QUEEN OF CARIBBEAN ECO-ADVENTURE
Text and Photography by Michael Lawrence
Its around 2:30, maybe 3:00 pm. Im wrapped in a gauzy green haze; a spider-web of light and shadow shaped and formed by the sun filtering through the high canopy of Dominicas rain forest. A short 45 minute hike through the hills has brought me here, mere feet from the base of a magnificent waterfall. Middleham Falls towers a full 250 feet over me, a thin, strong stream of water flowing over the edge of the cliff, slowly etching a signature into the cliffs lip as it plummets to the first pool.
A thought comes to me. Just this morning, not even four hours ago, I was 70 feet below the surface of Dominicas waters watching an entirely different sort of waterfall; a flow of Blackbar Soldierfish streaming down the junction of two plates of stone, a descending valley born of a violent volcanic upheaval. The huge school of fish created an underwater, biological waterfall that slowly dropped to a quiet pool of fish clustered in a shallow cavern.
This is the heart of the Dominica experience; an island where the adventuresome can experience some of the very best diving the southeast Caribbean has to offer, easily combining it with the purest oceanic rain forest experience available in this hemisphere. Dominica offers it all and delivers to those willing to go the distance. This is the pinnacle, the undisputed queen of eco-adventure in the Caribbean. The island of Dominica gives you experiences equal to the energy you give her.
Ive traveled for the past decade and a half exploring and writing about the lost, the forgotten and the unknown corners of the Caribbean. In all these travels, I have never found an adventure island the equal of Dominica. For me, she stands at the very head of the class. This is the destination for the active diver, one who would prefer to spend the afternoon traipsing through the woods rather than lying by the swimming pool. There are towering waterfalls and calm pools, boiling lakes and cool streams, high hills, low valleys and everything in between. Land excursions range from an easy, ten minute stroll to a demanding, six hour hike (one way!).
Truly extraordinary diving is found very close at hand, sometimes immediately offshore but never more than a 30 minute ride away. Tunnels dripping with encrusting life and clogged with schools of fish lead to walls and pinnacles juxtaposed with rich shallow reefs. Seahorses, pipefish, frogfish and snake eels are some of the more common names on the guest list.
The primary architect of the Dominica experience is Derek Perryman, the first person to bring an organized, world standard dive operation to the island. He and his wife Ginette own and operate both Dive Dominica, the premier dive operation on the island, and Castle Comfort Dive Lodge, a 15 room bed and breakfast style hotel founded more than 30 years ago by Dereks mother, Dorothy Perryman. More than ten years ago, Dereks launch into the world of hosting the traveling diver altered the basic direction of the lodge but didnt disturb the primary principle of its home-spun hospitality. Though Ma Perryman passed away several years ago, the rooming house is run along the same lines and is given the same caring attention she always devoted to it. Castle Comfort lives up to its name. It is a family-run, dive-oriented, seaside lodge treating each and every person as if he/she was a guest in the family home.
In addition to a mouth-watering menu of dive sites, Dive Dominica also offers a complete list of land excursions utilizing the dependable and knowledgeable services of local guides who have been wandering these hills for years.
Check these potential combinations. You leave Castle Comforts dock promptly at 9:00 am. Within 30 minutes you are 40 feet underwater, cruising through Scotts Head Arch, a lava tunnel gliding down from Cashacrou, Scotts Head, off the southern tip of the island. You slide over a floor carpeted with white Telestacean corals while gliding under a roof of Yellow Cup Corals and encrusting sponges. The schooling Blackbar Soldierfish and French Grunts part easily, allowing both passage and co-existence. Just outside the cavern is a flowing mass of coral that leads to the crowning edge of the caldera.
Your second dive? How about Champagne, a submerged volcanic gas vent; a fumarole. Is that all? No! Check the shallow reef surrounding it for frogfish, seahorses, Flying Gurnards and a whole lot more.
At 1:00 pm, you are back at the dock. Take a break and grab some lunch (fresh fruit and veggies, local fish, sweet desserts) lovingly created by Castle Comfort cooks. After that, join Ken (of Kens Hinterland Tours) or one of his colleagues in the minivan to launch your afternoon excursion. Middleham Falls is a half hour drive and a one hour hike. Sari-Sari Falls is about the same but down the valley instead of over the hills. Do you prefer a shorter excursion? Try Emerald Falls, amazingly gorgeous and just five minutes from the car. Are you slightly more adventuresome? Trafalgar Falls (you get two falls for the price of one) sits just 15 minutes off the road but still gives you extraordinary scenery and a maze of paths cutting between the twin falls named the Father (the taller) and the Mother (slightly shorter).
If you havent guessed already, let me tell you, Dominicas diving is first rate. For those who do not know, heres the quick synopsis. Dominicas U/W terrain was created in two ways. Near the south end of the island, it was formed by the action of volcanic forces. At the extreme southern, a volcanic crater creates vertical walls that drop from lava pinnacles reaching to within five feet of the surface. Shallow, in-water areas have grown in a more traditional manner. Coral reefs coat the hard substrate and offer a rich variety of both invertebrate and vertebrate life. The tips of the islands offer true adventure; fast currents, big fish, edge diving.
Did I mention the whales? Dominica is well noted for Sperm Whales (one of the most stable populations in the Caribbean). Bottlenose, Spotted and Spinner Dolphins, False Orcas and at least a dozen other species are found on a regular basis. Can you get in the water with them? Unfortunately, you may not. Dominican law protects whales and dolphins from human incursion and any actions that may be interpreted as harassment. Dive Dominica does offer excellent, surface oriented whale watching excursions with hydrophones (underwater audio listening apparatus) allowing at least an auditory experience.
Land excursions? The skys the limit. Ive visited Dominica one-half dozen times and have barely scratched the surface. The Boiling Lake (one of the largest volcanic pools in the world) remains unseen by my eyes, even though it is but a three hour hike. Morne Diablotin, the stronghold of the Dominican parrot (an endemic species) is six hours up a strenuous path. Not up to these trips? Try taking a slow boat down the Indian River or an easy stroll into Fort Shirley in Portsmouth on the north end of the island. Feeling particularly lazy? Just slide into one of Dominicas natural spas, volcanically fired hot pools strewn about the island.
I thoroughly enjoy Dominica and find the best way to appreciate and explore the island is through the facilities of Dive Dominica and Castle Comfort Dive Lodge. Castle Comfort is the kind of lodge you expect to find in the heartland of America. Dive Dominica is a world-class operation with superb vessels, friendly and professional staff, organized snorkeling to satisfy the nondiving traveler and a menu of dive sites that will leave you wishing you had booked two weeks instead of one.
For further information and/or bookings, call (888) 414-7626. The on-island number is (767) 448-2188; fax (767) 448-6088. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and the Web site is www.divedomin ica.com.