By Aya Ishii & Blake Powell
The islands of the South Pacific are a diver’s paradise. Opportunities to immerse yourself in the deep blue and explore the marine life are numerous and it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where to go. We have put together a list of our top five diving spots to help get you started.
Santo – Vanuatu
With just a 3 hour direct flight from Brisbane, you arrive at Espiritu Santo – Vanuatu’s largest island. Besides the magnificent white sandy beaches and warm waters, many are drawn to the island to dive some world-famous diving sites. The SS President Coolidge is one of the largest and most accessible wrecks in the world and caters to a range of experience levels. She was a luxury cruise liner that hit a mine in 1942 and has since been a playground for divers. Taking a night dive on the Coolidge is an unforgettable experience where you can turn off your lights and experience the illuminous flashlight fish perform a mesmerising show.
The other popular site here is Million Dollar Point – at the end of World War 2, the Americans offered to sell their equipment to the French. However, the French refused to pay, believing that since the Americans could not transport everything back, they would inherit everything for free. Out of spite, the Americans drove every tank into the water and bulldozed millions of dollars of equipment into the sea – giving the site a new name and creating a fascinating diving adventure for any level of diver. With so much history and adventure underwater, finishing your holiday by relaxing on the gorgeous Champagne Beach with drinks and a picnic is just the cherry on top!
Rangiroa – French Polynesia
Arriving in the Tahitian Islands is a dream for many, and there are many experiences you can have in these pristine and dreamy islands. Crossing the international date line, you go back in time with a 4.5 hour flight from Auckland and arrive in Tahiti before connecting through to another pacific jewel such as Rangiroa. This atoll is just stunning above the water but dive below the surface and be astounded by crystal waters and colourful reefs teeming with life.
Get ready to be spoilt as literally hundreds of sharks circle below and giant manta rays and majestic green turtles swim by to greet you. The Tiputa Pass is famous for the highest concentration of sharks in the world – and at certain times of the year, you can be diving with the uniquely beautiful hammerheads. For pelagic fans, dolphins are also known to accompany dives, and getting up close to the inquisitive stingrays is another popular experience offered by the islands. From August to October, humpback whales come to the warm Tahitian waters to give birth, so there is also a good chance of spotting these gentle giants too! Diving in French Polynesia is truly a paradise for marine life lovers and a sublime experience that is hard to match.
Solomon Islands are right next door to Australia with Honiara (the Gateway) just 3 hours from Brisbane. Yet these pristine islands feel like a secret paradise rarely visited by tourists. This means you have the chance to enjoy this tropical and magical paradise without the commercialism or crowds found in some of their Pacific neighbours. Facilities and service here may be basic but the experience will be unmeasurably rewarding. The warm waters are filled with pelagics, coral and World War 2 history. You will find many exciting wrecks like fighter planes and bombers and for those macro fans with a keen eye, you can see pygmy seahorses and other critters in the coral gardens surround the islands. Definitely one for the bucket list if you like to get off the beaten track!
As Jacques Cousteau called Fiji the “Soft Coral Capital of the world”, Fiji is renowned for its vibrant colourful soft corals and being one of the world’s top-class diving destinations. Fiji, an archipelago of 333 picturesque islands, is home to several hundred types of soft corals and sponges, five species of turtle, and over 1200 fish species such as giant trevally, barracuda, anemone fish, anthias fish, frogfish, ghost pipefish, butterflyfish, to name a few.
The best diving areas for its famous soft corals and perhaps the healthiest reefs are the Somosomo Strait, between Taveuni and Vanua Levu, and the Bligh Waters, the channel between the two main islands (Viti Levu and Vanua Levu). Shark Reef Marine Reserve in the Pacific Harbour is also one of the most popular diving areas in Fiji, as the protected waters create more chance to encounter majestic marine creatures, including eight species of sharks roam this part of the sea, such as bull sharks, tawny nurse sharks white-tip, black-tip, grey reef sharks and more.
In the Yasawa group and Kadavu group of islands, manta rays are often seen during the cooler months from May to October. Since Fiji declared its waters a whale sanctuary in 2003, humpback whales are also returning to its waters near Kadavu Island during their mating season (June to October). Although its water temperatures and visibilities vary between its wet season and dry season, diving can be enjoyed all year round in Fiji.
Coral Sea & Ribbon Reefs, Australia
One of the ultimate diving destinations lies off the northeast coast of Australia. The Coral Sea reaches out to the east coast of Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and to the south coast of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The sea contains numerous islands and coral reefs, including the largest coral reef system on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef. Way beyond the boundary where day boats can reach, in the crystal blue waters with visibility range between 30 and 60 metres, divers can encounter an abundance of marine life and pelagic fish, including white tip reef sharks, manta rays, barracuda, trevally, tuna, hammerheads, and grey whales, as well as rich coral reefs including gorgonian fans and colourful soft corals.
Osprey Reef located 300 kms from Cairns in the Coral Sea offers the world’s top-class dive sites, including North Horn known for its spectacular deep drop-offs with healthy soft corals attracting a great number of sharks. The Ribbon Reefs, which contains ten individual coral reef systems over a stretch of 120 km south of Lizard Island, also offers some of the most pristine dive sites in Australia. The Cod Hole and Steven’s Bommie in the Ribbon Reefs are some of the highlights for those who are lucky enough to venture out to these remote seas. In the months of June and July, Dwarf Minke Whales migrate from the Antarctic seas to the warmer water of the Ribbon Reefs. This offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for snorkellers to swim with the graceful creatures. A limited number of liveaboards offer 3 to 7-day itineraries from Cairns to explore these uncharted parts of the seas.