Some in the travel industry fear the emergence of virtual tourism; we're not in that camp. We know that seeing somewhere on a screen - even if you are able to turn your head or move your mouse to see more - is no substitute for a real dive in a gloriously remote location. What virtual tourism can be, though, is a great teaser for the sorts of diving you'll be doing again one day soon and, for now, virtual dives are the best antidote for divers desperate to get beneath the waves. So settle in for a virtual tour (a 'sofari', if you will) of some of the most amazing underwater experiences on the planet, all with a healthy dollop of that Original Diving secret sauce: unparalleled expertise and a love of the little details that can bring these dive destinations even more vividly to life.
Great Hammerheads, Bimini, the Bahamas
Located around 50 miles off the coast of Florida in the northern Bahamas, the two tiny islands of Bimini benefit from the presence of the Gulf Stream, which brings a hugely diverse range of species to these waters, including bull sharks, nurse sharks, juvenile lemon sharks in the mangroves, stingrays and, of course, the stars of this particular 360 film: great hammerheads.
'There are at least nine species of hammerhead,' explains Louisa Fisher, Head of Original Diving and Conde Nast Traveller Dive Specialist, 'with the great hammerhead the largest at between nine and 12ft long. It is not fully known why they congregate here specifically, but between December and April (with peak time being January and February), great hammerheads show up in around eight metres of crystal clear turquoise waters to make this the most exhilarating of dives. Each dive can last over two hours in such shallow water, and the inquisitive sharks circle, giving you plenty of time to absorb the beauty and elegance of this species. Great hammerheads are solitary, so generally only one or two show up, but alongside the hammerheads, bull and nurse sharks often add to the spectacle. When you're not diving, you can head off on a trip to swim with the wild spotted dolphins. All in all, a pretty special destination!'
The Maldives Underwater Initiative, Laamu Atoll, Maldives
The Maldives Underwater Initiative (or MUI), is an admirable marine conservation set-up at Six Senses Laamu, which just happens to be one of our favourite places in the Maldives, both for the resort itself and the diving. The team is made up of marine biologists working in partnership with three onsite NGOs: the Manta Trust, the Blue Marine Foundation and the Olive Ridley Project (for olive ridley turtles), who lead marine conservation efforts in the Maldives based around research, education and community outreach.
'On my visit in early 2020,' says Louisa, 'I spent time with the Manta Trust talking about the work they do, a large part of which is educating the local community on the reef mantas that are ever-present in Laamu Atoll. One of the Manta Trust team, Nicole, explained how she spends time with local school children, talking to them about the mantas, and on one island teaching the children to snorkel with one particular juvenile manta that spent much of its early life in the shallows. She described the love that the children have developed for these majestic creatures now they can see them themselves. They have also worked on this incredible 360 video of a reef manta which they show the local community with virtual reality goggles. It's almost as good as the real thing!'
Giant Oceanic Mantas, Socorro, Mexico
There are very few places in the world where you are virtually guaranteed to dive with dolphins, both species of manta ray, enormous bait balls and a staggering ten species of shark. And only one where, depending on the month, spotting whale sharks, humpback whales and hundreds of hammerheads is also a very real possibility. Introducing Mexico's Revillagigedo Archipelago, better known as Socorro, where a fortunate conflation of currents has resulted in some of the richest biomass of marine life in the world. In fact, this corner of the globe is so special that Mission Blue, the conservation brainchild of legendary Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, declared it a 'hope spot', imperative to the health of the ocean. In short, this is where the big fish gather.
'In this virtual reality 360 video,' says Louisa, 'you are diving "The Boiler" at San Benedicto Island. With steep sides resembling furrowed concrete, this large extinct volcano rises dramatically from a 50-metre shelf up to within two metres (at low tide) of the ocean surface. This is quite simply the best site in the world for close-up interactions with giant oceanic mantas. Specifically, the mantas here are known to interact with divers and hover above your bubbles so they tickle their bellies. Then there are pods of playful resident bottlenose dolphins (insider tip: mimic their movements and they will come to take a closer look at you). Look out to the big blue and you might, depending on the month, also spot whale sharks and schooling scalloped hammerheads alongside the regulars (Galapagos sharks, whitetips, silkies…the list goes on).'
Diving in Komodo, Indonesia
Home to some of the very best diving on Earth, Indonesia sits within the Coral Triangle, the area with the highest marine biodiversity on our planet. We find ourselves and our clients being drawn back to Indonesia again and again for the incredible biodiversity that can be seen underwater, across 17,000 islands with so many different dive spots that you could never get bored. One such spot is Komodo, home to the dragon and magical underwater scenes.
'This video,' says Louisa, 'takes you through some of the absolute highlights in the Komodo region, and showcases just why we keep going back again and again. My personal highlights include 00:45, where you see the most healthy and colourful coral reefs, teeming with small reef fish. A particular favourite of mine is the shallow dive of "Batu Bolong", where red anthias dart in and out of the reef as the current surges through this exhilarating site. At 01:23 you see the incredible "Bubble Reef" or "Hot Rocks" dive site, located on the black sandy foot of the volcanic Sangeang Island. As the volcano is active, streams of bubbles of volcanic gases rise from the seabed against a backdrop of kaleidoscopic corals. At 01:31, as well as the colourful corals and bigger life such as mantas, you can see how Komodo is also an excellent spot for macro and muck diving. Bottletail squid, Pikachu nudibranch and harlequin shrimp are among the critters you can see in this video. At 02:36 it's mantas galore! You can see a number of individuals displaying feeding behaviour off an island. If you are lucky enough to experience this underwater, it is hard to beat. Mantas are filter-feeders and have been seen to execute this in a number of different ways, one being "chain-feeding", where the mantas form a chain of as many as several dozen individuals moving through the water, taking it in turns to be at the front. Indonesia lends itself particularly well to liveaboard diving, such as aboard Mermaid II in this video. There are so many sites to be explored in remote locations that a liveaboard really gets you off the beaten track and to the very best spots.'
Schooling Scalloped Hammerheads, Cocos Island, Costa Rica
In our last blog, we touched on the phenomenon of schooling scalloped hammerheads, an experience that should be sloshing around at the top of every diver's bucket list. But why do they do this?
'The schools typically form seasonally,' explains Louisa, 'during the day, and around remote seamounts and oceanic islands. The sharks then disperse at night to hunt. The exact reason as to why they form schools is unknown but there are several theories, including socialising and protection or, as suggested in this BBC video, mating. There's sense in this because in some schools, it has been observed that the large, more sexually mature females take up a dominant position at the centre of the school, with the smaller females on the "outskirts". The males will then swim into the middle of the school hoping to mate with the more reproductively fit and bigger females. Whatever the reason, it's a spectacular thing to witness, and our favourite locations to see these schools of scalloped hammerheads include Wolf and Darwin Islands in the Galapagos, Socorro of the coast of Mexico, the Cocos Islands off the coast of Costa Rica (as featured in the film) and more recently, in the remote Banda Sea of Indonesia.'
Chuuk Lagoon Wreck Diving, Micronesia
In 1944, at the height of the Pacific War between the USA and Japan during WWII, a massive surface and air attack known as 'Operation Hailstone' saw a significant portion of the Japanese fleet sunk. 76 years later, the wrecks lie on the sandy bottom of Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia, and still retain much of their structure and history while becoming home to an incredible amount of marine life. The wrecks sit in between five and 60 metres of water and some of the larger vessels are up to 155 metres long.
'There is a huge amount of variety in terms of the types of vessels you can dive,' says Louisa. 'There's Fujikawa Maru, an aircraft transport ship where you can see aircraft cockpits, gas masks and artillery shells, to San Francisco Maru, which was being used to carry military cargo and still has three tanks sitting on her deck. There is so much to see on each and every wreck and the thrill of weaving deep into the engine room of a vessel that cruised the surface over half a century ago is like no other. While wrecks have not always been the top of my list, my trip to Chuuk Lagoon is still one of the best diving trips I have ever done. Aside from the fascinating history, the marine life that inhabits these wrecks is stunning. The wrecks are thickly coated in hard and (particularly) soft corals of every colour and the fish life is excellent too. Chuuk Lagoon is seriously remote, and the operations out there are limited, which is why I always recommend The Odyssey liveaboard, not only first-class in terms of safety, but with an exceptionally knowledgeable team on board. Being able to learn about each wreck in great detail and hearing where to look for the most interesting artefacts - such as Japanese books where you can still read the writing, or old intact uniforms - makes a huge difference to your diving experience. This team really does know it all. While an underwater video is never going to rival the real thing, this 360 video goes some way to showing you quite how incredible an experience it is.'