The whale stopped and looked at me,
turning her whole body to get a good view. Then, from 30 feet below me, she ascended, effortlessly, as if propelled by an invisible force. At the surface, she turned towards me and began to click. the clicking was loud, not so much a sound as a sharp pulse which I could feel pounding my chest.
Her echolocation penetrated my body and bounced back. Who knows what she could sense from this. Could she tell Iím an air-breathing creature like herself? Again, she turned sideways so she could see me (Sperm Whales canít rotate their eyes in their sockets) and watched as I floated. I clicked too, but the click came from my camera. I had almost forgotten the camera, I had become so entranced by this whale. She was curious and had found some entertainment in the funny-looking human floating at the surface.
As an underwater photographer specializing in large animals, I had ventured to Dominica on a tip that I might be able to find Sperm Whales. I hired a boat to take me out to work with the whales and had several days of closeóbut not close enough for picturesóencounters. At last, I was engaged in a photo quality encounter. A group of five whales got bored enough to give the pathetic human some attention and pose. But within an hour, the whales lost interest in me and swam away. After several days in the water, I had exposed just a few rolls of film, but what rolls they were!
They call Dominica ďThe Nature Island,Ē and they arenít kidding. This small island-nation in the Caribbean (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) has 91 miles of coastline surrounded by deep blue water. The water teems with pelagics, from whales to dolphins to billfish. A day on the ocean might provide glimpses of Spinner Dolphins, Spotted Dolphins, Pilot Whales, Sperm Whales, Humpback Whales, tuna and even Swordfish. My kind of place. The island itself generally elicits one immediate thought: vertical. With lofty mountains surrounded in clouds, deep valleys plummeting to the ocean, more than 300 crystal clear rivers and dozens of monstrous waterfalls, my first impression of Dominica staggered my imagination. I have never seen anyplace like it. If there is an Eden, it must be Dominica.
Diving in Dominica is done mostly on the west (Caribbean) side of the island, where it is protected from the trade winds on the Atlantic side. There are dive sites all up and down the island, but my experiences proved that the very best sites are those of the south end.
The southern town of Soufriere near Scottís Head is on the edge of a submerged crater, where there are many excellent dive sites. Dive operations maintain moorings at all these sites to protect the reefs. You canít go wrong on any of them, although Danglebendís Pinnacles blew me away with its incredible topography and clear water. Underwater, steep drop-offs combined with colorful coral and sponge growth made for fabulous wide-angle photography.
Visibility on Dominica is variable because rainfall can stir up the reefs with runoff. However, I never experienced poor visibility. It ran between 50 and 100 plus feet during my stay, depending on the dive site. The nature of Dominica is that currents can change, and a dive site with bad viz might have excellent viz the next day. One dive site on my trip went from 50 feet to a pristine 100 plus overnight.
Dominica is an unsurpassed critter island. The sheer variety and abundance of animals make it an underwater photographerís paradise. The reefs bristle with zillions of golden crinoids sticking out of every crack and sponge. Dominica is legendary for frogfish and seahorses. I even saw several Flying Gurnards!
The variety of creatures is nowhere more evident than on the night dives. I had to ration film, and I cursed Fuji for not making a 50 frame roll of Velvia. On one dive I encountered two octopuses free swimming, a seahorse, several feeding basket stars, Lesser Electric Rays and more balloonfish than I can remember seeing anywhere. At Castaways Hotel, the dive staff was willing to accommodate our desire to do later night dives so we could see the incredible number of feeding basket stars, many of which donít come out until long after sunset. The kitchen even held dinner for us until we got back to the dock at 10:00 pm. Now thatís service!
Since tourism is not the biggest industry in Dominica (itís bananas), there are no high-rise hotels, casinos, duty-free shops or the normal tourist infrastructure. Most restaurants have a limited menu, and items such as odd-sized camera
batteries are impossible to find. The plus side of all this
is that Dominica is a true nature paradise.
Air service is provided by American and Liat Airlines. Because the runway is short, large jets cannot land on the island. Book your trip in advance because seats on the smaller planes are limited. Also, pack your carry-on wisely, baggage can be delayed a day if you have a close connection in San Juan.
For all my gushing about the critters, you would think I never got out of the water. Actually, Dominica has charms that lure even the most dedicated bubble-blowers away from the ocean. It is overflowing with lush rain forests filled with things to do. For starters, there are dozens of huge waterfalls.
I admit itóIím a sucker for waterfalls. I love to photograph them, and I really love to swim in their pools. Imagine my surprise when I went to Trafalgar Falls (a twin pair of waterfalls more than 200 feet tall) and there was nobody there but me and my girlfriend, Christine. The clear, cool water comes from a lake at the top of the island, which is perpetually surrounded in clouds. The rainfall drives the ecosystem of the rain forests and keeps the rivers flowing. I visited six different waterfalls, each beautiful and each completely without tourists. (Hint: skinny-dipping opportunities!) Most require a hike of between 10 and 30 minutes from the road. Some of the remote waterfalls are hard to find without a guide, so locals hire themselves out as guides for whatever you choose to pay them. I found them very helpful and well worth the money, not to mention a great source of local knowledge on good places to eat and see wildlife.
There are more than waterfalls. For the physically fit, a hike to the Boiling Lake makes for an exciting day. Three hours each way through the rain forest takes hikers to a lake where volcanic activity keeps the temperature at a fairly constant 190įF. Itís a little warm for swimming, but perfect for boiling eggs. (A serious note here: People have died after falling into the lake. It really is boiling.) Returning from the hike brings hikers past Titou Gorge, perfect for a cool swim to wash off the sweat. But Tetou Gorge is an attraction all its own. There, I pretended I was Indiana Jones as I swam up a crystal clear river, which is completely surrounded by high cliffs, finally reaching a waterfall where the locals showed me how to climb up and dive in. What a blast!
Dominica became independent from Britain in 1978, but as a condition for independence, the nation had to set up large preserves of park land. Today, about one-third of Dominica is National Parks, completely protected from construction, hunting and deforestation. Two rare endemic parrots survive in the wild and Dominica boasts one of the last remaining true rain forest wilderness ecosystems in the Caribbean.
Because Dominica is volcanic in origin, there are precious few beaches. One white-sand beach can be found on the remote north side of the island, and black sand beaches dot the island here and there, but most of the coastline is rocky. If you like beaches, night clubs and shopping, Dominica is definitely not for you. But if you like nature, incredible diving, hiking and adventure, this is the place. The island made quite an impression on me. I like to see new places, and I rarely choose to re-visit an island when I can see someplace else, but I have already booked a trip to return to Dominica next year. Itís an unforgettable and magical islandóEden indeed.