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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Scuba Diving Grenada Part 3

“May I extend you a warm Grenadian welcome,” gushed ebullient guide Roger Augustine, as we trundled from the airport after arriving in the sun kissed Caribbean.

“If you’ve been to Grenada before, then you are returning because you know it is the best island in the Caribbean. “If this is your first visit, you’re about to discover the Caribbean’s best kept secret.”

Despite feeling a little like an undiscovered gem, the Spice Island may be a reasonably popular spot on the UK holidaymaker's tourist map but when it comes to diving trips, it doesn’t seem to rank that high on the must-see list. Yet is does have it’s fair share of underwater riches.

The Caribbean islands have an eclectic mix of individual diving experiences – sharks in the Bahamas for instance – and Grenada is no different.

This is the wreck capital of the region. While the thought of Caribbean wrecks inspires dreams of long-lost Spanish galleons loaded with treasures ready to be plucked from the deep, the top wreck is a little more modern.

Justifiably known as the ‘Titanic of the Caribbean’, the Bianca C has few rivals in the realms of warm water wreck diving and has been listed as one of the ‘top ten’ worldwide wreck sites. All we had to do was find it.

Now you wouldn’t think the enormous 180m (600ft) cruise liner sank that sits upright on her keel in 50m (165ft) of water would be that difficult to find.

But on the day we hit the water a plankton bloom or the Orinocho Flow (depending on who you choose to believe) had turned the normally tropical waters into something...well...resembling the British coastline. Yep, it was dark and green.

The wreck itself is not buoyed and typically the dive guide descends onto stern reeling off a line to an SMB which the group follows downwards until the deck emerged in the aqua blue waters like a ghost from about 15 to 20 metres.

Yet in the gloom and dwindling viz, we couldn’t find it. And we must have been virtually on top of it.

Full marks go to our guide Ben from Devotion 2 Ocean. Rather than drag us around the blue, or green as it was, aimlessly looking for the wreck, after 15 minutes called the dive. It was a brilliant decision made by an experienced guide and instructor and highlighted that safety would not be compromised and one deserving of full praise.

Built in France 1939, Bianca C as she finally became known had a chequered history before ending up with an Italian firm taking tourists from Naples to Guaira, in Venezuela, via the Caribbean.

On October 12 1961 the Bianca C left Italy on her final voyage. Ten days later, whilst anchored off St Georges, the capital of Grenada, there was an explosion in her boiler room, killing a crew member and sparking a fire which spread rapidly through the stern of the ship. A flotilla of boats piloted by locals helped save the remaining 672 passengers and crew.

British Frigate the Londonderry was drafted in to remove her from the local shipping lanes but the Bianca C’s large rudders had become jammed by the extreme heat of the fire and she slipped the tow line sank to the ocean floor.

Luckily the wreck site is directly in front of the dive centre and after a decent surface interval we were back on the powerful boat making the five-minute ride hoping for a better shot.

And this time we found the wreck, hitting the twisted stern at about 36m. At first it was hard to fathom exactly what we were looking at until we came across what was once the swimming pool.

Where once, wealthy guests frolicked away the afternoon, fish are now the regular visitors to the retangular pool, the ornate tiles still visible. It seemed odd doing ‘lengths’ in full scuba gear, but we couldn’t not do it either.

As the minutes ticked down towards our no decompression limits we headed forward and slightly shallower over the top of the superstructure towards the funnel. Apparently you can still make out the 'C' but I'm no so sure.

Dives normally continue on to the bow for the 'King of the World' Titanic moment but our earlier dive had left us short on time so we made a short detour through the blue, err green, to Whibble Reef which runs parallel to the wreck.

This is one of the top reef dives for spotting pelagic fish on the Caribbean side of the Island. Spotted Eagle Rays, large Barracuda and Hawksbill Turtles are regularly seen. Unfortunately for us they were probably beyond our eight metre viz although we did have large schools of Horse Eyed Jacks darting amongst us as we meandered above the pristine corals and sponges.

Time on the wreck is obviously short because of its depth (unless of course you are a tech diver, then this would be a great wreck to explore fully) and there are a couple of occasions that require swimming in the blue with no reference point other than other divers. We were lucky with the current but it can sweep across the wreck.

After such a deep dive, one for advanced only, we slowly ascended hanging midwater as we off-gassed, the occasional fish approaching to see who the group of interlopers were. There is something magical about hanging there with nothing to distract you.

Mentally refreshed we headed back to the hotel for physical refreshment. Digs for the first part of the trip was the Flamboyant Hotel above Grand Anse Beach.

Now I'm always suspicious of resorts that try to suggest some grand design with their name. While it's not the most luxurious of places, it has its own unique Caribbean chic charm and the views over the famous beach cannot be beaten. The rooms were spacious and well equipped (ours even had a kitchen with cooker) and the bar was right on the beach.

But beware, anything offering great views from the cliff-top inevitably means steep climbs from beach to room. We hadn't banked on such a slog up and down but the views from the top and the beach at the bottom certainly made it worthwhile, and the grunting tortoises kept a smile on our faces as we huffed and puffed up the steps.

Next to the beach bar is Dive Grenada dive centre. Well equipped, with a fast boat (that could do with a bit more shade as my shoulders will testify) the centre Run by former Navy diver, Phil and his wife Helen.

He is a fascinating host who heads the island's scuba association so has the industry at his heart, whether it's planning to sink more wrecks or continue developing the sculpture park.

While the centre may not have been the plushest, I can imagine a group of blokes on a diving trip together would be happiest here in his company, sharing some underwater adventures some beers and good stories.

But back to the underwater world. Next up was the 25m wreck of the Veronica L. This fully intact coastal freighter was placed on Upper Boss Reef in 2003 after being moved from St Georges Harbour and was about a 15 to 20-minute boat ride away.

Phil at Dive Grenada said she probably had the largest diversity of marine life in such a small area of all the island's dive sites. On a normal day you could find patrolling barracuda, horse eyed jacks hunting amongst the brown chromis and creole wrasse patrolling around the bow towering from the seabed 16 metres down.

Some might look on the reduced viz as a problem, but for us it was a blessing because it meant we had to look a bit closer to find Arrow Head crabs nestled into small sponges, Christmas tree worms, small morays around the bow and on top of the crane. Looking closer also means you get to witness their behaviour.

We spent a good 35 minutes exploring the wreck, there is little to penetrate but we had a good poke around an at such a shallow depth, it is ideal for all levels of diver and a good spot for photographers (I used my strobe for the first time and got some interesting results, but more on that in an upcoming post).

Also about 15 minutes out from Grand Anse beach is 'Purple Rain', named so because of the large quantities of Creole Wrasse that descend upon you during your dive at this location.

This dive site is stunning with a fantastic diversity of both hard and soft corals, and barrel sponges. With a nice steady current carrying us effortlessly above the reef it felt like a marine animal version of the Generation Game: moray eel, crab, shrimp, moray, crab, crab, frog fish. In the end, I put the camera to one side and just watched the fish shoal around us.

After soaking in the amazing fish life beneath the waves, it kind of seemed criminal to head to Gouyave for Fish Friday. But there is a unique charm to this weekly local festival as the fishing families set up the frying pans under tarpaulin to cook the fresh catch for you. With music drifting through the air, a beer in hand and a plateful of snapper, plantains and vegetables the locals welcome you into their party company and it ended up feeling like a barbecue with friends.

After a short detour to Carriacou, we relocated to the True Blue Bay resort. This family-run Caribbean boutique hotel is set among tropical gardens sloping down to the sparkling blue waters of True Blue Bay where the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet.

For the more serious diver, the Atlantic side offers some pumping currents and chance to see pelagics. I had hoped to dive the San Juan two miles off shore after reading one of the guidebooks enthusing about the large collection of nurse sharks that have gathered there. One dive centre said the sharks had gone after the hurricane of a few years back had moved the wreck and most had made the Hema there home.

While the guide books can be dismissive of the inshore reefs, there was still plenty to see among the 30 or so popular sites, particularly at the Marine Park area at Moliniere Bay and Flamingo Bay.

Here you will find the Sculpture Park (see earlier post) and some fine reefs with a plethora of corals. This being the wreck capital of the Caribbean, there is obviously a sunken ship. The Buccaneer, an 18 metre sailing vessel, is laying on its side just off Moliniere Reef, its deck disappeared leaving the ribs of the boat to create an interesting ambiance with lots of schooling grunts and squirrelfish.

Heading back along the reef above the sea grass, look for the extensive eel garden and mesmerise at the Yellow head Jaw Fish protruding vertically from the burrows in amongst the flora .

Happy Valley is another National Marine Park site which lies between Flamingo Bay and Dragon Bay. This is an interesting dive of contrasts, giant lobsters hidden among the reef and tiny little shrimp squirreled away in the sponges.

There is a very old admiralty anchor which is slowly becoming part of the reef and some very good examples of Black and Whip corals. Manta Rays are seen here at certain times of the year and we were treated to a giant ray that glided over the sand beneath us.

It was here that we spotted this little critter. A near translucent shrimp with blue and white legs perched on the red coral. Despite scouring the identification books I have still not been able to come up with a name yet, So if anyone can help, I would be much obliged.

While the wrecks are an ever present, the big stuff in can be elusive underwater, mantas were spotted in the shallows just off the beach when we were there but remained out of sight beneath the waves, Grenada still has enough treasures of the deep to offer.

Topside, the temptations are varied with a full blown rainforest to explore, exotic flowers brightening the green foliage and birds feeling the air with their squawks. There is also chance to swim beneath waterfalls. Grenada being the Spice Island, a visit to one of the processing Boucans will fill your senses with the wondrous smells of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cocoa and ginger.

And this being the island of 150 proof rum, that is in such demand none of it ever makes it to export a trip to a distillery is worth it. And it will ensure you have something to keep you warm in the night as well.

See the guide for more details.

1 comment:

Absolutmark said...

Thanks all for the suggestions. The mystery shrimp can now be confirmed as a spotted cleaner shrimp.
Here's what wikipeadia says:
"The spotted cleaner shrimp (Periclimenes yucatanicus), is a kind of cleaner shrimp common to the Caribbean Sea. These shrimp live in sea anemones, including Bartholomea annulata, Condylactis gigantea, Lebrunia danae and Rhodactis sanctithomae.[1] They sway their body and wave their antennae in order to attract fish from which they eat dead tissue, algae, and parasites"