Since I got my PADI diving license more than 2 years ago in Aqaba, Jordan, I’ve been itching to explore more wonders in the underwater world. Unfortunately, the first few dives that I did immediately after getting my license were in the famously beautiful, clear and warm waters of the Red Sea in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. I had done myself in. How do you beat diving in the Red Sea?! But luckily for me, I have an equally adventurous partner who loves looking for exotic warm water dive spots too. Together, we have traveled to several far-flung places specially to dive, and these are our top 5 exotic warm water dive spots.
1. Blue Magic, Raja Ampat (Indonesia)
We dived at Blue Magic on Christmas Day, and it was by far the most memorable dive we’ve ever done so far. As far as exotic warm water dive spots go, you probably can’t get any better than Raja Ampat. The entire region in remote West Papua is named Raja Ampat because it means “Four Kings” – 4 main islands which sit amidst some of the world’s richest waters. At any time of the year, the waters are warm and full of marine life. In December, the waters are rich with plankton, and so any site with current brings with it the most diverse and abundant marine life you will ever see. Well, what’s the catch? It takes at least two days to get there, and another two days to get out. And you need to endure a death-defying 3-4h ferry ride to get there, unless you have a private plane.
At Blue Magic, I saw a giant manta ray breach and fly out of the water, for the first time in my life. We actually saw this from the surface, when the divemaster said there was no current (and hence not much marine life) and we were deliberating as a group whether or not to change the dive site. Needless to say, we all dived right in after Mr. Manta’s jump. It was an unbelievable dive site. Amongst a colorful abundance of marine life, we also saw a woebbegong shark, a turtle, barracuda, and a huge school of big eye trevallies, all within the first 15 minutes of the dive. Then suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by 4-5m long manta rays! There must have been 7 to 8 of them, and they kept circling back between and around us. I don’t think we saw any more of the dive site after the first 15 minutes, because we spent the rest of the dive watching those magnificent manta rays. It’s one thing to go to a manta ray cleaning station knowing they will be there, and another to see them in the wild, completely unexpected. They looked like they were slowly but gracefully flying through the water. I thought it was one of nature’s greatest natural marvels to watch manta rays in the wild.
2. Cape Kri, Raja Ampat (Indonesia)
The world record for the most number of species ever recorded on a single tank dive was at Cape Kri by a marine biologist, Dr. Gerry Allen. 374 species, to be exact! And Cape Kri was everything it was made out to be. I only got one dive there, due to time constraint, but I could easily have dived Cape Kri three times and not gotten bored. The corals were the most alive I had ever seen, teeming with life everywhere I looked. And everywhere I looked, I saw different types of fish and coral – more than I could identify given my limited fish identification skills at that point in time, but I swear I counted at least 50 different species! The legend is totally true. If you go to Raja Ampat, it would be a travesty not to dive Cape Kri.
3. Richelieu Rock, Surin Islands (Thailand)
Richelieu Rock was discovered by Jacques Cousteau, the most famous underwater dive explorer and pioneer. Richelieu Rock is basically a rocky pinnacle that peaks out only during low tide, and if you do a liveaboard from Phuket, it takes at least 2 days to get there. Because of the unique underwater geography, an abundance of marine life circles the rock. There’s usually a pretty high likelihood of whale shark and manta ray sightings at this site. We didn’t see any. But here’s what makes Richelieu Rock so amazing of a dive spot: we dived it twice, and both times, we were overwhelmed by the diversity and abundance of marine life. I could easily have done another five dives there. Richelieu Rock was where I really matured as a diver, because I started to spot things myself. My proudest moments were when I spotted a beautiful, tiny white ornate ghost pipefish floating near the bottom of a rock cliff, and when I saw a heavily camouflaged hermit crab. But the ultimate prize of the dives at Richelieu Rock was finding the elusive and hard-to-find harlequin shrimps! That was simply golden.
4. Shark & Yolanda Reef, Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt)
Shark & Yolanda Reef was one of my first ten dives. We dived 6 locations at Ras Mohammed National Park, but Shark & Yolanda Reef was mind-blowing. The dive is a very easy one, where you drift with the current along a reef that’s colored in sublime purple, pink and blue. The deep blue is to the left, and at any point in time, large schools of tuna and other fish swim with the current in the blue. The dive ends at the site of the cargo ship Yolanda’s wreck that crashed and slid along the reef in the 1980s. The most fascinating thing about the dive site was that because the ship was carrying bathtubs and toilet bowls, you will see bathtubs stacked against each other, and pink and purple coral growing all over the toilet bowls (and fish swimming around them). Shark & Yolanda Reef is definitely a world-class, exotic warm water dive spot.
5. Oslob, Cebu (Philippines)
To most divers, very few things beat swimming with the docile, krill-eating whale sharks in the wild. But the fishermen of Oslob didn’t think so. Many years ago, Oslob used to be a fishing town. The fishermen were constantly frustrated when they found whale sharks coming to eat the krill they were using to fish. But they eventually realized that they could make far more money taking tourists out to swim with these whale sharks, who came around daily without fail. We went with Yoshi Hirata, a Japanese marine biologist who had been instrumental in helping the Filipino government to set up the rules around diving and snorkeling responsibly with the whale sharks. There were only two timings everyday for the dive, at 9am and 11am, and the number of divers allowed in the water at any one time was restricted through permits. Some unscrupulous dive operators flout this, and I would encourage you not to go with them if you were thinking of going.
It takes a 4h drive to get from Cebu to Oslob, but many people are now making the trip to dive with whale sharks. If you are reading this and are inspired to go diving in Oslob, do go with an authorized Oslob dive operator, or with Yoshi – who not only is a top-notch underwater photographer, but also an excellent cook!
Where else do you know of that’s an exotic warm water dive spot? If you know of any, leave a comment – I’d love to hear new ideas!