Whether you're a novice or expert, here are some spots not to miss
Diving has gone mainstream. These days, wet suits are so fashionable that women's swimsuit designers often take their cues from the fluorescent colors and slick shapes of diving wear. That means more outfitters, schools, and resorts than ever before. We asked Steve Blount, executive editor of Scuba Diving magazine, for his recommendations of the half-dozen best spots for divers of varying abilities to take the plunge.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Florida Keys
Best time to go: May through September.
Clear, calm, and warm water; rich, varied animal life; and plentiful reefs that are mostly protected by state parks and marine sanctuaries make the Florida Keys the most popular dive destination in the world. Park officials estimate that 1.5 million tourists visit John Pennekamp State Park; most of them are divers.
Dive Operators and Lodging: The park's "in-house" dive operator is the Coral Reef Park Rental Company, 305-451-6322.
Washington-Slagbaii National Park, Bonaire
Best time to go: October through April.
A part of the Netherlands Antilles just off the North Coast of South America, Bonaire has one of the first and most successful marine parks in the Caribbean. There are dozens of dive sites that slope gently from down 60 feet or more and are covered with a psychedelic array of mounding corals and purple and yellow, human-sized tube sponges.
Dive Operators and Lodging: Most hotels operate their own diving operation or have an agreement with one. The dive center at the Sand Dollar Condominium and Beach Club, 800-288-4773, was given five stars by the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI).
The Cayman Islands
Best time to go: October through April.
The three islands of this British dependency make up the tip of a submarine ridge that plunges more than a mile into the Caribbean. The best dives are at depths of 60 to 90 feet. Sights include huge basket sponges, sheet coral, and plenty of big fish.
Dive Operators and Lodging: One-week dive packages at the Grand Bay Club Condominiums on Grand Cayman can be reserved through Sea Safaris Travel, Inc., 800-821-6670. Divers also can consult the PADI Travel Network, 800-729-7234, for other dive operators and lodging on the Caymans.
Best time to go: December through August.
Cozumel is particularly popular with Americans. Intermediate or experienced divers are drawn to a deep wall that starts at about 60 feet below sea level and is a sheer drop as far as the eye can see--and lateral visibility in this clear water ranges 150 feet or more. Big fish abound and evolving coral can be seen in huge spirals and pinnacles. Divers should be careful of the powerful current along the wall, though.
Dive Operators and Lodging: Dive Paradise in Cozumel offers half-day dives, 800-308-5125. The Galapagos Inn is popular with divers and offers one-week diving packages, 800-847-5708.
Chu'uk Lagoon, Micronesia
Best time to go: Good all year.
Most people know this Pacific lagoon as Truk. In 1993, though, the state legislature changed the name to its native roots, Chu'uk. In 1944, the U.S. Navy caught a huge fleet of Japanese merchant ships at anchor in the lagoon and sank them. Divers who are comfortable with depths of a hundred feet and more can see airplanes, trucks, tanks, and other war remnants.
Dive Operators and Lodging: The Truk Continental Hotel and the Micronesia Aquatics Dive Shop offer seven-day lodging and dive packages. For reservations call Sea Safaris Travel, Inc., 800-821-6670.
The Galapagos Islands
Best time to go: October through May.
The Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador, located off the west coast of South America. The warm Humboldt current, named for the German explorer who discovered it in 1800, collides with colder Pacific waters all around the Galapagos, making for a mˇlange of wildlife. Divers can see tropical parrotfish, penguins, and one-of-a-kind sea-diving iguanas. The islands are a national park, so there are no hotels. Divers must visit on specially designed live-aboard boats.
Dive Operators and Accommodations: See and Sea Travel in San Francisco specializes in live-aboard diving trips. It offers a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands. Divers looking for other live-aboard outfitters should consult the PADI Travel Network, 800-729-7234.
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