Puerto Rican Dive Trek
discover why this island should not be overlooked
text and photography BY Walt Stearns
Dropping down over the side of the escarpment, which resembled a series of immense, blunt pinnacles and boulders compressed by some cataclysmic force, all I could think was 'Now, this is cool!' Yellow Reef was unlike any reef system I have seen in the Caribbean. The vaulting 65 foot profiles rising from 90 feet were more like the volcanic ridges, complete with lava tubes, found in the Hawaiian Islands.
Jose Rafols, owner of Aquatica Underwater Adventures, guided me to one of the site's numerous cave entrances, which extend into the underbelly of the reef. Reaching the entrance at nearly 70 feet, the dark, wide yawning mouth seemed more cavern than cave, 35 feet across, with a ceiling height approaching 15 feet. Inside there were unexpected treats; everywhere our lights touched a rich mosaic of red, orange, pink, purple, blue and yellow hues leapt from the walls.
This highly corrugated terrain is anything but barren. The reef is rich with growth, all the way back into its darkest passages, creating a living skin comprised of virtually every variety of encrusting sponge found in the Caribbean. Complementing this brilliant patchwork of color are clusters of red and pink coralline algae and purple lace corals.
Swimming deeper into the cave we discovered that one of the longer tunnels actually looped back around to its point of origin. We exited the cave and dropped down to 90 feet, where a large World War I vintage naval ship anchor, with several feet of chain still intact, stands upright against the wall of a short tunnel opening as if assigned to man the post.
This was not what I expected to find in Puerto Rico. I had heard about all the things you can do here; playing a round of golf on an 18 hole course, fishing for Blue Marlin, and touring the island's natural attractions and old colonial districts, complete with graceful Old World buildings, gothic cathedrals and castles, and flower-filled plazas. And, at your disposal is a full range of resorts from the inexpensive to the sublime. After driving around the island for few days, I felt as if I were home in Miami, Florida; the hills and valleys were the greatest difference. With Puerto Rico's interstate roadways, shopping centers and fast food franchises, the island seems more like a U.S. state. Yet, the one thing I have seldom heard about is the diving. Let me tell you what I discovered.
Roughly 40 miles east of San Juan and the Louis Muoz Marin International Airport is the small town of Fajardo and the Las Croabas Peninsula, overlooking Palomino, Icacos and Culebra Islands. On the sheltered side of the Icacos' string of tiny uninhabited coral islands, the fringing reefs around Palomino are primarily comprised of large coral heads with many soft corals.
The majority of the reef systems start in as little as three feet and slope gradually to 70. With moderate to nonexistent currents and visibility averaging 50 to 80 feet, the reefs in this region are ideal for snorkeling and first time divers.
There are several topside areas to tour on this side of the island. Just outside Fajardo on route 987 is the new Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve (El Faro). The 316 acre point of land features a neoclassic lighthouse that has been in continuous use since 1882, an archaeological excavation site and wilderness preserve.
Palmas Del Mar
Down the coast a short distance south of Humacao is the sprawling resort community Palmas Del Mar. Diving conditions are similar to those of Fajardo (visibility averages 40 to 70 feet), but the reef system is more complex and generally deeper. Starting in 30 feet, the reefs are older and offer a variety of contours, with 10 to 20 foot high ledges and ravines. Closer to Puerto Rico's continental shelf, the steep drop-offs start at 80 feet and drop well beyond 1,000. Humacao and Palmas are also the jumping-off points for diving Culebra, Monkey and Vieques Island.
The drive from Palmas Del Mar to Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico, with a population of 300,000, takes roughly two hours and covers 81 miles. The big feature here is the downtown plaza with its fountains, local bench-sitting denizens and Cathedral. Around the back of the Cathedral is a red and black wooden firehouse. Called Parque de Bombas in guide books, the century old firehouse has been turned into an historical site open to the public.
The diving off this south coast central region is around Caja de Muertos (Coffin Island), 8.5 miles offshore. The island's north side features a terracing reef formation starting at 20 feet and descending to 60. There is also a large 55 to 70 foot deep reef flat two miles seaward of the island. Although Coffin is now part of Puerto Rico's park system, a lot of commercial fish trapping still takes place around most of the island. This is why divers will seldom see little more than small tropicals. While the visibility on the outer reef can reach 100 feet, the terraced reef formation on Coffin's north side rarely sees more than 30 to 40 feet.
Venturing another 40 miles west to the small friendly fishing village of Parguera, Puerto Rico's diving opportunities become noticeably better. This is the home of Bahia Fosforescznte, one of the few bay systems in the world, along with Japan, Jamaica and Vieques, that features the highly luminescent dinoflagellate plankton, which can turn the water the color of a blue fire when agitated. This particular corner of the island's most southwestern region is also home to a 22 mile long cascading wall system.
Along with excellent underwater visibility, averaging between 60 and 100 feet nearly year-round, the wall features depths as shallow as 55 feet. However, owing to their direct exposure to southeasterly trade winds, sea conditions here are often on the choppy side (three to four feet on average).
While this might create diving conditions that are not suitable for everyone, it does generate some of the lushest marine growth found in Puerto Rico's waters. One of my favorite sites is Black Wall. Starting at 60 feet, it plummets vertically to more than 200 feet. The wall is named for the huge forest of large Black Coral trees covering its face. Fallen Rock features a huge, 50 foot high, squat shaped pinnacle and abundant Black Corals, Deep Water Seafans and rope sponges.
The rich growth continues well inside the drop-off, covering the 55 to 70 foot deep shore facing reef system. There, a dramatic site named Cathedral features a cave the size of a small bedroom with two entrances, one emptying out onto a 15 foot high ledge and the second going up through the ceiling.
& Borinquen Point
Near the seaside city of Aguadilla, on Puerto Rico's northwestern corner, is Borinquen Point, where there is a unique collection of exciting dive sites. The most illustrious, lying a mere 14 miles due west of Aguadilla on the edge of the Mona Passage, is the tiny island of Desecheo.
In addition to Yellow Reef, Desecheo has close to one-half dozen other highly inspiring sites worth exploring. Sharing a topography similar to Yellow Reef is Twin Peaks. Identified by two large pinnacles protruding from the surface side by side, it marks the location of a second volcanic ridge. Midpoint on the island's western side is the Tornado Cave, featuring a large 20 foot diameter cave entrance extending back some 50 feet just below the surface of the water. To reach the cave, divers will pass through a huge archway in the middle of a deep ravine. By veering to the left when exiting, divers will pass the partial wreck of a PT Boat in the middle of a second large ravine.
The remainder of Desecheo's surrounding reef system is comprised almost entirely of sloping bottom contours, dropping from depths of 30 to 100 feet. One of the most colorful sites is Candy Land, with large scattered heads of Boulder Star Coral adorned with colonies of brightly colored sponges and gorgonians. Anchor Alley, a 60 to 90 foot dive, has an impressive collection of old anchors dating as far back as the 1800s, along with a few vintage U.S. Navy models from WW I.
Like the diving in Parguera, visibility here varies between 60 and 100 feet. However, owing to the island's location near Mona Passage, Desecheo receives an almost steady flow of currents ranging from as low as an one-eighth of a knot to as much as two and a half knots.
For the more adventurous, lying off the north side of Borinquen Point in 114 feet of water, near the former Ramey Air Force Base, is a large piece of wreckage from a WW II era B-29 Bomber. It is said the bomber had to make an emergency ditch at sea sometime in the '40s. Now covered in both corals and sponges, the largest part of the wreckage remaining is the massive 100 foot wing with its four car sized radial engines still attached.
Planning to visit Puerto Rico for a vacation or even a few day stop-over during your travels? Take advantage of the diving opportunities around the island; it is well worth a look. For more information, contact the Puerto Rico Tourism Office at (800) 866-STAR (7827), or www.discoverpuertorico.com.