Underwater, you're weightless. Sound is muted, distant. Particles eddy and disburse. Beneath the sea is a world that is dreamlike and magical, filled with unexpected color, haunted by shadows of sound.
Maybe that's why the ocean holds such allure for explorers, scientists, vacationers and eco-tourists. People have gone to great lengths to do nutty things underwater. Some underwater activities, like scuba diving and snorkeling, are fairly common. However, some aquatic enthusiasts take their antics to extremes, staging underwater weddings, creating underwater sculpture or, in the case of wealthy entrepreneur Richard Branson, building an underwater plane.
In this article, we'll explore some of the top underwater tourist attractions. First up, let's discuss an underwater skill you'll need to learn in order to document any of your underwater experiences. Discover the art of underwater photography after the jump.
Take Your Point-and-shoot Camera for a Swim
Underwater photography has come a long way since the days when filmmakers required a submarine to capture images for the 1916 silent film "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Today, with a $10 disposable waterproof camera, you can turn your own bathtub into an underwater tourist attraction.
Whether you're shooting in the backyard pool or freelancing for National Geographic, there's a bevy of underwater photography equipment available to suit your needs. From waterproof housings to professional cameras and lenses, underwater photography equipment runs the gamut of budget and technology. Once you've selected an underwater camera that's right for you, practice your craft at any number of lake, sea, aquarium or ocean attractions. Underwater photography courses and experiences are available worldwide. The Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, for instance, pairs a course on underwater photography with a dive that counts toward your PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Master Dive Certification.
Now that you've got a way to record your experiences, it's time to have an underwater adventure. Next up, we explore snorkeling and scuba diving.
Breathe Underwater: Best Places for Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Two of the most common underwater endeavors are snorkeling and scuba diving. Snorkeling requires minimal equipment and instruction: $50 will buy you a mask, snorkel and set of flippers, or you can rent gear from the nearest surf shop. Scuba diving takes a little more training. You'll need to earn your PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certification card before you can get started.
You'll find one of the world's best snorkel experiences in Rurutu, Tahiti. Every year, between August and November, humpback whales pass through the warm, shallow waters of Ruruta to mate and give birth. Snorkelers lucky enough to witness these massive mammals can dip their heads underwater and hear the gorgeous, eerie song of the whales before the gentle creatures swim into view. For snorkelers who want to stick closer to home, the Florida Keys offer some of the best domestic snorkeling in the United States.
From wreck diving to night exploration, scuba diving destinations abound. We recommend the Grenada locations, such as Molinere Underwater Park, which contains Jason deCaires Taylor's underwater sculptures. Not only are these works visually stunning, they also serve as artificial reefs, offering divers a way to explore reef ecology without unwittingly damaging the fragile ecosystems of natural barrier reefs.
Divers who want to take their diving to the next level might consider trying their fins at one of the world's most dangerous sports. We talk about cave diving in the next section.
In the Barbara Kingsolver novel "The Lacuna," a small boy dives down into a body of water and discovers a lacuna: a missing section of earth. His caregiver tells him it's "not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things." One day, when the tide is at its lowest, the young boy swims through the lacuna and finds himself in a secret world full of broken coral and human bones. When the tide rises, it fills the lacuna and the boy is sucked out and, nearly drowning, he's spit into the open sea.
Underwater cave diving is equally mysterious, dangerous and compelling. Divers are required to obtain additional certification and must acquire specialty equipment in order to attempt it. From the popular cave dives at Peacock Springs State Park, Fla., to the tricky depths of Blue Hole in Dehab, Egypt (known as the "diver's cemetery"), underwater cave diving is one of the most difficult, dangerous sports there is. The stalwart souls brave enough to attempt it are rewarded with lamp lit views of the world's most secret sanctums.
For explorers who prefer to delve the depths without worrying about running out of oxygen or tangling their hoses on stalactites, we explore submarine tours in the next section.
Submarine Tours: The Dry Way to Dive
If you prefer to experience your underwater sea views through a porthole rather than a diving mask, a submarine tour might be just the ticket for you and your family.
Atlantis Submarine Tours have been conducting family-friendly underwater submarine trips in places like Hawaii, Guam and the Caribbean since 1986. Explore coral reefs, shipwrecks and other submerged wonders in the comfort and safety of an enclosed viewing gallery. Clients experience no pressure changes and have the convenience of easy bathroom access. Tours take as little as 35 minutes and are a great way for the whole family to enjoy an undersea adventure.
Submarine enthusiasts looking for a bit more of a thrill (and holding a lot more cash) can build or buy a personal submarine. Wet subs require divers to breathe through scuba diving gear, but they allow for increased dive time and the ability to transport air tanks, hunting equipment and other gear. In a semi-dry sub, divers sit chest-deep in water, but they're able to breathe and enjoy the view without any diving gear. Prefabricated, semi-dry personal submarines, such as the SportSub Solo and the Resort Sub, are available starting at $30,000 from International VentureCraft Corporation.
If a day of underwater photography, scuba diving, snorkeling and submarine cruising won't satisfy your appetite for undersea adventure, consider spending the night. We discuss underwater hotels in the next section.
Eating and Sleeping With the Fishes
In 1986, the Jules Undersea Lodge(formerly a research facility) opened to the public. For years, it was the world's only undersea hotel and required, as it still does, a 21-foot dive in order to access the "wet" entrance room. Like many small vessels, the accommodations at Jules are comfortable and adequate but not particularly luxurious. Jules has two bedrooms, each with a double bed and a pull-down berth, a shared common room, and a shared restroom.
Travelers looking for a more luxurious underwater hotel experience should keep an eye on two underwater hotels currently under construction: Hydropolis in Dubai and the Poseidon Undersea Resort in Fiji. Poseidon's Web site features stunning renderings of what promises to be a remarkable underwater vacation experience, with individual glass-domed hotel rooms on the sea floor accessible by an elevator.
While you're waiting for the world's first luxury underwater hotels to open, you can whet your appetite for undersea experience at Ithaa, the world's first undersea restaurant on Rangali Island in the Maldives. Ithaa serves up Maldivian-Western fusion cuisine seven days a week, 5 meters below sea level in an all-glass viewing gallery with 270-degree panoramic sea views.
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More Great Links
- "Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo enriches experience with underwater photography and shark feeding." Burj-Khalifa.edu. Aug. 17, 2010. (Oct. 13, 2010)http://burj-khalifa.eu/featured/dubai-aquarium-underwater-zoo-enriches-diving-experience-with-underwater-photography-and-shark-feeding
- Glenday, Craig. "Largest Underwater Golf Tournament." Guinness World Records 2009. Random House Inc., 2009.http://books.google.com/books?id=aHYt0RNSDfgC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Kingsolver, Barbara. "The Lacuna." Harper Collins. 2009.
- Sawyer, Ty. "7 Best Snorkeling Spots." MSNBC.com. March 28, 2006. (Oct. 13, 2010)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11881827
- Taylor, deCaries Jason. "Grenada." Underwatersculpture.com. (Oct. 13, 2010)http://www.underwatersculpture.com/pages/gallery/grenada.html
- "Unique Tourism Project: Branson Reveals New Underwater Toy." Tourism-Review.com. Aug. 2, 2010. (Oct. 13, 2010)http://www.tourism-review.com/unique-tourism-project-branson-reveals-new-underwater-toy-news2037