Another World: Barbados

Explore Barbados' coral reefs with underwater photographer, Mike Toy

A Christmas tree worm perches on a star coral. Photograph by Mike ToyA spiny lobster keeps company with a branded coral shrimp. Photograph by Mike ToyButterflyfish glide past branching vase (to the left) and erect rope sponges. Photograph by Mike ToyCopper sweepers parade through the silent hold of the sunken Berwyn in Carlisle Bay. Photograph by Mike ToyDivers surface after exploring a west coast wreck. Photograph by Mike ToyDoing it in comfort: the 28-passenger submarine Atlantis II cruises Barbados’s reefs. Photograph by Mike ToyFrench angle fish are curious about divers, and after darting away will often return to watch. Photograph by Mike ToyPhotograph by Mike ToyPhotograph by Mike ToyPhotograph by Mike ToyThe peacock flounder changes colour dramatically to blend with its background. Photograph by Mike Toy

Barbados has an often overlooked secret, hidden beneath its turquoise sea. It’s another world, every bit as beautiful and exotic as the one above. Miles of coral reefs teem with life; ghostly shipwrecks lie silent on the seabed, their empty cabins and holds providing refuge for a multitude of sea creatures.

There are many ways to explore this underwater world. The warm sheltered waters of the west coast are ideal for snorkelling; there is virtually no tide or current, and few monsters lurking in the depths. The Barbados Marine Reserve, a four-kilometre area of protected reef stretching from Sandy Lane to the Colony Club, contains some of the most beautiful coral formations on the island, all within a stone’s throw of the beach.

There are about a dozen major dive operators in Barbados, plus facilities for equipment service, and a decompression chamber. Scuba certification courses range from a one-day resort course (instruction in the morning, diving in the afternoon) through open-water and speciality courses to a full instructor’s course, and are available through most dive shops.

The choice of dive sites is vast: as well as the reefs, the island has plenty of shipwrecks. Several are in the sheltered waters of Carlisle Bay, and old cannons, anchors and glass bottles are regularly discovered here. The wreck of the Berwyn, a French tug sunk in 1919, rests in just twenty feet of water, easily accessible to divers and snorkellers alike. Covered with a variety of colourful corals and sponges, she plays host to a shifting population of parrotfish, trumpetfish, angelfish, lobsters and octopus.

Resident schools of glittering copper sweepers and smallmouth grunts lurk in her dark holds, and a few pieces of scattered bread will invoke a flurry of sergeant majors. Closer inspection reveals a multitude of smaller inhabitants including fireworms, banded coral shrimp, frogfish, sun anemones and feather dusters.

Further up on the west coast, a quarter mile off Paradise Beach, is the wreck of the Greek freighter Stavronikita. Sunk intentionally in 1978 after being gutted by fire, she is a giant among wreck dives: 356 feet long, she sits upright and intact in 135 feet of water, one of her masts just twenty feet below the surface. All doors and hatch covers have been removed to make the vessel safe, and virtually every part of the ship is accessible.

The upper levels of the wreck are encrusted with corals and sponges, and schools of sergeant majors and blue chromis drift around the masts. Larger fish inhabit the deeper parts of the wreck, notably George, a resident barracuda who hangs vertically in a passageway staring forlornly at his reflection in a pocked of trapped air. Gorgonians and whip corals decorate the hull, and the eerie darkness of the engine room provides sanctuary for an array of nocturnal creatures. The huge propeller and rudder remain in place, dwarfing all who descend to them.

Barbados is a flat coral island, unlike its steep-sided volcanic neighbours, which produces a very different underwater landscape. There are no plunging wall dives, but an extensive system of fringing reefs, patch reefs and the unusual bank reef is unrivalled in the Caribbean. Each dive site is different: the shallow patch reefs of the south coast are covered with a forest of soft corals and seafans, while those on the west coast exhibit huge brain corals, staghorn coral, and great towers of cathedral coral.

Further offshore is the bank reef, which marks the site of the island’s coastline at the end of the last ice age. Coral growth has been interrupted since then, which puts the age of the reef at between five and ten thousand years. Typically about seventy feet deep, it is flat-topped and narrow, dropping off steeply on both sides.

A thriving community exists here — giant barrel sponges, elephant ear sponges, plate corals, sea fans and gorgonians are the dominant features, while barracuda, triggerfish, parrotfish and trumpetfish dart about the reef. Moray eels, pufferfish, glasseyes and soapfish can be found lurking in the nooks and crannies of the reef, and creatures considered rare elsewhere like the frogfish, filefish and hawksbill turtle are often encountered.

The diving anywhere on the bank reef is good, but some of the more popular sites are Mount Charlie, Muff, High Wire and Castle Bank on the south coast, and Silver Bank, Bright Ledge and Maycocks on the west. The last two are particularly beautiful and often blessed with visibility of 100 feet or more.

Although dive operators restrict their activities to the leeward side of the island there is excellent diving available on both eastern and northern coasts, weather permitting. Cluffs, North Point, Bathsheba and Consett Bay all offer very different diving for the more adventurous and experienced.

But non-divers need not worry: there are still ways to see the underwater world. Glass-bottomed boats operate on the west coast and provide an excellent way to see the island’s shallow inshore reefs. The Berwyn and the Pamir off Heywoods resort in St Peter can both be viewed this way.

The ultimate in dry diving, however, must be aboard the Atlantis II, a 28-man passenger submarine operating out of Bridgetown. A 40-minute tour explores an area of Silver Bank reef and includes an excursion to 130 feet to view the wreck of the Lord Willoughby. Night dives feature two divers who distribute food to attract fish — a seemingly straightforward but sometimes hazardous task.

Several eels have grown accustomed to being hand-fed over the years, including Narco, a six-foot green moray. One evening, sporting a pair of bright yellow long-blade fins, a diver approaching the feeding station was alarmed to see the beast bolt from its hole and make straight for him. It pursued him to within thirty feet of the surface, all the while snapping furiously at the rapidly flailing fins. Whether it mistook them for an adversary or a mate is unknown, but suffice to say the next night the new fins had been sprayed matt black.

Such close encounters of a watery kind are not uncommon, for any reef possesses its own share of hazards for the unwary. The long-spined sea urchins that litter the shallow inshore reefs have claimed many a victim. Their needle-sharp spines easily puncture the skin and break on contact, leaving the tip firmly embedded in the offending limb.

But the reef is just as easily damaged by man. Pollutants entering the sea can kill off large areas, and careless diving causes damage. Coral reefs are fragile and take hundreds of years to grow; great care should be taken when exploring them. We are visitors to this underwater world, and should observe a few simple rules: look but don’t touch, take away only photographs, leave behind only bubbles.