Dive the Philippines – Diving the Tubbataha Reef on the Atlantis Azores

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First thing to say about the Tubbataha Reef is that you would have to try really hard to find a more remote and stunning place to dive.  You take a grueling flight into Manila that takes about 24 hours of flying and airport time from the west coast and that’s only the start.  Here is where Atlantis Resorts and Liveaboards shines!  They meet you at the airport with a cold bottle of water, get your luggage and you into vans and take you to Terminal 2.  You’re thinking, same airport, right?  Wrong!  Different airport for domestic flights.  Atlantis stays with you through the check-in at Cebu Pacific and you’re off the Puerto Princessa.  Again, the Atlantis people pick you up and transfer you and your luggage to the Atlantis Azores,  their liveaboard dive boat, and you’re off again.  The pictures above show the stunning sunsets & sunrises and there are 3 turtles on one coral head in the other.  That is unbelievable!  That was a first.

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The Tubbataha Natural Marine Park is 90 miles from land in the middle of the Sulu Sea.  There is virtually no land anywhere there, it’s crazy!  You can see how calm the seas were from the first picture in my post.  There are a couple of sand spits always visible and more at low tide.  One of the sand spits has the ranger station and the other has a lighthouse.  The entire area is protected and is a no fishing, no take zone and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It really shows in the fish life and marine & reef health.  It is actually a group of Atolls but with the lack of land showing, you would never know it.  The huge schools of fish, numbers of Pelagics -Shark, Turtles, Whalesharks, etc. is amazing, considering this is Asia.  Most parts of Asia have depleted the fish populations and with shark finning rampant, their numbers are dangerously low in places.  I was very impressed.  The reefs, walls and coral are incredibly healthy & vibrant.  You can see from the sharks above, they’re not afraid of divers here.  I loved that!

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I has some firsts here.  Above is a marble ray.  It was stunning.  There were many varieties of moray eels too.  I can stress enough how healthy the marine life is here.  Literally thousands of fish of every size and shape EVERYWHERE!  There is also a lot of little critters to see like nudibranchs and tiny (1/4″ or so) creatures like the pygmy squid below left and pygmy seahorse right.  I had to have the dive guide put his finger behind it to find it in the camera lens.  I was expecting big things not tiny!  I always wonder, who ever found these things in the first place.  You can’t believe how small they are!

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The Atlantis is a really beautiful liveaboard with a fabulous staff that works very hard to please the guests.  The food is the best I have had on a liveaboard.  If you go on a night dive, they ask you what you want to drink after like tea, hot chocolate with baileys or for me, a glass of wine.  I was met with my wine after a hot shower on the back of the boat.  Nice!!  I have been on a variety of liveaboards and I have to say this one is really very good.  The staterooms are not large but adequate and functional, the bathrooms are pretty big and they are 110 power so you don’t have to use adapters or converters.  That is a HUGE plus!  They do several different itineraries during the year and I may have to try another one in the future.

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This is only the first of my posts about the Philippines.  I will be visiting Puerto Galera and Dumaguete in the next few months so stay tuned.  So far, the Philippines diving is very impressive indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scuba Diving Belize – Nurse Sharks & Eagle Rays & Morays – oh my!

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When I planned this group trip to Belize, I had visions of the Blue Hole and clear waters on the barrier reef off Ambergris Caye in my mind.  I have to say, the reality of the diving in Belize really surprised me.  First, I knew they had nurse sharks there but I never had any idea of how many.  We literally saw dozens on some dives.  The second thing that really shocked me was the eagle rays.  I have never seen an eagle ray that was not afraid of people and swimming away.  That includes many destinations in the Caribbean and all over the South Pacific.  I saw at least a dozen and none was afraid.  Most were close enough to get a photo of and see them clearly.  That impressed me, a lot!  Some swam so close you could nearly touch them.

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Moray eels were in abundance too.  The above picture is an eel on my fin as I was kneeling to take the photo.  They were friendly and playful.  I can only think that the dive masters in Belize don’t harass the big animals to the point of wanting to flee because they seem to actually enjoy interacting with divers.  That is very unusual!  The biggest down side to the diving was that because the barrier reef is just that – a barrier – the visibility was not as good as I thought it would be.  There is surge against the reef that stirs things up.  However, it did make for a great place for pelagics.

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We did the Blue Hole & Lighthouse Atoll area one day.  I had heard that the boat ride was long and brutal – it was!  I had also heard that the 2 dives after the Blue Hole at Half-Moon Caye and Long Caye make the boat ride worth it – They do!  We dove with Hugh Parkey’s at the Sunbreeze and their boat was bigger than a lot of them so that did help some but it is still a very long ride.  The Blue Hole is cool but it is a do it once – check it off the list – type of dive.  The other two dives were absolutely beautiful.  We had planned to make another excursion to Turneffe Atoll but a broken boat side-lined that plan.  Too bad, I would have loved to dive more of the Atolls.

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The top-side activities on Half-moon Caye include a trip to the Red-footed Booby nesting site.  They are found only in the Galapagos and here, on Half-moon Caye.  The picture above clearly shows the red feet and blue bills that make them unique.  It was a nice place for lunch and nature watching.  On the whole, I waited a long time to dive Belize and am really glad I finally got to do it.  Next time, I would either do a live-aboard or stay out at Turneffe so I can do more diving on the Atolls.  However, that said, I think the trip to Ambergris Caye for diving was really worthwhile.  The resort is very nice and dive operation is first rate.  Everyone is very friendly and helpful.  The eagle rays and nurse sharks alone made this trip worth it!

 

Diving on both ends of Viti Levu, Fiji – Bligh Waters & Beqa Lagoon

I have been fortunate enough to visit Fiji twice.  The first time was on the way back from Papua New Guinea and we dove Bligh Waters on the north end of Viti Levu.  I was really impressed by the visibility of Bligh Waters!  I was afraid it would be a let down after PNG but it wasn’t at all.  Fiji is known for its colorful soft coral.  What they don’t tell you about soft coral before you get there is that soft coral requires current to open up & look so beautiful.

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It really is stunning to see the many colorful corals and sponges of Fiji.  They also have a great variety of fish and critters in Bligh Waters.  We mostly dove pinnacles in the open ocean.  These dives are best reserved for an experienced diver because of the possibility of strong currents.  That said, there is diving that is for all experience levels in Fiji.

The vista from our resort, Wananavu,  was unbelievable as you can see below.  We were treated to a nightly Kava Kava ceremony and the friendliness that Fiji is famous for.  Literally everyone was friendly and gave a “Bula” when they saw you.  That is the Fijian greeting.  You really felt welcome and appreciated.

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The topography underwater was pretty spectacular too.  There was a lot of structure and swim-thrus on some dives.  The one above was one of my favorites.  The water was so clear and blue it made for a really spectacular background for shots like the fan below.

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The colors are so fun underwater.  When you put a light or flash on it, it comes to life.  There were a lot of critters too.  The nudibranch above is such a pretty one.  They are fun to photograph because there are hundreds of varieties.

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The second time I visited Fiji for a dive trip was to the southern end of Viti Levu to dive Beqa Lagoon.  This is an easy diving area.  There are lots of pinnacles and rock outcroppings to swim around and between.  You just never know what you were going to see.  Nudibranch’s, octopus, eels, anemone fish, scorpionfish, and many others.

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I really enjoyed the anemone fish here (nemo fish).  There had been some rain before we arrived so the visibility was not nearly as good as my last trip but there were so many things to see, it was great diving.  I also experienced El Nino for the first time.  I never knew what a difference in water temperature it really made.  The water was at least 4-5 degrees cooler and when diving, that is a huge difference.  They offer a shark dive there that is pretty entertaining.  You can see up to 7 different shark species on a single dive.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get any spectacular pictures because of the visibility but the memories are priceless.

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We stayed at Waidroka Resort on the south end of Viti Levu.  They offer both diving and surfing.  The staff was wonderful and had that same friendly Fijian style.  One day we went diving at Frigates Reef, one of the favorite surf sites too.  It was great!  I would say that for experience level, Beqa Lagoon is more suited to all levels, including a new diver than Bligh Waters.  I would also say that you would see so many things here, if you were a new diver, it would boggle the mind!

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It is hard to compare the two ends because the weather made the diving so different.  I really enjoyed both but the visibility and water temperature make me naturally prefer the diving in Bligh Waters on the first trip.  However, if those two things had been equal, there was a lot to see on the southern end that made it really fun.  The shark dive and the variety of fish and critters made it special.  Getting to Fiji is really pretty easy.  From LAX, it is an easy 10 hour flight on Air Pacific with great food, great service and free wine.  How can you beat that!

 

Papua New Guinea diving from the Chertan – Diving in a truly remote destination!

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It will be hard to get all that is great about Papua New Guinea, both diving and otherwise into one post.  I can’t say enough about how unique this destination is.  It is such a remote jungle location that it takes a huge effort just to get there.  We met the boat, the Chertan, in Alotau for a 9 day tour of the Milne Bay region of Papua New Guinea.  To give you some idea of where it is, it is the eastern half of the Island of New Guinea and the western half is in southern Indonesia.  It is north of Australia and the Great Barrier Reef,  just south of the equator and west of the Solomon Islands (Guadalcanal from WWII) in the South Pacific.

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Because it is remote, the diving is pristine and fabulous.  It is at the meeting point of the Solomon Sea, the Coral Sea and the Pacific ocean.  There is a lot of variety to the dive sites.  They are famous for muck diving but there are a lot of pinnacles and reefs too.  There were a respectable number of sharks and rays but this is really not the big pelagic destination that some others are.  This was the first place I saw several new critters.  It was my first cuttle fish like the pair above, pygmy seahorse, ornate ghost pipefish, mandarin fish, mantis shrimp and many colorful nudibranchs.  It is the only time I have ever seen a lacy scorpion fish and the large spanish dancer nudibranch like the one below.  These nudi’s are over a foot long and I believe they are only found here!

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Because the Chertan is a liveaboard, you can dive off the boat or off the small skiff.  They will pick you up where you surface or you can dive or swim back to the big boat.  That is a wonderful way to dive!  I love liveaboards and for this type of a destination, it is the only way to go!  We made a couple of stops on land to round out the experience.  We visited one of the skull caves that are a reminder the days when there were cannibals there.  These skulls, seen below, are actually encased in the stalagtites & stalagmites of the cave.

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The natives make crafts and you can buy them when you visit.  I picked up a couple of beautiful wood carvings inlayed with mother of pearl or something similar.  I just love them and they have a very special memory attached.  We called it the Papua New Guinea mall, see above.  Another fun sight was the native kids (like the photo below) in boats that would row out each morning and sell fresh fruit to the boat.  It was indescribably good!

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There were several opportunities to snap stunning sunset or sunrise photos like the one above.  We also made a brief stop at Tawali, the resort that is a sort of sister operation to the Chertan.  We dove on the house reef to see the mandarin fish and Spanish dancers.  It is still the only photo I have successfully gotten of them mating.  Tawali is a beautiful shore-based dive resort built into the jungle but with a blending architecture that looks pretty natural.

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The diving in Papua New Guinea, while varied, it still better suited to an experienced diver.  There are a lot of dives where the current can come up suddenly or change directions suddenly.  I don’t think you need to have a zillion dives but you should have a good amount of ocean dives where there is some current to be able to adapt to the changing conditions without getting too stressed out about it.  You also need VERY GOOD buoyancy control because the muck dives are one of the special things you travelled all this way for and one careless fin kick can stir the muck and ruin the dive for everyone.

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This is another one of those bucket list destinations and not one you do every year.  Even though these types of trips are not cheap, I always feel like I have done something so special that it was worth the effort and cost involved.  I have been to quite a few places that very few people ever make it to and that is a great feeling!  I don’t want to get too old to dive and say “I wish I had done that…”  In closing, if you are looking for a remote destination to dive, this is a good one.  You can see species here that are found nowhere else and not see another diver outside your group while you are diving.  I can’t think of anything that is better than that!

 

 

 

Scuba diving Sipidan Island, Malaysian Borneo

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I was fortunate enough to go on a trip of a lifetime to Malaysian Borneo a couple of years ago and dive on the infamous Sipidan Island, as well as some other very notable islands.  Sipidan is like a pinnacle with an island perched on top and has some of the best pelagic diving I have seen.  The walls plunge to the bottom of a trench and the deep blue is full of creatures.  A few years ago, the dive shops on the island voluntarily vacated it so it could be protected and preserved.  Since it is no longer inhabited except for marine park rangers, the reef is very well protected and the wildlife is very prolific.  There are only a few permits issued to a few dive shops daily so the number of divers is strictly controlled but you will usually get one opportunity in a 7 night trip.  There are very few places on earth where you can swim along and see dozens of sharks resting on the reef like the two above.  You can see up to 40+ sharks on a single dive.

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There is a dive site called Barracuda Point that is one of my favorite dive sites.  You drop in and are greeted by a large school of Jacks (above & below).  They can blot out the sun there are so many.  Then you swim along the wall and see lots of fun critters like the fire dart fish above until you feel the current pick you up.  Then you are flying around a point and out of the current.  Here is where you can see a massive school of Barracuda circling above you like a funnel.  My little camera just couldn’t capture the scene but believe me, it is spectacular.  Turtles and rays are common sites at Sipidan also.  You can tell by the sea life and fish numbers that they do a great job of protecting the island.  And did I mention sharks?  Remember, this is Asia and the center of the shark finning controversy so it really speaks highly about the job the rangers do that sharks have a sanctuary here.

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The diving in Malaysian Borneo is really special all over but Sipidan rated a post all by itself because of how unique it is in the world of diving.  I would definitely recommend adding it to your bucket list!  If you get the chance to dive it, you become a member of a pretty select club because of the limits on divers.  As with several places we all want to dive, it takes a little work to get there, but it is worth it!

Scuba Diving in Roatan, Honduras – one of the Bay Islands, Honduras

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Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, is one of the few places I have visited twice to go scuba diving.  There are several reasons for this.  One is the reasonable prices for a dive trip there and another is that the diving is fantastic!  I stayed at different resorts each time but they are next to each other.  The first time, I stayed at Cocoview and the next time Fantasy Island.  For the resort, I preferred Fantasy Island because of the grounds.  They have a pool and a very nice crescent white sand beach for relaxing when not diving.  They both offer great shore diving, as there are two walls within swimming distance of both resorts.  There is also a wreck between the walls.  Both resorts also have top-notch dive operations.

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There is a lot of variety in the diving here.  Most are beautiful shallow coral gardens on the edge of a wall.  The edge can be sudden or gradual but the walls and coral gardens are stunning and very nice for diving.  You have a lot of fun critters like the arrow crab and octopus above.  There are seahorses too.  I did a shark feeding dive the second trip and it was pretty fun.  I prefer to see sharks in a natural feeding environment but these feeding dives can be very exciting and get the old adrenaline pumping!

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The signature dive on Roatan is Mary’s Place.  It is a swim-through crack in the wall with some very beautiful growth and the lighting from above adds a stunning effect.  After a turn you rise and exit in the shallows on top of the wall.  It is capacity controlled to minimize the potential for damage by too many divers at once but each resort has an opportunity to take divers there weekly.  It is definitely the must do dive when on Roatan.  Another swim-through is Calvin’s Crack and it too is a great dive.  Calvin’s starts straight down from the shallows and comes out on the side of the wall after making an elbow turn.

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The local shore dives from both resorts are on Newman’s Wall and Cocoview Wall.  Both are great dives and in between them is the wreck called the Prince Albert.  The wreck has been down long enough to have some impressive growth on it so it makes for a very enjoyable dive.  There used to be (and may still be) a resident Green Moray eel on Newman’s wall that followed along with the divers weaving in and out of the wall as you swim along.  He was pretty fun to watch.  There is a picture of him below.

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Roatan as some of the biggest crabs I have ever seen.  They look like they could be a cousin of the Alaska king crab.  They are a little shy but you are almost assured to see one on your dive trip.  After the diving, there is a really fun zip line adventure available there.  The spans are long and fast so it is really fun!  We stopped for shopping at a couple of places on the way back including a cameo factory.   They carve cameos out of conch shell that are amazing!  For any diver of any level, I would highly recommend trying out Roatan.  There are a lot of different resorts and different prices and getting there is pretty easy.  The pricing seems to be going up some in the last few years but it is still a good value for the money.

 

 

North Sulawesi, Indonesia diving – Bunaken, Ganga & Banga Islands

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In North Sulawesi, Indonesia there are other pretty spectacular places to dive, not just Lembeh.  I have been fortunate enough to dive in the Bunaken marine reserve on both trips to the region and went to Ganga and Banga Islands on the last trip.  A perfect trip would be to visit all 3 areas because the diving is diverse and the critter action non-stop at all 3.  Above, are some more of the ever present nudibranchs.  There is less black sand areas and much more beautiful reef in Bunaken and t Ganga/Banga Island you have pinnacles, swim throughs and stunning pristine reef.  The one problem is that there has been some dynamite fishing in areas and the devastation is unbelievable.  It is amazing that things are already trying to grow in those spots.  Thankfully, it is not widespread and hopefully education will help.  It is a sobering sight to see!

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I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at how many of my favorite critters are found throughout the area.  Above a tassled scorpion fish blends in and a Fimbriated Eel says good morning!  On one dive at Banga Island, my dive buddy and I were constantly behind the others because we would stop to look at something and see a half dozen other things in about a 2 foot square area.  You just couldn’t see it all!

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The large and small of it is shown above.  On the left is a cuttlefish.  They are the coolest thing to watch!  On the right, is a pygmy cuttlefish.  I had the divemaster put a hand in the photo to show how teeny it really is.  The are just like a miniature version of the bigger one.  The entire North Sulawesi area is renown for its “pygmy” things.  They also have pygmy frogfish, and of course, pygmy seahorses like the ones below.

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I love looking for the little stuff.  Believe me, I find my share but not compared to the dive masters that do this everyday.  Just when I think I am doing really well at spotting stuff, they point out stuff I swam right past!

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I was much improved at spotting on the second trip.  The old adage of stop and smell the roses is well represented when diving.  Not from the smells but the sights that are there to behold if you simply take your time, slow down and look.  Any diver looking for a critter intensive trip has got to visit North Sulawesi!

Diving in Lembeh Straits, North Sulawesi, Indonesia

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I have been lucky enough to make it to the Lembeh Straits in North Sulawesi, Indonesia twice to go diving.  It is widely acknowledged to be one of the top, if not the top area in the world to find unique and strange critters. The second time, I dove with Critters at Lembeh, at the Lembeh Resort.  It definitely makes a difference to dive with a dive shop that only dives the Lembeh Straits.  I was very impressed with the system they have in place to be sure everyone gets to see everything spotted on a particular dive.  The dive masters signal each other with lights so everyone gets a turn.  Above is a mimic octopus doing his impression of a snake eel perhaps?  They mimic flounder and other things too.  Another of the strange and different octopus found in Lembeh is the Wonderpus in the picture below.  Also above is a Banggai Cardinal fish.  They are only found in the Lembeh Straits and no where else!

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There are literally hundreds of varieties of nudibranchs in Lembeh.  Above is a picture of a pair of Chromodoris with an Emperor shrimp along for the ride.  There are so many colors it is amazing.  The dive masters at Critters at Lembeh know their ‘real names’ with the genus and everything.  I was stunned & impressed by that!

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Above is another of the colorful nudis.  Everywhere you look, there is something to see.  A lot of the Lembeh Straits is black sandy bottom with some patch reefs.  A lot of the most unique critters are found in the non-descript back sand areas.  On the patch reef, you can see octopus, loads of fish and if you are lucky, the two creatures below.  On the left is a Ghost Pipefish and on the right is a Pygmy Seahorse.  No matter where you go, you don’t see enough of these two species to get tired of seeing them.

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There are a large variety of anemones in North Sulawesi.  One variety hosts the porcelain crab you see below.  They are such beautiful critters but you really don’t see too many of them either.  It is exciting to see so many different and not often seen species in one place.  I would go again in a heartbeat, given the chance.

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The snowflake eel above is only the second time I have ever seen one.  I was glad to have the camera because I was the only one to see it as I was lollygagging behind again, taking pictures.  Love it.  Below is a couple more of the fun and different octopus that can be seen in Lembeh.

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At night, you can see the starry night octopus on the left above.  Very beautiful and shy creature.  On the right is a Poison Ossilate Octopus.  It is a sort of cousin to the Blue Ring Octopus that we didn’t get to see.  These are also pretty hard to find.  It is just a tiny little guy sitting atop a small encrusted bottle.

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Eels are another thing you can see a large variety of there.  In short, you never know when you are going to see something you have either never seen or rarely seen.  It is such an adventure to dive in the Lembeh Straits!  If you have a diving bucket list, this place should be at the very top!  It takes a bit to get there but it is so very worth it.  After all, aren’t most things in life worth the effort it takes to achieve it!

Bonaire, best diving in the Caribbean?

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I don’t know about Bonaire being the best diving in the Caribbean, but it is surely one of the best dive destinations there!  I don’t very often visit a place twice because there are so many places I haven’t been to yet.  Bonaire is one I have been to twice and would go back again.  For me, that is saying a lot.  I love the critters there!  Bonaire was one of the first to make a marine sanctuary around the entire island.  They may well have been THE first.  The success of that act really shows in the health of the reef and fish life.  The second time I went, in 2010, they were experiencing coral bleaching and that was really sad but a natural phenomenon.  The dive staff thought it would rebound pretty fast if the water temperatures didn’t stay too high for too long.  Still, there was some very good diving even in the shallows in certain dive sites.

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One of my favorites, Karpata, didn’t seem to have any damage in the shallows and was still a stellar dive site.  Just down the cliffs, at Rappel, there was damage in the shallows.  We also went around the oil plant and dove the site just on the other side.  It was really great diving too.  I just wish people would pick up their garbage!  If you look at these pictures, you can there is a great variety of little critters in Bonaire.  As I said in a previous post, one of my favorite things is swimming along looking in the various tube and vase sponges to see who is in there.  I love that!  This is a sampling of what you can see.

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I currently have no plans to return but you ever know.  I still think it is one of the best dive destinations in the Caribbean.  Warm water & sunny warm climate year round, great people and wonderful diving – how can you top that!

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Both times I went to Bonaire, it was in November.  It should be after the hurricane season and they are out of the hurricane belt but both times a late tropical depression caused surge that affected where you could shore dive easily.  I always found plenty of diving but I would love to go there when the weather cooperated and got to try more of the shore dives I wanted to try.  Because of that, I would not recommend that time of year.  If I ever make it back, it will be in the winter or spring.

Caribbean vs Pacific diving compared – Where is the best diving?

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The Caribbean has some very special critters that are near and dear to me.  I love arrow crabs and all the little critters and fish you find in the tube and vase sponges in the Caribbean.  I almost never see something down inside a sponge in the Pacific but you find something in nearly all of them in the Caribbean.  I don’t know why.  One of my favorite pastimes on a dive is to leisurely swim along shining a light into all of the sponges along the way.  You can see some of the results above.  Also, the banded coral shrimp (red & white below) is a regular sight in the Caribbean.  They are too cute but hard to get a clear photo of because they seem to be fuzzy in places.

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I love to look for them and always try to get a good shot.  There are of course several things that you find in both the Caribbean and the Pacific but this post is about what makes each different and fun.

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Now for the Pacific region.  That is a bit broad for a region but the Indo-Pacific in particular has some very unique critters.  You see seahorses in a great many locations but pygmy seahorses are only in the Indo-Pacific region.  They are the coolest tiny little creatures. You have to wonder how anyone spotted the first one because they are anywhere from 1/4 inch to 3/4 inch and blend into their surroundings.  Take a look at the little pink one above.  REALLY, how did anyone see that the first time!  Another of my favorites is anemone fish.  From the clown fish (Nemo) to the many orange, pink and black varieties, they are all fun to watch and hard to photograph because they are constantly moving.  Undulating I between the fronds of their host anemone.  I just love to see them and always try to get a good photo.  Sometimes I get success others get the recycle bin.

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Rays are always a hit with divers but the blue spotted stingray in the Pacific is stunning to look at.  There is such a contrast in their green bodies and the brilliant blue spots, I never tire of seeing them.  As I’ve said before, I love to photograph eels.  There are a lot of different varieties in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions.  Some I have not seen very many times but my favorite would have to be the blue-ribbon eel.  They are so colorful.  They can be black/yellow, blue/yellow or just yellow depending on the life stage they are in.  I have yet to see an all yellow one but the blue/yellow stage like above is my favorite.

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Hawaii is a divers paradise all by itself.  You see more turtles there and anywhere, I think.  I love that.  Some of the dive sites they come right up to you like they’re tame.  In reality, I think they are curious.  I still haven’t made it to Kona to do the night Manta dive but it is supposed to be one of the best night dives in the world.  I definitely want to go!

Whether Caribbean or Pacific, there is something for everyone at every level of diving in both places.  I can’t say one is my favorite over the other because one is closer and less expensive and both offer a whole world of things to see underwater.  Start someplace in the Caribbean like Roatan, Cayman or Bonaire to get your feet wet and some experience under your belt and then take the plunge!  Go to someplace you have on your bucket list like Palau, Fiji, Indonesia or the Philippines.  It is a real sense of accomplishment to cross off a bucket list item!