The Favorite Dive Spots of Jacques Cousteau’s Dive Master
Don Santee spent most of his life leading expeditions with Jacques and Jean-Michel Cousteau. These are his favorite places to dive.
“You can’t quote me unless you actually take a dive.”
Twelve hours after Don Santee uttered those words at a hotel bar, I was underwater. Thanks to a dare from the Cousteau family dive master, I was going to the bottom of the South Pacific in the name of a quote.
Santee is the real deal, a no-nonsense salt with a lifetime of stories behind blue, weathered eyes. I’ve caught him in the middle of a nightly routine, between glasses of red wine on a Fijian resort that doubles as his home for three months each year. There, he runs a dive school, and the resort’s name offers a clue to the depth of stories behind Santee’s eyes—Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort.
For 45 years, Santee has explored the world’s oceans from the Arctic to the South Pacific, diving and documenting year-round with Jacques and Jean-Michel Cousteau. You would be hard pressed to find a living man with more experience under the waves; and over a pinot and a promise, Santee delivered his five favorite dive spots to me, pulled from a lifetime of memories.
Indonesia lies at the heart of the coral triangle, a 3.5-million-mile expanse of ocean between Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. And Santee says it’s home to some of the clearest water you could ever dive in.
“I’ve never seen any water clearer than Indonesia,” Santee explains. “I mean, it’s clear down to 200 feet, and it has such a wide variety of animals.”
Home to 15 percent of the world’s coral, Indonesian waters house creatures as small as 1.4-centimeter pygmy seahorses and as large as 20-foot manta rays.
The Tuamotus atolls are unfathomably remote, located midway between Australia and South America, approximately 100 miles east of Tahiti. Their claim to fame? Sharks.
“Silver tips, grey reef sharks and hammerheads,” tells Santee. “I was filming there, at an estimated depth of about 200 feet, and I couldn’t even see the bottom because of all of the sharks.”
Santee says the sharks in the Tuamotus islands linger between passes between the chain’s 80 islands. Each summer, hundreds of sharks converge on the Tuamotus, attracted by a grouper spawn in its nutrient-rich waters.
Papua New Guinea
An empty glass and an exclamation: “If there’s one group of islands you have to get to and see, it’s Papua New Guinea. It’s a spot that at one time in my life was my absolute favorite.”
One hundred miles to the north of Australia, Papua New Guinea is home to the largest rainforest outside of the South America, more than 800 indigenous languages, coral reefs and World War II shipwrecks. Here, ships, aircraft and submarines meld with sea turtles, corals, sharks and fish to create a wide diversity of world-class diving within a three-hour flight from Brisbane, Australia.
The Micronesian island of Yap sits some 500 miles east of the Philippines. It’s home to less than 12,000 humans on land, and a countless number of the world’s largest manta rays under water.
“Yap is a manta ray cleaning station,” say Santee. “The ones that come there, to be cleaned by the reef fish, are the size of airplane rotors.”
Divers who visit Yap can get up-close and personal with huge manta rays as they hover over the island’s “cleaning stations,” allowing reef fish to pick off parasites while providing divers with incredible views of some of the ocean’s largest fish.
Santee's crew films at Grand Central Station at Namena Island, Fiji. Here, a 100-foot dropoff overlooking deeper water brings in schools of fish and sharks.
“I’ve traveled all over the world several times,” Santee says, “but there is no better place to dive than Fiji. Twenty miles out to sea, there is no pollution. The currents bring up nutrients and take care of the soft coral, and that brings in the small fish. Once they’re there, the big ones follow.”
Santee’s favorite dive spot in Fiji? The Namena Marine Reserve, home to sperm and mink whale, spinner and bottlenose dolphin, a wide variety of coral, four species of sea turtle and more than 1,100 species of fish.
It’s the reason Santee is on Fiji in the first place—Namena is accessible via an overnight trip from his bar stool.
Decades ago, Santee helped the Cousteau team handpick the spot for its access to Fiji's reefs and the reserve. They hired a full-time marine biologist, built thatched roof cabins and set up a dive shop. If you go there, look for Don Santee. He’ll take you to see his favorite dive spot—and you can quote him on that.