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XXX Diving in the Dominican Republic

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We accelerated along the busy Boulevard Turistico heading for the airport. Vin Diesel lookalike Carlos R Batista, PR official for the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism, was more than happy to shake my hand and say ‘hasta la vista’. The past 10 days had been a real XXX extreme experience. The fast and furious pace had just kept on going and going. My plan was to check out as many of the Atlantic and Caribbean dive resorts as physically possible. We ended up covering more than 1,300 km’s of tarmac, gravel and sand, sampled 6 different hotels and ate and drank at numerous bars, restaurants and local eating holes. Even the real Vin Diesel would have shown us some serious respect.

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The tour began with some reasonably gentle dives at Bayahibe on the Caribbean Sea side of the island. After 3 days I re-traced my route back to the capital city, Santo Domingo, for a tech wreck taster. Carlos had put together a full-on schedule but this was constantly changing due to Hotel and dive centre availabilities. I then travelled north across to the Atlantic Ocean side of the island for dives at Puerto Plata and Samana. I spent my last action packed day back in Santo Domingo exploring a wreck lying at 67 metres followed by a deep penetration cave dive. How radical is that?

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When I got to Bayahibe there was no time to unpack my bags or even check in. Carlos had arranged for me to meet Santiago, a representative of Dressel Divers based at the all-inclusive 5 star Iberostar Hacienda Dominicus Hotel. Dressel Divers turned out to be a very professional outfit run by fellow Brit Paul Flower. Paul said they offered 18 dive sites including a day trip to Saona Island. The bright yellow staff t-shirts were definitely the most eye-catching I had ever seen. They usually do a minimum of 2 dives a day (1 x am and 1 x pm) 365 days a year. There is also a fixed 7-day dive schedule.

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stu 31stu 29We boarded the 12 metre long trimaran dive boat which had plenty of deck space and a shaded area. My first reef dive with Paul was a little disappointing. There were a few old cannons and cannonballs lying on the seabed but not much else worthy of my wide angle lens. Macro would have been a far better choice as there were stingrays, trumpet fish, morays, scorpion fish and nudibranchs on show. Visibility was around 10-15 metres and there was no current to worry about.

Fortunately I turned up on ‘wreck day’. The St George was supposed to be the best wreck dive in the area. Paul told me that divers are not allowed to penetrate the wreck and there is a depth limit of 30 metres no matter what certification level. The 74 metre long freighter lies upright on the seabed. We started off at the prop and spent most of our time exploring the accommodation/bridge area.

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My favourite dive turned out to be the second wreck, Atlantic Princess. The 30 metre long passenger ship was pretty much intact and sitting upright at a maximum depth of 13 metres. I spent 50 minutes exploring all 3 deck levels. Most of the interior fittings had been cleared out but I found a few wash basins, toilets and a water pump. There was far more to see at the bow including winches, pulleys portholes, light fittings and other machinery. All this time I was keeping a careful eye out for sneaky lionfish. I already spotted one large individual amongst a shoal of cave sweepers.

I stayed at the 4-star Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach Resort located right next door to the Iberostar. This all-inclusive Hotel seemed to mainly cater for a younger/single Italian clientele. Things really started to hot up around 11pm when the evening show had finished. Carlos in his Versace shirts had a field day! I met up with the manager of Viva Dive centre, Laura Gualazzi. Laura had been working at the dive centre since 1992. Laura told me that famous freediver Audrey Mestre had stayed at the Hotel during her controversial world record attempt in 2002 which sadly led to her untimely death. Laura offers a daily 2-tank morning dive followed by a shallow afternoon reef dive. Maximum journey time to the furthest dive site was 35 minutes (the St George wreck was 7 minutes). I arranged to do 2 shallow reef dives at Casa Estrella and Aquarium. After my first reef dive experience I wasn’t expecting too much but surprise surprise, I was overrun with marine life from moray eels and puffer fish to lobsters and barracuda. Both dives were classed as ‘drift’ dives but the current was minimal.

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stu 13Stu 2Paul, from Dressel Divers, recommended that I join him on a day trip to Saona Island. Apart from spending a few hours chilling on an idyllic palm fringed island, Paul wanted me to see their special moray feeding spectacle. Enrique Rijo’s party trick was some mouth to mouth feeding with the moray eels. He slightly cheated by putting the bait on the end of a small stick but all the same it still impressed the punters. The only negative moment was finding a fish trap in the middle of a so called national park area. It was full of French grunts and surgeon fish, not really the best eating variety. Thankfully the dive crew dismantled the trap and let the fish go free.

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The 4 x 4 was already revving up and waiting to go the moment I set foot on the beach. Our next stop was Santo Domingo. Carlos was having problems finding accommodation so he booked me in to the 4-star, 40 room, Quality Inn located close to the airport. The hotel was mainly used by business people and wasn’t within walking distance of any amenities. But it was a great place to crash out for the night and free internet access helped me catch up on any urgent emails.

The next morning I turned up at Golden Arrow Tech diving centre owned by Denis Bourret. Denis is best known for cave diving, deep wrecks, rebreathers and all things technical. Unfortunately Denis was busy with a group of Brazilian cave divers, so Nicolas Paulme agreed to be my guide for the day. Nicolas said they offered dives at 3 caves, 4 wrecks and 6 reefs. Nicolas recommended that I do 2 wrecks dives in the Parque Nacional de la Caleta. The dive boat turned out to be the biggest surprise of the day. It was a wooden rowing boat (approx 4 metres long) with a small 25hp outboard strapped to the transom. I was more worried about getting a splinter! Nicolas said that the boat was good for 6 divers which really made me chuckle.

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The first wreck was called the Capitan Alsina lying at a maximum depth of 36 metres. Nicolas had brought along his twinset but I was happy to use a single 12, especially when I am flying about taking photographs. The 30 metre long freighter was sunk as an artificial reef project in the early 90’s. It’s pretty much broken up without many distinguishable features. I spent most of my limited time hunting around for subjects. Between dives the heavens just opened up on us. I had to chuckle again when Tito, the ‘dive boat’ skipper, started bailing out the rapidly rising rain water. The second wreck was in much better condition. The 20 metre long El Hickory used to be a research boat owned by Charles Webber, a famous salvage/treasure hunter. The ship was purposely sunk in the late 80’s. This was a great little wreck sitting almost upright on the seabed at a maximum depth of 20 metres. There were plenty of places to poke my head into and explore. Unfortunately heavy cloud cover had made conditions darker than I would have liked but the wreck kept me pre-occupied right up until my computer beeped into deco. Back on dry land I had just enough time to change into my jeans and throw on a t-shirt and then we were off again, this time heading for Puerto Plata on the Atlantic side.

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Carlos had booked me up a day’s diving with the Aqua Centre based at the 4-star, 900 room, Casa Marina Reef and Beach Hotel in Sossua. Lucas Castellano had been the manager for the past 10 years. He said they had satellite centres in 4 other Hotels and offered 20 diving and snorkelling sites. Lucas’s favourite dive site was La Zingara, a 26 metre long freighter lying upright at a maximum depth of 36 metres. I teamed up with dive guide Alex and headed out to the wreck. We started at the bow and worked our way back to the stern. There were still plenty of interesting features including a huge crane lying over the cargo hold. Inside the small bridge I could see the steering column covered in brightly coloured sponges and corals. I popped my head inside the cabin area and there were benches and other equipment scattered all around. As we made our descent I briefly stopped at the funnel covered in a huge shoal of grunts. This wreck was perfect for photography with lots of features, colour and fish. I was happy. My mood slightly dampened when the other Instructors complained to Lucas that I didn’t use up my air fast enough. Now that was a first!

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When I got back to shore I met Robert, a BSAC National Instructor, who had been living in the Dominican Republic on and off for the past 15 years. He told me that a Zingara had been bought by a German guy and then sunk as a diver attraction. Robert said the man’s initial intention was to charge every diver that visiting the wreck. As an extra incentive he had dropped thousands of peso coins all over the wreck site.

Carlos said that Sossua was famous for its Cheese and Salami but the town also had a reputation for its colourful night life. We sat and watched the Harleys and Hummers cruising up and down the main high street. There were streams of girls passing us, all dressed up to the nines, definitely a single man’s dream and a married man’s severe attack of conscience!

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Carlos had booked us into the 4-star Viva Wyndham Tangerine. The hotel was full to capacity with French Canadian clientele. We walked to the nearest town, Cabarete and sipped Mojito’s on the beach. This really was a nice place for character bars and restaurants. Carlos recommended eating at La Casita de Papi. The fish dishes were absolutely superb. Dinner was served up on a huge tray covered in the restaurants famous Papi sauce. I really do recommend a visit.

We bumped into Chris and Jane Waites the owners of Dive Cabarete along the bustling beach front. Chris told me they had sold all their worldly possessions and bought a dive centre. Chris and Jane really did make an effort with their customers and offered a top rate service. Chris said they had approximately 20 dive sites including a 12 metre freshwater dive at El Du Du caves. Just to make life easier Chris had bought a brand new 7 metre long skiff. This could comfortably carry 8 divers and 2 staff.

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Chris took me to one of his favourite dive spots, Tres Palmas. There were overhangs and swim through caves covered in colourful whip corals and sponges. It was a great scenic dive with plenty to keep me occupied. Chris said “Puerto Plata is a great place to learn to dive – there are no extreme conditions and a good variety of things to see”. The water temp rises to 29 degrees in the summer months and average vis hovered around 15 metres.

My trip seemed to be getting more and more bizarre each day. I finally ended up at Las Galeras near Samana. Carlos had arranged for me to dive with the migrating humpbacks but we hit 2 major problems. Firstly it’s against the law to scuba dive with whales (unless divers happen to bump into them during a dive) and secondly we didn’t find any! Carlos booked up dives with Italian owned dive centre, Scuba Libre, based at the 4-star all inclusive Grand Paradise Hotel. My Instructor guide Valerio suggested we dive at Los Carriles which was about a 25 minute boat ride from the beach around the headland and into the next bay. Valerio said this was also our best spot for bumping into whales. The dive consisted of an undulating reef separated by fingers of sand at a depth of around 25 metres. We found shoaling barracuda, moray and even a nurse shark. I heard whale music throughout our dive from high pitched wails to deep base moans but they were more than a kilometre away from us.

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stu 6stu 23The next day we hedged our bets and headed for Piedra Bonita, another hot spot for Whale sightings. The dive site was basically a rocky peak rising to within 8 metres of the surface. It made a dramatic backdrop for my photos. The surge from the overhead waves caused a few problems keeping steady but I enjoyed spiralling up the pinnacle. We surfaced in some seriously big waves. Even I started to get concerned as we made our way back to calmer waters. Valerio said there was only one wreck in the area and this happened to be in the middle of the bay at a maximum depth of 20 metres. The Barco Humdido was sunk around 30 years ago. Valerio said a massive explosion crippled the ship and as she limped into shallower water, a second explosion sent her to the bottom. The wreck is approximately 50 metres long and has been flipped upside down. Valerio guided me through the twisted wreckage. In some places the gap between metal and sand was only just wide enough to wriggle through. The upturned hull housed plenty of marine life from the usual lionfish to barracuda, puffers, French grunts and snapper. The propellers carpeted in orange cup corals were perfect for photographs. When we got back to the dive centre I was told that other group had seen whales at Los Carriles. Apparently they saw 3 humpbacks, 2 females and a calf, being followed by a big tiger shark.

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Whale watching is an extremely popular activity, so Las Galeras was jam packed with tourists. Carlos managed to squeeze me into the 2-star Hotel La Playita at the top end of town. The room was clean and tidy with a fridge, ceiling fan and huge balcony. The downside was a dawn chorus of cock-a-doodling and dogs barking. There were plenty of bars and restaurants and even a supermarket, of some sorts, located a short walk from the Hotel. The palm fringed beach was a great spot to enjoy a lunch of fresh prawns with plantains and rice all washed down with Pina Colada served in a whole Pineapple. The best beaches were way off the beat and track. A 4 x 4 is the recommended mode of transport although I did see a couple of small hatchbacks parked along the beach front. I guess that’s what hire cars are for!

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We headed back to Santo Domingo for the final leg of my XXX road trip. Even Carlos’s un-bounding energy was starting to wane. I was booked into the 4-star Mercure Hotel located along the main high street. Bars, restaurants, shops, museums and historical landmarks were all within easy walking distance. There was even a brand new Pizza Hut and the Hard Rock Cafe. Unfortunately there was no time to relax as I had to be up early the very next morning. Denis Bourret, owner of Golden Arrow, had made plans for a very special day. We were starting off with a technical dive on the Don Quiko wreck at a maximum depth of 67 metres followed by a deep exploration dive inside the La Taina caves. This really would make an exciting finale but I’ll save the grisly details for another story.

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My very first visit to the Dominican Republic had truly been a memorable experience. Carlos’s hectic schedule had given me a lightning taster of what Atlantic and Caribbean diving had to offer. No matter where I went there was always a good variety of diving, featuring wrecks, reefs and marine life. This was supported with comfortable accommodation and in some cases top notch food. Most of the dive centres were very professional and supplied me with decent rental kit. For reference there is a 24-hour recompression chamber located at Santo Domingo. Just as a final passing note, my limited wardrobe of t-shirts had been well and truly soiled and creased during my epic 1,300km, 6 hotel adventure but for once, in true XXX style, I had come prepared with an extra supply of clean underpants!

Dive Training Blogs

Deptherapy returns to its Roots – Part 5

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Join Richard Cullen from Deptherapy for part 5 of his Blog about the charity’s recent expedition to Roots Red Sea, El Quseir, Egypt.

After an evening of chilling out by the pool and in the bar, we are back to the Roots House Reef this morning, with Keiron continuing his RAID Master Rescue Diver Course and enjoying Moudi’s vast experience as he learns more about advanced buoyancy skills.

Not sure where the week has gone; it’s Wednesday already.  A few different things happening today… Oatsie who has just started at Hull University on a Marine Biology Degree Course wants to complete his sidemount course and this afternoon he is out with Guy Henderson to start his learning.  Swars also wants to do the course, as he wants to get into cavern and cave diving.  Swars will start his course tomorrow afternoon and both will spend a day being taught be Steve Rattle on Friday. Hopefully they will both be certified as RAID Sidmount Divers at the end of their training.

Tom putting his sidemount rig together under Guy’s watchful eye

The morning sees Swars and I working with Corey again and taking him through the remainder of skills and OW dives.  He is improving massively but we still have to work on trim and propulsion.

Keiron, unfortunately for him, has Oatsie and Michael for his diver recovery exercises; I am told there may well be an entanglement to deal with!

Conditions are perfect again as we all look forward to three great dives during the day.

90% of those we work with have mental health issues, mainly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of serving in various theatres of war.  If you read some adaptive teaching manuals, they have a task to ‘teach a student with PTSD a skill.’ Hmmmmm how is Oatsie, Swars, Michael or Keiron any different than a student who is free from any mental illness?  The answer is they are not, they are exactly the same. Do you talk to them differently, do you demonstrate skills differently?  The answer is no.

If they have a flashback or a panic attack, then you need to step back and provide whatever assistance is necessary but only if there is a risk of them hurting themselves.  All our team have to undertake and pass the two-day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course so we can intervene appropriately where the circumstances require it.

Do you know what a panic attack looks like?  Do you know how to respond to a panic attack?

Flashbacks most frequently occur at night time but some do experience day time flashbacks.  Flashbacks can lead to the individual feeling physically and mentally drained and can be triggered by anything that reminds them of the traumatic incident(s) they experienced.  Sometimes there might be a need for one of our medical team to be involved. Often a period of quietness, rest and possibly sleep is required.

Keiron and Corey on the House Reef

We have seen lots of our beneficiaries learn to manage their PTSD. As Chris Middleton said on a BBC programme:

“You can’t beat PTSD but you can learn to manage it.”

In addition to the scuba diving, Deptherapy also provides 24/7 support for our beneficiaries.  Beneficiaries are encouraged to attend the MHFA course with their partner, parent, relative or friend.

Many will have read comments from our beneficiaries, that once they put their heads under the water their demons disappear.  There are several factors to this: the peace, the quiet and the tranquillity that occurs underwater, the beauty of the corals and the amazing aquatic life.

Roots is very much like a retreat for us, we are miles away from any towns, there are no distractions, the nearest town is El Quseir, which is orthodox Muslim so there is no alcohol on sale.  The recent bypass of the main Safaga to El Quesir/Marsa Alam road means that at night time there is no noise, just a brilliant star lit sky.

Roots at night from the beach

Beneficiaries are encouraged to talk openly with the team and their fellow beneficiaries about their injuries/illnesses and provide overwhelming support for each other as Corey found on this trip.

Our aim is to create a family atmosphere and Roots very much contributes to the sense of family and wellbeing.

Sadly, we live in a world where those with mental illnesses are largely discriminated against.  Because few understand mental health, they are fearful of it and try to ignore it.  Please look at the Mind website or even better sign up to a Mental Health First Aid Course.  If you run a business then run the course for your staff, the benefits will be massive.

Back to the diving, Michael and Tom under Moudi’s close supervision gave Keiron some very challenging diver recovery exercises.  Poor Keiron, but he responded tremendously.

Swars, is working well with Corey, ensuring horizontal trim and making sure he uses effective arm strokes for his swimming. We are organising an SMB session, so he can work with different types of SMBs.

Although we haven’t told him, he has finished all his skills but we still have work to do on his trim and propulsion.  We want him to go beyond standards, we want him to be a very competent diver, who despite his devastating injuries, can self-rescue and support a buddy if in need.

The afternoon dive sees Michael joining myself and Swars with Corey.  This dive is about buoyancy, trim and propulsion.  Keiron is doing some more advanced buoyancy work with Moudi.

All roads lead to Roots, is this the future of Google maps?

Oatsie had a great dive with Guy using sidemounts and is looking forward to completing the sidemount course with Swars and Steve Rattle on Friday.

In the evening, and before dinner, Moudi runs the RAID O2 Administrator Course for all five beneficiaries. It is a qualifying part of Keiron’s RAID Master Rescue Diver course but we decided it would benefit all of the guys.

Tomorrow we have decided to take Corey to 30 metres and for him to complete a narcosis test. Join us back here tomorrow to find out how we get on…


Find out more about the work of Deptherapy and Deptherapy Education at www.deptherapy.co.uk

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Marine Life & Conservation

Reef-World announces 2020 Green Fins Award Winners

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The Green Fins Award recognises the world’s most environmentally friendly dive centres

The Reef-World Foundation – the international coordinator of the UN Environment Programme’s Green Fins initiative – is delighted to announce the winners of the coveted 2020 Green Fins Award are:

  • Bubbles Dive Centre, Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia
  • Flora Bay Divers, Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia
  • And Tioman Dive Centre, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia

The prestigious annual award recognises the Green Fins member with the lowest environmental impact. This year, competition was so tight there was not one, but three winners all tied in first place. What’s more, all three of the winners and seven of the global top 10 centres are based in Malaysia!

Rosie Cotton, Tioman Dive Centre

The winning dive operators were chosen from the 600-strong network of Green Fins members by a rigorous assessment of business practices. To be eligible for the award, the operator must have had its latest assessment conducted within the last 18 months. In 2019, the proud winner was Tioman Dive Centre: a PADI dive centre which has been a Green Fins member since 2009 and had managed to hold onto the title again in 2020.

As 2020’s Green Fins Award winners, Bubbles Dive Centre, Flora Bay Divers and Tioman Dive Centre are recognised as the world’s most sustainable dive or snorkel operator, as verified by the globally-recognised Green Fins environmental assessment. Their steps to improve sustainability practices, which have resulted in this recognition as the most environmentally friendly Green Fins dive centres in the world, have included:

  • Switching to eco-friendly products and improving waste management practices: Kelvin Lim, Flora Bay Divers, said: “We switched from normal detergents to eco-friendly detergents, we are encouraging divers to bring their own water bottles to reduce plastic and came up with a general waste bin and a bin for plastic bottles in front of our dive centre. This helps tourists and locals to place thrash that’s been found on the beach easily and conveniently since there are no proper bins along the beach.”
  • Training staff in why environmental practices are important: Peisee Hwang, Bubbles Dive Centre, said: “Green Fins has helped my crew understand more about the importance of looking after the environment. Less educated members of staff would throw cigarette butts in the sea without thinking but they are now keeping their trash to dispose in the bin when they are back.”
  • Upgrading boat engines: Rosie Cotton, Tioman Dive Centre, said: “At the beginning of 2020, we upgraded our last remaining boat engine and now we run 100% with 4-stroke models. The benefits are not only to the environment but also a huge reduction in petrol usage. It’s a Win Win situation!”

Alvin Chelliah, Green Fins Assessor Trainer from Reef Check Malaysia, said: ”Most dive centre managers and owners that I have come across in Malaysia care and want to do what they can to help protect coral reefs. I think Green Fins has been the right tool to guide them towards practical actions they can take. Over the years, we have seen these dive centres put in a lot of effort and work hard at following the guidelines and they have improved steadily as a result. We hope others will follow their example.”

Peisee Hwang, Bubbles Dive Centre, said: “We are thrilled to know that we have won and we are glad that our effort is being recognised. We hope that more operators aspire to join us in pledging for the environment.”

Kelvin Lim, Flora Bay Divers, said: “We are proud to be acknowledged for our efforts to inspire sustainable diving. Our focus remains on cultivating informed and conscious divers with good diving skills and habits..”

Rosie Cotton, Tioman Dive Centre, said: “Receiving the news that we have made the top spot of Green Fins members is a fantastic feeling. Thank you so much to the Green Fins team for your ongoing support! This year has obviously been slightly different to previous years. I hope that something we can all take away from this year is that changes in our daily habits can create shockwaves of positive change around the world in a relatively short period of time. From TDC, we hope you are all safe and well at this time and are able to find some positives despite these difficult circumstances.”

Chloe Harvey, Director at The Reef-World Foundation, said: “We’re thrilled to recognise Bubbles Dive Centre, Flora Bay Divers and Tioman Dive Centre as joint winners of the 2020 Green Fins Award. Competition between the Top 10 is always tight but the fact that there are three winners this year, when usually one centre takes the title, shows how much sustainability is being put at the forefront of the agenda across the dive industry. So, we’d like to say a big well done to Bubbles Dive Centre, Flora Bay Divers and Tioman Dive Centre. This win is testament to their hard work and ongoing sustainability efforts and they should be very proud. It’s an incredibly tight race to be named the best of the best!”

The Green Fins Top 10 list is comprised of the world’s most sustainable dive operators, as determined by the Green Fins assessment process. In 2020 they are:

  • Tioman Dive Centre, Flora Bay
  • Divers and Bubbles Dive Centre (all in Malaysia)
  • Ceningan Divers (Indonesia)
  • Scuba Junkie Mabul (Malaysia)
  • Sea Voice Divers (Malaysia)
  • Evolution (Philippines)
  • Orca Nation Rawa (Malaysia)
  • Equation (Philippines)
  • The Barat Perhentian Beach Resort (Malaysia)

In Malaysia, Green Fins is run by Reef Check Malaysia in partnership with the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia (DMPM) on the Peninsula and Sabah Parks in Sabah. Membership is not yet available in Sarawak.

For more information, please visit www.reef-world.org and www.greenfins.net.

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