The Dominican Republic's Far Eastern Corner of Paradise

By Walt Stearns

A couple hundred yards out from the edge of the beach, the upper parapets of ancient castles of coral break the Caribbean Sea's rolling waves into a fine series of ripples. Seaward, fortifications of giant star, boulder, mound and brain corals sweep sharply to depths of 40 and 50 feet into a flat bottom of white sand. Large Southern Stingrays glide across the flat terrain like alien spacecraft coming in for a landing. Punta Cana's majestic expanse of reef is part of the longest continuous reef tract in the Dominican Republic. Spanning 80 miles in length, this massive reef system fringes the island's eastern coast from the mouth of Samana Bay in the north all the way down to the southern cliffs of Cabo San Rafael. Well developed spur and groove formations meet small islands of patch reefs and rounded knolls adorned with large, colorful gorgonians and seafans, which provide safe refuge for lobsters and small reef fish.

Beyond this expansive breadth of ocean floor, the bottom drops away more drastically for the deeper reaches of the Mona Passage, where, on occasion, divers will find cruising reef sharks. Throughout this region, underwater visibility averages between 50 and 90 feet, with temperatures seldom falling lower than the upper 70s (degrees F) during the winter.

Permitting access to this remote corner of the Dominican Republic is Punta Cana Beach Resort, home to Punta Cana Dive Center. As a cooperative member of the Punta Cana Ecological Foundation and the Dominican Republic's National Aquarium, Punta Cana Dive Center offers a unique marine education program, which includes a variety of interactive exercises, workshops and games designed to demonstrate how this fragile marine ecosystem functions. For hands-on entertainment, a couple of sites include fish feeding sessions along with complimentary reef fish and coral identification courses. Dive trips on their 28-foot outboard power skiff to the surrounding fringing reef system leave twice daily (morning and afternoon), and are conducted as one-tank dives.

One of the more popular sites for these interactive dive sessions takes place at El Acuario, a large horseshoe-shaped depression with a maximum depth of 18 feet. This shallow site features a series of narrow passages and short caverns that branch off in several directions. Under the overhangs created by the dense reef structure, large schools of grunts, squirrelfish and small snappers fade in and out of the shadows when divers appear.

To the far west is Saona Island. Part of the country's East National Park, Saona features some of the most colorful and lively shallow-water reef systems (30 to 60 feet max.) in the Dominican Republic. Getting there takes approximately an hour and 20 minutes by car, then a 30-minute boat ride to the first site. With underwater clarity averaging between 80 and 100 feet throughout the year and currents so light they seldom appear noticeable, the journey to reach Saona is worth the effort.

For more experienced divers, Punta Cana Dive Center can arrange a dive in one of the region's freshwater cave systems, including a special spot right next to the resort. From above, this large, greenish sinkhole can be deceiving. However, after dropping below the top layer and down through a wide fissure, a huge cavern opens up with astonishing underwater clarity, well past the 200-foot range.

Diving coral reefs and a wild freshwater cave in one day is certainly not something that happens on your average dive getaway.