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January 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Caribbean Explorer II: Saba/St.Kitts

and a missing jewel in the crown

from the January, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dive St. Eustatius? Well, you no longer can from the Caribbean Explorer II on its northeastern agenda! I was aboard for two days in mid November before I learned that a jewel of the trio Saba-Statia-St.Kitts had been off the itinerary a few months. More about that in the sidebar, but I should have been told in advance because I think Statia diving is much more interesting than St. Kitts –- better viz, less trash, and more fish. Perhaps CE II can find another jewel to add to the crown.

Hurricane Tomas left the waters churning, with eight ft. seas en route from St. Maarten to Saba in the early morning hours. JF Chabot, the substitute captain and previous operations manager for Explorer Ventures, has plied these waters for many years on both of the CE vessels and handled the craft with grace and good humor. Years ago, CE II was my first liveaboard and now, after several hundred more dives and a dozen liveaboards, I was aboard again. She was showing her age, but a valiant refurbishing with minimally invasive “face” lifts left her clean and tidy. It felt like coming home with JF onboard, but the other crew had, of course, left long ago.

For a while I thought I would be diving buddy-less, as when my buddy John got to his airport, he had no flight reservations. I had made mine at the same time with Reservation Services International, recommended by Explorer Ventures. The agent quickly rerouted him, but with the loss of a day on each side of the trip; but diving time was intact. Seems like he forgot to confirm with his credit card with the agency, a warning for all travelers. Shouldn’t he have been alerted? He had booked a bunk on the boat.

Caribbean Explorer II: Saba/St.KittsAs on my other CE trips, the crew of seven was gracious, friendly, and skillful. For example, we returned in the dark via dinghy from a tour of Saba: no moon, stars or flashlights to guide us past obstacles in the unlit harbor. As the waves were splashing over us, Robert, the engineer, warned the six of us not to move when we got to the vessel and wait for directions. After a halfdozen attempts, the crew secured the boat at the dive ladders and the two crafts surged in tandem. When Dave, alias ‘Tuna’, shouted my name, the safe exodus began.

Caribbean Explorer II: Saba/St.KittsAnother day when surge had the exit ladders rocking wildly, Marie, a fellow passenger, was approaching the ladder, but a wave tossed her away from it. Dave immediately went after her as she was carried away in the current and the two waited until the chase boat came.

All twelve divers, ages 30-70, were experienced. One photographer had to be ‘cautioned’ by the crew, as he was more mindful of his focus on his subject than what his fins were kicking. Three divers were from Canada, a physicist from Switzerland, software engineer from Germany, and the rest of us from various locations in the USA. A dive instructor from the New York City area, decided on our last day to stay aboard one more week.

Saba provides an excellent variety of diving, from coral encrusted boulders at Diamond Rock to walls, overhangs and canyons at Tent Reef. Aided by Hurricane Tomas, Saba lived up to its reputation for changeable currents, but the fish were plentiful, corals colorful, and visibility generally good, 80’-100’ (Water was a consistent 83ºF). Diamond Rock highlights were a half-juvenile gray angel fish fluttering its yellow and black body, and a male sailfin blenny in its full black sail glory in the rubble, where a female rested outside her hole. I am partial to lettuce leaf slugs and their ruffles, and Dave’s Drop Off produced two beauties blending in with the algae, one whitish green, the other an orange yellow. At Tent Wall, six circles of Sgt. Major eggs were guarded and fanned by wary-eyed males. A large Nassau grouper accepted my presence as I slowly glided by; down in a crevice hid a large adult spotted drum. Blennies entertained and nudis flared their colors. A dive an hour later at this same calm site produced a reversing current, its speed increased and the light dimmed. My buddy and I burned a lot of calories kicking back to the vessel, surfacing 10 ft. from the ladder and in high waves, only to be waved off -- they were launching the dinghy to retrieve two divers. I drifted in the battering waves for 10 minutes, wondering why I even used my energy to get back to the vessel in the first place. I kept a respectful but safe distance from my dive buddy who was throwing up in his reg. (This caused him major problems the next dive; lesson: clean it thoroughly.) Drift diving would be excellent in Saba waters; but then they would need a second chase boat. On a 115’ vessel with a max of 18 divers and 7 crew members, one eight-person rubber dinghy just isn’t adequate, particularly with the currents.

All of us opted for the ease of the 6-ft. leap from the side of the vessel rather than tackle the steep stairs to the dive platform. Exiting is easy up one of the two heavy metal ladders . . . unless the surge and waves are active, as was often the case. A crew member was at the ready to assist before we took the giant stride and again at exit to grab our fins. After each dive one of the crew recorded our max depth and remaining psi. We were told to return with at least 500 psi, not a problem with the set limit of 60-70 minutes. Depths averaged around 65’ in Saba (range 101’-55’), and a shallower average of 45’ in St. Kitts. Caribbean Explorer II: Saba/St.KittsWe were encouraged to dive with our buddies, but a very loose interpretation was tolerated. I kept the dive guide in sight because of the changeable conditions and very low visibility, 10’- 20’ at St. Kitts at several sites, and Lynn and Dave had great eyes for fish and creatures. Because of the currents, I used the granny line to descend along the anchor line,and used it for safety stops on the surface to steady me while I took my fins off before approaching the bucking dive ladders.

A tarp-enclosed area on the dive deck is for charging batteries; there are a camera table, washer and dryers, and hanging space for wetsuits. We had our own space for small gear and fins. They filled the tanks in place with air or Nitrox (it varied from 26% oxygen early in the trip to 32% the last day.) We analyzed and recorded the percentage, as well as the psi and depth limit. I had problems with leaky o-rings and a slow Alt 2 leak, which the crew immediately repaired. Dave was alert to small details with diving gear that might cause problems.

They offered five dives on four of the 6½ dive days, four on one day, and three dives on the last day. One was cancelled because of nearby lightning. Two nights we dived at St. Kitts Bedroom site to get away from the rough seas: viz was less than 20’. Paradise, River Taw and Corinthian (all in St. Kitts) had similar low visibility.

Chef Jan, an import from England, presented a variety of fresh yeast breads throughout the week to compliment her substantial buffets. Perhaps the food was not as inventive and delicious as before, but it was good and plentiful. Breakfast with eggs, French toast or pancakes, sausage or bacon, and boxed juices. Pizza, spanikopita, hot dogs, hamburgers or tacos provided filling lunches. The soups for dinner were excellent. Steaks and fresh fish brought to the boat by a local were highlights for hungry divers. The very acceptable complimentary wine with the meal meant only a few divers went diving after dinner! However, if we did go, hot towels and hot chocolate doctored with Irish Cream or rum were waiting, then popcorn. Jane baked a chocolate layer cake for a Canadian diver's birthday and the crew gathered us around for a rousing happy birthday song.

Four dives at Monkey Shoals, about halfway between St. Kitts and Nevis, saved the diving for me. This one-square-mile-atoll, about three miles offshore, is good for multiple dives and excellent visibility of 100 ft. plus. A spotted scorpionfish startled me by plopping down in my path as I was cruising at 35 ft. I spotted several others, including a reef scorpionfish inside a barrel sponge. A gold spotted snake eel entertained me on two afternoon dives, as it hunted in and out of the reef, great to see as usually they are night hunters. Lynn pointed out something moving erratically above the sandy bottom: a half-inch rough file clam jerkily moving edgewise, rapidly opening and closing its valves. I was eager to see flying gurnards, so prevalent five years ago; I saw none. Come to think of it, I had seen most of them on Statia! However, a few seahorses made up for the loss. Nurse sharks and stingrays were the only representatives of that ID group, not the plentiful reef sharks I had previously seen. A dozen large tarpon provided the big stuff viewing. I recently heard Paul Humann comment that every five or seven years the ocean reef fish seem to shift. Yep – think he’s right.

The CEII is a homey craft, but their nine small but functional air-conditioned cabins were an uncomfortably frigid 62ºF. When seas are rough, one can sit on the edge of the queen bed and touch the sink or the knob for the bathroom door, minimizing the drunken-walk. Bunks are also available. Crew changed towels once, made beds daily, and dropped a chocolate on my pillow with the nightly turn-down service. Dining, dive briefings and video-watching are done in the semi-enclosed all purpose room (zip-down plastic for wet days, otherwise sides are open to the breezes) Connecting is an open-air lounging area for sunbathers, star gazers, or cocktail sippers. When you take your first drink, you’ve had your last dive.

I arrived on St. Maarten the day before sailing to make sure my gear arrived. I stayed at the old Princess Port de Plaisance. Paint is peeling and decorative signs askew or missing. The phone, ice maker and half the lights in my room were not working and the toilet seat and paper roll holder had fallen off. The covering on the two lounge chairs on my patio overlooking a small harbor was dirty and torn. At least the room had been well cleaned. But they had a new and glitzy casino. The trip ended at St. Kitts: CEII needed us off by 9 a.m. to get ready for the next group. As my flight would not leave until late afternoon, I took a day room at the Bird Rock Beach Hotel -- much better choice than wandering around the somewhat grubby town in the heat. It was above the beach with a great view, nice pool, and so-so café.

For Caribbean diving, it is hard to beat Saba and the Caribbean Explorer II: diving is varied, the crew topnotch, and the price is reasonable. Dive five trips and get one free is a good offer, and they often have specials; for example, 25% off for return visitors. The dive sites are visited by land-based operations, but I prefer the convenience of multiple consecutive diving. At both islands a tour was available instead of one dive in the afternoons. A real plus is getting to dive off three different islands – oops, only two now. St. Kitts is good for new divers, but does not compare well with the other top Caribbean diving of Saba, St. Vincent and Bonaire. And, by not having St. Eustatius on the tour, it does pale compared to my last journey. Oh well.

– D.C.

Caribbean Explorer II: Saba/St.KittsDivers Compass: CEII liveaboard, seven nights: $1895; port & marine Fees: $115; fuel surcharge: $95; Nitrox $150 for the week; Saba and St. Kitts island tours: $20 each. . . .Getting to St. Maarten: several major US airlines fly direct, with AA leading the pack. . . .Reservations for a shuttle to St. Kitts can be made online for $12. . . .St. Kitts has fewer direct flights. . . . Princess Port de Plaisance hotel overnight: $95. St. Kitts day room at Bird Rock: $50 ($60 until the cab driver most frequently used by CEX II intervened). . . . I make my reservations for the CEX vessels directly, rather than going through another agent. Lynn and Mary are available on live-chat and are superb at handling questions and arranging details of the trip.

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