Certain popular underwater locales attract scuba divers from across the globe to seek out mysterious shipwrecks and encounter a wide spectrum of sea life. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef will always have a devoted following, as will the turquoise waters of the Mexican Caribbean and the storied Great Blue Hole in Belize. But, seeing as the earth is 70 percent water, there are countless extraordinary places to dive while also avoiding the snorkel-masked masses. Check out these five awe-inducing scuba adventures that are just slightly off the beaten path, but no less exquisite.
Marieta Islands, Nayarit, Mexico
The Marieta Islands is an archipelago several miles off the coast of Nayarit in Western Mexico. Past military testing and explosions have resulted in amazing rock formations and caves, which are ideal for snorkelers and scuba divers. The islands were made famous by marine scientist Jacques Cousteau, who was captivated by the variety of marine life found there. He urged the Mexican government to make them a national park and therefore protected from hunting, fishing and human contact of any sort. To this day, no one can step foot on the land itself. Visitors to the Marietas have reported spotting dolphins, sea turtles, octopuses, humpback whales, manta rays and thousands of species of fish and birds.
Where to Stay: Located in Punta Mita, just a short boat ride from the Marieta Islands, is Casa de Mita, which blends the luxury and convenience of a high-end all-inclusive resort with the privacy and singularity of a villa. Sip a margarita at the swim-up bar in the saltwater pool and nosh on freshly caught seafood in the palapa dining room. Book early, as this boutique hotel only has eight unique rooms, each one decorated with hand-painted tiles and antique wood furniture. Casa de Mita makes scuba diving arrangements for you through Punta Mita Expeditions and provides complimentary transportation to and from the departure point.
Roatán, the biggest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, has become known for scuba diving because of its proximity to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second-largest reef after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. With an average visibility of 100 feet, a year-round temperature of 80 F and dive sites ranging from beginning to advanced, wrecks to walls and caverns to swim-throughs, Roatán is great for all levels. The Prince Albert wreck, a 140-foot island freighter that sunk in the mid-1980s, is home to an array of kaleidoscopic marine life, including sponges, groupers, parrot fish, eagle rays, arrow crabs, seahorses, eels and lobsters. Mary’s Place, on the other hand, is a labyrinth formed by prehistoric volcanic activity with rare black coral and sea fans.
Where to Stay: Las Verandas, overlooking the glistening Caribbean, is already one of Roatán’s premier scuba resorts even though it just opened a year ago. Stay in private villas with their own infinity pools and rooms bathed in warm natural wood and chic white fabric. The staff will gladly make arrangements for any dive trips, gear rentals and certification courses desired. And while the nearby Black Pearl Divers shop makes spontaneous adventures possible, there are several options for packages. The Reef and Dive Escape deal includes two tank dives and meals at Las Pergolas, which serves fresh Caribbean-fusion cuisine. Need to find your land legs? Enjoy a spa treatment, tour the island via zip line or tee off at Las Verandas’ lush golf course.
Molokini, a volcanic crater off the southern coast of Maui, is said to have formed from an eruption that occurred around 230,000 years ago. Named a Marine Life Conservation District and bird sanctuary in 1977, it’s enjoyed by snorkelers and scuba divers for its pristine hard coral, vivid tropical fish, moray eels and octopuses. Advanced divers can explore the back wall, which plunges 360 feet and is home to black tip, white tip and gray reef sharks. Hopeful divers who aren’t certified can opt to try “snuba” — a combination of scuba diving and snorkeling. After a brief training, a floating raft holds the scuba tank while you descend the water with long tubes (albeit limited range of motion and depth).
Where to Stay: Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea features modern, spacious oceanfront rooms and suites, and several beachside dining options, including Wolfgang Puck’s take on Hawaiian cuisine at Four-Star Spago. Its Four-Star spa includes specialties such as lomi lomi massages (the Polynesian technique use rhythmic strokes), Wai Vari water therapy, volcanic foot scrubs and oceanfront massages performed in Hawaiian huts. Beginner scuba lessons are offered in the pool twice daily, and the concierge will gladly book excursions to Molokini Crater through Maui Undersea Adventures, the onsite diving company.
Lembeh Strait, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
North Sulawesi, a province of Indonesia just south of the Philippines, is teeming with marine biodiversity; and the Lembeh Strait between Lembeh Island and North Sulawesi is known for some of the best muck diving in the world, attracting underwater photographers to explore its black volcanic sands for the unique critters that burrow in it. Lionfish, devilfish, pufferfish, sea moths, frogfish and scorpionfish are just a few of the unusual varieties of species found here. You can look forward to excellent year-round weather for not only muck dives, but also for wreck dives and colorful reef dives as well.
Where to Stay: Kungkungan Bay Resort features beachfront rooms along with spacious, beautiful coconut wood cottage suites with stone walk-in showers and sea-facing verandas. The resort is located in its own private bay and has a protected house reef that is exclusively available to guests. KBR provides a full-service PADI dive center with a camera room, dive equipment and camera rental, instruction and nitrox (enriched air) rental. Relax by the waterfront infinity pool after a day of diving or let go at Tepi Laut Spa (which translates to “the seaside spa”), where traditional Indonesian massage is just one of the options. The onsite restaurant turns out dishes from all over the world (Brazil to Mexico to Indonesia), while Capt. Billy’s Bar serves drinks (tropical and otherwise) for you to sip on a balcony overlooking Kungkungan Bay.
Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
There are 76 dive sites a day’s boat ride from Sharm El Sheikh, which is located at the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Ras Mohammed National Park is the one of the most well known of them, with steep coral walls plunging more than 300 feet. The Straits of Tiran is known for its drift drives, where divers navigate through breathtaking flora and spot a variety of marine life, including white tip reef sharks, snapper, barracuda, batfish, leopard sharks, crocodilefish, parrot fish, moray eels and more. Night diving is also popular, as glowing plankton are prominent and you can see down 30 feet by the light of the moon alone. Explore a 17th-century shipwrecked Turkish vessel at Amphoras or the sunken Panamanian cargo ship at Gordon Reef. But the most popular wreck is the SS Thistlegorm, which sunk in 1941 and has remained an underwater museum in the Red Sea since then.
Where to Stay: Four Seasons Resort Sharm El Sheikh offers something for divers of all levels, from a secluded house reef perfect for training to state-of-the-art vessels (ranging up to 33 feet long). Plus, it will take you out on snorkeling and diving excursions. Visit the onsite dive center to rent equipment, meet instructors and plan your trips. But you’ll find more than scuba amenities; rooms are decked out with marble bathrooms, private plunge pools, plush king beds and stunning views of the Red Sea. Sit down to a fresh-caught meal at one of the five restaurants and catch Egyptian folk dancers in the Nafoura Lounge while enjoying a shisa (flavored water pipe). End the day with a signature spa service, such as an Egyptian classic massage using local aromatic plants, or a Pharaonic body treatment incorporating herb-filled poultices and a finish of sweet almond oil.
Photos Courtesy of Four Seasons and Las Verandas