By LISA KLEIN
A vacation can take travelers anywhere on the globe, but a scuba diving trip can make them feel like they are on a whole other planet.
Whether gliding through the calm Caribbean or braving shark-infested waters in a far-flung locale, learning to dive lets consumers explore a rarely seen side of the natural world.
“Our company’s vision is ‘experience and encounter new wonders in another world,’ and it is truly that – another world,” said Cameron Akins, vice president of Florida-based travel agency Caradonna Adventures.
Many divers get their start while already on vacation thanks to “scuba discovery” courses offered in nearly any hotel or resort that has tropical water nearby. There they learn the very basics and get to see a few underwater glimpses.
“A lot of people then go, ‘I want to do this more, this is amazing!’” said Petra Hermes, director of the Fly & Sea Dive Adventures agency in Canada, whose own diving journey began during a trip to Kona, Hawaii.
Getting a full scuba certification is simple enough, with the course offered everywhere from vacation destinations to indoor swimming pools nowhere near a reef.
“During the certification process, you normally learn skills in a swimming pool – from how the gear functions, how to clear your mask, hand signals and getting comfortable with the equipment as well as the theory and safety,” Ms. Akins said.
To get a “C-card,” though, would-be divers will need to complete four to five open water dives under instructor supervision.
Beginners are advised to stay in relatively shallow water without strong currents.
“The calm, clear waters of Bonaire are one of my favorites to recommend for new divers as there is very little current and it is very easy diving,” Ms. Akins said.
Other Caribbean destinations such as the Cayman Islands, Curacao, Belize and the Bahamas are great picks.
“If you want to go further abroad, Fiji, the Philippines and Indonesia are very well suited for beginner divers, but it’s a little bit more of a commitment,” Ms. Hermes said.
The South Pacific and Southeast Asia remain popular scuba destinations for even the most skilled divers for “seeing colorful coral and reef fish with great visibility,” Ms. Hermes said.
“That’s where, after a while if you’re not just a diver but a traveler, you’re going,” she said.
The “Coral Triangle” waters between the Philipines, Indonesia and Paupa New Guinea are a bucket-list destination for most divers.
“The sheer quantity and diversity of marine life and corals that are found in the Coral Triangle are astounding,” Ms. Akins said.
Other areas in the South Pacific, such as French Polynesia, and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean are filled with sea life.
“Many divers are on a quest to see certain marine life,” Ms. Akins said, and sharks are often at the top of the list.
The Galapagos Islands are a shark-lover’s paradise, offering the chance to swim with hammerheads and whale sharks.
Schools of hammerheads also migrate through the waters off the coast of Socorro Island, Mexico and Costa Rica each year.
“Every diver wants to see a shark because they’re so elusive and they’re shy typically,” Ms. Hermes said. “Seeing a shark in its natural environment is an amazing experience. They’re so graceful.”
Big animals are not the only underwater draw – divers seek out jellyfish in Palau, pigmy seahorses no bigger than a pinky finger in Indonesia, sea turtles in Malaysia and annual coral spawning in St. Lucia and Australia.
Other divers are more attracted to underwater topography that are a bit stranger than a typical reef, some of which require more advanced training and equipment.
Swimming through wrecks at the bottom of the ocean or sea are a sought-after dream dive, and there are plenty scattered all over the world. Many date back to World War II, and can be found in the Red Sea, British Virgin Islands, Bonaire, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands, among others.
“The wrecks of Chuuk Lagoon are world renowned, like the San Francisco Maru & Fujikawa Maru – the shipwreck and aircraft wrecks there gives you a glimpse into the history but covered with underwater life,” Ms. Akins said.
Cave and cenote diving is another more adventurous option.
“In Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula there are cenotes and underwater rivers where ocean water and ground water mix,” Ms. Hermes said.
“There is a river system underwater and there are openings all throughout the peninsula and you can dive through those,” she said.
Those skilled in scuba can swim through even crazier openings in the Solomon Islands.
“There is an underwater extinct volcano but there are some lava tubes still that are in the rock,” Ms. Hermes said. “So you go into this hole, it’s open throughout the rock so you go through this lava tube and you come out on the other side.”
Dedicated divers seeking out remote locations often join “liveaboards” where a group of like-minded scuba enthusiasts live on a ship in the ocean for two weeks at a time, completing three to five dives every day.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie among divers, and when you go on a dive trip you meet people from all over the world with the same interest,” Ms. Hermes said. “People meet up all over the world with new friends.”
That, and the chance to spend time where most humans never get to see, are the big draws of the scuba community.
“Divers are modern explorers and adventurers, exploring life both above and below the surface,” Ms. Akins said.
“I personally find it peaceful – the silence and the sound of your bubbles and the reef, no cell phones – just leaving the world behind,” she said.