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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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September 2021    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 47, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sea Saba, Juliana’s Hotel, SABA, DWI

fishy waters and fine dining

from the September, 2021 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

Why would a diver go to all the time and trouble to travel to a tropical island that doesn't have any beaches? And you might think taking a non-diving spouse might be asking for trouble. Well, it's an easy call. Saba is a small, picturesque isle with a dense selection of Caribbean fish and critters, and a well-staffed and well-run dive operation. Its residents live hundreds of feet up the side of the mountain, mostly in quaint villages, and a tourist can sample the culinary arts of several European-trained chefs that could make a non-diving spouse happy. What's not to like?

On my July trip to Saba, I saw so many hawksbill and green turtles that I soon stopped videoing them, unless I saw one chomping on coral or eelgrass, or wrestling, which they actually did. Southern stingrays seemed just as common, and I spotted several Caribbean reef octopuses and one common octopus. Decent video material.

The Bottom is at the bottom of a craterAt the initial briefing, our divemasters mentioned they often see Caribbean reef sharks in the distance -- so watch for them. Karen, my dive buddy, nervously asked what she should do if we saw sharks; should she leave? Well, it turned out that there were only a few dives where we didn't see one, and Karen soon felt comfortable swimming with them, as apprehensive divers quickly do. On one dive, three seven-foot reef sharks swam around and between us for most of the dive. It was good video material, but why were they behaving so? Our divemaster kept looking out into the blue (and he later told me he was concerned that there might be a big tiger shark threatening the reef sharks - maybe we were their cover). Near the end of the dive, in the 84°F water, I spotted a large yellowtail hiding under a rock with a bleeding gash on its side, apparently from a bite. Perhaps that's what the reef sharks were looking for.

The reefs of Saba are typically old lava flows covered with encrusting corals, sponges, and healthy sea fans, with sand patches in between. While there was some coral disease, it is reportedly "stable and not bad." On my dives, I seemed to have encountered the whole gamut of Caribbean marine life: tarpon, horse-eyed jacks, Atlantic spadefish, barracuda, grouper, large yellowtails, and bonito were fairly common. On every dive, I saw Queen, French, and gray angelfish, along with an occasional rock beauty. And plenty of parrotfish, tangs, queen triggerfish, black durgons, yellowtails, goatfish, and sand tilefish (and their houses of rubble), grunts and wrasse. I could easily locate pike blennies in their holes, but only once spotted a sailfin blenny.

I traveled with 19 others from Captain Nemo's / Diventures dive shop in Columbia, Missouri, with most folks being good friends. We bedded down in Juliana's excellent boutique hotel in Windwardside, which works in conjunction with the Sea Saba dive operation. It has a nearby shop with nice selection of clothing and basic equipment. Juliana's sits at 1100 feet up the mountain, with breath-taking views over the Caribbean, especially from their bar and pool deck. It sports 10 clean, modern, double occupancy rooms, as well as three modernized 100-year-old Saban cottages, one with a hot tub. Afternoons, I enjoyed walks along the quaint, narrow, 19th-century paved streets and houses. For transportation to or from Saba's frightening little airstrip or the dive operation, they use two independent cabbies with vans.

Mornings begin with a basic American-style breakfast -- including granola and yogurt, eggs toast and sausage -- or a Dutch breakfast with sliced cheese, ham, toast, and marmalade. Afterwards, I picked up a bag lunch and snacks, jumped into the van, and headed down a road of switchbacks and hairpin turns to the large concrete C-shaped pier creating an artificial harbor, with shops, a bar, restrooms, and Sea Saba's dock office. The sheltered harbor allows even the island's 300-foot cargo ferry/container ship to dock in all but the worst weather. From the pier, I could watch tarpon, needlefish, schools of baitfish, and marauding dolphins.

After setting up my gear the first morning, the divemasters -- all instructors -- took care of everything for the remainder of the trip, attending to the details of how I configured my gear initially. After each day's dive, they cleaned and stored the gear and washed the suits. The next morning, it was ready to go. Concierge diving, indeed.

Saba MapSea Saba has two 38-foot Delta dive boats - the Sea Saba and the Sea Dragon, -- and each seldom takes more than 10 divers, with two divemasters in the water. The crew of the Delta boat I was on (Vicki, Aaron, and Phil) were active, polite, and attentive, and Vicki became my favorite. She swam very slowly, pointing out endless small critters, such as squat anemone crabs, nudibranch, cleaner shrimp, and microscopic shrimp on wire coral no one else could see. Once, she spent several minutes locating a wire coral shrimp that was scampering up and down its wire. Then, I spotted it, flipped the macro lens onto the camera, and turned on my lights to take a shot. Suddenly, a fin from an oblivious diver above flapped across my camera's visual field and away went the shrimp and wire coral. I'll never forget the look on her face, how she rolled her eyes and shook her head. So we moved on.

At Torrens Point, I was thrilled by a red-ear-sardine bait-ball that kept schooling between us, sheltering itself from a circling barracuda. Hoping to record the barracuda's charge into a dissolving bait ball, I ran several long video clips, but to no avail. The barracuda only watched. On the bottom were colonies of garden eels spread wider than the 100-feet visibility. I spotted peacock flounders, spiny lobsters, and crabs. In some areas, pods of lobsters wandered openly about, passing a beautiful queen conch. Spotted drums seemed inclined to do their little dance in the open instead of deep in a crevasse.

For macro photographers, there were lettuce leaf sea slugs, pistol shrimp hiding next to corkscrew anemones, porcelain anemone crabs, and banded coral shrimp. I spotted a red-tipped sea goddess nudibranch and several others I couldn't identify; maybe a purple-crowned sea goddess?For macro photographers, there were lettuce leaf sea slugs, pistol shrimp hiding next to corkscrew anemones, porcelain anemone crabs, and banded coral shrimp. I spotted a red-tipped sea goddess nudibranch and several others I couldn't identify; maybe a purple-crowned sea goddess?

Rating for Sea Saba, Juliana's HotelOnce I spotted a yellow-headed jawfish sporting a mouth full of eggs, with another jawfish warily dancing above its nearby burrow. Of course, as I approached they all slunk back into their holes. As I waited unsuccessfully for the egg bearer to reappear, the dancer popped out about a foot away, putting on a show for so long I tired of filming him.

One of the regular boats was under repair, so some in the group also dived from a substitute 35-foot boat called Little Z. With a high transom, one short ladder, and limited space it was not really a dive boat. Entry on was by back-roll off the side. Still, the crew (Jack, Julie, and Adara) provided great diving. The boats all had standard DAN emergency equipment, marine radio and cell phone communications, sun shades, camera rinse tanks, and qualified captains. Neither had a marine head, and the routine is to stay out for two dives before returning for refills. There is a public restroom on the pier near where the boats docked, so it didn't mean boning up on underwater defecation skills if breakfast didn't agree.

Average sea conditions during my visit were mild chop with -- foot-high waves, occasionally small whitecaps -- nothing to fret about. Visibility varied from 30-50 feet, usually better, at times over 100 feet.

Saba has 26 listed dive sites with moorings in the Saba marine park. Most are in relatively calm water, with an occasional mild urge. A few sites are on the eastern side, open to the rougher Atlantic, which we dived when calm enough. With a maximum depth allowed of 100-feet, and no planned decompression diving, I did manage to buy a mandatory two-minute stop on one dive. The divemaster didn't care, as long as my computer cleared before I finished my 10-foot stop.

Topside, Saba is a gem. Known as the star of the Dutch Caribbean, it's in the windward islands, 28 miles south of St Martin (St Maarten), a special municipality of the Netherlands. The islands are all digitally connected, perhaps even more so than some parts of the U.S. The island is a dormant volcano - the summit of Mt. Scenery is 2910' -- the highest point in the Netherlands, though a long way away from Holland. It rises abruptly out of the western Atlantic with steep slopes and hardly a flat spot, except at the bottom of the two main craters. The main village on the five square mile island is The Bottom, 1000 feet above the artificial harbor, but at the bottom of the island's main volcanic crater. The village of Windwardside, where we stayed, sits in another crater a few miles away.

At sea level, the air temperature ranged 85-90°F on sunny days. Up in the villages, it can drop to 70°F with occasional showers at 1000 feet. Cloud forests rise to the summit of Mt Scenery, which is often in mist and rain.

Juliana's HotelThe restaurants are almost reason enough to visit. Several participate in the "Dine around the Island" program, organized by the owners of Juliana's, making it simple to visit other good restaurants. At the Windjammer in Windwardside, a 10-minute walk up the hill from the hotel, they offered a appetizers, entrees, and desserts, European style, where we spent about three hours on a four-course meal, wine, and conversation. We could be described as mostly be sophisticated dive travelers and were delighted with the food, atmosphere, and facilities.

The Eco-lodge is a new venue in the rainforest above Windwardside, requiring a van ride partway up the mountain and then a hike along a little-used road and a climb up a trail, provided a wonderful culinary evening with their European-trained chef. Brigadoon Restaurant, on the opposite edge of Windwardside, was about a mile away, and some went to it by foot, walking through the quaint village. The Brigadoon restaurant is in an old Saban home with a romantic atmosphere and a large selection of cocktails, an extensive wine list from table wines to high-end selections for the wine enthusiast. A continental-French-American and Caribbean menu prepared by European-trained chefs that is a notch above the average American restaurant. I had a goat cheese-prosciutto-like-ham and pesto appetizer with steak grilled on a skewer and finished with creme brulée dessert. There was a wonderful European-like dining atmosphere without hurried dining, lots of wine, and conversation with 20 people at a long table.

Sea Saba's dive boatsOn the last night, we dined at Queens Gardens, reportedly the most exclusive hotel on Saba and located above the main town of The Bottom. It seems to have fallen behind on maintenance, but it is so beautiful it is still fabulous. Sort of like a huge old wine cellar with a million-dollar selection of wine but with cobwebs and the heady perfume from a few leaking casks. The multi-course meal was excellent with lots of wine prepared by the chef form Holland, who came out and talked to the group after the meal.

There are several well-marked trails for hikers, and the trail from Windwardside to Mount Scenery's summit rises about 1900 feet in just over a mile and can be slippery and muddy. Consider getting a guide. Your hotel can arrange a guided tour of the tide pools and historical tours of Windwardside.

Before embarking on the evening's dining agenda, in the afternoon divers and non-divers alike gathered at the Tipsy Goat Bar next to the pool at the Paradise Hotel. The 1100 foot view from the bar, down the 45-degree slope of the mountainside to the ocean at sunset, was enough to make me dizzy. Happy hour resulted in a lot of dive stories; the bar's motto seems to have been "What happens here, we laugh about all week."

One morning out by the bar, I was stretching my old back and leg muscles on the thick lawn, which looked like a golf course green, and I noticed that no one had locked or even closed the bar from the night before. There, in plain sight, bills overflowed the tip jar. No one had even bothered to empty it. It was safe sitting there. That, in a nutshell, describes the sense of community on Saba.

- D.D.

Our undercover author's bio: The author, a master diver, has been diving for more than 30 years, making 1600 dives around the world. Retired from rebreather and technical diving, he is a DAN undersea referral physician and has written several pieces for Undercurrent.

Divers CompassDivers Compass: The week ran about $3000 pp from North America, with all transport housing, meal, and diving (tips, drinks, and $20 marine park fees were extra) with group rate airfare . . . I made 15 dives, and it was only $59/week for 32 percent Nitrox . . . rental equipment is available; best to reserve ahead. . . dive credential documentation was done online before arrival, but the dive shop manager wanted to see a C-card at check-in. . . . electricity is North American 110v with the standard outlets. . . the American dollar is universally accepted, although the Euro is the official currency. . . you can drink the water, but the Juliana Hotel owner, 'Whim' (short for Wilhelm), recommends using the purified water he has available at the hotel; travelers who drank water everywhere experienced a mild GI disturbance that did not limit their activities. . . the island has a recompression chamber.

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