May 4-11, 2005
If you've logged a good number of dives -- and perhaps even if you haven't -- and have seen plenty of the usual suspects -- angelfish, morays, lobsters and other commonly seen larger species and are ready to go further down the rabbit hole, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better course to follow than to go diving with Bill Tewes and Dive St. Vincent. Every dive with Bill is essentially a fish/creature ID/naturalist mini-lesson on the smaller critters in the sea. The diving is easy (no current or surge to speak of), and you'll be diving shallow reefs and sand flats since that's largely where Bill's quarry is. You might be able to convince him to out on the main reef a time or two, but if that's what you're looking for, go elsewhere. When you come here you want to adhere to old adage "When in Rome do as the Romans do": just go wherever Bill takes you and learn from a master.
I'm not an underwater photographer but if you are I expect this place is nirvana. Many of the best photographers in the world come here, as Bill and his staff know these waters well and can seemingly dial up whatever it is you're looking for -- provided it's down there.
The general program with Dive St. Vincent is a two-tank morning dive and no afternoon dives. Don't let the lack of an afternoon dive keep you away; your morning dives will be substantially longer than with your typical operator -- to the point that it basically equals a third dive. Bill Tewes loves to dive and is always looking for another little critter to check out, so you'll be sucking the last bit of air out of your tank before admitting to the fact that it's time to surface. Even if you're an air hog like me, don't be surprised when you find you've been down for an hour and twenty minutes. If you're diving with Bill himself your average dive time will likely exceed an hour. Of course, no one's stopping you from going up sooner if wish.
We left the dock at 9:30 each morning so we'd have a little more time to do things topside in the afternoon, though I believe they usually pull out around 10 a.m. Night dives cost $10 extra.
That's the basic deal; if you're looking to vary it I suggest contacting them to see if they can accommodate you. While I was there, there were a couple of malacologists who were just doing two-tank night dives to collect shells, so there's obviously some flexibility.
Bill brings along a telescoping pointer, magnifying glass and magnetic dive slate; from the moment you jump in the water on your first dive, he'll be showing you things you've never seen before (at least if you're not a very well-traveled critter-seeker). I did my advanced open-water certification in Bonaire last year, and for one of our specialty dives my buddy and I did a kind of combined fish ID/naturalist dive where the dive master found and identified all kinds of different species on a single dive, writing out the names when we didn't know what they were on his magnetic slate. Every dive is like that here. To my knowledge, St. Vincent is unique in that at most other sites you don't find as many seldom-seen species -- and in such abundance -- as you do here. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that even if they are found in abundance elsewhere, the average dive operation isn't run in such a manner that you're likely to see them. With Dive St. Vincent, it's what they're all about. As far as I know, they're the only ones that do this. It's truly something special.
Before going on, let me say that diving with Dive St. Vincent isn't so specialized or overly focused that it wouldn't appeal to the average diver, of which I count myself one. I think like most divers, I find the life I see underwater fascinating; this is simply a top-notch way to learn about and develop a better appreciation for the little creatures that most divers swim right past on every dive. Still, the focus probably isn't for everyone, and if it's not up your alley, you'd be better off with another outfit.
I enjoyed casually checking out the little creatures before coming to St. Vincent and paid them a half-decent amount of attention on my dives, but diving here was a different experience. We're not talking flamingo tongues, lettuce sea slugs, brittle stars, Pederson's cleaner shrimp, arrow crabs and the "average" smaller life that divers first discover. Everybody has different experiences, travels to different places and pays attention to different things underwater; with 100 dives in my three years of diving I'd already seen plenty of the above. Those critters are here too, in great abundance, and I still love seeing them. But Bill Tewes helped open my eyes to a whole new set of species that are harder to find, more challenging to identify or for one reason or another hadn't fully made it onto my radar yet. Maybe they could best be categorized as species that are on the next rung of the ladder as one interested in marine life gets more into diving and wants to see and learn new things.
So what are these things? Painted elysias, flatworms, whitenose pipefish, sailfin blennies, yellowface pikeblennies, bluethroated pikeblennies, red banner blennies, red-lipped blennies, hovering gobies, banded jawfish, bluebar jawfish, yellowheaded jawfish, fingerprint cyphomas, seahorses, frogfish, batfish (I missed this one, though others spotted it), Atlantic wing oysters, frond oysters, magnificent urchins (dozens crowded together on a night dive at Mount Wynn), neck crabs, cryptic and southern teardrop crabs, pea crabs, peppermint shrimp, pistol (red snapping) shrimp, squat urchin shrimp, squat anemone shrimp, tobacco fish, viper morays, hidden anemones, single polyp coral, sunshine fish, shy hamlet the list goes on. You'll see so much there is no way you'll remember everything to put into your log book at night. Sure, I'd seen some of these species before, but never like this. If I was a more experienced diver and had said to Bill I'd seen all these things before I have no doubt he would've found plenty of other things to show me.
Another fascinating aspect of the diving is that Bill will point out the juveniles of many species. French angels, spotted drums (by the bucketful), jackknife (very tiny and colorful and right out in the water column), three spot damselfish and scrawled cowfish (way cool! check out Humann/DeLoach REEF Fish Identification book for a picture of the juvenile honeycomb cowfish).
Other interesting sightings: Atlantic longarm octopus, common octopus, slipper lobster, reef squid, peacock flounders, flying gurnards, highhat, spotted spoon-nose eel, keeltail needlefish, giant basket star.
In great abundance were nimble spray crabs, golden crinoids, scorpionfish, chain morays, spotted morays, corkscrew anemones, eyed flounders, herring, bogas, spaghetti worms, clinging channel crabs, fireworms, fairy basslets, black coral and fire coral.
I could go on naming things for a while, but you get the point. There's lot of life here -- as there is many places. The difference is that here you're going to see species that usually get missed by most divers. In most places, after few days of diving you've heard about a couple of sites you haven't been to and ask the divemaster to take you there. Here you're more likely to find that you want to see a particular species, and if you mention it your dive site might be chosen accordingly. I would characterize all the sites on St. Vincent as being equally good.
The two days we dove with another divemaster we had to come up a little earlier than with Bill, but I have no complaints. This divemaster, too, found all kinds of neat critters to check out. On a single dive at Critter Corner Junior with him we saw scads of sailfin blennies, yellowface pikeblennies, several painted elysias, banded jawfish, hovering gobies, sand tilefish, queen triggerfish and more. By the by, the main Critter Corner site sometimes mentioned in articles was apparently pretty well wiped out by Hurricane Ivan last year.
The water was an unseasonably warm 83 degrees for early May -- I think it's usually closer to about 80 this time of year. Obviously either temperature is plenty warm, comfort-wise (I dove without a wetsuit the whole time), though the high temperature doesn't bode well for the sea life if the water continues to warm through this summer.
When we arrived on St. Vincent it hadn't rained in three months. While we were there it rained some in the morning (that ended before it was time to go the boat), as well as raining some at night. It affected the visibility a little, but it was nonetheless generally very good.
Dive St. Vincent's boats take a maximum of eight divers. In my case, we were the only people on our boat the whole week. There are two other operators on the island, though I'm told one is often closed. Suffice it to say that you're not likely to see anybody else underwater while diving in St. Vincent.
While slightly off topic, I have to mention a terrific find I made on this trip. I take the Humann/DeLoach Caribbean REEF Fish, REEF Creature and REEF Coral Identification books with me on my trips and often sit around with my friends in the evening trying to figure what we saw during the day. The books are great (the set is currently listed for $75.60 on Amazon.com), and on this trip Bill introduced (and sold) to me an equally good resource: ReefNet's Fishes of the Caribbean and Adjacent Waters DVD-ROM (the CD-ROM is also available). It allows you to plug in the characteristics of a fish you saw (there are several dozen characteristics one can specify as query criteria, though you'll likely only put in a few for any given search), and it will immediately come back with a list of matches. Totally freakin' rocks! I can't believe everyone doesn't know about this -- I'd sure never heard about it before. It also has other way-cool features that I will leave you to investigate so I can keep this under 10,000 words. Looks like I'll be bringing my laptop on future dive trips!
Mariners Hotel/Topside Distractions
We stayed at the Mariners Hotel and were quite happy with it. The hotel has 21 clean, well-kept, comfortable rooms. Mine was simply a bedroom with a desk, a closet, a bathroom and a small porch. My parents' room didn't have a desk, but it had much bigger balcony. The hotel has a small pool and is situated on the water directly across from Young Island resort. It's a three-minute walk to Dive St. Vincent.
The high season had ended a couple of weeks prior to our arrival, so at times we felt we had the hotel to ourselves. The hotel's restaurant, the French Verandah, is one of the best on the island. The prices are neither expensive nor cheap (breakfast came with our package). It's quite attractive and is lighted by oil lamps for dinner. It offers a very nice atmosphere that is a little more upscale than I'm used to for a dive vacation, but not too fancy, either. We ate here a lot and everything we tried was delicious. Be sure to try the callaloo and conch soup and the pumpkin soup. Also, you don't want to miss the yogurt or ice cream. I like yogurt, but I've never tasted any that was simply delicious before.
I've never connected the Caribbean with great pizza (and having made it in the North End in Boston back in college, I'm a bit of pizza snob), but we had a super pizza over at Sunset Marina. I wish I could've made it back again to try their seafood pizza, as I bet it's something special. To get there, we walked up to the main road, flagged down a bus (essentially any van driving by with an H on the license plate, of which there are many) for 30-something cents U.S. and took a five-minute ride over.
On St. Vincent, basically a bus/van that isn't moving (or that you call) is a taxi and costs more; if it's driving by it's considered a bus. The vans go pretty fast on the twisting, up-and-down roads, so those who are more sensitive might be a little unnerved (though my mom, who is definitely sensitive to such things, fared fine). The times we did use a taxi, Mariner's always called their "regular guy" Desmond, who drives more gently, and who is also very nice.
Due to the roads you really can't walk much of anywhere from the Mariners (or probably any other hotel). That probably sounds kind of strange, but it's true.
Kingstown is a working city, and there isn't much in the way of shops or other things catering to tourists. We walked around it for a couple of hours while waiting for a ferry and I enjoyed seeing it, but I don't think most people would find that interesting.
My brother bowed out of the diving one day and climbed Soufriere, the volcano, and enjoyed it very much. The top is often enshrouded in clouds.
When I went night diving my family went to the botanical gardens, which they said were very beautiful and well worth a visit whether you're into that stuff or not.
We also did a trip to the Falls of Baleine in which we did a dive, went to the falls, did another dive and then stopped in Wallilahou Bay (where the first Pirates of the Caribbean film was shot) for lunch. It's a 10-minute walk to the 60-foot falls from the boat. The falls are quite picturesque and you can swim right under them. The northern part of the island is rainforest, which accounts for there being such a thing on such a small island.
We went to Young Island Resort for the Saturday night buffet dinner, and the food was very good -- and very expensive. A free ferry shuttles you over in a few minutes.
We took the ferry to Bequia the day before flying home. Unfortunately, the 9 a.m. ferry we planned to catch was in for repairs, so we had to wait around till 11 a.m., making our day a little shorter -- we didn't have to time to leave Port Elizabeth. There were a number of little shops to check out, more so than anywhere else we went to on St. Vincent, but not a great number. It was nice for a change of scene, but that's about it. Being able to explore more of the island might've made it more interesting. We ate lunch at the Frangipani, which was pretty good.
There are things to do, but don't expect a whole lot in the way in the way of non-hiking topside activities on St. Vincent.
In summary, if you're happy with checking out the smaller stuff and anything else cool that happens along while diving, you'll be very happy here and will undoubtedly learn a great deal. You'll see plenty of rare species, but equally significant -- at least to me -- was getting turned on to relatively common but often overlooked species. You're better off booking through Dive St. Vincent rather the hotel.