Some call it inner space—the more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface that lies underwater. Since the dawn of human history, people have wondered what sits below the surface and tried to figure out means by which they could explore the submarine world.
Aristotle wrote about men using instruments to breathe underwater in the manner of elephants with their trunks, and metal cauldrons used as primitive diving bells to peek beneath the Aegean Sea. By the 14th century A.D., Persian divers had devised the first goggles, fashioned from the thin, transparent outer layer of tortoise shells. In his “Codex Atlanticus,” Leonardo da Vinci imagined masks, snorkels and air tanks as part of a diving outfit.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that venturing beneath the waves with artificial breathing equipment became commonplace—and safe enough for ordinary people to practice as a hobby or on vacation. Advances in “frogman” or underwater combat warfare made during World War II led to civilian applications in the decade after the war including scuba equipment, Jacques Cousteau’s Aqua-Lung, the first under- water cameras, and the invention of the modern wetsuit by oceanographers at the University of California, Berkeley.
With underwater movies and television shows stoking the activity’s popularity, venturing beneath the sea became a global trend. It’s estimated there are now around 6 million people who scuba dive and another 20 million who snorkel on a regular basis, worldwide.
More recent inventions have allowed a greater number of people to explore the submarine world, in particular Snuba, an underwater breathing apparatus that combines aspects of scuba and snorkeling. Like the copper-helmeted divers of old, the equipment features a standard scuba regulator system, mouthpiece and air hose connected to a raft on the surface. Ironically, Snuba was devised in landlocked El Dorado County in California’s Gold Country and first tested in Lake Tahoe in the late 1980s.
“The inventors came up with the idea based off the bunny hills of ski resorts,” says Scott Fackrell, customer relations manager and international programs coordinator at Snuba International. “They wanted to create a diving experience for beginners, something [that’s] less intimidating, but still gives you a basic foundation of scuba diving. Snuba was designed to be a tour the whole family can enjoy. It’s been introducing people to diving for almost three decades now, taking millions of people on their first experience to view the reef and its wildlife up close and personal.”
A number of Montage Hotels & Resorts offer underwater recreation options, either through their own water sports desk or recommended nearby operators. Read on for a few of the best places near Montage properties to explore the undersea world.
Laguna Beach, California
Just because the ocean along Orange County’s coast isn’t tropical doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to see beyond those world-famous surfing waves. Much of the underwater world is protected within the confines of six state marine conservation areas including the 6-square-mile Laguna Beach and Dana Point protected habitats right off the coast of the Montage resort.
“Although our year-round water temperatures aren’t warm and tropical, our waters are still full of life and beauty,” says Dalton Best of SoCal Snorkeling Tours, which offers two-hour guided tours of the waters off Orange County as well as equipment rentals for those who want to snorkel on their own.
“The reefs are home to many beautiful fish. The most well-known would be the Garibaldi, our state [marine] fish. They are bright orange and the juveniles even have neon blue markings. Our waters also offer the opportunity to explore the kelp forests. The kelp growing from the floor of the ocean creates an entire forest underwater and provides shelter for several species of fish. Swimming through a thick kelp forest is an amazing thing to experience.”
Although the ocean is chilly in winter thanks to the Alaska Current, summer water temperatures can range up to 76 degrees—warm enough to cast off that wetsuit. In addition to Garibaldi and kelp, the depths off Orange County harbor a wide variety of temperate ocean creatures, from dolphins, whales and harmless leopard sharks to stingrays, lobsters, sea urchins and halibut.
Kapalua Bay, Hawaii
Hawaii is a whole different kettle of fish when it comes to slipping beneath the surface. Luxuriously warm water temperatures means that wetsuits are rarely needed (unless you’re going to deep dive). And a midocean location between the Tropic of Cancer and the equator means there’s plenty of tropical marine wildlife.
“Maui is a spectacular underwater exploration with memories that will last your lifetime,” says Jeff Strahn of Maui Dive Shop. “Our reefs start right at the shoreline and continue as deep as you want to go. Because Maui is volcanic in nature, the underwater topography is very gently sloping, making the reefs shallow for snorkeling and perfect for beginning scuba diving or Huka diving [Snuba].”
Guests at Montage Kapalua Bay can book boat-based snorkeling tours through the front desk concierge. Also, as part of the M-Teen program (ages 13-17), there are seasonal guided snorkeling tours right off the golden sand beach, during which the kids learn about the marine life of Kapalua Bay.
Snuba is offered through Aqua Adventures Maui, with daily trips to sunken, crescent-shaped Molokini Crater off the island’s south shore. “You’re going to see a vast variety of colorful, hard corals, with exotic reef fish only found in the Hawaiian island chain,” Fackrell says.
But the ultimate in Maui’s underwater recreation is scuba diving. The island’s barrier reefs support hundreds of species of coral and tropical fish, while all kinds of large creatures lurk farther out in the deep blue sea. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have dived with marine life as big [as] humpback whales and whale sharks, as graceful as mantas and eagle rays, and [as] rare as [Hawaiian] monk seals,” Strahn says.
Maui Dive Shop offers guided trips to a number of landmark dive sites around the island including the St. Anthony wreck, the Lanai Cathedrals, Molokini Crater and Turtle Town. And it runs regular snorkel trips around Maui on Alii Nui, a 65-foot catamaran.
Los Cabos, Mexico
Although it doesn’t debut until next year, the new Montage Los Cabos is already gearing up for underwater recreation in some of the most spectacular waters along the west coast of North America. More than 5,000 species of marine animals call the region home, from tiny tropical fish to the world’s largest living creature—the blue whale. Many of them breed, give birth and nurture their young in the warm, nutrient-rich waters at the bottom end of Baja.
“The thing that makes Los Cabos such a great place to scuba, snorkel or Snuba is [that] the geographic position is the frontier between [the] Pacific and the Sea of Cortez,” says Oscar Ortiz, founder and general director of Cabo Expeditions. “The great migrations of marine mammals and other species also make it a unique site.”
Ortiz, who is also an accomplished underwater photographer, says the variety of life seen beneath the surface is what really astounds him. In the past he’s spotted puffer fish, king angelfish, sea fan coral, yellowtail snapper, schools of mackerel, sea lions, turtles and more while exploring the ocean, but the most amazing thing he’s viewed while diving Los Cabos is “a big school of mobula rays. Hundreds of them,” he says.
Cabo Expeditions offers the full slate of under- water adventures including Snuba, kayak snorkeling and scuba diving expeditions to Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, which harbors one of only three coral reefs on the west coast of North America. Long recognized as one of Mexico’s underwater treasures, Cabo Pulmo even drew the praise of John Steinbeck in his writing from The Log From the Sea of Cortez. “Clinging to the coral, growing on it, burrowing into it, was a teeming fauna,” wrote the legendary American author after visiting the reef. “One small piece of coral might conceal 30 or 40 species, and the colors on the reef were electric.”
With the right gear and guidance, visitors can explore some of the world’s most exceptional ocean locales. For more information about underwater excursions, or to book a snorkeling, Snuba or scuba experience while staying at a Montage property, contact your concierge.
By Joe Yogerst
(Top photo: courtesy Of Oscar Ortiz/Cabo Expeditions)