As a New England diver for the last 17 years, I've learned one thing: there is nothing more sacred or guarded than the location of the "secret spot." So imagine my surprise when I discovered mine nestled snugly in the Eastern Caribbean and found myself bursting at the seams to share it with the world.
More than 500 years after Columbus first landed here, the production designers for Pirates of the Caribbean chose Dominica's landscape as one of its scenic backdrops. Where better to film a story set 300 years ago than in a place that looks like it hasn't changed since then?
The island is just as unchanged below the surface, too. A lack of diving pressure and strict local enforcement of marine park regulations mean that Dominica's underwater marine life has thrived. But what's happening on this island-an energy so palpable it feels like you could pull it from the air-comes from more than the velvet peaks and sponge-encrusted ocean floor. Dominica's possibilities are far more than a mere listing of its many natural attractions.
As islands go, Dominica's barely an adolescent-a mere 5,000 years old. The relative newness of the reef means there is a volcanic base that facilitates a staggering amount of marine growth. Close proximity to deep water means that nutrients are constantly kept in the shallows, creating an unusually healthy ecosystem upon which the fish stocks of Dominica thrive. The reef system is dominated by sponges, crinoids, sea fans, whips and black corals. The rock base offers few hiding places, so most creatures live on the outside of the reefs' boulder structure. It's as if nature put together a wish list for divers and created the perfect destination.
So the real question is simple: Where do you want to dive first? Dominica's diving can be broken down into three distinct regions. All of them have something to offer, each of them something unique to discover. The dramatic, volcanic topography in the northwest gave rise to its remarkable dive sites: huge boulders that slid into the sea have created cave-like swim-throughs and reef substrate. The sea bottom in the middle of the island is not as spectacular as the sites found to the north or south; still, there's lots to explore. You can stay shallow and explore the reeftop or the sand flats, where it's not uncommon to find frogfish and batfish, or drop down the wall and look for larger pelagics. The majority of visiting divers, however, come for the electrifying diving found along the southwestern coast. This area is marked by deep walls, pinnacles and stunning valleys that create a thrilling seascape.
Scotts Head and the Southwest
In fact, you could describe the southern tip of Dominica as wild, dramatic and exciting, and it wouldn't be an overstatement. Multiple sites offer varying degrees of difficulty on the same dive, reefs with sheer slopes, pinnacles and seamounts. The sites in Soufrière Bay, on the Caribbean side of the island's southern tip, dot the rim of an ancient volcanic crater that drops vertically to beyond 1,500 feet-wall diving at its best. One popular site in the bay, Dangleben's Pinnacles, is a series of seamounts that begins in deep water and reaches to within 30 feet. Huge schools of fish like blackbar soldierfish and horse-eye jacks inhabit the deep reef, making this site a favorite of local divers.
A bit farther south, Scotts Head Pinnacle sits where the Caribbean and Atlantic converge, and with nutrients flying by fast and furious, it's a veritable crap shoot in terms of what you can expect to see. The dive usually begins at Swiss Cheese, a large rock formation home to Soldierfish Cave. This swim-through is usually packed with blackbar soldierfish, and is a popular photo op. Nearby Champagne Reef is key to the Dominica experience, notable for its volcanic activity in the shallows. The inshore patches of reef emit streams of bubbles and hot vents and is shallow enough for snorkelers to enjoy.
The Atlantic side of Dominica can be tough to maneuver, but on a good day, it's among the best diving anywhere and features humongous barrel sponges measuring 15 feet across. Off Pointe des Fous, the eponymous reef is subject to rough seas, but when conditions are favorable enough for operators to take you there, you'll find a sponge- and coral-decorated wall that starts in only 25 feet of water. Keep an eye out for white-tip sharks and barracuda cruising by.
Scotts Head And The Southwest
Cabrits peninsula has been a national park for some time now, but plans are in the works to turn its underwater splendor into the second legitimate marine reserve in Dominica. The peninsula is essentially an outcrop that juts out into sea, and most dives here start on a slope and drop steeply and dramatically into the deep. Toucari Caves is easily one of the best photo opportunities in the north. It starts as a muck dive through a boulder base and offers encounters with frogfish and seahorses before you move onto a brilliant slope. Encrusted with a blanket of coral cover, the slow drop-off leads to swim-throughs that resemble a small cavern system, the result of huge boulders that have tumbled into the ocean for thousands of years. Look for copper sweepers and lobster here. Sunshine Reef actually begins in the same boulder system and sports brilliant pink and purple sponges. Large schools of snapper, grunts, soldierfish, eels and shrimp abound here. Shark's Mouth is the southernmost of the Cabrits sites. You most likely won't find sharks (the site got its name from a giant sponge whose opening resembled a shark's gaping mouth), but you'll find lots to explore on the bouldery substrate.
Salisbury and Mid-island
Diving in the central section of Dominica tends to be a bit easier than points north or south, and features a gentle continental shelf slope. This is the place for loads of soft corals and huge sponges. It's not uncommon to see eagle rays, king mackerel or even tuna. A number of sites are clustered off the area known as Grande Savane. Rena's Hole, a shallow 50-foot dive with a large swim-through, is a young reef that's clouded with swarms of juvenile snapper, grunts and grouper. Creole wrasse patrol the edges of the reef in huge numbers, and this just might be the best place to encounter rays. Nose Reef starts shallow as well, but has a sharp drop over the shelf where literally anything can show up. Stay shallow and look for critters like anemones and cleaner shrimp, or head off the wall and look for the occasional yellowfin tuna. Whale Shark Reef was named for a baby whale shark that several years ago followed a group of divers around for the duration of their stay. You probably won't encounter any whale sharks, but you may spot larger pelagics like spotted eagle rays and amberjacks. As you ascend, you'll find plenty of yellowhead jawfish in the sand at the top of the wall.
The Caribbean's Best-kept Secret
In Scuba Diving's most recent "Top 100 Readers' Choice Awards," Dominica received more kudos than it ever has previously: No. 1 best destination for small animals, marine life and healthiest marine environment, No. 3 overall for best dive destination and No. 5 for best wall diving. Yet Dominica's number of annual scuba visitors pales in comparison to other Caribbean locations. "Bonaire gets 30,000 divers every year; we get 3,500," says Simon Walsh, director of the Dominica Watersports Association. How has this Eden been able to stay so pristine and so secret for so long?
"The quick, easy answer would be the lack of flights that can come into our small airport and the overall lack of knowledge about the island," says Dr. Lenox Honeychurch, Dominican native and longtime historian of the island. "We have no white sand beaches or casinos, no chain hotels to speak of. You have to want to come here. Dominica isn't like an entrée on a menu; you must seek it out. People who come to Dominica are environmentally minded people. Having visited other regions, I can certainly see how they would be awe-inspired by our preservation."
The island's natural attractions are exhilarating. Dominica is one of the most highly concentrated volcanic areas in the world-and its eight potentially active volcanoes serve as a collective metaphor for the energy that seems ready to burst here.
On this East Caribbean gem, there's always another corner to explore, another waterfall, another valley, another reef. With all due respect to the few of you who have been hoarding Dominica to yourself, I'm sorry. Your secret spot has been discovered.
Though Dominica's waters are home to at least six species of cetaceans, sperm whales are found year-round, with encounters most likely between the months of October and March. The island's deep bays offer shelter for the whales and an ideal environment for mating and calving. Most of the island's dive operators take groups on weekly excursions. Eco-conscious operators follow strict codes of conduct on these excursions. They do not lure the whales and they strive to minimize disturbing them. In-water encounters with sperm whales (or any other marine mammal encounters) are not permitted, but half-day topside excursions are open to anyone. Most operators use hydrophones to pick up the distinctive clicking sounds that sperm whales make, and encounters in season are nearly guaranteed. Average price: About $60 per person. For more info, visit www.dominicawatersports.com.
No matter how you prefer your topside adventures-mild or wild or something in between-you'll love Dominica's rainforest hikes, many of which lead to stunning waterfalls. Bring a camera, sturdy hiking boots and a don't-care-if-I-get-wet attitude. Here's a sampling, ranked from easy to challenging:
Hiking Difficulty: Easy. Guide: No. What You'll See: A serene grotto at the base of a 40-foot waterfall in the center of the island. Getting There: From Roseau, take the road to Castle Bruce; it's just a short walk into the rainforest. It can get crowded if cruise ship visitors are also making the trek. Wear a bathing suit for a (chilly) dip in the pool. Ten minutes round-trip.
Hiking Difficulty: Easy. Guide: No, but guides are available if you want to get to the path between the two falls. What You'll See: Adjacent waterfalls with a picturesque boulder-rimmed pool. Getting There: The visitor's center is northeast of Roseau, and it's a very short walk from the center to a roomy viewing platform. You can scramble over some rocks and swim at the base of the smaller waterfall. Twenty minutes round-trip.
Hiking Difficulty: Intermediate. Guide: No. What You'll See: A striking waterfall that drops from 200 feet in the heart of the rainforest. Getting There: Trails exist from both the Laudat side or the Cochrane side (the one from the Laudat side is the easiest to drive to). You'll make a steep climb at the beginning, then an easy trek through the rainforest. You'll need sure footing to get over some rocks as you descend toward the falls and pool. Three hours round-trip.
Hiking Difficulty: Challenging. Guide: Recommended. What You'll See: A pool that's perfect for cooling off at the rocky base of this beautiful waterfall. Getting There: Accessible via the southeast coast village of La Plaine. It's a slippery walk at times as you scramble over boulders alongside and across the Sari Sari River. Two hours round-trip.
Hiking Difficulty: Challenging. Guide: Required. What You'll See: Dominica's tallest mountain at more than 4,700 feet, and the chance to see the endemic jaco and sisserou parrots. Getting There: The trek starts in Dublanc on the northwest coast, goes straight up, and involves strenuous climbing. Spectacular views at the top, if the clouds lift. Six to eight hours round-trip, so start early.
Water temperatures are mild year-round, never dipping below 75 degrees. Visibility is always at least a respectable 60 feet, and sometimes can exceed more than 100 feet.
Tropical wet climate with characteristically warm temperatures and heavy rain, though showers tend to end quickly. Average daytime temps generally vary from 79 degrees in January to 90 degrees in June. Cooler in the rainforest-bring rain gear if you're planning to hike.
Taxis are the best means of transportation.
U.S. and Canadian citizens need a passport and a return or ongoing ticket.
The official currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$2.68 = US$1 fixed), but the U.S. dollar is widely accepted. There is a EC$55 departure tax (about US$20).
English is the official language, but many locals speak Creole, a French patois.
220/240 volts, 50 cycles.
www.anchoragehotel.dm; Cabrits Dive Centre, www.cabritsdive.com; Dive Castaways Beach Hotel & Resort, www.castaways-dominica.com; Castle Comfort Dive Lodge and Dive Dominica, www.castlecomfortdivelodge.com; East Carib Dive, www.east-carib-dive.com; Nature Island Dive, www.natureislanddive.com; Sunset Bay Club and Seaside Dive Center, www.sunsetbayclub.com.Anchorage Hotel and Dive Centre,