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April 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 30, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Petit Mustique, St. Vincent and the Grenadines

unbelievable drift and critter diving

from the April, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

From the "Special April 1, 2015" Issue

Dear Fellow Diver:

Andrew Nottingham, the proprietor of the magnificent Petit Mustique Divers Lodge, and I drifted along neutrally buoyant, followed by a couple from Nova Scotia, each with more than 1000 dives. Ahead, sunlight sparkled through clear blue waters, bouncing off strands of floating plankton. One zooplankton, about five inches long, edged past my mask -- transparent, fish-like, a tiny head with incisors, something that belongs a mile down. But I was drifting north at 60 feet, 48 miles southeast of Mustique Island in the Grenadines chain, with the coast of Senegal a few thousand miles due east. Drifting along with us was a leatherback turtle, about as long as I am and probably four times heavier. I reached out to touch it, but it backed off and kept its distance, though keeping its pace, as if we were all on the same mission. Underwater, I had never been so close to a leatherback, and had I been able, I would have kicked myself. I failed to bring my Nikon.

Plankton brings whale sharks, so I hoped to spot one, but no such luck. Below, however, a remarkable school of Southern sennet, at least 500 strong, glided past, sun glancing off their silvery barracuda-like bodies, but in an instant they scattered in a confusing array. Wow! An enormous marlin rose from the deep, swiping its massive spear two and fro, followed by half a dozen sailfish viciously swinging their weapons, but all a moment too late to stun a single sennet. Within seconds, the sea was empty again. Andrew clapped his hands and did a jig. The scene reminded me of stunning videos shot by Amos Nachoum off Cancun.

Sun fishRising slowly with the current and with the leatherback still alongside for reasons Ill never know, I saw in the distance an enormous black oval shape; as the current carried me closer, I came face-to-face with a gargantuan bluefin tuna. I was stunned. If a Goliath grouper is as big as a Volkswagen, then this looked like a Humvee (well, a bit of an exaggeration). A second bluefin nearly as large rose from behind it. Both turned, giving me a full side view, and then with a powerful tail flip, they motored off into the blue. Ive seen a lot underwater, but never bluefins. I finally started breathing again.

I didnt notice the leatherback leave, but I did see Andrew point upward, and the four of us slowly surfaced. He had been towing an orange surface marker (after all, Senegal was a long ways away), which gave assurance that the Mirage, a 42-foot ProDive, would be nearby. Captain Marvin Barney deftly maneuvered the Mirage alongside, feathered the engines, and, with the able assistance of British divemasters Rebecca and Jocelyn, we climbed aboard, shouting, laughing and throwing high fives. Andrew popped the cork on a bottle of Cliquot, we toasted, then climbed into their remarkable companion dinghy, the flying ferry, as he called it, a 20-seat jet boat once used to shoot the rapids with tourists on Oregons Rogue River. Since the northerly flowing Orinoco current can shift as far as 60 miles out from Petit Mustique, Martin takes the Mirage to sea at dawn to decide where to dive. After breakfast, the divers are spirited out on the flying ferry. After our dive, it was a 19-minute straight shot back to Petit Mustique and the waiting bar.

Later, I sidled up to the palm frond beach bar, joining Andrew for the first of a few sundowners. Two hours after I had returned, Marvin finally motored in to the dock and came to the bar. Drinking only coconut water, he said that he and a few other Grenadine fishermen stopped fishing the offshore waters in the late 70s; their boats were small, the distance out and back was great, and there was more money to be made serving the rich and famous people who arrived at exclusive Mustique, Little Palm Island, and elsewhere aboard their 120-foot motorsailers, mega yachts, or private jets. He told me he would someday retire on the money he could make selling the signed guitars Keith Richards (who had come to Mustiques state-of-the-art sound studios in the 70s with his buddies -- no need to name names) had left him. Marvin was born on St Vincent, as was Andrew, who moved to London as a teenager, where he graduated in finance from the University of Westminster. He became one of Virgin Records first employees, decades later partnering with the founder, Richard Branson, on several Caribbean developments (including the sound studio) and making hospitable Petit Mustique, a once-uninhabited island nine miles from Mustique. Though the island was rarely fished, Branson (by now Sir Richard) had it declared a marine reserve in 1987 and 14 years later built a small house -- eight bedrooms, three great rooms, 8700 square feet -- and eight cottages, completing it all just a month before 9/11. He hid out there the week after the tragedy, but never returned, though he kept it maintained. When Andrew Nottingham retired in 2013, Branson gave him the keys and told him to turn it into some sort of environmental retreat for ordinary blokes -- no need to make any money on it. Just cover the expenses. Only last November did I learn about it from Undercurrents well-connected British technical writer, John Bantin. I was able to reserve a spot before it was officially open: $2145 for six nights, with diving that will knock your sox off. (Yes, for the first time ever, I had to declare that I represented Undercurrent to get on the island; but I paid full fare, and Im sure, received no extraordinary treatment, since everybody there gets special treatment).

Frankly, this is a destination I am tempted to keep to myself, but you and other subscribers support Undercurrent, so I must let you in on the secret. Welcome to 97-acre, never-inhabited Petit Mustique, half of which is untouched mangroves, protected from fishing since 1987, with a coral forest beginning 20 feet from shore, gradually dropping to 48 feet, then dropping straight down to 104 feet. While Cuba supposedly has the only truly virgin diving left in the Caribbean, Petit Mustique is off the radar. When I first arrived at the dock for my visit, Paul Humann was standing there, his bags packed -- how many cameras can a man own! -- waiting for the boat. Paul, who nurtures two acres of palm trees at his Davie, Florida, home, said this is about as lush as my backyard. I havent seen a Caribbean reef like this since the 70s. He pulled out his i-Pad. He showed me an image of a fuchsia nudibranch, then a green and puce spotted fish that looked like a floating pea, then a starfish the size of a dinner plate, but with 13 spindly arms, and finally a tangerine-and claret-colored seahorse about the size of my fingernail. Ive never seen any of these before, he said, and this last little fellow looks suspiciously like a pygmy seahorse, which Ive seen only in Indonesia. Amazing stuff. Its going to mean updating our whole ID book series. He then pointed eastward. And out there, well, thats big fish nirvana. Ill be back in three weeks.

BaracudaOf course, Pauls comments stoked me. As I walked across the sugar-soft sand beach to the main lodge to check in, I decided an afternoon dive would be just the ticket. Andrew, barefoot and wearing a pair of crisp white shorts and a white polo shirt, shook my hand. Welcome. Come into the lodge, old chap, and have a cup of tea. I opted for an ice tea, sat in a large wicker rocker, and out came a plate of scones with clotted cream and fresh strawberries. We talked about the island, the Grenadines, Bransons vision, and in a few short minutes, Mackey McRae, the head guest services man, stuck his head in the door. Mr. Davison, your luggage is in your room. May I take you there? As I stood, Andrew said, Im diving off the beach in half an hour. How about joining me? Half an hour would not be fast enough, though my room, with a beautiful canopy bed, white linens, exquisite furnishings, and an open air shower, would lend itself to serious shuteye.

On the wall in the bamboo and rattan dive shop hung a plaque: These are the most beautiful waters in the Caribbean. Treat the creatures with the love that you show your family. We are all one. The shop, smelling like fresh neoprene, was as clean as an operating room, with wetsuits on hangers, stainless steel workbenches, and tanks without a scratch. Andrew and I walked 100 yards to the back of the island to the edge of a pristine lagoon about the size a major league baseball park, lined with tall coconut palms and thick clusters of mangroves. Mackey, who had all our gear waiting for us, helped me slip into my BC. I walked into the water knee-deep, sat down to don my fins, and kicked off, with Andrew alongside.

Lolling around in five to ten feet of water may not sound like much, but in the roots of the mangroves were the offspring of every reef fish that one can imagine, safe from predators until they reached a size to survive on the outer reef. Stacked like logs, six perfectly formed great barracuda the size of my index finger gave me a great image, though I hadnt unpacked my camera. I found one of those miniature seahorses Paul had mentioned, this one colored in Seattle Seahawks greens and blues. In fact, I even shot a baby mola mola that looked like the size of my hand, with my thumb and little finger suspended. (I later emailed the image to Paul, who said it was the first he had seen). There were silver-dollar-sized French angels, even an octopus with a body no bigger than a ping-pong ball. Kicking about a hundred yards out to the opening of the lagoon, I marveled at sunrays pouring through the racks of staghorn coral, watched a small nurse shark and a stingray squabble over a sand patch filled with garden eels, and encountered a bait ball no larger than a medicine ball that seemed to perplex a pair of mangrove snappers. This was a wonderful shore dive, one I was to repeat nearly every afternoon.

Supper, as Andrew calls it, was served on white table-clothed tables at 7 p.m., on the large veranda of the main house. Since I was traveling alone, Andrew invited me to join him and a couple from Hollywood, filmmaker Sydd Finch and his wife, Malia, a costume designer, who were departing in the morning. Lovely and modest folks, with a great range of diving tales to tell, I didnt learn from Andrew until after they had departed there were two Oscars and a Golden Globe between them. Dinner was exquisite, thanks to an arrangement Sir Richard had made with Mustique powers-that-be to have their chefs come to Petit Mustique for a week or two at a time to use their 1,500-ft.-square world-class kitchen to develop new recipes. The menu the first night was poached marlin (served only when there is a bill fishing contest on a neighboring island), pasta with wild black truffles the size of marbles, and a filet of ostrich (surprisingly, there is a farm on Barbados.) Another night, wild boar, Maine lobster and an unusual pasta made with foraged saltwater marsh vegetables, made famous in what New Yorker Magazine claimed to be the best restaurant in the world, Copenhagens Noma. (I fret that the island will be taken over by foodies, not divers.) Fresh fruit dominated breakfasts -- in pancakes, in yoghurt, wrapped with pancetta, you name it, and lunches were pasta salads, smoked salmon and trout, chilled soups, all by the experimenting chefs.

White Tip SharkDaily, I made a couple dives in the Orinoco Current, astonished at what I would encounter. Floating Sargassum weed provided food and cover for fist-sized green turtles waiting to grow up, flying fish would zip from the depths right past my mask, while others would plunge through the surface like bullets spraying; it took me a while to stop jumping every time one whizzed past. On two days, whale sharks did appear, and on one day a massive humpback whale passed 20 feet below me (villagers on Bequia, just 16 miles away, still harpoon whales, getting at best one a year -- http://www.responsibletravel.com/svg/bequia-whaling-traditions.htm). I saw a dozen more bluefins, twice a pair of oceanic whitetips, cobia, dolphin fish (and occasional pods of dolphins, or maybe porpoises, pirouetting around me), ocean triggers, and best of all, a grown-up mola mola, about the size of double doors with floppy fins on top and bottom, and a mouth even a mother couldnt kiss. Pilot fish often swam with us, as if guiding us to new and unusual creatures.

At night, one could sit in the media room and watch a film on the 72-inch Samsung, work in the photo room, plug into the Internet, or, as I usually did, chew the fat with Andrew, who has great English wit on the order of John Cleese, and with the other guests -- about six different people came through when I was there. Andrew is slow rolling the opening, expecting hell have a full complement of guests -- 20 -- by mid-2016. He will not advertise, he said, because he figures the word of Undercurrent travels far enough to keep him booked well into the future. In the meantime, he will be experimenting with drones off the 42-foot Mirage, so he can spot big animals or fish schools and motor to them to make it easy for the divers. He says the price for six night, all inclusive, will be stable, since food costs are picked up by the chefs restaurants (the experimental kitchen is scheduled five months out, it is already so popular), Andrew takes no salary (he owns a home on Mustique, another in Londons Kensington District, where his wife spends most of her time, and another off Manley Beach in Sidney, if that gives you any indication), and all Sir Richard cares is that income meets expenses, which means fuel for the jet boat, solid salaries for the staff members, and so on. Occasionally, said Andrew, guests from Mustique come over for the day or join dives. Sir Richard had taken Tom Cruise out for a drift, as well as Rod Stewart, and Kiera Knightley spent two nights on Petit Mustique just before I arrived the first week of February.

Yet, the celebrities, the incredible cuisine, the splendid isolation is not why serious divers will be blown away, though for some it may be rain on their cake. But, where else in the Caribbean can you dive with an ocean sunfish, see seahorses never seen before by Paul Humann, bump heads with bluefin tuna and a leatherback turtle on the same dive, ogle finger-long barracuda, swim among giant racks of staghorn and elkhorn coral, hear the song of a humpback, watch a marlin attack well, you have the picture. The $2145 for six nights includes round-trip airfare from Barbados, 89 miles to the east. Now, the real question: How does one reserve a spot? Since Undercurrent readers are getting first notice -- Petit Mustique doesnt even have a website -- youll need an Undercurrent code to make a reservation. To get yours, read the first letter of every paragraph of this story and I trust you will not be disappointed. Or will you?

-- Ben Davison, Undercurrent

Taken from the Special April 1, 2015 Issue
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