Venenzuela

Text and Photography by Bill Harrigan

As our plane from Caracas banked to land on Grand Roques, we could see Antares Dancer riding peacefully at anchor on the clear turquoise water of Los Roques National Park. The trim blue and white vessel would be our base as we explored the outer reaches of this Venezuelan archipelago. Encompassing 850 square nautical miles, Los Roques is the largest marine park in the Caribbean, but also one of the most remote and least visited by divers. Ninety miles north of Caracas and 85 miles east of Bonaire, it sits atop a shallow plateau surrounded by a deep basin. The principal reefs are adjacent to the undeveloped mangrove islands on the far side of the plateau from the main island of Grand Roques. Since Antares Dancer is the only live-aboard in Los Roques, we were anticipating a week of secluded diving on pristine reefs.

Sunday morning we did a quick checkout dive at a site along the coast of Grand Roques called La Buceadora that gave us just a hint of the incredible fish life to follow. Then we did the Pinnacle, and the first word most of us said after our dive was "Wow!" This spot features a cone of granite that erupts from the bottom at around 105 feet and terminates at a point 23 feet below the surface. The slab sides are thick with Orange Cup Corals, Green Tube Sponges and Black Corals, but the fish catch your eye first. The Pinnacle was surrounded by clouds of Brown and Blue Chromis, Yellowtail Snapper, Boga, Creolefish and Horse-eye Jacks. There were also dozens of huge Dog Snapper, Queen Angelfish, Rock Beauties and Trumpetfish.

At one point in the dive I was amazed to see a large Spiny Lobster leap from a ledge on the pinnacle with the abandon of a bungee jumper. It drifted gently down to the next ledge 30 feet below then scampered backward into a hole. Was it running from a predator or just taking the express elevator to another floor? Another incredible sight was the largest parrotfish I've ever seen, munching casually on the coral at about 70 feet. It was a supermale Rainbow Parrotfish, so big and colorful it looked like a jewfish dressed up for Halloween.

Our first night dive was right off Antares' anchorage, an easy warm-up on a 30- to 40-foot ledge jam-packed with fish and invertebrates. We found four White Spotted Octopuses, several Spotted Morays and dozens of angelfish and parrotfish overnighting in every available nook and cranny. We had the opportunity to make four more night dives at various locations during the week. At night the reef put on a completely different face, highlighted in vivid orange by the thousands of cup corals lining the underside of many coral heads.

The anchor came up at dawn on Monday and we were off for Dos Mosquises, a peaceful two-hour passage among the undisturbed islands of Los Roques. In the golden rays of the morning sun we watched pelicans feeding along unspoiled beaches and egrets roosting in virgin mangroves. Here and there a sailboat mast poked up among the palm trees, but otherwise we had the entire park to ourselves.

The reef that stretches from Dos Mosquises to the neighboring island of La Pelona is a living castle of corals, piled high on a steep slope that extends from 20 feet to around 140 feet. The first colony I saw when we rolled off the boat was a massive Star Coral over nine feet in diameter. It was about 300 years old. When our forefathers were pitching tea into Boston Harbor, this same colony was already several feet tall. We discovered that the visibility at Los Roques is a function of location and tide. It could exceed 100 feet with a beautiful blue color on one dive, and later drop to 30 feet with green water, particularly in the cuts between the islands, as low tide approached. But even the dives with less visibility proved abundant with fish life.

Tuesday's early morning dive was off Cayo Sal on a spectacular steep slope called The Ledges. From the surface we could see bright splashes of Orange Elephant Ear Sponges scattered among the luxuriant sea rods and hard corals. We followed the current along the slope, which eventually steepened into a vertical wall penetrated by a series of caverns. Lush Deep Water Seafans, corkscrews of Wire Coral and Green Tube Sponges rimmed each cavern.

The design of the 85-foot-long Antares Dancer is well-suited to the conditions at Los Roques, where her shallow draft allows her tonavigate and anchor in calm, protected waters.

Six cabins provide accommodations for 12 divers, all with ensuite heads, showers and individually-adjustable air-conditioning. The two master staterooms have large windows, their own VCR and private access to the main deck. The salon/dining room has stereo and VCR, and most of the upper deck is dedicated to a lounge area with comfortable chairs and recliners. A large camera table is situated under cover just aft of the pilot house.

All diving is done from Akuena, a 30-foot custom fiberglass dive boat with twin outboards, a carpeted camera compartment and a big ladder, all dive gear remains on the dive boat for the entire week, with the exception of wetsuits, which are hung to dry on the Antares

Dancer after each dive. A freshwater shower is available on the swim platform, and dry towels are provided after every dive.

SeaQuest rental equipment and dive computers are available aboard, as well as Sea and Sea MX-10 cameras and a Nikonos V camera outfit, including an SB-105 strobe, 20mm and 15mm lenses. E-6 film processing and custom video editing is available as is e-mail access.

We were able to dive The Ledges again Wednesday morning and discovered about a dozen large Tiger Grouper apparently engaged in a mating ritual. Dramatic patterns divided their bodies into thirds: a pale green face, wide dark belt around the middle, and high contrast black and white splashes across the tail end. While giving us a few curious looks, they quickly changed back to their habitual striped pattern, then metamorphosed again as they resumed their previous activity. Fascinating!

Two Hawksbill Turtles greeted us at The Rocks, where the reef drops quickly to about 140 feet before leveling off. The top of the wall is only 20 feet deep, a wide sandy ledge liberally covered with flawless Venus Seafans up to six feet in diameter. The wall at Vespen de la Salina actually juts out from the main wall, forming perpendicular vertical faces at its start. Green and Purple Tube Sponges extend horizontally from the wall like cannons on a fortress and scores of encrusting corals, sponges and anemones add their own colors to the riotous palette. The dive ends at a sloping sandy plain filled with small, exotic creatures such as Garden Eels and Sailfin Blennies.

We were advised not to miss New Wall, promising that it would be the fishiest dive yet. The crew was right. First, a school of blue-tinted Boga darted by, pursued by a determined posse of Bar Jacks. They were casually followed by a Spotted Eagle Ray and a pack of Schoolmasters. A bit farther along we were circled by 50 or 60 Bermuda Chub which kept spinning around until a school of Horse-Eye Jacks joined the fray and disturbed their rhythm.

After lunch on Wednesday we were on the move again, up the shallow side of Cayo Sal to a pass between the mangrove islands called Boca de Cote. The reef here was an endless jumble of Brain and Star Coral, taking up every square foot of space beneath a jungle of tall gorgonians. New sightings this dive included schools of Ocean Triggerfish and Palometa, half a dozen Queen Trwiggerfish and seven huge African Pompano so shiny they appeared chrome-plated.

Early Thursday morning we visited the sharks at Las Gatas, a section of the reef where we expected to see congregating Nurse Sharks. We found six of them beneath the towering Star Coral heads, including one group of four. The sharks were just icing on the cake, though, because the corals were impressively huge and healthy, and the fish were like living curtains of color rippling in a gentle breeze.

The diving in Los Roques is exciting but easy. The current was mild to nonexistent, but we never had to fight it because the dive boat picked us up wherever we surfaced. Navigation was simply a matter of circling a pinnacle or keeping the wall on your right. What stands out most about Los Roques is the healthy condition of the corals, of course, because there is so little human impact here. Best of all was the splendid isolation. In a week of diving four or five times a day, we never saw a diver from another boat.

Camp Arekuna is a lodge of 15 duplex bungalows overlooking the Caroni River in the Canaima National Park. The accommodations are built in a traditional design with local materials. Power is available for limited hours during the evening, and there is plenty of fresh water for washing and showers but no hot water. A solar distillery provides drinking water from the river. Meals are served family style in the hilltop restaurant. uided tours leave the camp every morning and afternoon, on foot or by river boat. Light boots, sneakers or expedition style sandals would all be adequate footgear. Bring shampoo and a flashlight, as well as spare batteries and extra film. A hat, swimsuit, sunglasses, sunscreen and insect repellent are also highly recommended. Simplicity and informality prevail at Arekuna, so pack lightly.

Getting to and from Arekuna from Los Roques is via Linea Turistica Aereotuy (LTA). Arrangements for an Arekuna adventure can be made with Peter Hughes Diving when your dive trip is booked, and a LTA representative will assist you at each step after you leave Antares Dancer.

For complete information, write to Peter Hughes Diving, Inc., 1390 South Dixie Highway, Suite 1109, Coral Gables, FL 33146; phone (305) 669-9391 or (800) 932-6237, fax (305) 669-9475 or e-mail dancer@peterhughes.com. Visit their website at www.peterhughes.com.



Canaima National Park
Saturday morning the adventure continued with a flight to a remote lodge called Camp Arekuna. Flying on a twin turboprop of Linea Turistica Aereotuy, we crossed the wide Orinoco River, and entered the Canaima National Park. Only the second largest park in Venezuela, it encompasses 7.5 million acres of undisturbed forest, tabletop mountains and winding rivers.

After checking in at Arekuna, we reboarded the plane for an aerial tour of Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world. Our bird's-eye view was awesome. Rainbows sparkled up and down the tight column of water as it dropped 3,212 feet down the side of the mountain Auyan Tepuy. We then landed in the park for a walking tour of El Sapo Falls. Our group of 10 crossed the deep basin at the foot of the falls in a canoe carved from a single log and then hiked up to the top of El Sapo.

The second day of touring included a morning boattrip to a river island for a swim and a visit to a Pemon village. In addition to seeing how the local families lived, we got to taste some of their food, including root bread with a spicy hot sauce made from red ants. (I can testify that it will wake your sleeping taste buds.) Later, we swam beneath another waterfall and looked at the ancient petroglyphs carved into the river rock below the falls. With the river thundering in my ears I stood knee deep in the water and traced the carved faces lightly with my fingers.

In a land where little has changed in the last thousand years, both above and below the water, it was not difficult to feel a momentary connection with the artist who chiseled those faces in the stone.