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Dominica’s Dive Fest

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stu 8The Dominica Dive Fest has been steadily growing in size and stature since its humble beginnings back in 1984. I heard rumblings that this year’s event would be bigger and better than ever with street parties, lionfish cook outs, live bands, canoe races and other waterside activities. In my mind this had all the makings of a perfect holiday combination. Diving all day and partying all night! A 7-day break meant that I would miss the start of the 9-day event but still be around for the fish fry finale at Soufriere.

My overall plan was to check out the hotels and dive centres located along the south west (Caribbean) coast. This was also where most of the dive fest activities were being held. There are no direct flights to Dominica so I went as far as Antigua with BA and then used the local LIAT service. I found Oris, my taxi driver, waiting for me outside Melville Hall Airport situated at the north east end of the island. The transfer took about 1.5 hours door to door. As we drove along the winding roads I realised this was definitely one of the greenest Caribbean islands I had ever visited. Reading between the lines this probably meant there would be a patch of rain or two heading my way. Just to confirm my thoughts Oris told me there were more than three hundred rivers and streams (I was worried that run-off might affect the underwater visibility but it didn’t make any difference). Trafalgar falls is well worth a visit on a non-diving day. Further downstream the water has been re-routed into a hydro electric station. This supplies a reasonable percentage of the islands power requirements.

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The 3.5-star Anchorage Hotel was my first port of call. This is pretty much an out an out divers’ resort. There are thirty two rooms in all. Most of the rooms are a nice size with separate bathrooms and balconies overlooking the sea. The full breakfast was called an ‘English Air Tank’ which made me feel right at home. The skeletal remains of a juvenile sperm whale are on display inside the hotel. Yvonne Armour, the managing director, said that it was used for whale educational trips. Whale watching was a popular tourist attraction. During peak season (November to April) they run two or three trips a week. Andrew Armour, also known as the ‘whale whisperer’, said there was an 85% chance of actually sighting whales, dolphins and orcas. For the past 12 years Andrew has encountered the same sperm whale, named Scar. This particular whale allows him to come within touching distance.

stu 6The on-site dive centre managed by Michael Henry is open all year round. Michael said he regularly dives sixteen sites inside the Scott’s Head marine reserve. He offers a two tank morning dive from 9am until around 1pm followed by a single tank afternoon dive (only for groups). Boat journey times are no more than 20 minutes each way. Shore diving is free of charge for anyone that books a dive package. The house reef is teaming with marine life. There are a number of old engine blocks sitting amongst the boulders on the shallow reef at 6-10m, then a field of dense sea grass followed by a deeper reef loaded with barrel sponges at 20-30m. I spent more than two hours exploring the site and found the best macro subject, a long nosed puffer fish, right next to the jetty steps where I jumped in.

Although July is known as the low season there seemed to be plenty of dive groups about. I managed to choose two of the quieter days with Anchorage dive centre. Michael’s favourite site is called swiss cheese. He said “you have everything in one dive. Pinnacles, drop offs and a big variety of animal life”. Michael had made arrangements for us to go out with Divemaster Alicia Stevens and Flibert the boat skipper. The site is located where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic. Michael had already warned me about strong currents so when I clocked sight of the mooring buoy being sucked underwater I had a fair idea what to expect. We were ducking behind rocks for cover and then finning like crazy across the more exposed areas. The swim throughs were crowded with black bar soldier fish and cave sweepers. I watched two scorpion fish chasing after each other then four slipper lobsters shuffled out into the open. We drifted back along a sheer wall bursting with purple gorgonians. A shoal of one hundred plus rainbow runners rounded off the spectacular show as we made our way back to the mooring line. This had turned out to be a real adrenalin dive. Michael said “I wouldn’t normally take anybody here in these conditions. This is for experienced divers only”. Andrew Armour said “this really is a wow dive. Every diver says wow afterwards”.

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At nearly every dive site I saw turtles either at the surface or underwater. My only ‘intimate’ encounter happened at a site called dangle bends. A small hawksbill was flying towards Alicia but just as I put my finger on the shutter release button twenty divers appeared. I was just as startled as the turtle. The hawksbill bolted into the blue and I lucked out on a perfect photo opportunity. Dangle bends is littered with barrel sponges of all shapes and sizes. Sometimes I found a grouper or puffer fish hiding inside. On rare occasions there would be a lionfish lurking but Dominica has an extremely proactive ‘shoot to kill’ policy. The dive guides were even spearing them in front of the guests and cutting off the poisonous spines with scissors.

stu 5By now the Dive Fest evening activities were in full swing. The Anchorage Hotel hosted Dominica’s first ever ‘Iron Chef’ cooking competition hotly contested by five prominent chefs from different hotels and restaurants. The event was basically a Caribbean version of the popular masterchef television series. All the participants were given a stove, a bag of ingredients and 30 minutes of cooking time. They had to prepare a lionfish starter followed by a fish entree. A panel of judges tasted the food and selected a winner. Jessica Pinard-Byrne Yard won the coveted title with two delicious lionfish dishes. I tried lionfish fried in coconut batter and it tasted pretty good. Just to round off the evening Simon Walsh, the MD of Images Dominica, gave a talk about lionfish explaining the reasons behind the mass culling.

Dive Dominica happened to be right next door to the Anchorage Hotel. I spoke with Daniel Perryman, the dive centre manager. Daniel said Dive Dominica is the biggest dive centre on the island. His father Derek started diving in 1983 and opened the dive centre in 1988. The 3-star Castle Comfort Lodge is also part of the complex. There are fourteen rooms available, seven have ocean views. The whole set up is basically the same as the Anchorage Hotel with a house reef, two morning boat dives and one afternoon dive. Daniel said “Dominica is like an aquarium, it’s good for beginners”. Daniel’s favourite site is dangle bends. He said “there are colours, pinnacles and lots of life”. For the more experienced divers he recommended diving on the Atlantic side where there was a better chance of seeing bigger animals. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to see for myself as the dive boats stayed inside the marine reserve.

I joined a group of divers from REEF field surveys and set off for Champagne Reef. This is probably Dominica’s most talked about site due to the hot sulphur beds creating streams of bubbles. In places the seabed is too hot to touch. This didn’t seem to affect the marine life as close by I found eagle rays, sting rays and even seahorses. Sea urchins were thriving. I even managed to spear myself. At least I managed to pull out the spines in one piece so there was no infection. The next dive at coral garden was just as relaxing with plenty of tube sponges and soft corals on display.

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At the half way stage I transferred over to the upmarket 4-star Fort Young Hotel located in the capital, Roseau. The seventy one room hotel had been built within the walls of an old colonial fort. Two of the old cannons sit outside the main entrance. I was given a huge room with sea view and balcony. To be honest the hotel was far too classy for the typical eat, sleep, dive brigade. The resident dive centre is run by Dive Dominica. This was mainly used as a booking office. Divers were picked up at the jetty and brought back to the main centre.

stu 4As part of dive fest week Fort Young laid on a special ‘happy hour’ session followed by live music and a DJ. The local beer is called Kubuli and costs approx 6 Eastern Caribbean dollars a bottle (current rates are 2.6 EC to the US dollar). I really do recommend trying out the local specialty, chicken roti. They make perfect après dive snacks.

Just to round off my trip I popped into Aldive owned by Billy Lawrence. In all there are seven dive centres dotted around the island. Three of which are located along a 1km stretch of beachfront. Billy had previously worked for Dive Dominica before opening his own centre in 2006. Aldive was a cosy set up with 5 staff and 2 boats. Billy showed me around the complex and introduced me to Cedric the lionfish looking all forlorn in a giant gold fish bowl. Cedric had survived the past few days but would probably end up in the frying pan sometime soon. While Billy was entertaining his Barbadian guests I snuck off for a night dive on the house reef. Less than one hundred metres from the jetty there is a line of boulders covered in soft corals and sponges at a depth of 6-8m. I found yellow tailed snapper, grouper, boxfish, puffers, crabs, trumpets and jacks all within a 100m area.

stu 7The Dive Fest celebrations came to a boozy climax at the Soufriere fish fry. Locals and tourists mingled together for a day and night of eating, drinking and partying. Somewhere along the way there was a canoe race across the bay and back. This was won by Dominica Coconut Products.

I only got to dive in the Scott’s Head Marine Reserve during my 7-day stay. I didn’t see any wrecks but there were plenty of walls and reefs to explore. Photographers are guaranteed plenty of macro critters with sporadic big fish encounters. Swiss cheese was definitely my favourite dive site. Michael from Anchorage dive centre said there was another full-on site called west wall (which is basically a continuation of swiss cheese) but the site has no permanent mooring buoy so he rarely took divers there. The Dive fest definitely spiced up my evening entertainment and judging by the turnout it was a resounding success. Next year’s event can only get better. On my last day I toured around the island checking out the botanical gardens (where a very civilised game of cricket was in full swing) followed by a trip to the sulphur spa. But with a name like Screw’s I wasn’t quite sure what to expect!

Dominica Dive Fest 2015 will be running from the 10th – 19th July. Keep up-to-date with the event by liking the Facebook page here.

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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Get moving with the new RAID DPV training programs

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The thrill of speeding through the water behind a diver propulsion vehicle (DPV) is an experience that really gets the blood racing. Using a DPV provides divers both immense fun and the means to achieve goals that would be impossible without their use.

RAID is proud to announce the new two-tier DPV training program with certifications for DPV and Advanced DPV.

Why DPV and why now?
Recreational and technical divers are using DPVs to access sites that would be difficult to reach and explore using traditional propulsion methods; to help propel large amounts of heavy equipment; to increase the safety of dives in areas of strong current; or just for the pure exhilaration of shooting through the water at speed and performing underwater acrobatics.

By extending your capabilities and extending your range, using a DPV opens new vistas for exploration and fun.

DPV
This certification option is aimed at the recreational diver who wishes to learn how to use a DPV to enhance their diving by using mainly natural navigation.

Advanced DPV
This certification option is available to anyone who is familiar with longhose configuration, has logged a minimum of 20 dives and is certified as Navigation specialty divers.

This certification option is aimed at the slightly more experienced diver with preexisting navigational training and diving on a single, twin or sidemount setup with a longhose. Although this level is slightly more challenging, the more advanced navigation exercises provide an important base for more complex types of DPV diving within a team.

PREREQUISITES
You must:

  • Be a minimum of 12 years old.
  • Be certified as RAID Open Water 20, Junior Open Water or equivalent.

Just visit www.diveRAID.com to put some extra dash into your dives.

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Marine Life & Conservation

Beers raise cash for ocean clean-up

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The Driftwood Spars Brewery, a pioneering microbrewery based on the North Cornwall coast, is donating a percentage of all profits from its Cove range of beers to Fathoms Free, a certified charity which actively cleans the ocean around the Cornish peninsula.

Each purchase of the small-batch, craft beers – there are four different canned beers in the Cove range – will help generate funds to purchase a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and fund retrieval dives; every brew will raise the equivalent cost of a fully-funded dive. 

Fathoms Free is a Cornwall-based charity whose day-to-day mission involves dives from their fast-response specialist vessel to recover ghost fishing gear; abandoned nets, pots, angling equipment and other plastic causes severe damage to the marine environment and the death of countless seabirds, seals, dolphins and other sea life.

The campaign to raise funds for an ROV is a new initiative which will take the clean-up work to a new level; the highly manoeuvrable underwater vehicle will be used to scour the seabed, harbours and remote parts of the coastline for abandoned fishing gear and other marine litter.

Project Manager Natallia Paliakova from Fathoms Free said: “Apart from helping us locate ghost gear underwater, the ROV will also be capable of recording underwater video which is always great for raising awareness about marine pollution issues.”

She added: “We are really excited to be partnering with The Driftwood Spars Brewery and appreciate the proactive support of Mike and his team in bringing the purchase of an ROV a step closer to reality.”

Head Brewer Mike Mason personally approached the charity after their work was featured on the BBC 2 documentary, ‘Cornwall with Simon Reeve’.    

He said: “As a keen surfer I am only too aware of the problem of marine litter and had heard about Fathoms Free, but seeing them in action prompted me to find a way of contributing. The scale of the challenge is scary, but the determination of organisations like Fathoms Free is inspiring.”

Photo by Beagle Media Ltd

Photo by Beagle Media Ltd

The Driftwood Spars Brewery was founded in 2000 in Trevaunance Cove, St Agnes; the microbrewery is just a few steps away from it’s co-joined brewpub, The Driftwood Spars; both pub and brewery are well-regarded far beyond the Cornish cove they call home. 

You can hear the waves and taste the salt on the air from the door of both brewery and pub, and the rough seas along the rugged North coast often throw up discarded nets and other detritus; Louise Treseder, Landlady of The Driftwood Spars and a keen sea swimmer, often collects washed up ghost gear on her daily beach excursions.     

Louise commented: “This is a great partnership to support a cause close to our hearts – I know the money we raise will have a positive and lasting impact. The Cove range was inspired by our unique surroundings and the artwork – by local artist Jago Silver – reflects that. Now donations from each purchase will contribute towards the vital ocean clean-up taking place right on our doorstep.”

The Cove range can currently be purchased online here, and is available in good independent bottle shops in Cornwall.

To find out more about Fathoms Free visit their website here.

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