Pacific: The very name means “peaceful,” and countless dive travelers have found tranquility in the waters of this, the Earth’s largest ocean. It’s a body of water so huge that literally a world of variety awaits, from swimming with garibaldi and seals in the green-filtered light of a kelp forest, to admiring the comic acrobatics of the only penguins found near the equator, to floating in I-can’t-believe-it’s-this-blue water just a stone’s throw from a palm-shaded grass hut. Some of these places require a drysuit, some just a swimsuit; at least one can be reached in minutes from one of the world’s greatest cities; and at least one is halfway ’round the globe from practically anywhere else.
Happened upon by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, visited by Captain Cook and explored by William Bligh (of Bounty fame), Fiji’s history with the Western world is still relatively brief, although exactly when the local Melanesian population first arrived there is a fact lost in the fog of time. A British colony for a century (the nation’s flag still contains a Union Jack), Fiji became independent in 1970.
Among divers, the statement, “I’m going to dive Fiji” is usually answered by those who have been there with, “Which part?” With a total land area slightly less than that of New Jersey, Fiji is one of the larger of the Pacific island nations — more than 24 times larger, for instance, than the neighboring kingdom of Tonga — and can be thought of as eight separate areas, each with its own personality.
The largest of these is the island of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji and a favorite of those who like their diving land-based. The first taste of Fiji that many divers get, Viti Levu serves up abundant soft corals and gorgonian fans at a huge variety of sites, most clustered around Nanau-i-Ra, to the northeast, and Beqa, to the south.
Not far off the west coast of Viti Levu is the Mamanuca Group, 17 islands and associated islets that include calm waters and peaceful corals inside Fiji’s barrier reef. For divers looking for more of a challenge, there are also passages through the reef and into the open ocean. This area is home to Supermarket, world-renowned as Fiji’s premier shark dive.
Just a bit farther north is the Yasawa Group, 16 volcanic islands strung like pearls along an oceanic fault line. Unlike most volcanic islands, the Yasawas are blessed with beautiful, isolated sandy beaches, and because they lie in the trade-wind lee of Viti Levu, water here is generally spectacularly clear. A signature dive is The Zoo — a deep dive that features giant trevally and huge growths of soft coral.
Moving east from the Yasawa Group brings you to Vanua Levu, the second-largest landmass in Fiji, a rugged, largely wild volcanic island where hikers can get lost for days on end. For divers who like to explore, this is the place to be; many of the reefs here still await their first visit by a bubble-blowing pioneer. Vanua Levu has walls, caves, hard and soft corals, ornamentals and pelagics, easy diving in Savusavu Bay and challenging conditions outside the reef. It’s a great destination for groups with wide ranges of interest and ability — a bit of Fiji with something for everybody.
Across the Somosomo Strait from Vanua Levu is Taveuni, home to the Great White Wall (Fiji’s signature wall dive) and soft-coral sites noted for a very nearly psychedelic array of colors. This is another pioneer-friendly area; old Fiji hands say that better than 90 percent of the water around this island group still awaits its first underwater explorers.
Just south, in the Lomaiviti Group, divers look for some of the most profuse black coral clusters in the Pacific, as well as sharks, turtles, dolphin and the occasional passing whale. Nigali Passage — a four-knot drift through a cut in the barrier reef — is one of the principal reasons divers come here.
The Lau Group, Fiji’s southeastern island group, has enough swaying palms and white-sand beaches to convince you that you’ve walked into a the musical South Pacific. Huge orange sea fans and mature cabbage coral in visibility-forever waters are the draw here. Your dive companions will include sharks and, on rare occasions, sailfish.
The southernmost Fijian group is Kadavu, home to North Astrolabe Reef, a too-big-to-see-on-one-dive site, whose huge walls and deep ravines mean that it frequently appears on visitors’ lists of top 10 sites in the world. The chorus line here includes Maori wrasse, rainbow runners and sushi-on-the-hoof yellowfin tuna; guest stars often include white marlin, mantas, hammerheads and humpbacks.
Late in April of 1789, mutineers led by Fletcher Christian put Captain William Bligh and a little less than half the crew into the launch of the HMS Bounty, taking control of the Bounty herself, thus assuring — among other things — profitable film careers for Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. The official reason for the uprising was harsh treatment of the crew, but an underlying element was that, having seen Tahiti, many members of the crew did not want to leave. In fact, once the Bounty was seized, the very first place it went was back to Tahiti.
Over the years, countless travelers — including the painter Paul Gauguin — have shared the crew’s sentiments. Once you’ve seen Tahiti and its people, it’s easy to think you’ve finally reached the last perfect place on earth. And the divers who travel here agree. In fact, it’s hard to tear yourself away from the waterfalls, rugged green terrain and myth-shrouded archaeological sites here. But once you do, the water waits with its own wonders.
First of all, visibility here averages just over 100 feet, year-round. Second, while soft corals tend to be the rule in some islands of the Pacific, Tahiti has a mixture of hard and soft corals, giving you twice as much to see. And third, well … did we mention the sharks?
Tahiti has been called the shark capital of the Pacific, and it lives up to the title. Grays, whitetip and blacktip reefs and hammerheads can all be found here in abundance. Their distant cousins, spotted eagle rays and manta rays, also show up, sometimes even venturing inside the lagoon. That’s why Tahiti is such a great destination for people who are normally skittish around large marine animals — not because you won’t see the big critters, but because you’ll see them on practically every dive. After a while, having a shark swimming next to you is like swimming next to coral — they become so ubiquitous that you get used to them. Turtles, dolphins and (if you are lucky and you come between July and October) humpback whales complete the big-animal review.
On the smaller scale, Tahiti’s electric-blue waters are also home to humphead wrasse, bigeye jacks and Napoleon wrasse — and, yes, you can find Nemo here; clownfish are virtually everywhere.
Tahiti and its neighboring islands are also the site of wrecks dating back to the second world war and earlier, including an intact Catalina flying boat just minutes from Papeete. Venture beyond the reef and you will find wall dives to satisfy even the most demanding drift-diving junkie.
My California friends had just gotten back from Bonaire, and they were effusive about their trip: “It was so cool; we could visit the dive sites by boat and go back later and shore-dive on our own. It was like having twice the experience! Wouldn’t it be great if there were a Pacific destination where you could do that?”
“There is,” I told them. And that’s when they learned about Maui.
This figure-8-shaped Hawaiian island, dominated by Haleakala National Park, is actually a pair of volcanoes joined at the hip. The steep nature of lava flows means that water deep enough for great diving typically begins quite close to shore. And while you’ll want to work with a boat charter to get the most out of your trip here, it’s very easy to treat yourself to bonus dives out of the trunk of a rental car. Maui is probably the Hawaiian island most friendly to shore diving, and circum-island roads put about 90 percent of all Maui sites within reach of the driving diver.
The creatures you’ll meet during your drive-and-dive excursions range from lemon butterflyfish and sharks to — on almost every dive — sea turtles. Humpback whales cruise near shore during birthing season, and at night, Spanish dancer nudibranchs and octopi add their talents to the show.
You will need a dive boat to reach crescent-shaped Molokini Crater and the satellite island of Lanai, but these have elements that make them well worth the trip, from the teeming tropicals of the crater to the deep blue hush of light-streaked First and Second Cathedrals to the pyramid butterflyfish that lend their name to the seamount pinnacle known as Pyramids.
An added bonus is how much there is to see from behind the wheel during the shore-diving legs of your Maui trip. In addition to Haleakala National Park, Maui is home to three state parks, a beach park, a restored plantation and shore sites (such as a lighthouse and a wave-fed blowhole) galore. It’s exactly the sort of dive destination we all dream about: the kind where you feel you’ve gotten more than your money’s worth.
GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR
Ask a diver only who’s only casually aware of the Galápagos Islands and you’re apt to hear that they were discovered by Charles Darwin, that they are totally uninhabited, and that the diving involves only cold-water, large-mammal encounters.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
The Galápagos, lying 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador, were actually discovered in 1535 by the navigationally challenged Tomas de Berlanga, bishop of Panama, when he wound up spectacularly off-course during a sea voyage to Peru. He wrote to the king of Spain about the giant tortoises (galapagas) that lived there and, just like that, these equatorial islands had a name. Today, roughly 17,000 people live in towns on the islands of San Cristóbal, Isabela, Floreana and Santa Cruz.
Water temperatures run from 60ºF on sites around Fernandina and to the west of the large island of Isabela (where the Cromwell and Humboldt currents bring cold, nutrient-rich upwellings), and they can be as high as 85ºF on dives off Wolf and Darwin islands, up near the equator.
It’s possible to make land-based dives from hotels in Puerto Ayora, the Galápagos’ largest town, on the island of Santa Cruz. But the vast majority of Galápagos divers use live-aboards, which make much more effective use of time by moving from area to area while divers sleep.
Two of the more far-flung islands of the Galápagos, Wolf and Darwin, are known the world over as a place to see schooling hammerhead sharks, and Wolf is often visited because of its cleaning station, where king angelfish rise to pick parasites from the huge sharks. Parrotfish, Moorish idols, rainbow runners, jacks of all sorts, green morays, spotted eagle rays and many other warm-water species live here, as do green and hawksbill turtles, dolphins, tiger sharks and marlin.
Elsewhere in the Galápagos, divers may find themselves swimming with dizzyingly fast, bubble-streaming Galápagos penguins (the second-smallest species of penguin in the world, and the only one found near the equator), fur seals, sea lions, whitetip reef sharks, stingrays and a variety of fish brought by the mixing of cold- and warm-water currents.
The western islands — all of Fernandina, the west coast of Isabela and Isabela’s satellite island, Roca Redonda — have water temperatures cooler than those found anywhere else in the Galápagos; due to that fact, they’re are home to marine life not found elsewhere. This is the place to see Galápagos horned sharks, goldrim surgeonfish, chevron barracuda, sailfin grouper, zebra morays and a variety of other species, some found nowhere else in the world.
SANTA CATALINA ISLAND
It’s an island built largely with chewing gum, a place where the buffalo roam (only because they were once imported for the filming of a western), where there’s a casino but gambling is not allowed, and where, although the light of sunset often glints back from the windows of distant, freeway-dense Los Angeles, the principal form of transportation is the electric golf cart.
In 1919, William Wrigley, owner of the Wrigley Company (the folks who brought you Juicy Fruit), recognized that much of Santa Catalina Island was in a natural state that had deserted mainland Southern California better than a century earlier. He built a home — complete with a $100,000 built-in echoing pipe organ — and made the island a personal fiefdom of sorts. Wrigley brought in deer and boar for hunting and made Catalina one of the first sea islands in the world developed for vacationing golfers. By 1922, the Chicago Cubs (also owned by Wrigley) were taking spring training on the island in a ballpark constructed to the exact dimensions of Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
With the West’s largest arts community just across the water, a casino was constructed in Avalon (the Channel Islands’ only incorporated town) for dances and theatrical events. Luminaries of Hollywood so loved the place that it became one of Tinseltown’s favorite shoot locations, even though getting there meant a boat or seaplane ride across 22 miles of ocean channel.
Today, Catalina Islanders take environmental stewardship very seriously — an attitude that, fortunately, extends beneath the surface of the surrounding Pacific waters. Almost from the moment you step off the ferryboat in Avalon, waters teeming with garibaldi (California’s state marine fish, a saltwater species that looks like a goldfish that’s been taking its vitamins) seem to be asking why you’re wasting your time in the air up there.
To return to your proper state — wet — you needn’t go far from the ferry docks. Casino Point Underwater Park, immediately adjacent to the birthday-cake-shaped casino, is set up as a buoy-marked dive-training area and includes reefs, the remains of a steel pier and a swim platform; it has four sunken vessels in or near it, including the concrete-hulled Sujac. During the winter, when boat traffic is minimal, you can apply to the harbormaster for permission to dive the Valiant, a luxury yacht that burned and sank, now resting in better than a hundred feet of water just west of the park. While there, you can join the generations of divers who have treasure-hunted on the wreck; the insurance claim after the loss included $67,000 for diamonds in a pewter box — but in the 76 years since the Valiant sank, no one has reported finding so much as a single diamond.
Divers can spend an entire diving career exploring Catalina waters — and some have. Farnsworth Bank, typically cited as the best dive in California, is composed of seamount pinnacles thickly decorated with purple hydrocoral and heavily visited by treefish, lingcod and, of course, the ubiquitous garibaldi. Bird Rock and Blue Caverns Point, a pair of sites north of Two Harbors, on the isthmus, join the list of bazillions of dive sites around North America where divemasters will tell you that the old Sea Hunt TV series was filmed. Here, though, the claims have the additional merit of being true.
Properly enjoying Catalina diving will entail the use of a boat — your own or a charter — and it’s possible to purchase packages that include ferryboat tickets, air fills, lodging at a diver-friendly hotel and boat diving. It’s an amazing place to visit, made even more so by the fact that the island lies just an oceanic hop, skip and jump from the most populous metropolitan area in America.
THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
I can’t help but wonder what my father would say if he knew I was going to Guadalcanal.
To him — a 25-year-old Navy corpsman attached to a Marine air wing — Guadalcanal was hell in a very small place, the setting of a six-month pitched battle in World War II, a scene of constant anguish, brought to closure at the cost of thousands and thousands of lives. Guadalcanal was the place where he earned a Bronze Star for valor — but what he did to get it remains unclear to this day. He never, ever talked about it.
To me, this place is a chance to pay homage to the sacrifices made by my father, his colleagues and, yes, the Japanese occupying force that resisted them for so long. More importantly, it’s a way to savor the present-day peace and tranquility that was purchased more than half a century ago with all that brave young blood.
Guadalcanal is home to Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, the second-largest insular nation in the South Pacific. It’s a nation wide-flung enough to include Melanesians, Micronesians, Papuans and even Polynesians — all the principal peoples of the Pacific. Islands here range from atolls to volcanoes (one tiny island, Kavachi, is a volcano that did not even breach the surface until May of 2000), some of the greatest geographic variety to be found in the South Pacific.
The echo of the Pacific war is a principal reason that divers travel to the Solomons today. Iron Bottom Sound, the body of water between the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulaghi and tiny Savo, is the resting place of dozens of warships and scores of aircraft. Many, such as the American carrier Quincy, the Australian heavy cruiser Canberra and the Japanese battleship Kirishima, lie far beyond the reach of recreational scuba divers. Others, such as the USS Aaron Ward and the USS John Penn, can be visited by properly trained technical divers. Some, such as the Japanese cruiser submarine I-1, are easily accessible by recreational divers. And a few, such as the Hirokawa Maru and the Kinugawa Maru, can actually be done as shore dives. Warship wrecks — described by one divemaster as “metal dinosaurs slumbering on the ocean bottom” — are typically littered with bomb or torpedo damage, jeeps, machine parts, sake bottles and live ammunition, all of it gradually succumbing to encrustation by soft and hard corals, the bottoms nearby often home to garden eels and anemones.
Yet even if the Solomons had somehow managed to remain untouched throughout the entirety of World War II, divers would certainly have discovered them by now. Surrounded by the aptly named Coral Sea, these islands are home to some of the most lush coral reefs in the Pacific, some still awaiting their first visits by scuba divers. Both hard and soft coral are here in abundance, and reef inhabitants and visitors range from scalloped hammerheads and rays of all varieties to bumphead wrasse, clownfish and virtually any Pacific tropical you might care to search for.
Because of depth, occasional strong currents and the fact that live-aboards are the preferred means of visiting many dive sites, the Solomon Islands appeal most strongly to advanced divers, and all-technical charters are not a rarity. But this is a destination worth planning for, a strong and diverse underwater environment that is the setting for some truly sobering reminders of sea battles and war.
YAP ISLANDS, FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA
You know that thing they always yell on Wheel of Fortune? That “Big money! Big money!” rant? Well, obviously, these people have never been to Yap.
Yap, westernmost of the principal island groups in the Federated States of Micronesia, is the home of the prototypical big money. We’re talking disc-shaped stone money the size of tractor tires, carved from limestone quarried 300 miles away in the islands of Palau and valued, not according to size, but according to how many people got crushed, drowned, eaten by sharks or otherwise became hors de combat in bringing this Jolly-Green-Giant-size loose change home.
Not to worry; you won’t need pockets the size of parachutes when you get here. Stone money is still used for things like land transfers, but for most other things dollars will suffice. Still, combine the stone money (left outdoors and rarely moved) with the fact that grass skirts and thu’us (loincloths) are still worn here, that history is recorded not in books but in dance, and that just about anyone you meet is apt to be chewing betel nuts (giving their teeth a decidedly vampiric crimson cast) and you may get the impression that you have ventured just a wee bit off the beaten path. And that’s before you’ve even gotten wet.
Underwater, you may get the impression that FSM stands for “Fabulous Scuba with Mantas.” As one divemaster told me, “On Yap, ‘manta dive’ does not mean a dive where you hope to see mantas — it means diving with the mantas.” Mil Channel (to the north of Yap proper) contains three sites that virtually guarantee encounters with the winged giants of the Pacific, and Goofnuw Channel, just off Gagil-Tomil, likewise holds mantas from June through October.
Summer is also a good time to spot gray reef sharks at aptly named Shark City (near Mil Channel), and eagle rays, whitetip reef sharks, bumphead parrotfish, Pacific gray sharks, and a variety of wrasses are just some of the headliners playing in venues around the island group. And if you like your underwater sights within arm’s reach, Yap is known as a place to see ghost pipefish, pygmy seahorses, mandarinfish, several varieties of clownfish and a wide variety of nudibranchs.
Windward (east-side) dives on Yap are generally on sloping terraces decorated with one of the widest selections of hard corals in this part of the Pacific. Leeward (west-side) dives are generally on walls, some of which begin as shallow as 15 feet and drop off to visual forever. A hundred feet of visibility is common, with half that again from time to time, and the southern end of Yap proper includes caverns and swim-throughs spacious enough for even the more timid of recently certified divers.
“Something for everyone” is usually hyperbole, but on Yap, that phrase rings as naturally true as the lithic click of stone money.
THE REPUBLIC OF PALAU
We’re not sure how long it would take you to travel to the ends of the earth. But you can get from San Diego to Land’s End in just three hours.
Our dive begins in the most pedestrian manner possible: We giant-stride off the back of the boat and settle to a 35-foot bottom, mostly sand with some sparse corals. But as we lazily kick west, a cobalt horizon materializes before us. We approach and drop over it, and just like that, we’re in Wonderland.
It’s like looking at the Grand Canyon — from a viewpoint 50 feet out, in mid-air. Waterfalls of red, blue and yellow appear in the distance, only to materialize as dense schools of brilliantly colored tropical fish, following nutrient streams over the drop-off. A giant humphead wrasse tucks in next to us, mimicking our every move; all he needs is a collar and a tag to complete the illusion of an underwater Labrador retriever. As we level off at 90 feet, gray reef sharks cruise past and give us the once-over as turtles fin overhead and a pair of eagle rays bank in the open-water distance.
If our consoles had a gauge for sensory overload, its needle would be on the peg about now. We glide with the current, steadily gaining altitude on the vast underwater wall until, at a signal from the divemaster, we hook slender steel cables into dead spots on the coral up top, clip the tag ends to our BCs, add a puff of air and make like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, floating in the current on our tethers. Within minutes, gray and whitetip reef sharks tuck in next to us, some within arm’s reach. They are wondering, probably, what these bubble-blowing visitors are having for lunch … and why we occasionally emit these @#$% blinding flashes of light. Then, too soon, we unhook and ascend through cylinders of hundreds of barracuda that drift with us into open water. And when we break the surface, the first mate doubles with laughter as we say, in perfect unison, “Let’s do it again.”
That, in a nutshell, is Blue Corner, a drift dive off the southwestern corner of an island called Ngobasangel in the Republic of Palau. Less than 178 square miles in size, peppered across the Pacific southeast of the Philippines, Palau is the westernmost island group in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, and has been independent (albeit U.S.-protected) since 1994.
Local dive operators will quickly tell you that Blue Corner is the highest-rated drift dive in Micronesia and that nearby Ngemelis Island has Big Drop-Off, the best wall dive in the Pacific. But many visitors feel those descriptions are too limiting; these sites are often mentioned as the best in the world.
Palau’s islands — so lush and green that they often look like clumps of broccoli poking out of the sea — form a line of demarcation between the true Pacific and the Philippine Sea. The diving here is extremely diverse, from the big-blue experiences of high-current drift dives to the military wreckage of the lagoons to Jellyfish Lake, where snorkeling with non-venomous freshwater jellies is universally recalled as being like diving in an oversized lava lamp.
In a country where tourism is a major industry and the making of handicrafts is still a larger industry than, say, construction, visitors are always welcome, and you’re apt to see American, Japanese and Australian divers in equal numbers. Topside, you can hike into the hills and visit waterfalls on Babelthuap (the main island), visit caves and World War II Japanese gun emplacements on Peleliu and imagine what it must have been like to see half of the United States Navy coming your way, or stroll and shop for can’t-find-it-elsewhere items like hand-pressed coconut massage oil. If you’re looking for the full tropical Pacific experience, you’ll find it in Palau.
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