The Dive Fest
In addition to bringing people of all ages and walks of life together, the purpose of the Fest is to “show off” the diverse features of the island, and to inform visitors and locals alike about the need to conserve and protect the island’s natural resources.Participants can purchase tickets, often at a substantial discount, for a series of water-related experiences that include underwater treasure hunts, an underwater photographic shootout, whale-watch sailings, guided treks through a rain forest to The Emerald Pool, the Boiling Lake and to the majestic Trafalgar Falls, a wine and cheese sunset cruise and to beach parties with canoe races, where local foods are served. Activities take place usually over ten days, with prizes awarded daily.
For the young set (ages 8 to 16) Discover Scuba courses were sponsored this year by the Anchorage Hotel and the Sunset Bay Club & Seaside Dive Resort. Additional support was provided by Dive Training Magazine, Oceanic equipment and Sealife Cameras. Funds raised for the event go toward educational programs, which enable Dominican graduates to step into jobs in the dive and tourism industry.
Diving in Dominica
Known as “The Nature Island” and “The Adventure Island” Dominica is located between the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Eastern Caribbean, and is the largest and most mountainous of the Windward Islands, encompassing an area of nearly 290 square miles. Of volcanic origin with mountains reaching heights of nearly 5,000 feet, and six different types of forests, including a rainforest that’s considered among the last true oceanic rainforest in the world, more than 365 rivers, and coral and sponge coated volcanic reefs, Dominica’s natural diversity is truly unique. The island is also home to the last remaining settlement of the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean – The Carib Indians.Through no fault of the island’s conservation efforts, I arrived to an algae bloom that had spread throughout several islands in the Eastern Caribbean. Visibility was about 30 or 40 feet. My associates and I were assured it’s generally 100, as was evidenced by me so many years ago, and I was happy to see during this visit that every dive site was more photogenic than when I last saw it.
Located on the western (leeward) side of the island, most sites are reached by boat within 10 to 20 minutes from land, although shore diving is possible as well. Vividly colored sponges grow in wild profusion on the reef, and the only difficulty I experienced was deciding where to point my camera. The southern dive sites, from Scott’s Head to Roseau, the capital, take place on the lip of a sunken volcano. The site called Champaign, very likely the most photographed and written about, lies within that area close to shore. Here, hot gases rise from volcanic vents in the sea floor, creating streams of bubbles. Its lesser-known version (aptly called Volcano) is located in the North.
Fish Pot Controversy
More important than exploring the reefs and finding some of Nature’s most resplendent marine life during the 16 dives I accomplished this trip was finding only two “fish pots” and, although I’ll never sanction their use, at least they were on the sandy sea floor, away from the reef.Through the early part of the 20th century, fish traps were made entirely of woven flax tied to tree branches. Although they were maintained with care, they disintegrated in time. Over the last few decades, however, the simple design, a box-like structure that measures over six feet square by two feet high and features a funnel on one side, which narrows toward the center, has been constructed of wire mesh attached to a sturdy wooden frame. Fastened to a buoy line, the pots are weighted down with rocks and tossed onto the reef. Fish almost never escape once they swim through the opening.
The method is indiscriminate. According to researchers, more than a third of the trapped fish in the pots are immature, “thus reducing biodiversity and altering the ecosystem structure.”
During my stays 15 years ago, I accomplished 50 dives and witnessed the damage to the reefs caused by these traps, which had landed sometimes atop coral or had been dragged along the reef by strong storm surge. I was told that, since fishermen received free the material they needed to replace traps, there was no reason for them to search for errant ones. Consequently, when our group of divers came across the abandoned pots, not only were we saddened to see that the fish within had died either from cannibalism or starvation, but we were also aware that it would take many years for those traps to decompose. It’s impossible to predict how many fish would swim into them and die.
It was pointed out to us that it’s easy for tourists to arrive at a destination, wagging heads and tsk-tsking about the practices of native inhabitants. We don’t realize that the capture of fish of illegal size, or ones that we might not consider eating, can become a soup stock that feeds a family for several days. Still, with a continually decreasing yield, more pots are dropped on the reef in the hopes of catching anything. The result is the loss of entire species and the destruction of the protective barrier of the island.
We were asked not to disturb the pots while diving (we often tried to dismantle them) but we did send a petition to the government. Before we left, all those years ago, my associates and I gathered signatures and sent a letter to the governor of the island requesting the establishment of a conservation program.
In June of 2007, I had the pleasure of meeting Marvlyn Alexander-James, Director of Tourism for Dominica, at a press function in New York, before I left for the island. She was pleased to inform me that, working with the Department of Fisheries, the Watersports Association has placed moorings on all its dive sites, has prohibited anchoring on the reefs at any time and has placed restrictions on the use of fish pots. Dominicans have even gone so far as to create two extensive marine reserves.
Whale Watching and Waterfalls
Their concerns go deeper and farther out to sea. Frequent sightings of 18 different species of whales and dolphins near Dominica have earned the country a reputation as the “Whale Watching Capital of the Caribbean.” When our boat left the Anchorage Hotel’s dock, the captain promised not to return until everyone aboard had sighted at least one mammal of the sea. Many had never seen whales before, and whoops and cries of elation rang out when a score of humpbacks were sited. Upon our return to the dock, it was hard to tell who was more pleased — the “whale watchers” or the crew.With 300 inches of rain falling in the mountainous central range, Dominica may well deserve the appellation of “The Waterfall Capital of the Eastern Caribbean” as well. In 1975 the commonwealth declared the 16,000-acre section of land called Morne Tropis Pitons a national park. It was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1998, the first in the Eastern Caribbean. Trails meander through a rainforest that’s both a birder’s paradise and a botanist’s dream come true and lead to brilliant-green pools fed by cascading waterfalls and hot springs created by water flowing from cracks in the rocks. I scrambled over craggy boulders to reach Trafalgar Falls, where I could choose both a welcome icy cold shower and a warm bath. Guides assist groups up (and down) and, although I didn’t need a hand, their presence was comforting.
Whether swimming in the ocean or beneath a waterfall, the Dive fest was a ten-day celebration to nature, and was a chance for me to retrace my steps across an Eden island that had existed for millennia. And although the airport is due for expansion, no mega hotels are planned for the future. Change occurs in Dominica, and it’s getting better all the time.
For more information visit DominicaWaterSports.com and DiscoverDominica.com and Dive DominicaGetting there: American Airlines connects to Dominica at Miami or San Juan, Puerto Rico from most major cities.
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.