One of the few good things to come out of the COVID-19 shutdown was the massive growth in outdoor activities. In 2020, 160.7 million Americans over the age of six participated in at least one outdoor activity — 7.1 million more than in 2019, according to an Outdoor Industry Association report. From running and hiking to fishing and camping, it was the largest one-year gain on record.
While many yacht owners and guests came aboard to eat, drink, and be merry, a large portion of those used the shut downs as an opportunity to explore more isolated places in the world.
“Last year, against all odds, was an incredible year,” says Christelle Holler with superyacht dive specialist Tahiti Private Expeditions. “There was a high demand for charter boats and lots of owners who came on their own boat and they stayed longer.”
In past years, the average guided trip through the region lasted about two weeks, says Holler, but in 2020, yachts stayed longer to explore, spending an average of three to four weeks in the region.
So, where are these pristine, under-the-radar diving destinations yachts should consider for SCUBA-loving owners and charter guests? To find out, Dockwalk spoke to yacht crew and dive specialists around the world about the places that should be on every diver’s bucket list.
Turks & Caicos
While popular diving spots are still in the Caymans and Bahamas, the Turks & Caicos — which are a bit harder for yachts to get to because of the shallow depth — boast even better sights with far less chance of running into other divers. “It’s hard to believe it’s the same island chain as The Bahamas geologically because the life there is so prolific,” says Christopher Penner, a former dive instructor who is now first mate on a yacht. “If you go on a snorkel trip on any given day, there’s a legitimate chance you could snorkel with dolphins.”
Throughout Turks & Caicos waters, divers and snorkelers can expect to see healthy reefs and a stunning amount of big ocean life.
Off Leeward, Providenciales, JoJo, a wild Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin, has been freely interacting with humans for more than 30 years — in 1989, he was declared a National Treasure by the Turks & Caicos Islands Government.
The well-known porpoise and his family, which now includes a friendly baby named Dreamer, are often found in the waters around Grace Bay and Northwest Point. The area boasts plenty of moorings for liveaboard vessels that can be used by yachts for a nominal fee and Turtle Cove Marina is just a short tender ride away.
But throughout Turks & Caicos waters, divers and snorkelers can expect to see healthy reefs and a stunning amount of big ocean life, from hammerheads and bull sharks to the occasional whale shark or humpback whale. “I swear the contrast in health between even some of the nicer dives in the Exumas is incredible,” says Penner. “On average, the mediocre spots in Turks & Caicos are as nice as the better spots in the Exumas.”
Another Caribbean island known to have some of the most pristine reefs in the region is Cuba. Fidel Castro was actually an avid spear fisherman and ocean conservationist who enacted strict protections of the waters off the island.
He eventually became close friends with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who about 30 years ago said, “My first dive in the waters of Cuba serves as a moment of truth…around me, large fish among flourishing coral, a reef more rich than any I have seen in years.”
The unraveling of coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean was already under way back then, but Cuba has enacted even stricter protections of its waters in the years since. Plus, it doesn’t have nearly as many divers or tourists as other nearby nations. “The incredible health of the reefs is supposed to be the best in the Caribbean,” says Penner, who has been hearing about the stunning sights from dive colleagues and has been wanting to see for himself for years.
Another destination that Penner has been aching to visit is the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Somewhat similar to what one would find in the Galapagos or Cocos Islands in Costa Rica, the region is hailed for its frequent big-animal sightings. There are manta ray, gray whale, and whale shark migrations that pass through the area, as well as the incredibly rare resident vaquita porpoise. “It’s the cutest little thing you’ve ever seen,” says Penner. “I don’t think that could be a selling point because chances of seeing that are very minimal.”
Penner is right. The 150-centimeter porpoises are the most endangered cetacean in the world and there is said to be just around 10 of them left in the world.
The South Pacific
Divers seeking to explore farther afield may want to consider the South Pacific. At various spots scattered throughout the region, divers can swim amongst pristine coral, pelagic fish, dolphins, and humpbacks. “Every step you take into the Pacific, from Indonesia to the Maldives to French Polynesia, is going to be different,” says Holler. “Even though sometimes you see the same animals, the layout under the water is different, the conditions are different.”
“Every step you take into the Pacific, from Indonesia to the Maldives to French Polynesia, is going to be different.”
Although interest is up, French Polynesia — an area as large as the continental United States that is 99 percent water — only gets about 60 yachts that visit per year. Whether it’s wet (November to April) or dry season (April through October), the visibility is good year-round and the dives, which tend to range between 20 to 25 meters, are relatively shallow. “It’s a great place for kids or to be trained because you see what’s around you,” says Holler. “There are lots of lagoons to start training and then you can go in the open ocean.”
However, once you do get into the ocean, the underwater life feels untouched. There’s a diverse array of healthy hard coral and a world-famous shark population.
From late June to early July, humpbacks come up from Antarctica to breed and give birth. French Polynesia is a sanctuary for marine mammals. There are strict regulations about approaching them; however, Tahiti Private Expeditions does carry a license that allows them to take guests to snorkel — not SCUBA dive — near the giant creatures under very specific conditions.
In early October, Holler and a small group came across a baby with his or her mom while out snorkeling. “We were just above them and the baby would come up every three minutes to breathe while mom was resting,” says Holler. “We had about 30 minutes with them before they decided to leave — it was quite cute.”
Another place in the South Pacific that Tahiti Private Expeditions has been helping to take yachts to is the Raja Ampat Islands in Indonesia. The archipelago, just off the northwest tip of Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua, boasts hundreds of jungle-covered islands, surrounded by coral reefs rich with marine life. “That area is like the cradle of coral,” says Holler of the colorful array of hard and soft coral. “There are not always big fish (but a lot of small fish) and it’s very scenic under the water.”
Nearly as close to untouched as is possible these days, the first comprehensive scientific survey of the area was conducted in 2001. According to the World Wildlife Fund, that record-breaking census found nearly 1,000 tropical fish species — many of which had been previously unknown.
The Arctic and Antarctica
Possibly even less touched by SCUBA divers than the remote archipelago in Indonesia are the freezing waters of the Arctic and Antarctic. Tahiti Private Expeditions has worked with experts at EYOS Expeditions to help organize trips for adventurous clients.
Diving at the poles may be a far cry from the vibrant reefs that circle the tropics; however, the cold, nutrient-rich waters are bursting with life. Species live and migrate to the end of the world because they are great summer-feeding grounds, says Kelvin Murray, director of Expedition Operations & Undersea Projects for EYOS. “The seabed, walls, outcroppings, and other features are usually covered in a dense, colorful growth of algae, filter-feeding life such as corals and sponges, and invertebrate life.”
Diving at the poles may be a far cry from the vibrant reefs that circle the tropics; however, the cold, nutrient-rich waters are bursting with life.
That nutrient- and mineral-rich cold water, which boasts a higher percentage of dissolved oxygen content, leads to a phenomenon called polar gigantism. Because of the icy temperatures, the animals that reside in those waters tend to have a slower metabolism and often live longer than their warm-water counterparts. Invertebrates, such as sea stars, sea spiders, nudibranchs, and amphipods, grow far larger than in the rest of the world. “This is a fascinating and photogenic feature,” says Murray.
While both sides of the earth boast these strange, enormous creatures, the Arctic, Antarctic, and their subregions can vary significantly in terms of scenery. Up north, in East Greenland, divers can swim alongside massive icebergs and explore fjords that have never been dived before. On the western coast of the country, there are unique underwater geological sites and a few wrecks. Across the Arctic Ocean in Svalbard, there’s a staggering amount of large planktonic life and divers may have the opportunity to swim with seals and seabirds.
At the opposite end of the globe, in Antarctica, divers can swim next to chunks of glacial ice, spanning from smaller hunks of icebergs to entire icebergs, and encounter iconic wildlife such as penguins and seals, “and an astonishing collection of weird and wonderful creepy-crawlies,” says Murray. However, “One of the main highlights for many is an encounter with a leopard seal; these large, predatory seals are always a spectacular sight!” As long as no one gets eaten, of course.
Summer tends to be the best time of year to visit, although it is possible to dive outside the warmer season. But no matter when a guest or owner plans to travel to the end of the world via yacht, it takes an incredible amount of planning months in advance.
Divers need to have proper training, certification, and experience, along with specialized equipment designed for the environment. And the yacht should not only seek out professional dive guides to help but also in self-sufficiency for these sorts of ultra-remote areas. “As you can see, there is a lot to prepare for and specialist guidance is essential,” says Murray. “As with all diving, divers should be physically fit and competent in the use of their equipment — polar diving is much more physically demanding than warm-water trips and the equipment is a lot heavier.”
As yacht owners, guests, and the world in general have become more adventurous in their travels, teams of professionals have connected all across the globe to help well-heeled clients find the underwater experience of a lifetime. “We can take them to areas, where most of the time nobody goes,” says Holler. “They feel like they are pioneering an atoll or area where nobody has been diving before — and nobody has been diving there.”
And often, if time allows, they’re more than happy to share the experience with the crew, as well.
This feature originally ran in the December 2021 issue of Dockwalk.