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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.

Gear Reviews

Gear Review: Mares EOS LRZ Torch Range

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What does LRZ stand for I hear you ask? The answer is: LED lights, Rechargeable, Zoomable. Mares have created a versatile set of seven underwater lights in the new range to suit all needs and budgets.

I tested the most powerful of them – the EOS 32LRZ at Capernwray on a cold but bright spring day. I was diving with Alex Mustard, and so all the underwater images are by him, showing me trying out the torch in both the shallows and in some of the wrecks at this site.

All the torches in the new line have an LED visual battery charge indicator that allows you to keep the battery level under control.

Want to use it out of the water? No problem! The new EOS LRZ torches feature an innovative temperature control system that allows you to use them both underwater and on land. I can see myself using this on gloomy dog walks later in the year!

As you can see from the video I filmed just after getting back from a dive, the torch is easy to use, even with thick gloves in cold water. The zoomable light beam means that you can highlight a particular spot, or have a wide beam, which is great for both modeling for a photographer, and exploring different underwater environments.

The EOS 32LRZ has a powerful beam with 3200 lumens of power and 135 minutes of burn time. Perfect for some of the darker dives you can experience in the UK, but also for exploring overhead or enclosed environments. I easily got 2 long dives out of a single charge, and then was able to recharge it in my car using a USB cable on the way home, ready for the next day of diving.

The look and feel of these torches are great. In your hand you can feel the quality of the torches. They are solid and well built. They also look great. Each torch in the range comes with a padded case to keep them safe during transport.

For more, visit the Mares website by clicking here.

All underwater images by Alex Mustard

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Marine Life & Conservation

Reef-World launches Green Fins Japan!

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The Reef-World Foundation, the Onna Village Diving Association, the local government, and Oceana are delighted to announce that Japan is now the 14th country globally to implement the Green Fins initiative – a UN Environment Programme initiative. Onna Village in Okinawa is the first Japanese tourist destination to adopt Green Fins environmental standards to reduce the threats associated with diving and snorkelling on the marine environment.

Green Fins is piloted in Onna Village, Okinawa prefecture, an area renowned for its marine sports and has been working to protect its reefs for many years. Green Fins is implemented as part of the national Sustainable Development Goals project, which aims to manage and illustrate to the local industry how sustainable tourism can play a role in reef conservation. The economic benefits of the reefs benefit not only the fisheries industry but also the tourism industry as it has rocketed in recent decades.

If the project is successful – proving the value of sustainable tourism – the model has the potential to be escalated to a national level. A wide rollout would allow Reef-World to focus on uptake and expansion into other marine tourism and biodiversity hotspots across Japan. Green Fins implementation in Japan would provide practical solutions to many of the common problems faced in the area. It would also help to promote high standards for diving in the country. Improving the quality of the diving industry through Green Fins would demonstrate the added value of Onna Village’s tourism product. This, in turn, will encourage tourists to spend more time and money diving in the region.

Following a week of training by Reef-World (23 to 28 May 2022), Japan now has a national Green Fins team comprised of four fully certified Green Fins Assessors and two Green Fins Coordinators from Oceana and the local government. They will be responsible for recruiting, assessing, training and certifying dive and snorkel operators to become Green Fins members in the country. This involves providing training about the ecology and threats to coral reefs, simple and local everyday solutions to these threats and Green Fins’ environmental standards to dive and snorkel operators. Green Fins membership will help marine tourism operators improve their sustainability and prove they are working hard to follow environmental best practices as a way of attracting eco-minded tourists.

James Harvey, Director at The Reef-World Foundation, said: “We are really excited to finally introduce Green Fins in Japan. We have been planning this for almost three years, but the travel restrictions related to the pandemic hindered progress. The diving industry in Okinawa and the marine life upon which it has been built is so unique, it must be preserved for generations to come. The Okinawa diving community is very passionate about protecting their marine environment, and Green Fins has given them an opportunity to collectively work to reduce their environmental impact and pursue exemplary environmental standards.”

Diving and snorkelling related damage to sensitive marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, is becoming an increasingly significant issue. This damage makes them less likely to survive other local and wider stressors, such as overfishing or plastic debris and the effects of climate change. Based on robust individual assessments, the Green Fins initiative helps identify and mitigate these risks by providing environmental consultation and support to dive and snorkel operators. Through Green Fins implementation in Japan, Reef-World aims to reduce negative environmental impacts in the region by reaching 10 marine tourism operators, training 50 dive guides and raising awareness of sustainability best practices among 10,000 tourists in the first year.

Yuta Kawamoto, CEO of Oceana, said: “Green Fins will help to unify all the conservation efforts in Okinawa by applying the guidelines in many areas and raising tourists awareness. We hope this will increase the sustainable value in the diving industry and in turn increase the diving standards in the country.”

Green Fins is a UN Environment Programme initiative, internationally coordinated by The Reef-World Foundation, which aims to protect and conserve coral reefs through environmentally friendly guidelines to promote a sustainable diving and snorkelling tourism industry. Green Fins provides the only internationally recognised environmental standards for the diving and snorkelling industry and has a robust assessment system to measure compliance.

To date, four dive operators in Onna Village have joined the global network of 600+ trained and assessed Green Fins members. These are: Benthos Divers, Okinawa Diving Center, Arch Angel and Pink Marlin Club. There has also been significant interest from other operators, even those that are not located in Onna Village, for Green Fins training and assessment.

Suika Tsumita from Oceana said: “Green Fins serve as an important tool for local diving communities to move towards a more sustainable use of their dive sites; so that they can maintain their scenic beauty and biological richness to provide livelihoods for many generations to come.”

For more information, please visit www.reef-world.org or  www.greenfins.net/countries/japan. Dive and snorkel operators interested in signing up for Green Fins can find the membership application form at: www.greenfins.net/how-to-join.

Dive and snorkel operators in Japan interested in signing up to be Green Fins members can contact the Green Fins Japan team at japan@greenfins.net.

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