Just as mountain climbers set their sites on ascending the world's highest or most challenging peaks, so too scuba divers tend to plan their vacations around taking on key dive sites around the world. Apart from exploring the ocean's stunning barrier reefs and coral atolls, shipwrecks provide some of the most appealing and desirable locations, both from a historical and marine life perspective. And once you've dived one shipwreck, the experience becomes rather addictive. An added bonus is that most of the world's most highly recognized shipwreck sites happen to be in stunning international locales, making a scuba vacation more than just a dip in the ocean.
In general, diving wrecks is not for the novice diver. Many are at depths that require decompression stops and more advanced open water training and experience is the norm. Although some may argue in favor of alternate sites, these four sites are considered some of the world's top places to experience the beauty and majesty of diving and exploring maritime history. Some are relics of wartime, specifically World War II, and for that reason are located in exotic destinations in the South Pacific and Middle East, while others succumbed to climatic conditions and natural disasters, sinking them into the abyss.
1. Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
The massive and largely intact SS Thistlegorm was sunk by the Germans in 1941 and descended to a watery grave in the Red Sea off the coast of what was once the Israeli resort town and is now the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula. Sharm itself is considered one of the best dive resort towns in the world with five-star hotels, sophisticated dining options and a distinctively international flavor. The crystal clear warm waters of the Red Sea are a kaleidoscope of color, coral and marine life. What makes this wreck site so inviting is its sheer size and its ease of accessibility -- you can reach it by boat during a day trip or include it as part of a multi-day live aboard dive safari.
The site is also located in just 100 feet of water with its bow at just 45 feet in depth. It is over four hundred feet long so may require several dives to explore the inside and out completely. Divers can make their way through the ship's holds and discover wartime cargo like guns, ammunition, trucks, motorbikes, and general supplies. The site was discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the 1950s but only became popular in the early 1990s and ever since has remained one of the world's most desired dive wrecks.
Divers International (www.diversintl.com) runs daily boat trips out to the wreck site departing from Sharm at 4am and returning by 5pm. The day includes two dives at the wreck and an optional third dive at Ras Mohammed National Park. The cost of €174 per person (plus 10% tax) includes tanks and refills, weights, guiding, transportation to and from the dive sites, all equipment and lunch, snacks and drinks on board.
Red Sea Diving College (www.redseacollege.com) is Sharm's main dive operator and school and they offer daily trips out to the Thistlegorm priced at €157 per diver plus €30 for all equipment. Alternatively, experience the best of the Red Sea with a seven night live aboard on the VIP One. The price of €880 per person based on double occupancy (November departures) includes airport transfers, three to four guided dives per day in the Red Sea's best dive sites, tanks, refills, weights and belt, and full board with mineral water, tea, and coffee. Dive the Northern Red Sea from the Straits of Tiran to Ras Mohamed and the Straits of Gubal including the Red Sea wrecks Thistlegorm , Dunraven, Giannis D, and Carnatic.
You can fly to Sharm regularly from the New York with one stop in Cairo on Egypt Air (www.egyptair.com), a member of the Star Alliance. Flights start from $960 plus $215 in taxes for departures in November, 2009.
2. Queensland, Australia
Although the Great Barrier Reef is probably the best known dive location in Australia (and possibly the world), this natural attraction is also home to the SS Yongala, a sensational shipwreck. The Yongala was hit by a cyclone in 1911 and tragically sank with 122 passengers onboard. Nearly half a century later, she was discovered, and by then the area's rich marine life had taken over the wreck and created a spectacular artificial reef inhabited by a huge array of sea turtles, tiger sharks, barracudas, eagle rays, and giant groupers among others. In fact, you'll find a larger concentration of fish and other marine life here than in any other spot on the Great Barrier Reef.
The wreck now lies on its starboard side in 46 to 92 feet of water and at 330 feet long is the largest and most intact, historic shipwreck in Australian waters. The site is located a 30-minute boat ride off the coast of the town of Ayr, about 53 miles south of the Northern Queensland city of Townsville. Yongala Dive (www.yongaladive.com.au) offers one-day diving trips out to the Yongala, including two dives, all equipment, a BBQ lunch, drinks and snacks for A$220 per person. A two-day excursion, with four dives and full gear is A$420. The can also arrange for you to stay overnight at Yongala Lodge for A$27 per person for a bed in a dormitory or A$65 for two in a room queen room, breakfast included. A package featuring one day diving and two nights' accommodations is priced at A$270 or A$470 for two days of diving and two nights' accommodations. Mooring fees and reef tax of A$19 per person per day is additional.
Townsville is accessible by regular flights on Virgin Blue and Qantas from various cities on the Australian east coast including Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. If you are flexible with your dates, you can pick up discounted flights to Townsville via Brisbane or Sydney flying V Australia (www.vaustralia.com). Several November departures are priced from approximately $1,160 out of Los Angeles including all taxes.
The SS President Coolidge started her life as an ocean liner but was converted into an army transport vessel during World War II. En route to bringing reinforcements to American troops in the South Pacific, she was struck by a mine and sunk off the coast of the beautiful island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu creating the largest and most accessible of the World War II wrecks in the region. She sits on her port side in depths of 60 to 180 feet and is over 600 feet in length. Coral grows all around the wreck and many sea creatures such as sea turtles, lion fish, barracuda, and moray eels call the wreck home. There are also guns, cannons, jeeps, helmets, trucks, medical supplies as well as the beautiful porcelain statue of a lady, a swimming pool chandeliers and a mosaic tile fountain -- legacies of her former life as a luxury liner. Experienced divers can now swim through the expansive engine room, the dining room, or along the promenade deck and there are dozens of different dives you can do to visit different parts of the ship -- from the engine room to the library, cargo holds to the Captain's bathroom.
Australian-based scuba company Academy of Scuba (www.academyofscuba.com.au) offers a special dive package specifically for diving the Coolidge. The price is A$1755 per diver and A$1231 for non-divers. That price includes round-trip flights from Brisbane (obviously you have to get to Brisbane first), seven nights' accommodations at the Deco Stop Lodge quad share dormitory room, continental breakfast daily, return airport transfers, ten shore dives with Aquamarine (www.aquamarinesanto.com) the main dive provider on the island, and Australian departure taxes. Optional accommodation upgrades are available to twin share for A$126 per person. Vanuatu departure tax is additional. Vanuatu is easiest to get to from either Australia or New Zealand and there are weekly non-stop flights from Sydney or Brisbane to Espiritu Santo on Air Vanuatu (www.airvanuatu.com) starting from around A$650 round-trip, or you can fly daily via the Vanuatu capital, Port Vila.
4. British Virgin Islands
The 19th century steamship RMS Rhone was originally commissioned to transport mail and passengers between England and the Caribbean but sank during a hurricane off the coast of Salt Island in 1867. The ship's bow, including the sharp prow, mast and lifeboat davits, can be seen from the surface. It is largely intact and lies in 80 feet of water with a giant, 15-foot propeller looming beneath the stern. Her hull is covered with coral attracting an abundance of fish, octopus and giant green moray eels. Although there is no real penetration diving (i.e. most sections are accessible without requiring entering small areas), she remains a popular and challenging dive site and is protected as a Marine National Park. The wreck was actually featured in the 1970s film The Deep. At least two dives are needed to cover both the bow and the stern sections of the Rhone, but you'll want to do more. You can access the shipwreck by boat or dive tours from Tortola or Virgin Gorda which are easily reached by ferry from St. John or St. Thomas .
Sunchaser Scuba (www.sunchaserscuba.com) runs twice-weekly trips out to the RMS Rhone (Wednesdays and Saturdays) from Virgin Gorda. A two-dive trip costs $175 per person plus equipment rental (approximately $60). From Tortola, you can use Aquaventure (www.aquaventurebvi.com), which has regular boat trips out to the Rhone for $300 for three two tank dives (prices include, boat use, guided underwater tour, National Parks fee, tanks and weight belt, but other equipment rental is additional). Fly to St Thomas from around $400 on American Airlines (www.aa.com) out of New York, including all taxes during the month of November. From there, the high-speed ferry to Tortola (www.tortolafastferry.com) is $30 one way or $55 round-trip and a taxi to get you from the airport to the ferry terminal will set you back $8 each way.
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