DOMINICIA - May 2012

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

Dominica (pronounced Dome-in-NEE-ca, not Do-MIN-i-ca) was a new destination for us. Although some people who did this trip with us had gone to Dominica before, I personally had not. So we'll provide answers right away what are the usually the last questions:
                   1. Did we have a good time? Yes.
                   2. Will we go back again? Yes.

Our group for this trip was 13 strong: Audrey & Marlow Anderson, Bill & Carol Bailey, Marilyn & Tony Dahle, Di Krall, Sophie Lappas, Nancy Morris, Tamar Toitser, Susan Oder, Pat O'Brien, and me (Ken Kurtis). Audrey/Marlow/Bill/Carol/Pat were the repeaters. Everyone else was a first-timer.

I must confess that my reference point for this trip, and unfairly I think, was Bonaire. Bonaire is very well-developed, has a great infrastructure, regular flights in and out from all parts of the world, and has most of the comforts of home. And while Dominica is by no means a third-world country, it's not as well-developed as Bonaire. That has pluses and minuses.

On the minus side (as the Rolling Stones so aptly put it), you can't always get what you want. Water pressure at the hotel (at least in my room) was low, they sometimes ran out of food items, and the menu selection at many restaurants in town (Roseau) was limited. On the other hand, to quote Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. I happen to like that part of it.

There's no question you're in a foreign country but not one so foreign that you feel out of place. Everyone speaks English and with that lovely Caribbean accent/lilt. All the people we dealt with were well-educated and well-spoken, we quickly learned about riding the local buses into town (small mini-vans really - US$1), credit cards are readily accepted as is US cash, and everyone is phenomenally friendly and helpful. Nothing wrong with any of that.

We stayed at Castle Comfort Lodge, a small dive-dedicated place just south of the main town of Roseau. The resort is congenially managed by Ari Perryman and they are partnered with Dive Dominica, which is right on the property. (More on that in a moment.) There are only 14 rooms - we had seven of them - so it's not like you're going to feel very crowded. We liked that too.

The rooms themselves are nice but each one's a little different. Some have two beds, some have one (kings & queens). Rooms 14, 15, 10, & 8 have ocean views. Rooms 14, 15, 16, & 17 are over the dive shop & office so you hear some tank clanging during the day (which I didn't find to be a problem). Rooms 5 & 6 are on the ground level looking out into the courtyard and seem to have been recently refurbished. Of the rooms we had, I thought 6 was the nicest (not that the others were bad). Rooms 1 &2 are on the second floor facing the street, so you not only picked up some street noise but also got some kitchen sounds because they're right by the main dining area. The rooms had a desk, ample storage (though some people wished for more shelves), a balcony (except for 2 - not sure about 1), stall shower (some nicer than others), and both 220V and 110V outlets. There was even a TV in every room, though the cable worked in some rooms but not others. And - my favorite - free Wi-Fi throughout the resort.

But the take-away here is that if you're going to visit them, you might want to try to nail down specifically which room you'll be in because there's definitely a difference that goes beyond their two listed classes of "standard" and "ocean view."

Breakfast is included with the dive package. It's served on the second floor of the main building overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and they had tables set for each of the three groups staying there (us, turtle taggers from IFAW - International Fund for Animal Welfare, and a family from Colorado).

One of the problems is that breakfast is listed as starting at 7:30AM. And with your dive boat leaving at 8:45AM, that can make things a little tight. However, it really didn't become an issue because they very quickly adapted to serving us whenever we arrived. I usually went down around 6:45 for tea and they were generally bring me my standard order (large fruit plate, bacon, & toast) by 7AM. Others were served when they arrived and the menu choices included eggs-to-order, pancakes, and French toast in addition to what I got. It took a day or two to get the sked accelerated but that actually worked out fine.

Lunches and dinners are available but not included in the standard dive package. And I don't know why, but especially early in the week, service was abysmally slow. (It shouldn't take an hour to get as hamburger.) However, once we brought this to Ari's attention, she must have cracked the whip because things imported markedly.

The quality of the food was a little hit and miss. I had a hamburger that was so-so. But we also had a BBQ ribs lunch one day that was fabulous. Ditto for a BBQ chicken kebob dinner. I order "pork chops" the first night and while it was good, the menu should have read "pork chop" because there was only one. And it wasn't until Friday that I tried the chicken roti at lunch (sort of a Caribbean burrito) and that was excellent.

We also opted a couple of nights, including our final night, to call the local Pizza Hut and had pizzas delivered. That actually worked out great for our farewell dinner as the oceanside deck provided us with ample room (the drink bar is down here too for both soft and hard beverages - they generally serve lunch & dinner both there and in the second-floor breakfast area as well) plus there's an HDTV there so I was able to show trip stills and videos.

As I mentioned earlier, Dive Dominica is right on the property and they were simply top-notch. At first glance, it doesn't look like much. There are really only two rooms, one for dive gear and storage and the other the dive shop. Both are packed with tanks, both air and nitrox (which I thought was a bit pricey at $13.50 per tank), and new or new-new rental gear. Sophie rented an Sherwood Avid BC that looked brand new and which she loved. And we had a couple of minor gear issues (leaks and such) that were easily resolved.

Dive Dominica has a great fleet of dive boats, five in all. We dove one of their larger boat, the Olga, a 47-foot aluminum catamaran and that was more than ample for the 13 of us. Olga has a single bow entry and dual stern entry gates, two stern ladders for getting back on, a head, a dry area, plenty of tank stations, and even an upper sun deck. They've also got a smaller boat, and a slight larger boat for whale watching, and a huge boat for even bigger groups (though I think it's way too big to use for diving).

Each morning they load up the boats with the requisite number of tanks and they also load all the personal gear for each diver. So you walk out to their dock, sign in on a pre-printed sheet, walk onto the boat, find your gear, hook up your first tank, and you're ready to go.

The diving we did was all in the marine reserve which encompasses the southern end of the island and even wraps around into the Atlantic side. The weather was OK but we had wind and rain off and on that they said was extremely unusual for this time of the year. Dominica straddles both the Atlantic on the east side and the Caribbean on the west side so all of our diving was in the Caribbean. Runs to the dive sites were generally no more than 20 minutes and the game plan was always for two-tanks dives, which got us back to Castle Comfort around 1PM. Dive times were maxed at one hour with a one-hour surface interval. You were asked not to exceed 100 feet on the first dive and 50 feet on the second dive and that worked well. Also, they didn't act like the Scuba Police if you strayed a bit deeper.

All the dives were guided with two guides, one front and one back, and we couldn't have been happier with our lead guide Emron. (Not Enron, as he pointed out the first day.) Emron, besides being knowledgeable and congenial, was quite good at spotting things from turtles to sea horses to frogfish to arrow blennies and just about anything else. He carries one of those Quest erasable underwater slates and he writes down the name of what he spotted, shows the slate to everyone, and then points out the critter.

I was also really impressed and amazed by the variety of the diving topography within what seemed like the relatively small area of the marine reserve. Sometimes we would move no more than few hundred yards and the terrain was totally different. Even on some specific moorings (Scotts Head Dropoff immediately comes to mind) it you went north it was one thing and if you went south it was something totally different. That made things very nice.

Water temp was a shade cooler than what you might normally get, running around 78-80. Visibility was as low as 30 feet on one or two sites early in the week (possibly due to rain runoff) but approached 100 feet on other sites. Average was probably 50-60.

One thing that I would have liked would have been some sort of a snack between dives. I think it's really terrific that they do a full one-hour surface interval (especially because so many people were diving air instead of nitrox) but a nosh would have been good. Again using the perhaps unfair Bonaire comparison, there they have cut-up fruit (watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple) between dives. That would have been a nice addition here as well. But the absence of fruit didn't diminish the enjoyment of the diving.

I think the first thing I noticed was how many Barrel Sponges there were. They're not only everywhere, but they're HUUUUGE. Barrel sponges can get big anyhow but these were on steroids. Ones that were 5-7 feet tall were the norm, not the exception.

The other thing that was HUUUGE were the Arrow Crabs. (OK, granted it's a relative term.) They were not only plentiful - I've never seen so many Arrow Crabs in one destination before - but some of them were really massive . . . as Arrow Crabs go.

Also plentiful were the Banded Coral Shrimp and the Pederson's Shrimp, a small, delicate purple shrimp with white feelers who perform cleaning tasks for all sorts of fish. Pederson's were just about everywhere you looked and they were always waving their antennae and twitching their bodies to indicate that they were open for cleaning business. (I even got a manicure from a few of them.)

And when you see animals in this type of profusion, it makes you go: Why? Why is it that in THIS location you seemingly have an explosion of a couple of species that if you go a few hundred miles away to another island they are not as plentiful. I don't know what the answer is - there can obviously be numerous variables - but it gets you to thinking. And sometimes just a little change - perhaps more nutrients in the water, less trash, or whatever - can make a big difference. It also underscores what I've said for years, that diving is the greatest scavenger hunt in the world because you never know what you're going to find and if you go back to the same place later, it'll be different.

A good example of that thought was found on the house reef shore dives that we did almost every day. We were told from the first day that they had spotted a Batfish that lived somewhere in the vicinity. It was simply a matter of finding where he was at any particular time.

The reef is a combination of sandy bottom and coral and was always interesting to explore as well as easy to get to. You simply walked to the end of the Dive Dominica pier, put on your fins, and did a giant stride into the water. A permanent ladder attached there made for a fairly easy exit at the end of the dive. And then was a heavy rope that was tied to the pier and which ran straight out to about 40 feet of water. So on the way back you simply needed to find the rope and you knew the way home.

We set out on Monday to find the Batfish but had no luck. We did see a profusion of Arrow Crabs and Pederson's Shrimps and also noticed that the sea urchins were all quite exposed and sitting on top of rocks rather than being hidden in crevices during the day. (I brought home a few sea urchin "souvenirs" when I didn't watch where my legs were.)

We also saw thousand of Garden Eels almost everywhere in the sand. It's probably the healthiest collection of Garden Eels I've ever seen. Although, like most Garden Eels, they retreated when you got close, they seemed to retreat more slowly and let you get closer than usual.

There were also numerous pufferfish on the house reef, ranging from the little Sharpnose Puffers to the medium-sized Balloonfish (which most people think of as Porcupine Puffers, but Porcupinefish are really the very large species). In fact we even saw two of them mating. Or at least trying to mate. Well, one of them was trying to mate. I'm assuming it was the male who was being amorous and the female who was being demur (isn't that always the case???) but I will say he was persistent, following her every move in unison and literally staying right on her side.

But no Batfish. Tuesday, however, would prove different.

We covered the same territory and struck out. But just as we reached the rope and were going to head in, Bill Bailey came over to us and motioned for me to follow him. And he led me right back to an area we'd covered previously and there was the Batfish, perched in all his glory on his pectoral fins.

Batfish are weird to say the least. It always seems like they have a pissed-off look on their face. I've only seen one before, and that was a Red-lipped Batfish in the Galapagos. But they're interesting to see and observe. The sit fairly motionless, perched on their pecs and their pelvic fins, the latter sort which have sort of flattened out a bit. When they feel the need to move, it's in short bursts close to the sandy bottom, with the fish butts wiggling and their pelvic "wings" flailing. They don't really swim as much as they do run along the bottom. Like I said, weird. (So MY kind of fish. My dad always says I was a weird kid so I felt a kinship with Batfish.)

Wednesday afternoon I went out by myself and made a beeline to where we'd spotted the Batfish the previous day and was delighted to find that he was in the area again. And as I started shooting him, I suddenly realized (and actually shouted to myself underwater) "Holy, crap, there's TWO of them!!!" And sure enough, he had a companion who was definitely not in the area that day before.

Based on a differences in size and slight color variations (the larger one was darker), I'm assuming this is Mr. & Mrs. Batfish. And looking at the Tuesday & Wednesday shots together, I think we only had the Mrs. on Tuesday. But my Wednesday experience underscores the scavenger hunt thought: You never know what you'll find and if you wait a bit, it'll be different.

We dove the house reef just about every day, a couple of times as an afternoon dive followed by a dusk/night dive, and it seemed that our group were the only ones diving it. As I said earlier, it was "OK" as dive sites go but there was plenty to see and it was quite easy to spend an hour underwater and not get bored. Besides, I'm always a big fan of diving the same site multiple times so you can begin to appreciate the changes and differences on a day-to-day basis.

But the big attraction were the reefs we accessed by boat, located within the marine reserve. Of those, probably the most unique is one known as Champagne. You actually start the dive at an adjacent site called Coral Gardens. It's a fabulous collection of coral patch reefs, festooned with all kinds of good stuff to see along the way, including an enormous Hawksbill turtle that we found a couple of times under a ledge and a Banded Jawfish who was peeking out of his burrow of rocks in the middle of some sandy sea grass.

As you move north and come to Champagne, you realize that there are streams of fresh water bubbles coming up through the sand and rock. And that's why the site gets its name, because it bubbles like champagne. They think it's due to some geologic activity because you can actually feel that the bubbles are much warmer than the surrounding water. It's a little gimmicky but it's a nice dive and provided a good night diving spot for us too on the one boat night dive that we did.

Over the course of the week we did twelve day boat dives, one night boat dive, and six shores dives. We had some really good dives and a couple of fantastic dives. Dominica's a bit off the beaten path but not all that hard to get to. You fly to San Juan (Puerto Rico) either through Dallas or Miami (or even New York) and then into Dominica. Castle Comfort & Dive Dominica have an attractively-priced week-long package but be aware that some of the add-ons (nitrox, night dive, whale watch) might seem a little pricey.

But it was definitely a wonderful trip to a new place that can certainly become a regular stop on the Reef Seekers yearly tour of Dive Destinations of the World. Be sure to check out the pictures and videos that are posted on our web pages so you can get a taste of what diving Dominica has to offer and maybe next year, YOUR name will be on our list of participants.

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