Back Page: The World Beneath The Waves

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Scuba diving is a sport that defies categorization. Although it does not appear to be strenuous, participants must be healthy, fit, and willing to go through the process of earning, and occasionally renewing, their diving certifications. Diving resembles golf in that scuba equipment can be pricey and different gear is required for different situations, but it departs from that pastime when considered in terms of mortality rates. According to the Divers Alert Network (DAN), a nonprofit medical and research organization that studies recreational scuba diving, a total of 178 North American divers died in scuba-related incidents in 2002 and 2003.

None of these facts has hindered the sport’s popularity, however. Scott Goetz’s piece on the Maldives islands (“Reef Reconnaissance,”) is one of many articles that Robb Report has published on scuba diving. Past stories have plunged below the waterline at the Bitter End Yacht Club at Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands (“Sweet Times at Bitter End,” December 1998) and spelunked the caves of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula (“Dive In,” May 2002). Also, in March 1998, we selected the world’s top 10 dive spots. The Maldives was not listed, but Thailand, another destination that suffered in the December 2004 tsunami, was. What Goetz learned during dives in the Maldives—things are not as dire as they first appeared—seems to be true for Thailand as well. “The tsunami did do damage, and Phuket [a favorite Thai dive site] got hit hard, but the reef was not hit as badly as originally thought,” says Suzann Ricky, a senior editor at Divenews.com, a web site that covers scuba-related issues. “Phuket is recovering, but it is still one of the most wonderful places to dive.”

Ricky is one of four American and British scuba experts we asked to review our unranked 8-year-old list, which in addition to Thailand included the Galápagos Islands, Belize, Norway, Bikini Atoll, the Falkland Islands, Mexico’s caves, and the Carribean islands of Little Cayman, Bonaire, and St. Kitts-Nevis. All agreed generally that the choices remained valid, but certain places did not find universal favor. Jack Jackson, a British photographer and author of Top Dive Sites of the World (New Holland, 2003), would not bless the selection of Bikini Atoll, the Pacific island where the U.S. government conducted nuclear tests in the 1940s and ’50s. “As a chemist I studied atomic bombs in my final year of college, and I am married to a radiographer,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I know enough about radioactivity not to put myself in harm’s way.”

Evidently, Jackson is not alone in his reluctance to dive in the atoll’s waters: Lorraine Riscinti, vice president of Blue Water Divers in Ramsey, N.J., encountered trouble filling the company’s October excursion to the island. “It’s so black-and-white,” she says with a sigh. “Initially, there were tons who said that they would go. I don’t know if they sat back and thought about it, but it was a harder sell.” Nonetheless, the trip was nearly full by early August.

Ricky suggested that Bonaire might not merit a place on the list because it is as familiar to divers as Paris is to world travelers. “It’s still popular, still standard, but it’s not new or cutting edge. Everyone has been there,” she says. “It’s a notch on the belt, but it’s not the forefront of diving.” Lisa Mitchell, resort market representative for Scuba Schools International (SSI) of Fort Collins, Colo., acknowledged the sentiment but defended the Caribbean island, which was her home for four years. “It is truly the epitome of shore diving,” she says. “You can dive 24/7, 365 days a year, outside of a hurricane zone.”

The experts made several suggestions for additions to the list, including South Africa, Egypt’s Red Sea, Turks and Caicos, the Micronesian island of Palau, and another tantalizing Caribbean spot that could welcome Americans if the political winds blow in a different direction. “Cuba is the best Caribbean destination,” says Jackson, “but it is out of bounds to Americans.”

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