Photograph by Mike Corey
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Raja Ampat, Indonesia, is a diver’s dream, with whales, sharks, and schools of fish, such as yellowstripe scad.

Photograph by Mike Corey

Three by sea: Life-changing tales from female travelers

How to find the thrill of adventure in Indonesia, Sweden, and Australia.

Women & Adventure: National Geographic is celebrating women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries in science, photography, exploration, and beyond. Scroll down for a trio of tales from female adventurers who love the sea—and what they learned from venturing into its blue expanses. Then check out these three adventures by land.

Indonesia: Diving deep in Raja Ampat

“It’s an underwater photographer’s dreamscape,” says diver Tanya Burnett of Raja Ampat, Indonesia. “The reefs just explode with color and life. It’s almost overwhelming for some.”

Traditional-style Indonesian schooners take divers to this tranquil archipelago of more than 1,500 islets to see one of the world’s greatest collections of marine biodiversity. Huge shrimp preside over the reef, their antennae reaching out in all directions. A school of surgeonfish moves like a cloud until a shark plows through, sending them scattering like wisps of smoke. At times there are so many fish you can barely see through the water.

Each dive serves up new wonders: a manta swooping overhead, a solitary dolphin rolling around playfully on a reef, giant schools of snapper and fusiliers whirling around us like tornadoes, venomous sea kraits wafting through sunlit water.

At Banda Neira, in the Spice Islands, once rare nutmeg trees dot a verdant idyll that lured Dutch traders in the 1600s. Now, locals sell the spices in fragrant markets.

Among the great delights of diving is never knowing what will appear. One day it might be an swirl of yellowstripe scad, the next it might be melon-headed whales. Some places can surpass even the greatest expectations.

Lesson learned: You can’t control the sea but you can immerse yourself and respect the unexpected. Kate Siber

Sweden: Exploring Stockholm by kayak

Buffering Sweden’s capital from the Baltic Sea, the islands of the Stockholm archipelago—called the skärgården—are a wonderland of rocks, skerries, and islets with pine forests, fields of wildflowers, and bare granite. The exact number of islands is debatable, but the general consensus is about 30,000.

The archipelago stretches from downtown Stockholm and brings wilderness into the city. Although regular ferry services visit most of the larger islands, you can experience these glacier-carved isles by kayak.

Exposure to nature is a central part of life in Sweden, where the country’s constitution guarantees allemansrätten (“everyman’s right”), a freedom to roam in natural spaces. Aside from the requirement not to disturb or destroy, people can forage, catch fish, swim in lakes, visit beaches, set up a tent, and access any land as long as they stay out of private gardens and maintain the stipulated 70 meters (229 feet) from a dwelling.

The vast archipelago is ideal for exploration by kayak because one can linger among the quiet coves and passages.

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Archipelagoes stretch the length of Sweden’s coastline, perfect for kayakers both novice and experienced.

Only 40 minutes by ferry from the mainland, Utö provides a quick transition to island time. Once an active mining community with some of the oldest iron mines in the country, the island of about 250 people and only a few cars is known today for its beaches, restaurants, and the famed Utö dark rye bread that tastes of molasses and anise.

A watery obstacle course, the bay is scattered with skerries, or rocky isles. Far out in the southern part of the archipelago, Utö isn’t protected on its south shore, and kayakers may encounter choppy seas as they paddle toward the island’s northern tip.

On Huvudskär, one of the archipelago’s final outposts, heather, cotton grass, and crowberry grow in rock crevices. A lighthouse rises over small red cottages. There have been fishermen and hunters here for more than 700 years, but there are no longer any permanent residents on this remote rock slab. The water out here is deep blue and it feels as if there are no boundaries.

Lesson learned: With a bit of bravado, you can learn a new skill and see the world from a different perspective. Jill K. Robinson

Australia: Seeing the Great Barrier Reef up close

While most guests at the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort off the coast of Queensland, Australia, are pouring their first cup of coffee, a few are donning wet suits and grabbing masks, fins, and snorkels, then walking 10 minutes to the far side of the island for a sunrise swim.

Peter Gash, the island’s tireless steward, is the instigator of this early-morning meditation that starts with a shock of cold as swimmers ease into the pink-tinted waters. Floating facedown above corals that form the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, Gash points out underwater wonders: clown fish, moon wrasse, parrotfish, painted flutemouth, angelfish, white-banded triggerfish. A reef shark may coast by, or a sea turtle pop its head up before dipping back down to find an outcropping of coral on which to scratch its shell. The crystalline water is a miracle in itself.

It wasn’t always this way. The 1,400-mile-long Great Barrier Reef is often a narrative of devastating coral bleaching, heralding its imminent death.

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Conservation efforts starting in the 1970s transformed Australia’s Lady Elliot Island and its waters into a haven for wildlife, including green sea turtles.

Lady Elliot Island itself, named in 1816 by Captain Thomas Stuart aboard the ship of the same name, was a guano-rich island mined for a decade in the 1800s, its fish and turtles depleted. Around 1873, stripped of resources, the island was abandoned to the sun and shifting winds. In 1969 Australian aviator Don Adams built an airstrip and accommodations, started replanting the island, and over time created a no-frills resort. The torch was taken up by fellow Australian pilot Gash, who brought solar power, desalination, and composting to the island. He firmly established the remote resort—now 40-plus cottages and glamping tents, many of which open directly onto the white-sand beach—as a leader in sustainable tourism, a model for other resorts along the Great Barrier Reef.

Lady Elliot Island is especially known for manta rays and participates in Project Manta, a research program based at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. Researchers have used the island as a home base for studying the mantas’ migration, behavior, and health.

The island and its surrounding reef system prove that the story of the Great Barrier Reef doesn’t need to have a tragic ending. When people fall in love with a place and make a conscious effort to protect it, we glimpse a sustainable future where we can all keep dipping our heads underwater to experience awe.

Lesson learned: Once you know what climate change looks like, it’s easier to visualize solutions. —Anne Farrar

A version of this story ran in the October/November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler.