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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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August 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Indigo Dive and Dive St. Vincent, St. Vincent

still macro nirvana, now sans the “curmudgeon” factor

from the August, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Wading out to the awning-covered, 23-foot A Touch of Glass, a stone's throw from the non-descript digs of Indigo Dive, I handed my gear to divemaster Keon Murray and said hello to Krishon Browne, the boat driver, both pleasant locals in their 20s on the job for about six months. Just like to most of the sites out of Buccament Bay Resort, it would be a quick five- to 10-minute ride. After descending, I warmed up my camera with shots of a spotted cleaner shrimp. Minutes later, I spotted an odd string with black bands moving like a cross between a worm and a limp strand of fish poop (I later learned it was a black-banded ribbon worm). Then Keon pointed out a long-snout seahorse and a colony of warty corallimorph that turned a rock into a blaze of fluorescent orange. While Keon would come check on me once in a while if I lagged too far behind the group, he watched less experienced divers like a hawk.

Indigo Dive's A Touch of GlassI had dived St. Vincent five years ago, but this time, the variety of common reef fish -- trumpetfish, big eye, blackbar soldierfish, yellowtail damselfish, a flying gurnard and spotted drum -- actually surprised me. Why? Back then, my guide was the notoriously offputting but talented and often charming Bill Tewes of Dive St. Vincent. Bill's forte was finding the uncommon -- typical reef fish wasted his time, he told me. Part of my quest on this trip was to discover firsthand how diving with Indigo Dive, the island's other dive shop, compared with Dive St. Vincent, now that the mercurial but eagle-eyed Bill was no longer at its helm, having moved to the U.S. for medical care.

On this day I was glad to be diving at all. Earlier, I had watched Dive Indigo's staff bail out one of their fiberglass boats that had mysteriously overturned and nearly submerged in the middle of the night, apparently without a single witness from the resort. Its big outboard motor was still attached. I felt like I was part of a drama involving the good, the bad and the ugly.

The night before, I'd only experienced the good, walking across a romantically-lit footbridge over the Buccament River into the pricey Buccament Bay Resort, located on the east coast north of Kingstown, St Vincent's hub. From the airport, it's a half-hour ride through fascinating cultural territory and rugged terrain. A warm welcome from Monica, the neatly-dressed manager and her front desk staff, plus a potent rum concoction, made my brain do a happy dance. Buccament Bay is an ambitious, sprawling resort. It wraps its guests in a Disney-like cocoon -- I felt like a king surrounded by staff who were well-trained, friendly and eager to please. Besides the on-site Indigo Dive shop, amenities include a variety of restaurants, water sports, tennis courts, a fitness/weight room, cricket and "football" soccer fields, beautiful infinity pools, nightly bonfires and lovely white sand beaches facing the setting sun. Winding sidewalks connect the 50 duplexes with views of the surrounding lush mountainsides.

Indigo Dive and Dive St. Vincent, St. VincentWhisked to my room via golf cart by a personable young man named Alaska, I was impressed by my spacious Deluxe Garden Villa, an unexpected upgrade to a two-room, air-conditioned suite. A mini-fridge was stocked with free beer, pop, bottled water and a bottle of champagne. A gleaming one-cup Lavazza espressocoffeemaker sat on the countertop. Thick bathrobes hung outside the shower. A towel elephant festooned with flowers perched on the king-sized bed. But the devil lurked in the details. A faint odor of sewer gas (no sink-trap?) greeted me whenever I stooped to wash my face in the bathroom. There were plenty of European-style electrical outlets, but they required an adapter/converter for U.S.-style electronics and battery chargers, and the front desk was in short supply. The triple-head shower was elegant but usually lacked hot water despite my calls for maintenance. The resort's grounds were nicely manicured but the trek to the dive boat was a long hike.

On day two, I dived with Indigo Dive's owner, Kay Wilson. After backrolling in at Carlos Cove, she spotted an emperor helmet conch devouring a sand dollar. I turned over another sand dollar, spying a tiny pea crab. A half-inch bumblebee shrimp hid between the spines of a variegated urchin. Kay, who spent most of her dive spearing lionfish, would occasionally get my attention to point out such critters as two tiny elkhorn coral crabs, one nestled in the crook of a spectacular elkhorn. Her clientele (typically families or one-dive-a-day customers from the U.K.) had lots of reef fish to see. Niggles like less-than-full aluminum 80s and visibility that rarely exceeded 40 feet scarcely mattered. Boats were uncrowded, with just three to eight divers. Most dives sites were close to the resort, some of which I'd explored when diving with Bill's Dive St. Vincent years before. I could dive my own profile, poke along for 60-70 minutes, and still stay toasty in early March's 80-degree water in my 5-mil Farmer John and hooded 5-mil top (I had bought the "10-mil at the torso" two-piece after shivering through one too many sub-80-degree Caribbean dives. When critter shooting, I am often not moving enough to generate my own heat).

As for Kay, I admired the ability of this strong, cheerful and helpful forty- something woman to leap from the orbit of talented divemaster into the deep end of the pool as a dive shop owner, where she must cater to a wide range of ages, skill levels, interests and personalities. While Bill Tewes ran a muck diving operation, Kay's clientele seemed more inclined to look for pretty fish. However, on my third morning, Keon asked me, "Are you up for some muck diving?" I was eager to see what he would offer. I descended in a field strewn with tires, where I spotted an octopus doing its best to mimic a rock. Hmmm. I found an emblemariopsis blenny (it's not in Humann's book, but it's in Reefnet's Reef Fish Identification software), a coral clinging crab and a solitary sponge hydroid I'd not seen before. Members of St. Vincent's fish nursery darted in and out of the sea grass: juvenile greenblotch parrotfish, an initial-phase bucktooth parrotfish, and a juvenile blackear wrasse. Back on shore, Kay asked whether Keon had taken us to the "great muck diving" in front of the resort. She was upset he hadn't. Oh well, it's the luck of the draw when you are just an ordinary vacationing diver and aren't hiring a guide just to find something special.

Evenings at Buccament Bay were spent in utter self-indulgence. My reasonable diet was shattered by the long list of choices at the resort's two restaurants. One example of a dinner: lobster bisque, smoked salmon platter with capers arranged in rosettes, seaweed salad, followed by a tender lamb osso bucco with garlic mashed potatoes, sautéed greens and fresh citrus gremolata. At breakfast, I would hit the buffet for a fresh omelet (sometimes adding crab or smoked salmon just because), maybe with a sausage frittata on the side. For my health, I'd spoon a plate of mandarin oranges, grapefruit sections and exotic lychee nut. Lunch might be followed by a stop at the on-premises ice cream shop for scoops of chocolate-chip ice cream in a waffle cone. All the food, ice cream and beverages, adult or otherwise, were covered in my all-inclusive meal plan.

But I must add that there is a spooky air of mystery about the resort. In the background loomed an impressive hotel-like structure (completion pending), the ghostly concrete skeleton of a second hotel-like framework and a number of unfinished duplexes hidden behind a tall board fence. The resort's business plan was to sell units to individuals, who would offer them for rent most of the year. But some of the units had been flooded when the Buccament River overflowed during a torrential rain that turned Christmas 2013 into a deadly tragedy.

Leaving the mysteries mixed with hedonism behind, I switched gears and headed off to the venerable Young Island Resort and Dive St. Vincent (DSV). I wanted to see what things were like now that Bill Tewes is no longer on the scene. I transferred to Young Island's ferry dock, next to Dive St. Vincent, via Buccament Bay's courtesy shuttle. The 50- minute trip included a stop at a market to pick up some booze because Young Island's meal plan doesn't cover adult beverages. The free water taxi crossed the narrow waterway in five minutes. Cottages dotted the steep, lush hillside of this private island. The flower-bordered stone path to the reception area, past the thatched roofs of the main buildings, was idyllic. My "superior" air-conditioned cottage, surrounded on two sides by screened jalousie windows, was a stone's throw from the dock. The bathroom opened to an outdoor shower overlooking the harbor, screened from the outside by a Dutch door. There were plenty of 110-volt outlets and a desk to serve as my camera table. The bedroom opened onto a huge private veranda.

"After doing more than 300 Caribbean dives, I was still shooting critters I had seen for the first time."

 

At 9 a.m. the next morning, Don Carlos (but call him "DJ"), a St. Vincentian who has worked at DSV more than 20 years, picked me up at the Young Island dock. I boarded Sunfish, the shop's fat yellow and blue, locally-built boat. Two Yamaha 200HP outboards sped us to more distant sites within 30 minutes; others were next to Young Island. My typical daily dive mates were one to five vacationing American professionals who came to shoot critters. Ray Haberman, a retired American and a published underwater photographer, joined us. As Bill's friend, Ray has spent months each year pretty much volunteering at DSV. He stayed on board due to a mild case of the bends acquired while lionfish hunting -- he had dived a sawtooth profile that didn't trigger his dive computer, he said. One night, he lent me a thick deck of laminated cards he had made to help him identify unique critters he has photographed, many of them "NIBs" (not in books). I took photos of his cards to help me identify critters back home.

Once underwater, DJ started exploring a series of "condos" that Ray has set up over the years, small sheets of corrugated roofing anchored by a rock on top. As DJ gently lifted each "roof," I captured one rarity after another: a spotless snapping shrimp, a rusty goby, some smooth-claw snapping shrimp and an arceye flatworm. DJ spotted a black long-snout seahorse, and I shot an angular brittle star, a red-ridged clinging crab, a charming porcelain crab, a speck-claw decorator crab, and a flower garden yellow snapping shrimp. DJ alerted me to a juvenile scorpionfish -- looking nothing like the ugly adult we swam by a few minutes later -- then a velvet shrimp. The day's dives were capped when DJ spotted a red frogfish virtually indistinguishable from the red sponge it clung to. Reviewing the day's images with my spouse over sundowners, I was gobsmacked. After more than 300 Caribbean dives, I was still shooting critters for the first time.

Young Island ResortThe next day got off to a fast start as I came across a juvenile batwing crab, a beautiful red seahorse, a pretty yellow and black juvenile jackknife, a sea frost with its delicate white worms outstretched, and a white-nosed pipefish. I was entranced by an Antillean fileclam, measuring about an inch across, with light tan shell and beautiful, plump orange flesh extending pale translucent tentacles.(DJ identifies critters on an erasable slate.) Opening more condos, we found a smooth-claw snapping shrimp, a spider-like, pink-eyed spoteye hermit crab, a two-claw shrimp so translucent its internal organs were on view, followed by a purple-shelled porcelain crab. A bristly-legged, red-ridged clinging crab looked menacing through my viewfinder until I remembered it was only a half-inch across its carapace.

On Young Island, guests dined in thatched huts at the edge of the beach. Except for a buffet here and there, meals were ordered off the menu. All started with freshly-baked breads (cinnamon, raisin, banana, wheat, white and coconut). My breakfasts here were usually less calorie-laden than those at Buccament Bay: orange juice with nibbles off my spouse's fruit plate, local yogurt (plumrose was the best), followed by a two- or three-egg omelet with toast and jam. I couldn't pass up Young Island's signature breakfast dish: a rumsoaked flaming French toast topped in coconut. A late lunch followed my two daily morning dives. I enjoyed the Caesar salad, a mini-pizza crowned with eggplant, sweet peppers and mozzarella cheese (just an appetizer), and kingfish with grilled veggies. Choices during the three-course dinners included eggplant salad, pumpkin soup, a chickpea hummus, goat cheese ravioli with horseradish butter sauce, fettuccini, coconut rum-basted pork tenderloin with currant dressing, or salmon, finishing with coconut rum ice cream. Portions were modest, but my shorts felt too tight after days of nonstop feasting.

Calvert "Callie" Richards, with DSV 30-plus years, led my next two days. He more or less runs the shop with DJ and Jackie Samuel, a cheerful woman who answered my emails promptly. Callie's large exterior is imposing, but he's friendly within minutes of conversation. He said that though Bill still owns DSV, they now make ends meet by leasing their larger boat to cruise ship excursion operators and by selling air fills.

Indigo Dive and Dive St. Vincent, St. VincentOn the first of my next four dives I went solo, exploring boulders near the shoreline. I found a whitespot engine sea snail and a knobby, gaudy cantharus whelk. Diving under and near the boat, I imaged a beartrap- like Atlantic thorny oyster and a West Indian star snail, followed by puffy purple fuzzball alga, a white spotted filefish and a balloonfish whose eyes held deep clusters of green galaxies. The steel plus-rated tanks were usually at 2500 psi, dives lasted as long as 90 minutes, but water temps were now as low as 75 degrees.

The following day, I enjoyed an array of marine life "classics" found on my other great Caribbean dives: seahorse, short-finger neck crab, lanternfish and cute banded butterflyfish juveniles. A plump, inch-long, hydroid-eating Engel's flabellina (a sea slug) deposited eggs on sea grass. Ray's encouragement to search under rocks fired me up to find an angular brittle star and a bluntspined brittle star. A little white ornate scallop, daubed in short red brushstrokes, topped another great dive.

DJ led on my last day. A haunting memory was seeing a long stretch of line on the sea floor, at least a quarter-inch thick. Every three feet or so, long stainless hooks were attached by super high-test filament -- a sober reminder to dive with good cutting tools. Combing the area for anything out of place, I came across a rare fingerprint cyphoma (flamingo tongue) cloaked in a distinctive fingerprint pattern, and, at the very end of the dive, a gaudy clown crab. At Ray's Place, DJ took us to a yellow frogfish nestled in an orange tubulate sponge, its black spots mimicked openings on the sponge. The day ended with images of marine life that would crown any Caribbean dive, including a ciliated false squilla (false mantis shrimp), and an initial-phase slippery dick. In all, I'd seen some 34 personal firsts while diving with DSV, six of which I still haven't been able to identify.

On the last day, my spouse and I hiked the small island's scenic grounds. A mesmerizing surf crashed to shore at one overlook. Next to the island is old Fort Duvernette, some 200 feet atop a solitary basalt pinnacle. I gave my Olympus TG-2 pocket camera a fullimmersion baptism while snorkeling in front of the resort, quickly capturing passable images of a variety of typical reef fish. The resort owns a couple of sailing yachts that can be rented for either a few hours' excursion or for a "Sailaway" package that includes overnights on the boat while sailing. The island offers a white sandy beach, a tennis court, kayaks and a small sailboat. And it's up for sale -- got $10 million to spare?

I could have taken half a dozen Caribbean dive trips elsewhere and still not found the number of personal firsts I saw in my 10 days on St. Vincent. Comparing the two resorts, I'd say Buccament Bay was a sybarite's playground. It wasn't cheap and I was annoyed by the unpredictable hot water, but thanks to Kay Wilson's handling my combination dive/resort package, it was no more expensive than my time with Young Island Resort and DSV. Indigo Divers offered dive freedom and a handful of nice firsts, but I lacked a seasoned guide much of the time. [Note from Ben: One of their young guides, Michael "Richie" Richards, was seriously bent while doing a personal dive in November, according to news reports.] Young Island Resort offers an idyllic tropical setting for those who can afford their tariff. Meals were tasty and expertly served, but the menu became a bit repetitious. DSV has the advantage of not being tied to a specific resort, so it can arrange much less expensive accommodations (a number of suitable hotels -- the Mariner, for example -- are within a short walk of DSV, with one-week dive packages in the neighborhood of $1,000 per person). DSV's expert, pleasant staff helped me experience the largest concentration of unusual and macro-level marine life I have found anywhere in the Caribbean.

-- S.P.

Indigo Dive and Dive St. Vincent, St. VincentDivers Compass: Buccament Bay cost me $500 a night, double occupancy, for an all-inclusive (most alcohol, too) package, with transfers and no automatic service fees; six dives with Indigo Dive, including fins and BC, cost $405, plus tips . . . With Dive St. Vincent/Young Island Resort, I got a sevennights- for-the-price-of-five package (includes an automatic 10 percent service fee), with a full meal plan and 10 dives (tips not included) for $3,395 . . . I flew to Barbados, then it's a quick flight to St. Vincent via reliable SVG Air ( www.svgair.com ) for $393 round-trip . . . My $125 overnight in Barbados at the clean and roomy Monteray Apartment Hotel ( monteray@caribsurf.com ) was a good buy compared to the expensive accommodations elsewhere on "The Gap," a restaurant and shopping district in Christ Church; it was a hoot to down Banks Caribbean Lagers while sitting with locals outside the grocery store just across the street . . . Websites: Indigo Dive - www.indigodive.com; Buccament Bay Resort - www.buccamentbay.com; Dive St. Vincent - www.divestvincent.com; Young Island Resort - www.youngisland.com

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