Deep Dive: 12 Hotels With World-Class Scuba

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Swimming with sharks, gliding through schools of clownlike fish, exploring caves and the ocean at night. There might be no greater adventure on this planet than diving into the 70 percent of it that is water. Luckily, luxurious seaside hotels offer water that is warm and clear, along with PADI-accredited guides to lead you beneath the surface where the action is. It’s true that the seas are changing, with marine life endangered by overfishing, ocean acidification and other man-made threats, but many scuba-friendly resorts have created ways for guests to pitch in on conservation. Some of those options are among the 12 properties below where the diving is extraordinary.

Amanwana

Moyo Island, Indonesia

Hang out with reef sharks and manta rays on the walls and cays of Moyo Island, a rainforest reserve in Indonesia’s Flores Sea. At the center of Amanwana’s tent-style suites, the airy bar is the place for diver tales over drinks. With visibility around 60 feet and water temperatures in the 80s, the shallow reef dives — to no more than 60 feet — make for mellow scuba not far from your barstool.

Venture farther on an expedition aboard Amanikan, a six-cabin yacht outfitted for deep Nitrox dives, or Amandira, a 10-cabin, traditional phinisi sailboat, where the onboard masseuse can relieve kinks in your diver’s neck. Cruise to Komodo Island to swim with the same-named dragons from March to October, or to Raja Ampat from November to March to feast your eyes on the thousand-plus species that commingle at the meeting of the Indian and Pacific oceans.

But don’t miss a night dive, when the sleeper lobsters and moray eels light up, and sea turtles sleep amid the corals. Two of Earth’s seven sea turtle species, the endangered green and hawksbill, nest on Moyo. Help out the hatchery in fall and winter by ensuring that the turtle babies get to the ocean safely. Or work with the on-site coral nursery, replenishing the local reef habitats.

Gladden Private Island

Belize

On the otherwise-deserted Gladden Private Island, a 3,000-square-foot villa for two or four well-heeled castaways boasts rooftop wraparound views of the Caribbean Sea, just beneath the surface of which lies the Belize Barrier Reef, the world’s second-largest coral system. There are dives for every level of experience on the reef, and all the scuba, including the three-day PADI certification, is included in the price of a stay.

Diving is best in spring, when whale sharks congregate in the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, just a 15-minute boat ride away, and you can float amid these mellow giants. If spearfishing is your thing, staff can set up an expedition for you outside the preserve. With the Gladden folks boasting 200-foot visibility in the water, you’ll get nice, clear shots at your prey. But even non-hunters will find plenty of excitement just paddling past the shore with a snorkel on. Rays, nurse sharks and hawksbill, loggerhead and leatherback turtles hang out on the spectacular reef that rings the island.

Amanyara

Providenciales, Turks and Caicos

The Northwest Point Marine National Park is a short walk and plunge away from the 38 villa and open-air pavilion accommodations at Amanyara, a sleek resort on the Turks and Caicos island of Providenciales. Barracuda, horse-eye jacks and angelfish gather amid hard and soft coral mosaics. Lobsters and crabs lurk around yellow tube sponges. Dolphins cavort in the shallows, and from January to March, humpback whales visit. You might spot a tag on a hawksbill turtle, and back on the surface, you can do some tagging yourself with the Turks and Caicos Islands Turtle Project.

The marine reserve sits on a shelf, and with visibility ranging to 150 feet and almost no current, you can hover in the water and peer down coral walls into the abyss. You can also don a snorkel and learn how to transplant broken-off pieces of this reef through the resort’s Adopt-a-Coral project. But snorkel or tank, the diving is fine year-round. Water temperatures range from 74 to 84 degrees, and there are 350 days of sunshine, though hurricanes can occur from June to October.

&Beyond Mnemba Island

Tanzania

Charismatic characters — the peacock mantis shrimp, a tiny, day-glo predator with a fierce bite; unicornfish, with hornlike hood ornaments; and the 400-pound Napoleon wrasse, which wears a “hat” like the emperor’s — populate the waters of &Beyond Mnemba Island, a private isle off Zanzibar’s northeastern tip. Except in April and May when the property is closed, 12 breezy bungalows welcome divers keen on meeting up with bottlenose dolphins, sailfish and migrating humpbacks on the Mnemba Atoll.

Eleven drift-dive sites within a 25-minute boat ride are appropriate for all levels of experience. Among the best dips is Small Wall, where those aggressive shrimp mingle with sunburst-hued Klein’s butterfly fish, and nudibranchs fill crannies with color. Moon Valley slopes to the channel floor 90 feet down, revealing venomous scorpionfish and stonefish, vibrant dragon morays and redtooth triggerfish, with their florid dentition. At Cabbage Coral, the reef forms leaflike structures that make you feel as if you’re finning through a cabbage patch. Conditions are best October to December and February to April, when visibility ranges to 75 feet and water temperatures are in the high 70s.

Petit St. Vincent

The Grenadines

Looking to further your scuba education? Check into one of the 22 secluded cottages or villas at Petit St. Vincent, a private Grenadines island, where ocean explorer, conservationist and filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau — son of the famed Jacques-Yves Cousteau — runs the PADI 5-Star dive center, and sign up for courses in everything from night diving to underwater naturalist training. Brush up on your buoyancy and learn how to use lung-friendly, enriched-air Nitrox tanks. Introduce the little ones to scuba with supplied-air dives for children as young as 5.

The dive sites here offer coral gardens and walls dizzy with life. Drift at 50 feet amid moray eels and nurse sharks at Mopion Island, or swim with the eagle rays at Punaise and Worlds Ends reefs. Marvel at the enormous sea fans and teeming schools of reef fish in the marine protected zone at Mayreau; or watch the flying gurnards spread their psychedelic “wings” in the waters of the national park at Tobago Cays. It’s all spectacular. Plus, where else can beginners dive a sprawling wreck? The HMT Puruni, a British patrol boat, went down in just 40 feet of water in 1918.

Lizard Island

Australia

The Great Barrier Reef has taken its knocks, from cyclones and climate change–induced coral bleaching to the threat of a massive coal mine whose construction was approved on the Queensland coast, at the edge of the reef. Especially now, before there is more water pollution, this 133,000-square-mile ecosystem is a must-see for scuba enthusiasts.

The Australian Museum keeps a coral research station on Lizard Island, situated between the inner and outer reefs on the northern end of the system. Take a tour of the facility during your stay at the 40-room eco-haven that shares the island with the scientists. The resort supports the station’s mission, pitching in on projects to combat threats like the crown-of-thorns starfish, a virulent coral predator.

Download the museum’s Field Guide to NSW Fauna app to soak up info on the sea life you’ll find diving. You don’t have to paddle far from shore to visit the giant clam garden or meet Simon, the resident 440-pound grouper (aka potato cod), but there are countless dive spots within the Great Barrier Marine Park. Simon’s gargantuan kin gather at the Cod Hole, a 50-minute boat ride away. Garden eels hide amid the eye-popping corals that encrust the sheer wall at Dynamite Passage. The Snake Pit is named for the 6-foot olive sea snakes that frequent it, though humpback and minke whales stop by, too, during breeding season from May to September.

Four Seasons Resort Seychelles

Desroches Island, Seychelles

Undersea spelunkers check in at Desroches in the Seychelles’ Amirante Islands, where underwater caves, swim-throughs, columns and tunnels keep the diving adventurous at 18 classified sites. But that doesn’t mean it’s only for experts. The 67-room Four Seasons Resort Seychelles accommodates first-time, budding and rusty divers, too. Among the educational offerings of the dive center are “Bubble Maker” classes for kids, and refresher and introductory courses.

Plumb the Canyon, where yellow-and-black-striped sweetlips congregate, and nurse sharks snooze amid gorgonian fan corals. Linger under the overhang at Airport Reef, communing with bumphead parrotfish and slinky seagrass pipefish. Grab a torch and plunge into the blue hole in the reef to follow the Tunnel down through schools of humpback and blueline snappers, checking shelflike crevices for moray eels and lobsters. If you’re experienced, screw up your courage for Big Cave, where a dark labyrinth leads to a cavernous bedroom for sea turtles.

Enlist in the Blue Safari Eco Diver Course, including AWARE Coral Reef and Shark Conservation training, or hook up with the resident marine educator from the ocean conservation organization WiseOceans for a guided snorkel tour of the island’s sea grass beds and fringing reefs. Anytime of year in whatever gear, the water’s fine with visibility up to 90 feet and water temps from 75 to 86 degrees.

Six Senses Zighy Bay

Oman

Eighty-two infinity-pool villas await at the laid-back yet tony Six Senses Zighy Bay tucked between mountains and beach on the Musandam Peninsula in the Strait of Hormuz. From February to May, whale sharks return to the shallow dive sites, but they’re not the only big marine species here. Sperm and humpback whales also visit, as do 11 species of dolphins. If you’re lucky, you’ll spy a 2,000-pound ocean sunfish.

The unique underwater topography makes for fascinating scuba amid colorful soft corals. Hang out with moray eels at Wonderwall, where a 45-foot visibility offers some of the clearest views in the strait. Circle a spire lush in pufferfish, boxfish and Clark’s anemonefish at the site called Octopus Rock. At 90 feet down, you’ll finally encounter the eponymous, eight-armed animals.

Travel to these and more dive sites by bespoke dhow, the traditional Omani fishing boat. Or grab a snorkel and take a speedboat to the coast of Sanat to linger with the rays and turtles in a large, open cave. Conservation-minded divers and snorkelers should call ahead to find out when the resort is running ocean bed clean-up dives. This collaboration with the Oman Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs recruits guests to remove turtle-entrapping ghost nets from the bays of the strait.

Amanpulo

Pamalican Island, Philippines

The 42 casitas at Amanpulo offer beachfront, rainforest or hillside locations, with 16 beach villas staffed by private chefs and butlers. But it’s not just human guests that come to this remote island in the Philippines’ Sulu Sea. Green and hawksbill turtles nest from March to October, the hatchlings traversing powdery sands on moonlit nights to test their fortunes in the clear, blue water.

Guests are welcome to help the babies get to the sea safely, and you’ll encounter resident turtles on the almost 3 square miles of pristine reef, a marine protected zone for more than three decades. Along with the chelonian denizens are parrotfish, sharks and rays, including the elusive guitarfish, a long ray with a big flattened head that gives it the appearance of the musical instrument.

Water temperatures reach a balmy 86 degrees, and there’s something for every type of diver, from 100-foot drop-offs to beachfront snorkeling amid the sea grasses. During Amihan season from October to late March, when cooler monsoon winds descend, the resort installs a floating bar, and it’s more than mai tai-sipping vacationers who frequent it; snorkelers circle the perimeter to find batfish, sergeant major fish and wrasses gliding around this temporary reef.

The Brando

Tetiaroa Private Island, French Polynesia

Make like former owner Marlon Brando, and Tahitian royalty before him, and escape to this zero-carbon resort on the islet of Onetahi, on the pristine Tetiaroa Atoll, where the first of four planned luxury residences has recently joined 22 beachfront and 13 bayside villas. Beginning divers can study up on local marine species at the The Brando’s Explorer Center, and then enroll in scuba lessons in the lagoon, where the coral beds support 167 fish species, including pastel-hued parrotfish and blacktip reef sharks.

The diving is most inspiring August to November when humpback whales return to the area to breed and nurse. But that’s not all there is to see. Lemon, grey and coral sharks abound. At the Canyons, a 20-minute boat ride away, divers find a traffic jam of fish cruising the mazelike “false pass,” where whitetip sharks, humphead wrasses and barracudas lurk. At Eden Park, surgeonfish, butterflyfish, clownfish and bannerfish swim in sunlight on a sparkling sand plateau, while deeper down, the reef drops off, accommodating spotted eagle rays, with their 10-foot wingspans.

The entire enterprise supports the Tetiaroa Society, the on-site environmental research center. Guests can visit to learn more about conservation and creative science for a sustainable planet, including collaborations with Te Mana O Te Moana, the Tahitian organization for the protection of marine species, like the green sea turtles that nest here.

Six Senses Yao Noi

Thailand

The 56 stilted and thatched villas on the lush island of Ko Yao Noi, not far from Phuket, sport outdoor showers, infinity pools and phenomenal views of the forest or bay. Especially December through April when the water is at its clearest, the exuberant corals of the Andaman Sea offer a visual feast. At Six Senses Yao Noi you’re 55 minutes by speedboat to the Phi Phi Islands, where sea horses, ghost pipefish, lionfish, anemones and other ocean species congregate across more than 100 dive sites with depths ranging to 100 feet.

Other sites suitable for all types of divers include Krabi, a dive of 75 feet maximum, where nudibranchs, sea snakes and groupers wander amid soft corals in the cave underneath Koh Talu island and within a hidden lagoon; and Shark Point, known for the vibrancy of its soft, pink and purple corals and anemones, as well as fan corals and hard corals that shelter scores of tropical fish species. A shallow home to sea horses and cartoonlike “Nemo fish,” Pa Koh is a dive made for families, while an advanced dive under the watchful gaze of bigeye trevallys and scuttling crabs on the car ferry wreck, the MS King Cruiser, plunges you into a den of sharks — bamboo, redtip, blacktip, whale and friendly leopard varieties.

Four Seasons Private Island at Voavah

Maldives

A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the Baa Atoll is home to this private island, with the seven luxurious Four Seasons villas set on the beach or stilted above the fish-filled lagoon. Overhangs encrusted with breathtaking corals; underwater “thilas,” or pinnacles, swarming with fish — the scuba is gorgeous. The current is strong at Dhonfanu Thila, but advanced divers will cavort with turtles, groupers, Oriental sweetlips and tuna. Nitrox divers linger amid the garden of soft corals at 90 feet down at Kihaa Rocks. And every level enjoys Dhigu Thila’s abundant reef fish and, during monsoon season, manta rays.

Mantas aren’t the only rays here. Spotted eagle rays, marble rays, whiprays and fantail rays also visit, and guests can snorkel with biologists from the Manta Trust, which supports conservation of these species. You can also sponsor a transplanting frame in the coral nursery, dive with the resident marine biologist, and clean up the reef on a Project AWARE Dive Against Debris. If you’re up for lessons, the PADI 5-Star center can school you in exciting things like Divers’ Propulsion Vehicle training and AWARE Shark Conservation Drift Diving.

The average water temperature is a comfortable 84 degrees year-round, though visibility ranges from 30 to 120 feet, depending on the season. For the calmest and clearest seas, hit this spot January to April or October to November. The mantas won’t be here, but you’ll see as if for miles underwater.

By Betsy Andrews Guest Contributor Betsy Andrews writes for The Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine and many other publications. Her award-winning books of poetry are “New Jersey” and “The Bottom.”
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