|A school of bogas squirts across a Los Roques reefscape.|
Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao and Tobago—southern Caribbean islands famous for lush reef and dense fish life.
Strange then that Los Roques, Los Testigos, Margarita and the numerous other offshore islands of Venezuela are not. They're on the same latitude and in the same sea as the famous islands, have fewer crowds, and that world-away feeling that's increasingly hard to find.
Los Roques: The Caribbean with a Pacific Twist
|Another dive, another cave. This passageway cuts deep into the rocky heart of an island in the Los Roques archipelago.|
The area with the most recreational dive potential is the Los Roques archipelago. Located roughly 105 miles due north of Caracas, about 100 east of Bonaire, this ring of islands surrounds a large, shallow lagoon. Declared a national park in 1972, the more than 880 square miles of Los Roques are the oldest marine park in the Caribbean. The reefs are healthy and, in sheer numbers and diversity of fish, Los Roques looks more like an Indo-Pacific reef than a Caribbean one.
The lagoon acts as a nursery for all manner of fish life and is home to abundant conch. Tidal changes wash nutrients and juvenile fish out into open water, attracting manta rays and eagle rays, and fueling the growth of big gorgonians.
Outside the ring of islands there is a narrow ledge of shallow reef filled with staghorn and elkhorn corals that breach the surface at low tide. The drop-off begins anywhere from 25 to 45 feet with sloping reefs of brain and star corals. The reef slope can be anywhere from 45 to 70 degrees, and as it goes deeper, the slope is dominated by plate corals, orange elephant ear sponges and black corals. On many sites, you will also find mini-walls, small reef caves or reef-crest pinnacles.
The slopes can be swept by brisk currents or none at all, depending on time, day and conditions. If there is current, just ride with it. The dive boat follows the bubble trail and picks divers up when they surface.
While there are dive shops on the island of Gran Roque that take divers across the archipelago for two-tank day trips, the best way to see these islands is by live-aboard. The Antares Dancer (formerly the Antares III) is your only choice. The boat has been plying the reefs for years, but was recently upgraded—including complete dry-dock servicing—to cater to U.S. clients. Typical week-long itineraries leave from Gran Roque and work their way around the atoll counterclockwise to sample the best sites, including:
Depth: 30 to 140 feet.
Skill level: Intermediate.
The rock spire tops out at 30 feet, dropping to 60 feet on the inner side, and sloping to 140 on the open-ocean side. Covered with cup corals, encrusting sponges and sea rods, it's a gathering point for fish as diverse as queen angels and redlipped blennies, smooth trunkfish and black grouper.
|The splendid isolation of the islands makes them a stopping-off point for divers, sailors and pelicans.|
New Slope/New Wall/Caverns
Depth: 150 feet.
Skill level: Intermediate.
All three sites are located at the west end of Salt Cay. They include a current-swept mini-wall from 60 to 150 feet and a series of small caves at 90 to 100. There are fish aplenty from clouds of tiny fairy basslets to big cubera snapper. Spotted eagle rays on the steep reef slope never fail to please.
Boca De Cote
Depth: 45-70 feet.
Skill level: Intermediate.
The reef between two small islands stretches like a net to catch the nutrients and juvenile fish flowing out from the lagoon. This explains the presence of so many fish—including orange-spotted filefish, several varieties of blennies and massive schools of snapper. It's a beautiful dive that's over much too soon.
The Island Scene
Gran Roque is a small island of 1,000 or so full-time residents that is reminiscent of Utila in the Bay Islands—from the brake-smoking landing to the walk-through convenience of the entire settlement. The tidy fishing village is turning into a miniature tourist mecca as more and more Venezuelans and tourists alike discover its laid-back charm. There are posadas offering simple but comfortable lodgings and the emerald bay is a popular sailboat anchorage. On weekend nights the whole town turns out to dance the night away under the influence of ice-cold Polar beer. Joining in is an excellent way to celebrate the end of a great live-aboard trip.
During daylight surface intervals, you can climb the back hills of the island to see the old Danish lighthouse ruins and look out over rocky cliffs.
Los Roques Travel Savvy
The live-aboard company, Peter Hughes Diving, can make reservations for you, but if you're doing it yourself, the best option is to fly through Miami to Caracas. Flights from other cities often arrive too late in the day to connect to Los Roques, and require you to overnight in Caracas.
It's hard to leave Los Roques, not just because it's idyllic, but because LTA/Aerotuy flights (the only regular air service flying into the island) fill up fast, especially the popular morning flights to Caracas and Margarita Island. Both depart at roughly 7 a.m. and you can't check in in advance, so the small LTA office turns into a madhouse of sleepy-eyed travelers. Go early and bring your sense of humor. Live-aboard guests have an ace in the hole—since LTA (the parent company of Aerotuy) is a partner in the boat, the crew can help smooth your check-in process.
Learn to ID fish
Throughout 2000, REEF materials and training are available free on the Antares Dancer as part of a Fish ID contest offer on Peter Hughes live-aboards (for more information, call 800-932-6237). Every fish survey you complete is a chance to win a free Caribbean live-aboard trip for two. Besides, learning the behavior and names of fish will improve your enjoyment of diving. With such eye-popping diversity, Los Roques is a great place to learn.
Take a side trip
LTA is a full-service tour company that also owns posadas on Los Roques as well as at major tourist sites throughout Venezuela. Through the Peter Hughes folks you can book various side trips along with your dive vacation to exotic sites, including the famous Angel Falls (it's 15 times taller than Niagara) and the Canaima National Park in the interior highlands of the country.
Margarita Island: Cancun South
With high-rise resorts, casinos, an amusement park and world-famous Playa el Agua beach, Margarita Island seems a virtual twin of Cancun. The island is Venezuela's biggest tourist destination, drawing well-heeled Venezuelans and European guests.
The large island (355 square miles) is home to roughly 320,000 people and features diverse terrain from rocky hills that top out near 3,000 feet, to mangrove lagoons and arid scrubland. Most tourists stay in the largest city, Porlamar, close to the shopping centers, resorts, casinos and other tourist attractions.
Margarita is ringed by a number of satellite islands, each with a different dive potential. Some are accessible by day and half-day trips, while others require overnight or multi-day cruises.
The handful of dive shops on the island cater to resort guests on multi-sport vacations. They have seaworthy boats, knowledgeable dive guides and appropriate stocks of rental gear, but don't expect U.S.-style retail shops. Bring your own replacement parts and batteries. Most shops use sturdy, wooden-hulled outboard fishing boats for dive craft, giving the diving an adventurous feel.
Farrallone (Bird Rock)
Location: 5 miles off Porlamar.
The rocky slopes of this tiny island are considered a "beginner" site thanks to shallow depths (45 feet), but that shouldn't stop you from checking it out. Vis averages 60 to 100 feet on good days and the diversity of fish here can rival that of Los Roques. Although usually calm, the area can be awash in surge and current. Thanks to the close location, a two-tank trip has you back on land in time for lunch and afternoon sightseeing.
Los Frailes (The Friars)
Location: 10 miles northeast of Margarita.
The most popular day-trip diving on Margarita takes place in this collection of eight rocky islands that in colonial days were thick with oyster beds. Eight islands with two sides each equals 16 potential dive sites, each with a different combination of encrusted rock, hard-coral reef, and generous fields of gorgonians. Some shops make an event of the trip, with beach barbecues between dives.
Location: 28 miles southeast of Porlamar, though shops may shorten the run by leaving from Punta Piedras on the southwest corner of the island.
Cubagua was the site of the earliest European settlement in Venezuela, the fishing city of Nueva Cadiz. The town was eventually wiped out by a tidal wave and abandoned in the 1550s. Today the arid island is home to only a few itinerant fishing camps. Charagato Bay, on the north side of the island, is a very cool place to dive—figuratively and literally.
Thanks to the influence of a nearby ocean trench, the water of the bay stays in the upper 60s to low 70s year-round. But it's worth donning the extra neoprene (a 5mm suit and hood at a minimum) to see the twin wrecks and unique fish life found here.
The wrecks are marked by the tip of a ferryboat protruding from the water. The ferry went down in the 1970s under suspicious circumstances and came to rest on a sand slope, her stern under 45 feet of water. A salvage mission went awry and the tug that tried to raise her also went down, coming to rest just a few feet to the starboard side in the cold, greenish water. What really makes the dive interesting though is the diversity and abundance of fish. Massive schools of grunts, grouper and even trumpetfish become mere background for exotic species including the red banner benny, the Vieja (a seabass species found only in South America) and lesser electric rays hiding in the sand.
La Blanquilla (White Island) & Los Hermanos (The Brothers)
Location: Blanquilla is 60 miles north Juan Griego, 70 miles northwest of Porlamar. Los Hermanos is eight miles southeast of La Blanquilla.
La Blanquilla is a 72-square-mile limestone island shaped like an arrowhead and named for bright white sand beaches. Blanquilla is also the home of Venezuelan wall diving, sitting as it does on the edge of a deep open trench. The wall starts just 65 feet from shore, and plummets straight down more than 3,000 feet. At some spots, including Piedra del Ahogado (Drowned Man's Rock), coral pinnacles scratch the water's surface. The walls are also rich with black corals, which are increasingly hard to find throughout the world.
Los Hermanos are five rock spires rising up from the depths to form a convenient anchorage for fishing boats. The crews often clean their catch here, discarding the slop overboard where it is manna from heaven for a dense collection of fat and happy fish—from moray eels to barracuda to triggerfish.
Location: 45 miles northeast of Porlamar.
The most remote of the Venezuela islands, "The Witnesses" are inhabited by a handful of interconnected fishing families who jealously protect the rich bounty of these islands, which are awash in the Orinoco flow and ocean currents. There's a coast guard outpost that you check in with and that's supposed to administer the rules (no spearfishing on scuba, no shark fishing) but the real protection comes from the families who jealously guard the resources from outside encroachment. You have to get in good with the jefes of the island by bringing them gifts and hiring them as your guides to the island.
Putting together a trip to Los Testigos requires lots of planning. First, you need to charter a boat with the proper permits to dive here. Then you'll need to arrange through one of the shops for a compressor or a sufficient number of tanks. Finally, you need a divemaster who knows the island residents and can negotiate their services.
The rocky reefs feature low-profile encrusting, heavy on sponges, tunicates and other invertebrates instead of hard corals, but there is an abundance of fish life. Visibility and conditions in Los Testigos are spotty. They are the first islands to get the blast of Orinoco Delta runoff and they are awash in open ocean swells and current. This is advanced diving where visibility can vary day by day, dive by dive, as can wind, current and swell. The sites are not deep (80 feet max), but you need to be able to sink fast, stay neutral, do floating safety stops and handle shifting currents.