These Are the Most Extreme Scuba Dives in the World
If you don’t have an underwater bucket list, Dive Butler can help.
Founded in 2008 by Alexis Vincent, the former scuba expert at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, the company is built off a single premise: find the most spectacular dives in the world, and take guests there in the most luxurious way possible, always with a private instructor to lead the way.
Eight years on, the company has grown: now Vincent has a team of 50 individual "dive butlers" servicing yacht-goers around the world and consulting on their most ambitious diving needs. The result isn’t just a wider network of travelers and associates. With more diver masters in more corners of the world, Dive Butler is now unlocking some of the most unique underwater experiences known to mankind—though many of them stand out precisely because they’re so largely unknown at this point.
With Vincent’s help—along with the help of a few other adventure experts around the globe—we’ve assembled a list worth printing, bookmarking, and checking off one by one. It’ll take you from the Galapagos to the Andaman Sea to the world’s most dramatic shipwreck sites, in the central Pacific. It’ll take you under entire islands, into lava tunnels, below glaciers, and into underwater graveyards from World War II.
Prices can vary dramatically no matter which trip you choose.
As with the world’s greatest overland adventures, there are reasonably priced options with companies like Infiniti Live Aboard that’ll take you to extreme dive sites for as little at $2,200 per week. And then there are outfits like Vincent’s, which will transfer some of the region’s best yachts to your preferred destination and coordinate every last detail—including certifications, permits, and equipment—for as much as $250,000 per week. (He’ll also offer consultations if your budget is somewhere in between.)
Between permits and yacht availability, these trips are logistical puzzles best left to the experts. And making them happen can take four to six months of advanced planning. In other words: now’s the time to get started on Indian Ocean adventures, where many of these dives take place. Peak season spans from December to April.
At the Base of a Volcano in the Andaman Islands
India’s last remaining active volcano is in the center of Barren Island—a spit of land that’s at least a 12-hour sail from civilization. Most days, you can see smoke emanating from its caldera; when it spews lava, the flow path goes straight into the Indian Ocean. The result, says Vincent, is “a lunar landscape underwater, made up of black volcanic rock.” Against that unusual black backdrop, the colors of coral and fish form a striking contrast.
“There’s a huge plethora of fish you’d find here—butterfly fish, grouper, snapper, about 800 different species worth,” said Vincent. By his count, that’s about double what you can see in the Caribbean. “It’s so dense with fish that you wouldn’t see another diver who was five feet in front of you.” And that’s before you make mention of the area’s many manta rays.
To make it happen, fly via Chennai or Calcutta to Port Blair, the main hub in the Andaman Islands, where an increasing number of affluent Indian travelers are vacationing. Then charter a yacht for two weeks, seeing the undiscovered places where Pygmy descendants still live. “It’s a mystical place,” says Vincent.
Between Tectonic Plates in Iceland
Sure, you can go to Istanbul and take a taxi across the border from Europe to Asia. But what about traversing the Europe-America boundary—underwater? You can do it in Iceland, where the Silfra fissure, a gap between the European and American continental plates, operates as a site for snorkelers and scuba divers. It’s an easy excursion from Reykjavik, just 45 minutes east of the city in Thingvellir National Park. But Open Water certifications—and a tolerance for cold water—make the adventure more complicated to tackle.
Go with Butterfield and Robinson, the luxury adventure outfitter, which is adding the dives to bespoke Iceland itineraries this spring. And don’t expect to see tons of marine life. The beauty of the Silfra fissure lies in the formation itself. With little to distract from the mysterious, icy blue expanse, visibility can often stretch for over 100 meters. (That’s almost an entire football field.)
Through an Entire Island in Myanmar
As if the concept didn’t already sound like an adrenaline booster, this little known dive trail in Myanmar’s Mergui archipelago kicks off at Shark Cave, named for the gray reef sharks that occasionally come to say hello. (They won’t mind your presence if you don’t corner them, says Vincent.) “You have to be a pretty cool cat to do this one,” Vincent told Bloomberg, describing a situation in which he got sucked into the cave network by an unusually strong current, and then spit right back out again. “As long as you have low air consumption, advanced diving ability, and can see the way out, you’ll be okay,” he said.
The goal, ultimately, is to traverse a small island—the southernmost in a chain referred to as the Three Islets. Crazy surges notwithstanding, Vincent calls it an “accessible” and “not a totally over-the-top” dive.
That said, he’s still careful to take on extra safety precautions: buddy checks, safety checks, extra scouting dives, and whatever else it takes to make sure that guests are comfortable if the conditions become heart-pumping. “It’s pretty dark when you’re in the middle of the crevasses,” he said. And occasionally you’ll come across one notable sighting: venomous black banded sea snakes.
With Penguins Under Antarctic Icebergs
Don’t bother packing a wetsuit for this one. Diving (or snorkeling) in polar climes requires all sorts of specialized gear, from an insulated drysuit to special hoods and masks that keep you warm. It also requires specialized cold water certifications, which Waterproof Expeditions will help you secure before you dive into the Southern Ocean with penguins and seals. The dives, which go no deeper than 60 feet and require medical signoff, traverse ice walls and glaciers; and since none of this falls within the parameters of a DIY vacation, they’re most easily coordinated through an Antarctic adventure operator like Aurora Expeditions.
Also on Waterproof Expeditions’ list of epic dives: swimming with polar bears in Svalbard or exploring underwater ice castles of the North Pole.
Amid an Underwater Graveyard From WWII
If you’ve seen Jacques Cousteau’s 1969 film Lagoon of Lost Ships, then you might already be familiar with the enormous fleet of ships, aircraft, and light carriers that were sunk in the Caroline Islands towards the end of World War II. Now, the remnants of Japan’s Imperial Fleet—consisting of 50 ships and 250 aircraft—make up one of the most unusual dive sites anywhere on the planet.
Seeing the ships means sailing more than 1,000 miles north of Papua New Guinea, into the waters of Micronesia. It also means navigating an underwater graveyard; over the years, the Japanese government has made its best efforts to recover more than 400 bodies from the site, but Vincent says that human remains are still visible. So are tanks, artillery pieces, trucks, and ammunition, all of them brought down by Allied bombers in a surprise attack.
Through Lava Tunnels in the Galapagos
On a new itinerary through the Galapagos and the Amazon with Big Five Tours & Expeditions, travelers can be among the first to discover a series of underwater lava tunnels near the volcanic Isabela Island. “This is a place that only a fraction of travelers go to,” said Ashish Sanghrajka, the company’s president, who sought to bring his guests an experience that would be missed on a conventional cruise.
It takes an hour to get here from Big Five’s partner lodges on Isabela Island—requiring the use of a Zodiak or dive dinghy—but the payoff is major.
“Given that this is the most active of all the volcanic islands in the region, the formations you can see on a dive are also the most unique,” said Sanghrajka. And just like the rest of the Galapagos, the islands’ lava tunnels are replete with endemic marine life: you’ll see everything from green sea turtles to white-tipped sharks and various types of rays, along with tons of bird sightings above sea level.
With Sharks, Sharks, and More Sharks in French Polynesia
You can shark dive from the (relative) comforts of a cage in South Africa. Or you can go completely unprotected amongst hundreds of tiger sharks, gray reefs, and white tip sharks in French Polynesia’s Fakarava South Pass. “It’s my kind of diving,” said Vincent, who described getting pulled into 100-foot-wide channels completely surrounded by six-foot-long creatures. The area is so densely populated with them, it’s practically like Times Square for sharks.
Pro tip: spend a few days recovering from the adrenaline at any of the five-star resorts in Tahiti or Rangiroa Island, both within easy sailing distance of Fakarava South pass.
In the Least Visited Marine Protected Area in the World
“It took me three years to make this trip happen,” Vincent said about the British Indian Ocean Territory, one of the world’s largest marine protected areas—which is also the most cut off to tourism. To get to Chagos-Diego Garcia, a reserve that Vincent says is twice the size of Great Britain, you need to sail south from the Maldives for nearly a full day. But distance isn’t the biggest obstacle. Because the area is meant to be used strictly for research, visitors need to arrive with bona fide scientists on board in order to secure passage—one for every diver.
“You need to get permits for basically every dive site,” said Vincent, “but this is by far the hardest.” Dive Butler will make it happen, and has a specialist who can no longer count his trips there on a single hand. “If I tell you his favorite places to dive within the area, he’d never talk to me again.”
His secret is safe: Vincent says the area is so logistically challenging, that he’d be surprised if more than 200 people have ever dived here before. And as a result, the experience is magical.
“It’s like the Maldives on steroids. Virtually untouched reefs. A sheer abundance and absolutely nobody around. It’s the sense of of going into a pristine time capsule.”