COMPROMISE CAN SEEM an ugly word, implying the need to make do with something less than best. And yet I increasingly realise that compromise is both necessary and a positive sign that one is growing into proper adulthood – daunting as that might be!
If holiday plans were left up to me, I would be off on a liveaboard to a remote location with spectacular marine life that I could visit as much as my dive-computer allows. PNG, here I come!
I imagine that most DIVER readers would agree with that sentiment, and hope we can all squeeze in at least one dive-dedicated trip a year.
On the other hand, I’m sure we all have trips where the goals are a little broader than feeding a dive-addict’s obsession. In this case we were a party of eight, with three divers and the rest interested in a mix of snorkelling and topside activities. We had just over a week to escape the winter blues, so with that in mind, a place we could reach via a direct flight was ideal.
The experience level among the scuba-junkies was also mixed, with Charlotte and Al wanting to take their Advanced Open Water course alongside yours truly, a dive pro with a camera fetish.
We settled on St Lucia, an island that, viewed from the sea, is among the most spectacular in the Caribbean chain. Born from volcanic eruptions, it rises steeply from the seabed, with jagged peaks, verdant rainforest and plenty of beach coves.
The landlubbers enjoyed the view, Charlotte and Al studied their course manuals and I fanatically examined camera O-rings for dust. We had rented a couple of villas in Marigot Bay, a lovely place about halfway down the west coast, and it was the perfect base from which to explore the rest of the island.
Going out on a limb, I’d say that Marigot is one of St Lucia’s top three scenic spots. It’s also where rum-filled cruise-ship passengers are taken on boat tours and told tall tales about all the celebrity-owned houses on the cliff.
While off-gassing, I would entertain myself by waving back from the balcony and pretending to be Mick Jagger.
The first morning we boarded Dive St Lucia’s comfortable boat and made a fast commute south for a couple of dives at the foot of the Pitons. The Gros and Petit Piton, two majestic volcanic spires, are St Lucia’s most famous landmark. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, even the local beer is named after these peaks, and they made a very nice backdrop to the start and finish of our dives.
What really interested me, however, was the seascape. Among the delights of Lucian diving are the sea-sponges. I’m not kidding, the island boasts some amazing sponges!
You will be taken by the giant barrel sponges, some big enough to fit a fully equipped diver (not that we tried).
These simple dinosaurs of the reef can live for more than a thousand years, and feed by filtering thousands of litres of water daily. Look inside and you might find the menacing carapace of a hairy clinging crab.
The citron sponge is a blaze of orange, and as far down as I could see the sloping reef had been Tangoed by these spongy beauties.
Outdoing them all, the azure vase sponge wins my award for best sponge in the world. These intricately textured, fluorescent towers glow with pinks and purples and cannot fail to catch a diver’s eye.
Look more closely and you might find a yellowline arrow crab munching away on the sponge with its manicured blue claws. Arrow crabs have a body shaped like the Eiffel Tower and long, spider-like legs. They are blasé about divers, warding you off with an outstretched limb only if you get a little too close for comfort.
Another fun find was a spinyhead blenny occupying one of the azure vase sponge’s pores. These inch-long tube-dwelling blennies typically make their home in hard corals, in the spaces vacated by worms. Sometimes, however, they migrate to fancier lodgings in the purple sponge towers.
From there they poke their head out and collect food from the water column as it passes their doorstep.
These characterful blennies are fabulously abundant in St Lucia. Once they got their eye in, Charlotte and Al were embracing the challenge of finding these tiny fish on every dive!
I FEAR THAT, AS DIVERS, we focus too much on finding the most elusive creatures in any given destination, and what’s rare in one place may be common in the next. I have even noticed significant variation from one island to the next in the Caribbean.
St Lucia is an underwater paradise for eels. Nothing is guaranteed when it comes to wildlife but I would stake my beloved underwater camera rig on you finding at least one on every dive there.
Most commonly encountered is the spotted moray. Dotted in dark brown and white, these slippery fellows seemed to rule supreme at our next site. Keyhole Pinnacles is a must-do Lucian dive, made famous by the underwater mounts that seem to mirror the Pitons.
As we circled the base of the pinnacles, sightings of spotted moray eels grew so frequent as to be (almost) boring. The eels seemed empowered, roaming in broad daylight in search of prey, and roaring at the passing divers.
We surfaced on a natural high and devoured lunch during the short boat-ride to Turtle Reef. Sadly the name misled, because we failed to find any resident greens or hawksbills. This became easier to understand when we learnt that the annual three-month turtle-hunting season had only just ended.
Turtle-hunting has a long history in St Lucia, and though part of its cultural heritage it’s difficult to stomach for ocean-lovers. With hunting bans on these endangered species in neighbouring St Vincent and Martinique, St Lucia’s position seems behind the times, and counter-productive when it comes to attracting tourists. Over the week we would see only one turtle, a sign that numbers are well below average.
OUR SPIRITS WERE LIFTED AT Turtle Reef by an extended stop in the beautiful shallows. The ever-present brown chromis swooped around us as we carefully picked our way through a colourful reef. Hovering over the sand, we spied a carefully concealed peacock flounder. With its flowery blue spots and 360° vision, this must be one of the most attractive in its fish family, and is the most commonly sighted species in St Lucia.
Back at Marigot Bay we caught up with the rest of the group, who were lyrical about their rainforest tour. It sounded great, but not quite great enough to sacrifice a day of diving for it. So we left them to their evening cocktails and headed off for a night dive.
This would be Charlotte and Al’s first nocturnal submersion, but almost as soon as we descended any nerves gave way to wide-eyed awe at an underwater landscape transformed by the cover of night. Caribbean spiny lobsters, empowered by the darkness, scuttled around in the open in search of food. Enormous cushionstars, looking as if juiced up with steroids, wandered the sandy plains en masse.
Most exciting of all, we looked up into the inky water and spied a couple of Caribbean reef squid, glowing with an ever-evolving colour pattern that scientists are still at a loss to explain. We were transfixed as the squid played a game of cat and mouse with our dive-lights. By the time we surfaced, Charlotte and Al were speechless with wonder.
The popular bay of Anse Cochon, only 10 minutes away, is home to several dive-sites. Our full group was aboard, because these sites are as suitable for snorkelling as for diving, the only exception being the wreck of the Lesleen M.
Scuttled in 1986 to create a dive-spot and attract fish to the area, this former freighter has had three decades to become a fully fledged reef eco-system.
There’s something for everyone there, and you can treat it as a wreck- or reef-dive depending on your inclinations.
I SPENT MOST OF THE DIVE with my head in the sand at the base of the ship, on a mission to find jawfish, superstars of Lucian diving. Some have accused me of having a “jawfish problem”, and they could be right, but in my defence these fish exhibit some of the most fascinating behaviour I’ve ever encountered.
Jawfish are mouth-brooders, incubating their future offspring in the safest possible place – their own gob.
In a bold evolutionary step towards greater gender equality, the task of holding the eggs falls to the father. The incubation period lasts around a week and, if you monitor the same fish over that time, you will see the eggs change colour and develop tiny eyes.
As if that wasn’t exciting enough, papa jawfish will occasionly, very briefly, shuffle the eggs out and back into his mouth as a way of ensuring even oxygenation.
There are two main species in St Lucia, distinct in style and appearance. I began by scouring the sandy bottom for dusky jawfish, and noticed a small circular pebble wall surrounding the entrance to a burrow.
Soon the broad face and stunning green eyes of a dusky jawfish peaked out, his mouth held slightly ajar by a mouthful of eggs. I paused for a few second before inching closer, keeping my breathing slow and controlled so as not to alarm my new friend.
Once within sniping range, I settled onto the sand and waited. The jawfish was nervous at first, but after a few minutes grew used to my presence.
I lingered longer, silently urging him to start retching, a tell-tale sign that he was about to perform a shuffle.
The jaw spasms began, and I braced my finger against the shutter release. The shuffle was over in the blink of an eye, but I managed a couple of clicks. I checked the image on my viewfinder and, bingo, my patience had paid off.
I moved on, looking to continue my fishy love affair with the dusky’s cousin, the yellowhead jawfish. These tend to live in small colonies, and have slender, milky-blue bodies.
When relaxed, they spend most of their time free-swimming in an upright position, catching microscopic snacks as they pass by. Notoriously skittish, they will dart back into their burrow at the first sign of trouble.
Getting a shot of a pregnant yellowhead would require a return to the same site a couple of days later, and a barrel-load of perseverance!
AFTER A GOOD DOSE of nitrogen on our first dive, we moved to the shallow reef on the south side of the bay. St Lucia’s macro credentials were soon given a further boost as our eagle-eyed guide, Wendy, banged excitedly on her tank and pointed out a red sponge.
I’m as big a sponge-fan as they come, but was still taken aback by her enthusiasm for this subject. Looking closer, however, we saw an eye and a type of fishing-rod poking out of a creature’s head – it was a longlure frogfish!
Perfectly matched to the surrounding sponges, this was a special find. Later that evening, our appreciation of this fish, even among the landlubbers, would grow as we watched YouTube videos of froggies feeding, using the fastest bite in the animal kingdom!
Al and Charlotte had completed their course, and we returned to Anse Cochon in search of more macro treasures. Divemaster Jermaine seemed to be on a mission as we strode off the boat, and we followed earnestly as he moved around the shallow reef, eyes lasered-in on the maze of coral.
Halfway through the dive, we were beginning to lose faith, but finally he banged his tank and looked up at us, mask flooding with excitement.
There it was, a longsnout seahorse, surprisingly well-camouflaged and its tail wrapped around a small rope sponge.
Well played, Jermaine, well played! Diveaholic Wendy, having joined us on her day off, nodded in appreciation and then swam off looking determined. It was only as we were completing our safety stop that we would hear from her again.
Tank banging with a vengeance, she beckoned us over, pointing at a button-sized orange crab on (you guessed it) a sponge. This was a gaudy clown crab, and never has a name been more apt.
We would later learn that each crab’s ornately decorated shell is unique, like a fingerprint. Making the most of our remaining air supply, we stayed a little longer with the gaudy before being wrenched out of the water.
In the evening we exchanged stories with the rest of the group. Our island experiences were diverse but all agreed that Lucians are among the most welcoming people we had encountered.
We also agreed about what a fantastic week it had been. In St Lucia, it seemed, we had found a happy compromise.
GETTING THERE: Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly direct from London Gatwick, but book early for the best prices.
DIVING: Dive St Lucia, based in Rodney Bay, is a PADI 5* IDC centre and the world’s first LEED Platinum-certified (an eco-standard) dive-centre. Its boat can pick you up in Marigot Bay en route to the best southern sites, www.divesaintlucia.com
ACCOMMODATION: For a magnificent view in Marigot Bay, the advice is to rent out a private villa. Henley stayed at Pelican House, www.facebook.com/pelicanhousestlucia and Emerald Hill, www.oasismarigot.com/st-lucia-villas/emerald-hill-villa
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, but high season runs from December-May. Low season coincides with hotter weather, more rain and hurricane season.
HEALTH: Mosquitoes are present and pregnant women are advised not to travel due to the risk of Zika. The nearest hyperbaric chamber is the nearby capital Castries.
CURRENCY: Eastern Caribbean or US dollars.
PRICES: Virgin return flights £550. A 10-dive package at Dive St Lucia $484. Pelican House for 2-4 people $1100 to $1500, Emerald Hill $1100 to $2250, both per week.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.saintluciauk.org