Barbados: The Reefs, Wrecks and Critters of the North

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Barbados’s coastline offers a rich variety of dive sites from reefs to top notch shipwrecks. But most visiting divers are lured to the south end of the island and don’t venture very far north except for a dive on the world famous SS Stavronikita wreck, which I will discuss in more detail later. I met Michael Mahy, the owner of Reefers & Wreckers dive centre at the dive show in Birmingham. Mike assured me that the quieter north also had plenty to offer including more wrecks, dedicated macro sites and some ‘wilder’ dives on the exposed east coast. In an attempt to even the score I made arrangements to visit Mike’s dive centre just to see if he wasn’t spinning me a few porkies!

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I had booked a room at Ascot House and Villas situated near Mullins. Ascot House can cater for up to 22 guests and would definitely be a good choice for groups or clubs. There is an onsite swimming pool and barbecue area – in fact, Mike invited me to a barbecue with his family and friends during my stay and it was the perfect ‘chill out’ spot. My ground floor room had a double bed with en-suite and there was a shared kitchen for making breakfast or evening meals. I managed to sneak a peek inside one of the villas and they really did look plush. The sandy beach at Gibbs bay is just a few minutes walk from Ascot House.

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Reefers & Wreckers was opened by Mike and his father George in 1994. Phillip, Mike’s brother, joined them in 1999. It is presently located along the seafront at Speightstown in a traditional Barbadian building called Timothy House. Mike gave me a guided tour of the premises starting with the main front desk with seating area leading onto to an equipment storage room. Out the back there is a small courtyard for washing and drying equipment with showers and toilets. Upstairs consists of a bar overlooking the sea and a small classroom. Mike said that the bar wasn’t officially open but visiting groups could use the area for evening social events. At least I wouldn’t get hungry or thirsty. I could smell the bakery just across the road and the neighbouring cafe sells coffee and soft drinks so not a bad set up for divers.

stu 2stu 3I counted 25 different dive sites on the wall map. All of the sites are located along the more protected west coast. Mike said that boat journeys varied from 5 to a maximum of 40 minutes. The shipwreck site at Carlisle Bay is the southernmost limit. The dive boats are moored at a marina which is 5 minutes drive from the centre. Reefers & Wreckers run 2 dive boats. I went out on Conqueror 1 which is a 10m long hull with twin 225hp outboards. The boat is basically open plan with a console area and benches down either side. Mike said the boat is good for up to 20 divers.

Mike tried to help me out with some modelling shots but I could see he wasn’t very comfortable with the job so I was more than happy when he introduced me to Kyle Siegel. Kyle worked as a captain’s PA on one of the big cruise ships. She had stopped off for a few days vacation and was even considering signing up for a PADI Divemaster course later in the year. I only had Miss Siegel’s help for 2 days so intended to make the most of it.

The wind had been blowing a hooley all night long which had brought in some extremely nasty floaties. The plan was to dive the Stavronikita wreck but when we arrived at the site the surface was awash with Portuguese man-o-war (Physalia physalis). I really wanted to get some decent pictures for my article and was willing to take the risk but then again I was wearing a full wetsuit for protection whereas Kyle just had a skimpy rash vest and shorts! We waited until the surrounding area was clear and made a jump for it. Kyle seemed more than happy to assist. I don’t think she realised what a Portuguese man-o-war was capable of doing but I took full advantage of the situation.

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The SS Stavronikita is a 110m long Greek registered freighter sunk as an artificial reef project in 1978. There is quite an intriguing story surrounding her sinking. Apparently a fire had started in the engine room which quickly spread killing 6 of the crew. A big explosion followed which destroyed all means of communication so the ship drifted for several weeks eventually ending up in Barbadian waters. She was towed into harbour and left rotting for more than a year while insurance companies fought over the losses. Finally the government decided to sink her as a diver attraction. Initial plans were to sink her in shallower water but the anchors dragged just before the explosive charges went off. She now sits upright at a maximum depth of 40m just a few 100m from shore.

stu 10stu 9As we made our descent I could see the entire wreck laid out below me. I wanted to start our dive by the giant prop and then work our way forward to the square shaped mast. The idea was to get a shot of Kyle posing by the winch in the foreground with the mast swathed in purple gorgonians in the background. I could clearly see the dive boat on the surface while we were at deck level 23m below. We finished off our dive with a silhouette shot of the bow with Kyle in the foreground shining a torch on the anchor chain covered in orange tube sponges. This wreck has so many wide angle possibilities. On our ascent I kept a careful eye out for any signs of man-o-war but the surface was clear.

For our second dive Mike took us over to the Cement Pier. This dive site is literally 5 minutes boat ride from the marina. In my mind this is one of the best dives in Barbados, for macro and wide angle shots, all at a maximum depth of 15m. When there are no freighters loading or unloading divers are allowed underneath the pier. The huge pilings offer refuge for a multitude of big and small animals. I managed to do 3 dives under the giant pier legs and just couldn’t get enough of it. I got a great shot of Kyle in the foreground with the pier pilings silhouetted in the background like a giant spider. We found 2 hawksbills nibbling on the sponges and I even had a close encounter with a giant manta ray!

stu 4stu 6The seabed was a mess of old tyres and discarded metal but this provided homes for all sorts of macro life, including seahorses. Mike found 2 specimens within 5 minutes. I counted 20 good sized crayfish crammed inside a criss-cross of pilings. The place was absolutely buzzing. There were morays, flatfish, filefish, scorpions, trumpets, a variety of angels and butterflies, and much more. The only slight negative was the fact that any wayward fin kicks easily stirred up the sandy bottom causing some backscatter, but then again the current would take most of this away.

There were a number of PADI courses running during my visit. I spoke with Nick Davis who was on holiday with his family. His 2 daughters were finishing off their PADI open water courses. They had chosen to do the pool work and theory in the UK which just left the open water dives to do in the clear calm waters of Barbados.

During my stay Mike introduced me to a number of local bars and restaurants but they were fairly spaced out along the coastline so I would recommend hiring a car for a few days. The Fish Pot is located right by the beach. I thought the ambience was perfect for a romantic night out and my tuna steak was huge. The Ramshackle Bar and Restaurant in Saint James Parish was an excellent choice for burgers and wraps and still had a beachside outlook.

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I wanted to explore the wilder dive sites on the north east coast but unfortunately the weather was against me. We went up as far as Maycocks Bay which has got a good reputation for big animal sightings. But on the day we had extremely poor visibility, around 5 metres, and the sea was a distinct shade of green instead of the usual hues of blue. We still managed to see an assortment of rays, barracuda and hawksbill turtles so I’m sure that on a good day this site delivers.

With my 2 Kyle days in the bank I had to settle back to scratching around for whatever photos I could get. Mike offers 2 tank morning dives which is ideal for divers with families or non-diving partners but not for stressed out photographers. We headed out to Great Ledge for a gentle drift dive. I had left my macro lens on hoping to get some more fishy shots. I closed in on a small hawksbill but noticed that one of its eyes had become diseased. It was understandably wary of me so I backed away and left it in peace. I then found the craziest boxfish I have ever encountered. This little boxfish darted straight for my camera port and wouldn’t leave it alone. I can only guess that the fish saw its own reflection in the glass and thought it was either a potential mate or a threat. Either way it came off the reef and stayed with me right up to safety stop depth.

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The Pamir wreck turned out to be another favourite of mine. The 50m long freighter sits upright at a maximum depth of 20m deep and yet again is ideally situated less than 5 minutes boat ride from the marina. The v-shaped bow silhouetted against the anchor made a really nice composition. There was also a yellow mini submarine lying about 30m from the portside bow just to add some extra interest.

We ventured as far south as Carlisle Bay for the second dive. This really is a shipwreck playground with the remains of at least 6 wrecks to explore and all at a maximum depth of around 15 metres. The wrecks are diver friendly with easy access to all the compartments including the engine rooms.

All in all I had quite an action packed week and the torrential rain hadn’t managed to dampen my spirits. Mike showed me a good selection of dive sites that catered for all tastes from wrecks and reefs to dedicated macro. I could go back to the cement pier time and time again and never get bored. Mike said there were plans to make Ascot House an out and out dive resort sometime in the near future but this was still in the early stages of discussion. There could well be some exciting times ahead.

Information

Reefer & Wreckers

www.scubadiving.bb

scubadiving@caribsurf.com

Tel: +1 246.422.5450

UK Bookings: 07834 5567777

Cell: +1 246.234.1377

Ascot House

www.ascotgreathouse.com

Stuart Philpott

Stuart Philpott

Stuart has spent the past 26 years taking pictures and writing stories for diving magazines and other publications. In fact, this equates to more than a year of his life spent underwater. There have been plenty of exciting moments from close encounters with crocodiles and sharks to exploration of deep wrecks and more recently rebreathers. He lives in Poole, Dorset and is very much an advocate of UK diving.

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