Jungles and Giants Perpetuate this Caribbean Island's Mysterious Allure
"That's close enough," hiking guide Aaron Rolle warns as the tips of my muddy boots nudge a slew of gravel off a bluff overlooking a lake. We're 2,640 feet up a mountain flank in Morne Trois Pitons National Park in the center of the Caribbean island of Dominica. After four hours of fording rivers, hauling ourselves up muddy banks by tree roots and threading delicately along horseback ridges plunging hundreds of feet off either side, we've arrived at one of Dominica's natural wonders. It's also one of the strangest and most dangerous lakes in the world.
"This is definitely not a lake you want to fall into," Aaron says, joining me at the edge.
I take his word for it because while I can't see the lake it's hidden beneath a shroud of evil sulfuric mist I can hear it. Rhythmic gurgled burps, the wet belches of an ancient dragon. Lakes aren't supposed to sound like this.
Suddenly a cool gust of wind shreds the shroud, and I can see exactly why you don't want to take a tumble here. In the bowl below is a 200-foot-wide cauldron of ash-gray water, roiling like a lobster pot. It's the second-largest boiling lake in the world. Beneath the turbulent surface is the steaming raw muscle of the earth, fiery magma and explosive gases, a direct tunnel to Hades. We're looking down the throat of an active volcano. It would, I muse, make a hell of a dive. Quite literally.
The air grows still, and the rotten-egg vapor creeps in again, and Aaron says it is time to go. You don't linger long around the devil's swimming pool.
It's my second day on Dominica, a small island just over half the size of Manhattan in the heart of the Lesser Antilles. I've come here because I heard this is the Caribbean that time forgot: a land of impenetrable forests, growling volcanoes and legendary giants. My inside source? Hollywood, of course.
When location scouts for the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels were searching for a dramatic backdrop of spear-pointed peaks and daunting sea cliffs in a place where they wouldn't have to edit out sparkling high-rise hotels and flashy casinos from the background, they wound up here. If Dominica above the high-tide line was this wild, I had a strong hunch the submarine world beneath the Caribbean's calm surface would be equally impressive.
Immersed in AdventureI set out to prove my hunch the next morning. With aching quads I limp down to the dock at Castle Comfort Dive Lodge where I'm staying. Sitting on the outskirts of the capital Roseau, it is one of the oldest scuba operations on the island. Shortly after my gear is slung aboard the Arienne, a 36-foot catamaran, we're skipping lightly over the rippled sea, southbound for a dive site known in Creole as L'Abym the Abyss.
As we cruise past small, smoke-drifted villages clustered along narrow, stony beaches, divemaster Aaron Carbon runs through a pantomime repertoire for the various species we can expect to encounter. He does a little Van Halen drum solo for spotted drums and makes a dovelike gesture with one hand on top of another for a sea turtle. Then he does a sign that's completely new to me. He thrusts his hips in an enthusiastic Elvis imitation and helicopters his right hand above his head like an exotic dancer getting ready to fling some lingerie.
When he notices my quizzical look, he stops and shakes his head.
"A rodeo," he explains, "I'm in a rodeo."
"Oh," I say, but I'm still lost.
"Seahorse," whispers the diver next to me.
Seahorses and other small anatomical misfits like flying gurnards (fish with oversize pectoral fins that look like dragon wings), frogfish and batfish are among the critter draws of Dominica. There are, of course, bigger creatures, too mako sharks, sailfish and sea turtles but they're found mostly off the rougher and rarely dived Atlantic side of the island. Most of the marked dive sites in Dominica are huddled off the tranquil leeward shore in the warm Caribbean water. Many of the most popular dive sites like L'Abym are clustered around the steep coast off the southwest tip of the island, in a crescent known as Soufriere Bay.
L'Abym's mooring is a Frisbee toss from a cliff that rises several hundred feet in gray slabs of volcanic cement before topping off at a jungle-draped shelf. It then climbs another 4,000 feet up cloud-wisped peaks. You can get a neck ache enjoying the scenery in Dominica.
I giant stride in and can immediately see that the island's vertical topography continues uninterrupted beneath the surface. I clear my ears and join Aaron in a free fall down the face of a seemingly bottomless wall.
It's not just the sheer landscape of Dominica that passes through the looking glass, but also the lush color of the flower-speckled rainforests mimicked in the abundant sponges padding the wall. Orange elephant ear sponges as bright as traffic cones are wedged between giant barrel sponges looking like precariously perched maroon tubas. Yellow and beige tube sponges erupt from outcroppings like a symphony of alpenhorns, while the more delicate scarlet rope sponges bob gently in Aaron's bubble exhaust.
When we level off at 100 feet, I spot a spinning school of blackbar soldierfish beneath a black coral tree; they sparkle like rubies when my camera strobes.
Aaron is on a mission, and within a few minutes he looks like he's trying to molest some unfortunate barrel sponge either that or he has found a seahorse. Either way, it's not something I've ever seen on a dive before, so I join the other divers converging on his display.
It's a seahorse, hidden at the base of a red rope sponge. The divers alternate nosing up to the sponge and nodding happily. When it's my turn, I stare blankly at the sponge. All I see is sponge. I glance up at Aaron and shrug. He points again. It isn't until his fingertip virtually nudges the seahorse that it comes into focus for me that narrow snout and ribbed mane, the graceful violin curve of the belly and the tail perfectly coiled.
Back on the boat during our surface interval, I'm ecstatic. The seahorse was a burnt cranberry red.
"Are they all that color?" I ask.
Aaron shakes his head.
"I've seen brown, black, pink, green, yellow, white and every combination of those colors," he says. "They always surprise me."
Our second dive of the day, Swiss Cheese, is just as colorful. We drop onto a fractured granite boulder the size of a house and wend our way over its honeycombed skin alive with miniature rose lace coral, delicate deepwater sea fans and blood-red encrusting sponges. Lobsters hidden in crevices tickle the water with their antennae as we pass, and porcupinefish retreat into barrel sponges. The dive wraps up with a tall swim-through glowing with cathedral light streaming in from the roof and decorated with candelabra-shaped sea fans.
For all the intricate life that clings to Dominica's submerged slopes, there are much, much larger creatures haunting the depths offshore. And the water gets deep very fast. Looking at a nautical chart on the door of the dive shop later that afternoon, I see only the thinnest membrane of light blue water that fringes the coast before the contour bars grow increasingly darker. In less than a quarter mile, the ocean floor plummets, from a depth of 20 feet to 2,000. And it's out there that giants dwell.
Whale Tales and Witch's Brew
My dive days at the Comfort Castle Dive Lodge two-tank morning dives leave plenty of free afternoons for topside explorations, and hunting for Dominica's leviathans is one of them. The following afternoon I join a handful of European tourists and Dive Dominica guide Marcus John Baptiste on a whale watch.
Drawn by the deep offshore waters and an abundance of prey species like squid and cuttlefish, a resident population of sperm whales flocks to the water surrounding Dominica. Marcus says the odds of seeing at least one whale are 85 percent, and on some occasions he's spotted as many as 14 individuals in a single pod. But they aren't the only cetaceans in the sea. As we leave Roseau Harbor beneath the gaze of cruise ships as large and wedding-cake white as icebergs, a pod of pantropical spotted dolphins explodes off our bow wave, wagging their tails and doing corkscrew spins. My boat mates respond with delighted Dutch squeals.
We're about a mile out when Marcus kills the motor and lets us drift in the swell. He lowers a wooden boom with a waterproof microphone over the side and hands me a headset. "See if you can hear them," he says.
I listen intently to the babble of waves against the hull and the coursing of blood in my ears. Marcus rotates the hydrophone and calls out, "East."
Nothing but the cottony silence of the deep.
"South." Still nothing.
That's when I hear it. Not the sorrowful and almost nostalgic songs of the humpback whales, but a faint staccato clicking. Deliberate, fast and intense. Sperm whales.
"They're hunting squid way down," Marcus says when he takes the headphones and listens.
Sperm whales have been known to dive more than 3,000 feet, he says. "Marine biologists think they use sonar both to locate their prey in the dark and also to stun them."
He fine-tunes the hydrophone and passes the headset to the rest of the group. Smiles crack on every face. Somewhere below us and not so far away, an ancient battle is underway.
The hunting must be good, because after an hour of scanning the sun-burnt waves, our only rewards are bloodshot eyes. We head farther out four miles, five, six and finally eight. With each mile, Dominica retreats in our wake, the villages vanishing so that only a raw green pyramid capped with clouds rises to our east. The low sun shears through the mountain mists and illuminates the island like cut jade. The swell is gentle and I get sleepy. I lay on the deck on my back and watch a magnificent frigate bird hanging in the blue bowl above.
I'm asleep when Marcus cries out, "Thar she blows!"
The boat deck sounds with barefoot smacks as a crowd forms on the bow, and Marcus throttles the cat into action. He swings in several hundred yards behind the two whales and then idles the engine, and we drift. Before us are a mother and calf, their wrinkled, black backs awash in sea foam.
"She's nursing," Marcus says excitedly.
Now and then twin lazy, lopsided spouts huff loudly from the animals that inspired Ahab's archenemy Moby Dick.
"They're breathing faster," Marcus says, and he urges us to get our cameras ready. "They're preparing to dive."
Within seconds they arch their knobbed backs, and a perfect pair of flukes rise, trailing golden cascades. Then they slip soundlessly into the wine-dark sea. As passengers excitedly scroll through their digital shots and share trophy images, Marcus decides it's time to celebrate. He breaks out the cinnamon-spiced rum punch for his passengers, and we leave the whales to hunt for kraken in the deep blue sea.
Over the next few days, I dive more and more sites around the lip of Soufriere Bay, which is only a 20-minute ride from Castle Comfort Dive Lodge. La Sorcière (the Witch) is a wall that starts in the morning shadow of lava cliffs, and quickly becomes my favorite. It is so close to shore that Aaron warns us not to swim near the cliff during our surface interval. "Stones can fall at any time."
Stones apparently aren't the only things that have fallen from the cliff. It's my fourth time diving here, and I've gotten three different versions of how the site got its supernatural moniker. Aaron manages to wrap all three stories into one.
"Many years ago the Caribs used to worship the sun from the ledge at the top," he says as we dutifully crane our heads back and stare almost straight up. "And if their wives were unfaithful," he adds, "they would throw them into the sea from there."
We all murmur our horror, but Aaron's not finished.
"Also," he continues, "the Caribs who didn't want to be enslaved would jump off the cliff and commit suicide here. So their spirits are supposed to be around as well."
If the dive site is crowded with spirits, it's also crowded with life. This morning we drop in over the sandy ledge in 15 feet of water and immediately spot a pair of flying gurnards, wings outspread, shuffling along the bottom like lizard minesweepers. At the rim of a tumbledown wall stacked with blue plate corals, Aaron points out a green frogfish about the size of a cell phone. It takes me a good minute to find its unblinking eye and another minute to realize it's upside down. The highlight happens at 60 feet, when Aaron does his little free-love rodeo dance to celebrate a pair of yellow seahorses moored at the base of a sea plume.
Back topside, my afternoons slip by quickly, filled with island explorations. I spend an afternoon hiking up to Trafalgar Falls, a pair of large cascades a 20-minute drive east of town. As the sun sets, long amber beams still glow on the falls. I swim in the clear, cool river and then soak in a nearby thermal spring. My head resting on a mat of yellow mango leaves, I look up at the steam misting through the forest in golden sabers and know exactly what those Hollywood scouts must have felt when they arrived in Dominica: This is the Caribbean before it was "the Caribbean."
On another afternoon I decide to take the easy way up to the mountains. I join some cruise ship passengers on the Rainforest Aerial Tram, an open-air, eight-person gondola ride into the forest canopy. Our guide, Nyhomie Darraux, laughs when the already brooding skies open up and rain sheets down.
"We're a very wet island," she admits. "We have more than 365 rivers, one for each day of the year, all fed by an annual rainfall of 400 inches. Where other Caribbean islands import and ration water, we have a surplus."
Of the island's energy, 40 percent comes from hydropower, she says. "Stand still too long on Dominica," she warns, "and you'll grow roots."
I peek down at a quilt of giant tree ferns, their unfurled fronds in the center as brown and wooly as monkey tails. These aren't the cute little potted ferns you see hanging in syrupy airport lounges; these prehistoric survivors tower four stories above the forest floor. And even they are dwarfed by the true gargantuans of Dominica. All around us, mahogany, gommier and wild chestnut trees, their trunks bound and burred in epiphytes and vines, soar another 50 feet toward sunlight above the canopy.
The incredible thing about this forest, Nyhomie tells us, is that it was nothing but a muddy slope back in 1979. That was the year Hurricane David detonated like an atom bomb over Dominica, leaving three-quarters
of the 75,000 inhabitants homeless and stripping the verdant hillsides bare. But less than three decades later, Mother Nature has reclaimed the forest, and it thrives as if the storm never happened.
Sitting at the open-air bar at Castle Comfort Dive Lodge later that evening, I chat with owner Derek Perryman about Dominica's enduring mountainous terrain.
"The mountains are what have kept us so pristine," he says. "You look around at the steep mountains, and it's no wonder that Dominica was the last of the Caribbean islands to be colonized. That's why even today we have escaped tourist development why we are still untouched."
It wasn't just the mountains, though, that kept the colonists at bay. The shadowed canyons were a refuge to one of the last surviving bands of Carib Indians. Killed and enslaved throughout the archipelago they once ruled, the Kalinago as they call themselves retreated to Dominica. In 1647, an estimated 5,000 used the island as a base to launch raids on islands as far away as Puerto Rico. Less than a century later, however, the tribe had been decimated by massacres and disease. The last 400 melted away into the interior. Today, 3,000 Kalinago hold onto a small piece of territory in the far northeast of the island, the largest remaining Carib settlement in the world.
Swimming With the Devil
The day before my departure flight, I do a morning dive at a site called Champagne with Brad Fagan, a local divemaster. Dropping in at 70 feet, we make our way into the green sunlit shallows near the shore. It's unlike any dive I've done so far, and it takes me a minute to figure out why. Then it hits me. This dive site is a desert. There are no sponges, no corals, no fish. But there is movement up ahead. Fizzing. Champagne bubbles.
Brad leads me to a narrow canyon where streams of effervescence percolate up from the shattered rock floor. It's like the earth has blown an O-ring, releasing a slow, steady leak of gases from deep within. I remember what Derek had told me about Soufriere Bay. We were talking about my hike up to the Boiling Lake, and I had mused how cool it would be if you could actually dive it.
He laughed. "You know those tall cliffs along Soufriere Bay? Those are the rim of a volcano that is 2,000 feet deep. When you're diving in Soufriere, you're diving inside a volcano."
I glance at my computer, and a quick press of a button tells me the ambient water temperature is a tepid 82 degrees, the same temperature it has been all week while I've dived Soufriere Bay. I swim down to a fist-size hole trickling gaseous globes, and in a move that I'm sure voids my warranty, I cram my computer deep inside. A simmering flush pours over my arm as I count to 30. When I withdraw the gauge it reads 110 degrees. Not bad at all. Probably a good 100 degrees cooler than the Boiling Lake, though.
So, if I can't dive in the devil's swimming pool, then at least I can dive in his jacuzzi. And it's still one hell of a dive.
Special thanks to Arienne Perryman, Discover Dominica Authority (discover
dominica.com), Mark Steele, Beau Rive (beaurive.com), Anne and Cuthbert Jno. Baptiste, Papillote Wilderness Retreat (papillote.dm), Sam and Glenda Raphael, Jungle Bay Resort & Spa (junglebaydomi
nica.com), Derek and Ginette Perryman, Castle Comfort Dive Lodge (castlecomfort
divelodge.com), Dive Dominica (divedominica.com) and Ken's Hinterland Adventure Tours (kenshinterlandtours.com).
Take a refreshing dip in the Emerald Pool, one of the most beautiful waterfall-fed oases on Dominica and an easy half-mile walk from the nearby visitors center ($2). Stop in for a bowl of dasheen soup with garlic bread and a plate of sautéed river prawns at Papillote Wilderness Retreat, located near the Trafalgar Falls, and then enjoy a guided tour of the retreat's lovingly tended four-acre private gardens full of orchids, ferns and 19 species of butterflies. In the Carib Territory on the far northeastern coast, visit the new Kalinago Barana Autê, a cultural village where you can learn about this vanishing culture ($8). Nearby Beau Rive, a boutique hotel, serves delicious Welsh rarebit and fish pie with apple crisps for dessert (their house spritzers are a tart break from rum punch).
The Guide to Dominica
- average water temperature: summer 84°F; winter can drop into the mid 70s.
- what to wear: 3-5 mm suit
- average viz: 80-plus feet off the walls, less after rainstorms
- when to go: The diving is good year-round; January to May is the dry season, and visibility tends to be better.
Head for the hills and hire a guide ($40) for the calf-busting, 12-mile roundtrip over ridges and into canyons to Boiling Lake, the second-largest solfatara a water-filled volcanic crater on the planet. On a cloudless day, the views from the high point, 3,747-foot Mount Nicholls, include the panoramic southern half of Dominica, including Roseau. Just before the lake, you'll descend into the steaming Valley of Desolation, a barren swath of sputtering mud pots and hissing fumaroles. On the way back, wash off all the mud in the eerie grottos at Titou Gorge right beside the trail head.
Champagne A shallow mooring dive that can be done as a shore snorkel. Keep your eyes out for seahorses and a supposed 18th-century wreck.
This wall drops 750 feet and is a favorite haunt of bigeyes and crimson clouds of blackbar soldierfish.
Starting at 60 feet and rising to within 25 feet of the surface, these five large coral cones are covered with yellow sea fans and black coral.
This wall dive begins near the surface and plunges some 100 feet into the Soufriere Crater. Look for seahorses with their tails wrapped around sponges.
Luck and timing when diving this northern site exposed to the wild currents coursing between Guadeloupe and Dominica will reward with beefy coralheads and hero sponges, and the possibility of Caribbean reef sharks.
Rigged & Ready
Multi-purpose compartments will keep you organized. And it comes with a hydration tube, sternum strap and safety whistle. patagonia.com
Gstarz Bluetooth Solar GPS Travel Recorder
With 48 hours of navigation time, you can log up to 200,000 records. Its dual power supply includes rechargeable Li-ion battery and solar power. gstarz.com
Discover Dominica Authority
Dive CentersCabrits Dive Centre