St. Barth - On the Dive Map
The Background:Last week I returned from my second vacation in St Barth's since December. Searches here and else where turned up no information about diving this island so I felt like something of a pioneer diving there. I hope this trip report will be helpful for anyone who might end up on island and wants to dive. While the allure of St Barth's certainly has more to do with the great beaches, great food and it's laid-bach French atmosphere, the diving is certainly of good quality and a welcome diversion.
I spent four days in St Barth's early last December and squeezed in a couple days of diving. There didn't seem to be a lot of fish or coral life and I returned with the impression that there really wasn't much to see in the island's waters. This most recent trip completely erased that experience and I found the diving, even on the same sites that I visited in December, to be pretty darn good.
St. Barthelemy is a small island of only eight square miles about 10 miles from the south east shore of St. Martin. It's accessible by ferry from St. Martin, or by small aircraft. Landing at the airport on their tiny, tiny airstrip is as extreme anything you'd see on the X games. It's part of the French West Indies which includes Guadaloupe and Martinique, so culture and language the island is decidedly French, though english is spoken by almost everyone.
This time I was traveling with my family and we rented a villa on Flamands beach which served as our base of operations. I got my Open Water on my Honeymoon six years ago and only 50 dives under my belt since then. Besides this trip we've been planning a long week-end in Grand Cayman in July and a week in Hawaii in September, so I knew I'd be diving more this year. Since I'm exclusively a vacation and warm-water diver I thought this would be a good time to improve my skills a little and get Advanced Open Water taken care of. I knew the cert would be more like Open Water II, but since my experience in December was less than thrilling I thought I could at least occupy myself with a little continuing education. Also, since I've read that the folks in Cayman sometimes require an AOW C-card or a recently logged deep dive before they'll let you visit some sites, I had another good reason to get my skills in shape.
This was also my first trip with a new digital camera and housing, the Canon Powershot S400 and WP-DC800 housing.
In 1996 St. Barth created a Marine Reserve to protect coral, sea life and fisheries. The coral was damaged by hurricanes in the early 90s as well as less-than-careful anchoring, so the reserve was wisely established to return it to health. On this trip I saw a lot of fish and healthy coral so it seems to be working.
At a restaurant on my first night a guy I was talking to recommended a different dive op to me, Plongee Caraibes. They do an excellent job and have the most comfortable dive boat I've ever been on. It's not fast, but most of the dive sites near their port in the town of Gustavia are close at hand and in the marine reserve. In the picture below the area we dove is the protected zone in the lower left. There are other operators that work out of Gustavia, as well as some folks on St. Jean and in Cul De Sac on the Island's northeastern shore.
The folks at Plongee Caraibes were very thorough and professional and speak French and English. They treated the AOW course seriously and there was never a time when I felt that they weren't 100% concerned about diver safety. On some dives there were just 2 or 3 of us, and on others entire families diving together. There were also some kids getting their junior c-cards so it looks like PC does a good amount of instruction.
St Barth is a volcanic island and most of the dive sites were on or near these small, rocky volcanic outcroppings that surround the island. Underwater they form these coral encrusted rock gardens with shallow wals and lots of nooks and crannies for various critters. Vis always seemed to be in the 80 foot range and water temperatures of 84 at the surface and 81 at depth.
Pain de Sucre (Sugarloaf)
79 feet for 51 minutes
This was my first dive back in December when I found low vis, sparse coral and a mild current. This visit was totally different with great vis and lots of fish and coral. This was the first of 4 dives that we'd find turtles on and this little guy wasn't very shy, hanging out for minutes while we snapped pictures.
33 feet for 50 minutes
This was my nav dive and we were accompanied by some teenage kids getting certified so the dive was relatively shallow. This dive makes a "U" around the lower portion of Gros Ilets and showed off a lot of big barrel sponges, various angelfish and some cuda off in the distance.
99 feet for 35 minutes
One of three wreck dives in the area, this is the deepest of the three. It's an old fishing vessel that was sunk for divers and has lots of cutouts for penetrating the wreck. There were lots of jacks hanging around, as well as another turtle, of course. Nothing really of interest inside the wreck except for one very large and testy lobster. The lobster I saw on these dives are the biggest I've ever seen, a good sign of the benefits of the marine reserve.
Ane Rouge (Red Donkey)
69 feet for 51 minutes
Maybe the most interesting dive. Lots of different levels and short walls with big sponges and gorgonians. Tons of fish including juvenile bahama grouper, sergeant majors, french and queen angels, hogfish, cowfish, green and spotted morays, more turtles, grunt, jacks, etc. I now know that this little guy is a juvenile Spotted Drum, but in French they called it a "Chevalier". I'm not sure if they use a different word for the adult version.
Gros Ilets II
46 feet for 54 minutes
This dive was with two families, kids & all. We hit a different portion of Gros Ilets, mostly shallow but a nice relaxed dive with lots of eels and lobster to peek at.
There's also a nice snokeling spot at Petit Anse right next to Flamands beach. It's a calm & rocky inlet with much of the same rocky topography close to shore. I saw some huge, but mostly dead, elkhorn corals close to shore with more living coral and fish as you make your way out. Nothing spectacular, but it's a nice diversion.
While not a destination dive spot with dozens of exotic sites, gigantic wrecks or huge fish, St. Barth still has lots of fun diving with healthy coral and a large & varied fish population. It's real appeal is as a vacation destination and at that it truly excels, but it's good to know there's some enjoyable diving just minutes away from anyplace on the island.