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February 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Virgins, Little Cayman, Palau, Sipadan…

Trash is drifting, sea life is missing, but these dive sites still shine

from the February, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman. Here's one dive operation on Little Cayman that often gets overlooked, but not by Chip Wright and his wife, Lisa (Hebron, KY) who have made two visits in the past four years. "What makes it different is the non-resort, non-hotel feel to it. There are only 12 cottages, most of which sleep two families or couples side-by-side or, in the newer buildings (which I recommend, top-and-bottom.) There is one honeymoon suite, a cottage that sleeps a single couple. The newer buildings are designed to be as green as possible, and each room also has a private outdoor shower overlooking the beach. Some sites we visited were repeats from our first visit, and the reef looked healthier and the fish were more abundant. Divemasters Mike and Kristian are especially good at finding the smaller critters. We found loads of shrimp and crabs, spotted drums, seahorses and an enormous grouper getting cleaned by an army of helpers.

"There are no room keys. You have ready access to the bar fridge during the day for soft drinks and beer, which you mark on your own tab. The bartender arrives at 4 p.m. to start on the mixed drinks. Chef Ron and his staff have won several inter-island cooking contests. Dinner often consists of a choice of two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts. If it is busy, lunch and dinner may be served buffet style but it will be no less sumptuous. The beach in front is not the most swimmable, due to the sea grass, but it is, however, not bad for snorkeling.Owen Island, a few hundred yards away, is better. Southern Cross Club owner Peter Hillenbrand is making conservation and green tourism a mainstay of his business model. Several cottages have at least some solar power; the toilets are equipped with full- and half-flush switches. However, not everyone else is getting the picture. Owen Island had far more trash now than it did during our last visit, and we saw more trash dropped or washed up on the beach and resort. That was a dismaying sight but the reefs and dive sites were cleaner than any we saw on our last visits to Cayman Brac, Grand Cayman or even Little Cayman." (

Sipadan. When Alan Dean Foster (Prescott, AZ) returned from there in November, he wrote to fill us in on the latst. "Divers contemplating the long journey to Sipidan should be prepared to encounter a disconcerting amount of garbage floating not only around the island but below the surface. Whether it arrives on the current from the nearby resort islands of Kapalai and Mabul or the base town of Semporna, none of the locals can say. It might even be coming up from Indonesian Borneo. The presence of Styrofoam coffee cups, lost flip-flops and general gunk is disconcerting. Worst of all is the inescapable plethora of plastic bags. One wonders how many are ingested by the local turtles, though the greens and hawksbills appear to be thriving. Sipadan is still Sipadan (provided the current is running), but I preferred nearby Sia Mil, with its giant black and gray frogfish, schools of squid, leaf fish, and devilfish, and nudibranchs. Save for one gray reef and the expected whitetips, not a shark to be seen in four days. Plenty of stores selling dried shark fin in Sabah and Sarawak states, even at the airports. Not much question where the Sipadan sharks have gone -- into fancy gold packaging for Chinese visitors to take home. An average of 12 dive boats on site every morning, each one seemingly desiring to put its divers right on top of Barracuda Point. Fishing boats everywhere just outside the Sipadan Island protected area. Not fun. See the update on my webpage,, for a couple of minutes of video of terrestrial critters and such."

Dive BVI/Katitche Point Greathouse, Virgin Islands. Some of the Caribbean's easiest aquarium diving can be found in the British Virgins. Susanne E. Howarth (Pacific Palisades, CA), who has well more than 250 dives under her belt, had a great time in December and she wants you to know about it. "Jeff and Casey McNutt emphasize safety and enjoyment, and cater to each individual -- trying to take you to sites you want to dive while also choosing sites where visibility and current will be acceptable to your ability. Although I've been diving here for five years, they took me to new dive sites on 9 out of 28 dives! The dive staff does not experience significant turnover: there are always new divemasters, but by and large, they stay around for multiple years, and therefore, know the sites well and do a wonderful job of finding and pointing out the interesting sea life. There are about a dozen islands within striking distance for the Dive BVI boats. Depending on conditions, one or more sites are always divable (barring a full-on tropical storm). Dive sites include a little bit of everything (other than deep wall dives): wrecks, shallow, deeper, multi-level, brightly colored corals, sand patches, big stuff, little stuff, etc. The windy conditions on some days caused lots of surge, current and sometimes choppy seas. However, it was always possible to find a comfortable place. Overall air temperatures were in the low 80s (water temps were 79 to 80 degrees), with a shower or two on any given day, and glorious weather otherwise. Dive BVI prides itself on "Gucci Diving": They will take care of your gear from the day you arrive to the day you depart. I pulled a muscle in my back and therefore, routinely took my BC off in the water, and the divemasters willingly pulled it out and onto the boat for me.

"Virgin Gorda is tiny and not overdeveloped. Friendly and easygoing locals. There are perhaps two five-star restaurants on the island, the Sugar Mill at the Little Dix Bay Resort and the main restaurant at Biras Creek Resort.) There are also a handful of places fun for lunches, drinks and casual dining, including Leverick Bay Resort, the Top of the Baths restaurant, the Bath & Turtle, and Saba Rock Resort. Katitche Point Greathouse, where I stayed, is the kind of home we all would love to own -- spacious, luxurious and with a fine attention to pampering you. Everything is in perfect condition. Clearly the owners have appointed this villa to satisfy their own tastes -- i.e., not with the typical second-rate furnishings one finds in most rental properties." (;

Sam's Tours/Sea Passion, Palau. Most divers prefer to take a liveaboard to dive these waters, but if you want to sleep on land and are happy with day boats and perhaps some day touring, consider Sam's. Laura A. Sonnenmark (Alexandria, VA), dived in the 82-degree water in December. "Sam's has been described as 'organized chaos' but somehow it all works. The staff is friendly, helpful and competent. The divemasters are a mixed bunch but good to superlative. Dives were all led, though they were considerably tolerant of the more experienced divers. (Sometimes, we thought they were too fast for us, but you know how photographers are.) Hot showers on premises and drivers ready to take you back to your hotel whenever you are ready to go. The Bottom Time Grill is a great place to grab a beer, burger or sashimi after the diving day, but before you do that, check out the dock around 5 p.m., when the elusive mandarinfish come out every day to do their little love dance, as well as other interesting critters and fish. Sam's dock was a better night dive than the one we paid extra for at Jake's Floatplane. The boats are small but with two powerful engines. There are no heads. (Call for a "current check" when nature calls.) Rides out to the reef are at least 45 minutes but the ride through the beautiful Rock Islands never gets tiring -- unless it rains, of course, which it does, suddenly and thoroughly, so bring a lined raincoat.

"There are a lot of different nationalities at Sam's, both among the crew and the clientele. Americans, Europeans, Aussies, non-Japanese Asians --- we met many interesting and lovely people. The long rides and lunch on the beach provided opportunity for conversation and good times. The diving is, of course, spectacular, with plenty of sharks. We went to either Blue Corner or German Channel nearly every day. When the divemasters found out we were also very interested in macro and other critters, they tried to accommodate but usually we just went along with the rest of the guests (groups are no bigger than six divers). The mantas are spectacular but the shrimp, gobies, leaf scorpionfish and cuttlefish are impressive in their own way as well. Wish we had done the full-day land tour of Peleliu rather than tacking it on to a two-dive trip to Peleliu because two hours was not enough to really explore the battle sites. Also, I didn't think the reefs at Peleliu were that much different from the ones further north. Dive booties are sufficient for the trek to Jellyfish Lake, but bring Tevas. I wish Sam's would require a check-out dive; there were some newbies, and nobody should do their first openwater dive at Blue Corner. Buoyancy was a real problem for many, but the divemasters keep a watchful eye out for everyone. (I wish all the dive ops would impress more firmly upon their customers the need to keep their fins and hands off the coral!

Sea Passion is convenient for those diving with Sam's -- a 10-minute walk or a three-minute boat ride (Sam's picks their divers up from the Sea Passion dock every morning). The rooms are large and comfy, with a separate sitting area, large bathrooms (bad lighting, though), and some have balconies. Not really set up for divers, but we managed. They cater to mostly Japanese clientele, but there were plenty of Westerners, and they provide both a Japanese and Western breakfast. The small pool was somehow always chilly, but you can snorkel in the lagoon (there are a half-dozen giant clams). Sure, the Palau Pacific Resort is more luxurious, but when you are diving from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (sometimes earlier, sometimes later) every day, why pay for extras you will have neither the time nor the energy to use?" (;

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