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The Riviera Maya

 The Riviera Maya

Caribbean Diving & Diverse Cenotes

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If you ask most divers to choose between fresh water diving and tropical diving, we’re sure that the majority of divers would pick tropical diving fins down; you have beautiful reefs, colorful fish, large Pelagics, and endless warm tropical destinations to choose from. We think that your first thought of freshwater diving should also be just as exciting and interesting as your saltwater choices; freshwater dive sites complete with stalactites and stalagmites. Perhaps you would like some clear water dive sites with fossils, human bones, ancient Mayan artifacts, some sites with freshwater fish, some with tropical fish, some with overhanging gardens, and some sites with amazing caverns and caves to explore depending on your certification level. You can see how now the choice between freshwater diving and tropical diving gets a little tougher to make, but to avoid making a decision, we recommend that you visit the Riviera Maya where you can combine and do both types of diving while on a single memorable dive vacation.

Before we get into mentioning some of the most popular dive sites we thought we should mention just exactly where the Riviera Maya is located. It’s in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo along the Caribbean waterfront just south of Cancun from Playa del Carmen, through Akumal, and down to Tulum. You can take a bus, shuttle bus, or private car from Cancun and be down to Tulum in around two and a half hours. So even going down to the far end really isn’t all that far, but it does include glimpses of over a thousand years of Mayan history. On the way down you have to pass several sleepy little towns along the coast lines and you are never too far from one of the thousands of life sustaining fresh water wells in this part of Mexico.

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Probably some of the best saltwater activities on the Maya Riviera include snorkeling with the migrating whale sharks from May thru July near Playa del Carmen at dive sites such as Chun Zumbul. Sure, there are scattered small reef outcrops in a field of sand suitable for stingrays and small reef creature, but when the whale sharks hit the area, all eyes are on them. These gentle giants tolerate the antics of bubble blowing tourists with amazing seasonal regularity. The next biggest event comes when the waters turn slightly colder in the winter time and bull sharks put on a show at selected dive locations. Many of the sites have a sand substrate, but the dive sites may have pinnacles, arches (Los Arcos), swim throughs, caves and caverns that make each dive site unique and worth visiting. Pared Verde the most well known wall dive is a step down a sand embankment and gives rise to a wall dive from 70ft to 100ft (21-31m) before becoming a sand plain once again.  The wall is home to multitudes sponges, corals, invertebrates, assorted domestic small fish as well as occasional passing large pelagics. Most of the dive sites are less than 100ft (31m) deep and average 100ft (31m), but some sites like Tortugas named after all the local turtle sightings, can drop down to 130ft (140m). If you want to see schools of sabalos, (spanish for tarpon), and a small cavern, we recommend the dive site called Sabalos. For wreck divers, there is the former shrimp boat Mama Viña that was sunk on purpose in 1995 and is now home to soft and hard corals, schools of fish and occasional passing sharks, eagle rays, sailfish, and other pelagic fish.

There are several dive sites all the way down to Tulum and sites like Stingray have interesting pinnacles, but you need dive a mere 25ft (8m) to view the pinnacles and the sea life around them as well as the stingrays that gave the site its name. There are also swim throughs at Cuevitas at 10m (33ft) with lots of hard corals, and lots of fish to view at Piscina (Pool), Tank Ha Deep, and Dreams. We should also mention that a lot of these dives are drift dives due to the north flowing currents and some of the currents are stronger at some sites than at other sites depending on the time of year.

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There are more than 40 some dive sites along the Riviera Maya that are part of the second largest reef system in the world, but for many divers the real reason to dive the Maya Riviera is to dive the freshwater cenotes. This entire region of Mexico was formed out of limestone that once stood way above sea level when the sea level was some 300ft lower during the last ice age. Rain water seeped through the landscape and dissolved through the porous limestone with a little help from the formation of small amounts of carbonic acid. Great underground fissures and/or circular holes were slowly over time carved deep into the limestone and later stalactites and stalagmites tried to fill these new voids. Some of the fissures connected the eroded cavities to each other and essentially became underground streams and rivers that eventually drained out into the open ocean. Some thousands of these hollowed out cavities could no longer support their overhead roof structures and caved in forming pools of fresh water across an expanse of otherwise dry appearing landscape. To the Mayans these pools were sacred wells on many levels and they also believed that located at the bottoms of these pools were the gateways to where the underground gods resided. Mayans performed human sacrifices in some of the pools and in others left pottery, jewelry, gold, jade, obsidian, cloth, and other precious items as offerings to the gods. Fossils of earlier animals round out the picture and make each cenote entered by divers a very unique and one of a kind experience.

Of course the problem with cenotes is that once you dive one, you may feel compelled  to dive others. You also might like going where few divers have gone before.  It starts out simple enough by going on a guided dive to Dos Ojos and seeing interesting shapes of stalactites and stalagmites, next you find yourself swimming through the Casa Cenote that leads to a river and the sea beyond meaning that sometimes you will come face to face with freshwater fish and with tropical fish such as tarpons at other times. You also might even get a chance to swim near manatees. Next you might want to try the Gran Cenote which is famous for its easy entrance and endless white colored passageways or try Calavera with fossils, artifacts and a halo cline at 50ft (15m) of depth. Angelita is popular with tech divers as you can pass through a sulfur cloud at 90ft (28m). There of course are many other well known cenotes, but depending where you are staying may determine what other cenotes you may wish to explore.

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Now you would think that with all this diving that there would be little time for anything else, but it turns out that besides all the sacred wells, the Mayans also left the ruins of three nearby major cities and temples to explore. Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza are all in easy reach of the Riviera Maya. The ruins of Tulum sit right on the cliffs some 13m (39ft) above the adjacent ocean. Inland, Coba has a 138ft (42m) tall pyramid to view, and of course Chichen Itza has an entire city built over many time periods and is surrounded by four main cenotes. These once vast cities all but disappeared and were covered by the surrounding jungles soon after the Spanish appeared.  The Spanish soldiers and explorers were quick to collect, under pain of death, any gold and other valuables and in exchange they brought forth salvation thru religion, colds, and viruses. Unfortunately this unforeseen exchange, not to mention periods of excessive drought, decimated the Mayan population, destroyed their culture, and put an end to the ancient Mayan way of life. On the positive side, the Mayans were such great engineers, mathematicians, astronomers, architects, and artists, that we know much about them from their sculptures, artifacts, temples, and cities that still stand after so much elapsed time.

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So you see, you get more than two types of diving when you explore the Riviera Maya and there is so much more than mere saltwater and freshwater diving to do on the Quintana Roo Peninsula. You can be a professional beach bum and rest in a chair while watching the tides come in and out, or you can seize the opportunity of a lifetime and explore the ancient Mayan world as a novice archaeologist. Perhaps the overall point we are trying to make here is that there are not a plethora of destinations in the world where the option to visit and dive in sacred cenotes and scuba dive in saltwater can be combined so many ways and then forged into one simply spectacular as well as historical dive adventure.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Bay Islands, Roatan, Utila, Guanaja, and more.

The Bay Islands

Roatán, Útila, Guanaja, and more.

 

 

 

 

 

When you think about the second largest Barrier Reef in the world, your first thought should be, “Why aren’t my bags already packed?”  We know divers and snorkelers that have been traveling down to the Bay Islands year after year and never seem to get tired of the endless dive sites, reefs, local wrecks, tropical beaches and island lifestyle. Perhaps one of the hardest decisions to make is which island to visit first. The Bay Islands consist of eight main Islands and 53 cays which are off the coast of Honduras. The largest Island is Roatán and boasts to have 176 dive sites. Guanaja claims some 50 dive sites, and Útila, the smallest of the big three, report to have 90 dive sites. On average, if you dove 4-5 dive sites a day, you could view most of the dive sites in as little as five months, but keep in mind, this estimate doesn’t include the other five islands and quite a few of the other cays. For example, many dive boat operators offer day tours over to Cayos Cochinos where 16 other buoyed dive sites are located. Underwater pinnacles and seamounts are also some favorite dive sites to visit. Also, some hotels, resorts, and dive operators boast that they have access to secret dive sites only revealed to their customers, clients, and distantly related soon to be best friends.

 

 

 

 

So what can you expect to see in the Bay Islands? Quite a lot actually, marine parks and designated reserves have helped the local coral reefs stay healthy, vibrant, and home to large schools of fish, lobsters, and crabs. Groupers, dolphins, rays, and sharks are the apex predators of the reefs, turtles frequently come in to the underwater camera or video frame, and migrating whale sharks especially around the island of Útila steal the show from February to June.

Some of the most famous dive sites around Roatán include: Dolphin Den where a maze of tunnels, and caverns, and is where a collection of dolphin remains were discovered; this site leads out through the reef and into the open water. Shark Dive is a sit in the sand encounter while experienced shark divers feed passing sharks. Hole in the wall is a must visit if you like sand chutes and tunnels. Also ask the locals which dive site is best to see, seahorses, encounter hammerheads, nurse sharks, big eye jacks, or specific corals. Wreck dives include: The 100m (300ft) long Odyssey wreck and the 70m (210ft) long El Aguila wreck is currently resting in three main sections.

 

 

 

 

Dive sites around Útila include:  Black Hills is a seamount dive exploding with fish and dense corals. Black Coral Wall is a wall dive like much of the local dives here, but with the extra added attraction of black coral found as shallow as 8m (24ft) . The Canyons dive site is filled with corals and small resident fish. The largest wreck dive here is the 30m (90ft) long Halliburton.

Dive sites around Guanaja include: Black Rock Canyons where volcanic flows formed cracks, caves, and tunnels and now teeming with life, and the Vertigo wall dive with mesmerizing drop- offs. The Pinnacle is known for its tendrils of black coral and seahorses. Wreck dives include: the 80m (240ft) long Jado Trader and the shrimp boat Don Enrique.

 

 

 

 

Now although the Bay Islands are part of Honduras, the Bay Islands are unique in several ways.  It all dates back to Christopher Columbus back in 1502 on his fourth and final “discover the new world” tour.  Because the local Paya islanders were unfamiliar with Christianity, they were by default deemed hostile, which was close enough to get one labeled as cannibals, which most definitely meant one was eligible for a sea voyage and sold to a plantation or mine where work would definitely not set one free. We can’t blame Columbus for all the islander’s deaths though, as European diseases brought by his men and others killed untold numbers of local indigents.  The point is, that the island population was decimated or soon became nonexistent on some islands, and made it a great place for migrations of English settlers, pirates such as Captain Morgan, black Caribs, and lastly, Cayman islanders to call home. It is because of all this that the primary language of the Bay Islands is a blend of English and the second most spoken language used is Spanish, while on the Honduras mainland Spanish is the primary language. The local cultures and customs are also unique to certain regions in the Bay Islands, which is also kind of interesting, and lends itself to different types and amount of spices used in preparing local food dishes and cuisine.  One thing to remember though, coconut and seafood dishes are king on the islands, especially conch ceviche, conch curry, conch soup Garifuna, cooked crab, and grilled lobster.

 

 

 

 

As far as accommodations go, Roatán offers the most choices and if you want your money’s worth, perhaps one of the  all inclusive or all meals resorts on Roatán is the way to go. On Útila and Guanaja there are similar but less resorts although one can also stay in a bungalow on a cay or a villa on a rock in these Bay Islands destinations. The limits are only as endless your budget, time you have available, and how close you want to be to the water’s edge.

The largest number of dive shops are on Roatán, and there are two professional dive schools here that may teach year round.  Students have been known to double up and take a dive-master course during the day and Spanish lessons in the evening. Other visitors come for the hiking, horseback riding or a side trip to the mainland to visit Copán and see the mysterious Mayan ruins.

 

 

 

 

Ask any whale shark and they will tell you that February through May there is less rain, hurricanes, and a plethora of plankton, but for the rest of us, the water is inviting year round.  We hope by now that you have been inspired enough to check out the Bay Islands. Be careful though, or you too may become a non-stop frequent flyer to the Bay Islands and find yourself with an airline bag half packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

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The Maldives: A Garland of Islands in the Indian Ocean

The Maldives: A Garland of Islands

In The Indian Ocean.

  

Nowhere else in the world can you find such a spectacular creation of coral and white sandy beaches rising just above the current sea level. Twenty six atolls and just fewer than 1200 islands form a chain from just below the equator to 804 km (500 miles) north. The average height of the land is 1.5m (4”11”) above sea level and the highest point is 2.4m (7’10”). It all started some 65 million years ago when a volcanic mountain range sprouted up above the surface in almost a straight row then gradually began to subside. Corals had time to grow micro layer by micro layer and form great communities around the volcanoes before earlier generations were forced downwards during bouts of subduction to depths as deep as 2100m (6400ft).

  

As for history, Sanskrit writings mention these islands as early as 500BC when sailors from India and the island of Java crossed through the Maldives on their way to trade with Madagascar and the eastern shores of Africa. The local Maldivian Buddhists converted to Muslim in the 12th century and the Maldives were given independence from England in 1965. In 1972 tourism began with two resorts, and now there are over 92 resorts spread out over 65 islands. While there are a few land based dive resorts, there are over 30 dive liveaboard operations. Tourism has become a major component of their economy and it’s safe to say that more than twice the number local Maldivians visit the islands each year.

  

So what’s the big attraction here? Turns out that the big attractions are whale sharks and mantas. With the small attractions including frogfish and seahorses. The islands are home to 1100 species of fish, 5 species of turtles, 187 species of coral, 145 species of crab, 48 species of shrimp, 21 species of whales and dolphins…you get the idea. Add 483 species of mollusks and echinoderms, and you have a recipe for filling hard drives, flash drives, and camera memory cards. But to be honest, we’re not really sure how many images of a seahorse, clown triggerfish, or manta at a cleaning station one can take before ever being really satisfied?

  

And speaking of endless lists, how about the local accommodations? You can stay in  accommodation on land, huts over the open ocean, rooms with infinity pools or you can adventure out and see more variety on a dive liveaboard. For lunch, you can dine in your cabana, at the main lodge, feast at a tented table at the end of a jetty, boat out to a secluded beach, or fine dine in an underwater restaurant which can be a one of a kind experience or an awkward experience if you ordered the catch of the day and you notice a school of fish looking at you in distain. And when it comes to water sports, Maldivians have a list of everything ready to try out from kayaking, jet skiing, snorkeling, scuba diving, to submarines, and whale watching.

  

So when is the best time to dive here? Well to start off, the Maldives have two seasons. The Southwest season is wet with monsoon rains and this season goes from April or May until November with June to August having the most rain. During this time, There can be large plankton blooms that bring in large pelagics and visibility can range from 20-40 meters (65- 130plus) feet. The eastern side of the Maldives is where the Mantas and whale sharks will be most likely viewed during this season. The Northeast season on the other hand from December thru April/May, is dry and brings slightly warmer and calmer waters to the islands. The eastern side will have sharks and pelagics, but the mantas and whale sharks will be hanging out on the western side of the Maldives during this season. The northeast season is also when the liveaboard vessels head down south towards the equator, or you can board more northern exploring liveaboards at this time. The stronger currents that flowed in January will calm down and give rise to slack currents during March and April. But with this being said, our own experiences coupled with multiple feedback reports verify that the best time to visit the Maldives is year round and repeatedly.

  

So what about the dive sites? Unlike some vague dive site names such as found in mostly English speaking countries in the world, the Maldivians (even though many speak English) have perfected the names of dive sites and it’s almost amazing what you can discern with only knowing four words in their home language of Dhivehi.  So for all future reference, Kandu means channel, a Faru is a reef rising up in a channel, a Thila is a reef or pinnacle reef rising up inside an atoll, and a Giri is like a thila, but much smaller. When you have a thousand islands, this system makes every dive site easier to remember. Take the popular dive sites such as Fotteyo Kandu, Hembadhu Kandu, and Ziyaara Kandu. Just by the name you already know they are channel dives and most likely have caves, overhangs, swim throughs, small arches, or they lead to small reefs and have sharks, turtles, moray eels, schools of fish, and eagle rays swimming by on their way to work or Mantas stopping by the local cleaning stations. Kuda Faru, and Eri Faru are reefs in the channels where one would expect to find gray sharks, white tips, silver tips, Napoleon wrasse, coral, and invertebrates. Okobe Thila, Kudarah Thila, Mas Thila, all tell you that you will see tons of corals and schools of red teethed triggerfish, snappers, fusiliers, sweet lips, and more. Of course there are some dive site names in English that are rather precise and some popular ones include: Manta Point, Hammerhead Point, and Turtle Beach. Other popular sites with no clue in the name include: Three Palms for looking at nudibranchs, and Vacation Home Center for a variety of everything living in shallow to deep waters.

  

Of course there are over 2000 years worth of wrecks scattered around the channels, atolls, and deep reefs, but a few of the popular wrecks include the 35,000 ton Victory freighter, The Fesdu fishing trawler, the Halaveli cargo wreck and the Shipyard where two vessels rest near each other with Skipjack 1 resting at a vertical angle against the reef and the Skipjack 2 resting horizontal in the sand on its portside and both can be visited on one dive if currents permit.

  

So as you can imagine, it’s hard to visit all the possible dive sites in one single trip, no matter which season you choose, but it’s even more difficult to imagine that all the Maldives could become uninhabited within the next 80 years, as glaciers melt and the sea levels continue to rise and are predicted to increase by some 2m (6ft) in height by 2099 in a best case scenario as predicted by the majority of world leading scientists; although this well defined theory is not deemed accurate according to a the scientifically challenged. Either way, this unique Garland of islands comprised of 26 atolls needs to be preserved, protected, and profusely perused by you.

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Cebu and the Visayas Islands

Cebu and the Visayas Islands

The Heartland of The Philippines.

   

Magellan had no idea how good the scuba diving in this part of the world was, but in 1521 when Spain was big time in to colonizing the world, you couldn’t find a decent set of fins or a mask and snorkel to save one’s own life, so instead Magellan attacked the locals of Mactan Island and you probably guessed by now that his opportunistic overtures didn’t end well. After several other attempts, the Spanish finally colonized Cebu Island in 1565 and they had no clue that the surrounding waters were filled with large whale sharks, thresher sharks, hammerhead sharks, and pristine coral reefs. They also had no way of knowing that one day, Cebu’s white sand beaches and tropical sunsets would be more precious than all the gold in…well…Spain.

  

Cebu is the ninth largest out of some 7,100 islands that make up the Philippines and Cebu is one of the 167 islands that make up the central region of the Philippines. Because of the Spanish conquest, Cebu city is the oldest, as well as the first Christian city in the Philippines. Right next to the three million inhabitants of Cebu is Mactan Island; home to the Mactan-Cebu International Airport. It takes an hour flight from Manila or a 24-hour ferry ride to reach Cebu City and Mactan Island. The reason we mention all this is because adjacent to Mactan Island are more than a dozen well known dive sites. You can start right off shore at Kontiki Reef, or dive off one of the nearby islands such as Nalusuan Island Marine Sanctuary, Cabilao Island, Olango Island Marine Sanctuary, Shangri-La Marine Sanctuary, out at Hilutungan Island Marine Sanctuary. As you can see, there are lots of marine sanctuaries around Cebu and the neighboring islands. Photographers might enjoy Tambuli Reef and airplane wreck, or a nice macro dive at Agus Bay with soft corals, sponges and colorful fish. For advanced divers, Mactan Island is home to The Marigondon Cave where the ceiling starts at 30m (90ft) and the floor base is 43m (130ft) and goes back 40m (120ft). If you like diving with Nitrox (enriched air), large invertebrates, and pulsing flashlight fish, then this is the dive for you. If you are into wreck dives, then the 63m (190ft) long San Juan Ferry is the largest nearby wreck, but this 400 passenger vessel rests at 50m (150ft) of depth with the top at 35m (105ft). It’s been collecting coral and fish since an explosion took out the engine room in 2000. For another deep dive, there’s Tingo Point off of Olango Island. Here at 40m (120ft) is a ledge that drops off into a deep wall dive, but right off the wall and into the blue you have a chance to see thresher sharks on the lookout for schools of fish. The Monad Shoal at Malapascua is another site known for seeing thresher sharks at shallower depths rather than there usual deep water habitat.

  

Down on the southwestern end of Cebu Island is the town of Moalboal where there must be more than two dozen dive sites. Pescador Island has the most requested dive sites such as Cathedral Cave with a awe inspiring view of the surface and a great place for night dives too. This area is also a marine sanctuary with plentiful fish, turtles, and coral. As for other dive sites, Tongo also has an impressive reef, caves, and drop off walls. Dolphin House has coral, caves, and pygmy seahorses. Panagsama Beach is the place to view the sardine run and Talisy Reef is a turtle sanctuary area. There are also lots of resorts, restaurants, and white sand beaches to check out here in your free time.

There are also charter operations that cruise around the Visayan Archipelago. You can dive Pescador Island, Balicasag Island off of Bohol Island and Sumilon Island. The marine sanctuary near the southern town of Oslob is where licensed operators can provide  snorkeling and diving with whale sharks. Near Siquijor you can dive Sunken Island which is known for its schools of Napoleon wrasse, humphead parrot fish, and frog fish. As you can see, the diving sites seem to be endless and since Pilipino time is uncannily in sync with Margaritaville time, you can see how it could take many a fresh seafood dinner and incredible physical effort to leave the relaxing white sand beaches to visit all the local dive locations on a single visit.

 

Things to know before you go: current is 220 volts, so bring a converter or two. The water temp varies between 23-30˚C (73-86˚F). You will see potentially poisonous sea snakes, but they are mildly mannered and generally won’t bite your tail if you don’t pull on theirs. Giving them a meter (3ft) of space is also a nice gesture or common curtesy. Some 26 million people speak the Philippine National language of Pilipino which is a central Manila dialect of Tagalog, but in Cebu and the surrounding islands, some 20 million people speak Cebuano, which is the second most spoken language out of the 180 some languages and dialects spoken in the Philippines. Fortunately for many of us, the most spoken foreign language in the Philippines is American English.

Most diving is done from traditional Philippine wooden hull vessels with outriggers called Bankas; pronounced (Ba ankas) they range from several to 13m (10-40ft) long. They are very sturdy and dependable in open waters and you will quickly become an expert at diving off and boarding back on again. Other local types of transportations to try are the Jeepneys which were originally transformed WWII willys jeeps with elongated seating compartments on the back end and metal horse statues welded to the hood on the front end. Now, some are prefabricated or made using Japanese trucks, and include very elaborate paint jobs and more fog lights than Baja 500 dune buggies. The motorized tricycles are a hoot to try too. The limited number of occupants and restricted weight or size of luggage seems to be anyone’s guess.

  

Now on your non-diving day we recommend a day trip to nearby Bohol Island to view the Chocolate Hills, the Matutinao Nature Park, Philippine tarsiers, and a boat ride on the Loboc river. You can also do an eight hour trip up to the Chambuhat Oyster Farm for a delicious seafood lunch. Back on Cebu Island you should make a point of going  to Oslob and possibly to Sumilon Island for some time in the sun, water, and beach.

Near Oslob you can go to the village of Tan-awan where they feed the whale sharks krill. Tourists on Cebu will fill a highly organized parade of boats. Tourists can paddle out to the whale sharks where they have an opportunity to get in the water and snorkel with a group of whale sharks. This is a controversial tourist attraction as the normal migration of whale sharks in this area is 60 days and one whale shark named Mr. Bean lingered in this area 362 days just for the free food. Secondly, the krill they feed the whale sharks is just a small portion off all the types of krill whale sharks normally dine on along their normal migratory path. The jury is still out on if this is like eating a diet of hotdogs every night, but you get the idea. Lastly, the local whale sharks have become unafraid of boats, yet they have not had enough evolutionary time to learn to be wary of boats with propeller blades, which has had some negative consequences.

  

There are also a number of water falls to explore and day trips that include picnics and private beach excursions. Cebu has a number of modern shopping malls to explore for those that need more surface time. There are also several historical museums, historical sites such as Fort San Pedro built (started) in 1565, a must see Taoist temple, Christian and other religious as well as cultural landmarks, including the encased cross that Magellan brought to the islands on his ill-fated voyage. It’s ironical, but had Magellan come to Cebu as a tourist instead of a would-be conqueror, he would have had a great visit and great memories, instead of just the time of his life.

  

 

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The Galapagos Islands: A Natural Selection for Divers

 

The Galapagos Islands
A Natural Selection for Divers

  

There are thousands of islands around the world where fish are plentiful, birds fill the trees, and volcanoes are still active, but there is only one group of islands that has changed so profoundly the way we think about evolution of animal species; including how we even now view ourselves. In 1835, while on a five-year voyage, a young geologist/naturalist by the name of Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands and collected various endemic plants, animals, and geological rock samples. Because the endemic giant tortoises looked like saddles, the Spanish named the islands in 1570 after the tortoises: “Insulae de los Galopegos”. The local acting governor, Nicholas Lawson, told Darwin how tortoise populations looked different on each island, but it wasn’t until the home voyage that Darwin pieced together that some of the collected species of birds were actually just different species of finches that had radiated out with specialized beak shapes, sizes, and lengths to fill separate niches on distinct islands in the Galapagos archipelago. Unfortunately, the exact island where each finch was caught was not recorded at the time of capture, but it’s been all sorted out since then.

  

There are 18 main islands and some 100 plus rocks, islets, and minor islands that make up the Galapagos Islands. Volcanoes sprout above the surface on the west end of the Nazca Plate and form islands, and like a conveyor belt they are moved eastward with time until they slowly sink beneath the waves in a never-ending process of final seduction; for at least the last 90 million years. So, you have young tall volcanoes/ islands on the west side, and older eroded volcanoes/islands on the east side. Since the Galapagos Island are part of Ecuador, we will rely on their Spanish names for the most part, but some English names remain from the inked on English made maps before Darwin’s voyage.

 

Six volcanoes make up one of the newest and largest islands being formed called Isabela; it is 1,707m (5,600ft) tall at the top of Wolf Volcano. Española on the east-side is over 3.5 million years old. The age, height, and placement of the islands effects the type of animals, and birds willing to make each particular island their home, and also effects the local sea life as well. You can see these variations and preferred habitats played out over and over again as you discover for yourself. So just like Darwin you have a chance to see the waved albatross colony on Punta Espinosa, the pink flamingos on Floreana or in Flamingo Lagoon on Santa Cruz, the nocturnal species of swallow-tailed gulls on Genovesa, the vampire finch of Wolf Island (drinks blood from other birds), or one of the many colonies of the flightless cormorants or the Galapagos penguin; the only penguin found north of the equator. Oh, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the red-footed, blue-footed, and two-footed Nazca Boobies.

 

For divers, this is a bucket list destination but the wonder of these islands runs naturally much deeper. With 28 species of sharks and over 400 species of fish and with 17% of them found no where else in the world such as the red-lipped bat fish, Galapagos clingfish, Galapagos grunt, and Galapagos garden eel. This makes these islands a must dive literal hot spot; over 62 dive sites to be exact. New divers or divers seeking less strenuous diving activities can enjoy the inner circle islands where you will see Galapagos seals, and marine iguanas, and most other species of birds and fish, but advanced divers who don’t mind strong currents, downdrafts, and general drift diving, the outer islands are the place to view whale sharks and larger schools of passing hammerhead sharks.

  

For those that remain land based, which gives you more time to do land excursions as well as scuba dive the inner circle of islands, Cabo Douglas off Fernandina Island is a good spot to see flightless cormorants, sea lions, and penguins zip by in the water next to you while marine iguanas eat algae. Bartholomew Point off Bartholomew Island is another good spot to view swimming penguins and sea lions. Cousins Rock off Santiago Island is a great place to do wall dives and view sea lions, Pitt Point off San Cristobal Island is good place to see schools of fish, grunts, and diving boobies; San Cristobal is also the home of the new dive called the Cave which is home to lobsters, a turtle or two, and passing tunas and rays. Gordon Rocks, also called the “Washing Machine”, an advanced dive, is known for a wide array of sharks and rays. Seymour Channel is known for its turtles, cleaning stations, and garden eels. Daphne Major has walls, caves, and WWII bombing practice artifacts. Camano Islet off Santa Cruz Island is known for grouper, batfish, and seahorses. An absolute must see is the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz for more understanding of his discoveries, native flora and fauna, land iguanas and meet the long living giant tortoises.

  

For those that want to dive the majority of the previously mentioned dive sites, plus desire a chance to see large pelagics you’ll need a liveaboard vessel to take you out to these most distance destinations, which incidentally traveling this way puts Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle to shame, and you usually wake up at these sites after an all-night voyage. Some of the best dive sites out here include: at Darwin Island, the arch, the sands, and at Wolf Island you will see large pelagics in addition to local fish at the landslide, roca elefante, and shark bay. June through November is the best time to see the whale sharks out here. The rest of the year expect to see mantas, rays, sea lions,scalloped hammerheads, silky, and Galapagos sharks. Diving to these remote locations aboard liveaboards means no shore time but you will get multiple  and unforgettable dives.

  

As for when to visit these islands? The warm or hot and rainy season is December to May-June and this is when the seas are calmer and you can wear a 5ml wetsuit. At this time of year, you might even see a few snorkelers around the inner circle of island shoreline wearing 3ml shorties. Hammerhead sharks are in great abundance during this time period. From June to November the water is colder as it pushes up from the coast of south America and requires a 7ml suit and hood or dry suit. The plankton blooms can lower the visibility in the water varying from 15-30 meters (45-90 ft), but the plankton also brings in the whale sharks and other numerous species . These two seasons may vary due to the El Niño effect. June, July, and August are the busiest season. Many who want the full Galapagos Island experience will spend time both land based on the islands as well take a liveaboard trip. Expect the local species to not be afraid of humans allowing you to get close to certain species than ever thought possible. Expect to also spend a night or two in Quito or Guayaquil on the Ecuador mainland when traveling to the Galapagos Islands. Also, expect to be very impressed by the Galapagos Islands but you will not have to endure the controversy or suggestions of heresy that surrounded Darwin’s life after the voyage.

  

It’s been almost 150 years ago since Darwin published the theory that all species evolve by the basic process of natural selection. No matter what your personal beliefs are, we believe that as humans, we have little choice but to evolve in our awareness of the world’s species so that we can protect them and share them with our own future generations; and traveling around the planet to encounter, face to face, unique, rare, and/or exotic sea creatures is one of many aspects that defines us as true divers and/also world explorers.

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Tobago. The Less Known Dive Vacation Island

Tobago

Drifting Along with Macros and Pelagics

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From the smallest seahorse to an abundance of majestic sized mantas to gigantic groupers to perhaps the world’s largest brain coral, Tobago has something to offer just about every diver. It’s not always this black and white when you are talking about a dive destination. That is unless you are talking about Tobago’s black sand beaches being on the Atlantic side of the island and the white sand beaches on the Caribbean side, but Tobago has lots of macro sea life to view as well as an unusual abundance of pelagic life. The reason for the great quantities of reef and pelagic life is because of the out flow of nutrients from the nearby Orinoco River in Venezuela, South America which feeds the plankton who in turn feed the small fish and this process works its way up the food chain at an amazing exponential rate. This doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to see a whale shark or school of 30 scalloped hammerhead sharks on your visit, but it does increase your chances of filling up your camera and video cards with lots of awesome images and memories.

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Before you get ready to jump off the dive boat, we should probably give you some background information about Tobago and mention what you might want to see and where you might like to dive first. Tobago is the small sister island in The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It is approximately 40km (25 miles) long and 10km (6.2 miles) wide. It’s where many from Trinidad come to take a leisure vacation as it is only 35km (22 miles) away; a twenty minute flight. We should mention that Tobago is only 80km (50 miles) from South America. In fact, most of the flora and fauna is identical to what you would expect to find in South America as a land bridge connected this region during the end of the last ice age.

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The Arawak were the first to inhabit the island and they were later replaced by the Caribs. Columbus discovered Tobago on his third voyage and soon afterwards, in what seemed at the time like an endless rotating order, the Caribs were replaced by the French, English, Dutch, Spanish, and finally by Africans and East Indian descendants. You might say Tobago has changed hands more than any other island in the Caribbean, and yet somehow, it remarkably retained one of the oldest forest reserves in the western hemisphere starting in 1776. The Main Ridge Reserve is 550m (1804 ft) high at Pigeon Point Peak near the village of Speyside. If you want to visit this protected forest and view the beautiful water falls you’ll have to hire an official Tobagonian guide. Tobago also has some small islands off its coast that have become bird havens or sanctuaries. The south end of Tobago is low lying and is home to the Robinson International Airport (TAB). You can fly nonstop into Tobago, or go “directly” through Trinidad, or you can even take the ferry service which runs from Port of Spain, Trinidad and takes 2.5 hours to reach Crown Point, Tobago.

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Back to diving that will excite beginners to the most experienced, 4km (2.5 miles) south of the airport are the sites of some of the most well-known drift dives near the island, and when it comes to drift dives, the name Flying Reef pretty much says it all. Here you can drift by at 0-2 knots down to 17m (58ft) of depth over the coral and past a ship’s anchor as you keep a look out for stingrays, turtles, schools of fish, nurse sharks, and passing pelagics. This dive site goes right into Sting Ray Alley where guitarfish, electric rays and more nurse sharks are usually spotted.  Nearby Divers Dream is the site with overhangs for nurse sharks to the left, and a rock garden full of fish for those that dive to the right. Nearby Divers Thirst is where black tips, bull sharks and tiger sharks are spotted.

Mt Irvine Wall with is another dive destination where one dive site leads to another or is nearby.  The Wall is where you may find lobsters, crab, shrimps, and sea horses, but over at the Mt Irvine Extension is where the grouper, eagle rays tarpon, cobia, and hawksbill turtles like to hang out. Rainbow Reef in the middle of the bay goes down to 21m (70ft) and is named for the rainbow runners that like to hang out around a 17th century fishing anchor.

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For specific fish destinations we recommend Arnos Vale, max 14m 45ft depth, which is a rock crevice nursery for all kinds of fish and is a great place for beginner divers as well as for night dives. Kelliston Drain near Goat Island and not far from Speyside, is home of the world’s largest brain coral at over 3m (10ft) high and 5.3m (16ft) wide; while not every diver is amazed by these measurements, at least the large number mantas who pass by here are impressed. The nearby Sisters are a group of five pinnacles that rise up from the deep and this is where you have a great chance to see scalloped hammer heads, especially during October to May, and whale sharks whenever they feel like it. Also close by is Japanese Gardens near Goat Island and it gets its name from all the soft corals, sea whips, and barrel sponges. This dive site flows right into the rock corridor named Kamikaze Cut. London Bridge is another popular spot when currents permit, and where water pushes you between two hard rock surfaces and empties you out into a 15m (45ft) deep area of sand. You’ll see where it got its name from before you even get close to the exposed topside rock formation. It’s a great spot to view black surgeonfish, trumpet fish, and trunk fish. Some of the more unique fish you may find around the island include: cherub angelfish, flame angelfish, angle sharks like the sand devil, and giraffe garden eels. As for wreck dives, the M.V. Maverick, 107m (350ft) long passenger and car ferry that was cleaned and opened up and made safety ready for divers before being sunk on purpose in 1997, has plenty of coral and animal life including: crabs, clams, schools of bonito and bait fish, turtles, and eagle rays.

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Now for adventurous divers and weather permitting, there is practically untouched diving 32-64km (20-40 miles) away at the off shore reefs. Plus, there is the wreck of the S.S. Kioto, which was sunk Sept 15, 1942 by U-boat 514. After three torpedoes, it finally sunk in 12m (40ft) of water and the scattered debris are still visible.

As you can see, Tobago is a small island, but there are more than 40 dive sites to choose from. There is also bicycling, birding, exploring the old sugar mills and plantations, visiting the 1770 Fort George, or checking out the beaches in April-July to view the leatherback turtles nesting. We didn’t even have time to point out all the beaches, but Tobago is where Disney filmed Swiss Family Robinson in 1958, so you already know that the beaches are Disney approved; even the Pirate’s Beach. There is a lot to experience, so you might not be able to fit everything in on one vacation trip, but the steel drum music bands are always playing something good, the crab and dumplings “Creole style” are simmering in the pot, and to make Tobago’s sunsets complete, the island just needs you.

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Belize and Un-Belizable Diving and Adventure!

Belize and Un-Belizable Diving and Adventure!

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Who would have thought that you have to go to Central America to a small English speaking country to truly encounter the second largest Great Barrier Reef in the world? There are three atolls off shore to dive and explore, Turneffe Atoll, Lighthouse Reef, and Glover’s Reef, and the sea life ranges from Manatees up north from Dangriga to Ambergris Caye to whale sharks down south near Placencia. Belize is also the least densely populated country in Central America. The local population consists of Mennonites, Mestizos, Mayans, English, Spanish, Caribbean, African, and many others of multiethnic descent. It’s a beautiful blended cuisine and culture country with Mexico right above it, Guatemala to the west and south, and wondrous diverse waters with some 200 plus territorial islands and cayes to the east.

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Starting at the most northeastern end of the country we find ourselves captivated with Ambergris Caye. By boat from the mainland it is a short ride the main Ambergris Caye town of San Pedro. The majority of resort hotels in Belize surround San Pedro so if you are in to nightlife, this is the hot spot of the country. From San Pedro it is a short five mile boat ride to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark-Sting Ray Alley. The aquatic creatures are abundant here and you don’t have to dive deep to discover reefs lush with life and protected by rangers for a small $10 park fee. There are many other dive sites along Ambergris Caye’s coastline and you could spend a week here, but there are some other must see dive sites to visit before you leave the country and at least one is world famous.

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South east from Ambergris or right across from Belize City on the edge of the Caribbean Sea is Turneffe Atoll the largest atoll off of Belize and here you can stay and play and dive around shallow reefs, caves, walls, and view large pelagics at The Elbow and Pelican Wall or visit a pod of dolphins in the middle of South Lagoon. You can go kayaking around mangrove swamps, or comb Lindsey’s Back Porch or The Terrace for a glimpse of the rare white spotted toadfish. You could easily spend a week here, but for now, we have to move on.

Once a week, weather depending, day trips from several dive shops or dive resorts will take you to Lighthouse Reef. You can dive Half Moon Caye Wall and The Aquarium, with lunch on shore next to a red-footed boobie sanctuary, or you could come out here for a full day trip to The Great Blue Hole. Blue Hole was made world famous when Cousteau came here in the 1970’s and dynamited a path through the reef so he could get his ship the Calypso inside to measure accurately the 407ft (124m) of depth near the center of the hole. While this was not a particularly friendly to any environmentalist, he did map the 984ft (300m) wide blue hole, the 20ft (6.1m) long stalactites and stalagmites down at 130ft (40m), and the caves at the western end down at 230ft (70.1m).

Glover’s Reef is the smallest atoll and can easily be reached from Dangriga, Hopkins or Placencia.  Both Dangriga and Hopkins are Garifuna settlements, so expect the food, the culture, the locals, and especially the music to be a unique African/Caribbean treat in these more southerly visited regions. For more boutique style, yet equally impressive diving you can take either half day of whole day dive trips out to Glover’s Reef. Some of the dive sites out here include: Long Caye Wall (corals and mantas seen here), The Aquarium (yes another one, but with dolphins and turtles), Manta Wall (known for swim throughs), Pinnacles (corals, sponges, and pelagics) and Off the Wall (dive at 25ft (7.6m) to 6,000ft (1.8km). You could easily spend a week diving out here, but wait, there is more!

Off of Placencia from March through June whale sharks come in to feed off the spawn of pelagic species and Gladdin Spit is the destination for many a boat/charter operator. From June to August you can view female turtles coming to shore to lay their eggs. As for the rest of the year local dive sites and cayes include: night dives at Laughing Bird Caye, Silk or Queen Cayes, North Wall, White Hole, Turtle Canyons, Pompion Caye, Long Reef, The Wreck, and Shark Hole to name a few.  We had to shorten the list and stop here because we haven’t even mentioned any of the land attractions that have made Belize so famous.

Sure, they have a spectacular national zoo with all the local suspects, but even more than this, they have the only national jaguar preserve in the world: Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary & Jaguar Preserve. They also have Pumas, Ocelots, Jaguarundi, and Margay; plus some 300 other species of wildlife. The preserve is between Hopkins and Placencia and day hikes or overnight limited stays in cabins are available. There are also nearby river rafting tours available. For something a little more out of mainstream, you can enter Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. The ATM cave has deposits of human remains such as the “Crystal Maiden” and sacrificial artifacts left by Mayans from AD 300-900.

Speaking of Mayans, they absolutely ruined Belize by placing temples and other structures all around the country. Xunantunich is a classic period ceremonial center, Altun Ha has the large jade head and lots of wildlife, Caraco is the largest known Maya center, Cahal Pech has 34 structures and two ball courts (you don’t want to know what happened if you were on the losing team), Santa Rita in northern Belize dates back 2000 years, Lamanai has over 719 mapped structures, Cerro Maya was a coastal trading center, the Barton Creek Cave has many Mayan artifacts and was used for Mayan rituals, Nim Li Punit is small, but has the largest Mayan carvings, and Lubaantun is constructed southern Mayan style without mortar.

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So there you go more biodiversity, outdoor activities, architectural wonders, and more diving than you could see or do in several trips and all this is rolled inside the borders of one of the smallest countries in Central America. Here you get the great Blue Hole, the second largest reef in the world, three atolls, hundreds of cayes and islands, local cultures, historical remains of an advanced ancient civilization, jungles, multiple wildlife species, extensive flora and cuisines that are blended from around the world or go back thousands of years. Come visit soon and find out all of this for yourself, as some things are just too naturally incredible, absolutely amazing,  and just too historically magnificent to ever make up; Belize it or not!

 

 

 

 

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Thailand’s Amazing Andaman Sea

Thailand’s Amazing Andaman Sea

  

You probably already have a good idea what Thailand is like. You may not know it, but over eighty films have been shot in Thailand, so if you’ve seen The Man with the Golden Gun, a James Bond film, you’ve seen parts of Bangkok. In The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio you see Maya Beach and parts of Phuket. In Star Wars: Episode III, the Krabi Province turns into the Wookiee home world. The scenic background list goes on for Blackbeard, Cutthroat Island, Heaven and Earth, The King and I, and The Bridge over the River Kwai, to name a few. To add to what you’ve already discovered visually about Thailand, we would also like to mention a few local reference points of interest of our own before we mention where and what to see while diving the waters of this ancient and exotic country.

  

Thailand is a land of natural beauty mixed with captivating ancient ruins and artfully decorated temples. It’s a land of some of the friendliest people that you will ever meet. People have inhabited this area of the world for over forty thousand years with a considerable amount of early on influence from India. The Kingdom was named Siam until it was changed in 1939 to Thailand. The main language is Thai which is closely related to Lao, and the government also recognizes 62 other regional languages. They use an official Buddhist Era calendar that is ahead of the western Gregorian calendar by 543 years, so the year 2017 AD is 2560 BE. Thailand is also the land of five thousand types of rice and almost just as many types of sauces that seem to accompany each unique entrées or particular set of appetizers. There are also many mesmerizing sights to see in the city of Bangkok that you may be forced by curiosity to spend a few days in the city before taking another flight, bus, or train, out to one of the coastal towns where your real dive adventure awaits, but because there are so many islands, and so many dive sites to choose from, we thought that we would break it all down from north to south in order to help you figure out where you might want to go diving first.

We’ll start off with the Similan Islands which are about 65km (40 miles) off shore of Khao Lak and 100km (62 miles) north of Phuket, so they are easily assessable from both directions. These nine granite islands have over 25 dive sites and the west side has easy diving for new divers, plus you’ll find swim throughs, tunnels, boulders, and arches. You’ll encounter leopard sharks, turtles, and a plethora of fish. Donald Duck Bay is a great spot for macro diving and night dives. East of Eden has peacock groupers, Elephant Head Rock is where olive Ridley’s and Hawksbill turtles and the rare McCosker’s dwarf wrasse hang out. Green turtles are at North Point, and keep your eyes open for Orangespine unicorn fish at Hideaway. Stonehenge is great for soft corals and clownfish. White tip sharks, Napoleon wrasse, ribbon eels, and occasionally mantas, can be spotted at Christmas Point. Don’t let all these exotic Thai sounding dive site names distract you, if there is a certain fish or site you want to see, just ask your local dive master for more information.

  

Moving up North you will need a more than a four-day charter operator to visit many of the more northern dive destinations, especially if you are starting out of Phuket. Shorter trips can be arranged out of Khao Lak. Koh Bon is another hour north of the Similan Islands and is known for wall, pinnacle, and night diving. Octopus and small invertebrates like the small cove, meanwhile mantas like to hang out for the plankton and underwater cameras. Nearby Koh Tachai has strong currents, swim throughs through the boulders, and is known as one of the sites to see whale sharks, nurse sharks, and leopard sharks. 68km (42 miles) north of the Similan islands we come to the remote and less visited Surin Islands.  This area has the greatest hard coral diversity in Thailand. There are lots of schooling bumphead wrasse and Spanish mackerel passing by in this national marine park. Gray sharks, eagle rays, and shovel nose rays are also spotted here as well as ribbon eels, pipefish, Andaman sweetlips, rabbitfish, and cowrie shells. The forest of Surin Island is home to crab eating macaques, flying foxes, flying lemurs, deer, hornbills, seahawks, and kingfishers; so, the view can be both spectacular simultaneously above and below water. We should mention that 15km (9 miles) east of here is where Jacque Cousteau filmed the mantas and whale sharks that made Richelieu Rock world famous. Lastly, some operators go all the way up to Burma Banks and the Mergui Archipelago. Technically, up here, you are diving off of Myanmar’s reefs, which are seldom if ever visited by throngs of other divers. The Burma Banks rise 15m (49ft) near the surface then dip down some 300 meters. You can drift dive with mantas, white tips, silver tips, and whale sharks, or hang out with nurse sharks, frogfish, crab, shrimp, and lobsters.  Before we leave the north end, we should mention that if you like wrecks, the tin processor Bunsoong and the teak Sea Chart 1 wreck are near Khao Lak, and the Premchai tin dredger wreck is just a short distance south.

For central dive sites that are in easy reach of Phuket, Krabi, Khao Lok, or Ao Nang Beach, one of the most popular diving areas is the Phi Phi Islands, which are part of the Mu koh Phi Phi National Marine Park. There are over 15 dive sites around the two islands. Loh Samah Bay on the southern island of Phi Phi Lay is a popular spot to train new divers and do a night dive.   Wall Maya is right outside of the famous Maya Bay where snorkeling and hanging out on the beach are a must do activity. The 47m (154ft) long HTMS Kledkeao Thai Navy transport ship was sunk between Phi Phi Lay Bay and Viking Bay in 2014. Hin Dot “Chimney Rock” is on the south side of Phi Phi Don. There are lots of caves and caverns to explore on both islands as well. An all-day excursion that typically includes three dives in one day is a trip over to the 85m (279ft) long King Cruiser; a Japanese car ferry, followed by a dive over at nearby Shark Point (Guess what you might see here) and then on to Anenome Reef, where Nemo and at least four other species of Clown fish like to hang out. Racha Yai and Racha Noi are just south of Phuket. After the tsunami in 2004 they placed two elephant statues, a clam, and an arch underwater in Siam Bay off Racha Yai island. The south side of Racha Noi is known for large pelagics, mantas, and occasional whale sharks. South of the Phi Phi islands are the two split rocks of Koh Bida Noi and Koh Bida Nok with boulders, swim throughs, caverns and overhangs. Garang Heng is a submerged reef east of Phi Phi Lay and bursting with soft corals, fish, and leopard sharks. Over by Ao Nang Beach are seven other islands frequented by divers, the most popular being Koh Yawabon for its’ long swim through, and G.K. Island for its’ sea horses. There are other submerged reefs and pinnacles to visit over here. There are also untold beaches, shore, and pier dives to do in the central area of the Andaman Sea.

  

Moving on to the southern Andaman Sea you can choose dive operations from Phuket, Krabi, Koh Lanta, and Satun to name a few places. Koh Ha is an island group of five rocks that barely break the surface, but below are home to swim throughs, caverns, drop offs, chimneys, pinnacles, and caves off of Koh Ha Yai where you can come up inside an air pocket to gaze at stalactites. Koh Rok is comprised of two islands with white sand beaches, steep cliffs, and soft corals galore. Moving on to the Mu Koh Lanta National Marine Park we find two islands. Hin Mueng is called the “Purple Rock” because of the predominant color of soft corals and is home to the areas 60m (196ft) long vertical wall dive. Hin Daeng “red rock” is known as one of the top three spots for sighting whale sharks. South of here we come to the Tarutao Marine Park with more than 30 islands to choose from. Koh Lipe has some local dive sites, as well as being one of the starting points for excursions out to 8 Mile Rock to see pelagics, diving sites such as Stone Henge, 6 Mile Rock, and 7 Rocks, or perhaps local dive spots of the big islands of Koh Adang and Koh Rawi ; these dive sites are actually in the Adang Archipelago and the Satun Sea. There are a few more southern islands to dive, but you would be diving in Malaysia if you went any further south, as well as on your way through the Malacca Strait separating Malaysia from Indonesia.

   

As you can see, diving all the sites in Thailand’s Andaman Sea in one trip would be like visiting all 50 United States in one week long trip. Dive liveaboards are the best way to experience the best dive sites that Thailand has to offer. You can separate the excursions out by starting your dives from a northern point and then planning to visit the southern sites from a southern starting point. You can do a couple of longer multiple day charters from Phuket with at least one charter going north and a separate charter going south to give you some of the highlights of the most popular dive sites. But you will still have to return again and again, especially once you have met the Thai people and become enchanted by their culture, lifestyle, and friendliness; plus witnessed firsthand the exquisite and unique natural bounty of local ocean life, and have become captivated by the spectacular natural beauty of the temples, islands, rocks, pinnacles, reefs, and isolated beaches.

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Cayman Brac – The Adventure and Tranquility Island

Cayman Brac

Divers, Hikers, Bikers, and Cliff Hangers

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Cayman Brac is an island barely 19km (12 miles) long and 2km (2 miles) wide and is situated 8km (5 miles) east of Little Cayman and 145km (90 miles) northeast of Grand Cayman. This small island that is sea level on the southwest end has a limestone outcrop “the Bluff” that rises some 43m (141 ft) on the northeast end. There are some sandy beaches in front of some hotels and resorts, but for the most part, the less frequented beaches require good walking shoes to traverse. Good shoes are recommended to hike on the trails that take you past the 180 acre parrot sanctuary; mornings and evenings are the best time to see the parrots in flight. The shoes will help climb the stairs and walk inside various caves where pirates once hid their booty, and along the lighthouse path to view the birds such as frigates and brown boobies nesting on the cliff sides. Brown boobies are easy to identify, just look at their chest. A horizontal straight line separates their chest region from their absolutely white underbelly. Their lightly yellow colored beak and feet tend to get over looked. Good shoes may also come in handy if you plan on cycling around the island, renting mopeds, rock climbing, or hanging over the sides of cliffs too.

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Diving is a must for this small island as here you will find walls, sand chutes, tunnels, and caverns to explore much like one would expect to find on Grand Cayman, plus Cayman Brac is home to at least four wrecks including the 330ft long 42ft wide M/V Capt. Keith Tibbetts which was formerly a Russian Brigadier Class frigate #356. It was sunk in 1996, sitting straight up in about 27m (89ft) of water, but mover nature tried to rip off the from end and eventually tilted the front of the ship over at a 45º angle, and the middle section was torn up and scattered. The aft section still sits straight up. It rests 200m (660ft) from shore, and you may see people snorkel out to the wreck, but it is easier to save time and energy by diving the wreck from a boat. Some 24 of the 46 dive sites around the island can be reached as shore dives, and many of the diving areas are great for snorklers too.  Over the last 20 years, The M/V Tibbetts has turned into an artificial reef and is home to hundreds of different forms of fish and invertebrates.

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If colorful corals, tube sponges, soft corals, nurse sharks, reef sharks, sea turtles, tarpon, goliath groupers, stingrays, lobsters, octopus, and green moray eels are what you want to see, photograph or video, then Cayman Brac has got you covered. One of their most popular dive sites is East Chute. This is really a two for one dive site as you can descend past the eel gardens down the wall through semi-closed tunnels down to 90ft and look for life on the wall as well as pelagics off the wall and then come up the east chute to the 65ft long Mariner wreck in 45ft of depth for a little macro photography. The Gilembo dive site is reported by an honest fisherman friend to have a “super male” 5ft long rainbow parrotfish. Treehouse Reef is noted for its two pinnacles and sandy bowl, Treasure Trove is known for its staghorn, elkhorn, and sponges, Bert Brothers Boulders also has large elkhorn coral heads on top of grooves and ridges with soft corals and sponges in the gullies. Wilderness Wall  is known for rope vase and tube sponges, snapper, and angelfish,.

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Now, Radar Reef used to be the place to go to do a night dive to find shrimp, arrow crabs, lobster, and tarpon next to the Jetty at Stake Bay, but the local artist named “Foot” built the Archway to Atlantis, the Elder Way (statues with local faces), and the Circle of Light and the area became renamed as Atlantis. of course a hurricane came through and had to mess things up a little, but it is still a very surreal or dream like site.

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Oh, the other wrecks are the 60ft long Kissimmee tug boat that lays upside down in the sand and Prince Federick’s Wreck, a schooner, that sunk in the 1800’s. Most of the wood has been eaten away, but parts of a mast, anchor chains,  four anchors, and boilers are still 20-40ft underneath two hundred years of coral growth.

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We should mention, that because Little Cayman Island is a mere 5 miles away, dive trips over to Bloody Bay Wall can also be arranged (weather permitting), but book in advance!

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Back to land activities, bring your dive light along if you want to explore the caves. Skull Cave or Half Ground Cave has Jamaican fruit bats that you can see if you shine your light overhead. Peter’s Cave has a nice view of the town and was once the gathering point of the islanders during the 1932 hurricane. You can learn more about this catastrophe by visiting the oldest museum of the Cayman Islands, the Cayman Brac museum in Stakes Bay. There are some 2100 residents on the island and there is also a hospital and chamber. There are small grocery stores, 16 restaurants on the island offering a variety of local Caribbean and international cuisine as well as mandatory after dive or activities libations. So if you plan to explore by cycle, moped, car or on foot, the roads are pretty much yours. The beaches and hiking trails are pretty much yours too. You may have the urge to go deep sea fishing or rock climbing or you may want to hang from ropes over a cliff or during lobster season go catch a lobster as no license is required but one thing is certain, you will quickly adapt to waving back to the locals. For such a small friendly island there is lots to do at your pace, but here, among all the activities, diving is a must; formality not so much.

 

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Little Cayman’s Big Time Diving

Little Cayman’s Big Time Diving

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If you are looking for a dive destination that even Phillipe Cousteau considered one of the top three dive destinations in the world, yet it is still not inundated with tourist galore, then you can’t find a bigger island with more magnificent and mesmerizing dive sites than the island simply known as Little Cayman.

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The island population has exploded since the early nineteen eighties and now there are close to 170 some people living on the island, and although you might think this number is a lot, it is nothing compared to the two thousand rock iguanas living on the island which have the right of way around the island. Now take the total number of locals and all the tourists and this total will still be so small that the vast majority of red footed boobies are unaware that humans are even on Little Cayman. We’re not exactly sure how an ornithologist arrived at 5,000 pairs of red footed boobies.  This round number makes us wonder, did they just stop counting when they reached this number and then head for the reef where the hawksbill turtles like to hang out? We may never know the answer, but if you are like most “Birders” we had you at “red footed” and most photographers will agree that there is nothing more picturesque than a pair of boobies posing for a camera. Of course, we almost sincerely apologize for this blatant misuse of fowl humor.

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On the more serious side, the Cayman Islands are actually a collection of three separate instances where the peaks of the Cayman ridge broke through the Caribbean Sea’s surface. Little Cayman tops the surface by a mere 40ft (12m). On the north side of this ridge lays the Yucatan Basin and on the south side is the Cayman Trench. Little Cayman is approximately 80 miles (129km) east of Grand Cayman and 5 miles (8km) from Cayman Brac. Little Cayman is directly south of Miami with a little plane hop over or around Cuba, but typically, flights to Little Cayman arrive several times a day direct or non-stop via Grand Cayman.

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Southeast of Little Cayman is Jamaica which tends to shield the Caymans from most hurricanes. Around these three exposed island peaks are fringing reefs, coral heads, sand plains that over time deposit vast amounts of sand down chutes that form between finger shaped coral canyons and ridges. Around, between, and hidden by the coral outcroppings you may encounter pinnacles, arches, tunnels, chimneys, mini-walls, caves, and eventually walls that descend downward into the deep blue.

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Back to the area which makes Little Cayman such a famous place to dive we have to go to Bloody Bay on the slightly northwest side of the island. The wall starts at a mere 18ft (6m) of depth, but it is such a long shallow swim from shore before you reach the edge of the wall that may descend eventually down to 3,000ft+ (1,000m) and this is why some 99% of all local diving is facilitated by boat. To visit some 76 different local dive sites is quite an undertaking and since most visits are from Saturday to Saturday on Little Cayman you might as well plan a second trip or extend your first excursion.

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There are some 24 dive sites on Bloody Bay and the adjacent Jackson Bay, but the favorite dive site of all for divers, underwater photographers, videographers  and instructors alike has to be Mixing Bowl; aka (Three Fathoms). If you are facing Three Fathom Wall on the left side of the wall is a sand chute that descends down to 110ft (34m). A short distance more is a coral arch and to the left of a flat coral head is a cave that leads to a second canyon. To the right of Three fathom wall  is Marylyn’s Cut which is where a large mushroom topped pinnacle is cut from the surrounding wall and goes down to 80ft (24m). Just to the right of the pinnacle is a cave where light filters in the open roof area and air bubbles filter out. Randy’s Gazebo is similar to Mixing Bowl with structural features on both sides of the wall, but on a smaller scale so you can explore this site on a single dive.

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Besides the rock formations, there are myriads of yellow and red tube sponges, elephant ears, gorgonians, invertebrates of all sizes and types, schools of reef fish such as grunts and snappers, barracuda, sharks, rays and Nassau groupers. Grouper are found off Little Cayman in great abundance because of the long standing designated grouper spawning areas off both the west and east end of the island. Although, how they get the grouper to adhere to these specific courtship coordinates is beyond the scope of this article.

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Now if you are into wreck dives several dive charters cross the short distance over to Cayman Brac, weather permitting, to spend a few dives visiting the 300ft + (91m) long former Russian Destroyer Keith Tibbetts. This dive descends down to 97ft (30m) and recently the Tibbetts broke into two pieces making it easy to investigate the engine and control rooms.

In addition to scuba diving, you can jog, bicycle around the island, go birding, or go kayaking, but the biggest non-diving sport on the island has to be blue water fishing. Little Cayman is well known for its mahi mahi, tuna, marlin, wahoo, and sailfish, and has been a sportsman’s dream out here since the 1980’s.

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So now you know that Little Cayman is a secluded uncrowded island with world class diving, lots of iguanas, and tons of birds including thousands of pairs of red footed boobies. The island may be only 10 miles (16km) long, a little over a mile (2km) wide, and just above sea level, but if you think you can see it all in one week, then think again . . . or better yet, plan on staying longer or coming back again, but whatever you decide, we know you are going to enjoy your small island dive adventure experience in a very big and memorable way.

 

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