Andros Barrier Reef, Bahamas
Anonymity has been kind to the Andros Barrier Reef. The world's third-largest reef, at more than 170 miles long, it sits less than a mile off the eastern shore of Andros Island, which means it's a mere hour's plane ride, followed by a quick boat trip, from Miami. But thanks to complex land-ownership laws that have kept Andros Island free of big resorts, the reef has been left largely unexplored. "The local population is so small that the pressure on the reef is minimal," says Sylvia Earle, oceanographer and National Geographic explorer-in-residence. "It's undisturbed and it's crowded with sea life."
But what makes diving here so memorable is the underwater topography: Just offshore, the reef plummets into the Tongue of the Ocean, a 6,000-foot-deep trench where the U.S. Navy test-drives subs. One of my favorite dives is Over the Wall, the Corbett's Couloir of the scuba world. Diving it last summer, I saw reef sharks and spinner dolphins hovering at the edge of the abyss. I went into a ten-story free fall until the dark water beneath me warned that I'd reached my depth limit.
STAY: In one of 17 beachside cottages at the Small Hope Bay Lodge, a family-run resort that started leading dives to Andros Barrier Reef in 1960. $2,083 per week, including meals, basic diving equipment, and three single-tank dives per day; smallhope.com
Chinchorro Bank, Mexico
Last August, Hurricane Dean blasted through the Yucatán Peninsula, nearly destroying Mahahual, the tiny fishing village that serves as the diving gateway to Chinchorro Bank—one of the largest and least visited atolls in the Caribbean. The good news is that Chinchorro, a 30-mile-long, brightly colored hard-coral reef, was left unscathed, and Mahahual's dive operators have made a valiant comeback. "In Cozumel there can be 2,000 divers a day," says Marco Martin, president of Mahahual's Dreamtime Dive Resort. "We rarely see other divers."
Chinchorro's 20-foot-deep limestone shelf is covered with orange elephant ear sponges that attract baitfish and big tarpon. The reefs have also claimed their share of ships; the shallows are a graveyard of rusting freighters, many of which are visible to snorkelers on the surface.
GO WITH: Dreamtime Dive Resort; $180 for three dives at Chinchorro, plus $25 gear rental; dreamtimediving.com
STAY: Three miles south of Mahahual at Balamku, a wind- and solar-powered beachfront resort with Maya-inspired design. Palapa number six has the best view. Doubles, $85; balamku.com
Red Sea, Israel
In diving circles, the Red Sea is famous for Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, a place known for spectacular reefs and occasionally suspect dive masters (in January 2007, three divers and a guide were lost in high seas). But right across the Israeli border to the north, there's an eight-mile stretch of Red Sea coast with hardly any current and some of the best shore-accessible dives in the world.
Dive this section of the Gulf of Aqaba, just south of Eilat's multistory hotels, and you'll explore the Satil missile boat, an Israeli military ship that was sunk specifically for divers in 1994 (three dives per day, $80; dolphinreef.co.il). Snorkelers can easily visit Moses and Joshua rocks, two shallow coral heads 300 yards from shore. At night go dancing on the beach at the waterfront Dolphin Reef bar. To experience Israel's best attempt at Vegas-style excess, visit the laser show at the Platinum disco, in Eilat.
STAY: The Dan Eilat Hotel in Eilat serves complimentary buffet breakfasts and a mega-resort-size Friday-night Shabbat dinner. Doubles, $298; danhotels.com
A Reef to Avoid
Covering 16 acres of seafloor, the Neptune Memorial Reef, three miles off the Miami coast, is boldly leading the ever-growing quest for new burial frontiers. An artificial reef that was modeled after a developer's vision of the lost city of Atlantis, Neptune houses an underwater graveyard exclusively for the cremated. The owners at the Neptune Reef Society hope that the reef, which opened for business in November, will soon become a sought-after diving destination. We're not holding our breath. $1,495 to have your ashes buried; nmreef.com
Coral Sea, Australia
At the eastern edge of the Great Barrier Reef lies the Coral Sea, a two-million-square-mile submarine plateau. Visibility here can reach 200 feet, and Coral Sea divers have the increasingly rare opportunity to discover unexplored sites: Some of the coral heads were last mapped in the 1770s by Captain Cook. "Most of the dive sites don't have names yet," says Brad Doane, underwater cameraman for the BBC's Blue Planet series. "And everything is on steroids. The soft coral stalks are as big as a thigh."
GO WITH: There are only five live-aboard dive boats that cruise the Coral Sea; Cairns-based Mike Ball Dive Expeditions is the most reputable. Dive the remote Osprey and Cod Hole reefs, where eager 300-pound reef sharks show up if you smack a fist into your palm. Four-night trips from $1,400; mikeball.com
Beqa Lagoon, Fiji
Surfers associate the southern coast of Viti Levu, Fiji's largest island, with Frigate Passage, one of the best left breaks in the South Pacific. But the coast is also home to the 150-square-mile Beqa Lagoon, one of the best "muck-diving" reefs in the world. Divers dig around the bottom of the 30-foot-deep soft-coral reef, searching for the harlequin ghost pipefish and juvenile sea horses that feed on the nutrient-rich silty runoff from the Navua River. For a laugh, head to Frigate Passage. "You can dive below the break and watch sharks watching the surfers," says Jayne Carlson, owner of the Lalati Resort and Spa, on Beqa Island.
STAY: Forty minutes from the mainland on Beqa Island, at the Lalati Resort and Spa, an eco-resort and dive outfitter located between the rainforest and the beach. Guests stay in private, two-room beachfront villas; the owners are avid divers who lead free shore dives from the resort's pier. Villas, $310, including meals; boat dives, $110 per person for two dives, plus $25 gear rental; lalati-fiji.com