Dream Dives in the Caribbean

Martha Watkins Gilkes tours the Caribbean to discover the best dive sites

Photograph by Martha Watkins GilkesPhotograph by Martha Watkins GilkesPhotograph by Martha Watkins Gilkes

If the perfect scuba dive is a plunge into clear, tropical waters on a colourful reef abounding with life, then the Caribbean is the perfect place for it. For here is a thousand-mile chain of islands surrounded by living reefs, and each one provides a different type of diving. No wonder the number of divers has increased so drastically in recent years.

Most of the Caribbean islands have not yet developed into a ‘diving circus’ as has been the case in some of the more developed sites where 30 or 40 divers are herded onto large dive boats and dropped on somewhat packaged dive sites where tame fish come for handouts. Many of the islands in the Caribbean are still virginal diving grounds.

This works both ways, of course. Virginal status can also lead to frustration on a diving holiday, as on the more remote islands facilities are often not available and diving can be more difficult and basic. But these destinations often offer the best diving simply because it is unspoiled.

The Cayman Islands

The Cayman Islands are among the most developed sites in the Caribbean for scuba diving; there are over 20 dive operations, including live-abroad boat facilities. There is a well-run decompression facility, which is an added safety factor. The Caymans are very conservation-minded and it is a criminal offence to take any form of marine life while scuba diving. In fact, On Cayman Brac, the smallest island, it is illegal even to wear gloves whole scuba diving. This helps to ensure divers do not hold on and damage the delicate coral formations and other marine life. Underwater photographic facilities are well developed in the Caymans too, and several outfits offer comprehensive courses for the beginner as well as the experienced photographer.

Belize

Belize is also becoming known for the spectacular diving available on its barrier reef. Thirty miles offshore, Lighthouse reef offers pristine dive sites in addition to the incredible Blue Hole, a sink hole exceeding 400 feet with massive stalagmites and stalactites along the overhangs down its sheer vertical walls. The outer reef lies beyond the reach of land-based diving resorts and even most fishermen, so the marine life is left undisturbed.

An exciting and extraordinary phenomenon takes place during the full moon each January in the waters around Belize. At Glory Cay on Turneff Reef, the Nassau groupers gather to spawn. Literally thousands of groupers form this great gathering, which occurs at other locations in the Caribbean also.

The British Virgin Islands

In the British Virgin Islands, with 50 coral islands, the diving is exciting and varied. Popular sites include the wreck of H.M.S. Rhone, a 310-foot British mailship sunk in an 1867 hurricane. She was the site for the Hollywood movie The Deep, which is what really made her famous. Other interesting sites include Turtle Cave in Brewers Bay, which offers a spiral arch which divers can swim through, beginning in 45 feet and winding up to 15 feet.

Many sites lie in the southern Virgin islands, between Tortola and Virgin Gorda. To the north lies Mosquito Island, the site of the Cousteau Society’s Project Ocean Search. Hosted annually by Jean-Michel Cousteau and others who work for the group, the project gives a small number of participants the chance to find out what it is like to be on a Cousteau expedition. (For more information write: The Cousteau Society, 930 W. 21st St., Norfolk, VA 23517). Both live-aboard and land-based operations are available in the BVI, as the group is well developed with facilities for divers.

Saba, Dominica and the Turks and Caicos Islands

Other spectacular destinations with abundant marine life include Saba, Dominica and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Saba, a tiny Dutch island, is one of the most protected places for divers. The entire reef surrounding the island was made a marine park in 1987, and this conservation effort has led to an abundance of tame fish. Saba diving is known for several deep pinnacles including Third Encounter, Twilight Zone and Shark Shoal. For the less adventurous and experienced, sites like Diamond Rock and Tent Reef offer the thrill of seeing large French Angels actually swimming up to the divers. The diving has been developing ever since, with both land- based and live-aboard facilities available, as well as a decompression chamber.

Dominica, “The Nature Island”, is a lush, mountainous island with rugged topside and underwater terrain, a challenge for adventurous divers. The Atlantic east coast offers some spectacular wall dives. Dominica has only recently been introduced to the diving world, and there are only three dive shops on the island. It can take time to reach both Saba and Dominica by air, but once there, it is well worth the effort.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are more than 40 lovely sand islands and cays located on the Turks Island Passage, a 22-mile channel 7,000 feet deep connecting the Atlantic and the Caribbean. This produces an abundance of marine life and large pelagic fish. The islands are surrounded by coral reefs that cover over 200 square miles. Visibility is usually 100 feet or more.

The Grenadines

The Grenadine Islands in the lower Caribbean belong to Grenada and St. Vincent and offer pristine diving, although facilities are limited. Grenada and its tiny sister island Carriacou offer some diving facilities, as does Bequia, while nearby St. Vincent is more developed for scuba diving.

Barbados

Barbados is among the more developed islands in the Caribbean and the surrounding reef life is not as unspoiled as on some of the less developed islands. However, there are some thriving reefs and within the last few years the island has become known as a wreck diving destination. Five ships have been deliberately sunk as diving sites, making for interesting underwater photography.

Barbados is home base for the regional organisation, the Eastern Caribbean Safe Diving Association, which helps maintain a decompression facility there for the Leeward and Windward islands and is attempting to establish minimum safe operating standards for dive operations. (For more information write: ECSDA, Box 86 WRD, Welches Post Office, Barbados.)

Tobago

One of the newest and most interesting dive sites in the Caribbean is Tobago, in the south-east corner of the region. Visibility regularly reaches 130-150 feet, and the reefs teem with marine life.

Being a mainly volcanic island with steep coasts, Tobago offers deep water with dramatic submarine formations–rocky canyons, underwater tunnels, deep and shallow caves, sheer walls. Many deep-sea fish are found here closer to the surface than normal, because of the action of the Guyana Current and the Orinoco River. Divers have little trouble sighting barracuda, turtles, porpoise, grouper and snapper, and a resident manta ray has been causing much excitement. There are several major dive sites on both Caribbean and Atlantic coasts, and four dive operations.

Aruba, Bonaire & Curaçao

The “ABC islands”–Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao–are located just off the South American coast. Bonaire has long been known as a “hot spot” for diving, and is one of the few islands (like the Caymans) to devote itself to scuba diving. A far-sighted government established a marine park way back in 1979 when conservation was not even being discussed by most diving destinations.

Bonaire has a wide range of facilities from photography to marine life education. Diving sites are also varied, with reef, wreck and wall dives. The Marine Park Guide for Bonaire lists over 50 dive sites. The town pier has long been a favorite night dive as the pilings are covered in soft sponges and invertebrate life.

Now Curaçao has joined Bonaire as a fine dive destination, with an expansion of facilities and a search for exciting diving sites. Curaçao offers reef diving and a couple of wreck dives of interest, and provides many subjects for the photographer. The freighter Superior Producer, although rather deep at 100 feet down, is intact and has a variety of growth including beautiful orange tubastera sponges. While the reefs of Aruba may not be as prolific as her sister islands, there is an interesting wreck site. The Antilla, a 400-foot German ship, is in 70 feet (and less) of water. Her massive hull has provided a home to an amazing variety of fish life and night dives are truly a thrill.

Preparing to Dive

Most Caribbean destinations offer some form of scuba diving, but not all operations are equally safety-minded. While scuba diving is exciting and thrilling, remember it can also be dangerous, particularly for beginners. Proper instruction from a recognized scuba instructor is a must. It is important to ensure the level of training an instructor has; ask to see certificates of instructor training if they are not displayed.

Good health is also a must. The myth that one needs to be a superman or superwoman is not true. But it is important to have healthy lungs and sinuses and the ability to equalize one s ears (by gently blowing air into the eustachian tube while blocking the nose). A medical examination by a physician trained in hyperbaric (diving) medicine is recommended, and required by many instructors.

Good basic swimming ability is necessary, though you do not need to be an Olympic swimmer. For female divers, smaller, lighter scuba tanks are available at some dive shops, which makes the cumbersome heavy gear easier to handle.

Most scuba training organisations offer several types of diving instruction. A ‘resort course’ provides basic training in a condensed form (about 3 hours), with a minimum of academic knowledge, one confined water session (usually in a swimming pool) and one scuba dive. This type of course is taken by many tourists who do not have the time to do a full certification course, which requires written exams, classroom lectures, several confined water sessions and several scuba dives. For the serious diver, however, a full certification course should be taken.