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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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September 2022    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 48, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Golden Rock Dive Center, St. Eustatius

good diving, few divers

from the September, 2022 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

"Let me tell you why this site is called Double Wreck." Gary, our dive guide and instructor, began another of his enjoyable dive briefings. "Statia is called 'Golden Rock' because of its profits -- it was involved in arms shipments to the colonies during the Revolutionary War. Its flag changed 46 times. Two Captains had anchored their wooden merchant ships behind us and went ashore, where they drank and argued. Heading back to their ships on dinghies, they continued to yell and cuss at each other. They should've counted to 10 to calm down instead of drunkenly firing their cannons. Both ships went down."

Golden Rock Dive CenterOn the reef, I saw the anchor and cannon from the 1700s, but I also saw swarms of blue and gray chromis with a colorful ocean trigger patrolling their border. The healthy soft corals, fans, and barrel sponges hosted neighborhoods of bustling residents in myriads of colors: Rainbow runners, three-foot barracudas, Pederson cleaner shrimp, hermit crabs, and big crawling crabs. Even a turtle with a remora attached. Fields of garden eels sprouted from the sand ripples bordering the sea grass, where frog fish lurked. Big sand rays dug themselves in. Five lobsters huddled shoulder to shoulder under a ledge, with some holding and aerating their eggs . . . and then I heard a "ting ting." Gary pointed at a wall of 8-inch squid about 30 feet by 50-foot. I stopped doing the math once I counted to 63.

Traveling in early August, this was my second trip to Golden Rock Dive Center, owned by Americans Dave and Sarah Hellevang. Sarah donates a ton of time to help visiting high school divers. Dave is the Captain. The manager, Ciara, and her husband Gary, both Irish and both PADI instructors, guide most of the dives.

Before we left home, we received their questionnaire asking about dive preferences, experience, and other information. They politely insisted on full upfront payment for the morning dives, which at first aggravated me a bit, but I understand COVID recovery finances, and being a small operation, they can't afford to hold seats open for no-shows. So, I secured our spots. It's a concierge, PADI 5-Star operation specializing in friendliness, mellowness, safety, and personalized attention. For example, one of the divers at Golden Rock, an 82-year-old 1,000+ dive Dutch gentleman, had dived with the island's other shop many times, but this year they discouraged him from diving with them. Upset, he switched to Golden Rock and was pleased that he quietly received that bit of extra attention that he needed due to his age.

The reefs appeared healthy, thanks partly to the waters surrounding the island being a well-tended marine park, with generally 60-to 80-foot visibility. Besides reefs, the interesting Stenapa wrecks area has a big flat barge, a large section of oil terminal pipe, and a tugboat. My dive log says, "Zen dive Fantastic! Beautiful green soft coral, black-edged sea rod on wreck walls. Whitenose pipefish. Fingerprint Cyphoma. Yellowfish pike blenny. Anemone shrimp. Chaetopterid worm. West Indian Sea Egg. Great!" To look at small creatures, I carry a detached GoPro macro lens in my BCD pocket, a fantastic magnifier. (I love zooming in on Arrowhead crabs with their blue mittens stuffing their tiny faces.) It was as good a night dive site. Gary had a "red light" flashlight for spotting particular creatures and even carried extra torches in case anyone's batteries ran out.

That shows how thoughtful he and Golden Rock Dive Center's staff are. I was hauling a tank to the porch so I could adjust my vest straps, and Ciara immediately said, "Let me take care of that for you." Throwing it over her shoulder, she told me, "You're on vacation after all!" The crew humps all your gear, rinses it after each dive (they have separate tanks for different types of gear and a deodorant rinse for wetsuits), hangs it, and it's on the boat the next morning.

I like to light things up during day dives, so when I turned on my torch on the Chien Tong, a Taiwanese trawler 80 feet deep to the sand, it lit up like a Van Gogh image of colorful, healthy hard corals. We stayed on one side of the wreck to avoid being pushed by the current into the hull on the other side. A team of jacks hovered over the stern, another at the center, and yet another at the bow, all facing into the current and waiting. I looked to my buddy so she might catch me in an awesome picture pose, but, bummer . . . her old GoPro had blanked out.

The Old Gin HouseFrom what I noticed, they had no stringent rules, perhaps because it was apparent that every guest was a veteran diver. One day Sarah took a group of teen divers out on their larger twin hull EZ Goin so that our experienced group could remain on the smaller Stumpy. We had from four to six divers on each dive, and they held passports from Germany, Netherlands, and France, while three of us held blue U.S. IDs. On one dive, a local young man completed his Open Water certification, and when we gave him a group "Congrats!" he beamed from ear to ear.

My buddy likes macro, and Gary and Ciara helped her find lots of stuff while I enjoyed doing my own thing. We stayed in sight of the guides, who slowly toured the sites in the 83°F water for about 40 minutes, then left us near the mooring line. Most dives were around 50 feet; max. 60 feet except for Chien Tong, max. 80 feet and cliffs, 130 feet. We came up when we felt like it, usually at 55 minutes. Only once were we asked to surface as a group, and that was after our single drift dive. For some divers, occasional currents were a bit bothersome, so Dave was careful to seek low current sites.

Our goal on one dive was to search for blue beads at the same-named dive site. The spun-glass, hexagonal-shaped beads were used throughout the slave trade years to reward slaves, who used them as currency. Statia was a huge slave trading site, a sickening fact, and lots of the beads changed hands. When slavery was abolished in the Dutch West Indies on July 1, 1863 (two-and-a-half years before the U.S.), many enslaved people threw their beads into the sea. Warehouses full of them became decrepit, and the beads, now out of favor, spread everywhere. Divers and hikers still find them these days, but I didn't. I gave up searching in the boring terrain and was rewarded with a sailfin blenny, a gold spotted eel, a flying gurnard, a mantis shrimp, and a white patch aeolid nudibranch.

The dive boat StumpyStumpy, their comfy 28-foot dive boat holds eight divers comfortably, but there's no head for either gender. Before my first dive, they checked the Nitrox, but I also wanted to check my own tanks (I don't want to get an air tank by mistake), so they brought me a gauge. Their blend was usually 31-32 percent. At the sites, I sat on the gunwale and they lifted my tank and helped me strap up, before I back-rolled in. They run a granny line on the port side, but after I got entangled in it, I switched my backrolls to starboard. When surface currents were running, some entering divers grasped the granny line rather than head down quickly. For exit, I climbed the solid ladder, then sat on the rear gunwale while Dave stripped off my tank and BCD.

A tagline drifts off the back, and one diver, who took off her fins after grasping it, let go before she reached the ladder. You can't swim in just booties, so I gave her a gentle shove forward. "Keep hold of the tag line once your fins are off" should be part of the dive briefing.

We often returned to shore between dives, where their shop has a freshwater shower and two freshwater hoses for your rinsing pleasure. Their dock is a 50-yard walk to their shaded porch overlook where we had lunch every day -- breakfast leftovers we had stored in GR's small office fridge. You see, the Boardwalk patio bar and grill next to the dive shop was closed, and the nearby burger, and pizza spot, Blue Bead, when it was open, took too long to prepare and serve food. We were asked how long we needed; there was no set time, and we took about an hour off. It was only a seven-minute stroll back to the Old Gin House if we needed anything.

St. Eustatius - MapStatia is a small and quiet island, except during Carnival week when we were there! A limited number of restaurants and accommodations get the job done, unconcerned about 5-star ratings. Even at the upscale Breeze restaurant, I had to politely ask four times for our pre-dinner cocktails, which finally showed up with the entrées. Planning for a meal post-night-dive, we discovered that all five restaurants at the waterfront were closed because of Carnival. We learned of an open restaurant up the hill in the little town of Oranjestad. Cool Corner is a simple, tasty Chinese restaurant noted for its bouncy, international, danceable soundtracks. Nearby is a fascinating small historical museum at the gates of the historical cliffside fort overlooking the dive bay. "Quaint" would describe the center of the town, along with its free-ranging cow, some goats, and chickens. Everywhere felt completely safe, and forgive me for "generalizing," but it seemed like most locals avoid eye contact, but if you speak first and say "Hi," they smile big. There was, however, plenty of local energy focused on the Carnival. We watched 10 guys struggle to turn around their two huge soundstage trucks in the tiny main square, accidentally ripping some big branches off a veteran tree. Whoops.

Golden Rock Dive Center - RatingRather than fly from St. Marten to Statia, we took the Makana Ferry (see sidebar). I had forgotten to set up a ride from the dock to our hotel. On our way to Statia, about 8 p.m., I emailed the Old Gin House, whose owner Marlies called a driver. When we arrived, the Old Gin restaurant was closed -- in fact, it would be closed all week due to staffing issues -- but Marlies had superb chicken Caesar salads. Remembering our 2019 trip, it has a delicious waterfront open-air restaurant, one reason we chose it as our hotel. But she told us it would be closed for the week due to staffing issues. "Are you kidding me?" I thought. Luckily, they still served a filling breakfast of eggs, bacon, ham, cheese, fruit, baguette, and yogurt, all included in the stay. Also, free of charge, the wild chickens were shoo'd away regularly by the staff, although one managed to steal my baguette! Friday, our last evening, the Old Gin restaurant re-opened for dinner. As expected, our meal was upscale and delicious. Their website pics and menu were accurate representations of the plates.)

I enjoyed all my 15 dives, but most were coral garden topography with some underhangs and small crevices. Cliffs South, however, had a bigger, slopey, deeper (to 130ish) feel to it, with some rivers of Creole Wrasse, a couple gray reef sharks, a sleeping nurse shark, and a ray with a jack shadow-hunting alongside; I should have pre-researched dive site descriptions (or asked) because I missed out on some of Statia's big architecture like Drop Off, Grand Canyon, and Gibraltar.

For our final dive, since my buddy and I were the only two going that afternoon, we requested a repeat to Double Wreck and had a personalized dinghy ride dive adventure. Once again, the site was calm and mesmerizing. After 55 minutes underwater, lo and behold, the wall of squid made a reappearance! We hovered weightless with the creatures eyeball-to-eyeball and absorbed the magic. At an hour and ten, we turned to Gary and hand-signaled Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. He nodded and guided us back to the boat.

PS: A lovely hyper-luxury eco resort has opened on the Atlantic side of the island. Not to be confused with Golden Rock Dive Center, it is called Golden Rock Dive and Nature Resort. We called their Breeze restaurant, and they immediately picked us up for a delicious upscale gourmet meal at their beautiful restaurant near their large "lazy river" shaped pool on stunning high grounds in the shadow of Quill National Park's dormant greenscaped volcano. Golden Rock Dive Center seems to be their shop of choice.


Authors Bio: The writer is Divemaster certified with 831 recreational dives at 29 locations throughout the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Coral Sea. His current motto is "I love hovering weightless, and everything else is extra credit! I always carry a big safety float and signaling mirror."

Divers CompassDiver's Compass: The Old Gin House was $1295 total for double occupancy, including a full breakfast . . . My twelve-morning dive package was $660/person. Afternoon dives were $55, night dives $79, Nitrox $5 per tank . . . The first dive was about 8:45, the second dive about 11:00, and the third dive about 1:15 . . . Restaurants ran from $40-$80/person, depending on the venue, the menu, and the drinks . . . For diving, water bottles are not provided, so bring your own and they refill for free (or buy their bottle for $5 and they refill N/C) and only "reef safe" lotions permitted . . . No good shore diving . . . September and October are the most likely months for hurricanes. Bring your hiking boots: a 1295-foot climb gets you to the top of the 1972-foot Quill Volcano, out and back 2.8 miles. Extend it with a walk into the crater. Your hotel can arrange rides and even a guide.

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