What’s special about diving in the South Pacific?
The Unique Selling Point (USP) for diving in the South Pacific is the quality of the marine environment with its unspoilt, rich and different underwater fauna and flora offering wonderful reefs, wrecks and an extensive variety of secluded diving sites. Many consider the South Pacific to offer ‘some of the best diving in the world’ with a unique combination of natural environment, lack of pollution, pristine dive sites and few people. The most popular dive destinations in the South Pacific are Fiji, French Polynesia, Micronesia, Palau and Papua New Guinea, but there are other noteworthy places for the diving enthusiast, including the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu.
American Samoa is considered to be one of the US’s top diving locations and the Fagatele Bay Marine Sanctuary is home to life-filled coral reefs which draw in migrating species such as whales and turtles. American Samoa is also good for diving from the shore, particularly around the island of Tutuila which is almost completely surrounded by a coral reef. Ofu Island has an extensive reef which stretches for 300 acres.
Diving in the Cook Islands offers a range of diverse opportunities in crystal clear waters and excellent visibility in warm waters. All diving is shore-based and most dive sites are just 10 minutes from the departure point. Most centres are based in Raratonga and Aitutaki, and underwater experiences include canyons, caves, many varieties of coral including plate, shelving, mushrooms and brains, big drop offs and a multitude of colourful fish. Humpback whales may be seen between July and October, and a significant eagle ray population can be seen at Papua Canyon. The Ngatanglii Swimthrough is well known for its unusual fish species, and there are a number of wrecks including the SS MaiTai, which collided with the reef in 1916, and the MV Mataora Wreck, purposely sank in 1990 by a dive operator.
Fiji is the South Pacific’s leading dive destination accounting for 80% of the dive holiday market in the region and is also considered one of the world’s leading places to dive. The islands are surrounded by coral reef, the second largest in the world, shallow lagoons and steep drop-offs which feature a fantastic array of colourful soft corals, more than 1,200 species of fish, and 12 species of whales and dolphins. Diving is suitable for divers at all levels as beginners will enjoy shallow lagoons while sheer walls, pinnacles and deep dives will appeal to more experienced divers.
Beqa Island (pronounced Benga)
Surrounded by a vast barrier reef, the island has more than 100 dive sites including two shipwrecks and is known for shark sightings. Popular dive sites include Carpet Cove and Soft Coral Plateau.
13 islands situated to the west of Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu, the Mamanuca group of islands features two distinctive types of marine environments. Within the large lagoon and its shallow, calm waters and soft coral, the dives sites are more suitable for the novice while on the outer edges on the Pacific Ocean side are numerous passages of the Barrier Reef, and dolphins, sharks and turtles abound. Well known dive sites include Namotu Wall, Castaway Passage, the Supermarket and Barrel Heads.
Fiji’s fourth largest island is surrounded to the south and east by the Great Astrolabe Reef and is one of Fiji’s premier dive locations. Stretching for more than 100 kilometres, rich ocean currents feed an extreme biodiversity of coral structures and marine life.
A volcanic island sometimes referred to as the Garden Island for its rich flora above the water, Taveuni has a reputation for being the ‘soft coral capital of the world’ and is home to some remarkable dive sites including the Great White Wall and Rainbow Reef.
Dive trips aboard liveaboard vessels are good options for exploring dive sites located a long distance from land-based dive operations such as sites in Bligh Water and around the islands of Lomaiviti, Namena, Wakaya and Gau.
Federated States of Micronesia
The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) have three main islands, the capital island of Pohnpei (Garden Island), Kosrae, ‘the Sleeping Lady’ and Truk, also known as Chuuk Atoll. The diving around Pohnpei is diverse and pristine; the island is surrounded by a barrier reef which has dramatic drop offs, coral reefs adorned with life, and a highlight are manta rays which can be seen almost every day. Kosrae is particularly noted for its clear, clean ocean offering excellent visibility of vertical drop-offs, cascading corals and an abundance of marine life.
Truk is indisputably a wreck diver’s mecca, infamous for its giant lagoon which is the final home of more than 100 ships, planes and submarines that sank during fierce World War II battles between the Japanese and Allied forces. The lagoon has been declared an underwater museum and notable wrecks include the Fujikawa Maru, an armed aircraft ferry, Submarine 1-169, and a destroyer, the Susuki Maru. In addition to land-based resorts, a number of liveaboard vessels move divers from site to site.
The island groups that make up French Polynesia have a wealth of exceptional diving opportunities, and is a diving destination renowned around the world. The largest and most populated island of Tahiti is surrounded by clear, shallow waters and features steep oceanic drop offs, sunken vessels, walls of bright coral and an excellent variety of dive sites. Rangiroa is the second largest coral atoll in the world and, diveable year round, is one of the world’s greatest dive destinations. It is particularly famous for the Tiputa Pass through which swim many large pelagics including manta rays, eagle rays, hammerhead sharks, grey reef sharks, dolphins and more besides. Bora Bora is also known for its pelagics, particularly manta rays, while Moorea’s coral reefs are well preserved with abundant marine life and superb visibility often more than 40 metres.
Raiatea and Huahine offer excellent diving within the huge, deep Raiatea-Tahaa lagoon with its wrecks and ocotopus, and there are further good dive sites off-shore from Uturoa with trenches, reefs, caves and walls. Manihi is famous for its black pearls and has an array of sites at which encounters with manta rays and grouper are frequent.
Kiribati straddles the equator and comprises 32 atolls and one raised coral island, Christmas Island, the largest in the world which has been called ‘the largest untouched reef in the world’. Kiribati is also home to one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Diving from Kiribati is typically from shore dives or from traditional outrigger canoes, and the islands are surrounded by diverse marine species and considerable pelagic life including dragon moray, flame angelfish, manta and eagle rays, dolphins and turtles. Tawara Atoll is Kiribati’s largest atoll and offers excellent diving opportunities; villages dive for clams and octopus.
The islands and atolls of the Marshall Islands offer extensive wreck diving and coral sightseeing in waters with excellent year-round visibility. Majuro is the most accessible dive site and nearby Arno Island is an underwater playground for divers.
Wrecks from World War II abound throughout the islands and one of the key dive sites is Bikini Lagoon, the resting place of some of the most famous World War II vessels. The US naval aircraft carrier USS Saratoga is the world’s largest diveable wreck, a larger ship even than the Titanic, and lies upright in 180 feet of water. Also resting in these waters is the wreck of HIJMA Nagato, the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy which led the attack on Pearl Harbour, inverted in 160 feet of water. Due to the nature of the environment, diving at Bikini Lagoon is generally for advanced divers who have appropriate training and skills.
After 50 years of isolation, Rongelap Atoll is now accessible to divers and marine scientists are calling its beautiful coral reefs dropping into hundreds of metres of water the next World Heritage Site. Other notable dive sites in the Marshall Islands include Kwajalein Atoll, home to the German heaver cruiser, the Prinz Eugen which fought alongside the Bismarck, and the atolls of Jaluit, Mili and Likiep.
New Caledonia has one of the world’s biggest coral reef stretching 1,600 kilometres around the mainland forming the world’s largest lagoon. Diving is superb at New Caledonia and during the winter months (April to November), underwater visibility is excellent and can reach 50 metres. At the Bay of Prony, a huge stalagmite formed through hydrothermal activity known as the Needle of Prony is a dramatic formation with sealife clinging to the needle at different deptsh. Tenia has a range of beautiful drops of 40-50 metres while the town of Hienghene offers diverse diving through caves, tunnels and swim throughs. The giant sea fans are of exceptional quality and make for outstanding photography. Satan’s Cave off the Isle of Pines is a mysterious fresh underwater cave, reached via a narrow underwater corridor.
One of the world’s largest coral islands, Niue has no rivers and a porous geology making for exceptional water clarity. As a result, Niue is excellent for underwater photography with an abundance of drop-offs, canyons and caves for exploring. Snake Gully is known for its sea snakes, reef sharks, barracuda and ribbon eel, along with spinner dolphins which can be seen all year. Located five metres below the surface, the entrance to the Chimney is a hole which drops vertically to the Fireplace a further 27 metres down, while the Limu Twin Caves are two large caverns in a reef flat dropping from six metres to 28 metres.
Palau’s waters are renowned around the world for their marine bio-diversity and abundance of large pelagic animals, for example sharks, manta rays and sailfish, and offers diving for all levels of skill. The majority of diving in Palau is drift diving along walls, plateaus and coral gardens of the outer reef, and the Ngemelis Drop-Off is considered to be one of the world’s best wall dives. Starting in waters just knee deep, the wall drops off vertically nearly 300 metres. Other popular dive sites include Blue Corner, Blue Holes and Big Drop Off.
Palau was strategically important during World War II and there are a number of World War II wrecks in Palau’s water as well as the German Channel, a man-made shallow channel connecting the lagoon with the outer reef, blasted by the Germans in the early 1900s in order to transport phospates. Today the channel is well used by the manta ray population who feed on plankton brought in by strong currents.
Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea comprises a collection of islands, atolls and coral reefs scattered around its coastline. Lying within the volcanic Pacific Ring of Fire, PNG is becoming an increasingly well known diving destination, home to twice as many species as the waters of the Red Sea and up to five times as many as the Caribbean. Amidst the reefs and schools of fish are numerous ship and aircraft wrecks, legacies from World War II.
On the mainland, Milne Bay is home to the P38 Lightning, a single seater fighter and the B17 Bomber ‘Blackjack’, one of the world’s great aircraft wreck dives as it lies in near perfect condition in 46 metres of water. Milne Bay and nearby Tufi also have a huge variety of marine life including rare scorpion fish, clownfish and seahorses.
Kimbe Bay on the island of New Britain has several outstanding dive sites on more than 190 reefs and the bay is sheltered and waters calm. Many liveaboard vessels start or end at the town of Rabaul; it was one of the major battle zones during the war and as a result a large number of wrecks are in the area.
Kavieng is located at the northern tip of New Ireland island, renowned for its current-swept passages which attract a variety of big, pelagic fish. The diving is excellent and there are numerous reef walls covered in fans, sponges and brightly coloured hard corals which drop away to great depths. Popular dive sites include Albatross Passage, a narrow channel between New Ireland and Baudissin, and the Wreck of the Der Yang, a Taiwanese fishing vessel scuttled in 1988.
Diving in Samoa is most suitable for Leisure Divers and there are some good reefs, but there is limited appeal to the Hardcore Diver. Diving is concentrated to the south coast of Upolu where spinner dolphins and large turtles are common and the north east coast of Savai’i. Key dive sites in Upolu include The Rock, well known for barracuda, and Apolima Gardens, a coral garden, a wonderland of colour and life. For wreck enthusiasts, the Juno is a three-mast missionary sailing ship which sank in Lepela Bay in 1881, today full of corals, trumpet fish, parrot fish and yellow snappers. Maximum dive depth in Samoa is around 25 metres.
Diving in the Solomon Islands is one of the major attractions, and there are many reefs and wrecks rated as some of the best in the world. The Solomon Islands were a key location during World War II and there was especially heavy fighting on the island of Guadalcanal; as a consequence hundreds of ships and aircraft litter the ocean floor providing a mecca for divers to explore. Over time, the wrecks formed spectacular, artificial reefs which attract an enormous number and diversity of marine life.
The two islands of Guadalcanal (sometimes known as ‘Iron Bottom Sound’) and Florida (or Tulagi) are home to a variety of wrecks including troop carriers, transport ships and aircraft. Many wrecks lie just minutes from Tulagi Wharf; the Aaron Ward is the only accessible destroyer in the Solomon Islands, discovered in 1955 at depths of 53-73 metres.
Other key Solomon Islands for diving include those of Uepi and Gizo which offer a combination of wreck diving, coral gardens and magnificent drop offs. Gizo is the location of famous dive site Grand Central Station, so named for its profusion of marine life. While Uepi is home to the Marovo Lagoon, one of the world’s largest lagoons and a well-known diving destination.
Most dive sites in Timor Leste are located off the north coast, and the island of Atauro is Timor Leste’s most pristine diving area. Located one hour’s boat ride away, there are several sites of note including Manta Ray Cove where there is a 50 metre wall with superb coral growth. Big Fish Rock appeals to experienced divers for deep dives in strong currents and is known for its schooling pelagics and occasional hammerhead sightings. The Pinnacle, four kilometres off shore from Dili, is a meeting place for large pelagics and turtles, while K41 and Shark Point east of Dili are considered among divers’ favourites.
Tonga is one of only two places in the world where you see humpback whales in the water, and lucky divers might encounter them during a dive. Between July and September, the whales migrate from feeding grounds in Antarctica to Tonga where they breed and birth their calves. The diving in Tonga is spectacular; the islands are surrounded by beautiful white coral sands and lagoons full of marine life. The main island of Tongatapu has a magnificent lagoon and reef and five marine reserves; the island of Eua is especially popular for its interesting cave diving sports. The Ha’apai Group of islands is known for its reefs, caves, canyons and tunnels with vertical walls, fast flowing passes and colourful coral gardens. Excellent drift dives along walls and drop offs can be found in the Vava’u Group along with the wreck of a copra steamer, and visibility is excellent.
Diving in Vanuatu is varied and interesting, and one of the most popular activities for visitors. There is abundant sea life with soft corals, plate corals and thousands of fish swimming about the mountainous underwater terrain with its plunging cliffs, grottoes and overhangs, along with huge caves and interconnecting caves formed by frozen lava. Many of the best dive sites are located just minutes away from capital Port Vila and notable wrecks include the 1874 sailing ship, Star of Russia, a three-masted ship in 36 metres of water. Off Espiritu Santo lies the island’s key attraction, the wreck of the SS President Coolidge, which sank during World War II after colliding with a mine and is now one of the world’s most exciting and accessible wrecks for sport divers.