I have to clarify that while I venture in this page
to give opinions and comparisons for a number
of places around the world, it is clear that they are my own opinions only. Ancient Romans used
to say that one should not argue over personal tastes, and as a modern Roman I fully agree.
Differences in taste are the rule among humans, and even more so among freedivers.
What is listed below as a wonderful place might disappoint you, and you may call me
spoiled (as many have) for saying that 30m visibility is "ok" and not "wow".
So read on if you like, but please do not bear grudge for what is simply a record
of my impressions and not a list of absolute truths. Best of all, try to go and
see for yourself.
As a teenager growing up in Sardinia. I have been almost everywhere on that major island and
some of the smaller islands around it. I have dived also in a few other places along
Italy's long coastline. The good side of freediving in Italy is that there is almost no
fish left, so that you don't get distracted. Distractions are on the beach.
On the bad side, brutal thermoclines are common. Also virtually no worries of being attacked
by sharks - but if you like living dangerously, no problem: Italy's waters are
among the most dangerous in the world thanks to a lot of speedboats and to their distinguished
As a resident of Germany for too many years, I have also had the dubious pleasure of freediving
in deep, cold, dark lakes such as the Starnberger See near Munich. If you cannot afford to
travel to such lakes, you can easily replicate them at home: fill your bathtub with
ice cubes and pour in a couple of liters of squid ink.
I have freedived in Dahab, mainly the famous Blue Hole, and I have spent a few of those
"full package" weeks both in Sharm and El Quseir. I can't complain too much really about the freediving:
water has good visibility and it's not too cold - although on both counts it's not what
I'd call the best, and there is a lot of variation with site and season.
Wind can be quite an issue, so try to find a protected spot.
The best thing is really the depth: just get over those annoying shallow
corals, and you'll be wondering where is the bottom. Also, for reasons of proximity to
Europe, sunny weather and cheap prices, the Red Sea has become a kind of paradise for
freedivers, so that I can go by myself and be virtually sure to meet buddies - most of them way better
than me unfortunately.
Like all paradises, there is a hell to it. If you have been there you know what I mean,
and if you haven't you will know soon enough once you are there.
I have done freediving in various forms, from little more than snorkelling to almost serious, in
a bunch of places. Generally speaking, they all have very warm waters (no wetsuit really needed unless
you are afraid of sunburns, or unless you want to show off your latest model),
good marine life, lots of scuba divers around. Water visibility is
not amazing, due to rains and rivers, but it can be decent enough. If you are stuck in a
place like Phuket (try not to) you may have to be content with sharing 15m depth with a few hundred
scuba divers, but as you move
to more outlying islands and especially away from the rainy periods, visibility can increase to 30m
which is like saying you can always see the bottom - and the number of scuba divers is dramatically
reduced as well to only a few tens at any time at the same site.
Unlike a place mentioned above, life in SE Asia can be pretty enjoyable also when you
are out of the water, so that in spite of some limitations in water depth,
for me this region is still a very enjoyable destination.
Some of the places where I have been freediving:
Tioman, Penang, Perhentian islands, Kota Kinabalu, Sipadan. None of these is
particularly remarkable unless you
are a turtle lover, but a big big exception is Sipadan island in Borneo. I have been there as a
rather naive freediver, I had never seen really good places before, and I will admit that perhaps I
was easily impressed... but boy was I impressed! I have never seen so many fish, of so many kinds and
sizes, all in the same place. Mind you my visit was in 1997, I imagine the place might have
changed. But I'll cherish those memories forever.
Phuket really sucks in my opinion, not only for the rather poor visibility but
especially for the millions of scuba divers that are processed daily in a sort of
chain production to the Kingfisher wreck and Shark Point. But Phuket is a starting
point to go to the Similan Islands, which while being rather busy as well, at least
provide some depth (over 40m at places), good visibility (often in the 25m range, though
there is no guarantee). The best way to dive there is to spend a few days on a liveaboard,
where you can share sleep, food, facilities and dives with the scubies. Better choose a boat
with a fixed number of passengers and itinerary, rather than one of those support boats
that will host many tens of daytrippers during peak hours. There are dozens of dive sites
in the Similans, the best being the most distant ones from Island #5 where all the day
trippers gravitate. Some places like Koh Bon have a high chance of seeing big mantas.
Moving further north from Phuket, the Surin Islands are quite nice too, and offer
the possibility of some firm land to stroll around. There is a national park where it is
possible to camp. Marine life however is better in the Similans, in my opinion.
Richelieu Rock is a short distance East from the Surins, quite nice but
probably overrated. Although the rock formations and the reef life are quite beautiful,
you will have to share them with the scuba divers of several boats at any one time.
As a freediver, it is just too easy to lose sight of the fins of your dive master and
follow some other group for 40 minutes. Richelieu Rock is said to be a spot for
The islands around Phi Phi offer better freediving than Phuket, but don't hold
a candle to the Similans.
Speaking of islands around Phuket, one which is easily overlooked is
Racha Yai which is mainly marketed as a day-trip destination.
As such, it's not a bad item: you will suffer a considerably shorter
speedboat transfer than for Phi Phi, and you will have a good share
of sandy beaches, adventurous-looking tractors and plenty of buffaloes
and monitor lizards for your pictures.
However, together with its sister island
Racha Noi, Racha Yai is in fact a great place for freediving
as well: depths of 30m are easily accessible with a short swim,
and a long-tail boat can take you to double as deep for a small fee.
Visibilities are surprisingly ok for the Phuket area, and your only
enemy will be some currents: check out the tide times for that.
In fact, there is a freediving school based inside the resort near
Konkare Bay, run by an experienced guy from Europe:
he will be able to assist you and make your freediving
just about the best you can get in the area.
Moving to the East coast of Thailand, you will have again to stay on an island to
get some decent diving. Koh Samui and Koh Phangan offer some, but the best place
is really Koh Tao. Unfortunately, this reputation has not been exactly a secret,
and in the last ten years this small island has become quite overcrowded both on land and
in the sea. Dive shops are just as numerous as the beach bars. You can always find some
that will take you out as a freediver on their boat, but there is also a freediving
school run by two excellent instructors and competitive freedivers. They have boat trips
almost every day, although lately they have become so busy that it might be hard
for independent freedivers to go along. The most famous spot (and possibly the only
one with some decent depth) is the Chumphon Pinnacle, which however requires to
put up with a longish boat transfer. Visibility can be from 10 to 30m depending
on the day, and if you swim out from there you might be able to find almost 40m
depth, which is about the deepest in that area. Some sharks and the very occasional
whale shark are an additional bonus.
My experiences in Indonesia are quite limited.
I have heard high praises of Bali, but unfortunately I have also learned not to
trust a scuba diver when it comes to describing how wonderful a dive site is.
I have myself freedived only in Gili Trawangan island, the westernmost of the
famous group of three small islands off Lombok. I did so extensively for several days, and
it was a worthwhile experience although not an exceptional one.
In spite of extensive fishing, marine life was quite rich and I had
a nice close encounter with some mantas and a few other big fish. Currents
were sometimes annoying. Much more annoying however was life on land, with
way too many western tourists and a local population totally dependent on them.
I realize only too well that there must be much more than this to freediving in
Indonesia, and I would definitely like to visit other places.
With literally thousands of islands, there have to be some great freediving places
there, but they are not so easy to find. Overfishing
(including dynamite) is quite common, and the usual boatloads of scubadivers in
the most popular tourist destinations ruin what is left: Puerto Galera is one of the
best examples, along with Alona Beach on Panglao.
You would not miss much by skipping them, although the
reef in the deeper waters close to small Pamilacan Island were quite impressive.
Small Cabilao island just a short hop off Bohol was my best experience, with
enough marine life and a coral reef relatively pristine. Unfortunately, while the
island was still relatively undeveloped at the time of my first visit, when I went
again in 2002 a famous hotel chain had started its business there and no doubt things
will have changed for worse.
Palawan has a reputation of being a kind of last frontier or Far West for the
Philippines. Puerto Princesa is well connected and starting to be overdeveloped,
but it has managed to maintain a kind of clean and ordered atmospheres that
is a million miles away from Manila. From there you have access to zillions of
diving and freediving sites, if you are up to endure a few hours of jeepney.
Honda Bay is an easy day trip destination from Puerto Princesa, with some
decent snorkeling. Further north, you can stay in Roxas and explore a few of
the offshore islands. Among them Cocoloco is equipped with a resort plus diveshop,
and you can freedive on your own or piggyback with the scubies.
Nothing to take your breath away in the sea, but it makes for a few relaxing days.
On the west coast of Palawan, I had the idea that Port Barton could be a nice
spot as well, but I have seldom seen such poor visibility in the water
and such loud surroundings. I was quite happy to leave.
Singapore, Hong Kong: when it comes to
freediving, they are better forgotten.
Now we are getting serious. I am aware that it is far and expensive to reach, but if you
want to see clear deep warm waters for real, you have to freedive in the
South Pacific. This is a
map of the region with some of the places where I have been able to put my head underwater. You can click
for an enlarged version.
Let's start with the easy first. The usual run
of the Big Barrier Reef is highly overrated, and although I presume that
with your own boat and tons of time you should be able to see really amazing places, as
a commoner trying to freedive from one of the day-trip boats I was hugely disappointed.
There might be fish and some of them may be big, but you'll need X-ray vision to see them
through the wall of scubadivers and snorkelers in front if you. I found the show
of the Napoleon wrasse being hand fed by the scuba divers absolutely pathetic.
I also tried a liveaboard for
a few days, but I had a hard time convincing the doctor on board that I was not going to
be crushed by pressure at 24m. That was about as deep as I saw. Further north from Cairns, with less
humans, things get more exciting such as around Cape Tribulation, but I would say if you
are coming all the way from Europe for that, you had better stop in some place closer to home.
I will skip the Sydney area and New Zealand altogether, since
when I mention South Pacific I have in mind warm waters.
Vanuatu: too many islands to give a fair account of.
With time on your hands, and some love of adventure, it should be quite amazing considering
also that most of them are only sparsely populated. As in many other tropical places,
visibility can be superb or quite bad depending on how close you are to the coast and
when was the last torrential rain. In general, in Vanuatu 25 to 30m are a fair chance.
Starting off from the capital Port Vila, Mele island (often known to tourists
as Hideaway Island) is one of my favorite places simply
because it condenses everything in a nuthsell. Literally, since the island is so tiny
that you can walk around it in fifteen minutes. It has a resort, which mercifully includes
some hostel-type budget accomodation. A small ferry takes you to the main Efate island in a matter
of minutes. During sunny days groups of visitors will arrive for a few hours, but the
place will be quiet again from the late afternoon till mid-morning. Although the coral
reef has suffered some damage from hurricanes, it is still quite nice. Best of all for
freedivers, you have impressive depths within a short swim of the shore on one side
of Mele island, while the west and southern sides have an extensive coral reef
which makes for nice snorkeling once you are tired of freediving to the bottom
There is a diveshop, and the friendly owners will take the scubies and the
occasional freediver to other
reefs in the vicinity. I had one of the most amazing encounters with humpback whales
Espiritu Santo combines some famous divesites on the southern part of the island
with adventurous and largely virgin territory in the north. At depths of
20m to 60m and with an impressive 200+m total length, the President Coolidge
is reputably the largest wreck available to conventional scubadivers, and therefore
to freedivers. Its site is just a short drive away from Santo (Luganville), the main
city on the island. It is visited by several groups of scubadivers every day, and
it is easy to hop along as a freediver. The wreck is absolutely gigantic, very well
with lots of marine life that made it their home. Being just in front of the shore,
visibility is not too great: I have seen mostly 20m.
The next famous spot, almost next door, is Million Dollar Point, where the
US army dumped a lot of equipment and materials after World War II when it withdrew from
the island and negotiations
to sell it to the newly formed local government failed. Greenpeace did not exist yet.
Freediving or just snorkeling over the site is an unbelievable experience, with
the sea floor (sometimes in just 10m of water) literally covered with anything
you can imagine to exist in a military base. From fridges to chairs to trucks and
whole small boats, from jeeps to coke bottles.
Just across the channel lies the island of Aore. You can easily
commute from Santo, or decide to stay at the local resort. Freediving is nothing
exceptional there both in terms of depth and visibility, but there are a couple
of easy wrecks at hand, in particular an almost complete small plane at about
Driving north, I reached the large bay where Champagne Beach and other supposedly
idyllic spots are located. I found it almost impossible to do any decent freediving
aorund there, due to the generally shallow water along the coast. Elephant Island
is supposed to have very steep and deep (100+m) walls, but my negotiations to get a paddle
boat to reach it failed - the final excuse by the locals was that there were too
Fiji. I never stayed
in Nadi or Suva more than just a brief overnight stop, so I cannot really say much
about freediving there. The so-called Coral Coast on southern Viti Levu seems
to be full of hotels with golf courses and dive shops for the wealthy.
there are so many islands and submerged reefs that probably a lifetime would not
be enough to sample them all. I did the minimum by visiting
Waya Lai Lai, one of those small islands conveniently placed just a hop
away from Nadi, with a business of entertaining travellers with a few days
on their hands between international flights. I did not see anything especially
Tonga. The kingdom has lots of islands, for a change.
But at least they are conveniently positioned in three major groups, so that
geographers can have it easier. In the south, Tongatapu island has no special
distinctions, except that it is home to the capital Nuku'Alofa and to the international
airport. The East and Southern sites are almost constantly battered by winds and
waves. Diving and freediving are done generally in the large shallow bay on the
north side of Tongatapu. A few smaller islands in the bay have their own resort
so it is possible to get away from the incredibly vibrant life of N'Alofa.
Among them, Fafa and Atata. You will love the places if you are on your
honeymoon, but you will be probably quite disappointed if you had freediving
on your mind.
If you have time, try to visit the central group, Ha'apai. First of all,
just the view during the flight from N'Alofa to Lifuka are breathtaking.
And landing isn't anything less. And second, these islands have the kind of
laid back and slow "souther seas" feeling that you will not find elsewhere
in Tonga. The main group of islands is arranged in a long string, from Foa
in the North to Uoleva in the south, and you can visit all of them on
foot (better rent a bycicle though). The walk across to Uoleva can only
be done at low tide, so check your tide tables in advance and be careful
with the timing. It can be highly dangerous otherwise.
If you manage to swim around Uoleva for example, you will be rewarded with
an intact coral reef, and an almost empty interior. You can feel like
Robinson Crusoe for a day. The waters are clear, warm, rich with fish
and turtles and marine birds. There is also a diveshop at the resort
on Foa, and they took this lonely freediver along on their boat with a
few other lonely scubadivers. Nothing remarkable, except the pleasure of
being just a few of us and the big wide clear waters.
The main freediving action goes on in Vava'u the largest island in the
northern group. A couple of diveshops in Neiafu will take you along on their
boat, to the many divesites spread over tens of smaller islands around.
I had a very relaxed, peaceful and rewarding freediving there, enjoying
swimthroughs, submerged caves such as
Mariner's Cave and Swallows Cave, and coral formations.
At places the bottom
drop offs very rapidly to 50+m just meters away from the coast. Visibility was
overall decent to very good, depending on the timing and amount of the previous
rainfall. Further out on the ocean, visibility easily exceeded 40m. This is
where you will go if you join one of the whalewatching tours. Freediving with
huge humpbacks whales was one of my most memorable experiences.
Unfortunately, I had no u/w camera at the time!
Tuvalu. Faraway and isolated, Tuvalu is best known
because it is supposedly doomed to be the first country to disappear entirely
should the sea levels rise a couple of meters. Most people including me usually
see only Funafuti, the main atoll with the international airport and Fongafale
the main "city". The atoll is too large to be truly pictoresque. You can walk
or ride a bus for a few km on the easternmost, longest uninterrupted section,
but other than that you would need a speedboat to see the other motus.
Freediving in Fongafale is a mixed bag which is very common in many other
south pacific islands: one the interior of the atoll the lagoon is too shallow
really to do anything other than snorkelling - though I notice that
the warm and quiet waters are perfect for static and I did twice my
personal best of the time there! Freediving on the ocean side should be
highly rewarding with clear deep waters, but just entering and
exiting the reef is quite dangerous with the constant waves, and locals
highly discouraged that because of sharks.
Getting to the other islands in Tuvalu is a proposition that requires at
least several weeks, since the only means of transport is a ship that
completes its round twice a month.
Samoa. Also known as Western Samoa to
differentiate them from American Samoa, they are different from most
other Pacific archipelagoes in that there are only two major islands, with
very few smaller ones scattered around them. Upolu hosts the capital Apia
and the international airport at Faleolo, conveniently spaced apart for
the joy of local tax drivers. About one hour ferry ride away lies Savai'i,
distinctly more rugged and laid back. Both islands are surrounded by
extensive coral reefs, which on one hand allow safe and enjoyable swimming
and snorkeling, but on the other hand force freedivers looking for more
depth to use a boat to get outside.
I did not easily find options to freedive on my own or join scubadivers
on Upolu. My only attempt was at Palolo, on the outskirts of Apia,
where it is possible to swim over the shallow reef out to a kind of
blue hole, only about 20m deep. The corals are largely damaged, but
the fish are plentiful and colorful, it makes for an interesting diversion
in the otherwise rather boring capital city.
Savai'i is more adventurous, and short of renting your own jeep the
only means to get around (literally, as the only paved road is along
the coast) is to use the local buses, kind of fun provided you don't have
a large luggage with you and you are prepared to squeeze between people
of generous proportions. The best area for diving and freediving is
around Fagamalo to Manase in the north, where a few
diveshops are located. One of them is run by a nice french-south african
couple which are very friendly to freedivers and will take you out
with the scubies. Typically dives are inside the reef, where depths
are about 20m. Visibility incidentally exceeds this so you
usually have good views: rock formations and swim throughs are
abundant, and divers not very numerous.
Diving on the outside of the reef is not so common, mainly because
of the extra effort required for the diveshop, but it could be
organized in case of significant requests. Unfortunately I did not
have this opportunity. I was told, as usual, that out there
it is deep and clear and full of sharks.
Niue. Another of my favorites... unfortunately
or fortunately, depending on your point of view, it is remote and difficult
to reach. Niue is unique in many ways: it is not the usual group of islands,
it is not an atoll, it does not have white beaches with coconut trees.
In fact, Niue is a giant raised coral island, which gives it relatively
high elevation (and incidentally, no risk of disappearing under the ocean
in the short term), a lot of caves and rugged terrain,
and direct access to big depths. You can swim out from
almost anywhere along its coast, and you will soon reach deeper than you
want to know. What Niue has in common with many other islands at these
latitudes, is that the east coast is constantly battered by winds and
waves, so all the diving takes place usually on the western side.
The big smoke is Alofi, and you'll probably want to rent
a scooter there to see the rest. This will require
obtaining a local driver's licence, which also doubles as
a nice and inexpensive souvenir.
So equipped, you can basically find your entry points into the ocean
at your will. A famous spot is Limu, but be careful with the cold water
seeping through from the underground and especially with the strong
currents that can easily drag you out into the ocean before you know it.
There is (or at least there was) a diveshop south of Alofi run by a friendly
aussie couple, that was not too busy. They were glad to take a freediver
out on their dinghy, and in fact the man was a good freediver himself.
Dolphins are a common sight, and so are sharks. But surely the most amazing
thing in the Niue waters is the unbelievable number of sea snakes, which
are essentially everywhere. They are sufficiently friendly, though at times
a bit too curious towards the bubbleless diver.
Well, there is one other amazing thing actually, the visibility! I had
read about it, but seeing is believing: 70m+ visibility is truly an
amazing sight. The water in Niue is the clearest I have ever experienced
(ok Baikal lake apart), and has this property thanks to the rocky terrain
of the island and the absence of rivers.
Cook Islands. No doubt you will start from
Rarotonga, where the international airport is located as well as the
capital, Avarua. This is another case of a reef almost completely
sourrounding the island. The lagoon is picturesque with its turquoise waters,
but it's really too shallow for anything else than swimming and snorkeling - and
often not even for that. There are a few swimouts around the perimeter, but
they are few and sufficiently apart that you should consider renting a
scooter. Better ask for local advice, because currents can be quite nasty
and you risk being stuck out on the ocean without being able to get back in.
A preferable option is to tag along the scuba divers on their dinghies.
Unfortunately, the few diveshops I talked to were overbooked with the usual
tourist crowds and looked at me quite unconvinced. Eventually I found one
that would take me, when they were not too full. On such occasions, I had
quite pleasant experiences. Not too many fish (although I have also seen
large tunas and the usual sharks), but very clear and deep waters are
A short flight to the North, lies the equally touristic destination of
Aitutaki. Same story: very nice extended lagoon, with shallow
waters and white postcard beaches. Especially pictoresque is the southern side
with several motus, among which Maina is a famous stop.
As for freediving, you have no other option that getting outside the reef.
Again, be very careful if you try to do this on your own, as the outwards
current is surprisingly strong and may not let you back.
Near Arutunga harbor you can find a diveshop that takes scubies out
by boat. At the time of my visit the owner had so few customers that
he would not go out everyday, which made for some remarkably boring pauses
for me. However, on those occasions when we did get out, I was completely
satisfied. Outside the reef the water is very deep, very clear, full of
fish including the big guys.
Further north, and quite more difficult to reach, is Manihiki, another
atoll. Here the interior lagoon is much larger and definitely deep
(80m I was told) although the visibility is quite poor. The atoll is
almost complete and conveniently isolates the lagoon from the ocean.
The lagoon is home to several pearl farms, and I had the chance to
spend a couple of days isolated on one of them during the off season.
This was a unique experience, though I am not sure that I would
have been able to stand much longer. Freediving inside the lagoon
is safe, as the dangerous sharks stay out. There are nevertheless
a lot fo sharks to be seen, including some very curious and
persistent baby ones. The most interesting sights are perhaps the
lines of the oyster farms, and the spectral remains of the strong
hurricane Martin that hit the island in 1997, causing several
casualties. Broken trees, house appliances and even cars can
still be seen at the bottom.
As in many other places in the South Pacific, the ocean side of
Manihiki should offer superb opportunities for freediving, but
the locals always found some excuse not to take me out.
The one time that I tried on my own, I had to back up precipitously
due to the amazing numbers of nasty sharks.
Tahiti. I have left for last
what actually was my very first experience in the S. Pacific.
Back in 1991 I spent a week in Moorea, and although at the timeI did not
have the same passion for freediving that I have now, I was
nonetheless absolutely impressed by the numbers of reef fish and
by the visibility. It's been so long ago however that I would not
be very objective if I tried to compare that experience with
those in other places where I have been later. Let me just say
that, all things considered, French Polynesia is probably
equally spectacular as any other freediving spot in the S. Pacific,
and much more expensive.
I group under this heading a few countries where I have freedived
that really have not much in common,
except than bordering on the same huge ocean.
Hawaii. I haven't really freedived here, but rather
I swam out in the sea once on Kona (the big island)
in a very superficial manner, if you pardon the pun, sporting just a pair
of swimming goggles and going down to maybe 10 or 15m before the pressure
almost buried them into my eyes. In spite of this annoying side effect, I thoroughly
enjoyed the sight of lots of reef fish, and the clear waters. However, I cannot
really say much more than "nice".
Taiwan. Same category as my dip in Kona: I swam a
little on the reef at a spot in the Penghu archipelago, just west
of Taiwan. Certainly less clear waters and less fish than all the other
Pacific destinations that I visited, but still quite enjoyable. So much so,
that I actually did my static personal best of the time just floating over
the sand and watching the tiny fish that in turn were watching me.
Japan. Apart from short occasional swims on
the reef at the remote Iriomote island in the extreme South, I have
freedived at some length only around Maeda Misaki (Cape Maeda) on Okinawa.
The spot had been recommended to me by a famous top japanese freediver,
domo arigatou Ryuzo-san! Indeed, a lovely location with a run-down but
very affordable youth hostel overlooking the steep cliffs. Entering the
sea requires some caution, partly because of the very shallow water with
lots of rocks, corals and sea urchins, but mostly because of the unrelenting
flow of huge
groups of beginners (both scubies and snorkelers) trying to get
into the water all at the same time.
Once you manage to put some safe distance between them and yourself,
you can begin to enjoy the reef, the small fish, and little else.
Spearfishing is allowed and practiced, so that you don't really
see much in the way of large fish, but the general atmosphere
is sufficiently relaxed and enjoyable. Water depth at the Cape
is 40m, and presumably gets deeper going more offshore.
Visibility was never great, maximum about 20m.
Last but not least, I have snorkeled around
where hundreds of dolphins live permanently and are quite easy to approach.
An unforgettable experience. Thanks to Kaz!