VENEZUELA'S Los Roques
Caribbean Diving's Final Frontier
by Walt Stearns, Aug. 1997
La Piedra De La Guasa, also known as the Pinnacle, goes from typical Caribbean to the sublime. Straight out from the north face of Gran Roque, the large, wedge shaped rock formation rises from 105 feet to within 26 feet of the surface. While its western sloping side; covered with stubby colonies of Yellow Tube Sponges and long, flowing searods; is not unusual, its more abrupt eastern drop-off is. Plunging vertically some 90 feet, its contours are almost exclusively covered in colonies of yellow, purple, orange and green encrusting sponges, with a plenitude of bright Orange Cup Corals mixed in. And, everywhere I looked were swarms of Bogas, Brown Chromis and Creole Wrasse. There were also large Bermuda Chubs, Horse-eye Jacks and a couple of very large Barracuda near the top. Closer to the rocks, large Gray and medium sized Cubera Snappers and groupers such as Tiger and Yellowfin, including more than a dozen Comb Groupers exhibiting pack behavior near the bottom, were making random attacks on their smaller neighbors. No matter which way I looked, there were lots of fish and a swirl of activity.
Eighty-five miles north of Caracas, Venezuela and roughly 100 miles east of Bonaire is the island cluster of Los Roques. Depending upon the dialect, this means 'the rocks' or 'lots of rocks,' an apt description.
Spanning some 850 square miles, with numerous shallows, reefs and some 50 low lying, white sandy cays with fringing mangrove forests, Los Roques Archipelago is a bit of a geological Caribbean oddity. By definition, Los Roques is a coral atoll, featuring a large, shallow central lagoon hemmed in by a comprehensive barrier. There are not many of these in this area of the globe. The only visible remnant of Los Roques' once volcanic origin is the towering protrusion of dark gray and rust colored rock in the northwest corner.
In addition to being the only high ground, Gran Roque, or 'grand rock,' is also home to Los Roques' principal populace. Numbering 500, it is comprised mostly of native fishermen and their families. Since its settlement, Los Roques has been considered a place of bounty for fish and sea turtles.
Recognizing Los Roques as a valuable resource, the Venezuelan government took measures to protect it from the perils of overfishing. The result was the largest national marine park in the Caribbean. Since its establishment in 1972, the park has been divided into several designated fishing and no fishing zones. The two largest off-limits zones to fishing and diving are near the center of the park and the entire barrier reef system lining its eastern edge. This is no loss really, since the eastern edge is almost constantly buffeted by winds from the east/northeast. Besides, the areas offering the greatest opportunity for exploration are between Los Roques' north and south side.
Diving Los Roques
What gives the south side an air of intrigue are some 18 miles of sharp drop-offs, similar to the fringing reef systems off Aruba and Curacao. Following the length of the south side's two ribbon shaped cays, Cayo Sal and Maceta de Cote, the main body of the outer reef system begins between 25 and 35 feet from the surface, sloping sharply to a flat, sandy plane with scattered coral heads at 120 to 140 feet. Adorning the contours is a forest of giant Slit-Pore and Porous Searods. Mingled with these tall, wavy soft corals are large, scattered heads of Brain and Star Corals with small Orange Elephant Ear Sponges.
Farther west, close to the western tip of Cayo Sal, the drop-offs become almost vertical at 50 to 65 feet. At 70 to 90 feet, the face of the drop-off features seven large, wide mouthed cave entrances 12 to 30 feet deep. During the early and late afternoon hours, the drop-off becomes a magnet for all kinds of life, including Spotted Eagle Rays, some with wingspans of up to five feet; scores of Horse-eye and Bar Jacks; cigar sized Bogas; Creole Wrasse; large Permit; several medium sized Atlantic Dogtooth Snappers; groupers and a 180 pound Jewfish.
Los Roques' north side offers a different diving experience than that of the south. Deep in the base at 30 feet is The Cave (La Buceadora), a large, underwater cavern-like formation 15 feet wide. Inside, the cave extends almost straight back some 60 feet, ending at a narrow crack filled with small pink and red shrimp, lobsters and Blackbar Soldierfish. Outside the entrance, the rocky contours work particularly well for nighttime macro hunts, with small corals and encrusting sponges over volcanic type rock. On the north side the underwater visibility averages 40 to 60 feet and sometimes the water is several degrees cooler than the reef system along the south side. Even with the locale's proximity to the equator, producing year-round air temperatures in the mid 80s (°F), the water temperature can sometimes fluctuate from the low 80s to the slightly nippy mid 70s. This is caused by thermoclines, which also drop the visibility to less than 40 feet.
Island booking services to Los Roques are provided by the Venezuelan based company LTA (Linea Turistica Aereotuy), which operates a long list of lodges, camps and sailing vessels, an airline service and one live-aboard dive boat. For shore-based stays, guests are lodged in one of several LTA sponsored posadas scattered across the central community of Gran Roque. A posada is a boarding house facility, with guest bedrooms featuring 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, provided by a restaurant in town. There is no air-conditioning or hot water. Electricity is available from approximately 5:00 pm to 9:00 am.
Diving services are provided by Sesto Continente Dive Operation, a small beachside facility equipped with aluminum 80s, Sea Quest rental equipment (BCs, regulators, masks and fins), a large dive boat and a smaller six passenger boat. Departing at 9:00 am each day, the itineraries include daily excursions to both Los Roques' northern and southern boundaries. Trips to the north side typically return around noon, while jaunts to the southern region along Maceto de Cote and Cayo Sal typically take 50 minutes to an hour each way, returning around 3:00 pm.
For serious diving adventures to all open sectors of the Los Roques National Park, LTA's 85 foot dive cruiser, Antares III, is the answer. Equipped with two on-board compressors, standard 80 aluminum tanks and a couple 63 cubic foot tanks, the steel hulled trawler can easily accommodate 14 divers. There are two double cabins on the main deck; three more doubles and a quad below. All include private shower and head, amenities usually found only on vessels twice this size. Even the main saloon features an impressive amount of floor space, with hardwood floors, booth-style sofas and dining tables. In addition to a full line of rental equipment, current model Sea Quest regulators, BCs, masks and fins, the Antares has a cellular telephone and fax system.
While the Antares III has a nice sized dive platform, almost all diving is done from the vessel's two 18 foot peneros, locally designed skiffs. The Antares III works in a mothership fashion, using smaller boats to deploy divers on sites because the marine park prohibits anchoring near any reef systems. Travel time to and from each dive site is seldom more than ten minutes.
Trips to the Interior
Close in size to both the States of Texas and Louisiana combined, the Venezuela countryside features semi-dry savannah (grassland-type plains) crisscrossed by large rivers and dense jungle covered mountains with majestic waterfalls that cascade from remarkable elevations. The most visual is Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, plummeting from the top of Auyantepuy, with an elevation of 7,874 feet.
A three to four day side trip to the Southern Guayana region, south of the Orinoco River, is well worth the time. This immense stretch of Venezuela's southeastern territory is a significant portion of South America's Amazonian makeup. It is 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, Canaima is one of the largest in the world, covering some three million hectares of wilderness. Inside the park are lodging facilities providing river excursions, such as Camp Ucaima, Kavac and Arekuna.
Started some 50 years ago by Dutch adventurer, Jungle Rudy, Ucaima sits amidst the forest above Hacha and Sapo Falls on the Carrao River. This family owned and operated facility is best known for up-river excursions to the base of Angel Falls. This trek takes a little more than one-half day to complete, with a three to four hour return to camp.
A second region worth looking into is the Orinoco Delta, where the mighty Orinoco River (second largest in South America) forms a massive system of tributaries and wetland jungles full of wildlife. LTA provides its own brand of excursions into both the inner and outer Delta regions.