PIECES OF HISTORY
The Lore of St. Eustatius
It was the best fireworks show St. Eustatius had ever seen. The first, resounding blast sent shards of china, rum bottles and blue-glass beads sailing heavenward before scattering through the haze into the harbor. In that moment, fortunes burned and oppositions solidified. But through it all, the Dutch, no strangers to invasion, held fast to their practicality and neutrality knowing that when the fog settled, they would be left to rebuild.
A port so rich and active that it was known as the "Golden Rock," St. Eustatius better known as "Statia" once saw more than 3,600 merchant ships a year in its harbor. It was an auction block not only for goods, but also for the bulk of slaves bound to plantations throughout the Dutch West Indies. What Wall Street is to finance and Silicon Valley is to dot-coms, Statia once was to Caribbean commerce.
I'm learning all this from Gay Soetekouw, president of the St. Eustatius Historical Foundation, as she leads a walking tour on a quiet, island morning. We're within the walls of Fort Oranje, trying to imagine this peaceful place as anything but.
A flag had sparked the chaos, she says. A ship hailing from Delaware dropped anchor and fired shots to announce its arrival a customary practice then. Upon hearing the 13-gun salute one gun for each new American state the soldiers atop Fort Oranje returned the greeting, thus making Statia the first country to salute the U.S. flag and acknowledge America's right to be a country. Still fuming from losing a strong foothold in the New World, the British quickly sent word to neighboring St. Kitts, their stronghold, and from there, the Royal Navy launched an attack on the impudent Dutch.
That blast more than two centuries ago may have destroyed the foundations of greater than 500 oceanfront warehouses, and marked the end of St. Eustatius' golden era. But it laid the foundation for something bigger: Statia's reputation as a Caribbean island brimming with history. That's what lured me here to this now-sleepy destination. That, and the eight underwater ecosystems among them wrecks, walls, reefs and lava flows diverse enough to rival the riches traded by the Dutch.
A STORIED PAST
We're still within Fort Oranje when Soetekouw starts pointing out all that you can see underwater it's a taste of what I will dive this week. When the sun shines just so, escaping the thin veil of clouds, the shadows of ships just a few Statia wrecks appear. In front of Golden Rock Dive Center, a PADI Gold Palm Resort, lay two encrusted cannons. The stones of the old retaining wall are hard to miss. Soetekouw tells us that the Dutch built this sea wall, filling in behind it with dirt and debris, to increase the land on which they could erect warehouses.
We move along to the Synagogue Path, a dirt, two-track lane in Oranjestad, the main town. Soetekouw suggests we walk with our heads down. The reason, she says, is that more history lays buried here per square inch than anywhere else and this alley in particular is where many items end up, due to the town's drainage system. As if to prove her point, she reaches down, brushes away a handful of dirt and lifts one-third of a teacup saucer.
Turning it, she inspects the shade of blue a rich cobalt used to create the floral pattern, and declares it's the English imitation of china, not the stuff imported from the Asian country itself. Before I can guess what an authentic piece might look like, we walk a few more yards, and Soetekouw produces another shard, this one painted in cornflower it's the real deal. With each step and remnant found, I grow more astounded that a place holding so many unearthed secrets like this exists.
And just why do Statia's gutters collect so much centuries-old pottery?
"There are no rivers, no waterfalls. No flowing fresh water on Statia," Soetekouw says. "They used to say that water was so scarce that they'd throw the dishes out the window rather than wash them."
She's joking, but I wonder if there's a grain of truth here.
By the time we reach the end of the path, everyone on the tour holds pottery pieces. But Soetekouw tells us not to pocket them. Instead, she asks that we give them to Statia's Historical Foundation Museum. Only blue beads and these find you, she says can be taken off the island. Local lore has it that should you possess one, your heart belongs to Statia and you must return.
Another gal on the tour asks about these famous beads artifacts so prevalent here that Statia has become synonymous with them. Soetekouw tells us that Dutch glassblowers fashioned them for bartering purposes; they've been found everywhere the Dutch settled, including as far away as Indonesia. It's even rumored that the Dutch traded these same beads to Native Americans for Manhattan.
As for why so many remain on island, multiple explanations exist. The romantic version of the tale goes like this: When slavery was abolished, those who were newly freed gathered hillside and celebrated by throwing these beads which is all they had been paid for their labor into the sea. But the practical-minded dispute this, saying that everybody knew the beads' value. Instead, they say that because many ships, some carrying hundreds or even thousands of beads, sank in the harbor, many now wash ashore or remain on the seafloor. The image of all these beads scattered underwater reminds me that it's time to go dive.
HIGH TURNOVER RATE
Down the Bay Path the nearly vertical walkway that connects the town to the beach and businesses below I go. I walk past The Old Gin House, the cotton-factory-cum-boutique resort where I'm staying, and along a short stretch of beach preferred by the island's chicken population, until I reach Golden Rock Dive Center.
Aboard EZ-GO-IN, PADI Professional Winston Robins briefs us two German guests and me about Double Wreck, the afternoon's site we're motoring to. He continues the history lesson that Soetekouw started, telling us that Statia has changed hands 22 times in just over 130 years. I quickly do the math that's a new national anthem to learn every six years.
The wrecks we're about to see sank more than 200 years ago, perhaps as a result of the British attack. The sand claimed their wooden hulls long ago, leaving anchors and ballast stones as evidence of their exploits.
Together, we gear up and drop in. Sea fans and sponges camouflage the bed of ballast stones beneath. Surrounding the pile, a carpet of southern stingrays stretches across the sand so thick that the wingtips of several overlap. Ahead, the two anchors, with their diaphanous tufts of pink sponge, shelter enough secretary blennies to staff a temp agency.
To the north of the stones spans a field of eelgrass. Two green turtles a mother and offspring bury their noses in the buffet as the divers snap their portrait again and again.
YOU'RE A GOOD WRECK, CHARLIE BROWN
Slated for the morning dive is the C.S. Charles L. Brown, a 327-foot-long wreck one of the Caribbean's largest. Two days before its scheduled sinking in 2003, the Charlie Brown veered from its intended artificial reef status and became a true shipwreck, thanks to an unexpected burst pipe.
As we approach, we see that the intact Charlie Brown rests on its side the only evidence that this sinking veered off plan. We kick forcefully to fight the current that skates atop the ship. Armies of horse-eye jacks collect on deck, breaking rank and reforming with each surge.
We start down the bow. The white ship almost glows: Light pours over the hull and through its yards-long swim-throughs wide as elevator shafts. We plunge through the opening, which deposits us near the propeller. Upon seeing us, a turtle darts away a silhouette of fins and shell gliding toward the sunlit surface.
As the days pass, I explore more and more of underwater Statia. The Chien Tong a wrecked Taiwanese fishing vessel that, at 170 feet long, is about half as long as the Charlie Brown sits away from the current, allowing soft corals and sponges to have free reign. We also dive along the wall that edges along the island's southeast side facing St. Kitts at sites like Mushroom Garden, Down South and Off the Wall. Here, lava flows created undulating mounds and valleys. Nutrient-rich slopes supporting sea fans and sponges and all manner of life, from spotted drums to eels form ledges where they meet sand spits. From under the freeform shelters, nurse sharks and lobsters stare back at us. Sharks have been spotted cruising along the wall Divemaster Reynaldo Redan and the guests closest to him see a blacktip the afternoon that I dive Off the Wall. But I am lollygagging in the back, watching a turtle (not an altogether bad reason to miss a shark sighting).
A crowd, heavily garnished drinks in hand, has formed in anticipation of the sunset and the big Wednesday-night barbecue that The Old Gin House holds weekly. Overhead, triangles of white canopy shade us as we settle into the oversize wicker lounge chairs. Accordion-heavy jazz tunes waft through the night air until they increasingly become drowned out by the growing numbers drawn by tonight's menu: ribs, chicken, lobster, four-cheese macaroni, beans and tangy coleslaw.
The divers at the hotel have gravitated toward each other as we wait for the meat to slow-cook to perfection, and the sun to dip to a possible green flash. Presidente beers, rum punches and white wines keep flowing as we unwind and rehash our diving thus far on the island. Just when I've trained my ear to jump between the various accents my companions for the evening are from Holland, Germany and Canada (Quebec, their French accents reveal) I start to truly listen to their tales and realize that the pairs, for the most part, compare different lists of sites.
It's Phillip, one-half of the Canadian couple, who explains why everyone seems to have their own itinerary, yet they're all diving with Golden Rock. The Europeans, with their five-plus weeks of paid vacation, set the pace here: It's a liberal schedule that allows for much napping and leisurely brunching unlike Americans, they don't task themselves with showing up for every scheduled dive.
As I watch the pink fade from the ripples lapping against the harbor's moored yachts, it occurs to me that Statia hasn't changed much from its Golden Rock era it's still a largely international destination, albeit for a new reason.
That evening over wine, I tell Glenn Faires and his wife, Michele, that turtles have joined us on every dive six so far.
"Maybe you should start counting the number of dives where you don't see a turtle," he jokes.
Then he lays down a challenge: "Have you seen all of Statia's underwater ecosystems?" According to him, there are eight. I've seen seven so far: wall diving, natural coral reefs, coral-encrusted lava flows, old shipwrecks, artificial reefs, boulder slides and isolated rock outcroppings what's left?
We set out to explore the answer in the morning.
GOIN' ON A BEAD HUNT
Faires has brought his camera and he gives me a magnifying glass. We're off to Blue Bead Hole to look for flying gurnards, a motley crew of blennies, peacock flounders and, yes, the beads. Apparently, muck, as in muck diving, is the eighth ecosystem.
We take the dinghy to the site and drop down. At first the site seems nothing more than a sandlot. But it's said that this place offers the best chances of finding beads.
As we swim, my eyes rake every inch of sand we cover. Not only do I desperately want to bring a blue bead home, I also want to prove that I'm capable of spotting one of the blennies that Faires had shown me pictures of. But I only find pieces of broken pottery (which the law won't let me keep) and pretty shells (which my conscience won't let me touch).
Then Faires stops swimming. I scoot ahead to where he looks. I see nothing. He points. I still see nothing.
Slowly, my eyes relax. Then the head of a banded jawfish appears.
We continue in this manner as Faires, the ever-patient pointer, reveals sailfin blennies, a lancer dragonet and a batfish. I'm excited but not in the way I was when we dove the Charlie Brown. Rather, I'm reminded of tours of Napa Valley, slowly sipping wines and trying to identify the top notes. It's a subtler feeling of achievement.
Sighting a pair of flying gurnards, however, releases a burst of adrenaline. I've heard about these fish all week, and Faires has promised that I would see what makes them so special. When they start to move they use their pelvic fins to amble along they flare half-moon wings painted with stripes of iridescent purple. They're amazing creatures that seem to be half fish and half bat.
I'm reveling in this find when I look down to check my pressure gauge. Before I can see how much air I've huffed, I spot something dark and round. I feel my heartbeat quicken as I pick it up. Apparently, I now owe it to Statia to make a return visit. A blue bead has found me. A sliver of a side has worn away, so I can't wear it on a chain as so many of the locals do. But this remnant reminds me of the island's turbulent history, which is what, after all, I came to Statia to see.
A Statia visit isn't complete without a trip to Fort Oranje, which offers stellar island views. From there, head into Oranjestad for a walking tour past the Dutch Reform Church a hurricane has left the structure roofless and the artifact-rich Synagogue Path. Afterward, try a local dish like oxtail at the Original Fruit Tree Restaurant. Another popular eatery is the Ocean View Terrace Restaurant set among the Government's Guest House's gardens; on Friday nights, stay for karaoke. One street over is Cool Corner: Bar-owner Chucky cooks French fries and other snacks between pouring strong, cheap drinks.
THE GUIDE TO ST. EUSTATIUS
Average water temperature: 79-83 degrees
What to wear: 3-5 mm suit
Average visibility: 60-120 feet
When to go: year-round
Happy Trails: Hike up The Quill, a rainforest-covered extinct volcano whose center has sunken in, creating a crater. Along the way, look and listen for the summit-bound mountain crabs that recoil into their shells upon hearing footsteps, only to lose ground and roll down a few feet. From the top, choose to simply enjoy the view or continue along one of several paths, including one devoted to bird-watching.
Chien Tong: This Taiwanese fishing vessel is easily penetrable and overflowing with marine life.
Mushroom Garden: A stunning wall dive where sharks are frequently sighted.
The Charlie Brown: Sunk intentionally for divers in 2003, this wreck is one of the Caribbean's biggest at 327 feet long.
Blue Bead Hole: Keep that magnifying glass handy: This is the best spot on island for finding treasured trinkets as well as flying gurnards, peacock flounders and a potpourri of macro critters, including seahorses and sailfin blennies.
Double Wreck: This site is home to dozens of massive stingrays, as well as two anchors and now reef-covered ballast stones dating back to the 1700s.
Piece of Paradise
Ever dream of calling Statia home? Check out our online guide to owning a piece of this divers' paradise. sportdiver.com/ownapieceofparadise
Rigged & Ready
Trident Magnifying Glass: Magnify the joys of spotting macro critters and increase the odds of finding beads with this plastic, underwater tool with two power levels. tridentdive.com
ST. EUSTATIUS LISTINGS
St. Eustatius Tourist Office