If It’s Good Enough For Cousteau…
‘Unplugged’ is the word on a private island in the Grenadines where the strains of modern life are meant to be forgotten as you sink gratefully into its warm waters. STEVE WEINMAN enjoys a little TLC on PSV
THERE’S A CURIOUSLY DREAMLIKE quality to this, our second dive in Chatham Bay. I put this down to the profusion of soft corals and branching sponges.
All around me there seem to be fans, pens, plumes, rods and fingers in various shades of gold and brown, waving and nodding gently in the mild current, and the effect is quite soporific.
I could recall these views in future when I’m having trouble dropping off to sleep at night, I think to myself. That’s not a put-down of the dive, however – I’m enjoying this pleasant way of easing down the gears and adjusting from the world of cars, offices and deadlines to small-island life. We’re meandering at no more than 13m, too, and the water is light if a bit milky.
The golden fronds of this feathery forest are punctuated by shoals of baitfish and the loners – trumpetfish, parrotfish, the occasional speckled moray eel or trunkfish and – oh, there goes public enemy number one, a fat lionfish.
Guiding me is Gilan who, realising that he no longer need worry about photo-bombing me because I welcome his presence as a model in this wide-angle world, fins into frame. I shoot him against the foliage.
Only a father and his young son have shared the dive-boat with us this morning. After lunch there are plans to do some slightly more adventurous diving with a different pair of paying customers, but when I roll up at the dive-centre it turns out that they’re no-shows.
We decide to go anyway, and the boat is duly loaded – the staff prefer to do all the prep themselves. Then one of the no-shows comes running along the jetty, having changed her mind. It’s not going to happen, however, because it seems an engine has failed, and this is the only boat available right now.
It happens, even in the best of places. My further underwater adventures will have to wait for the next morning.
Divers often talk of visiting PNG and the GBR and, in the Caribbean, BVI and TCI. Now add to these abbreviated diving destinations one less familiar – PSV.
Nothing to do with the Dutch football team known by its fans as the Peasants – PSV is in the Caribbean and, judging by its clientele, has very little to do with peasants. It stands for Petit St Vincent.
Everyone in the region calls it PSV and it’s one of the smaller Grenadines, a fish-shaped private island of 115 acres that’s accessible only by boat.
The Grenadines lie closer to each other than I had imagined, and from just off PSV you can see most of them on a clear day. To the north of the chain lies St Vincent, to the south Grenada.
Our 19-seater plane from Barbados to Union, the nearest island to PSV with an airstrip, had called into several other Grenadines on the way, hopping on and off islands like a bird between breakfast tables.
Appeared in DIVER March 2018
PSV’S APPROACH IS TO combine 5* service with informality and a touch of the simple life. Those 115 acres include a mere 22 luxury cottages, so the ratio of acres to guests is as generous as the staff-guest ratio of 1:1.
There are more-than-generous portions of powdery white beach and reef, too, along with a treetop Balinese-style spa (highly recommended), a new beach restaurant, and a sprawling restaurant and bar in the central pavilion on the lower of the island’s two hills (the only area served by wi-fi).
If you don’t feel the need for occasional exercise (which you should, because the dining is gourmet-epic) you can always hail a buggy to travel from spot to spot.
Want a work-out? A sweaty ascent of the bigger hill takes about 20 minutes (sadly I didn’t have time for that, what with all the diving, ahem).
I’m also told that the record for circumnavigating the island by kayak is 23 minutes, though you’d have to be going like the clappers.
All this sounded very appealing when I was invited on a short press trip to PSV. The other journalists, bloggers and social influencers would be absorbing the lifestyle while I absorbed the underwater world. But what drew me especially was the dive-centre’s name – Cousteau Caribbean Diving.
There is only one other Cousteau resort, the original one opened by Jean-Michel’s Ocean Futures Society in Fiji.
The follow-up PADI 5* establishment became PSV’s first dive-centre four years ago, and was designed by Don Santee, an old associate of both Jean-Michel and his father Jacques Cousteau.
Inside the modest building there are no portraits of the original red-hatted submariner, and you’re unlikely to find Jean-Michel helping you to complete your PADI disclaimer form or filling tanks round the back. I’m sure he’d perform both tasks very well but, even better, you’ll find Dan Beldon, Alex Booth (he’s from Newcastle, she’s from Cornwall) and Gilan Comas from St Vincent.
These three run the centre very much their own way, and provide as pleasant a diving experience as you’ll find anywhere.
THEY CERTAINLY HAVE the environmental and marine-biological savvy that the name Cousteau over the door would lead you to expect. “It is our hope that by encouraging and enabling divers to explore the waters around PSV, we will be raising awareness of the importance of protecting our water planet… we must connect the ocean to the existence of every human being,” Jean-Michel has said.
I can’t help thinking that to bring appreciation of the underwater world to the masses JMC might have chosen less exclusive locations than PSV (and indeed Fiji) but perhaps we can safely leave that mission to the Blue Planet TV team.
With the Caribbean under threat from everything from warmed-up hard coral to invasive lionfish predation, PSV seems as good a place as any from which to exert benign human influence, and far enough south to reduce the hurricane risk. It also offers ready access to a marine reserve.
Veteran oceanographer Sylvia Earle had conducted one of her Mission Blue marine-conservation conferences on PSV a few months earlier, calling it a “Hope Spot”. We don’t dive around the island itself, but if it is a suitable case for treatment the intervention still seems to be in its early days, with a small number of coral-cultivation tables currently being populated with elkhorn fragments.
The dive-crew don’t teach lionfish-killing speciality courses, but do carry the means to take the predators out whenever they can do so discreetly.
The resort has its own desalination plant for fresh water, which it bottles for drinking in reusable glass. Electricity comes from a diesel generator, so I guess there’s scope to invest in solar power.
If it’s possible to combine sophisticated service with the simple life, PSV manages to pull it off. The cottage are plush but you won’t find TVs or wi-fi, and instead of a phone you fly yellow or red flags to summon room service or request privacy.
You never need to socialise if you don’t want to, although the island’s serial returnees, many of them British, seem very sociable. Many have been coming since long before M Cousteau arrived, and I get the impression that not that many bother to take up space on the dive-boat.
But it’s always a good sign when a resort’s manager is a diver, and both Matthew Semark from the UK and his wife Anie from Bali are highly experienced divers as well as entertaining hosts.
ON DAY TWO we’re back in Chatham Bay, which lies to the west of Union island, on a site called Bloody Wall. It sounds promisingly piratical and again it’s a nice dive, but it’s not unlike the previous day’s soft-coral forest. With only three diving days on PSV, I start to feel concerned about a possible lack of variety beneath the surface.
I am however pleased to see a school of several dozen palometa (Trachinotus goodei), a distinctive Caribbean jack I’ve never seen before. These fish go by many names, including pompano and old wife, and have a distinctive shape, all elongated fins, forktail and flat silvery body.
They can grow up to a metre long, though these are smaller. They seem to mob us for a moment, perhaps attracted by our bubbles, before moving on so fast that I’m unable to get a focused shot.
If I’m worried about sameness, the site Pinese reassures me. We’re on a wall that slopes off to reasonable depths, though we stay at around 16m. Still, I’m pleased that all our dives are lasting at least an hour.
There is plenty of coral and sponge life on the wall, and I note a rainbow parade of fish, pugnacious spiny lobsters, an unusually large lizardfish that obligingly flashes its teeth and a nurse shark, body exposed but head frustratingly hidden.
As I close in, it suddenly spins round as if to offer up a portrait view, but simply stirs up a cloud of sediment before settling in exactly the same position as before.
I shrug and move on.
I enjoy Pinese, but the ante is upped considerably on our last day, starting with a drift-dive at Mayreau Gardens.
Mayreau, north-east of Union and the Grenadines’ smallest inhabited island, is part of the Tobago Cays Marine Park, which reaches out east of the island.
There are proposals to extend this reserve, which could bring it closer to PSV. Mayreau’s 300 inhabitants will take some persuading of the advantages, however, because their lives are largely dedicated to fishing.
Later that day I mention this to Sinbad, who comes from the island and helps British skipper Jeff Stevens sail PSV’s 15m sailing sloop Beauty.
Of course, it’s all very well for some fly-by-night visitor to go on about how fishers benefit from the overspill from rejuvenated populations of fish in a marine reserve, but such gains are long-term. In the here and now, his response is: “C’mon, mate, we have to eat!”
And as I’m sitting on a yacht happily tucking into freshly barbecued swordfish and lobster as well as tenderloin at the time, I decide not to pursue the topic.
The Mayreau Gardens drift begins with Dan, Alex and I missing the intended channel on our descent and, finding the current too strong to fight, having to go back up for a second shot.
Our re-entry is slightly delayed, because initially the captain is following the other group’s bubbles, and what follows is a clear demonstration of how poorly the sound of whistles carries at sea, however loud they might sound to the blower.
But we’re soon reunited with the others, and not long after that, Gilan decides to have a lie-down on the seabed.
I know why. I’ve been vainly trying to photograph the trickle of bubbles rising through a patch of darkened sand, and the spot where Gilan is lying offers a graphic impression of heat emanating from the bowels of the Earth.
Get as low as you can go at around 24m, and you can feel the warmth from the underwater volcano called Hot Springs.
The drift reveals more of that luxuriant soft coral and plenty of colour. There’s another shy nurse shark and more spiny lobsters, a little scrawled cowfish with its sharp horns, and everywhere thick clouds of bright blue juvenile Creole wrasse.
SO NOW WE’RE DOWN TO the final underwater experience and, although it’s the easiest of dives, it doesn’t disappoint.
Some wrecks just have an intangible quality, and the upright, broken and richly overgrown HMT Puruni, though only about 30m in length, is one of these.
We’re looking at the remains of a British patrol boat originally built on the Tyne as a trawler in 1905. She seems to have been ferrying passengers and cargo about in Guyana (the Puruni is a river in that South American country) when she was requisitioned by the Admiralty in March 1917 and fitted with a pair of 13-pounder guns.
In that latter part of WW1, the Allies were responding to fears of U-boat activity extending into Caribbean waters.
I don’t know if Puruni saw any action but she ended up on a reef in Saline Bay off Mayreau’s north-west coast on 29 August, 1918, after breaking loose from her anchorage in a storm. Her sinking in around 11m left what would be a shallow playground for divers a century later.
The bow has separated from the rest of the wreck and stands photogenically on end in a swirl of Creole wrasse, snapper and sergeant-majors.
The collapsed mid-section featuring a prominent boiler is comprehensively colonised, and as I perform restless figures-of-eight around the site I come across pairs both of lobsters and of what appear to be gold-crowned sea goddesses (less exotic than they sound – they’re nudibranchs, but not that common in these parts). Yet another nurse shark is trying to get some kip under the boiler.
The stern stands perfectly upright, with bigeye squirrelfish crowding in the darkness behind the two propellers and shafts, as they do. Standing proud of the deck is the tall rudder-post, groaning under the weight of a century’s growth.
The dive-boat drops me on a sandbar with the rest of the press party, and we all snorkel out to the Beauty, looking out for green turtles on the way. They’re around, but no close-ups. We’ll be heading back to PSV under sail after lunch.
The diving and the living is easy, chiming in with the whole ethos of PSV, where the default setting is Unwind. I’ve just about shed the last vestiges of 21st century pressures – and now it’s time to fly home. It’s OK, I know you feel for me!
GETTING THERE> Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick and inter-island flights.
WHEN TO GO> Peak season is December to April and the resort closes in the months before November for an annual refurbishment.
MONEY> Eastern Caribbean dollar
PRICES> Inspiring Travel Company offers seven nights’ full-board in a one-bedroom cottage from £3759pp (two sharing), including flights and transfers. This includes a “two nights free” offer valid for stays completed between 1 April and 19 December 2018, inspiringtravel company.co.uk. The dive-centre offers five days of two-tank dives with all equipment (Aqua Lung, of course) for US $750. Nitrox $20 a fill.
VISITOR INFORMATION> petitstvincent.com