St. Vincent – the secret is out!
Think you need to travel half way around the world to see delightful creatures like Seahorses and Frogfish? They are closer to home than you might think. No need for a long trek with jetlag on both ends. St Vincent in the southern Caribbean Lesser Antilles, offers a variety of unique and rare critters for even the most discerning macro enthusiast.
Thankfully off the beaten track, St Vincent’s underwater treasures have long been a well kept secret, perhaps due to complex flight connections. But now that direct flights are available from San Juan, the secret is out!
Staring out at the breathtaking views you could be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere in the Pacific – volcanic black sand beaches line secluded bays, surrounded by shaggy cliffs dripping with lush green vegetation, brown boobies ruffle their feathers at the cliff‘s edge, while the occasional fisherman casts his nets. Homes with billion dollar views dot the mountainous terrain overlooked by Soufriere volcano at 4048ft.
Transport yourself back to 1787 and imagine Captain Bligh sailing by the rocky cliffs with the mutinous crew of the HMS Bounty on their way to plant breadfruit trees which were to be a source of food for slaves working the sugar plantations of the West Indies …or even easier - picture Johnny Depp at the helm of the Black Pearl in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ which was shot on location in St Vincent.
Back in the eighties Bill Tewes had just returned to Texas from a ‘round the world’ diving trip, which had culminated in opening a dive shop in Papua New Guinea today known as the ‘Jais Aben’ resort in Madang . He learned of a shop for sale in St Vincent where the topography was uncannily reminiscent of PNG. The underwater wonders sealed the deal. He discovered that there was ‘muck-diving’ to satisfy even the most hardened enthusiast and healthy reefs containing unique and even rare creatures.
Bill owns and runs Dive St Vincent, and is happiest with a maximum of 6 divers on his boats. Dive sites are only ever 20 minutes away and the waters are typically calm with little or no current, which makes for easy pleasant diving; climate is warm year round at 13 degrees north of the Equator and water temperature peaks at 82 degrees, never dropping below a comfortable 79 degrees.
But besides the sought after colorful frogfish and seahorses, variety of crabs and shrimps, flying gurnards, blennies, eels, octopus, brotula, cyphomas, congers and other rareties, the main attraction is Bill who even describes himself as a ‘colorful character’. Part comedian, part studious professor, his dry wit keeps everyone entertained between dives.
Bill trained his local staff to dive and most of them have been with him for more than two decades. Neither Bill nor his well-trained spotters leave home without the tools of their trade: trusty pointers, slates, mirrors and magnifying glasses; they spot the uncommon and rare creatures that we would pass by without noticing.
With dive sites named ‘New Guinea Reef’, our expectations were high and demands were met over and over as Bill moved from one amazing creature to the next. Bill had no trouble recalling the scientific names of all the creatures just spotted on the dive. Most are uncommon or downright rare and after each dive still dripping, pointer and slate at his side, he would break into a smile and joyously pronounce that what we had just seen was ‘not in the book!’
Bill produced well thumbed fish and creature ID books to prove his claims and since so many of his critters are not in the book, he has taken the initiative and named them himself. He affectionately refers to the rare ‘glowing flounder’ with its glowing blue edges, and the ‘punk blenny’ with its fluffy head, which are simply not in the book!
The rare Magnificent Sea Urchin prefers deep water habitats and is rarely within the limits of scuba diving and yet Bill pointed them out to us four times in four days in only 20ft of water. Bright orange in color with brilliant blue spots close to the spine and commensal shrimps darting to and fro, it is truly a most magnificent urchin!
Rare glowing flounder
Bill furiously scribbles on his slate throughout the dive- and with the advent of the magnetic slate, he is simply unstoppable! We would shoot one rare critter and turn questioningly to Bill for more and follow him over to see what he would unveil next. And he knows just how to keep all the photographers in the group happy – no waiting turns with Bill. At one point he had four photographers lined up each shooting their own ‘punk blenny – rare of course, and not in the book!’.
Bill produced a small mirror on one of our dives, and placed it in the sand in front of a Sailfin blenny so that it would rear up and dart out of its hole as if fighting off another male – he waited patiently until we had the shot!
The walls are intensely colorful, corals and sponges vividly merging together into a funky wall paper peppered with bristle worms. Bill kept his promises and delivered invisible shrimp, pregnant seahorses, cryptic teardrop crabs and the like, while our fingers clicked non-stop.
Then he took us on a muck dive – and we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were not in the Pacific! Following his advice we used sticks to pull ourselves along the muddy bottom, so as not to disturb the silt and when the opportunity arose, we could simply lean in on the stick with one hand and shoot with the other.
Film enthusiasts were at a definite disadvantage, and only the digital converts were able to keep up with Bill’s endless array of photogenic critters.
Peace and rest await you on Young Island when you are not diving. Happily there is no shopping to speak of in St Vincent; seize the opportunity to feed your soul with the lush Young Island Resort.
Surround yourself in true tropical gardens under the watchful eye of strutting peacocks, St Vincent Parrots and basking lizards. Treat yourself to lazy afternoons in a hammock on the beach or at the floating bar sipping cocktails like ‘Johnny Jump Up’, ‘Tamarind Teaser’ or ‘Brown girl’. Rooms have outdoor showers and incredible views of the bay. The tap water is the purest, sweetest tasting water and comes straight from a source in the mountains.
Watch the sunset from the look-out point and on the way visit the big puffer fishes lie in wait for tit-bits in the shallows by the pier.
Dining on Young Island is a special treat under the romantic thatched kiosks. Breathe in the surrounding fragrant gardens and freshly baked flavored breads on offer at every meal in coconut, raisin, cinnamon, banana, wheat and white. Fresh fruits are abundant and organic yogurt is home made in flavors of plum rose and ginger. Vincentian cuisine is a unique blend of Caribbean and Continental with the emphasis on fragrant West Indian flavors. For breakfast on a non-diving day perhaps you may want to try the flaming rum French toast!
And each morning Bill’s smiling face beckons to the divers waiting on the Young Island pier, eager to join him on his quest to discover more critters ‘not in the book!’
In 2003, ‘Reefnet’ did a species count in St Vincent and recorded that out of the 287 counted, 63 had not been previously recorded in the area, several had never been photographed in natural habitats, and there were at least two species new to science!
You are guaranteed to enjoy St Vincent for its abundance of unique marine life.
But as we watched Bill playfully grab a snorkel and blow into it to ‘call’ the critters, we realized that the charm is really Bill Tewes – one of a kind, so rare he is most definitely ‘not in the book!’
Bill Tewes, Dive St Vincent, www.DIVESTVINCENT.com