| Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998|
THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR
But though the Galßpagos Archipelago is a well-known naturalists' haunt because of its fearless fauna — the historic finches, lumbering saddleback tortoises, and cactus-munching iguanas — too few pilgrims realize that these seamounts are among the most exciting dive destinations in the world. A typical Galßpagos dive begins with an escort of rowdy sea jacks, heads down to tame bacalao about the size and disposition of golden retrievers, and proceeds on to some main event, which can be as diverse as a mud-flat of red-lipped batfish, a field of active volcanic vents, or a channel choked with a thousand slowly circling hammerhead sharks.
At Darwin and Wolf Islands, where the South Equatorial Current washes the rugged slopes with the archipelago's warmest waters, the hammerhead parade never ceases. Some ancient agenda commands that they fin against the current, heads sweeping back and forth like metal-detecting machines, oblivious to divers crouched behind boulders just inches away. While the presence of hammerheads is almost guaranteed, you also might see whale sharks, sperm whales, manta rays, marine iguanas, and penguins — as well as more than 300 species of fish (nearly 50 are endemic), all in pre-human profusion and still behaving as if people had never arrived.
Galßpagos Aggressor I and II, 80-foot, 14-passenger luxury dive boats, offer seven-day trips ($2,345-$2,445 per person, including three daily dives, weights and belts, land trips, and all meals). Call 800-348-2628.
Lammer Law, a 95-foot trimaran that accommodates 18 guests in nine staterooms, has seven-night trips ($2,030-$2,250 per person, double occupancy, including meals, island excursions, airport transfers, tanks and weights, and three daily dives). Call 800-525-3833 or 510-794-1599 in California. — Bucky McMahon
LITTLE CAYMAN, CAYMAN ISLANDS
Leave the stingray sideshow behind and head for Little Cayman, Grand Cayman's unsullied, wild sister isle 75 miles to the northeast. The tiny island has a year-round population of about 50, a couple of low-key lodges, a grass airstrip, and several fast dive boats that can whisk you to the best diving in the Caribbean. And — this is key — the goofy-tourist factor is so low that even the signs that caution motorists to watch for rock iguanas seem quite grave.
You'll dive in Bloody Bay Marine Park on the island's north side, where the mile-deep wall falls away just a few hundred yards from the spiky ironshore coast. You'll shimmy past giant barrel sponges and delicate purple sea fans, and into natural swimmable mazes created by deep spur-and-groove reefs. You'll fin over sand plateaus where swaying, vertical-standing garden eels form a kind of living, bebopping lawn. And in addition to a parade of sea turtles, parrotfish, grouper, snapper, bar jacks, angelfish, and wrasse, you'll encounter refreshingly aloof stingrays who think of you only as some big ugly fish — and not as an automatic squid dispenser.
At Little Cayman Beach Resort, dive packages start at $612 (late December through mid-April) per person for three nights, including all meals and five one-tank dives; mid-April through mid-December rates are $557. Call 800-327-3835.
COCOS ISLANDS, COSTA RICA
It is, of course, just one of many aquatic soap operas unfolding off tiny Cocos, a 273-square-mile dot situated all alone in the Pacific, 311 miles west of Costa Rica. Part of a mostly submerged volcanic chain, Cocos towers suddenly from the ocean, its steep, jungle-covered walls bursting with hundreds of waterfalls that cascade dramatically into the surf. The entire island is a national park, and except for 14 Costa Rican park rangers, the place remains completely undeveloped and uninhabited.
In fact, the trailless jungle is so impenetrable that no one travels to Cocos except divers, who brave the 30-plus-hour journey from Puntarenas on well-appointed liveaboard yachts. And for ecological reasons, Costa Rica allows just three boats to visit Cocos's 20 dive sites, which means the place remains one of the planet's best spots to witness 500 hammerheads on one dive. So, like all the other big fish, the marble rays cavort uninhibited, flaunting passion that is — sigh — unquestionably deep.
Book the Undersea Hunter (ten-day trip, $2,695, plus $105 national park fee, including transfers from San Jos‰, all meals, and three daily dives) through International Diving Expeditions; 800-544-3483. — Paul Kvinta
THE CHANNEL ISLANDS, CALIFORNIA
Kelp fronds laid over the surface form a ceiling penetrated by dramatic beams of light; schools of large calico bass and bright orange garibaldi patrol the middle of the water column. Red and purple urchins litter the bottom between jumbled boulders holding abalone, spiny lobsters, and horned sharks. On the sandy bottom you'll find angel sharks, halibut, or even the California electric ray, which looks like a garbage-can lid with fins and packs a cattle-prodlike punch if tormented. On San Miguel, the westernmost and wildest island, you might dive with a colony of young sea lions, rowdy punks who blow bubbles in your face and like to head-butt and nip visitors. (Better them than the white sharks that also call San Miguel home.)
The crossing to the islands is an adventure in itself. In summer, dive boats regularly encounter feeding blue whales on their trip across the channel. During other seasons you can catch up with migrating gray whales, basking sharks, and the year-round contingents of porpoises numbering in the hundreds. At any time of year it can be a choppy trip, but once on-site the captain will find a smooth anchorage. Trips run all year and are only cancelled in the event of extremely bad weather.
Truth Aquatics of Santa Barbara (805-962-1127) has three boats equipped with sleeping berths, dual compressors, hot showers, and highly skilled crews. Open-boat day trips are $71 per person; three-day trips are $377 plus meals. — Andrew Rice
THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
Way cooler are the masses of marine life these hulks harbor. Trumpet fish slither out of hatches. Lionfish steal about the portholes. Black-masked emperor angelfish patrol the decks while Moorish idols nibble at gorgonias straining from ghostly engine rooms aglow in purple algae.
But in truth, the wilder, sweeter diving most characteristic of the Solomons awaits farther afield. Off such isolated island groups as the Russells and the New Georgias, you'll encounter sergeant majors and humphead wrasses that do not beg. You may see a hammerhead or three, but odds are far greater that you'll find a blue ribbon eel or a Spanish dancer or swim through a giant donut of schooling barracuda than meet a resident moray with a pet name.
Most telling, though, is that the sight of other divers poking along a wall, free-falling in a cave, or flying through an island fissure with 125-foot visibility does not detract from the experience; these would be but your shipmates adding scale to the vast underwater wilderness. Liveaboard dive boats only arrived in the Solomons within the last decade and now total a whopping three. If you do meet another vessel, it will likely be a dugout powered by islanders selling nautilus shells or tomatoes fresh from their gardens.