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European conquerors were the first to call this stretch of the Atlantic "the Caribbean," after the native Caribs. Some maintain that it is the region where Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World. The Caribbean Sea itself borders Cuba (north), the Antilles (east), Colombia and Venezuela (south), and Central America (west). It is not a coral sea, like the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and you won't find large coral formations and reefs, but there is nonetheless a sensational underwater world to explore.
The entire western Atlantic offers exceptional subtropical scuba diving. Warm currents keep the water temperature above 68�F (20�C) and encourage the growth of a great variety of unique flora and fauna. The ocean floor, transfigured by violent floods, seismic activity, and volcanic eruptions during and after the Ice Ages, had previously been hundreds of meters higher; it is formed of limestone and lava with innumerable chasms and caves.
Colored sponges of countless shapes are distinctive features of these waters; they grow at all depths reachable by divers and some are large enough to actually get inside. The soft corals and sea fan corals are beautiful-some are very similar to the gorgonians of the Mediterranean. Most of them are found only in this area, growing at depths of 10 to 65 feet (3 to 20 meters). Swimming above them is an enchanting experience. There are some hard corals: huge elkhorn corals, branch corals, yellow fire corals, flat corals, and brain corals. However, it is the sheer walls-called "drop-offs" because they plunge vertically to depths of up to 6,560 feet (2,000 meters)-that shape the most spectacular underwater landscapes andmake the most exhilarating dives.
The rich variety of living creatures starts with the lower animal species, including snails, bivalves, and worms; these are not much different from corresponding types living in other seas. There are crustaceans of all kinds-crabs, prawns, shrimps, and lobsters-in abundance. Tiny, gaudy reef fish light up the landscape, although their range of colors is narrower than that of tropical fish. Angelfish thrive here-they can measure up to 16 inches (40 centimeters) in length, much bigger than their relations living in other seas. There are gray angelfish, French angelfish, and the splendid gold-and-blue queen angelfish. This is the only place in the world where you will find Nassau groupers. They grow to a considerable size and, in busy dive sites, are as friendly as puppies. Stingrays also find ideal living conditions in these waters-the huge expanses of sandy bottom provide them with a hunting ground rich in crabs and other small animals
--and they can grow to a wingspan of more than 3 feet (1 meter). Hundreds of them live in a single Grand Cayman lagoon, which is a great attraction for divers. They are harmless creatures, using the poisonous tip of their tail only in defense. Large fish patrol the drop-offs: manta rays, eagle rays, gray sharks, hammerheads, barracuda, enormous schools of jacks, and (the biggest of them all) the whale shark.
From the Florida Keys to the southernmost Antilles, sport diving is professionally organized. All the islands and coasts open to tourism have efficiently equipped dive bases that work on American standards, providing modern equipment and a guarantee of safety. The best diving areas include (from north to south) the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, the Yucatan (Cozumel, Cuba, Turks and Caicos), the Cayman Islands, Belize, Honduras (Guanaja), the Virgin Islands, the French Antilles, and the Dutch Antilles. The allure of the Caribbean archipelago-great weather, beautiful underwater landscape, and well-equipped resort facilities-is only enhanced by its people. Their optimistic outlook, reflected in their music, is a relief to stress-worn tourists. They will regale you with thrilling stories of treasure hunters and mutinies over a drink in one of the many "Buccaneers' Taverns" or "Pirates' Pubs." Afterward, you may even see a foggy image of the infamous Henry Morgan himself on the dock at midnight. . . .