Nature Island: whales, dolphins and critter-rich reefs
Season: Year round diving
Water Temperature: 26-29°C/79-84°F
Diving: Walls, sea mounts, coral gardens, swim-throughs, caves, critter diving, shore diving
Can be combined with St Lucia, Montserrat, Saba and St Kitts
Non-diving activities include whale and dolphin watching tours, waterfall hikes and interor rainforest exploration.
With towering mountains covered in lush forest, and still only touched around the edges with tourism, Dominica remains one of the least spoilt islands in the Caribbean. Plant life covers every imaginable corner, frothing over, spreading and tumbling down the hillsides, forming a verdant backdrop for colourful hummingbirds, bright flowers and butterflies. As dusk falls the sounds of tree frogs and the calls of crickets take over. A plentiful supply of rain combined with rich volcanic soil and brilliant sunshine have endowed Dominica with splendid rainforests, sparkling waterfalls and crater lakes, not to mention the second largest ‘boiling lake’ in the world and two unique species of parrot. The mountainous terrain which gives rise to Dominica’s rich natural inheritance also prevents mass tourism. This 25-mile long volcanic island simply has few flat areas that can be developed. The main industry is agriculture (although over 60% of the island remains uncultivated) and you are likely to see huge bunches of bananas trucked down from the hillsides in old pick-ups. Citrus fruits such as lemons, limes and oranges as well as pineapples, guava and carambola are also grown on the island. Local fruit is abundant and delicious.
Dominica is the perfect choice for those divers seeking truly rich and diverse marine life on an unspoiled island of outstanding natural beauty, rather than those seeking coral sand beaches backed by swaying palms.
Dominica’s waters hold some truly spectacular surprises. The marine life here is some of the richest and most diverse in the Caribbean: ranging from frogfish and seahorses to whales and dolphins. The reefs are rich in sponges, hard corals and especially invertebrates of all kinds. Arrow Crabs, anemones, shrimps in all sizes and colours, sea urchins, lettuce sea slugs, bristle worms, feather duster worms bigger than one’s hand, sand dollars, crabs in every size, shape and colour, octopus, lobsters, sea stars, basket stars and crinoids can be found in abundance. Indeed the density of interesting invertebrates is probably higher than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Showers of chromis pour down the reefs. Butterflyfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, tangs and jacks patrol the reefs and walls in good numbers. Stunningly beautiful Yellowhead Jawfish, their florescent blue tails quivering, hover above their burrows. Lucky divers will see the males incubating the eggs of their young in their mouths. Indeed the fish life in Dominica is probably some of the most diverse to be found in Caribbean diving destinations.
The underwater ‘landscapes’ are as varied as the sea life with Dominica’s volcanic origins very obvious. Underwater pinnacles, swim-throughs, steep walls and arches along with coral gardens and sloping shelves mean that dive sites are full of interest. In a few places jets of hot water and froths of bubbles trace sparkling pathways from fissures in the rock. Dominica’s sand is composed of heavy, dark volcanic particles. Good news for divers as the heavy particles do not get stirred up easily and so the visibility remains remarkably good even after rain. Current is usually mild and when significant current is running, the dive site is avoided.
The highest of Dangleben’s Pinnacles rises to around 10 metres below the surface. Azure vase sponges, strawberry and peach encrusting sponges along with black and green rope sponges populate the walls of the pinnacle. At around 20 metres many whip corals extend from the wall and spiral downwards, pointing towards the deep as if to encourage divers to explore the depths below (which fall beyond 40 metres). Feather duster worms and Star Horseshoe Worms wave their tentacles from their rock or coral-encased bodies. Bearded Fireworms in shades of green and red forage openly. Golden Crinoids furl their arms silently from within tube sponges or barrel sponges and can be found in both their yellow and their black-and-yellow forms. Fascinating though it is to search the walls of the pinnacles, it is well worth keeping an eye on the open water for silvery Southern Sennets (a schooling barracuda), Horse-eye Jacks and Rainbow Runners. Showers of chromis and Creole Wrasse pour down the reef. Banded and Foureye Butterflyfish usually wander around in pairs and Longsnout Butterfly fish search the crevices for tasty invertebrates. Spotted Drums, from the elegant juveniles with their sweeping dorsal and ventral fins to the stout adults, can be found lurking under overhangs or in crevices. Pretty Lettuce Sea Slugs, looking like snippets of brightly coloured frilly nylon, graze their way across the substrate (making great subjects for photographers).
The dive guides will almost certainly save the surprise element at Champagne until the end of the dive, but their are many marvellous things to see before then. A sandy slope, where Peacock Flounders glide over the surface while changing their colour, is also home to a population of Brown Garden Eels that peep timidly from their holes. Coral encrusted rocks slope away towards deeper water. Stoplight and Blue Parrotfish are common here. The many rocky overhangs, swim throughs and crevices afford homes for Squirrelfish, Bigeyes, and soldierfish. Heading back towards the shoreline the sandy slopes and rocks become rather barren, for this is where the ‘champagne’ is served! Blisteringly hot water surges from crevices in the volcanic rock and streams of bubbles make their way to the surface from the trapped volcanic gases below. A unique and fascinating sight.
The vertical wall at L’Abym (‘the abyss’) is enrobed with encrusting peach and strawberry sponges, azure vase sponges with furled basket stars, crinoids and hard corals. This is a very impressive wall and Longsnout Seahorses can be found in several colour variations from yellow or red through to blackish brown with lighter bands. Once approached these tiny fish tuck their heads away shyly and turn away as if too embarrassed to look at the diver, although of course this is in reality an anti-predator defence (playing dead). The top of the wall makes a fascinating safety stop. Sergeant Majors are common here and in the mating season the males turns darker bluish-purple and guards the purple egg patches which the females have laid on the rocks.
Too prolific to mention in just a few dive site descriptions, Dominica’s invertebrates are truly phenomenal and almost every dive site has rich and varied populations. Corkscrew Anemones host Pederson’s Cleaner Shrimps and Red Snapping Shrimps (make sure the ‘snappers’ are looking the other way if you stop for a manicure from the ‘cleaners’!). Giant Anemones with pink, green, lavender or blue tentacle tips also host a number of shrimp species, including Spotted Cleaner Shrimps, but also beautiful small Banded Clinging Crabs and tiny Diamond Blennies. Hidden in crevices, Rough Fileclams expose their deep red mantles leaving their swirling manes of white or red tentacles swaying. Brittle stars, basket stars, Long-spined, Rock-boring and Reef Sea Urchins simply litter some dive sites. Incredible numbers of Yellowline Arrow Crabs peep from within vase sponges and rocky crevices, while small decorator crabs rely on their camouflage for cover. While searching the rocks for creatures look out for the tiny Smooth Trunkfish juvenile, which looks like a floating rounded black dice with yellow spots as it bobs along the reef.
A shore dive from the dock at Castle Comfort can reveal the rare Shortnose Batfish, so underwater photographers and marine life enthusiasts should search the sandy patches late in the afternoon until it is located!
Underwater photographers and those divers who love to observe marine life will really appreciate Dominica’s reefs, but Dominican waters have yet another attraction. On Sunday and Wednesday afternoons it is possible to take afternoon boat trips (of about 3 1/2 hours) to look for whales and dolphins. Dominica is blessed with an abundance of both resident and visiting cetaceans: Spinner, Bottle-nosed and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Short-finned Pilot Whales and Sperm Whales are all regular here, while Pygmy Sperm Whales, False Killer Whales and others are occasionally sighted. You may come across a pod of fifty or sixty pilot whales as they ‘spy hop’ (raise themselves out of the water) to get a better look at the you. Large males (with their highly hooked dorsal fins) may come right up to the boat to make sure that there is no threat to the females and young, while young whales may swim right under the boat in their effort to investigate these strangers in the sea. A population of Sperm Whale females are resident year round with larger males and young females visiting from November to April. Watch for the tell-tale spray as the whales blow, followed by the elegant trailing of the fluke before the 1000-metre deep dive. Mothers must leave the calves at the surface when they dive and inquisitive calves sometimes come over to take a closer look at the boat (could this be mother returning so soon?)!
Sonar equipment is used to locate the cetaceans and one can sometimes hear an amazing series of clicks, grunts, songs and whistles as these wonderful marine mammals communicate with one another. Snorkeling or diving is not allowed and observations are made from the boat.
COMBINATIONS: Why not combine some diving on Dominica with a visit to St Lucia or a week of liveaboard diving on Caribbean Explorer II in Saba and St Kitts. There are daily flights between Dominica and St Lucia, St Martin and St Kitts. Talk to us about the possibilities.
FLIGHTS: Example price: from about $649 return from Miami to Dominica.