The Bayahibe beach region of the Dominican Republic is one of the most desirable locations for vacationing divers because you can very comfortably dive two of the Dominican Republic's finest underwater parks, both in the same day. Catalina Island is a 30-minute boat ride to the west, while Saona Island is a 25-minute ride in the opposite direction. Both underwater parks offer unique diving opportunities that make this double-barreled adventure worth the extra boat travel time. And while fish seem to be getting scarce on many Caribbean reefs, here in the Dominican Republic they are in great abundance because of the existence of these monitored marine parks. Catalina Island Catalina Island is a small underwater park encircling an uninhabited island about one-half mile offshore. Although there are several choice dive sites around this little island, it is best known for a dive site called The Wall. It's not actually a vertical wall, but more of a steep slope. We anchored the boat in a sand chute adjacent to The Wall and swam the short distance to the beginning of the drop-off. The slope runs from 15 feet at the top to about 130 feet, where it levels out onto a sandy plain. Underwater visibility was about 80 feet, clearer than the coastal dive sites. What I found most impressive about this site was the tremendously thick reef growth. It is loaded with sponges of all kinds - luscious orange elephant ears, clusters of purple tube sponges, basket and barrel sponges, smaller azure vase, cup sponges, hard corals and colonies of red finger sponges. I was struck by the similarity in appearance to the reefs around Klein Bonaire. I could have spent the entire day poking around this lovely reef slope, admiring the marine growth and tiny creatures that inhabited the area. We ended our dive by swimming along the top edge at a depth of 15 to 20 feet. On the way back to the boat, I came upon a giant cluster of yellow tube sponges that must have been 5 feet tall. What a great end to a perfect dive. Saona Island On our way to the second park, we stopped off at the hotel to pick up two more divers and then headed east for 30 minutes. Saona is the centerpiece of the Dominican Republic's largest underwater park, the Parque Nacional del Este (National Park of the East). It covers 168 square miles of protected ocean, a frigate bird rookery and a flamingo sanctuary. There are more than a dozen dive site moorings marking the best reefs within the park. These sites range from the shallowest at 27 feet to the deepest at 70 feet. The bottom profile varies greatly. Some sites are patch reefs; others are a sprinkling of solitary coral heads, while still others are spur-and-groove formations. We pulled up to a site called La Parquera, where the top of the coral heads were at 45 feet and the sand bottomed out at 60 feet. There was a slight current and visibility was at least 100 feet through ocean blue. There were interesting undercuts and caverns beneath the high coral heads, and we could see plenty of barrel sponges and lush orange elephant ear sponges. The reef was dense with fish - jacks, snapper and grunts everywhere. Bottom dwellers included southern stingrays, nurse sharks and peacock flounder. Amazing, we had dived two completely different underwater parks in one day and still returned to the resort in time for an afternoon lunch. The next day we would make a wreck dive with equal ease. Coral Canoa Island Diving is just half the fun of visiting the Dominican Republic. The other half is enjoying the island's incredibly beautiful all-inclusive resorts, where every meal, drink and service is included in the package. All-inclusives are more the rule than the exception here. Coral Canoa Beach Resort is the closest resort to Saona Island. Few Caribbean resorts can match the spectacular architecture, immense pools and range of services that you will find here. This resort is one of three Coral Hotels in the Dominican Republic, all of which offer diving through Sea Pro Divers, a PADI Gold Palm Resort dive operator.
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