Considered by many to be the ‘father of scuba diving’, Jacques Cousteau has explored enough of our underwater world to be considered quite the expert, and although his career has been the subject of many a controversial debate, when Jacques Cousteau says a dive site is world-class, people listen. In fact, many people have rearranged and added to their diving bucket lists based on his recommendations. Without further ado, here’s a list of his most favourite dive spots:
Sipadan was considered by Cousteau to be “an untouched piece of art” and became famous from the 1980s film “Ghost of the Sea Turtles”. As you might have guessed from the movie title, Sipadan is now a world-famous site thanks to Cousteau and the huge numbers of sea turtles that call this area home. In addition to hosting these sleepy-looking creatures, Sipadan also boasts over 3000 unique marine and coral species. As a highly protected site since the year 2002, this Malaysian island does not have any dive resorts to speak of, and divers are only permitted to visit the area by day boat. Most recently, diving has been restricted to 120 divers a day, and dives can only take place between 8 am and 3 pm. Divers are required to have logged at least 20 dives or hold an advanced diving qualification as many of the dives are drift dives with strong currents. Located on the east coast of Borneo, Cousteau said “I have seen other places like Sipadan 45 years ago, but now no more”, making Sipadan a definite must-dive for those following this expert’s recommendations.
Richelieu Rock, Thailand
Richelieu Rock is a horseshoe-shaped reef located in Thailand’s Andaman Sea. Originally discovered by the famous Cousteau, this massive limestone pinnacle has its base at a depth of 50 metres and stretches right up to just below the surface of the water. Although it is actually closer to Burma, Richelieu Rock forms part of Thailand’s Mu Koh Surin National Park. The marine life surrounding the pinnacle is spectacular, with schools of trevallies and tuna as well as barracuda, manta rays and sharks in abundance.
Divers also flock to the area with the knowledge that they might have the opportunity to dive with the world’s biggest fish, the majestic whale shark. Richelieu Rock is most suitable for advanced divers thanks to strong and unpredictable currents during the October – May diving season. Many divers opt for a liveaboard experience to make the most of the numerous dive sites in the area, although there is the option of travelling via speedboat from Khao Lak.
It is thought by some that Richelieu Rock was so named because of the red and purple corals in the area which reminded Cousteau of the robes worn by the French cardinal Richelieu. Others believe the name came from the leader who once controlled the Siamese Navy, an officer from Denmark named Richelieu.
Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand
The Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand are what is left of a number of volcanoes that once formed part of the deadly Pacific Ring of Fire. The islands are located just 15 miles off the North Island coast and offer a rich and fantastic array of marine life in crystal clear waters, which is part of the reason Jacques Cousteau chose to include the islands in his top 10 list.
The Poor Knights Islands boast over 50 spots to dive, all of which now form part of a protected marine reserve. Divers can expect to be amazed by the wide variety of diverse marine environments available around these islands – everything from kelp forests to areas rich in corals , sandy areas, dramatic walls and even the largest sea cave in the world. A number of purposely-sunk wreck sites are also a fascinating option to explore. There’s even the chance to spot a number of large pelagic species such as whales and dolphins which is an added bonus.
Vancouver Island, Canada
Although Canada might not be at the top of everyone’s diving bucket list, the diving around Vancouver Island on the west coast was actually considered by Jacques Cousteau as “second only to the Red Sea”. Boasting Canada’s most temperate climate, Vancouver Island is the largest Pacific island on the east of New Zealand and has a stunning 17 000 mile coastline. Ranking as one of the best diving spots in North America, divers visiting Vancouver Island can hope to see a number of interesting creatures as well as some great wreck sites. Seals, blunt nose sharks, wolf eels and sea lions are just some of the species to see under the water’s surface, and there’s always the chance to see a cute sea otter too. Lucky divers might even spot the impressive giant Pacific octopus in these waters. A number of warships have been purposely sunk by British Columbia’s ARS (Artificial Reef Society) and there’s even a Boeing 737 to explore, making Vancouver Island a varied and spectacular spot to dive.
Aliwal Shoal, South Africa
As Cousteau and many South African divers will tell you, there’s much more to diving in this Rainbow Nation than just great whites and the world-famous sardine run. One of the best dive sites in South Africa, Aliwal Shoal, is located just 3 miles off the Umkomaas coast and is fed by the nutrient-rich Agulhas current, ensuring a thriving metropolis of underwater life. The town of Umkomaas is a small coastal town in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where the warm Indian Ocean serves as home to a wide array of marine life. Small fish make use of the shoal to hide from their predators as Aliwal Shoal features caves and overhangs with plenty of nooks and crannies. Naturally the bigger fish know about this favourite hideaway spot, so there is always a great deal of variety to see. Aliwal Shoal is named after the Aliwal, a sailing ship that came close to crashing on the rocks back in 1849. This rocky reef attracts the smallest of the small such as nudibranchs as well as the biggest of the big, as some whale species frequently visit the area. Between the months of June and November is a prime time to dive at Aliwal Shoal as this is the time when ragged-tooth sharks (or raggies as they are called in South Africa) follow their migratory path past the shoal. Tiger sharks also migrate to this area, heading towards the warm Indian Ocean in the southern hemisphere’s summer months starting around November. There are also two fantastic wreck sites to visit at Aliwal Shoal. The first is a rusted bulk carrier from Norway, the Produce, which sank off the shores of Umkomaas back in 1974. The second wreck that is worthwhile exploring is the Nebo which sank back in 1884 and now lies with its hull up.
Sha’b Rumi, Sudan
Thirty miles off the coast of Port Sudan lies a magnificent reef known as Sha’b Rumi, another of Cousteau’s favourite sites and an area which was used for a number of underwater living experiments many years ago.
In 1963, Cousteau began his second Conshelf experiment by building a structure that would allow humans to live underwater. Known as Precontinent II, the experiment resulted in an entire team living beneath the surface of the water for a whole month. The structures have since been removed, but there is a sinkable hanger that remains. Cousteau also blasted a route from the middle of the Sha’b Rumi reef into a nearby lagoon, an act that would be harshly criticized in today’s modern world, but regardless of the controversy, divers are still able to swim through this narrow tunnel today. Aside from these man-made features at Sha’b Rumi , the reef also boasts large schools of jacks as well as regular sightings of barracuda, an intimidating-looking predator. A variety of shark species can also be spotted every now and then.
Cocos Island, Costa Rica
The remote Cocos Island is a national park located a 36-hour boat ride from Costa Rica’s western coast. Although this journey time might be intimidating for some, take solace in the fact that the grand master of scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau, promised that the trip is entirely worth the wait. The island is only accessible via liveaboard and is inhabited solely by park rangers who protect the stunning resources on the island.
If you’re a fan of scalloped hammerhead sharks, you’re in luck. Cocos Island boasts schools of these odd-looking sharks that are hundreds-strong as well as sightings of the world’s largest fish, the whale shark. Originally formed by volcanic activity, the island receives the nutrient-dense north equatorial counter-current and thus welcomes a number of large pelagic creatures. A wide variety of sharks can be seen including whitetip, blacktip, silvertip and the often elusive tiger shark. Manta rays and a number of other ray species are quite common too.
Diving landscapes vary from very shallow reefs to very deep blue dives and there are a number of stunning volcanic pinnacles in the depths of these waters that are really fantastic to see. Thermoclines are common around Cocos Island with sudden temperature drops to below 6°C, but average temperatures are generally around 24-30°C. It is recommended that only the most advanced and experienced divers dive at Cocos Island due to the strong and unpredictable currents.
Cousteau’s favourite spot to drift dive was off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico at a small island known as Cozumel that boasts a wide variety of marine life in its surrounding waters. Now a major diving holiday destination for the masses, the area has managed to retain some of its local charm which is always a bonus for visitors wanting to explore more than just the underwater world. The abundance of healthy marine life in the area is partly due to the high levels of protection put in place for some areas, where fishing is strictly prohibited. There are two main reefs of Cozumel called Palancar and Colombia, and most of the best dive sites are found on the western side of the island. Some of the other sites tend to be more difficult dives and are only suitable for advanced divers, even in favourable conditions.
Divers following in Cousteau’s footsteps will enjoy a fantastic drift dive along deep walls and over colourful corals whilst keeping an eye out for rays and sea turtles. The strong and steady currents on the reefs generally push up to 3 knots and this helps to keep the visibility at a good level. Divers are also guaranteed to be met with a ton of vibrant and exotic reef fish along the way.
Blue Hole, Belize
Belize’s Blue Hole is by far the most well-known and popular blue hole in the world, and Cousteau rates this spot very highly for a number of reasons. Although there isn’t much in the way of marine life, the blue hole boasts unmatched visibility in stunning blue waters. Belize’s blue hole is a perfect circle reaching down to a depth of 124 metres and the limestone sinkhole measures roughly 300 metres across. Seen from above, the Blue Hole is an absolutely magnificent sight and its beauty is definitely something that needs to be seen in order to be believed. Divers will have the chance to dive beneath giant angled stalactites at a depth of between 40 and 43 metres which make for an exceptional experience. The only thing that makes a dive at Belize’s Blue Hole even more spectacular is the sighting of the odd Caribbean reef shark.
Heron Island, Australia
Heron Island is one of the many fantastic sites on the Great Barrier Reef. Located just less than 90 kilometres off Queensland’s coast in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island is a coral cay with more than 20 dive spots to explore. The island, which lies close to the Tropic of Capricorn, is a mere 300 metres wide by 800 metres long but features a small diving resort and even has a research station. Scuba divers can hope to find a wide variety of marine life including a number of shark species, groupers, trevallies and barracuda too. A number of different ray species, including the majestic manta ray, are often seen and large lobsters can be seen hiding beneath rocks in these clear, shallow waters. Two species of sea turtle, the hawksbill and green turtle, lay their eggs on Heron Island and these sleepy-looking creatures can often be seen gliding past or feeding on the vibrant, healthy reef.