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  • Diving on the Roques Antares III
    The Pristine World of Venezuela's Los Roques National Park
    by Walt Stearns
    Just when I thought I had the Caribbean all figured out, Wham! I'm given a sucker punch. Straight out from the north face of Gran Roque, around the north side of a small cluster of islands known as Los Roques, is one of the most surprising dive sites I have seen in the Caribbean.

    Referred to as Pinnacle, it is a large, wedge shaped rock formation rising from a depth of 105 feet to within 26 feet of the surface. While its western side, a steep slope covered by stubby colonies of Yellow Tube Sponges and long, flowing soft corals, is nothing particularly new, its eastern face is something altogether different. Dropping 90 feet almost straight down from the top, the contours seem entirely covered with both yellow and orange encrusting sponges, as well as Orange Cup Corals (Tubastrea coccinea). As I scanned its dramatic face, the water column overhead seemed entirely filled with fish. Everywhere I looked were swarms of Bogas, Brown Chromis and Creole Wrasses, large gray Bermuda Chubs, Horse-eye Jacks and, close to the top, a couple of very large Barracuda. Nearer the rocks, large Gray Snappers and medium sized Cubera and Tiger and Yellowfin Groupers, along with more than a dozen Comb Groupers exhibiting pack behavior near the bottom, were making random attacks on their smaller neighbors. For seeing lots of fish, this place is at the top of the list.

    Los Roques is roughly 100 miles north of Venezuela and 150 miles east of Bonaire. The name means the rocks or lots of rocks, depending on the dialect. Either way, it is an apt definition. Spanning some 221,120 hectares (thats 546,388 acres) of submerged reef and shallows with 50 small islands, Los Roques archipelago is by definition a coral atoll, featuring a large, shallow central lagoon. There aren't many of these types of formations in the Caribbean, true atolls are rare here. The only visible remnant to Los Roques once volcanic origin is a large protrusion of dark gray and rust colored rock occupying the northwest corner of the island called Gran Roque.

    In addition to being the only source of high ground, Gran Roque is also home to some 500 fishermen and their families, the principal populace of Los Roques. To these people, the rest of Los Roques, comprised of low lying, white sandy cays with fringing mangrove forests and a shallow bay dotted by numerous reefs, is a bountiful place where fish and turtles are abundant. Weighing the value of this vibrant resource and recognizing measures were needed to protect it from overfishing, the Venezuelan government declared all of Los Roques a National Park in 1972. It is the largest national marine park in the Caribbean and has been divided into designated fishing and non-fishing zones.

    At present, two zones have been declared off-limits to all fishing and diving traffic. The first is a long slender, sandy cay near its center, while the second takes up nearly the entire barrier reef system along the eastern (windward) edge. Thus the areas offering the greatest opportunity for exploration are along Los Roques northern and southern edges.

    The South Side

    Fringing Los Roques southern edge, some 18 miles in length, are two long, ribbon shaped islands (or cays) called Cayo Sal and Maceta de Cote. Along the edge of these two cays, the outer reef system shares a physical similarity to the drop-offs encountered along Bonaire's and Curacaos leeward side. The most dominant, a system of drop-offs, starts about 35 feet from the surface, following an incline of 50 to 75 degrees to a flat sandy plane at 130 to 140 feet with scattered coral heads. Covering the contours of the grades steep limestone and sand substratum is a forest of large, brown Giant Slit-Pore and Porous Sea Rod soft corals, belonging to the family Plexauridae. Mingled with these tall wavy corals are large, scattered heads of brain and star coral with small Orange Elephant Ear Sponges.

    Farther west, close to the western tip of Cayo Sal, the drop-off changes to almost vertical as it approaches depths of 50 to 65 feet for a distance of 200 to 250 yards. Along this face are seven large cave entrances that range from 12 to 30 feet deep at depths of 70 to 90. Augmenting this attractive site are large numbers of fish, particularly during both early and late afternoon hours. During this time, the drop-off becomes the favorite route for all kinds of life, from cruising Spotted Eagle Rays with the largest wingspans (up to five feet across) I have seen in the Caribbean, to scores of Horse-eye and Bar Jacks, cigar sized Bogas, Creole Wrasse and large Permit, as well as several medium sized Dog Snappers and groupers, including Jewfish. One beast we sighted weighed in the neighborhood of 180 pounds.

    The North Side

    Until additional sites are discovered, the choices on Los Roques north side are limited. There are, however, a couple of sites worth visiting in addition to Pinnacle. The Cave features a large marine cave cut deep into the base of Gran Roques north side. At a maximum depth of 30 feet, it begins with a 15 foot wide opening that slowly narrows as the cave extends almost straight back some 60 feet to a narrow crack where there is a large assortment of small shrimp, lobsters and Blackbar Soldierfish. Outside the cave is a spot that works well for nighttime macro hunts. similar to Pinnacle, the underwater visibility averages between 40 to 60 feet and is often several degrees cooler than the reef system along Los Roques south side.

    Even with the archipelagos proximity to the equator, placing Los Roques year-round air temperature in the mid 80s (F), the underwater temperature can sometimes fluctuate from the low 80s to the slightly nippy mid 70s. This is brought about by the regions re-occurring thermoclines, which also cause the visibility to drop from its 80 foot average to sometimes less than 40.

    Dive Services

    Providing access to the open sectors of Los Roques National Park is the 85 foot dive cruiser, Antares III. Equipped with two onboard compressors, standard aluminum 80 and a couple of 63 cubic foot tanks, the steel hulled trawler can easily accommodate 14 divers. Accommodations are in two double cabins on the main deck with three more double and one quad cabin below. Each cabin, which includes a private shower and head, seems fitting for a vessel twice the Antares size.

    Facing the aft deck, the Antares salon has an impressive amount of space, with hardwood floors, booth style sofas and dining tables. Large jaloussie windows (port, starboard and aft) and abundant sea breezes make the need for air-conditioning unnecessary. In addition to a full line of rental equipment, comprised of the latest Sea Quest regulators, BCs, masks and fins, the Antares onboard systems include a cellular telephone and fax system.

    The Antares III works as a mothership, using smaller boats to deploy divers on the sites. For Antares III to operate inside the marine park, she must not anchor near any reef systems. Furthermore, owing to the random presence of strong currents, a mooring system would not be practical. The Antares III employs one or two 18 to 34 foot, locally designed skiffs called peneros. Travel time to and from each dive site is seldom more 10 minutes.

    Providing shore based diving services in Gran Roque is the beachside facility Sesto Continente. Although it does not have guest accommodations, Sesto Continente is sufficiently equipped with compressors, two large dive boats, aluminum 80 tanks and Sea Quest rental equipment (BCs, regulators, masks and fins), as well as a gear storage room. Dive trips leave from the beach at 9:00 am each morning, returning around noon. The longer range, two tank excursions to Los Roques southern region (along Maceta de Cote and Cayo Sal) typically take 50 minutes to an hour each way, returning around 3:00 pm.

    Accommodations on the island are in posadas. Scattered across the central community of Gran Roque, posadas are private homes converted to boarding houses. With two to four bedrooms, each features either a single twin sized bed or two singles per room. Several of these establishments also offer various meal programs, from breakfast to home cooked dinners or, in some cases, meals provided by a restaurant in town. Although charming, they do not have air-conditioning or hot water and electricity is available only from 5:00 or 6:00 pm to 9:00 am.

    Trips to the Interior

    Venezuela is close in size to that of Texas and Louisiana combined. One of the side trips well worth the visit is a three to four day trip into the interior of the Southern Guayana Region, south of the Orinoco River. This immense stretch of Venezuela's southeastern territory includes everything from semi-dry savannah (grassland type plains), crisscrossed by large rivers, to dense jungle-covered mountains with majestic waterfalls that cascade from remarkable elevations. The most striking, Angel Falls, is the highest waterfall in the world, plummeting from the top of Auyantepuy, a giant plateau larger than most state provinces with an elevation of 7,874 feet.

    The Guayana Region is also home to myriad plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. Preserving a large part of this incredible ecosystem is the Canaima National Park. Founded in 1962 by the Venezuelan government, the Canaima National Park is considered one of the largest national parks in the world, covering some 3,000,000 hectares (7,412,898 acres) of wilderness.

    Close to the heart of this remarkable park is a river excursion and lodging facility known as Ucaima. Started some 50 years ago by Dutch adventurer Jungle Rudy, Ucaima sits amid the forest above Hacha and Sapo Falls on the Carrao River. Among the list of sites available to visitors, this family owned and operated facility is best known for its, one, two and three day excursions to the base of Angel Falls. A trek to this site takes a little more than one-half day to complete, with a three to four hour return trip to Ucaimas Head Camp.

    Travel Information

    Servicing Venezuela from Miami (just three hours away by plane) is the national airline VIASA. The flight from Miami to Caracas usually entails an overnight stay in La Guaira (just outside of Caracas on the coast), with a short, 40 minute commuter flight to Gran Roque via one of LTA Airlines fleet of 48 seat Dash 7s, 19 seater Dornier 228s and 12 seat Grand Caravan aircraft. On Gran Roque, guests are met by LTA representatives at the airport and transported (according to their itinerary) to either the Antares III or to a posada in Gran Roque. In addition to the Antares III, LTA operates a fleet of four, 55 foot catamarans for day sail/snorkel trips in Los Roques.

    Combining a trip to Canaima from Los Roques via LTA requires flying from Gran Roque (taking a little more than an hour) to Margarita Island and then a second flight to Canaima (taking an hour and 50 minutes). From the airport near the Canaima Lagoon is a 20 minute Jeep ride, followed by another 20 minute boat ride to Ucaimas main camp.

    For more information on diving Venezuela, contact Tropical Adventures Travel, 111 Second North, Seattle, WA 98109; (800) 247-3483, (206) 441-3483 (in Washington), fax (206) 441-5431. You can e-mail 103520.2014@compuserve. com.