By Denise Mattia
Walk out my door at early morning and step into a garden filled with tropical flowers among soaring palms and feathery pines. Follow a path to steps that lead down to a sparkling pool, where floating petals escape a gardener’s net. Feel the soft grass under foot that yields to sand at the shoreline, and the tingle of sea breezes sweeping in from the ocean. The fantastic topside setting along the coastline of the Dominican Republic is rivaled only by its diverse underwater landscape — spellbinding adventures that begin at La Caleta Underwater Park near the capital, Santo Domingo.
The Underwater Park in Santo Domingo is a collection of spur and groove coral reef formations with several wreck sites, ranging from 35 to 85 feet. My guide and I locate the first wreck, the Captain Asina, and drop down to 70 feet. The 100-foot long wooden boat was sunk in 1974 and is a living reef, replete with fish, fans, hard and soft coral and a splendid arrangement of sponges.
Not far away, in 60 feet of water lies the most popular wreck in this area, the Hickory, a 97-foot treasure salvage ship that was sunk in 1986 and was broken in half by a storm. Visibility can vary considerably in this area of the park, but it’s generally around 50 to 60 feet, which is more than adequate to enjoy all the color and life found here. Floating above the deck of the wreck with dozens of parrotfish and sergent majors swimming by, I stop to read the plaque that was dedicated to the ship by the crew. Above me, three barracudas swim in formation toward the wheelhouse. At the bow, brilliant red and yellow sponges seem to catch fire when illuminated by my light. I’m witnessing these sights without moving a muscle. When we finally do swim away from the ship we find a canon. No one knows from what ship it came, how it got there or why it was dubbed the “Canon of Columbus.” Still, it’s obvious from the marine growth on the barrel that it’s been there for a long time. In addition to the wrecks there’s a refinery tank that looks like aliens had established an underwater habitat.
Our last dive in the underwater park is spent at the sunken tugboat, El Limon in Boca Chica, weaving in and out of the spurs that are filled with healthy marine animals.
Kudos for a healthy environment belong to La Romana-Bayahíbe Hotel Association, a non-profit organization devoted to making this flourishing southeastern section of the Dominican Republic a stellar tourist attraction, while maintaining its commitment to preserving the archeological and natural resources in the Bayahíbe Parque National del Este (the National Park of the East). Their efforts and those of CICOM and ASONORES – the island’s developers and hoteliers – have made La Romana and neighboring Bayahíbe the first Caribbean areas to receive the international Blue Flag, an award given for maintaining strict water quality standards at beaches and marinas and for creating preservation and conservation programs.
A wreck dive lies minutes by boat off the Bayahibe coast. The St. George, a 240-foot cargo ship bottoms out in 145 feet of sand and is a “must do” for divers. From high above, the sun filters down on this otherworldly scene, revealing a network of marine life that’s been developing on the vessel since she was sunk in 1999.
Visibility is excellent at the wall at Catalina Island off La Romana coast. Red coneys and blue-spotted yellowfish dart around the large outcroppings of black coral, coating the façade, which plunges to 100 feet. I swim languidly with a green turtle until it darts to the surface for air.
Shipwrecks, many from the 16th century, are strewn along the coast of the National Park and Isla Saona, a low-lying island that’s a refuge for flamingos, 294 species of plants, and innumerable reptiles and insects, including several species of butterflies. Under the water, a wide range of marine life can be found in this sanctuary. During my dives here, I encountered nurse sharks, eagle rays, stingrays, barracudas, a bait-ball-sized school of bright yellow small mouth grunts, a squadron of blue tangs, and a host of reef fish. Toward the end of one dive, my dive buddy and I drifted in the gentle current, past the amorphous configurations of corals and sponges, and suddenly noticed a trio of eagle rays skimming the nearby sandy bottom. Startled at seeing us, they turned in unison and disappeared into the blue, a reminder that we’re intruders in their world.
Currently, sightings of the indigenous Antillean Manatee are rare. Still, divers have reported encountering these shy, elusive creatures, which continue to be in peril from poachers from neighboring islands.
CAVES AND CAVERNS
Archeologists believe that the Tainos (tah-EE-nohs), possibly the first Amerindians, were responsible for drawing on cave walls and for leaving gifts of pottery in the sinkholes that dot the interior of La Romana-Bayahíbe and the National Park. Tourists can view the preserved wall art amid stalactites and stalagmites in dry caves (cenotes), while certified divers accompanied by a cave-diving specialist penetrate the flooded cenotes. After a short hike through dense foliage, my guide takes a small group of us down a steep incline. We enter the gaping maw of a cenote and carefully climb down chunks of limestone boulders sanded to a smooth finish by eons of gushing floods. Donning our snorkel gear, we plunge into the cold, clear water and swim only within the cavern’s opening. Any farther would be considered caving, and we’d need more equipment. For now we’re content to paddle on the surface.
Every year, starting in mid-January, between 2,000 and 3,000 humpback whales migrate south from the cold North Atlantic to the warm waters of the Dominican Republic to breed and calf. The females remain in the Caribbean until their young are fit to travel, generally through the end of March.
The most playful of all whales, humpbacks roll on their sides, slap their tails on the water’s surface, wave their flukes, leap into the air and belly flop into the water. The Bay of Samaná, which extends north of the peninsula to the Silver Banks is the most accessible part of the humpbacks’ winter territory, but then virtually every humpback whale from the western North Atlantic is lounging somewhere off the Dominican Republic’s coast.
Aboard a whale-watching boat, two adults and a calf appear at our bow and in movements that are flawlessly choreographed, arch their backs out of the water, breach and finally disappear from view. Someone shouts that another is coming along our starboard side. All eyes are upon the black form less than 40 feet away. A young female humpback flaunts her tail and dives into the deep.
Leaving Samana Bay my guide plans a dive at a pinnacle called The Tower, located northeast of Las Terrenas. Here, the upper portion of the reef is split, forming two striking shapes. Its namesake stretches toward the surface like a lobster claw, while the other half is a thin oval rim encrusted in coral. The entire western façade of this realm is crowded with sea plumes, orange elephant ear sponges, and brain and star coral. Grunts, chubs and wrasses inhabit the summit. Nassau groupers swim in the 200-foot, sapphire-blue depths, where bands of brown soft corals and clusters of red and tan wire corals snake their way out from under boulders of hard coral. The eastern side of The Tower faces windward and is exposed to wave action; only tight clusters of coral manage to take hold here. The surge is strong, and I let it carry me upward, positioning myself toward the oval rim. I’m sucked through and emerge on the opposite side, giddy from the ride.
The brilliantly colored sponges and the abundance of healthy brain coral on the sloping wall at sites off Las Galeras are home to a plethora of shrimp, worms, and anemones. My guide and I stop at Coson to dive the angular blocks of fractured beach rock at a site called The Canyon, and the flat terrain of Las Ballenas, where barrel sponges grow to the size of a small car.
The terrain northeast of Samana contains a labyrinth of caverns and underwater caves. After a brief about diving the site Boca de Toro in Cabrera, our van pulls up to the edge of a collapsed sinkhole. We don our wetsuits and carry our equipment 80 feet down stone steps to a ledge, where we plunge into the chilly water.
Holding securely to the permanent safety line that will guide us deeply into the tunnel, I pause momentarily at the mouth to examine the pockmarked walls, etched over millennia by corrosive waters. Prominent fissures on either side extend well into the cave, while wedges of rock, the color of toast, lie askew on the floor. Kicking slowly, we leave behind the shimmering daylight and turn into a lightless passage. Our dive lights reflect sparkles from the rock surrounding us. After penetrating 1000 feet of interlaced passages, my guide and I find a perfect cluster of cones extending vertically from the floor. A few feet away, roots dangle from a small opening in the sinkhole. We hover half way between the jet-blackness and shafts of dim light and penetrate 1200 feet to an artery that leads to a domed room, where there’s an air pocket in an anti-chamber. Rising out of the sapphire-blue water we find a room of enormous calcified waterfalls. Submerging again, we swim through more passages and exit through an opening at the far side of the main pool. A tangle of fallen trees lies half-submerged in the water. The rotting timber creates a diluted, visible layer of sulfuric acid.
The next morning a small group and I head in the direction of Santiago, about 40 miles from Puerto Plata, where, in the 2,000-foot high mountain range, 27 waterfalls, slides and sluices are known as Cascadas de Jmbert.
We begin the mountain climb by first descending into the bottom of a gorge, where we wade in a stream until we reach a pool and the first waterfall. In the ensuing two hours we climb over and through and swim in, under and around a series of seven falls. Trekking beyond these seven is considered “Canyoning,” an affair of several days’ duration. Our guide instructs us where to climb and then single handedly pulls us through massive pressure from the cascading water to the next rocky landing. We reach the summit for the day’s activity and begin the descent, which takes half the time and is almost entirely done on the seat of our bathing suits. Prone, with arms tucked inward we schuss down the narrow watery passageways and end up in a deep, icy pool.
The following morning I watch a guide navigate a rope course, a series of logs, swings and pulleys suspended high in the trees, which are designed to promote strength, balance and coordination. Located in Jarabacoa, the Pico Duarte in the Cordillera Central Mountain range is the highest elevation (10,500 feet) in the entire Caribbean. The area offers thrill seekers a host of sports activities. This time I’m content to take photos of others swinging in the trees. I’m ready to move on to the nine-mile white-water rafting tour.
In the lexicon of rafting enthusiasts the Yaque del Norte river is a class two plus rapid, and is a spectacular obstacle course of twisting gorges and sheer rock cliffs, 12 feet high waterfalls and a canyon with five smaller drops. The highest waterfall is called the Tyson; riding it down invariably brings an impressive array of squeals and shouts. Capturing some of the action on film is nearly impossible, but there are a few spots toward the end of the route where it’s safe for me to do so.
Located somewhere near the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is the wreck of the Manssanillo. Only a few divers know the site.
Setting out early one morning, we head westward, past miles of sugar cane fields and resort towns. The closer one gets to Haiti, the more the landscape changes. Cinderblock homes, some not larger than play houses constructed by children are stacked in rows. Only the church is maintained to the limit of the resources of the community.
We reach the beach, where the captain of a dinghy transports us to the site. We roll backward overboard into 82-degree water and fin downward. Visibility here is about 75 feet. The Manssanillo, a cargo ship that was cut in two, towed and sunk in 1990 to create an artificial reef, sits upright in the sandy bottom. The bow and stern sections start at 65 feet; the amidships plunges to the sandy bottom at 90 feet.
We spend the balance of the day on two tanks and a lot of adrenaline, as we explore first the bow half and then the stern, swimming through the hold and wheelhouse and photographing the abundant coral and sponge life that has grown in profusion since she was sunk. Fish life here is plentiful, as well. I spot spider crabs and lobsters tucked into corners of the stern. Queen angelfish, triggerfish and trunkfish pick microscopic morsels from the hull. Schools of yellowtails and soldierfish swirl in and around the wheelhouse.
For a few hours before my flight to New York, I kick back and listen to the roll of waves lapping against one of the longest, stunningly white beach in the Caribbean, and the rustle of palm fronds and sea grapes in the gentle wind, trusting that the decision-making associations will continue to work toward preserving this fantastic island.
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.