Expand your travel horizons by exploring the underwater world of Dominica...dry off and explore the island's above-water attractions
"Just remember to breathe,” was the best tip my dive-savvy friends could come up with when I told them I was going to try diving in Dominica. They could have done better, I thought – apart from a few post-birth, pre-slap seconds 30 years ago I’ve managed breathing pretty well all my life. Still, I couldn’t complain if that really was all there was to it.
I’d been meaning to learn for years – I’d had too many trips to places where snorkelling provided tantalising glimpses of deeper delights. And Dominica sounded ideal – all the winter sun I was craving, but with none of the all-inclusive resorts and package holidaymakers that other Caribbean islands ‘boast’. A mountainous, rainforest-covered island at the northern tip of the Windward chain, it’s a place of small-scale tourism: little rum shops rather than mega clubs, rainforest hikes to waterfalls rather than banana boating.
I’d booked myself on an Open Water course at Nature Island Dive, a small operation in Soufriere, in the south-west of Dominica. The pretty village sits at the sea end of a valley, cradled by lush green slopes and overlooking a large bay – a partly submerged volcanic crater. This picturesque setting reveals itself quite suddenly as you round a bend in the road from the capital, Roseau. With so much natural beauty on land, I knew I was in for a treat underwater.
But I wasn’t to get to see any of that quite yet. The PADI course – the Professional Association of Diving Instructors is the world’s largest diver training organisation – involves a good deal of theory-learning, and even an exam. The classroom beckoned. Weefy, my instructor, explained that for the first morning he would “bore me senseless”. And he wasn’t joking. With the odd multiple-choice test to jazz things up, he took me through subjects such as the principles of buoyancy, the buddy system, the perils of nitrogen narcosis and decompression sickness, how to calculate safe depths and durations of dives… Most of it was common sense but had to be pointed out anyway; the odd thing was new to me. Apparently, even dodgy fillings that leave air pockets in your teeth can make pressure changes painful. So much for ‘just breathe’ – my friends could have suggested a dental check-up.
Finally, my head full of theory, it was time to put it into practice in the water – though still only the shallows. I wriggled into a wetsuit and Weefy showed me how to check all the equipment – full air tank, snugly fitting mask, hip-crushing weight belt, properly inflating Buoyancy Control Device (or jacket, as I called it).
Flippers on, I shuffled into the water. I spat into my mask and put it on – all I had to do now was put my head in the water and breathe. But I couldn’t do it. Whatever I knew in my head about how safe and easy it should be, my lungs just weren’t paying attention. I had so much trouble breathing evenly, and retreated to the surface for normal air so often, that it got embarrassing. Then frustrating. Then I got really cross. Then, eventually, when I thought I’d never do it, I made a huge effort of concentration and found that I could make myself do it. And suddenly I was finning around the bottom, watching shoals of fish flit around, a flying gurnard doing its best to blend into the sand, and little streams of bubbles escaping upwards from invisible cracks in the volcanic sea floor.
With the reminder that we had some exercises to do. Kneeling on the bottom – or rather, bobbing up and down as I breathed in and out – I found it surprisingly easy to remove the regulator and replace it, blowing hard to clear the water. Next, he demonstrated how I should let my mask fill with water, and clear it by blowing hard through my nose. At this point all confidence evaporated and I was back to my old panicky self, shooting to the surface and spluttering like a big baby. This was more paddy than PADI. We agreed to call it a day.
Spending most of the next few days in the water made me feel much more relaxed. I finally managed my mask clearing in the shallows, and came to regard the exercises as a necessary evil. As I saw more of what the water had to offer – an eel and a poisonous scorpion fish for starters – moving around underwater felt more natural. Though I even needed practice there – I wasn’t very good at holding my arms still. Weefy kept his hands folded neatly like someone posing for a team photograph, whereas when I remembered to control my arms, I looked more like the Queen clasping her handbag.
Now I felt calmer, my main annoyance was the difficulty of communication. Although various signals convey basic messages, it was frustrating not to be able to ask questions, or query instructions. Or express my embarrassment at pointing out a jellyfish just as I realised it was a plastic bag.
On day three, after my final exam, it was time for my first open water dive, in Coral Gardens South, part of Dominica’s Marine Reserve. Geed up by my 96% mark, the more sociable atmosphere of a boat full of fellow divers, and the prospect of what they described as the best close-to-shore diving they’d ever experienced, I didn’t have time to think about the exercises I’d have to repeat in open water. In fact, they went pretty smoothly, and we could move on to what I’d really come to see.
There were corals of countless different colours, shapes and sizes – large vase sponges and yellowy tube ones, magnificent feather dusters, huge plate and finger corals and sea fans. Hundreds of shimmering fish bustled about their business like well-behaved extras from Finding Nemo. Angelfish, parrotfish, schoolmasters and yellow goatfish darted around in shoals, smaller gangs or on their own, while eels slunk around the coral and peered out from crevices. Unlike wildlife viewing on land, where you can wait for hours and still consider yourself lucky to spot a distant blur, here everything was ready and waiting for me to approach as closely as my still-imperfect buoyancy would allow.
After a break back at the dive centre, we set out again, this time for Soufriere Pinnacles. Here, Weefy said, I would have to repeat the mask-clearing exercise. In the water, my earlier success eluded me. I tried, tried and failed again. Apparently, this is every PADIer’s most detested exercise, but I still couldn’t do it. It was the story of my life – fine in the classroom and rubbish at sports. So we gave up and carried on with the dive – this time along a wall, where the same coral and fish made up a vertical wildlife wonderland. But even the sight of a greenback turtle couldn’t shift my preoccupation with the mask clearing – I’d still need to do it to pass my course.
As we set off in the boat the next day, I barely registered the beautiful scenery for thinking about the dreaded mask exercise. But we were soon across the bay at Scotts Head Drop-off and the big moment arrived. Weefy and I descended to the sandy bottom, I took more than a few deep breaths… and I did it. Underwater high fives were all the communication I needed. Then it was off for the dive proper – and now that my (admittedly self-imposed) ordeal was over, I could finally relax and enjoy my surroundings. I drank in the views of aquatic life, pausing to watch the slippery progress of an eel and a school of grunts feeding on an overhang. Here, and later at Champagne (a suitable post-qualification site; volcanic gas forms Bollinger-like streams of bubbles), I really began to appreciate the diversity of species, from things smaller than tadpoles, to predatory bar jacks the size of a good dinner. Despite what I’d learned about the water absorbing parts of the spectrum, there was still an impressive rainbow down here – from delicate lilac corals, to luminous green tubes, to orange clusters. And then it was all over. Back to base, get my PADI card and a Kubuli beer to celebrate. Now I’d done it, it seemed a shame I wouldn’t get to dive again in Dominica – you need a day’s grace before flying. At least I’d have the chance to explore some of the island’s topside attractions. And next time here – or anywhere else diver-friendly – I wouldn’t miss out on the sights, above or below water.
Why is a banana tree like a woman?” asked Alphil. I didn’t know – something to do with lovely bunches? “Because it takes nine months for the bananas to grow and ripen.” Alphil (son of Alice and Philip) may not have had much sense of punchline, but he did know his botany. As we hiked through the rainforest he pointed out all sorts of plants that I would otherwise have classified as ‘jungle’: there were epiphytes, bromeliads, 50-year-old trees with giant buttress roots, ferns, hanging roots, and exotic ginger lilies and antheriums, which would cost a bomb in Sainsbury’s but grow rampant in Dominica. All this lushness comes at a price, though: any day trip is likely to be punctuated by what the locals euphemistically call ‘liquid sunshine’. As soon as I asked about the island’s rainfall, the clouds let rip – though what sounded torrential at canopy level was filtered down to us as a mild shower. And it made no difference when we got to our destination, Middleham Falls. At 90m, the highest of many waterfalls on the island, they give off a constant spray that does a good job of cooling down hikers. Even on land, you rarely stay dry for long on this island.
The greater the altitude in Dominica, the higher the rainfall. And the only things that are low-rise here are the buildings; the highest point is Morne Diablotin, at 1,450m, and the two peaks Morne aux Diables and Morne Anglais keep the elevation well over 750m at either end of the island. The most strenuous trek in Dominica – a six- to seven-hour effort to Boiling Lake – is too high to tackle the day after diving, for fear of decompression sickness.
Whalewatching was another (just) above-sea-level activity that left me less than bone dry, especially as I sat at the front for a better view/tan. We would be cruising along with just enough speed to keep you cool, when the captain would spot a distant shadow and put his foot down (throwing up plenty of spray) to get there in time for a viewing. The female sperm whales that inhabit these waters dive for about 50 minutes, and only surface for a ten-minute-or-so rest. In three hours we saw seven – some alone, and others in pairs. One ostentatious juvenile played around and under the boat so long that the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from my fellow whalewatchers almost reached a pitch where the whale could have understood them.
Back on dry land, it was time for a wander around Roseau, the small capital. Its colourful two- and three-storey buildings invite relaxed ambling: I popped into the Dominica Museum, strolled through the botanical gardens, enjoyed a peoplewatching drink and perused the market’s handicrafts in a not overly arduous morning. This was all entirely in keeping with the island’s laid-back character. The vast majority of Dominicans I met were the embodiment of the Caribbean stereotype: cheerful, unhurried and friendly. What should have been a 20-minute walk from my hotel into Roseau was rarely that short, as I lost count of the ‘hello’s and ‘welcome to Dominicas’ en route.
Besides the hiking and the whalewatching, there’s the Caribbean’s last remaining indigenous Indian settlements, lots of charming little fishing villages and the Lesser Antilles’ richest biodiversity… all in all, a thoroughly ‘eco’ destination. Earlier this year it became the first country to gain the benchmark eco-tourism designation from Green Globe 21, the organisation set up by the World Travel & Tourism Council to certify and improve sustainable tourism. And even Hollywood has taken note of its pristine state: as this goes to press, cast and crew are heading Dominica-wards to film Pirates of the Caribbean II and III. Dominica calls itself ‘the Nature Island’ – and, for once, the promotional tag holds true.
When to go: Diving is possible year round, but you may wish to avoid hurricane season (end Sept-Oct). July and August are peak season. Carnival in February is fun, as is October for the World Creole Music Festival. Temperatures average around 20-35°C. Rainfall can be heavy.Health and safety: You can’t dive with a cold because your airways aren’t clear for equalising air pressure. Neither should you dive when pregnant or if you have certain heart conditions or breathing problems – consult a doctor with some diving know-how.