By Stephen Weir
It is diving at the end of the rainbow. The two-island Caribbean nation of St.Christopher (St. Kitts) and Nevis is that tiny Pot-of-Gold that Canadian travelers continue to quest for.
St. Kitts and Nevis are small mountainous isles in the Leeward section of the North Caribbean. Straddling the line between the Atlantic and the Caribbean, the country makes it easy to have a dive industry. With deep blue water and wild reefs on one side and shallow picture-perfect azure coral-filled seas on the other, scuba operators are in the enviable position of being able to offer a wide variety of close-to-shore trips tailored to the desires and skills of the paying customers. And, in the case of two of the country's four aquatic operations which are located along the narrow channel that separates the two islands, both the Atlantic and the Caribbean are a 5 minute boat ride away-so few days are lost because of high seas or bad weather.
These sun drenched islands are populated by just 44,000 industrious people. Agriculture and tourism are the two principal industries that make this former British colony really work. Closely linked to Canada by trade and family ties, St. Kitts (the larger of the two islands) is easily reached by air. The capital city of Basseterre is serviced by both charter and regularly scheduled airlines from Toronto throughout the year. Nevis is just 15 minutes away by commuter air line services.
Don't want to fly? Take an hour long ferry boat ride on the Caribe Queen from Basseterre to Charlestown, Nevis's 300+ year old capital city (population 8,000). It is a pleasant sea trip which, for the most part, is in the lee of the islands. On board it seems as though you meet the whole island and since much of the small freight arrives on Nevis aboard the ferries you can check out who has a new fridge and who on the boat is a tourist diver.
The two islands are in a line with Saba to the north and Montserrat and Dominica to the south. This is a stretch of the Caribbean and the Atlantic that live-aboards and private charters are successfully catering to. The islands' dive industry has four operations in full swing that have enough tanks, regulators and boats to put approximately 100 divers in the water at any given time.
St. Kitts is 21 miles long and Nevis eight miles-that makes for a lot of potential dive sites. There are shipwrecks close to shore, coral grottoes, underwater hot springs, mini-walls, lobster walks and night dives on both the Atlantic and Caribbean sides.
This is one nation but there are two distinctly different styles of diving. Ball shaped Nevis is the definitive tropical retreat, but the 9 o'clock dive boat still leaves at 9 am. Geared to experienced, well-heeled tourists who want to get away from it all, Nevis diving is best described by the letter C: Colourful Coral, Cool Caverns, and Curious C (sea) Creatures. Meanwhile, on the larger, more urbane St. Kitts diving is just as good (although visibility levels anywhere near the Basseterre harbour tend to be very poor). And there are two large wrecks near town. Shore dives can be made at the southern end of St. Kitts and large growths of mammoth basket sponges, black coral forests and deep drop-offs can be found to the north!
There is about a hundred miles of diveable reef within sight of St. Kitts and Nevis. There are literally thousands of sites that are worthy of seeing-most of which have yet to be marked or named. Winston McLeod, the owner and operator of Pro Diving at the southern-most tip of St. Kitts has recently begun to take divers to hot spring fissures that he has found in the thin channel that separates St. Kitts and Nevis. Ellis Chatterton the operator of the lone Nevis operation, Sea Safaris, has been exploring sites on the Atlantic side and, weather permitting is able to provide divers with a pelagic encounter near a lengthy stretch of iron coral reef. Kenneth's Dive Center likes to take its deck boats out to Monkey Reef, a shallow reef off the western coast. This is a macrophotographer's dream since the shoal is miles off shore, here the visibility is gin clear and the colourful soft corals are free of silt! St. Kitts Scuba has the newest boat on the island. Working out of the cliff side Bird Rock Beach Hotel, their sleek Antigua built fiberglass craft can whisk divers to the north end and dive where pirates sailed near the towering Brimstone Hill Fortress. Years ago I made a dive there and while descending to the bottom at 80 feet I watched a reef shark herding a school of jacks the way a sheep dog tends a flock!
Sea Safaris' two boats and shop is headquartered at Oualie Beach Hotel-a modern 22 room establishment that has gingerbread cottages right on the beach for divers and sun bathers. Chatterton specializes in giving friendly and attentive service to his customers. Since he picks up many of his guests from the dock of the nearby ultra-posh Nevis Four Seasons Hotel (there is a two-year waiting list for some of the rooms in high season!) his laid-back attitude is tempered with a careful attention to detail. He makes sure that his often demanding clientele get what they want.
Standing on the wide sand beach in front of the Sea Safaris shop one can peer across the channel at the green mountains of St. Kitts and see the always busy operation of their competitor, Pro Divers. It is a friendly rivalry that is all in the family, because Winston McLeod is married to Ellis's cousin. Winston advertises that his Pro Divers operation has been running the longest on the island. The best night dive I have ever made was with McLeod at Nag's Head, a thin peninsula at the tip of St. Kitts. In one dive we found three huge turtles, two rays and a "sleeping" shark!
At one time McLeod's shop was on the docks of the Ocean Terrace Inn (OTI) in Basseterre. He moved his sleek boats and modern equipment to the postcard perfect Banana Bay at island's end to be close to the good diving. Even though he is literally at the termination of the country's only highway, there is a regular shuttle service from OTI to the beach and taxis are always taking tourists to a swinging beach club and restaurant adjacent to the dive shop.
Bruce Bowker, the Kittitian born manager of St. Kitts Scuba is no stranger to Canadian divers. His cousin and co-proprietor is Ivan Bowker, a well known Pickering, Ontario businessman. Because of this Toronto area connection, the dive club is now offering certification dives and other training courses specifically for Canadians. The Bowkers have the newest boat and equipment. And, thanks to Hurricane Luis, the dive operation, located at the cliff side Bird Rock Hotel, also has the newest storage shed and pier!
Located on a secluded cove two miles southeast of Basseterre, Bowker's fully equipped boat is able to get a dozen or so divers into the water in less than ten minutes. There are two wrecks close by, and their fast moving two engine craft can take customers to either end of the island! Dive one day within sight of Saba, the next dive the Caverns of Nevis.
Kenneth's Dive Centre is right in town and his operation tends to be the busiest. Last year he was operating three boats, many of his customers are from the all-inclusive Jack Tarr Hotel and casino in nearby Frigate Bay.
DIVER Magazine visited the island late last year-in fact I was on the first flight into the island that Canada 3000 made following Hurricane Luis. Everyone had just crawled out from under the big blast, most hotels were closed and ruined sailing boats still littered the shoreline.
Sitting in the arched stone bar of the Golden Rock Hotel I couldn't help but overhear as a local couple clinked crystal champagne goblets and saluted the Nevis power company. "They (the couple) have been without electricity for six weeks," the bartender tells me. "Come back in 8 months and see what they will be toasting."
By now the islanders are out of shock and have put away their "I Survived Luis and Mary" T-shirts. The hurricanes badly damaged St. Kitts' and Nevis's major industries-tourism and agriculture. This year's sugar cane crop was devastated, heavy equipment being used to construct a deep water pier for cruise ships was lost and although no hotels were destroyed, most had to shut down for October to cleanup from the water damage.
But what about underwater? This was my third dive trip to St. Kitts and Nevis in ten years. After a week of diving it was obvious that little permanent damage has been done to the coral world offshore. Yes, there has been a noticeable decrease in the conditions of the reef near Basseterre harbour, probably because of pollution and the dumping of debris following the hurricanes of '95. In other areas there was minor reef damage noted on shallow dives-sea fans and sponges were knocked down by the turbulence the big winds caused.
The dive industry escaped from last year's blast relatively unscathed. Of the four dive shops, Kenneth's in downtown Basseterre was the only operation to actually lose a boat (two in fact!) but as of this writing he is now back in full operation. What is that old expression? One man's ceiling is another man's floor. Even though it will take years for the inhabitants to get over the shock of being hit by two hurricanes in one year, most tourists will be overjoyed to find newly painted hotels, new dive boats and new wrecks to explore!
Dive into 2000
How are you going to mark the beginning of the next century? A lot of divers are already thinking about saying goodbye to 1999 while underwater in Nevis.
The Golden Rock Estate is an environmentally aware small 16 room inn that was originally built in 1815 as a sugar plantation. Each room at the hotel is a different slice of Nevis history. Structurally speaking, the most interesting accommodation by far is their two story conical sugar mill. Built with lava stone bricks, it is shaped like an upside down ice cream cone. Inside there is room enough for a two story honeymoon cottage, complete with four poster bed and a loft that gives you a view of the rain forests of Mount Nevis above and the island filled Caribbean and Atlantic below.
Although it is a ten mile drive from the lodge to the nearest dive boat, this is a much sought after location. Sound like the sort of place you would like to stay when the next century arrives? Book early. Indications are that fellow divers and travelers have the same thought.
Golden Rock's sugar mill was booked (with full payment) in early '95 for New Years Eve 1999. There is still room at the inn, but, hotels on this island reported to DIVER Magazine that even now people are making serious inquiries about New Year's Eve. Apparently Ellis Chatterton, operator of Scuba Safaris has been approached about conducting Nevis's longest night dive-it will start before midnight in '99 and end a millenium later!
ISLAND GOVERNMENT SUPPORTS ECO-TOURISM
Diver Magazine once organized an interview with St. Kitts' minister of tourism. Our reporter had been granted a half hour visit to discuss eco-tourism; however he spent a frustrating eight hours sitting on a chair outside the minister's office-we had been stood up. That was eight years and one government ago.
Last summer, Union Party leader Doctor Denzil Douglas formed a new government and one of his first acts was to appoint Dwyer Astaphan (yes, the brother of Dr. Jamie Astaphan) as his minister of Tourism, Culture and the Environment. Astaphan, the island's most progressive lawyer, is a champion of the environment and a strong supporter of eco-tourism (from scuba diving to rain forest tours). He readily met with DIVER Magazine to discuss what steps the new government will take to protect and promote the sport of scuba diving.
"We would like to establish a marine park (off the island of St. Kitts)," the tourism minister told DIVER Magazine. "A year from now I expect we will be close to having it in place!"
St. Kitts and Nevis is looking to expand its tourism industry (Canadians account for 11% of their business). The government also wants to make sure that this growth doesn't jeopardize the nation's culture or environment-and that is where eco-tourism comes in. Sports like scuba and snorkeling attract tourists while at the same time these visitors do little to disturb the local culture. Best yet, the money spent by eco-tourists on the local economy goes a long way to making it pay to preserve rain forests, coral reefs and healthy fish stocks.
"I am looking carefully at what other marine parks are doing (around the Caribbean) so that we can proceed in the best possible manner. No gloves, more mooring pegs, fishing-free zones; these are the sort of rules that we intend to introduce."
Look for new wrecks on the bottom too, thanks to last year's hurricanes. "We want to take the two barges (mammoth floating cranes) destroyed by Luis, clean them up and put them on the bottom to make an artificial reef," concluded Mr. Astaphan.
The minister's pro-dive stance has spurred the often fractious dive community to begin establishing a St. Kitts and Nevis dive association. The four shops and the on-island commercial dive industry want to set nation-wide standards for both the operation of the dive boats and the conduct of underwater tourists.
Ten things that happened while visiting St. Kitts & Nevis
* No one begged for money (except one little kid who was standing behind me at an outdoor food van stand-then every adult within hearing range gave him heck!). Locals not overly friendly but always willing to point you in the right direction when lost.
* No dive gear was stolen. By North American standards the islands are crime free.
* No dive gear was lost by the airline.
* No trouble using a dive computer with St. Kitts Scuba, Pro-Diver and Scuba Safaris. Two of the deep dives (100+ ft) were run so that I was able to stay underwater for over an hour at a time. Dive guides are resources not nursemaids.
* No dive days lost due to Montezuma's Revenge (the water is very pure!).
* No trouble using the Royal Bank Insta-Bank machine with my Canadian card!
* No trouble phoning home.
* No power outages (but not all hotels on 110 service so bring an adapter).
* No trouble finding good cheap food. At night, outdoor BBQ stands spring up on Basseterre street corners. Hot chicken and a beer for $5.00.
* No trouble finding something to do after a diveon St. Kitts. There is a casino, fishing derbies, eco tours, duty free shopping, soccer games, music and night clubs. My favourite? Go to a movie at the downtown movie theatre. Catching a show at this always busy Bijou is a must!
* No trouble getting away from it all after a dive ... on Nevis. When the sun goes down, so does the island! A moonlight walk on the beach or star gazing at a sky that is free of man made light describes a typical Nevis evening!