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March 2003 Vol. 18, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Old Providence, The Caribbean

the most prolific fish in the hemisphere

from the March, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Last May, one of our intrepid reviewers visited San Andres Island. Though 90 miles off the coast of Nicaragua in the southwestern Caribbean, Colombia is the mother country. Less than one-fifth the size of Bonaire, it sports upwards of 60,000 people, six times Bonaire's population. Our reviewer found good hotels, decent dive operations, and, most of all, superb Caribbean diving. To recount what he said ... "there were lots of friendly queen and gray angels, as well as shy French angels and rock beauties. I saw plenty of four-eye and striped butterflyfish, a couple of nurse sharks, large green morays, and a couple of goldentail morays, trumpetfish, scrawled filefish, yellowfin and tiger groupers, barjacks, schoolmasters, schools of Bermuda chub, and of course grunts. Large midnight parrotfish, big rainbow parrotfish -- sometimes in schools -- more balloonfish than usual. Lots of cowfish and trunkfish. No great barracuda but small schools of southern sennet. I would rate the reefs superior to Roatan and similar to the best reefs in Belize, though San Andres had more bottomless walls and was prettier at 130 feet. The soft corals were much denser than in Belize. The sponges were among the best I have seen in the Caribbean since Little Cayman. It also offers healthy shallow coral mounds with no sign of storm damage -- San Andres is reportedly out of the hurricane belt and the pristine staghorn coral reflects that. Like the reefs of Los Roques in Venezuela, San Andres's reefs resemble a rainforest with their dense covering of bushy seawhips, sea plumes, and many other gorgonions."

In September our reviewer returned, this time taking a 45-minute flight from San Andres to neighboring Old Providence Island, also called Providencia. Most of the 4,500 residents don't come from Colombia but are mestizos, with a mix of Indian and African blood. Old Providence, The CaribbeanThey have largely preserved English Caribbean traditions, and English and Spanish are spoken. Just as the Honduran Bay islands reflect a Caribbean, not a Honduran, culture, Old Providence reflects a Caribbean, not a Colombian, culture. Think of coconuts, not cocaine. Here is his report:

Picturesque Old Providence is small -- 18 square kilometers -- and not widely developed. Most tourist shops, restaurants, and hotels are in the little community of Aquadulce (meaning "fresh water"), five miles from the airport. It's a mountainous isle, heavily covered with jungle. The roller coaster road circumscribing the island offers a good workout for a walker, or one can rent a mountain bike, motorbike, or scooter.

The Sol Caribe Hotel, the best on the island, provided a pleasant ground floor room on a nice sandy beach, satellite TV (entertainment channels and ESPN, but no CNN), shady hammocks, a poolside bar, and other amenities. Next door, at the hotel's cafeteria-like dining room (everything was buffet-style), I had adequate but unexciting breakfasts and dinners, though the bread was freshly baked and the coffee good. I lunched at Donde Martin (Martin's Place), a quarter mile away, where the food was much better. Salads were creative, and their pastas and grilled fish, excellent. They had a locally made ice cream with sweet corn in it that was a real surprise. Lunch was part of the dive package.

Sonny's Dive Shop, 100 yards from the hotel, operated on island time. We were to arrive at 9 a.m., dress up, wade out 20 feet to the dive boat and leave at 9:30 a.m. Yet they rarely brought the boat to the beach before 10:00 a.m. and seldom left before 10:30 a.m. The longest ride to a site was 15 minutes. Most days between dives, the boat would return to the beach at the dive shop. I bought juice or a soft drink to rehydrate, though there was water and candy on the boat. We usually returned from the second dive around 2:00 p.m., once at 3:15 p.m.

The shop has a 14-foot skiff (4-6 divers) with two 50-horsepower Yamaha outboards and an 18-foot skiff (8-10 divers, but 38 tank holders!), powered by two 90-horsepower Suzukis. They pumped aluminum 80s to at least 3,000 psi. While the manager, Alejandro, guided dives with little enthusiasm, a local woman named Giovanna was a delight and Felipe "Cabeza" was also an excellent dive guide. They checked with me before dives to pick new sites. Their briefings were often incomplete, especially when I was the only diver who was not fluent in Spanish (my fellow divers were all Colombians, and they spoke English well). While the staff is fully aware of PADI and NAUI guidelines, there is a 1980s feel to the operation -- they don't bow to insurance company policies that micromanage the diving. They tell you to limit your dive to 130 feet but didn't complain if I chose to go deeper. But the '80s had drawbacks -- their boats are without reliable radio communication or oxygen.

I dived 12 sites and the water was a warm 83oF. The fish life may be the best in the Caribbean. Felipe's Place, near the small Santa Catalina Island (it's connected by a floating bridge to Old Providence) had lots of large groupers (up to 2.5 feet) and huge schools of Bermuda chub flying around the reef. There were huge dog snappers (up to 3 feet), barracuda and small schools of ceros or small tunas (up to 2 feet). Blackcap basslets were as shallow as 60 feet. The reefs are without vertical walls, but at many sites 150-feet-plus dives were possible. One site, El Contour, started so deep that decompression was required for a long dive.

At El Canal (The Channel), the dive began with a small school of barracuda, schools of bogas, and creole wrasse. Schools of up to 200 Bermuda chubs hunted aggressively over the reef. I swam with a green turtle and saw several large black and tiger groupers and a big school of yellowtail snappers. Schools of as many as 50 horse-eyed jacks circled and then I encountered a huge school of barjacks, perhaps as many as 100 -- a unique sight. I saw several big mahogany snappers, a pair of Atlantic spadefish, and several big midnight parrotfish. Visibility was 80 feet. My dive lasted 65 minutes, though I hit 151 feet.

Piedra de la Tortuga (Turtle Rock) was 45 feet on top and dropped to more than 160 feet. Here I saw one of several spotted eagle rays that I saw around Old Providence, lots of black durgons, yellow spotted filefish, several queen triggerfish, small schools of four-eyed butterflyfish, and a small school of rock beauties. At the beginning of the dive, the guide showed me a nice nudibranch. My 113- foot dive lasted for 58 minutes.

Nick's Place began at 40 feet. I followed a green turtle and then encountered tiger, Nassau and black groupers, and a school of rainbow runners. Although the visibility was a good 80 feet, spawning barrel sponges reduced it near them. I swam down to 150 feet on a wall that seemed to go down forever. Relatively shallow shoals had large schools of fish. The fishiest site was Tete's Place, a seamount 13 feet on top and 32 feet at the bottom. Here longspine squirrelfish schooled midday with mixed schools of French, white, bluelined, and smallmouth grunts, and gray, mahogany, mutton, and yellowtail snappers. The fish numbered in the thousands! The reef was covered with gorgonions, each of which seemed to have a trumpet fish hanging nearby. Schools of spotted and yellow goatfish dug through the sand flats around the reef. At Stingray City, no one feeds fish, but half-a-dozen docile stingrays lolled about.

I liked Sonny's service. For two days, I was the only diver, but they took me out, explaining that because I paid for my dives in advance, they were obligated. They scheduled shorter trips those days and didn't bring the boat back to the beach between dives, perhaps to save fuel. My divemaster had to ascend half-an-hour before I did, but I didn't mind finishing alone.

If you are tired of diving fished-out Caribbean destinations and you want to see what the Caribbean might have looked like 50 years ago, Old Providence is a great destination. It's not Cayman, not Bonaire, not Cozumel, which is exactly why it's near the top, if not on the top, of the best dive destinations in the Caribbean. Lots of fish but also lots of rough edges, so only adventuresome divers will rate it as high as I do.

P.S.: On this trip, I returned to San Andres. I stayed at the Nirvana Inn, a small and relatively isolated hotel eight miles to the south of El Central that is inexpensive and close to most of the dive sites and even some shore diving, though there is nothing else to do. San Andres offers a greater variety of dive sites than Old Providence and, while it doesn't have quite the fish life, the abundance is damn close.

- T.A.

Old Providence, The CaribbeanDiver's Compass: Six days of two dives a day, hotel room, and meals cost me $1100; bottled water was extra (don't drink the water in the rooms) ... Roundtrip between San Andres and New Providence is $50 ... Old Providence has a quaint law that requires you to take the same taxi back to the airport that brought you to your hotel; I told my driver what day I was leaving and my departure time, and one week later he arrived about 15 minutes earlier than requested to take me to the airport ... September is in the middle of the rainy season and I had to put up with mosquitoes at dawn and dusk ... I left my gear at the shop overnight; rinse your own gear, but they transfer it to and from the boat ... West Caribbean Airlines has flights to San Andres from San Jose, Costa Rica, Managua, Nicaragua, Havana, Panama City, Grand Cayman, and Bogota ... Sunquest Tours has charter flights from Toronto to San Andres; see photos at www.sunquest.ca or call 1-877/485-6060 ... Old Providence, The CaribbeanI set up my trip with Reef and Rainforest (reefrainfrst.com; Tel: 1-800/794-9767; Fax: 1-415/289-1763) ... The manager of the Nirvana Inn -- www.nirvanahotel.com -- made the reservations at Sol Caribe, Providencia, and Sonny's Dive Shop for Reef and Rainforest ... He also made the reservations for my flight from San Jose, Costa Rica to San Andres, and on to Old Providence ... Both R&RF and I had much difficulty getting anyone on San Andres to respond to our emails ... Sending e-mails to info@nirvanahotel.com generally got us a response within 24 hours ... In July there will be a charter flight to San Andres from Miami leaving at 5 p.m. Fridays (June 27, July 4, July 11, and July 18) and departing from San Andres eight days later (July 5, July 12, July 19, and July 26) ... Price is $1350, including round-trip airfare from Miami, all airport transfers, an eight-night hotel stay, three meals a day, and seven two-tank boat dives ... They have packages from San Jose and Costa Rica and sell air-only or land-only packages ... www.scubasanandres.com or call 1- 314/614-0181.

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