The best eight dive spots in the world
Mankind’s relationship with the sea appears to be as special as ever. We fly thousands of miles across the planet to flop about in it, we paddle in the stuff, play in it, ski on it, zip about in boats on it and, increasingly, we’re going deeper and deeper into it.
Jacques Cousteau perfected the Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) in 1942 and since the 1950’s the interest for underwater exploration has grown massively. At the start of the 21st century, there were more underwater divers in the world than at any other point in history, though quite how many remains a bit of a mystery. As the industry isn’t tightly regulated, the figures remain a bit, ahem, fishy, but some estimates suggest there are around three million recreational divers in the US alone, a figure that is thought to be increasing by around 500,000 people each year.
One thing is for certain though: people’s appetite for diving shows no sign of abating. Over the next few pages we’ll cover the hottest (and one of the coldest) spots for diving, from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the Red Sea in Egypt and take a closer look at some of the property available, along with one or two suggestions for things to do if you don’t fancy swimming with the fishes.
Frequently appearing near the top of diver’s favourite places in the world, the only country in Central America where English is the official language is home to some spectacular sights, and sightings of Mako, Hammerhead and Caribbean Reef sharks are common, if a little scary. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest reef in the world and offers first-class wall, drift and coral garden diving and excellent visibility for snorkelling. Belize is perhaps best known in diving circles for The Blue Hole, a collapsed ice cave some 60 miles off the coast that looks like a giant pupil stuck peeping out of turquoise water and was among Jacque Cousteau’s favourite places to dive in the world. The authorities are keen to preserve the reef, and indeed Belize as a whole, and there is a palpable focus on eco-tourism.
As for property, perhaps the best bit of advice is to stay away from Belize City – a blueprint for urban blight, crammed full of ramshackle buildings, crumbling infrastructure and unscrupulous hucksters – and head for one of the coastal towns. Prices have nose-dived over the last 18 months, with the Coldwell Banker House Price Index (HPCI) reporting that the average price for a four-bedroom house had dropped 50 percent in 2008. Whether this indicates a good time to snap up a bargain or a decline that could last some time remains to be seen, but there is still plenty of interest in Belize, particularly among those retiring in the US hankering after guaranteed sun on the cheap.
Egyptian Red Sea – Sharm el Sheikh
“The City of Peace” has grown in the last 20 years from a tiny fishing village into a sprawling resort dubbed “more Las Vegas than Egypt”. Sharm El-Sheikh is peppered with excellent bars and restaurants, is easily accessible from Europe, boasts year round sunshine (it hasn’t seen significant rainfall for seven years and temperatures in July/August can often nudge 50ºC) and Tony and Cherie Blair regularly take their family holidays here. Still, don’t let that last bit put you off. The diving is cited as among the best the world has to offer and caters to all levels. The Red Sea contains more than 1,000 species of fish, and dolphins, barracuda and eagle rays are all frequently spotted. There are a number of interesting shipwrecks to explore on the Sinai Peninsula and some of the most stunning night dives around.
Sharma El-Sheikh is infamous for the 2005 bombings that killed and injured hundreds. Since then, security has been stepped up and the area has shown considerable resilience. Egypt as a whole is highly rated by the IMF, and according to a 2008 Global Property Guide report, Egypt has the highest rental yield in the world, at 11.35 percent. Add to this the relatively simple buying process and one-bedroom apartments starting at around £22,000 in Sharm El-Sheikh and it looks like an attractive prospect indeed.
Lying some 12 miles off the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Cozumel’s beauty is apparent both underneath and above sea level. On land, the island is crammed full of national parks, marshlands and Mayan ruins. Under the sea is equally, if not more, impressive: Jacques Cousteau (him again) referred to the area just off Cozumel as one of the most beautiful diving areas in the world and it’s not difficult to see why. Honestly, it isn’t: the clarity of water in Cozumel is astonishing with 150ft visibility, allowing you to enjoy all manner of fish and marine life and plenty of underground caves and canyons. Due to strong currents, there is a lot of drift diving to be had (literally, going with the flow), which may be disconcerting to the inexperienced.
The population of Cozumel has grown considerably over the last three decades and development is restricted. Properties are highly sought after and the market is a competitive one, though this reporter has spotted two bedroom houses for sale on the island for as little as $165,000.
Little Cayman, in particular, is a firm favourite among divers. The brilliantly named Bloody Bay is one of the most famous dive sites in the world and has a wickedly sharp wall that, according to one diver, “feels like floating in outer space” once you leave it behind you. As well as dazzlingly bright coral, you’re likely to encounter turtles, reef sharks, stingrays, eagle rays and angelfish. And it looks set to stay that way: strict marine conservation laws mean that the habitat will be preserved.
The Cayman Islands are formed of three islands (Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac) and are still an overseas UK territory. Initially named Las Tortugas by Christopher Columbus after the sea turtles that live there, the islands are perhaps most famous for offshore banking and have one of the highest standards of living in the world. Predictably, land and property aren’t cheap, but prices are escalating and investment is up so if you’re after that little slice of paradise, you better be quick.
British Columbia, Canada
Okay, so the water’s freezing, visibility isn’t always great and the currents are often unkind but the diving off the coast of British Columbia is fantastic, unusual and frequently ranked the number one spot in North America. Off the west coast of Vancouver Island are numerous shipwrecks and some of the most exotic sounding sea creatures around: wolf eels, orca whales, white ghost anemones, sea-lions, white-sided dolphins and giant pacific octopi can all, if you’re lucky, be spotted. Out of the water’s not too shabby either, with grizzly bears, wolves, elk, deer and moose all just casually mooching about.
On the mainland, Vancouver is considered to be the most liveable city in the world according to a 2008 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and it is set to become even more desirable when it hosts the 2010 Winter Olympics. House prices have dropped considerably however: a report by Royal LePage Real Estate Services predicts that the average house price in the city of Vancouver will drop some nine percent in 2009, from $593,500 to $540,100, yet it is believed that British Columbia’s resilient and diverse economy is well-placed to survive the economic turmoil engulfing North America and the rest of the world.
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
No report about diving could be complete without mention of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It is a staggering 1,260 miles long and 93 miles across, contains over 1,400 species of fish, over 2,000 marine species in total and over 400 different coral species. Humpback whales, sharks, turtles, sea snakes, dolphins, crocodiles, clown fish and stingrays all live in the reef. It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been named one of the seven natural wonders of the world by CNN. It’s on every divers to-do list and offers year round diving for all levels, including shallow reefs for beginners and more testing walls and drop-offs for the more advanced. In short, and in the local parlance, it’s a ripper.
There’s a wide range of property near to the Great Barrier Reef and for non-Australians big chunks of it seem to be remarkably cheap, but the smart money seems to be heading to Port Douglas, a fashionable yet laid back town in north Queensland. Not only is it close to the Great Barrier Reef, it is also on the doorstep of another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Daintree Rainforest. Three bedroom villas can be scooped up for around 250,000 AUD and with tens of thousands of visitors descending on Port Douglas every year, renting your property should be a breeze.
Plonked in the middle of the Indian Ocean, this chain of 1,200 islands stretch some 500 miles from north to south and is every bit as lovely as you might expect. Assuming, that is, that you’re expecting straight-out-of-a-Bounty-ad beaches, palm trees gently swaying in the breeze, clear turquoise seas and smiling locals. If you’re not expecting that, you may be disappointed. You may also be disappointed at the selection of property on offer: there’s a rash of plush hotels and resorts, but very little in the way of affordable property. Land is at a premium and many new properties are being built out at sea on stilts to get around this. Strictly speaking, foreign investors are not allowed to own land but they are allowed to lease for up to 25 years, though this can be extended to 35 years for investments of over $10 million.
Although life on the islands is incredibly laid-back and simple, the diving is anything but. It often features in the top three dive areas of the world and night dives are considered a must, when the predators come out to hunt and the reefs become bustling. The reefs are home to oodles of exotic fish and other marine life and there also are a few interesting wrecks to explore.
Easy to reach, affordable, blessed with stunning natural beauty and home to what is considered by many experienced divers to be the best shipwreck dive in recreational depths, Cyprus is one of the best dive sites in Europe. In 1980, the Zenobia sank on its maiden voyage from Sweden to Syria and it took two days to do so. Due to Cypriot rules regarding wrecks and respect from those who venture down, it is near-perfectly preserved – the 100 or so articulated lorries that were onboard are pretty intact – and the reason why plane loads of divers come to Cyprus. Many say it’s a site they could never get bored of and speak in hushed tones about the “ghost ship” quality of the wreck. There’s plenty of marine wildlife nearby, including lots of barracudas, and impressive submerged caves.
Close by to the Zenobia wreck lays Larnaca, a slightly-too-brash tourist town that is home to the island’s largest airport and a sizeable commercial port.
Although it might not be to everyone’s taste it is ideally situated for exploring the Zenobia wreck and has one bedroom apartments on sale at a resonably priced £50,000.
The Larnaca Dive Centre offers a full range of both technical and recreational diving and courses, with their own TDI Instructor trainer on site and a support team of experienced technical instructors and guides, they are able to offer custom built courses to suit all needs.
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