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ARI ATOLL, MALDIVES, INDIAN OCEAN More than 40 kilometres ( 25 miles) long, the Ari Atoll is the second largest in the Maldives and has intriguing submerged pinnacles and channels that are home to manta rays, giant frogfish, turtles, hammerheads ( at Hammerhead Point), and grey reef sharks, fusiliers and batfish ( at Fish Head). But it is the rare whale shark - the largest living marine creature - that most divers seek. It is a treat to see these gentle giants in their natural habitat, and the Maldives are unique in the Indian Ocean as they host a year- round population. Thankfully, this endangered species is now protected, and divinghere offers a fantastic opportunity to learn more about initiativesto protect them. TOP TIPHead to Maaya Thila to spot the elusive guitar shark WINTER 2010I sea& iI45 topfive ELPHINSTONE, RED SEA Around nine kilometres ( six miles) from the shore in the southern Red Sea you'll discover Elphinstone: a 300 metre ( 1,000- foot) Mecca for divers. The current tends to be strong, making it a magnet for marine life, with visibility around 20 metres ( 65 feet). Expect to see sharks, including oceanic white tips with their loyal pilot fish darting alongside. You can also spot hammerheads, barracuda, emperor and zebra angelfish, snappers, soft corals, giant morays, grouper and Suez fusiliers. The east side of Elphinstone has a great drop- off covered with a rainbow of corals, and the west, less steep, has caves and overhangs, eels, and sometimes turtles. n TOP TIPTo maximise sunlight on the reef, take morning dives on the east side and afternoon dives on the west SS YONGALA, GREAT BARRIER REEF MARINE PARK, AUSTRALIA Among this legendary reef's myriad sites, one wreck not to miss is the SS Yongala. This steel and timber steamship sank during a 1911 cyclone outside Townsville, Queensland, drowning all its passengers. Undiscovered for more than half a century, at 110m ( 361') it is one of the largest, most intact historic shipwrecks and although now protected ( meaning you can't dive inside) you can still see the rudder, masts, engine, steam rooms, portholes and nameplate. Encrusted with bright soft and hard corals, the wreck is loved by hydroids, sea fans, barracuda, sharks, giant gropers, sea snakes, turtles and rays. TOP TIPDive June to September for the possibility of spotting whales BUCK ISLAND REEF NATIONAL MONUMENT, VIRGIN ISLANDS, CARIBBEAN Deep in the Virgin Islands, off the northeast coast of Saint Croix, an uninhabited, 60- million- year- old tropical island is surrounded by a coral reef so beautiful it has been a protected area since 1948. Buck Island Reef National Monument's vast reef is home to more than 250 fish species, corals ( at Cane Bay), sponges, spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, lemon sharks, juvenile black- tip reef sharks, white- tip reef sharks, and hawksbill, green and leatherback sea turtles. There are also shipwrecks, such as the Northwind, Rosaomaria, Suffolk Maid and the HMS Rhone off Salt Island ( sunk in 1867), along with a wall plunging more than 900 metres ( 3,000 feet). TOP TIPFollow the underwater marked trail and read informative plaques about the local marine flora and fauna Photography: Darren Jew, Tourism Queensland; Don McDougall; Visitmaldives. com; Chicurel Arnaud/ Hemis

46Isea& iIWINTER 2010