Lauadi, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea
They were coming at me like a gaudy gang pectoral fins spread wide, dorsals up all frilly and lovely and delicate and dangerous. Everywhere else I'd encountered lionfish they'd turned and hidden themselves among the shadows. Here, against a volcanic black-sand seascape, about 20 lionfish were all coming at me, like 20 aggressive, pretty ribbons on the hunt. I'd been pushed out of my envelope of underwater Zen by overzealous oceanic whitetips, bull sea lions, sea snakes, down currents, leaky drysuits and box jellyfish. But being chased by a pack of fist-size lionfish made me feel like I'd descended into an episode of "The Twilight Zone."
I had returned to this site called Lauadi for the third straight day. A quiet sweep of black sand fringed by palm trees marked the site topside, with an unexpected heaven below. I'd spent the past days exploring three small coral heads in 25 feet of water, moving as slowly and purposefully as possible. Every stringy piece of weed I focused on would blink. On leaves and palm trunks, critters lay in hiding, blending and hunting in a world so incomprehensively small. The coral heads were kingdoms quartering ornate ghost pipefish perfectly blended within the arms of crinoids, bizarre and beautiful pipefish, strange octopuses, parades of nudibranchs, emperor shrimp, whitecap shrimp gobies, cockatoo waspfish, bright-orange mantis shrimp and even Pegasus sea moths.
When my dive buddy found an octopus, we devoted the next hour to gradually gaining its trust until it came out of its lair. It spread its legs over the small chuck of coral it called home. Then, in a truly amazing moment, the octopus slipped off over the sand. I'd swear it beckoned us to follow which we did. It led us to other coral heads, down the slope of black sand to about 120 feet. Each coral head erupted from the sand like an out-of-control metropolis of movement. The octopus would pause. We'd look over the scene, then it would move off and we'd follow again until our tanks began to wheeze as the last molecules of air rattled around in them. In a sad moment, we said goodbye and ascended. The octopus followed, then slipped under a rock to watch us go.
On the boat, the warm equatorial sun quickly seeping into our bones, we quietly smiled as we swapped tanks to climb in for an encore. I secretly wished we could dive here for the rest of our trip. Ty Sawyer
Palancar Caves, Cozumel, Mexico
I'm hypnotized. Staring into the transparent turquoise water while awaiting my turn to giant-stride off Scuba Club Cozumel's Scuba II, I catch myself in a momentary daze.
Moments later, I drift lazily through the Mexican Caribbean's 80-degree water with visibility so crystal-clear, it might as well be chlorinated. I'm descending upon Palancar Caves one of four sites that make up the larger Palancar Reef, which stretches for three miles, and in many areas, exceeds recreational diving limits off Cozumel. I'm not exactly what you would call a cave-diving type of gal, so I am pleasantly surprised to discover the site's name is misleading. While it hosts a plethora of swim-throughs, arches and overhangs, this site's so-called caves are really more like cavernous, sloping passages filled with intricate formations of hanging corals and protruding sponges.
Armed with a flashlight, I venture through a winding cavern, illuminating the vibrant colors thriving on all four sides. I'm taken aback by this camouflaged marine maze that shelters such an array of diverse life from yellow, red and brown tube sponges and sheet coral to resident wrasse and butterflyfish revealed only to those lucky enough to stumble across it. Not a bad place to hide, and an even better place to explore.
The intact structural diversity and plentiful sea life of Palancar Caves like the majority of Cozumel's sites are due in large part to the site's location off the western shore, where it's protected against the harsh currents that pound the eastern coast.
The sheer magnitude of this reef ecosystem comes full circle at 105 feet, when I peer up the wall in visibility exceeding 100 feet and completely lose myself in the magnificence of this monstrous rainbow mountain.
I sit motionless, mesmerized, in awe, until PADI Divemaster Alberto Zetina shoots me the shaka aka the "hang loose" sign and breaks me from my trance.
He's correct, but this dive is better than just "all right."
Palancar Caves is a world all its own, where you can easily be caught drifting.
Siaes Tunnel, Palau
Anywhere else in the world, a dive this good would not get lost in the crowd. But Palau is not anywhere else in the world. And with an underwater cavern as big as Siaes Tunnel, lost is relative anyway. The main thing that has kept this exhilarating dive at the edge of Palau's main circuit has always been the bottom of the cavern, which slips off from 140 feet not a place for novice divers. So, get some PADI Advanced Open Water and Deep Diver training before you make this trip, because you're not going to want to miss this.
The dive begins in about a millimeter of water at the top edge of a sheer wall, which rises just above the surface and drops straight down. You won't be able to see the main opening into Siaes Tunnel until you spot a winding, swirling school of trevally and usually a patrolling gray reef shark or two the sentinels to the massive cavern.
At 85 feet, an enormous maw opens and though there's plenty of ambient light, you swim straight into a curtain of black. Through the curtain, the enchantment and size of the cavern reveals itself.
What I like to do once I'm in is head for one of the "windows" of the cavern. Anywhere light penetrates you'll find thickets of sea fans and trevally, sharks or turtles that frequently swim past in the blue above, framed in the colors of the fans. The ceiling of the cavern seems to sway with a forest of blackcoral trees. But, eventually, I can't avoid the seafloor, even at 140 feet, because stingrays and whitetips like to use this space for nap time.
Bottom time is short, and after staying a while at this depth, a longer safety stop is part of the plan. But, since the wall rises back up all the way to the surface, you won't be lonely while you off-gas. Here, anthias and basslets float like autumn leaves in the breeze, and as the current sweeps you along the wall (sometimes gently, sometimes swiftly), peek into the shadows and crevices, where gobies, eels and shrimp will peek out at you as you pass.
As the boat winds its way back to the capital of Koror, you will see the other, more-famous dives at Palau that have been shoved aside for this chance to explore a deeper state of bliss. Ty Sawyer
Mantas of Mansuar
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
In some dives all you can think about is lunch, on others you emerge from the sparkling sea infused with a glowing sense of peace and tranquility. And then there is the dive that makes your heart thump like the bilge pump on the Titanic. On certain days in certain conditions, the manta rays of Mansuar Island in Raja Ampat tend toward the heart-thumping column.
Yes, there is a long list of great manta dives around the world: Kona, Yap, the Maldives but Mansuar continues to top our list. Great manta diving requires plankton, and the biologically rich waters of Raja Ampat, Indonesia, have all the best ingredients. This remote marine outpost is a world of islands, deep fjords, reefs, drop-offs, enormous tides and the powerful North New Guinea Coastal Current that roars through the adjacent Dampier Strait creating a churning cauldron of plankton. It is like those Las Vegas all-you-an-eat-for-$5.95 joints for manta rays.
Manta Ridge is a place where currents sweep over the reef, then accelerate down the steep backside like the airflow over an airplane wing. The back lip of the reef is a shopping mall of cleaning stations, each busy with dozens of wrasses. The mantas line up in the current like giant condors, and by twos and threes they approach and lower themselves gently over the cleaning hubs, eye to mask with divers. At times, there are more than 50 mantas at the station.
As the currents slow, the mantas leave the ridge and will sometimes begin to feed in the nearby channel. I have dropped into a moving ballet of 40 manta rays swirling within inches of me in clear-blue water. The mantas of Mansuar is one of my secret pleasures in the sea. David Doubilet
Forest of Surprises
Batu Mandi, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
Most references to North Sulawesi, Indonesia, involve the world-class muck diving of Lembeh Strait. But nearby lies an entirely different experience, a rich biodiversity all its own. Sometimes when you explore less-popular dive sites, you're rewarded with great surprises. Batu Mandi has etched itself into my mind, memory cards and logbook forever.
From the surface, Batu Mandi appears as a series of sharp rocks just breaking the surface about 100 yards from shore. Underwater, however, it becomes apparent that these rocks are just the very top of an isolated ledge that juts out to an abrupt drop-off amid strong currents. This topography lends itself to the unique forest of filter feeders thriving here. Amid the dense growth, I stumbled upon a rare species of pygmy seahorse the Hippocampus Pontohi. Upon closer examination, I was looking at a group of no less than four Pontohi, and possibly more, which made the two black giant frogfish, harlequin shrimp and nudibranch army surrounding me surprisingly easy to ignore. Incidentally, this is also a regular hangout for the blue-ring octopus, another species on most photographers' fantasy checklist.
As day turned into night, each sea fan exposed a resident xenon crab, and every crinoid housed at least one clingfish. I even found a vivid-purple urchin hosting a resident pair of urchin shrimp. While I could never claim one favorite dive site, I've logged Batu Mandi as my favorite in North Sulawesi and as one of
Indonesia's best. And that's saying something. Jason Heller
Ghost WreckC.S. Charles L. Brown, Statia
The current is kicking my ass.
Just as I'd been warned it would. But I'm in the Leeward Caribbean. The water is warm and the visibility stunning enough to reveal all of my 350-foot-long target, the C.S. Charles L. Brown, the signature artificial reef of St. Eustatius, aka Statia. It's a beautiful day on the sleepy island above, and all the action is underwater.
This fast-moving water keeps all life not just me from taking hold on the ship's upward-facing starboard side. Absent of sponges, it glows an eerie white, a ghostly siren's call visible even 98 feet above at the surface.
The Charlie Brown cost only a dollar when the island's government bought it in 2002. It sunk amid cheers until a pipe burst. That's when the ship started writing its own script. The generator room quickly filled with water, forcing the hull on its side, where it came to rest on the bottom.
I fight my way down, seeking shelter among the school of 50 horse-eye jacks that hovers just above the ship. Like geese in flying formation, they realign themselves; those in the front claim choice spots in back, away from the flow.
Glenn Faires, owner of Golden Rock Dive Center, waves for me to follow, and we descend to the deck, which lies perpendicular to the sand. Then we duck inside the hold. Slipping through a passageway, I almost forget we've penetrated there's so much light flooding in from all directions. Exiting, I notice the sides of the ship, now the work of worms, their casings woven together like never-ending chains of clearplastic drinking straws. Surveying the bigger picture, I can't help but enjoy how wonderfully disorienting it is to swim over and through a wreck that's not upright.
The return trip is more relaxing: The current carries us back up toward the boat as I watch the scene the jacks and the sparkling hull fade out. Brooke Morton
Secrets InsideFive Caves, Maui
The timing has to be perfect.
If I'm to slip unscathed into Bubble Cave one of the namesake Five Caves, a stellar South Maui shore dive my thrust through the cavern's mouth must be in total sync with the surging Pacific Ocean swells. Feeling the ebb subside, I kick hard with the oncoming flow and blast inside, but I'm not alone. A pair of sleepy green sea turtles regards me from the sandy bottom of the rough-hewn chamber, created centuries ago by lava flowing from Haleakala volcano up through subterranean tubes. During the briefing, I'd been told to expect their company, along with that of whitetip sharks, but it's still an exciting surprise. As are the bubbles.
Overhead, the mercury sheen of trapped air lures me to investigate how this cavern earned its name. I break the surface into a vapor of infinitesimal bubbles. It's a surreal sight, created by the surge forcing air to the surface, and it feels like a delicious secret, which is what fascinates me about caverns such as this. They hold the answers to untold mysteries, drawing man deep into the planet's womb since the beginning. But there's no time to linger; more caverns beckon with such intriguing names as Toilet Bowl, Three Arches and Shark Cave. Beyond that, a spectacular grotto of ragged lava-rock reef offers arches and swim-throughs, where faunalike frogfish, eels, octopuses, moorish idols and butterflyfish await at depths from 35-50 feet along with many more turtles.
Drying off in the parking lot of Makena Landing Beach Park (another nearby access point is through a small graveyard, hence the site's other name Five Graves), I gaze up at Haleakala. Now quiet and green, the massive furnace once heaved forth a molten flow that created the hidden caverns I've just enjoyed diving. So I say a quiet thanks for letting me in on the secret. Eric Michael