Fab Five: Dive Right In

No matter how many times you do it, there's always something unreal about the experience. You're sitting on the edge of a dive boat, the sun on your knees, surrounded by air-breathing mammals like yourself. Suddenly you roll backward into the water and bob for a moment on the razor's edge between atmosphere and ocean. You purge the air from your buoyancy-compensator vest and descend through the looking glass. Forests of coral emerge from the depths like ghostly branches, and fish swirl about like multicolored confetti. A couple of eagle rays glide by, their velvet wings undulating. The familiar world is gone. You are now a visitor, weightless and amazed, in an alien realm.

Yet in truth, the undersea world is not alien at all. Nearly three-quarters of the planet is covered by ocean. And for an increasing number of travelers, the opportunity to don scuba gear and commune with the sea and its creatures is one of the great joys of visiting islands. With that in mind, consider this collection of five disparate island dive destinations. While each has its own underwater attractions - from coral drifts to wreck explorations - all offer excitement for certified divers of all levels, and a terrific introduction for those who dream of knowing the underwater world.

BONAIRE

To the casual diver and island traveler, coral reefs may appear to be ubiquitous. In reality, if you took all the reefs in the world and joined them together, they'd cover an area barely half the size of France.

Humans have long taken coral reefs for granted, not understanding how fragile these amazing ecosystems are. In fact, they are the underwater equivalent of tropical rain forests - and they're equally endangered. Pollution, construction, careless anchorages, and dynamite-fishing have damaged countless reef colonies, many beyond repair. Countries around the world are suddenly realizing what they have lost, and are struggling to make up for decades of reef abuse.

But for 40 years, Bonaire, a small pistol-shaped island just 50 miles north of Venezuela, in the Netherlands Antilles, has shown astounding wisdom in the care and preservation of its reefs. Sea-turtle eggs and nests have been protected since 1961; spearfishing was banned ten years later. Coral collecting became illegal in 1975. In 1979, the entire reef surrounding Bonaire was declared a marine park, an act that bestowed full protection on every sponge, shark, and seahorse. As a result, the island has won high marks from conservationists worldwide. It is also generally considered the best diving and snorkeling destination in the Caribbean - an accolade proudly reflected in Bonaire's license-plate slogan: "Divers' Paradise."

"I've been to many diving destinations around the world, including the Maldives, the Philippines, and other islands in the Caribbean," says Ernst

Schilling, a Swiss dive instructor who has lived on Bonaire for nine years. "Reefwise, Bonaire is the best." Schilling works at Captain Don's Habitat, an operation started in 1962 by now-retired local legend "Captain Don," so he knows what's behind Bonaire's universal appeal.

"Bonaire has around 60 dive sites," he explains, "and almost all of them can be done from the shore. It's easy to get in and out, and there's not much current. That means that everybody - even inexperienced divers - can have great dives."

With all that going for it, warm-water Bonaire may be the ultimate place to take diving lessons. The only downside is that you'll be spoiled, because reefs like Bonaire's are as rare as the purple long-snout seahorses that frequent them.

HERON ISLAND, AUSTRALIA

The Great Barrier Reef is rightly called one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Stretching some 1,250 miles along the eastern coast of Australia, it is the largest structure ever created by living beings - a magnificent coral garden that began growing around 2 million B.C. and stopped for a breather only during the last Ice Age, a mere 18,000 years ago.

Perched on the surface of this vast underwater labyrinth, some 45 miles off the coast of Queensland, is Heron Island. The peaceful cay offers a first-rate eco-resort, a superb dive center, and the opportunity to see the Great Barrier Reef up close.

The helicopter flight to Heron, via Gladstone, is an experience in itself. When I made the trip in October (Australia's spring), the ocean around the island was filled with small oval shadows. "Sea turtles!" the pilot exclaimed in a thick Aussie accent. "The females typically lay their eggs on the beaches of Heron; it's the safest place around."

Though sea turtles are a huge attraction, they represent a minute fraction of the local ocean life. Of the 1,500 species of fish that thrive along the Great Barrier Reef, more than half can be found at Heron Island dive sites.

Descending into the warm crystalline waters surrounding Heron is like shrinking to microscopic size and entering the tube of a kaleidoscope. Red emperors and luminous blue dam-selfish dart among the coral; a bright yellow boxfish with blue polka-dots might hover in front of your mask like some refugee from a Dr. Seuss book. And at the famous dive site called The Bommie, moray eels may slither by or gaze at you from their lairs.

Anyone diving off Heron hears a perpetual scratching, like the sound of a phonograph needle at the end of a record. The noise comes from parrotfish, brilliantly colored creatures that use their birdlike beaks to gnaw the reef in search of algae. A parrotfish consumes an amazing amount of coral every day; the coral is filtered through the fish's digestive tract and excreted as fine white sand - up to three cubic feet in a year. A humble process to be sure, but over countless millennia it has created our most romantic beaches, including Heron Island's. The island has just one resort, so be sure to book well in advance. The Web site is www.poresorts.com/heron.

SEYCHELLES

Seychelles, as any visitor will attest is a world apart - not only because of its unique ethnic mix and exotic Indian-Creole cuisine, but also because of its geology. Situated in the Indian Ocean about 1,000 miles east of Kenya and Tanzania, the islands in the inner group of Seychelles are solid granite, the peaks of a submerged continent. Huge gray boulders emerge like pachyderms along the shores of La Digue and Mah¿, in startling contrast to the lapis sea. The sight of those stones creates a sort of cognitive dissonance. No matter where you dive along those two islands' coastlines, it looks like someplace else - the edge of some vaguely remembered mainland.

Among those rocks, beyond the cinnamon and vanilla that perfume Seychelles' open-air markets, lies some of the world's finest diving. Octopus and lobster, clownfish and wrasse - all make their homes amid colorful sponges and gigantic rubbery leather corals that rise from the reefs like frozen globs in a sea-blue lava lamp.

"The central Seychelles are the world's only mid-oceanic granite archipelago," notes Glynis Sanders, who, along with David Rowat, runs Mah¿'s Seychelles Underwater Centre. "Be- cause of this, perhaps, the diversity we get here is amazing. Marine biologists come back with a list of species as long as your arm - and that's after one snorkeling trip!"

Unlike such high-profile meccas as the Maldives or the Red Sea, which rack up tens of thousands of dives a year, Seychelles sees relatively few visi-tors. Because of that, the marine life is unusually tame. "I saw someone who was shooting underwater video of a sea turtle," says Sanders, "and the turtle just came right up and looked into his mask. And two days ago, at a site called Shark Bank, a shoal of eagle rays swam among the divers."

One of the most magnificent denizens of Seychelles is the whale shark, a gigantic but harmless creature that feeds on plankton. Last year, researchers at the Seychelles Underwater Centre counted up to a dozen of these amazing creatures in a single day. For most divers, even a single whale-shark sighting would be unforgettable - a prized encounter on these Islands of the Third Kind.

COZUMEL

It's no mystery why this Caribbean isle 12 miles off the eastern edge of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula has inspired such a blaze of interest among C-card holders. In 1961, a little-known Frenchman named Jacques Cousteau declared the island one of the most beautiful marine areas in the world. Today, Cozumel - graced with lovely summer weather and convenient to the United States - has become one of the western hemisphere's premier dive destinations.

Of course, Cozumel is also among the world's leading cruise-ship ports of call - a fact that has transformed the once-sleepy town of San Miguel de Cozumel into a bustling spot with nightclubs, boutiques, and its own Planet Hollywood. "Underwater, where it matters most, Cozumel remains gloriously unchanged," Rodale's Scuba Diving magazine online declares. "The current still gusts warm and clear toward the leeward coast ... and the grouper at Cedar Pass still grow as big as Buicks."

Cozumel has all but patented "drift diving," a casual, let-the-water-do-the-work approach that seems synonymous with many visitors' fantasies about Mexico. Divers simply sign on with one of the island's more than 75 dive operators, descend into a current, and let it carry them past a panorama of reef life.

But not all Cozumel diving is this lazy. Advanced divers can hire outfitters to explore such spectacular deep-water sites as Tunich and Barracuda.

One of the great attractions of Cozumel is its undersea architecture: caves and canyons, pinnacles and tunnels, swim-throughs and coral mazes that conceal a huge variety of fish, turtles, and invertebrate life. Exploration of those environments requires excellent buoyancy control; otherwise one might inadvertently smash a fragile coral, or worse, bump into the spines of a scorpionfish.

In 1996, Mexico's government designated Cozumel's entire reef a national marine park. The regulations were designed to limit the number of cruise and dive boats operating on the reefs. The rules also declare that touching the reef, collecting marine life, and spearfishing are prohibited. The discos may thump on the surface, but the underwater world here still moves to a gentler rhythm.

GHIZO, SOLOMON ISLANDS

Motoring across Ghizo's lovely lagoon, our boat dropped anchor over what looked like a sinister gray reef. It was, in fact, the wreckage of the Toa Maru, a hulking 450-foot-long Japanese transport torpedoed by American forces during World War II.

Unlike many wrecks, the Toa Maru went down fully loaded. Today, swimming through the eerie coral-encrusted corridors is like visiting a waterlogged war museum. Jeeps and motorcycles, tanks and trucks, gas masks and gun turrets lie rusting in eternal quiet, put to their best possible use as shelter for crabs, fish, and sponges.

Ghizo lies among the Solomon Islands, a scattered Melanesian archipelago located between Papua New Guinea and Samoa. Nearly 60 years ago, John F. Kennedy's PT-109 went down in these very waters; today, the former battleground offers some of the most spectacular reef- and wreck-diving in the world.

Danny Kennedy (no relation to JFK), of Adventure Sports Gizo, has been on the island for 17 years. Back in 1987, he took me on some unforgettable dives. "We now have 20 dive sites, including the nearly intact Toa Maru and a well-preserved American 'Hellcat' fighter plane," Kennedy said when I contacted him recently. "We also have beautiful coral gardens, walls, and drift dives with current, for more experienced divers."

If you do make it to Ghizo, you'll enjoy excellent diving any time of year. "Though summer [December through March] is considered cyclone season, we've never been hit," Kennedy claims. "We've never missed a day of diving in 17 years. There are so many islands and inlets around Ghizo Lagoon, there's always a place to go."

I was amazed that 15 years after my visit the artifacts on the Toa Maru had not been removed by looters. Kennedy and another local dive operator police the wreck, holding no-nonsense "consciousness-raising" sessions with yachters who anchor near the site.

"What we do is go out and tell them they're not to dive the Toa Maru on their own," he says. "If they get nasty, we bring the police and customs people out there.

"After all these years, I'm pretty much the caretaker of the Toa Maru," Kennedy says with a laugh. "I'm the most vocal about protecting it."

Oakland-based writer Jeff Greenwald is the author of Shopping for Buddhas and The Size of the World.