Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Paul Lees
THAILAND SITS RIGHT IN THE HEART OF Southeast Asia, making it convenient for international trading and as a base for travel throughout the region. Whereas the country’s northern region is covered with undulating hills and mountains, the south is adorned with splendid palm-fringed beaches and tropical islands. The largest and best known of the islands, Koh Phuket, has been attracting international visitors for many years, and a steady growth has resulted in tourist services spreading further afield. A number of neighbouring islands are now also enjoying a brisk tourist trade. To the east, the Phi Phi Island group have upgraded their amenities from that of stand-alone, coconut-palm huts to air-conditioned accommodation with restaurants and tourist services. Beyond these islands the world-class beaches in Krabi Province are slowly following a similar route. Further south, however, the island of Koh Lanta seems to be quite content with its more undeveloped beaches and adequate accommodation. All these destinations proffer scuba diving services in some form or another; all offer diver education and trips to the best sites - be they daily or multiday live-aboard excursions.
KOH PHUKET AS A BASE
Koh Phuket (Phuket Island) remains one of the top tourist destinations in the region with countless activities and attractions. The island’s western coast is broken by a number of beaches; and these are the main tourist centres offering all amenities and scuba diving facilities. Diving education classes for beginners up to instructor are all regularly scheduled. Dive trips to all the local sites and live-aboard excursions to those further afield are readily available. Phuket also serves as a connecting point for travel to more southern destinations such as Krabi, Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta.
Day trips - local diving
Several diving destinations to the southeast of the island are worth visiting; namely Shark Point Marine Sanctuary and the Phi Phi island group. The two islands of Koh Phi Phi Don and Ley rise majestically above the water 48km (30 miles) southeast of Phuket, and are contained in Had Nopparat Marine National Park. The smaller, more rugged island of Koh Phi Phi Ley remains uninhabited, whereas the larger island is now a bustling holiday resort.
On the northwest coast of Koh Phi Phi Ley is the tiny bay of Ao Nui 4. A rocky outcrop in the centre of the bay, with relatively shallow waters around its eastern face, affords good snorkelling. There are many corals and reef fish among small boulders and rocks encrusted with patches of sponges. The outcrop’s outer wall is pitted with holes and tunnels, providing lairs to a variety of moray eels. Indian Ocean Lionfish, Bluering and Emperor Angelfish all flit around a narrow crevice, the inside of which is littered with small corals and sea fans. Off the two southern prongs of Phi Phi Don, Hin Phae 5 and Hin Dot 6 are good snorkelling and diving destinations. Invertebrates abound. The occasional Painted Rock Lobster and smaller reef crabs mingle with busy Cleaner and Hinge-beak Shrimps as they tend to a number of reef dwellers. The deeper sections have numerous oysters and clams clinging to, and embedded in, the rocky surfaces. Common reef octopuses secrete themselves against the scattered rocks and lunge at unsuspecting blennies that leave the security of their tiny burrows. Barracuda and other pelagics are also fairly common passers-by. Further south are two rocky karsts separated by a narrow channel. Both Koh Bida Nai 7 (inner) and Koh Bida Nok 8 (outer) are great destinations for observing small marine creatures around walls, fringing reefs and scattered boulders.
2 Shark Point Marine Sanctuary (Hin Musang)
In 1992, two popular scuba diving sites became part of a marine sanctuary. A third site was added to the list in 1997. Hin Musang, locally referred to as Shark Point, consists of three submerged pinnacles lying north-to-south. Between them they have a high proportion of stony and soft corals at all depths. All manner of reef residents animate the otherwise fixed patterns of colour. Leopard Sharks are the main attraction here, and divers can observe these harmless bottom feeders at close hand. The site also features many cleaning stations hosted by a multitude of cleaning fish and shrimps, whose regular customers include a variety of snappers, jacks, trevally, mackerel and the occasional barracuda. Although the diving all around this site is impressive, the most concentrated presence of marine life is found at the southernmost pinnacle. This is a community all on its own with sea horses, Ghost Pipefish, damsels, wrasse, parrotfish, octopuses and a host of invertebrates.
Although the submerged pinnacle known as Anemone Reef 1 is now half its original size, the upper part of the pinnacle is once again covered in sea anemones hosted by numerous species of clownfish, and closer inspection reveals even more symbiotic residents: tiny anemone crabs and clear Cleaner shrimps, only visible by their translucent internal organs. Below these, enormous, healthy, Gorgonian Sea Fans form a backdrop to hovering prides of Indian Ocean Lionfish and large clusters of radiant soft tree corals.
The sanctuary’s third and most recent site was the cause of halving Anemone Reef. The King Cruiser Car Ferry 3 now sits in 32m (109ft) of water. The structure attracts a high diversity of marine life and the formation of an artificial reef is well under way. Daylight penetrates most of the wreck, but there are still a number of areas that would be better explored with the aid of an artificial light source. Divers intending to explore the murky interior should be aware that the once-proud vessel’s ceilings are no longer strong.
LIVE-ABOARD EXCURSIONS TO SITES FURTHER AFIELD
Mu Koh Similan Marine National Park
This, Thailand’s most talked about diving destination, rises above the Andaman Sea 92km (57 miles) northwest of Phuket, and was declared a marine national park in 1982. The surrounding 128 sq km (49 sq miles) were also included. With the exception of unnamed island number five, the islands are categorized by name and number, ascending northwards. The Royal Forestry Department has installed two offices and the duty rangers are the only permanent residents on any of the islands, although the Royal Thai Navy temporarily act as protector of a turtle rehabilitation project on Koh Huyong (island one).
The topography of the east and west coasts are in complete contrast. The former experiences milder weather conditions and has sheltered coastlines with sandy beaches underlined by gently sloping reefs. The more exposed west coast features weather-beaten boulders rising from the seabed, crowned by leaning trees, forced over by the heavy monsoon winds. These configurations continue beneath the water line. The western coastlines are typified by giant boulders tumbling down to the seabed; adjoining gaps are swept free of sand and coral fragments by strong currents during the harsher months, which clear the way for exciting tunnels, arches, caverns and crevices, all awaiting exploration, whereas other, more scattered, pinnacles and plateaus act as submerged auditoriums for pelagic enthusiasts.
There are over 200 recorded species of stony corals alone, along with an equally large, although not as apparent, variety of soft corals. Visibility sometimes tops the 30m (100ft) mark. There is, however, a drop during the country’s hottest months, when a rise in water temperature often results in a plankton bloom. This, in turn, increases the spectrum of marine life, which attracts pelagic visitors. Tuna, barracuda, jacks and trevallies are accompanied by Manta and Eagle Rays and the odd Whale Shark.
There is world-class diving to be found all around the archipelago. Starting off the northwest coast of Koh Bangu, island nine, the first site is Christmas Point 9.
Boulders of various shapes and sizes fringe the island’s northern shoreline in depths averaging 25m (80ft), increasing in size and depth towards the north. Their upper slopes are punctuated by Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals, which also fringe small rocky overhangs. Wide areas between the rocks are shared by varying amounts of stony corals, the most common being broad plate corals. The narrow gaps and steps act as cleaning stations for Giant Morays who are tended to by shrimps. Oriental sweetlips enjoy a similar service from cleanerfish and V-shaped squadrons can be seen patiently awaiting their turn around the site. The western quadrant of the site features a couple of wedge-shaped archways leading through an enormous rocky centrepiece. Passing through these dramatically alters the seascape and the feel of the dive. They also act as escape routes if the current suddenly picks up, which tends to happen here.
A matrix of submerged boulders rise from the seabed around 50m (165ft) from the northwestern coastline of Koh Similan (island eight), spreading out towards the west. These scattered plateaus have several names, the most common of which is Fantasy Reef 10. The site was declared out-of-bounds between 2000 and 2003 to allow the corals time to recover from diver damage, although the damage was more likely to have been caused by fishing nets. The site comprises extensive rocky mounds, connected by wide gullies to other solitary pinnacles marking out the perimeter. The higher rocky platforms sit 14m (45ft) below the surface, while others drop to below 40m (130ft). Large crevices split the otherwise unbroken surfaces in leaf-vein formations, the main arteries of which are flanked by impressive gorgonias. The adjoining thoroughfares are used as ambushes and lairs by a variety of reef fish and Giant Moray Eels. The diversity of marine life in every part of this site is outstanding. A variety of triggerfish mingle with schools of parrotfish, Coral Groupers, lionfish and sweetlips.
The bottom composition is fragmented coral substrate. This is the home of the tiny, but magnificent Ribbon Eel. Both the blue-bodied adults and black juveniles are seen frequently. The best way to locate these eels is by looking out for Purple Fire Gobies (Decorated Dartfish) that hover slightly above the bottom; the eels are never far away.
Fringing the island’s opposite coast is Beacon Reef 11, the longest continuous coral structure in the island group. The reef flat sits in an average of 5m (16ft) and comprises many examples of Brain corals, heavily punctuated by clusters of Staghorn, all rich with colourful reef fish such as damsels, wrasse, parrot and surgeonfish. The coral formations remain constant over the southern section of the reef, with examples increasing in size with depth as they appear on the reef slopes. Stony leaf corals such as Lettuce Corals mix with a variety of horizontal plates. The fish life is similar to that found in shallower water, although the presence is higher and examples larger. It is not uncommon to see small Whitetip Reef Sharks swagger by over the sands in the depths. The sandy bottom begins where the reef leaves off in around the 28m (92ft) mark and slowly tapers away into the abyss. The shallower part of this area is liberally punctuated by a chain of bommies covered in soft coral, whose colourful presence is further enriched by orange and blue encrusting sponges and multicoloured feather stars. The reef’s southern tip is referred to as Beacon Point 12, and is popular for observing stingrays gliding over the seabed and also in the shallower waters. There have been more encounters with Manta and Eagle Rays here than anywhere else in the marine national park.
In Orangestriped Triggerfish (Balistapus undulatus) mature males lose most of the orange lines over the snout.
The Lutjanidae family, more commonly known as snappers, are frequently seen in the Indian Ocean.
This Tiger Tail Sea Horse (Hippocampus comes) can be found by peering into dark recesses and under ledges.
To the immediate southwest, Elephant Head Rock 13 is a cluster of weather-beaten boulders, the larger and southernmost of which resembles a swimming elephant’s head: hence the name. The underwater terrain is breathtaking. The dive takes you around boulders, many with a circumference in excess of 30m (100ft), creating narrow passages and alleyways. The outer surfaces of these underwater monoliths are occasionally highlighted by an encrusting sponge, but inside the passageways most of the upper surfaces are covered with colourful soft corals. The seabed drops to beyond 30m (100ft) to the east of the main and largest structure, which is also a good place for nudibranch spotting.
Mu Koh Surin Marine National Park
This park, consisting of granite islands and two rocky outcrops, covers an area of 135 sq km (52 sq miles). The largest island, Koh Surin Nua has an area of 19 sq km (7 sq miles), and to the immediate southwest its neighbour, Koh Surin Tai, covers 12 sq km (5 sq miles). These two islands are covered with primary evergreen forest, fringed with mangrove forests occasionally broken by beaches. There are only three locations inhabited by humans on the northern island: the park headquarters on the western shoreline, a small fishing community, and a Chao Ley (sea gypsy) village on the southern coast.
The coral formations here are predominantly fringing reefs in that they circumscribe, at least in part, small islets, rocky outcroppings and submerged pinnacles. Koh Surin Nua boasts several interesting locations such as Mai Ngam14 on the western coast, where one can catch glimpses of Green and Hawks-bill Turtles as they come ashore to start the arduous task of laying their eggs.
Gorgonian Sea Fans are found at right angles to strong currents, predominantly in deeper water. These expansive coral structures attract all manner of marine creatures.
Of the Koh Surin Tai sites, Turtle Ledge 15, is the most impressive and named for the frequent sightings of turtles, in particular the Hawksbill, although there are other visitors, including triggerfish, snappers and sweetlips. The higher portions of the reef slope have many examples of sea anemones, and False Clown or Ocellated Anemonefish. In other areas, clusters of Stag and Elkhorn Corals climb over Giant clams, this particular species being the largest of the giant clam family.
To the northeast of the islands, Koh Chi 16 is among the best locations to observe large visiting pelagics such as Great Barracuda, Dog-tooth Tuna, Threadfin Trevally and Bigeye Trevallies. It is also a good place for observing turtles on their way to and from Koh Surin Nua - even the rarely seen Leatherback has been spotted here in recent years.
The reef at Koh Torinla 17 extends for around one kilometre (⅔ mile), at which many species of marine life have to date been identified, 15 of which were different species of sea slug, or nudibranch. Coral Groupers shelter beneath many corals, and many members of the chromis family dart among large tables of staghorns. There are many shelves of rocks at varying depths, all with different features. The shallower ones host hermit crabs, cleaner shrimps and colourful feather stars.
About 14km (9 miles) to the east of the two Surin Islands lies the area’s star attraction: Richelieu Rock 18. This five-pronged series of pinnacles attracts so many Whale Sharks with such regularity that some consider them to be residents. But even if visitors are unlucky enough to miss them, there is a wealth of other creatures to see. Three southern pinnacles sit in 22m (72ft) and feature large numbers of orange Gorgonian Sea Fans, immediately beneath many-hued soft corals. Scorpionfish, stonefish, moray eels, long spined sea urchins, shrimps, crabs and colourful nudibranchs can always be found among the rocky crevices. The radiant hermatypic corals also harbour a wide diversity of marine life: common residents include Schooling Bannerfish, Blackspot and Humpback Snappers, Indian Ocean and Spotfin Lionfish, Moorish idols and Titan triggerfish.
Since this is the only food source in the immediate area, it is a first-class location for spotting large pelagics, with plenty of species to choose from: Rainbow Runners, Great Barracuda, trevallies, tuna and jacks. The seabed here consists of sand mixed with fragmented coral substrate and is home to a variety of molluscs, including some large squid, octopuses and a variety of gastropods, mainly Lister’s conch. However, the nocturnally active Cone and Mitre shells are also in abundance. Other attractions of the deep include Guitarfish with their half-shark half-ray body and, on a much smaller scale, the Tiger Tail Sea Horse. Above these, many clumps of Tubastrea corals have fallen prey to Golden Wendletrap Snails, their skeletal remains left to act as egg hatcheries.
THE DEEP SOUTH
In the deep south, again on the live-aboard circuit, are the two attractions of Hin Daeng and Hin Mouang.
The numbers and health of both reef inhabitants and pelagics here are exceptional. Open-ocean fish are often found in strong water movement, because it stimulates their desire to hunt. Large schools come in to feed, Great, Chevron and Yellowtail Barracuda, Dogtooth Tuna, Rainbow Runners, Longfin Trevally and other jacks are almost resident. Lastly, a much larger visitor, the enormous Whale Shark, provides welcome encounters. This is onother of the top destinations in Southeast Asia for encounters with this gentle giant. Another of the ocean’s graceful creatures, the Manta Ray, is also a frequent visitor.
19 HIN MOUANG
The name of this submerged mountain means Purple Rock and refers to the rich garden of purple sea anemones carpeting the top of the most prominent pinnacle which sits in about 16m (52ft). The southernmost configuration begins as a sheer wall which descends to a narrow platform at about 40m (130ft) before it plummets further, to more than 70m (230ft). There are a number of narrow valleys breaking the otherwise solid infrastructure, which are almost obscured by Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals and Gorgonian Sea Fans.
There is a prominent cavern, about 50m (165ft) wide, almost midway in the length of the structure. However, it does not cut through the rock as do the smaller examples, but breaks off halfway and changes course along its length, splitting the infrastructure. This rocky blockade provides great shelter in adverse currents, and because of the diversity and colour of the marine life found in the gorge, it is also one of the highlights of the site. At night Painted Rock Lobsters look like a regimental guard along narrow shelves and tunnels in the walls, and the eyes of cleaner shrimps and minute reef crabs reflect the light in the form of tiny red dots. On a larger, and more obvious scale, Giant Morays cause a temporary increase in divers’ air consumption as they abandon their lairs for the night to participate, along with the motionless scorpionfish, in their own particular style of nocturnal hunting.
20 HIN DAENG
Unlike its close neighbour, Hin Daeng, or Red Rock, does break the water’s surface; but only at low tide. This rock is named after the red Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals which adorn its upper slopes and walls. The drop continues as a series of walls with intermittent shelves, all decorated with varying amounts of coral heads, sea whips and carpet anemones. The diversity of everyday marine life is grand and ranges from tiny invertebrates to intimidating Grey Reef Sharks in the depths. The latter are actually quite timid and often flee at the exhalation of divers’ bubbles. Other shark encounters here include Variegated (Leopard), which are usually around the southern section of the site. This area comprises two elevated ridges divided by a steep slope of small corals and more rocks; rather like a giant horse-shoe. The inner section is great for spotting an unusual selection of marine life, with no particular pattern to it. There are cuttlefish and Common Reef Octopus, lionfish and scorpionfish, the odd stonefish, also morays, mantis shrimps and sea kraits (snakes). Schools of various snappers are also present, but they tend to pass by. The Leopard sharks seem to be content with chasing after one another, cat-and-mouse style around and between small jutting pinnacles. Although surrounded by pinnacles rather than sand dunes, the centre section of this site is a bit like an oasis, in that it provides shelter for many temporary inhabitants. Stingrays, Coral Groupers and pufferfish all take advantage.
Claims that this area is being destroyed by blast fishing is spread by inexperienced observers, who don’t realize that the terrain here has always looked rugged. Not everywhere underwater is a kaleidoscope of colour - in most cases you have to look for it. Unfortunately, this undeserved bad press has deterred many a diver from visiting the area. Don’t be put off by rumour, it would be such a shame to miss this site out.
MERGUI ARCHIPELAGO MYANMAR (BURMA)
Described as one of the most scenic and charming island groups in Southeast Asia, the Mergui Archipelago comprises no less than 804 islands, islets and rocky outcrops. The dive sites here differ from those off Western Thailand in that coral representation is more sporadic and not as colourful. The underwater terrain is a lot more rugged and visibility tends to be slightly less. However, the area has two draw cards: firstly, there’s the big fish, namely sharks, rays and a wealth of pelagics; and secondly, a handful of the sites are teeming with minute reef inhabitants.
21 BLACK ROCK
About halfway up the archipelago, a solitary craggy outcrop sits proud of the water by some 20m (65ft), spreading more than five times that, from east to west. The southern side of the rock drops off to varying depths and at different angles. In places it is sheer, in others it drops down ledges and over enormous boulders. The southwestern end of the site features a series of granite plateaus sloping away slightly from the main rock. Their surfaces are almost completely obscured by low-lying pink and white bushes of Den-dronephthya soft corals, among which chains of scorpionfish, and Common Reef Octopus, lie incognito. On a smaller scale, but with a slightly more obvious presence, are a host of tiny hawkfish and blennies, all flitting around nervously. The outer faces of these plateaus descend below 40m (130ft) and these deeper waters are the preferred location for sighting Grey Reef Sharks as they circle round, gradually approaching a wide gully that separates this colourful area from the main rocky structure. Sometimes other sharks grace the waters with their presence, including the majestic Whale Shark.
Close inspection of the main structure reveals the likes of almost transparent shrimps, minute coral snails and Crinoid crabs, surreal nudibranchs and a mixture of celaphods (octopus and squid) with colours adjusted to blend in with their backgrounds.
The layout of the opposing reef differs in that it descends more gradually over a jumble of rocks of varying sizes, reaching a more steady depth at about 30m (100ft) where it meets the sandy seabed. Banded Sea Kraits and a variety of moray eels meander around the gaps in search of food and use the many dark recesses, not only as lairs, but as places to get tended to by cleaning invertebrates.
22 WESTERN ROCKY
The southernmost destination, it lies some 82km (51 miles) southwest of Kaw Thaung on Victoria Point. Above the water, it looks like a collection of rocky pillars in varying sizes. This site differs from others in the area in that the reefs are separated - either to fringe the larger of the outcrops individually, or to connect the adjoining smaller ones. On the rocks, Banded Sea Kraits twist by sea anemones tended to by porcelain crabs, shrimps and a selection of anemonefish, while deeper down large cowries punctuate Gorgonian Sea Fans. In the wide ravines below, among the coral substrate seabed, Ribbon Eels mingle with burrowing prawn gobies and pistol shrimps which, in turn, are passed over by groups of amorous cuttlefish in their search for partners.
The biggest rocky structure features a couple of caves, the largest of which has an entrance in the southern wall next to a splendid rocky archway covered in corals. The entrance can be found in around 20m (65ft) and it continues as a tunnel with walls and ceiling frequently broken by crevices. There are shelves full of Painted Rock Lobsters; their eyes reflecting the diver’s artificial light. After a relatively short distance the tunnel dips to the right, into a small bowl formation. This occasionally hosts an irritable 2m (6ft) Nurse Shark. The tunnel has two exits. The larger, preferred one, is to the right. The other exit is a lot smaller and often blocked by a number of Nurse Sharks. The other cave is smaller and not nearly as exciting, although at the entrance there are at least three anglerfish as well as lion, scorpion and stonefish, and is worth checking out.
During mating the male Pharaoh Cuttlefish (Sepia pharaonis) uses a modified arm to place packets of sperm into a pouch beneath the females’s mouth.
Roving Coralgrouper (Plectropomus pessuliferus) are often seen waiting their turn at one of the cleaning stations around coral reefs.
23 THE BISHOPS FANCY, THE THREE ISLETS
Three unnamed rocky outcrops lie immediately north of Great Swinton Island. The largest, central, outcrop features small creatures and large predators. The average depth is 20m (65ft) and in places it is deeper than 30m (100ft). Beneath the waves the islet is split in two from west to east by a canyon, which becomes narrower as you pass through it. The western end is marked by a large solitary rock with prominent ripples in the sand to each side. Behind this rock the gorge twists to the right and then follows through an archway highlighted by orange and yellow encrusting sponges. Beyond the arch is a small hole in the rocky floor, only large enough for a single diver to drop into. This opens into a small, low cave. It is very dark, but torchlight often reveals as many as five sleeping Nurse Sharks, some of them stacked. Returning to the underwater canyon can be an adventure as this is where Grey Reef Sharks and stingrays can be seen swimming nose to tail. Unfortunately, they are fairly nervous creatures and don’t hang around for very long.
Exiting the crevice brings you to an area teeming with tiny invertebrates and curious marine life - perfect for macro enthusiasts. Shrimps, eels, a number of shells and even sea horses are all regular sightings, along with ghost pipefish, anglerfish (frogfish) and the not-so-commonplace basket star.
INDIA - ANDAMAN AND NICOBAR ISLANDS
The Andaman and Nicobar archipelagos comprise 572 islands nestled in the Bay of Bengal. They are also collectively referred to as Little India, although the islands are more commonly recognized as two separate groups. The Andaman Islands cover an area of about 352km (219 miles) top to bottom by 51km (32 miles) across. This narrow archipelago comprises five main islands: North, Middle, South and Great Andaman (the latter being the combination of Baratang and Rutland Islands). Port Blair on South Andaman is the islands’ capital and administrative centre.
Harlequin Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) give birth to hundreds of minute, perfectly formed offspring, which are nursed in the male’s pouch.
To the east of the main island chain lies the uninhabited volcanic mound of Barren Island, the only active volcano in the Indian territories. Beyond this, heading further north is the Special Armoured Post (SAP) at Narcondam Island, which oversees the northern approaches. Both are favoured diving destinations. While cruising between these islands, sightings of dolphins, flying fish and even the rare Dugong are possible.
To date world-class diving sites have been discovered to the north and south of the island groups, particularly along the islands’ eastern coastlines and offshore islands. That is not to say that there are no prime sites around the opposite coastlines; these remain to be discovered during future exploration. The diversity of marine life and the corals found so far in this area is well represented and occur through a range of depths, with the deeper waters experiencing the higher proportion of enormous Gorgonian Sea Fans and bursts of radiant Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals. There are high-voltage dives along sheer walls and around submerged pinnacles and plateaus. Equally enjoyable is a healthy supply of fringing and offshore reefs. Colourful reef fish abound as do invertebrates and a selection of turtles, a high proportion of which are familiar sights at a network of cleaning stations. Some of these serve large customers such as Great Barracuda and a variety of large rays, including Manta and Eagle. Large pelagics are plentiful, as are a variety of sharks such as, in order of frequency: Blacktip and Whitetip, Grey Reef, Silvertip, and hammerhead. Narcondam Island also has its own attraction for the occasional Whale Shark.
24 BARREN ISLAND
Barren Island is located some 137km (85 miles) northeast of Port Blair. The sloping sides of blackened rocks, rolling ash and hardened lava flow right down and beyond the water’s edge at this 305m (1000ft) high conical island. Due to the heavy volcanic soil, the visibility underwater is usually good. Depths vary enormously. Walls and slopes drop to 40m (130ft) and may level out briefly before plummeting back down to beyond 600m (1970ft). Looking down it is common to see reef sharks and the odd Silvertip on patrol.
The diving here is in complete contrast to other sites in the area. It follows sheer walls, occasionally broken by steep, undulating hills of volcanic soil. Directly off the northwestern point of the island the seascape drops in places to 80m (260ft), levels out to form a wide canyon and then climbs back over a narrow crest to around 40m (130ft). The outer wall of the crest then drops to beyond 120m (400ft). This location is an enjoyable dive, but corals only have an erratic presence, as do bushes of white stinging hydroids. The almost slate-like walls and deep ledges are adequately represented in the world of colour, courtesy of feather stars and orange and blue sponges. The majority of reef fish here tend to be either angel or butterfly fish, which seem to be in their juvenile stage.
The ashen slopes dissecting the drop-offs are punctuated by a variety of gobies, including the magnificent Purple Fire Gobies (Decorated Dartfish). A great selection of nudibranchs brightens the many dark rocks in the soil. The depths of this underwater canyon are almost constantly patrolled by large sharks, including Blacktip, Whitetip and Grey Reef and Silvertips. Large schools of pelagics rise from the abyss in search of prey, and there are regular sightings of Dogtooth Tuna, Giant and Chevron Barracuda and Rainbow Runners.
This lush rainforest-covered island lies some 259km (161 miles) east of Port Blair. This island acts as the northern gateway to the archipelago. It offers a few dive sites, one of which is Lighthouse Point 25, although the lighthouse is actually a warning beacon on the northwestern point of the island. It has an average depth of around 25m (80ft) and a maximum depth of 40m (130ft). The formation underwater is, apart from the dead trees, similar to that on the surface, in that it continues to taper off in the same direction until it reaches an area of enormous geometric boulders at 32m (105ft). Their cheek-by-jowl formation is highlighted by clumps of soft corals and large Gorgonian Sea Fans; there is also a fair representation of other marine life milling about, particularly small reef sharks, unicornfish and sweetlips. Drifting back into the shallows takes you over terraces of plate corals and rocks blanketed with encrusting sponges - a great place for nudibranch enthusiasts.
There’s a small Rocky outcrop in the bay to the south of the SAP Lookout Post. Called The Estate 26, it is a series of enormous, craggy, towering rocks. The dive takes you around and through cavernous alleyways, which separate these submerged tower blocks, with patches of encrusting sponges and the occasional splash of Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals brightening up the otherwise stony faces. The fish life in the depths is big and includes a group of resident Malabar Grouper and intimidating shoals of oversized tuna. There is plenty of smaller stuff to see here, such as Purple Fire Gobies, Oriental Sweetlips, Indian Ocean Lionfish, fairy basslets and the odd moray, the shallows are a good place for nudibranchs.
27 INVISIBLE BANK, FLAT ROCK
Flat Rock lies dangerously, depending on the tide level, slightly above or below the water line at the southern end of Invisible Bank, about 100km (62 miles) to the southeast of Port Blair. The average depth here is 12m (40ft) with the waters around the Bank dropping down to below 35m (115ft). Invisible Bank itself is an extensive rocky plateau featuring few live corals, except in some sheltered areas. Marine life is good, but scattered. Flat Rock, however, is a different scenario. Again, there are few corals, but the topography is dramatic, with scattered rocks over a sandy bottom, and the concentration of fish can be remarkable. The reef life is especially noteworthy, with schools of unicorns, surgeons, trigger, grouper and sweetlips. Grey and Whitetip Reef Sharks are usually patrolling, as are pelagics such as mackerel, tuna, barracuda and trevally.
The Ningaloo Reef is the longest fringing reef in the world and provides many beautiful, safe bays and dive sites.
Esperance is well endowed with picturesque bays and islands. Enormous granite boulders also provide spectacular underwater scenery with temperate water invertebrates.