Picture this: you’re casually bobbing along next to a sea turtle, 20 metres below sea level, breathing comfortably and gazing out at some seriously spectacular marine wildlife.
Sounds good, doesn't it? Then scuba diving could be your next great passion, just waiting for you to discover it.
Whether you're a veteran diver or completely new to the sport, open water diving is an activity full of endless, unique experiences. It's a great way to meet new friends and a dazzling array of fish and marine mammals, and it will take you to some of the most undeniably beautiful places on earth. All of which makes it a terrific way to spend some of your gap year.
Just One Problem...
The problem? There are so many incredible places to go scuba diving, choosing just one or two - especially if you're new to diving and want to make it part of a memorable gap year - can be virtually impossible.
But don't worry! As always, we're here for you. The Leap has organised thousands of dives for the travellers on our programs in the last few years alone, in some of the most sought-after spots know to man.
So to help you out, I've collected a hit list of six that I believe are some of the absolute best. With any luck, they'll help narrow the decision down and may even open your mind to visiting countries you might never otherwise have considered for diving.
Bahama Mama Shipwreck, Bahamas
The Bahama Mama shipwreck, located near New Providence Island just on the dangerous-sounding (but totally safe) Shark Island, was once a 95-ft party cruise ship. Intentionally sunk for divers back in 1995, it now lies on the sandy ocean floor about 50ft below the water's surface acting as a haven for marine life and the highlight of 16 similar diveable wrecks in the area.
As a result, the Bahama Mama is home to numerous sharks, making it a terrific backdrop for shark photos and a truly exhilarating place to go diving. Dive here and you can venture inside the ship and explore the gangways, cabins and the rest of the interior in its entirety.
If you decide to dive around here, go with a dive company that's certified by the Bahamas Diving Association, which ensures that members adhere to strict safety guidelines when interacting with sharks.
Nosy Be, Madagascar
As Madagascar’s largest and busiest tourist destination, Nosy Be - which translates as 'Big Island' - certainly lives up to its name. Located off the northwest coast in the Mozambique Channel, Nosy Be and its exquisite underwater world can be explored by diving off walls at the edges of the surrounding reefs - which include Five Metre Bank, Grand Banque d’Entrée (Entry Bank) and Banque de Tortue (Turtle Bank).
Three things make this island a particularly appealing scuba diving spot. Its beautiful hard and soft corals, the low currents (a result of the Tsaratanana Massif protecting the island from strong winds), and the excellent visibility - perfect for getting a good view of the giant cucumbers, sea turtles and sponge crabs which inhabits the area.
If you're a novice to the sport, these gap year travel programs in Madagascar offer the chance to become a PADI qualified advanced level diver in just a couple of weeks with your first PADI level training included in the cost. That means that there’s no need to worry if you arrive with zero diving skills, as you’ll spend five days carrying out entry-level dive course with an onsite diving instructor.
Mochima National Park, Venezuela
Most people have never even considered visiting Venezuela, let alone diving there. It's a complete mystery why - not that those bold enough to plan a trip there are complaining. The highlight of Venezuela's Caribbean coast is Mochima National Park, a stunning area of protected land and sea covering almost 1000km2 in the northeast of the country.
The park features 36 rocky islands and over 50 dive sites with crystal clear waters, corals and exotic underwater creatures. Of the many dive sites, I’d recommend Isla de Plata (Silver Island), where dolphins swim around colourful fishing boats and old, rustic buildings provide shade and comfort until the sun goes down.
Most of the dive operations around here are run from Santa Fe, by the Santa Fe Dive Resort. Enomis Divers based on Margarita Island is another popular provider, and carries 5-star dive resort status with PADI.
Yongala Shipwreck, Great Barrier Reef
There are several wrecks to dive on along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, but the most outstanding would have to be that of the S.S. Yongala.
Repeatedly named Australia’s best dive site, the Yongala is a hundred-year-old shipwreck that lies thirty metres below the water’s surface and attracts a huge variety of marine life including turtles, eagle rays, sea snakes, whales and bull sharks.
This isn't somewhere you come as an amateur though. You'll need to have at least twenty logged dives and a valid qualification to dive here with any reputable company, as the currents can be strong and susceptible to change. Deep diving experience is therefore essential. The premiere five-star dive resort running dives here is Yongala Dive.
Galapagos Islands' El Arco, Ecuador
Regarded by many as the absolute number one place to go scuba diving, the Galapagos offers the most diverse marine wildlife in the world - including sea lions, turtles, morays, iguanas, hammerhead sharks and blue-footed boobies (no sniggers please).
Unfortunately it’s not the cheapest place to get to, but I can guarantee it’ll be worth every penny as the excellent visibility here ensures that no sighting goes missed - making for a truly memorable experience.
Of the dozens of world-class dives available around the Galapagos, El Arco is the one that takes the plaudits. It would feature of anyone’s list of the world’s top 10 sites, largely due to the plethora of schooling hammerheads, whale sharks and spotted eagle rays in the area. This site is so densely populated with marine wildlife that one strategy is to just hold your position underwater and watch the show.
Be aware that the diving conditions are fairly challenging, so previous experience is recommended. As part of our volunteering placement in Ecuador, you get to spend two and a half weeks in this paradise on the island of San Cristobal, where you'll have the chance to dive with one of the islands’ PADI accredited schools. A taster dive costs roughly US$55.
The Great Blue Hole, Belize
The Great Blue Hole, situated sixty miles off the mainland out of Belize City, is an almost perfectly circular hole inside which the water is extremely deep and dark blue in colour as a result.
It was formed as a limestone cave system during the last ice age, when the sea levels were lower. Over time, the water began to rise and the cave flooded, causing its roof to collapse. The Great Blue Hole has to be one of the most unique and astounding dive sites and, on a day where the visibility is good and there is plenty of wildlife, diving here can be quite a surreal experience.
Near the Great Blue Hole, you will find Half Moon Caye Wall, a less renowned but equally spectacular scuba diving spot. While the Great Blue Hole is ideal for those wanting to see sharks, the Half Moon Caye Wall is more diverse, with its array of sponges, sea fans and beautiful corals.
How To Organise Diving In These Places
First things first, you’ll want to have a go at scuba diving to make sure it’s definitely for you, before paying to enrol on a course.
You can do this with a Discover Scuba Diving course, offered by PADI dive shops either in a pool, off a beach or from a dive boat, and is designed to gives you a taste of scuba diving and a feel for breathing underwater.
Do this at your local dive centre or on a non-diving holiday first - you don't want to book an all-inclusive dream trip to one of the places above only to discover on arrival that you can't equalise.
If you’re still keen to pursue it afterward, you'll need to obtain a scuba diving qualification. PADI are the most recognised and well-respected, but they are by no means the only ones you can carry out diving courses with. Several organisations, such as SSI, BSAC and CMAS (I know, the initials get confusing), are structured in the same way and will enable you to gain the right qualifications.
Finally, you must have the right insurance, or you could end up paying though the nose for treatment if you suffer a scuba diving accident. If you’re planning on doing a lot of diving, it might even be worth purchasing separate insurance specifically for the activity.
Dare I Ask How Much All This Will Cost?
The overall cost of your scuba diving experience will depend on where you go, how long you go for and what level of diving you are planning to accomplish. A Discover Scuba Diving course is just £25, but the scuba diving qualification will set you back £375 with PADI.
What Do You Think?
So there you have it, everything you need to begin your scuba diving adventure! If anyone can think of any top scuba diving spots I’ve missed out, or things to bear in mind when diving, then I’d love to hear them – just post your thoughts in the comments box below.
on 17 / 11 / 2014