Swim with sharks (other big fish) at world's best new dive sites

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Scuba divers used to be part of an exclusive club. Simply being certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) served as a sort of cocktail party trump card. ("You enjoyed Paris? How droll. I breathe underwater.") But with established destinations like the Caymans and the Caicos flooded with hundreds of thousands of freshly certified divers, simply getting down doesn't feel like enough anymore.

To stay ahead of the curve — and away from the crowd — serious aquanauts are now hopping live-aboard cruises and winging toward obscure archipelagos to seek out dangerous megafauna in rough waters. The best dive expeditions suddenly have more in common with safaris than with day trips out to the local reef.

The abundance of new destinations and activities is great for beginners and divemasters alike, but choosing a dive spot can still be tricky. Always the good dive buddy, we've found six of the best new destination dives on the planet. These descents offer underwater explorers the chance to get up close and personal with exotic creatures and explore both pristine and restored ecosystems.

Roatan, Honduras


For the past 25 years, Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week has hooked viewers with equal parts tantalizing and terrifying footage of the ocean's top predator. The ratings-bait programming is a perennial hit, but it has also caught flak from some scientists, as it turns out that the planet's top predator (that's us) has taken a serious bite out of the shark population.

Inspired to combat the unnecessary devastation of perhaps the most iconic creature of the ocean, the Project Aware Foundation and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) have joined forces to offer specialty diving courses that allow everyday divers the chance to experience sharks up close. "These courses do a nice job of showing people the need to protect these beautiful animals that, after seeing 'Jaws,' we all thought were going to eat us on sight," says PADI instructor Budd Riker. "Sharks have been around for millions of years, and we've wiped them to near extinction in a matter of decades."

Shark awareness courses are starting to pop up all over the world: at Barefoot Divers in Roatan, Honduras; Bimini Big Game Club Resort in the Bahamas; and — for a less adrenaline-steeped experience — a specialty course visiting placid whale sharks with Avadon Divers in Placencia, Belize. Any diver will tell you a shark spotting is among the ultimate dive experiences, and Riker has seen quite a few of them during his 35-plus years of diving. Still, he says there's nothing quite like a first encounter with a great white shark. "It's like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time," he says. "They're so big – like a bus coming through the water. You forget to breathe."

A more comprehensive listing of shark courses is on PADI's travel website. And even if you're not quite ready for a shark close-up, do your part to ensure they'll still be around for the future by learning more about them.

By Melissa Gaskill

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(Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/Getty Images)

Tulum, Mexico

The world's best spot for cavern diving is just 75 miles south of Cancún. Bright white beaches and laid-back visitors make Tulum, a small windswept town most known for its Mayan ruins, the best jumping-off point for the massive network of underground caves dotting the Yucatán.

These caves, called cenotes – thick with tree-size stalactites and stalagmites, silvery fish and bats – were formed after a meteor socked the Yucatán 65 million years ago, creating vast sinkholes that eventually filled with water and became, to the Mayans, portals to the underworld. The best way to see these geological wonders is with fins and a snorkel. Book an excursion with Edventure Tours, run by a family who will steer you clear of the tour-bus crowds. Be sure to snorkel through Dos Ojos, a pair of adjacent cenotes that look like huge eyes.

When you're done with the caves, dry off at Tulum's El Paraiso Beach, a stretch of ultramarine water prized by kite surfers just a $4 taxi drive from the hotel zone. Book a cabana at Zamas, a collection of palapa-roof huts situated between palms right on the water (from $140).

Tip: Skip the $85 taxis at Cancún Airport – instead, exit the terminal and hang a sharp right, where you'll find buses that will take you to Tulum via Playa del Carmen for about $12.

By Nicole Cusick

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(Photo: Getty Images)

Komodo National Park, Indonesia

Visitors to Komodo National Park enter the dragon reserve on Rinca Island through a gate that’s worryingly reminiscent of Jurassic Park. The atmosphere on the other side is tense — the dragons provoke a feeling of primordial discomfort — but the 10-foot-long stars of the terrestrial show look positively minute compared to the beasts that greet the increasing number of divers making the trip to this wild corner of Indonesia. The real titans of the world's deadliest archipelago aren't behind a fence.

Manta rays, which measure up to 23 feet across, congregate in the nutrient-rich water of around the Lesser Sunda Islands. Divers hop ferries from Bali or book live-aboard cruises to watch flocks of gargantuan eagle rays make balletic passes through clouds of plankton. The mantas even seem to take a dedicated interest in humans, making repeated passes to check out swimmers, who routinely panic even though these massive animals possess no stinging barb on their whip-like tails and are harmless.

Similarly benign yet intimidating, whale sharks also frequent these waters, breaking the surface with their giant grasping mouths. The sharks pay little mind to divers, who don't seem to register as large enough to warrant consideration. Gray sharks, the enforcers of this blue idyll, are decidedly more threatening, especially when they swim in packs.

The thriving coral, shoals of color-flashing squid, hawksbill sea turtles and banded sea snakes that populate these balmy waters owe their good health to the irritable dragons back on shore. The national park here was established in 1980 to protect the world's largest lizards and subsequently expanded to encompass some of the world's most pristine reefs and naturally abundant waters.

Tip: Komodo is not easy to get to. Our recommendation would be to spend a few nights at the Komodo Resort, which caters specifically to divers, or book a berth on the Felicia, a live-aboard sailboat that offers a bit of piratical luxury for $390 a night.

By Faine Greenwood

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(Photo: Getty Images)

Cabo Pulmo, Mexico

In the early 1980s, scientists from the University of Baja California Sur showed up in Cabo Pulmo, a remote fishing village on the peninsula's east side. The researchers lent locals dive masks, allowing them to see the thriving reefs just off shore for the very first time. The piscators decided to stop fishing and advocate for the protection of the ecosystem.

A little more than a decade after the academics’ arrival, the Mexican government designated a 17,500-acre area near Cabo Pulmo as a national park. The mostly underwater park had a director with no salary, no staff and no access to law enforcement, so villagers took it upon themselves to stop people from trolling those waters. The effort paid off big time: The 1.72 tons of fish per acre recorded on the reef rank as some of the highest anywhere.

Enjoying this stunning success story takes little effort. Walk from Cabo Pulmo Sport Center, opened by former fisherman Mario Castro in 1991, to a panga on the beach. Toss in your gear and hang on while a stripped-down Bronco with a tire lashed to its rear bumper pushes the boat into the water. Underneath, hard corals and sea fans cover long basaltic dikes that run parallel to shore. Above them, schools of red snapper, yellow snapper and jacks, numbering in the thousands, mingle with parrotfish and groupers. Octopi, rays, eels and sea turtles are common sights. Dolphins, whales, whale sharks and enormous schools of rays are seasonal regulars.

Siestas are never far away: Castro rents bungalows right behind his dive shop, and the Baja Bungalows are nearby. Local outfitters also offer kayaking and snorkeling with sea lions. Because Cabo Pulmo's locally owned tourism infrastructure generates a higher-than-average annual per capita income, the town is one of the nicer beach communities you're likely to encounter in Mexico.

Tip: Cabo Pulmo Sport Center charges $40 per couple for a two-tank dive trip. Rooms at the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort start at roughly $70 a night, and Baja Bungalows run $85 a night.

By Melissa Gaskill

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(Photo: James R.D. Scott/Getty Images)

Tofo, Mozambique

A golden arc on the eastern rim of the Inhambane panhandle, a couple degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn, Mozambique's Praia do Tofo seems like the ideal place to laze in the sun. But speak to the locals and you'll soon discover a reason to leave the lounge chairs set out by the rapidly growing number of luxury hotels: whale sharks, a veritable posse of them, cruising in a corridor of nutrient-rich water less than a mile offshore.

Found in warm waters from Tanzania to Taiwan, the world's biggest fish has spawned a mini-industry full of outfitters promising access to the docile giants. Even compared with more popular whale shark tourism destinations, including Mexico's Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve and the Coral Sea, Tofo is exceptional. Research by conservation biologist Simon Pierce shows that daily "ocean safari" excursions out of Tofo find sharks 87 percent of the time. "There aren't many places where sightings are virtually predictable," says Dr. Pierce, a New Zealand native whose interest in whale sharks drew him to Mozambique in 2005. "That's what makes Tofo such a hot spot."

Unless you're part of the unlucky 13 percent, someone will spot a fin — several, perhaps — and chaos will ensue as hyper-excited tourists don snorkels, swivel on the rubber and hurl themselves into the ocean. When the first few frantic moments have passed and everyone has found a point to can admire the creature without getting kicked or inadvertently swallowed, all that's left is to watch the sharks swim gracefully through the blue.

Tip: Daily flights to Inhambane Airport are available from Johannesburg and Maputo aboard Mozambique Airlines. Lovely rooms with ocean views are available for $140 a night at Blue Footprints, which can arrange whale shark tours with a number of local outfitters.

By Henry Wismayer

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(Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/Getty Images)

The Maldives

The Maldives, a string of green atolls fringed by bone-white beaches and turquoise waters, look like something out of a traveler's tall tale. And that is exactly what they're likely to become. With an average elevation of less than 5 feet above sea level and a peak elevation of 8 feet, these islands are disappearing under the rising Indian Ocean. Scientists predict the country will be gone before the end of the century.

Most of the islands that constitute the Maldives are deserted. The other 192 host some of the most decadent and luxurious resorts found anywhere in the world. There are spa islands and overwater villas located a half mile from shore to ensure privacy. Known throughout the world as a premiere honeymoon destination for the affluent – including the British Royal Family – the islands are often overlooked for what they offer aside from amenities.

The Maldives' Baa Atoll, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, is a maze of technicolor coral visited frequently by whale sharks and other pelagic species, including the hammerheads that school here in massive numbers. Nearby Addu Atoll also contains the remains of the British Loyalty, a 450-foot-long tanker with 6-foot propeller blades covered in coral. Decades after sinking, the ship is as impressive as ever, especially for divers comfortable penetrating wrecks.

With so many resorts, options are plentiful. The only mistake would be to arrive in the Maldives without a reservation. Tourism is highly regulated by the questionably legitimate government of Mohammed Waheed Hassan, and travelers are sometimes turned away after flying the 20 or so hours from New York. The best hotels are not cheap, but they do offer genuine value thanks to all that real estate in the middle of paradise. With two land-based resorts and the Explorer, a liveaboard dive boat, the Four Seasons has a huge presence. Looking for something even more plush? The underwater suite at the Conrad Maldives Ringali Island Hotel is a novelty — an impressive one.

Just go soon, before you can't.

Tip: Rooms in higher-end hotels, including the Four Seasons properties, start at $1,000 a night. A number of larger international carriers operate flights to the capital city of Male, but tickets are pricey and will likely cost at least $2,000 from New York. No one said paradise came cheap.

By Kitt Doucette

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