St. Vincent and The Grenadines
Stroll Along a Caramel Colored Beach
and Enter a Diver's State of Bliss
Text and Photography by Bill Harrigan, Aug. 1997
St. Vincent and the Grenadines are strewn across 45 miles of the Caribbean like a handful of emeralds on blue velvet. Thirty-two islands altogether, their green volcanic hills stand out intensely against the vivid blue sea. The eastern sides of the islands leap from the water with sudden cliffs and rocky points; on the west they ease gently down with white sand and soft crescent bays. Shallow reefs of golden brown coral stand in the clear water between the islands like welcome signs for divers.
These verdant islands are not on the usual list of places divers tend to go. In fact, St. Vincent and the Grenadines have a history of staying off the beaten path. Settled initially by a progression of peoples from South America, including the Ciboney, Arawaks and finally the Caribs, St. Vincent was the lone Caribbean holdout against European settlement for nearly 200 years. The fierce Caribs made good use of the island's mountainous terrain and dense vegetation, keeping the British and French at bay until finally surrendering in 1797. Even so, when Fort Charlotte was built by the British in 1806 to keep the French out, its guns were not pointed seaward but inland, to defend against the last remaining Caribs. St. Vincent and the Grenadines became a British Colony of the Windward Islands in 1871 and a fully independent state of the British Commonwealth in 1979. This island nation is toward the southern end of the Windward Islands, between St. Lucia and Grenada. St. Vincent is the largest island, with the largest population, largest town and the only international airport. The northern end of the island is dominated by the 4,000 foot peak of La Soufriere volcano. Much of St. Vincent is agricultural, supplying the rest of the islands with a dazzling array of fresh fruit and vegetables.
The Grenadines are reached by ferry, inter-island airlines or private boat. Young Island is only a few hundred yards from St. Vincent; the next major island is Bequia. Pronounced 'beck-way,' this lovely island is the site of Admiralty Bay, one of the most picturesque harbors in the Caribbean. Next is Mustique (mus-teek), then Canouan (can-o-wan), Mayreau (my-row), the Tobago Cays, Union Island, Palm Island and Petit St. Vincent.
The clear water and sheltered bays of St. Vincent and the Grenadines make them a favorite for sailors; one of the largest charter fleets in the world is located here. Divers aboard one of the yachts can make arrangements for rendezvous dives with local dive operators. Colorful water taxies with names such as Courage and Anticipation provide transportation around the harbors.
Diving St. Vincent and the Grenadines
St. Vincent and the Grenadines are a smorgasbord of diving adventure. Each island and each dive operation has something different to offer. There are a few common denominators, though. The shops are small but the dive staffs are well qualified. Like Glenroy Adams of Grenadines Dive on Union Island, all of the dive operators have been in business for many years and place a premium on service. Dive instruction from resort to divemaster is available on Union Island, Mustique, Bequia and St. Vincent. A fairly extensive inventory of rental equipment is generally available. None of the operations is so large it can carry enough divers to be considered a crowd.
Most of the year the water temperature is above 80°F, with a high of around 84 and a low of 75. For many divers shorties are adequate any time but thermally sensitive divers will be more comfortable in a wetsuit in the winter. Visibility normally ranges between 60 and 120 feet, depending on the weather conditions. Currents can vary but, when they are present, the dives are usually conducted as drift dives.
The dive shops in St. Vincent and the Grenadines reflect the different personalities of their owners and staff. As you travel from island to island, you not only see new sights underwater, you get a fresh perspective. Three shops on three different islands offer a unique ten dive split package, which helps you see a bit of everything. Buy the package from Grenadines Dive (Union Island), Dive Bequia or Dive St. Vincent and split the dives up among the shops any way you'd like.
Union, Palm and Mayreau Islands
The Puruni is a 140 foot long English gunship that ran aground off Saline Bay on Mayreau Island in 1918. The hull now rests on the sand in 40 feet of water, covered with nearly 80 years of coral and sponge growth. Reef sharks cruise the wreck regularly and thousands of fish, from Spotted Morays to Stonefish, call it home. The Puruni is also an exceptional night dive. At dusk the surrounding sand is packed with Southern Stingrays searching for prey.
Mayreau Gardens is a long, lush reef with excellent diving on either side. Generally referred to as Mayreau Gardens Deep or Mayreau Gardens Shallow, the dives have a maximum depth of 85 and 60 feet, respectively. Since the reef is in the open sea between islands, there is often a current running along its spine, so both sides are usually done as drift dives. Deep or shallow, it is a fascinating trip filled with clouds of Gray Chromis, sleek Boga and purple Creole Wrasse. There are many of the most colorful reef fish such as Rock Beauties, Queen Triggerfish and Queen Angelfish here, as well as colorful Azure Vase and Orange Elephant Ear Sponges.
Mopian Reef is a vast undulating plain of delicate Finger Corals interspersed with boulders of Star Coral and huge globes of Smooth Brain Coral. Seafans and Sea Plumes grow everywhere they can establish a hold and the reef is thick with damselfish and wrasse.
The Tobago Cays are a cluster of small, undeveloped islands guarded by an extensive shallow reef called Horseshoe Reef. With a white sand bottom at six feet and coral heads rising almost to the surface, Horseshoe Reef is perfect for snorkeling. Because the water is so shallow, the colors of the coral are not muted by selective light absorption. The seafans are more stridently purple, brain corals are greener and the reef fish are brighter.
Sail Rock can only be dived when the trade winds let up but if the weather cooperates it shouldn't be missed. A few miles northeast of the Tobago Cays, this small rock is the tip of an underwater mountain, with vertical walls, caverns and ledges all thickly covered with coral. Sleeping Blacktip Sharks, Spotted Eagle Rays and large Barracuda are usually seen at Sail Rock. Although there is good diving down to 80 or 90 feet, the shallow areas with large branches of Elkhorn and Antler Coral are also superb.
Like many places in the world, St. Vincent and the Grenadines are struggling with the problem of overfishing. One of the ways they are attempting to control its impact is through the establishment of the Tobago Cays Marine Park. Officially designated but still in the implementation phase, this protected area includes all of the Tobago Cays, much of the surrounding reef area and the wreck of the Puruni.
The west coast of Bequia has superb diving at many sites, with a variety of underwater topography. Near Middle and West Cays off the south coast of Bequia, The Wall features an arch frequented by Blacktip Sharks and a long stretch of vertical rock face encrusted with corals and sponges. Depth ranges between 30 and 110 feet, with prolific marine life throughout. Schools of Atlantic Spadefish and flocks of Midnight Parrotfish are nearly always swimming near the wall. Boulders piled at the bottom of the wall are covered with colonies of Black Coral. If the current is not running, the dive can continue around the wall to the shallow side of the cays.
There are four excellent dive sites around Pigeon Island, near Petit Nevis, where the remains of an old whaling station can be seen. The Pools are protected bowls within the reef next to a vertical drop-off covered with gorgonians and boulder corals. Good scenery starts almost at the surface and continues down to about 60 feet. The South Side of Pigeon features a dense reef that slopes fairly steeply to about 90 feet. The water above the reef is packed with schools of Creoles and Chromis and Nurse Sharks are frequently seen in the sandy patches among the corals. The North Side of Pigeon is a sheer wall, dropping from the surface to 70 feet, then sloping more moderately to about 100 feet. More Nurse Sharks are often resting under the boulders at the bottom of the slope. A crevice in the wall at about 50 feet is worth checking out, since it attracts a lot of life.
Devil's Table is at the mouth of Admiralty Bay, where the regular exchange of water in and out of the bay has created a richly abundant habitat. Maximum depth is about 60 feet but Devil's Table is also shallow enough to be an excellent snorkel site. Seahorses, Frogfish and Spotted Morays are among the regulars here. Moon Hole is another site for both divers and snorkelers, with depths from 5 to 45 feet. Just around the point from Moon Hole, the bottom continues down to about 90 feet, liberally covered with a mix of hard and soft corals. Nearby is the wreck of a 100 foot island freighter, sunk several years ago in about 70 feet of water.
There are about 30 named sites along the coast of St. Vincent but you could jump in the water off any point of land and have a great dive. New Guinea Reef, literally within the shadow of a tall cliff on the southwest coast, is an excellent example. The dive begins with a ledge along a sheer wall, dropping deeper in stages as it wraps around the point. Black Corals start at 60 feet, becoming thicker and more numerous as the tiers of ledges reach 120 feet. The reef is a profusion of deepwater seafans, Brain and Star Corals, Green Tube and Barrel Sponges. Visibility can be spectacular and is normally in the 70 to 120 foot range.
The action at Anchor Reef starts around 45 feet, where the wall drops past 100 feet. Morays, lobster and scorpionfish can be found in an eerie cavern along the wall. Barracuda, jacks and angelfish are always present and the corals are in pristine condition. Snorkeling through Bat Cave is a thrilling experience. You swim in a large entrance arch in bright sunlight, then turn and make your way through a narrow channel, where it gets darker and darker. You're in a narrow cut not much more than shoulder wide that cuts through a point of land. Look up as your vision adapts and you can see the bats hanging overhead. Slightly farther, the ocean appears as a deep shaft of blue as you exit the other side.
The currents can be tricky at Pinnacle Rock but, when the conditions are right, this is a great dive. A cone of rock rises to within 12 feet of the surface here, attracting hundreds of fish. Turtle Bay is known for its unusual sealife, including Frogfish, Flying Gurnards and Seahorses. Dive depths are usually around 60 feet maximum but diving is also good among the Finger and Elkhorn Corals in the shallower areas. Blacktip Sharks can often be seen resting under the ledges at All Awash Island. Big animals are frequently encountered here, including Amberjacks, Hawksbill Turtles and Nurse Sharks.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines are as interesting topside as underwater. On every island there are inspiring ocean views and tranquil beaches. The Falls of Baleine on St. Vincent cascade over a 60 foot drop into a freshwater pool. The northern end of the island is so inaccessible the falls can only be reached by boat. Serious hikers can test their mettle on the trails of La Soufriere but there are also gentle scenic hikes on this volcano. Constructed by the British about 1815, the 300 foot Black Point Tunnel was used to transport sugar. The tunnel was constructed by slave labor and is still considered a remarkable engineering feat. The St. Vincent Botanical Gardens was founded in 1765 and is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. A breadfruit tree taken from a shoot of one of the original plants brought to the island by Captain Bligh still grows here.
For more information, contact the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourist Office toll free in New York at (800) 729-1726 or in Dallas at (800) 235-3029. From outside the U.S. call New York at (212) 687-4981 or Dallas at (972) 239-6451.