Sunday Herald: Dive, dive, my darling

Sunday Herald: Dive, dive, my darling

Descend the depths of these vibrantscuba-diving destinations of the world that have undisturbed, top-notch marine health, Susheela Nair writes

Bigeye Trevally
Damaniyat, a group of nine islands, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Oman’s premier nature reserve.

Fear of water and marine life used to keep Indians away from scuba-diving. But their perception of diving changed after watching the Bollywood movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Here’s a bucket list of some scuba-diving sites across the globe. If you want to scout for the hidden treasures in the sea, rush for your fins and air. Be a responsible reef traveller, avoid coral products, curb your plastic use, choose eco-certified travel operators, and above all, ‘Look, but don’t touch.’ In the International Year of Reef Conservation, volunteer on a reef conservation project, and be ambassadors of ocean awareness and conservation.

Straddling more than 2,300 km, and approximately 3,50,000 km in size, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is nature’s greatest gift to Australia, and the planet’s largest living treasure. One cannot imagine that it is the size of Japan and about 70 million football fields. Its immense size makes it the only living structure that is visible from the moon. This UNESCO World Heritage Site shelters over 2,900 colourful coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays, and an incredible array of marine animals, including six of the world’s seven marine turtles, the endangered Dugong and the ‘Great Eight’.

Though touted as one of the best-managed reefs in the world with sustainable tourism practices, it faces threats of global warming, rising sea temperatures linked to climatic changes, bouts of coral bleaching, storm damage and Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) outbreaks. A report by the International Panel on Climate Change projects annual bleaching by 2030 and functionally extinct ecosystem by 2050. Australia has pledged half a billion dollars for the restoration of the resilient reefs, improving water quality, tackling predators, and mitigating the impacts of climatic change. To save this icon, the government has plans to work with traditional aboriginal owners, the tourism industry, farmers and scientists.

Great efforts are also being made for the protection of the Red Sea marine life from the impact of tourism in the Gulf of Aqaba, a large gulf at the northern tip of the Red Sea, east of the Sinai Peninsula and west of the Arabian mainland. Divers can discover Jordan’s unique underwater wildlife in the Red Sea, where whale sharks visit these nutrient-rich waters and dine on the rich plankton harvests that flourish in the area. The important dive sites here are Cedar Pride Wreck, Japanese Garden, Power Station, Seven Sisters, Blue Hole, etc.

Derelict ships and military vehicles have been sunk in some cases to create artificial reefs. These wrecks provide permanent places for corals to grow, and offer marine life a refuge to set up residency, not to mention some exciting diving for non-aquatic visitors. The Aqaba Marine Science Station showcases the marine life of the Gulf of Aqaba and the many steps that are being taken to protect it.

Not many tourists are aware that Oman’s 1,700 km coastline is a treasure trove of outdoor adventure up for grabs. Located on the Tropic of Cancer and defined by three seas — the Arabian Gulf, the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Sea — Oman is a diver’s secret heaven with an abundance of live coral, and a rich and astonishing variety of marine life. Damaniyat, a group of nine islands, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Oman’s premier nature reserve. It offers 12 dive sites, where you’ll find beautiful coral gardens, reefs, walls and shipwrecks with large pelagic fish, rays, sharks and turtles that gaze at you.

In 2003, the Royal Oman Navy sank Al Munassir, a former troop carrier and tank transporter, as an artificial reef near Bandar Khayran. The underwater scenery will fascinate you with stunning rockfalls, picturesque walls and reefs festooned with colourful arrays of coral and tropical fish. Al Munassir now sits 30 metres below sea level, and is home to sea snakes, parrotfish, surgeonfish and an assortment of other marine life.

In Sipadan Island, Malaysia’s only oceanic island, the government has made laudable efforts for the protection and preservation of the fragile and rich diversity of the island. By enforcing restrictions on lodging, diving, and the number of visitors in this protected marine conservation areas, the reef health has improved, and underwater conditions continue to be pristine. To lessen the damage of Sipadan’s reef due to natural causes, the government placed an artificial reef around Kapalai’s area.

Home to 3,000 species of fish, 15 individual reefs, 300-plus species of corals and 966 recorded species of Coral Reef Fish, Sipadan is a diver’s Mecca. This reef system shelters four of the world’s seven species of marine turtles, i.e., green turtles, hawksbill turtle, Olive Ridley turtle and the leatherback turtle. Sipadan has the largest barrier reef in South East Asia. At Barracuda Point, one of the island’s best dive sites, divers find themselves engulfed in a tornado of barracudas. The other popular ones are Turtle Cavern, South Point and Hanging Gardens.

To enable reefs’ recovery from damage caused by anchors, divers and fishermen, visitation to some popular dive sites in Similan Islands, a group of nine islands in the Andaman Sea in southern Thailand, have been banned. Most beaches remain closed to protect the spawning grounds of endangered marine turtles. Ko Similan, a horseshoe-shaped island, is ranked among the most beautiful and unspoiled seas in the world. For diving lovers, there are many renowned and outstanding dive sites such as Anita’s Reef, Christmas Point, Batfish Bend, Elephant Head Rock, West of Eden and Deep Six. The crystal-clear water in this island is legendary while the coral reefs are reputed to be the most colourful and diverse in Thailand.

Sunken treasure

The Philippines prides itself as a multifaceted adventure destination which is beyond the usual. If you are fascinated with shipwrecks, explore the remains of the sunken World War II ships wonderfully encrusted with coral and swarming with fish life at Coron Island in northern Palawan. Also marvel at the mysteries of this planet’s underwater kingdom and simply hover above glistening corals and reefs, or swim along amazing underwater fishes at the Tubbataha Natural Marine Park at Palawan. This marine World Heritage Site in Southeast Asia is high on the list of adventure junkies. Other wonderful shipwreck dive sites to explore are Subic Bay Freeport and Sarangani Bay. Tourists visiting Cebu and Palawan get a chance to watch shallow coral gardens, interesting rock formations, and colourful species like crabs, shrimps, sea anemones, moray, and trumpetfishes.

Located in the heart of the Coral Triangle, the Raja Ampat island chain, a collective of 1,500 islands in Indonesia, is indisputably the most famous scuba destination in Southeast Asia. With more than 1,300 fish species, six of the world’s seven marine turtle species, 27 varieties of marine mammals, it has been hailed as a ‘species factory’. This surreal underwater landscape hosts over 537 flamboyant species of corals, over 200 pristine diving sites, and a few wrecks.

With the declaration of the first Shark and Manta Ray Sanctuary, the government has banned harvesting and trade of sharks and manta rays. To reduce fishing pressure, some resorts help guard the reefs against illegal fishing by employing locals as dive guides. Other environment-friendly tourism activities include bird-watching trips, waterfall trekking, and kayaking.

If you want to take an underwater break in Karnataka, head to Netrani Island, located 10 nautical miles from Murudeshwar on the Arabian Sea. “This underwater paradise offers easy accessibility, diver-friendly currents, and good visibility, which makes it a perfect option for novices as well as seasoned divers. Jenny’s Aquarium, Nursery, Grand Central Station, Pebble Beach and Danny’s Delight are some of the popular dive sites where you can dive within touching distance of huge shoals of fish like jacks, tuna, reef sharks, manta rays, moray eels, barracuda and red-tooth triggerfish,” says Nanda Kumar, a hardcore scuba-diving enthusiast who has clocked 500 dives.

Swimming among green turtles, groupers, black-tipped reef shark, a thousand mackerel, a million silver blue fusiliers and a billion sweepers is a magical experience. One can explore nooks & crevices, and come across a large shoal of dancing damselfish, fat sea cucumbers lazing on the sand, and large brightly coloured parrotfish chomping down on rock and coral.

With its shallow blue lagoons and vibrant coral reefs, Lakshadweep, an archipelago of 36 islands off India’s South West coast, is a veritable underwater paradise teeming with literally hundreds of species of marine life. One can enjoy the delights of the submarine world in Bangaram and Kavaratti, the best dive sites in Lakshadweep. Look for the wreckage of the ship Royal Princess Home in Bangaram.

“You can see a wall of soft coral in a multitude of hues, fish in all colours and shapes, turtles and more in Kavaratti. At other dive spots, I saw whitetip reef sharks darting out of coral bed, greenback turtles ambling along, dolphins gliding and flipping. I saw close to 30 species of fish, including jacks, sharks, barracudas, snappers, and surgeons,” said Dheeraj Nanda, a 17-year-old student who has already clocked 100 dives.

A recent study predicted that wave-driven flooding may increase groundwater salinity and the depletion of potable water that will make the islands uninhabitable by the middle of the 21st century. Tourism is restricted in Lakshadweep to preserve and protect the fragile bio-ecological system and prevent overcrowding and consequent environmental damage. Lagoon- cleaning campaign is promoted in all the islands by Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, an NGO, and other conservation groups.

Graced with several steep, sloping and shallow reefs, coracle pinnacles and knolls, Andamans is an incredible underwater world full of colour and adventure, and fish of every possible variety. From around 10-25 metre underwater, one can come face to face with large green turtles, amazing manta rays, harmless sharks, and schools of fish. You can play hide-and-seek with octopuses, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. The seascape here is resplendent with surviving live corals in an array of bizarre colours and shapes.

Like no other

With incredible numbers and varieties of marine life, from moray eels to manta rays, underwater coral gardens, schools of rare and unusually coloured fish, Havelock, the hub of diving in Andamans, is a sight to behold. The stunning coral reef, known as Johnny’s Gorge, and the neighbouring Dixon’s Pinnacle, are the premier dive sites within easy reach of the Havelock tourist hub. Cinque Island is rated as one of the best dive destinations in the island.

Goa is another irresistible diving destination. According to Gavin Dias, general manager, Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC), “The diverse marine life, ideal underwater conditions, best dive training centres, an amazing artificial reef and fascinating dive sites, sans strong water current with occasional surges make it perfect for novices as well as professionals. The brilliant corals, a large multitude of shipwrecks, merchant ships and WWII wrecks in Goa make diving in these waters a thrilling experience.”

Grande Island and Sao Jorge Island host a variety of scuba-diving sites. Vibrant fishes, spectacular shells, challenging pinnacles and other aquatic life will leave divers enthralled.

Off the coast of Puducherry, ancient areas of land and structures as old as 25,000 years have also been located and mapped. To give divers a bit more bang for their buck, Temple Reef, an artificial reef, the first of its kind in India, is made from fully recycled concrete blocks, rocks, trees, palm leaves, iron bars and a recycled scooter to lure aquatic life. Wreck City, the second artificial reef, is worth a dive.

The discovery of a 200-year-old shipwreck in Bheemulipatnam (45 km from Vizag) will soon catapult this nondecrepit fishing hamlet as the next scuba- diving destination. Rich aquatic life abounds in and around the shipwreck. What makes it unique is that it is probably the only wreck in the world at such a shallow depth, making it accessible even to novice divers and non-swimmers.