From the Red Sea to the Great Barrier Reef, explore the fragile and fascinating living architecture of the ocean
Diving into underwater Egypt in Ras Muhammed National Park
Resting on the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm el-Sheikh is a haven for travelers who have visited the requisite sights and are ready for something different. While the tourist-friendly town offers activities like camel rides through the desert and tea times with local Bedouins, the main event takes place in the warm water of the Red Sea, and is hosted by schools of lionfish, yellow clown fish, napoleon fish, yellow and blue masked butterfly fish, emperor angel fish, parrot fish, bluespine unicorn fish, bluegreen pullers, octopus, red antheas, fan corals … just to name a few. One of the most famous dive sites in the Red Sea, Ras Muhammed National Park boasts coral reef walls reaching depths of 3,000 feet. For travelers who prefer snorkeling to scuba diving, these natural aquatic gardens start merely 1 meter beneath the surface. And with the transparency of the Red Sea’s water, locals and frequent visitors boast that the underwater show can often be seen without even getting one’s head wet. Map it.
Strolling knee-deep in wonder in Coral Bay, Australia
As Australia’s only fringing reef, Coral Bay offers immediate access to Ningaloo Reef — simply strap on your snorkel and stroll into the shallows. It is one of the only places in the world where the coral starts meters from the water’s edge, and the water is so clear you won’t miss a thing. While the Great Barrier Reef heaves with the weight of almost 2 million tourists a year, the virtually untouched Ningaloo Reef is free from the crowds, bathed in sunshine, and very easy on the hip pocket! There are hundreds of species of fish and coral to enjoy, and if your timing is right you may even see a whale shark or a dugong. Map it.
Diving for the future in Koh Tao, Thailand
The paradox of paradise is a perilous minefield for islanders all over the world. The battle to balance profit and preservation all too often ends with beauty being thrashed for cash. But there is a smarter option. Save Koh Tao has established a community-based system of sustainability that continues to keep this tropical idyll intact. Of the many projects that Save Koh Tao has organized is the Bio Rock, an artificial reef that uses low-level electrical current to attract a kaleidoscopic explosion of sea life. Just by choosing to explore the deep with a Save Koh Tao-affiliated shop, you are supporting the preservation of these natural wonders and the economy of this environmentally progressive community. So sit back after a long dive, enjoy the unspoiled views, the warm tropical breeze, the cold beer, and appreciate what smart planning can accomplish. Map it.
Snorkeling a living coral reef in Baja’s Pulmo Bay, Mexico
Just an hour and a half by car, yet worlds apart from the Los Cabos tourist corridor, the northernmost coastal reef in North America comes within wading distance of a pristine white-sand shoreline. A bumpy 16-mile drive along a graded dirt road leads to the fishing-village-turned-dive-center of Cabo Pulmo. Don’t bother checking in when you first arrive. Walk straight to the beach with mask, snorkel and fins in hand. Within minutes, you’ll be drifting along with the current in the marine reserve — spotting eels, rays, turtles and maybe a nurse shark. Don’t expect luxurious resort amenities, but you’ll still feel spoiled having Elvira’s homemade tamales and empanadas delivered to your door, as you watch the sun slip behind the sierra from the roof deck of your solar-powered bungalow. Map it.
Swimming with the fishes until your air runs out in Yap, Micronesia
Descend about 60 feet into the warm, clear waters surrounding Yap Island. The moment you experience a majestic manta ray, with a wing span of about 8 feet, hovering over your head, you will understand why people come from all over the world to see the denizens of this coral metropolis. As playful and nimble as dolphins, and as graceful as swans, the mantas seem to put on a show as they tumble and glide through the manta cleaning stations. Peer out into the deep blue and view, on average, about 20 gray reef sharks prowling the reef. Even those fearful of the killer of the sea will not be able to deny the awe and captivation experienced when surrounded by these curious sharks. Mesmerized, the closer they circle, the closer you hope they will come. Before you know it, your air tank is forcing you to come out of the trance. Map it.
Snorkeling the world’s second longest barrier reef in Belize
A mecca for snorkelers and divers alike, Belize is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world, the Meso-American System, a coral belt that stretches all the way from Mexico to Honduras. Just a short boat ride off Ambergris Caye, the warm tropical waters and variety of depths mean that even novices can take in an exquisite array of local coral and over 500 types of fish all year round. Its remarkable beauty, natural habitats and ongoing ecological and biological processes have earned the reef a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Several popular snorkeling spots include Hol Chan Cut and Shark Ray Alley, a sandy-bottomed spot where you can get close to nurse sharks and sting rays. Keep your underwater camera ready as you might even get lucky and be treated to a sea turtle or manatee swimming by. Map it.
Capturing contrast from a chopper in the Whitsundays, Australia
Scenic at sea level, picturesque from a lookout, but mighty impressive while hovering overhead, the Whitsunday Islands make cameras “ooo” and “ahh.” Available for scenic tours or quick flights, grab yourself a helicopter and get airborne for an unobstructed view of the sparkling Great Barrier Reef. Clear waters enable whale sightings, vibrant colors, and the perfect contrast between land, sand and sea. Keep your camera aimed at the tiny inlets, rocky outcrops and layers of reef that produce a field of blue hues. Make sure your flash is turned off to avoid reflection against the glass, and get ready to zoom in, out, in and then out again for a complete collection of varied views. Map it.
Balancing priorities at Sian Ka’an Reserve in Quintana Roo, Mexico
There’s a crisis brewing on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. As big attractions — beaches, mangroves, forests, wildlife, cenotes — face destruction and pollution through unregulated development, there is an urgent appeal for balancing economic need with environmental sustainability. Fortunately, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s east coast, there’s one exemplary protected zone, the largest in the Mexican Caribbean, to serve as a model: the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, an animal- and fish-rich mix of canals, marshes, lowland forests (including ancient Mayan sites) and the second-biggest barrier reef in the world. With good reason, it’s also a top ecotourism destination, complete with sustainable community-development projects and locally owned companies offering low-impact ecotours led by professionally trained native guides or biologists involved in local research and protection projects. Map it.
Snorkeling a protected reef in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii
By many accounts, the best snorkeling on the Big Island is within the federally protected coral reefs of Kealakekua Bay. The ideal way to reach this marine life conservation district, near the glistening white Captain Cook monument, is by kayak in the morning, a trip that takes you past a pod of spinner dolphins making their rapid rotations in the air. To beach your boat, you must obtain a permit, or go with a tour group that has one. Then find yourself drifting above schools of yellow tang, pulling your legs away from the occasional painless bite of Hawaii’s state fish, the humuhumunukunukuāpuaa (reef triggerfish), and marveling at the high-pitched squeals of the dolphins calling each other. Map it.
Diving the perfect reef on the East End of Grand Cayman Island
The Caymans may be one of the dive meccas of the world, but if you’re going to show up, why not see the best of the best? Forty minutes outside of the bustling West End, but on the same island as the airport, the East End has the best, least visited dive sites. Vibrant corals, blood-warm, yet crystal-clear water, and an amazing sample of sea life — that hasn’t been driven away or destroyed by people — right below the surface. Wall dives, reef dives and some unforgettable swim-through cave dives are within easy reach, but that’s not the best part. The crew at Ocean Frontiers is cheerful, and they’ll guide you every step of the way or leave you to dive at your own pace. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the comfy accommodations each have a kitchen and jacuzzi, and are situated 20 yards from the boat. Map it.
Every Sunday, Salon presents a feature from Trazzler spotlighting surprising travel stories from across the globe. Unexpected discoveries and strange, wonderful treasures are condensed into slide shows that entertain as much as they educate.