World's best superyacht dive spots, by Tristan Rutherford
Harbour Magazine, July 2021
How would you invest $100,000? In 2016 the mayor of Aydin, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, purchased an obsolete Airbus A300. She then asked that her 55m-long passenger jet, with its 44m wingspan, be stripped and sunk in 17m of crystalline sea.
Five years on the mayor’s Airbus is a scuba site par excellence. Divers embark via a hole in the fuselage — no boarding pass required. ‘Passengers’ include spiny lobsters and black bream. Plus silverine leerfish that shoal like a ghostly mirror. In the Airbus A300 cockpit, radar screens and thrust levers have been removed. Only the three pilot seats remain. Needless to say, these seats make the ultimate Instagram post for veterans of the world’s longest airplane dive.
Innovative dive sites like this span every yachting destination. Like the sunken B-24 Liberator bomber near Vis, Croatia, which has become an aquarium for yellow seafans and red snappers. Just off Oslo, Norway, the underwater sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor has tethered buoyant statues to the seabed by an 'umbilical cord' of flexible steel. These statues float like phantoms in the tide. They can be snorkeled in summer. Or dived in winter when a hole is cut into the Norwegian ice.
By every measure, oceans are exploration’s final frontier. They contain the world's longest mountain chain — in the mid-Atlantic. As well as more historical artefacts than are held by all the museums in the world combined. Yet only 5% of the seabed has been explored to modern scientific standards.
Tech has opened the ocean to marine explorers only in recent years. Take electronic rebreather apparatus, which were pioneered by the US Navy’s Experimental Diving Unit, among other James Bond inventions. Rebreathers allow divers to scuba stealthily for up to six hours, without leaving a chain of air bubbles behind. A dozen gadgets, from self-propelled monofins to sea scooters, can assist further. For example, divers can HDMI live stream their swim using a FIFISH, the world's first 4K submersible drone, which also features 4,000-lumen underwater stage lights.
Today no destination is off limits. Diving locations once deemed geographically impractical, or politically impossible, are within the bounds of contemporary explorer yachts. Like Silfra in Iceland. Here the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates have fissured apart. This has left a deep canyon in the earth's crust, which can be both dived and snorkeled. Spot underwater springs. Plus prehistoric-looking fish known as Arctic char. Sea visibility at Silfra is 100m — possibly the clearest on the planet. Or take Qiandao Lake in China. ‘The Chinese Atlantis’ was formed in 1959 when a hydroelectric dam flooded 1,400-year-old ruins. Temple reliefs, dragon carvings and relics of the Tang Dynasty's sunken Lion City will leave divers awestruck.
The man who kickstarted the diving revolution was Jacques Cousteau. Taking diving tech to the outer reaches of the world was the Frenchman’s credo. Cousteau essentially invented the explorer yacht, when he chartered the 42m Royal Navy minesweeper Calypso from British business magnate Loel Guinness. The fee? A token sum of 1 French Franc per year.
Cousteau (who also created the aqualung, the world’s first scuba device) kitted out the Calypso with more inventions. Like a private two-person ‘flying saucer’ submersible. And a rudimentary sea scooter that looked - and behaved - like a giant yellow torpedo. By creating 120 diving documentaries, Cousteau became the world’s first ‘diving influencer’ half a century before the term was coined. He inspired a generation of divers, while his TV shows are still syndicated globally today. In the Frenchman’s words: “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
Some of Cousteau’s favourite dive sites have only recently become accessible by explorer yacht. One is Sipadan, deep in the Celebes Sea between Malaysia and The Philippines. The island was formed when living coral colonised an extinct volcanic cone. Here ‘Whitetip Avenue’ is where gunmetal grey sharks hunt against a backdrop of purple sea fans. At ‘Staghorn Crest’ the coral rivals Singapore’s Botanical Garden for colour. This single lonely island hosts nearly 1,000 species of reef fish - ranking it among the most biodiverse places on the planet. Place the task of obtaining a rare permit to dive Sipadan in the hands of a Hill Robinson charter specialist. You won’t be disappointed.
The Red Sea has become a leading diving go-to. Not least as Saudi Arabia’s 1,500km western shoreline opens to luxury tourism. This strategic sea shelters the world’s greatest wreck dives. Like the 158m SS Umbria. In May 1940, as Italy entered World War II, she was deliberately sunk by her captain along with 100 tons of weapons and three vintage FIAT cars. There are even pizza ovens and hundreds of bottles of wine — as befits an Italian ship. Now a playground for butterflyfish, triggerfish, dolphins and wrasse, the Umbria remains utterly intact off the Sudan Coast.
Cousteau adored the Sudanese Red Sea so much that he lived in it. In 1963 the French diver built Precontinent II. This starfish-shaped 'underwater colony' tested humans' ability to operate in a watery world of blacktail sharks and shimmering glassfish. The base had food, electricity and air piped in from above. Cousteau’s documentary film of the project, World Without Sun, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary the following year. The remains of Precontinent II, guarded by red sponges and parrotfish, can be dived today.
There’s just one caveat. Exploring the world’s most exciting dive sites requires the support of a finely equipped yacht. Jacques Cousteau would agree. Sudan, Malaysia, Iceland and other emerging destinations are bereft of yachting infrastructure. If you wish to dive, you’ll require your own divemaster, masseur and chef, as well as the barest essentials like food, water and fuel. Indonesia is a case in point. The archipelago’s 17,000 islands are so distant that they are being explored by yachts at a glacial pace. Indeed, diving a new Indonesian island every day would take 46 years.
Can diving put a destination on the map? Just ask Turkey. Last year authorities sunk another, larger Airbus - a 65m-long A330 - in the Aegean Sea. It will soon open as the world’s longest airplane wreck dive. Although amberjacks and scorpionfish might have checked in first.
Tristan Rutherford writes about luxury yachts for Camper & Nicholsons Magazine and Boat International.