camera room are — unusually — placed forward of the salon, which works well because the tanks and weights are stored on the stern platform, leaving more room forward for sitting and dressing. Put on your wetsuit or skin and waltz down to the stern, and you’ll find your tank already loaded on one of the two custom dive skiffs. You never have to lift a tank the entire week — crewmembers do it for you. Oh, yeah, nitrox or air — your choice.
MUST DO: DRINK UP
Sit cross-legged around the kava bowl and down a few cups of this slightly narcotic national drink. It tastes a bit like prickly dishwater, but it will numb your tongue after the first swallow, so you won’t notice the flavor after that.
- Cat’s Meow
- Mt. Mutiny
If you’ve been diving the Caribbean, you’re probably familiar with St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada — but that’s about as far south as the story goes for most of us. There’s one more stop before you hit South America, though: the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Check a chart and you’ll see that these islands jut farther east than the rest of the Windward Islands, and that’s good news: The seam where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic is packed with life. Currents are also stronger than in most other Caribbean locations, providing some fast-paced drift dives in company with big guys like giant mantas, great hammerheads and barracudas.
I’ve had the pleasure of being on several other boats in the Peter Hughes’ live-aboard fleet, and I’m happy to say that the Wind Dancer continues their tradition of extraordinary service. I really feel coddled when someone drapes a warm towel over my shoulders and hands me a mug of hot cocoa after a night dive. The Wind Dancer employs a pair of 25-foot custom fiberglass boats for easy boarding and a comfortable ride out to the dive site.
Tobago can be full of surprises once you’re in the water. Is this dive going to offer a face-to-face encounter with some big guy like a great hammerhead, or will it be a leisurely fly over of the reef? That not knowing for sure is part of the draw, but it doesn’t really matter — it’s all good.
MUST DO: GET AUTHENTIC
During summer, the Tobago Heritage Festival is in full swing. Local villages and towns throughout the island put on traditional cultural shows and events.
- Japanese Gardens
- Shark Bank
- Angel Reef
- London Bridge
- Brothers & Sisters
THE CRUISING GROUNDS
Great Barrier Reef/Coral Sea — Spirit of Freedom
I had the good fortune a few years back to serve on the staff of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Living and working in Australia was better than you could possibly imagine — great country, wonderful people. It’s as modern as present-day America but as open and laid-back as we were in the ’50s. While I was there I became very familiar with the behind-the-scenes workings of one of the world’s most famous marine parks. I also learned that it’s difficult to appreciate the sheer size of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park until you’ve flown over it. Most of the main reefs are a hundred or more miles offshore, and they seem to go on forever. You look down at reef after reef and think surely you would be the first human visitor if you dived right there, or right there. Yet in all that vastness, it was easy to recognize the Spirit of Freedom (owned by Cairns-based TUSA Dive) home waters, just by the shape of the Ribbon Reefs.
These impressive coral formations form a wavy, ribbonlike line oriented north-south along the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. At the north end of Ribbon Reef #10, at Cod Hole, a gang of black and white potato cod awaits the next visit of humans from the Spirit of Freedom. Hand-fed for two decades, they are completely accustomed to divers. These are big fish, and they’ll swim right up to your mask and say, “Well?” And the cod aren’t the only entertainment at this site. Moray eels, Maori wrasse, emperor fish and red bass show up in large numbers as well. It’s the underwater equivalent of a three-ring circus.
More Spirit of Freedom cruising grounds stretch out south of Ribbon Reef #10 to other famous Ribbon Reef sites like Pixie Pinnacle, which rises from the sea floor at 130 feet to within 20 feet of the surface. It’s covered with fairy basslets, which flow around the pillar like swirling purple confetti. The site can easily be circumnavigated several times during a dive, revealing hawkfish, butterflyfish, nudibranchs, rays and a multitude of other creatures of all sizes. At perennial favorite Steve’s Bommie, another pinnacle dive, pelagic barracuda and trevally seem to roam the ocean just to come to rest off the sides of this coral bastion. Legions of lionfish and crowded communities of clownfish also call this site home.
Day trips to the Great Barrier Reef are also available from TUSA and other operators, but if you want to see more than a tiny sliver of it, a live-aboard dive boat like the luxury 120-foot Spirit of Freedom is the only way to go.
MUST DO: ATHERTON TABLELANDS
About 40 minutes from Cairns, the Atherton Tablelands are rich with waterfalls, primitive lakes and loads of reptiles and birds.
- Cod Hole
- Steve’s Bommie
- Pixie Pinnacle
- Three Sisters
- Milnn Reef
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