Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass  February 2003
 
My Best Dive Sites
by Ralph Trout
When I was a kid, I loved Mike Nelson of the TV show "Sea Hunt". I wanted to be just like him. Unfortunately I was raised in Western Pennsylvania where the only diving was in steel-mill-polluted rivers or frigid trout streams.

Once I had a boat in the Caribbean, I was on my way to locating the really hot diving spots. My slowpoke trawler, the Sea Cow, was equipped with a portable scuba compressor. To rate the best dive sites that I have experienced is like choosing among the multitude of flavors at an ice cream store. My top three best, most awesome dive areas - Anegada Reefs, Las Aves and Saba Bank - are large scale and isolated. A boat and portable compressor are necessary for the ardent committed divers who desire the ultimate thrill of "gonzo diving" where few others have splashed. These are not areas for the less experienced. Always drift dive with your dinghy in case something unforeseen happens.

Anegada - da vida, baby!
Anegada is my pick for the Number One hot dive. The best weather months to dive are August and September.
In 1982 I dove the Anegada Reefs, mostly north of Loblolly Bay. Over the next decade I dove many different areas in Anegada waters, and all were astounding. In those days it was populated by the most awesome sea life I've ever witnessed. The visibility was more than a hundred plus, with the white sand bottom reflecting the glaring sun. Coral pillars seemed as big as apartment buildings, occupied by nothing smaller than ten-pound fish. We saw plenty of sharks. Two ten-foot hammerheads swam by while we snorkeled quickly to the beach. I later learned that one hammerhead was seen so often that he had a name, Ernie.
The highest point of land is 30 feet. While the mosquitoes were kept away by the strong onshore breeze, we beach camped and used an unknown forlorn sailor's wreck for firewood. Anegada is the world's third largest barrier reef, dangerous to approach by yacht except when the sun is directly overhead. Supposedly, there are more wrecks on that reef than people on the island (150 in the '80s). It seems that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people would build fires on the beach to lure sailing ships to their certain doom thinking the fires were the lights of Virgin Gorda.
The sea used to teem with life, but hotel markets for fresh seafood have seriously depleted the area. It has been closed to commercial fishing for some time, but locals still fish.
This was, is and hopefully always will be a stupendous dive destination.

Las Aves, Illegally
In 1988 I heard of the Aves Reefs north of Venezuela. I didn't make it there until 2000, but I made it! A hundred and seventy miles west of Margarita and 80 miles east of Bonaire, the Aves Reefs are in the middle of nowhere. There are two Aves Reefs, Barlovento - the eastern section - and Sotovento in the west. Neither has the dimensions of Anegada, but the Aves are much more remote so only those who truly crave isolation visit.
The local Venezuelan coast guard station in the western Aves told us that tank diving there was illegal, but we had already done three dives a day for two weeks in each reef before we were informed of the rules. The eastern section seemed more alive, with huge living coral gardens inside the reef. It had more fish, too, although sections were severely impacted by the armada of trawlers and fishing camps.
The western reef has visible wrecks stuck high on the reef. It seems that in 1678 the French planned to attack the Dutch with a fleet of 20 ships. Nineteen are still on that Aves reef. The story is that the first ship sailed onto the reef at night and fired a cannon as a warning. The others, misunderstanding, thought that it had engaged the enemy so they sailed to assist. During our dives, we found cannons, muskets and anchors stacked as if for salvage. The centuries had corroded everything into the coral. There were a few big fish, but in more than 70 dives we never saw a shark. Could it be due to the demand for shark fin soup?

Los Roques for All
Los Roques in Venezuela is a diver's paradise. The lagoon formed by the reef offers safe diving for beginners. Try to find a conch but don't take one, as it might be the last! Novice snorkelers can walk off one of the beaches of the many islets into clear, shallow waters and the most experienced diver will be thrilled by the outside of the barrier reef.

The Bank of Saba
The Saba Bank is my third choice for spectacular diving. The island of Saba is a diving and fishing destination for tourists. The waters surrounding that small island are deep. The Saba Bank, 30 minutes away, is a huge seamount that is less than 40 feet deep in many places. A good depth sounder is a must. This is wild diving because there is no reef or island beach nearby. You must be very experienced to indulge in this area.
Huge coral gardens are populated with fish that probably have never seen a diver. Some inquisitive groupers swam out to meet us from among staghorn coral that was over 20 feet tall. The best diving we found was looking towards Statia, on the edge of a drop-off from 34 feet to 600. We saw schools of wahoo, mackerel, and an occasional shark. We never lost sight of our anchor line.

Double Diamonds
In the category of island dives, the Grenadines are first class. Diamond Rock is another location for the experienced only . There are several Diamond Rocks throughout the Caribbean but this one, also known as Kick 'em Jenny, is just south of Carriacou. The best place to anchor is on its southwest side, or even safer is to hang your hook in Store Bay on Ile de Ronde then take your dinghy to the rock. You will see absolutely pristine coral populated with huge fish and lobsters. With about a hundred-foot bottom, this is not a deep dive, but the currents can be treacherous. Never let go of your dinghy.
Although frequented by dive shops, Rocher Diamant (Diamond Rock) in southern Martinique is another fantastic dive. It drops off to the deep blue quickly.

Unknown Virgins
The Virgins, both US and British, offer excellent diving. Even though the US waters are severely diver-impacted, most dive operators take trips to the same old places, usually on the convenient and slightly weather-sheltered south side. My original dive buddy in the early '80s, Peter Johne, however, would take his boat to a new area and just jump over the side. A few times big sharks would force him to jump back into the boat, but that's how we found the hot spots.
The West End of St. Thomas is always spellbinding. Calcun Cay is a small rock lying between St. Thomas and Savannah Cay. There can be an overpowering, dangerous tidal current, but the soft coral and boulders are teeming with life. To the east is a cave where nurse sharks sleep. Savannah, Dutchcap, Cricket and Cockroach Cays all offer pristine waters with underwater pinnacles to explore. When fry is abundant, these can be sharky areas. A trip to Cricket often includes dolphin accompaniment.
The BVI's economy relies on its waters to attract tourism dollars. But despite the many dive operations, there are still non-impacted areas for the underwater explorer. The north side of Peter Island, just east of Little Harbour, has a unique black coral forest. It is illegal to take any black coral but it makes great photos and you just might see a manta ray. Anywhere around Ginger Island is fantastic diving, as is the area just south of the lagoon on the east side of Salt Island. In the middle between Salt and Cooper is a wreck in about 80 feet that can usually be heard creaking before it is seen. The coral in this passage is world class. Watson's Rock between Big and Little Tobago is a great photo dive. Big Tobago has a unique cave cutting through the southwest point that can be easily snorkeled.

Popular Virgins
A Caribbean dive site not to be missed is the wreck of the Rhone on the west side of Salt Island in the BVI. This is perhaps the most famous and most dived-on wreck in the Caribbean. The Rhone was used in the movie "The Deep". It is an easy dive but difficult to explore without cattle-cars of other divers.
Bianca's Worth It
The wreck of the cruise ship Bianca C off of St. George's, Grenada is a unique dive, and the site is only to be found with an experienced guide. The wreck is deep, lying on its side at 70 feet. It is the only dive that I've ever paid for - and it was worth ten times the cost.
One place that I've missed that I really want to dive is Sombrero Rock between Anegada and Anguilla, but there's still time.

The Future
Diving is changing the underwater landscape. Most of the sites named above have not been destroyed because they are remote. But without enforced regulations, even these areas will eventually suffer.
The island that seems to have the best handle on diver regulation is Anguilla. Their waters are alive and Anguilla's government permits diving only with local operators. There is a "tank tax" that goes to providing moorings, thus reducing anchor damage. Anguilla's dive moorings are periodically rotated to other sites to further reduce diver impact.
The worst regulated island that I experienced was Dominica. Despite promoting "eco-tourism", their coast guard seemed to be busy hassling cruisers and divers. Moreover, the waters were severely impacted by a profusion of fish traps that not only had eradicated the fish but also had severely damaged the coral.
We are at a turning point in the Caribbean. One of the things we once loved about diving in the Caribbean was that it was unregulated. But now the numbers of visitors are huge and unmanageable. Everyone wants to experience "the Caribbean Adventure", but neither the environment on land nor that underwater is as easily repairable as Disney World.
The underwater world of the Caribbean is being assaulted from the surface. The weapons are nets, fish traps and anchors. Although divers are the smallest worry, sport diving should be regulated to ensure a continuing pristine marine environment. I firmly believe in supervised diving in regulated areas, with a diver tank tax directly benefiting the government department dealing with marine affairs. Presently it is difficult to locate a mooring to berth a boat for the night, let alone find one to tie to while diving. Yet every time an anchor falls, underwater damage is done.
Be a considerate diver; don't take underwater souvenirs other than photos. Leave nothing but your bubbles.

     
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