Diving in Dominica

Say Dominica and most people assume you mean the Dominican Republic. However, this tropical gem situated in the Lesser Antilles is a far cry from its similarly-named Caribbean cousin. Billing itself as the Nature Island, its relative obscurity, compact size and pristine beauty makes for a nature-lover’s Shangri-La unscathed by mass tourism. Scott Bennett makes the journey to Dominica to find out what the Island has to offer the diving and travelling world.

 

Despite being in the same hemisphere as my home in Toronto, getting there proved to be a full-day expedition. Arriving at the airport at 5:30 on a Sunday morning, there was no queue and I was at the gate in 20 minutes flat. Fortunately, I squeaked through Air Canada’s stringent new carry-on baggage limitations. To ensure there were no hassles, I stuffed my pockets with batteries, cords and chargers to play it safe.

A four-hour flight delivered me to Antigua, where I had to collect my bags, go through immigration, check in again at the LIAT counter and go right back through immigration. This time I was hit with a $60US charge for the second bag as opposed to the $25 CAD I paid in in Toronto. When it comes baggage rules, there is no logic! After a four-hour layover, the connecting flight to Dominica was only 30 minutes, including a brief stop in Guadeloupe, its high rises and modern airport in stark contrast to Antigua.

Dominica was discovered on November 3rd 1493 by Christopher Columbus, naming it Sunday (dies Dominica in Latin) after the day he found it. The indigenous Carib people named the island Waitikubuli, meaning “tall is her body.” And a tall lady she is. Despite being a compact 29-miles long by 16-miles wide, the island is the Caribbean’s most vertical, with rugged forest-clad peaks encompassing its entire area. Dominica’s coastlines have a decidedly opposing character. The eastern side is pounded by the Atlantic’s crashing surf while the western shore faces more tranquil Caribbean waters. Most dive sites are found along the Caribbean side.

Arriving just after 8:00 PM, I grabbed my bags and ventured outside to arrange a taxi to Castle Comfort Lodge on the outskirts of Roseau, the island’s capitol. I was perplexed to hear the trip would take 70 minutes. After all, wasn’t the island only 29 miles across? I soon discovered why. Heading inland, the road rapidly gained elevation, writhing like a giant asphalt serpent with hairpin turns. Fortunately, yellow reflectors lined the road’s centre and traffic was minimal. With no streetlights, it was reassuring to see where the road actually was, especially considering the speed my driver was maintaining.

Upon traversing the island’s vertiginous spine, Roseau’s twinkling lights came into view. I discovered Castle Comfort was actually the name of a small suburb outside the city. After checking in, I discovered the restaurant was still open, so I headed over to order dinner. Best of all, no jetlag!

The next morning after breakfast, I checked in at Dive Dominica to prepare for the morning’s diving. Adjoining the lodge, the dive centre is one of the island’s oldest. On hand to meet me was divemaster Imran Pacquette, who quickly got me set up with gear. The other divers were a mixture of Americans and fellow Canadians. With everyone ready, we set out for Soufriere Scotts Head Marine Reserve, located nearby in the south west of the island.

Our first dive site was Swiss Cheese, part of the Scott’s Head pinnacle complex and named for the maze of nooks, crannies and swim throughs etched into the reef.  Visibility was astounding, easily exceeding 40m and one of the few instances I have encountered such clarity in over 20 years of diving. Descending below 20m, Imran led us through a swim through jam-packed with blackbar soldierfish and grunts. Swimming above the reef, I marveled at the diversity and colours of the corals and sponges. Although I didn’t see any, barracuda are sometimes encountered here.

After a surface interval at Soufriere Village, a short boat ride brought us to L’Abym. Translated as “abyss” in the local Creole dialect, the name couldn’t be more apt! Encompassing the eastern edge of Soufriere crater, the site’s distinguishing feature is an immense wall that plummets 500m from the cliffs above. From the mooring line, an easy descent led to a sandy shelf at 8m, the bottom punctuated with rocky outcrops teeming with sponges and sea fans. On one sponge, Imran pointed out a pair of frogfish. Having done most of my diving in the Pacific, I was unaware that frogfish even lived in the Caribbean.

We then headed for the wall and it was truly spectacular. The array of sponges on view was extraordinary. Clusters of yellow tube sponges jutted from the walls, along with rope, tubulate and pink vase sponges. Almost electric in intensity, enormous orange elephant ear sponges glowed against the deep blue of the open water beyond. Wedged between a pair of tube sponges, a seahorse peered out, almost in defiance of being photographed. Plate, finger and knobby brain corals, black coral trees and gorgonians jostled for space on the seemingly endless wall. First days don’t get much better!

Back from diving, I had lunch at the Evergreen restaurant next to my hotel. I started with a tamarind juice, pleasantly tangy with a bit of sugar to mute the tartness. My main course of braised lionfish with a Creole coconut sauce that was very tasty indeed. I was happy to be doing my part towards lionfish eradication! Served alongside were side dishes listed as “provisions”. Although I initially visualized a canteen and flares, they are in actuality local roots such as dasheen, yams or potatoes along with plantains or rice. (Or sometimes all)

After lunch, I went on a land tour to the Scott’s Head area. My driver was Martin Tarvenier, a friendly, soft-spoken fellow with an impressive set of waist-length dreadlocks.  Unfortunately, our tight schedule necessitated we omit a snorkeling tour at Champagne, a dive site famous for its bubbles emanating from the seabed.  We soon arrived in Soufrière, the village we anchored off of during the morning’s surface interval. Martin’s hometown, it was an appealing place of colourful houses framed with lush tropical vegetation and flowering bougainvillea. It soon became apparent he seemed to know everyone, as he cheerily greeted a never-ending parade of friends and relatives.

We then crossed a narrow isthmus connecting the headland to the rest of Scott’s Bay. The headland itself is the southernmost point of Soufrière Bay, which is an old volcano crater. Although it looked manmade, Martin assured me it was a natural formation. A steep ascent led to a lookout offering magnificent views over Scott’s Head village and the entire bay. A corroded old cannon was the only indication this had once been a fort, as most of the structure had long ago collapsed into the water below.

Heading back, we stopped at Soufriere Village for a visit to the Bubble Beach Spa. I’d seen it earlier during our surface interval but the assembly of deck chairs around a stony beach was somewhat confusing. A wall of rocks enclosed a small pool alongside the shoreline where a sulpher spring bubbled up from beneath the sand. I only waded in up to my knees, but it was hot; not scalding, but a half-hour immersion would have left me well-done. Next door, the Roman Catholic Church of St. Mark made for a colourful photo subject.

The next day, we headed back to the Soufriere and there were no complaints from me. First up was Dangleben’s Pinnacles. Named after the Dangleben family that owned the adjacent land, the site consists of 5 pinnacles ascending from the Soufriere crater’s northern edge. Ascending to within nearly 8m from the surface, they descend to a base shelf at 18m, creating a topographical labyrinth that is home to a myriad of fish species. When the current is running, schools of jacks, creole wrasse, yellowtail snappers and barracuda can be seen.

While gearing up I noticed one of the Canadian guys had a surprising accessory. Although spear guns are generally unwelcome during most dive excursions, it was an entirely different matter here. His quarry was the Caribbean’s most unwelcome visitor: the lionfish. After their accidental release in Florida back in the 90’s, lionfish numbers have exploded, with populations engulfing the entire Caribbean. To battle the crisis, lionfish are featured on many a restaurant menu, a practical solution that isn’t environmentally harmful.

Although large pelagics were absent due to the mild current, there was fish life in abundance including French angelfish, princess parrotfish, brown chromis, smooth trunkfish and peacock flounder and sand dancer. Combined with exquisite sponge gardens and that 40m visibility, the dive was superb.

Having missed it the previous day, I was pleased to discover Champagne Reef would be our second dive. Despite my plan to shoot the bubbles with wide-angle, Imran suggested a switch to macro. I was happy I did, as the site proved to be a superb critter dive. Starting deeper, we explored overhangs brimming with blackbar soldierfish. Imran indicated an interesting coral which I later discovered to be a forked tentacle corallimorph. Closely related to stony corals, corallimorphs feature tentacles arranged in rows radiating from the mouth.

After some additional exploration, we ventured to sand to search for critters. I had never thought of the Caribbean as being a muck-diving destination, but was pleasantly surprised. Thanks to Imran’s eagle eyes, I discovered innumerable subjects to photograph. The sand was alive gobies, including pallid, goldspot and sharknose, all of which readily posed for photos. Imran gestured to a bubbling vent and indicated I put my hand at the opening. It was quite warm but not uncomfortable.

The ensuing 40 minutes were enthralling. Balloonfish, juvenile blueheads, Christmas tree worms, seahorses, long-lure frogfish, spotted snake eel, sharp-nosed puffer, goldentail moray, tiny crabs, harlequin bass and bearded fireworms kept my shutter firing at a rapid pace. Jackknife fish were especially photogenic with their elegant flowing dorsal fins and striking black and white wardrobe. A tiny yellowface pikeblenny displayed some serious attitude, rising from its burrow with mouth agape and dorsal fin extended to defend its territory.

My favourite subject was so small and strange, I didn’t even know what I was looking at. Imran motioned me over to a glossy, almost metallic-tinted creature protruding from a minute hole in the sand. Closer scrutiny revealed a blue-orange onuphid, a type of polychaete worm related to the infamous Bobbit worm. Although we didn’t get to them, a pair of wrecks are also present; one metal and one wooden sitting near each other between 60-95 feet. While the metal vessel has been present for years, the wooden one dates from 1994, sunk after being confiscated from smugglers.

As Dive Dominica allows unlimited diving from its jetty, I joined the other two Canadians for a late afternoon dive . With the jetty sitting high out of the water, a giant stride with camera was out of the question. Fortunately, the dive shop had a solution. Attached to one of the pylons was a cord with a carabiner hook attached to the other end. All I had to do was clip it to a metal ring on my housing and gently lower it into the water.

A gradual slope descended away from the jetty, with massive barrel sponges and sea plumes playing host to a variety of small reef fish. I surprised a Caribbean reef octopus that promptly made for the safety of a protective crevice. Further down, a sandy expanse was home to a large congregation of garden eels. A Caribbean whiptail stingray allowed a close approach before rocketing off down the slope.  After photographing a spotted moray, I discovered my dive buddies had disappeared. Although no deeper than 8m, I decided to head back towards the jetty, photographing jackknife fish, rosy razorfish, harlequin bass, Pederson cleaner shrimp, banded coral shrimp and yellowline arrow crabs along the way.

At dive’s end, I discovered a large school of Caesar grunts congregating near the jetty’s wooden pylons. Determined to get some wide-angle images, I asked if I could change tanks and go back in. I was assured it would be fine; I just had to hang up my gear as the dive shop would be closed upon my return. Heading back to my room in my dripping wetsuit, I carefully swapped macro to wide-angle and headed back down to find a full tank waiting. Despite being on my own, I assured them I would just be hanging around the jetty. While gearing up, I could see a large school of silversides milling about next to the jetty. I was in luck!

My elation proved short-lived, as the silversides disappeared the moment I hit the water. Fortunately, the grunts were still there, but photography necessitated patience and a slow approach. Glassy sweepers hovered around the pylons along with the occasional trumpetfish, while the bottom was covered with urchins. Without warning, the silverside school erupted from beneath the jetty in a shimmering mass and I was completely enveloped. The action was so sudden, it actually made me jump! There was even an audible whoosh as they sped past and within seconds, vanished entirely.

The next morning, Martin took me on a tour of Roseau and its environs. First stop was The Old Market, a thriving scene during colonial times, where everything from commodities to slaves was traded. Mainly a tourist market these days, it’s the haunt of souvenir vendors.  More authentic, the nearby Famers Market displayed a variety of produce, from mangoes, pineapples and coconuts to cinnamon, nutmeg and fresh honey. A 20-min drive from town was Trafalgar Falls, one of the island’s most iconic natural attractions. The twin waterfalls are referred to as the “Father” (on the left) and “Mother (on the right). From the Visitor Centre, it was a short downhill walk to the viewing platform. Surrounded by forest-clad hills, it was the epitome of lush.

After getting back, it was time to check out of Castle Comfort. Loading my bags in Martin’s van, I headed next door to the Anchorage Hotel for an afternoon whale-watching cruise. With 22 species present, Dominica is regarded as the Caribbean’s whale watching capital. A mile offshore, depths plummet to over 1,000 feet, providing excellent habitat for sperm whales, which can be observed year-round. Other species include short-fin pilot, false killer, melon head, pygmy sperm, and humpback whales along with mixed pods of spotted and spinner dolphins.

Prior to departure, a briefing was conducted at The Anchorage Marine Mammal Interpretation Center. A mounted sperm whale skeleton showed just how big the animals could be and it wasn’t even a fully grown specimen! Boarding the company’s sleek catamaran, we ventured nearly 2km offshore, stopping at strategic locations to lower a hydrophone and listen for whale activity. Unfortunately, the only sperm whale I saw was the skeleton back at the centre. To be fair, June wasn’t exactly peak season for them and nature is never guaranteed. However, some smaller relatives did show up; a large pod of spinner dolphin’s appeared, thrilling everyone with their acrobatic leaps.

Arriving back, I knew I had a night dive that evening, but I wasn’t exactly sure with whom. It turned out I was in the right place. I had just enough time to assemble my housing (in the hotel lobby) and proceed back to the Anchorage Dive centre to be gear up.  I met divemaster Sherman Julien guide along with a couple from the Netherlands and a Canadian girl. Our vessel was the catamaran from the whale-watching trip, a stylish way to travel to the evening’s dive site. The site was Carib’s Leap/Sorcerer’s Peak, named for the sheer 200′ cliff ascending from the water’s edge. If a Carib wife was caught being unfaithful, she was taken to the top, given a farewell kiss and “divorced” by being hurled off.  In a dramatic display of double standards, the men could have as many wives as they wanted! The site has a spooky reputation, with apparitions of the unfaithful wives allegedly being seen by divers.

We kept the dive shallow, not descending below 8m. Immediately, I surprised a large spiny lobster that promptly vanished as I got my camera into position. Encased in their nocturnal cocoons, parrotfish slumbered as spotted morays slithered amongst the corals and sponges in pursuit of prey. Some big channel clinging crabs were especially impressive. Although we didn’t see a lot of fish, the reef itself was dazzling, my torch illumination revealing vibrant colour not visible in the daytime. At dive’s end, an Atlantic white-spotted octopus sat immobile on a sandy patch, making a perfect photo subject. No ghosts appeared though!

Afterwards, we loaded my gear into Martin’s van and headed to Roseau for the Fort Young Hotel, my home for the last two nights.  It really was a fort, or at least set within an actual one erected by the British and decidedly posh. Checking in while clad in a still-dripping bathing suit was somewhat awkward but the concierge didn’t even react.

My last full day was spent on a circle tour of the island.  The first sight was right across the street. The presidential palace was a grandiose monstrosity ornamented with giant columns, totally incongruous with Roseau’s modest environs. The public outcry during its construction appeared ongoing, with billboards proclaiming the 27-million price tag would have been better spent on a hospital or public education. Some things truly are universal.

First stop was Emerald Pool, a beautiful little waterfall in a grotto surrounded by verdant rainforest. Moss covered boulders framed the cascading stream as vine-draped trees towered overhead. Normally jam-packed during the cruise ship season, I had the place entirely to myself. Pure photo heaven! My planned 20-minute photo stop quickly doubled and I had to rush back to the van.

Entering the Carib Indigenous Territory on the Atlantic side, we stopped in at the Kalinago Barana Aute (Carib Model Village) to learn about the Kalinago People. (called Caribs by the Europeans). At one time widespread throughout the Caribbean, more Kalinago arrived on the island as the European presence increased. Today, Dominica is home to the last remaining population. A local guide took me on a tour, explaining cultural practices and history with examples of village structures, basket weaving, cassava bread baking, canoe building and herbal medicine.

Venturing to the opposite coast to Portsmouth, we stopped for a cruise at the Indian River, the island’s only navigable waterway. As cruises go, it was definitely no frills; with motorboats not allowed, my transport was a rowboat with guide manning the oars. Heading upriver, mangrove trees fringed the shoreline, gradually creating a canopy over the ever-narrowing river. Our quiet transport meant a closer approach to the abundant birdlife.  Heading back, we made a detour down a tributary to a familiar-looking shack nestled amongst the mangroves. Movie buffs will recognize it as the home voodoo priestess Tia Dalma in Pirates of the Caribbean 2. A large portion of the film was made on the island.

With so many activities both over and under the water, I could scarcely believe my visit had been less than a week. For such a tiny island, the attractions were many and I had only scratched the surface, especially with regards to the dive sites. I was once told that if you have dived the Pacific, don’t waste your time with the Caribbean. Having experienced Dominica’s beautiful reefs combined with exquisite visibility, I couldn’t disagree more!

Sadly, less than two months after my visit, the island was pounded by Tropical Storm Erika. With up to 30 deaths, thousands of people displaced and hundreds of homes left uninhabitable, it was deadliest natural disaster to hit the island since Hurricane David in 1979. In the aftermath, International assistance poured and the island started its long road to recovery. Talking to Imran afterwards, I was relieved to hear everyone I met was fine and the vast majority of dive sites weathered the storm with no visible effects. With tourism a mainstay of the local economy, the best way to help is to simply go. There isn’t a better time.

 

 

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