Summer Preview
By Christina Erb
on 5.22.14
Photo by CE

Disappearing from the everyday grind into a world of underwater adventures, beachside resorts and tropical drinks sounds like a pipe dream. It’s not. Each of these three diving adventures, whether near, far, or halfway across the world, comes with its own unique draw and entirely feasible set of the essentials (stay, eat, do) for everyone from vets with vacation days to new divers with a long weekend free. Swimming with Caribbean reef sharks in the Bahamas, exploring the Northern Hemisphere’s largest barrier reef, or crossing the thermocline boundary to explore ghostly WWII wrecks in Papua New Guinea might sound daunting, but whether you have three days or two weeks, there’s time enough for one of these adventures.

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Near: New Providence Island, Bahamas

The Bahamas’ nearly 700 islands and cays are home to warm waters, crystal clear visibility and Caribbean reef sharks. Since 1984, Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas guides have offered scuba divers a chance to get up close and personal with western Atlantic sharks. The two-tank dive trip off the coast of New Providence kickstarts with a free swim and ends with professional shark feeding. Neither is for the faint hearted.

PREY AMONG PREDATORS

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I’m nervous about what’s to come: sharks. The bait box appears and, with it, so do two dozen Caribbean reef sharks. They jostle past me to reach the rotten fish. It’s both beautiful and alarming. Their tails glance off my shoulders. I remain stationary, neither a food source nor fleeing prey. Soon the fear subsides. I feel invisible. Smaller fish trail the sharks, catching rides on their wakes. Then the feeding ends as it began. The sharks dart away in every direction, and I’m left in crystal clear water, smiling.

The 50-foot descent to The Arena — the dive operation’s nickname for the human-placed, semi-circle of rocks — passes solitary sharks, grouper and the occasional green moray eel. Grab a seat, tuck your arms in, and watch for your chainmail-clad guide to approach with the bait box full of frozen, rotten fish. Within seconds, the blood draws more than a dozen seven-foot-long Caribbean reef sharks that swarm the arena. It’s a surreal, wide-eyed experience, the sharks swimming around divers and bumping into heads and arms as they line up for their favorite food. Don’t flee: as with any predator, sudden, rapid movement is a bad idea.

This show shouldn’t leave you guilt ridden: a 2010 scientific study found that, despite Bahamian dive operators’ long-term provisioning of the Caribbean reef shark population, there were no indications of a shift in shark behavior. That means even enviro-minded adrenaline junkies can enjoy the rush with a clear conscience.

OPERATOR: Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas is a full-service operator with seven dive vessels, a crew of quick-witted guides and a seemingly endless repertoire of colorful stories about Hollywood shark films, stunt doubling, and celebrity encounters. Open since 1978, the shop is tucked into the southwest side of New Providence Island, a welcome respite from New Providence’s bustling downtown and hotel strips. stuartcove.com

EAT: Head to the Fish Fry’s, a cluster of pastel-colored shacks in Arawak Cay, to feast on authentic Bahamian fare from greasy conch fritters to baked bonefish and dance to reggae music. Order a fresh conch salad and Sky Juice, a local favorite that combines coconut water, gin, and sweet cream for a tropical buzz. twinbrothersbahamas.com

STAY: Travelers looking for an intimate, old-world Bahamian experience should head to the Graycliff Hotel in the heart of downtown Nassau. The former 18th century private estate has played host to Sir Winston Churchill and the Beatles. Follow suit and request the Pool Cottage. Beginning at $350 for a deluxe room. graycliff.com

Farther: Great Hole, Belize

The Northern Hemisphere’s largest barrier reef system, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, stretches 560 miles along Central America’s eastern coastline. Head to Belize’s bathtub-warm waters to explore the best stretch: the mid-ocean Lighthouse Reef Atoll, home to Belize’s star attraction, the 407-foot-deep Great Blue Hole.

A shallow reef surrounds the Great Blue Hole’s dark waters, making the astonishing drop off into the limestone cave system even more heart stopping. Tropical fish and hammerhead sharks may frequent the submarine sinkhole’s edges, but inside, the otherworldly array of stalactites is nearly void of life. Advanced dives end at 130 feet. Only professional divers can explore the bottom — a feat that requires two and a half hours of decompression before resurfacing.

Intermediate divers should look to the neighboring Turneffe Islands and their sizable mangrove forests for easy, tropical thrills. The mangrove forests attract a unique mix of exotic fish, from the local whitespotted toadfish and slinking green moray eels to playful dolphins and docile nurse sharks.

OPERATOR: The Turneffe Resort dive shop is a five-minute boat ride away from some of Belize’s most iconic dive destinations. Head into the turquoise waters of the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, one of Belize’s three atolls, or sign up for the advanced deep-water dive of the Great Blue Hole. turnefferesort.com

STAY: Turneffe Island Resort is an eco-friendly lodge that utilizes solar power along with a water purification system. For complete privacy, request a private villa. The upgrade comes with a wraparound front porch with ocean views and an outdoor shower. turnefferesort.com

EAT: Head into town for dinner at Wild Mango’s, a beachside restaurant with a huge porch and a cult-like following. Start with the fish and shrimp ceviche and finish with the Caribbean chicken curry. After dinner, grab drinks at Wahoo’s Lounge. The dive bar is famous for its Thursday night Chicken Drop, a bizarre game where a chicken is placed on a board numbered one through 100 and tourists bet on which number it will poop on. The local reggae bands make it a party.

Farthest: Rabaul, Papua New Guinea

Volcanic ash comes down like rain in Rabaul (which is to say, often). The seaside town on Papua New Guinea’s second-largest island, New Britain, receives as much as 80 inches of rain per year and practically an equivalent amount of ash. On September 19, 1994, Mt. Tavurvur, an ancient volcano to the southeast, erupted and encrusted much of the picturesque town and harbor in lava. Today, the roughly 20,000 people who call this region home carry umbrellas to fend off the spitting, rumbling volcano.

Advanced divers can escape the soot and head deep underwater. The island’s northern shores are rife with World War II wrecks. In February 1942, the Japanese defeated Allied forces and captured Rabaul, transforming the town into its headquarters and leaving its jungles and waters chock full of downed planes and sunken battle ships. The 1994 eruption buried dozens of shallower WWII sites but left deep-water wrecks widely unmolested.

Brave the depths to George’s Wreck, a roughly 220-foot-long Japanese minesweeper that lays slanted on the ocean floor, its stern plummeting close to 200 feet downward. The black coral and sea fan-covered vessel may look innocent, but it is frequented by two of the world’s most venomous fish: the deadly scorpion fish and the stonefish. Don’t touch.

OPERATOR: Kabaira’s Dive Center is a full-service dive operation with unparalleled knowledge about East New Britain’s dozens of WWII wrecks, muck dives, and coral reefs. The dive center works out of two local hotels: the quaint Kabaira Beach Hideaway and its more luxurious counterpart, the Rapopo Plantation Resort. kabairabeachhideaway.com

EAT: Thanks to Papua New Guinea’s strong cultural roots — the island nation is home to some 700 Papuan and Melanesian tribes who cook and eat at home — Rabaul’s most famous restaurant isn’t local; it’s Asian. The ornate Phoenix Room’s ceiling pays homage to its location with a giant, chandelier-like Kina shell necklace — a widely used form of local currency — but serves Chinese specialties, including sweet-and-sour pork and fried dumplings. rabaulhotel.com

STAY: The Rapopo Plantation Resort is surrounded by a spacious, working cocoa and coconut plantation overlooking Mount Tavurvur. After diving, take a dip in the resort’s pool—and rejoice in the abnormal splendor of Papua New Guinea’s only swim-up bar. In an island nation that prizes authentic (read: raw) lodging experiences, the resort’s manicured gardens, tropical-themed décor, and air-conditioned rooms are welcome respite. Come dusk, crack open a local South Pacific Export and watch the sun set behind the volcano’s ominous silhouette. rapopo.com

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