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January 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Caribbean Explorer II, Lesser Antilles

a full dance card in Nevis, Saba, St. Kitts and Statia

from the January, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Visibility was good and there was none of the usual current as I finned down into the blue. A dramatic pinnacle gradually appeared, rising from the depths to 85 feet from the surface. My feeling of awe watching the Third Encounter/The Needle emerge from the deep blue never gets old, even though I have made a half-dozen dives here. As I moved closer, the colors of the corals encrusting the pinnacle began to pop out. Sponges and sea fans decorated it, and hundreds of schooling Creole wrasse swirled around the spire. What a welcome to Saba!

Seven nights, five and one-half days of diving and 26 dives were offered by the Caribbean Explorer. For more than a quarter-century, the Caribbean Explorer -- now known as the CEX II -- has been the only liveaboard bringing divers to this northeastern Caribbean region. In addition to St. Kitts and Saba, Nevis has been added to the itinerary, and for my trip, St. Eustatius (Statia) made a reappearance.

Caribbean Explorer IICEX II travels weekly between St. Kitts and Sint Maarten, and reverses the course the following week. This was the first time I had begun this trip in St. Kitts, which, with its easy dives, is a good build-up to the deeper dives and currents of Saba. On the first dives around St. Kitts and neighboring Nevis, my depth hovered around 40 feet. By the last days in Saba, only one dive was above 58 feet, and the deepest was 113 feet. Water temperature averaged 83 degrees, and air temperatures were in the mid-80s.

Safety is paramount on this vessel, and the expected rules go along with it. For example, do not go to the bow when the boat is running at night. Because of the chop and surface current, we were advised to remove our fins at the hang-line, not the ladders, to avoid injuries; no decompression diving, and return to the boat with 500 psi. Captain Ian recorded our entry and exit times, depth and psi. Nitrox divers were required to analyze and record oxygen percentage (which ran between 28 and 31) and psi. Buddy diving or following a dive guide was required, unless you are solo certified (if not, they'll offer you a course). Crew also conducted a safety drill, which includes the careful checking of lights, whistles and vests.

Monkey Shoals is a two-square-mile reef between St. Kitts and Nevis, which are about two miles apart. It's an impressive fish nursery, with a sandy bottom and grassy areas, and deep, narrow cracks -- lots of places for the tiny creatures to hide. In a crevice, I found a large, well-camouflaged spotted scorpionfish. There were several stingrays, peacock flounders, lobster, shrimp, small crabs, trunkfish, trumpetfish, a ten-inch burrfish and razorfish. At Paradise, volcanic fingers were covered in colorful vegetation, a variety of shrimp hid in recesses, and fire worms abounded. In the sandy areas, garden eels and yellow-headed jawfish showed their heads. A couple of great barracuda cruised by. Old encrusted anchors were party hidden by sand. At Old Road, a large, feisty moray flashed out of its hole and lunged at the arm of our dive guide, William. Why? Who knows, but maybe it was attracted by his shiny, dangling metal clip tank-banger. No harm done, but a warning to stay alert.

Caribbean Explorer II, Lesser AntillesOn a dusk dive at Nevis, Devil's Cave provided many caverns and swimthroughs. Sea fans and colorful corals framed the exit of one, revealing large numbers of blue and brown chromis and black durgon. I illuminated good-sized Spanish lobsters in the dark recesses; nurse sharks rested and large lionfish lurked under ledges. Oddly, the leisurely pace William set abruptly changed, as he suddenly made a beeline opposite from where he had been pointing out an eagle ray. I followed him, uncertain of his logic, and rapidly burning air. I heard the boat come closer, but William passed it by, making a long loop. Still following, I figured he had either gone nuts or wanted to show us something amazing. And then, he was at the surface, shining his light as a path. After a safety stop, I climbed aboard. It had been a great dive until the roundabouts to the boat. Turns out William's pressure gauge had malfunctioned, rendering it useless. I did some finger-wagging when he and I discussed it after dinner.

This was the first liveaboard and night diving experience for two enthusiastic California couples, one of whom had fewer than 50 dives (the nondiver in the other pair entertained herself by reading). The three remaining divers, including me, had been aboard several times. A computer tech consultant was an avid photographer. Greg Holt, of Scuba Radio fame, was aboard, minus his entourage of mermaids, but he had his mike and recorder. His animated storytelling brightened many a meal. Several guests enjoyed an interview with him, as did the crew. CEXII owner Clay McCardell was aboard (he also has Explorer Ventures liveaboards in the Turks & Caicos, Bahamas, Galapagos and the Maldives). Highly approachable, with a good sense of humor, he contributed to the friendly atmosphere. Fleet engineer Keith Smith was aboard, too, working with Brett, the CEXII relief engineer.

At 115 feet long, CEXII is a compact aluminum vessel, with two reverse osmosis water makers. There was some rocking in a heavy chop. A comfortable sundeck, dining area, galley and crew quarters are on the upper deck. The dining room has open-air, wrap-around windows with zip-sides. No AC, but fans provided relief when needed. The guides gave their detailed briefings, with hand-drawn charts, in the dining room.

Nine double cabins are on the main and lower decks, with a variety of configurations: bunk with queen bottom, queen or side-by-side singles. My air-conditioned cabin was almost too chilly, but there was a blanket handy. A large table for cameras was on the dive deck, and lots of charging stations were available. There was ample space to hang wetsuits, with a large container of chemically-treated water for wetsuits and boots, and others for cameras and masks. Two hot showers had takers after every dive. I found the boat neat, orderly and clean; after my August trip she was scheduled for a down week of cosmetic work, such as scraping and repainting the railings.

The crew of five (everyone is a dive instructor) joined us for meals, establishing a real family feel. Captain Ian Mariott has been with the Explorer Ventures organization for 14 years. Hailing from England, he has a delightful, dry sense of humor and is hands-on in every respect -- briefing us on the islands, bussing the tables and keeping an eagle eye on the dive deck for entries and exits. I suspect that dive guide Dave, another Englishman whose alias is "Tuna," could handle any mishap underwater, including wrestling a shark if necessary. Soft-spoken, he had some innovative suggestions as to where to carry my Nautilus Lifeline (I opted for my BCD pocket). William, a closet writer who has been on the boat eight months, drew excellent dive site maps and is attentive to the preferences of divers underwater. Coming with a lot of professional dive experience in Vietnam, Borneo and St. Thomas, it was Ashley's first week on board. Not only is she a bright, sunny gal, she dived slowly at the back of the group, where I like to be, and was a superb spotter of critters.

Catherine, the new chef (she was previously a dive guide), did herself proud. Breakfasts included combinations of eggs, sausage, bacon, waffles, egg-and-cheese McMuffins and cereals. Lunches included kebabs, couscous, hummus, pizza, hamburgers and quiche, along with a different soup daily. Baby-back ribs were my favorite for dinner, so delicious I ate far more than I needed. I was disappointed when I learned their traditional Thursday Thanksgiving dinner was off the menu, but Catherine came through in style: stroganoff with a to-die-for gravy and chicken in a leek and butter sauce. There were always lots of vegetables and fruit, with pies and cakes accompanied by ice cream for dessert. Cookies, cream cheese rolls, brownies and monkey bread were must-have snacks between dives. And Catherine over-shot the mark on junk calories by serving chocolate-covered (would you believe?) bacon. All beverages, including alcohol, are included in the price, but once you imbibe, diving is done for the day. A few of us enjoyed wine with dinner when not night diving, and maybe a beer or gin and tonic before retiring. After the night dive, hot chocolate laced with one's preference (Bailey's Irish Cream was mine) was offered along with a warm towel. CEXII sure knows how to make dive life comfortable.

Statia was taken off the itinerary in 2010. According to Clay, it was due to a combination of island politics and diver demand. On this trip it was back on the itinerary for four dives, while Clay did some politicking on the island, but to date, Statia remains off the list of dive sites. Diving on that small, steep volcanic island was as good as I remember. Bianet, a young divemaster from Scubaqua, came aboard, as is the rule when diving the marine park. Double Wreck was a slow, easy dive, with low coral outgrowth and sand at 58 feet. A large crab got my attention, as did small turtles, spotted morays, and stingrays. All that remains of the 300-year-old wrecks are two large anchors housing families of tiny blennies. At Ledges, I nearly collided with two huge Caribbean spiny lobsters that plopped down in front of me as I was heading into a swim-through. Winding my way through tall sea plumes, I came head-to-head with a great barracuda. Neither of us gave way for a few moments as we stared at each other, 10 inches apart, then I relented. In front of ledges overgrown with hard and soft coral and sponges, a pair of courting cowfish in their bluish courtship colors gracefully spiraled in the water column.

The queen of the volcanic island jewels is Saba, and she announced her presence with increased wind, chop and surge. While the previous days had been mostly sunny, here we had increasing clouds, as well as thunder one day. Man O' War Shoals was really hopping. Frisky sergeant majors were chasing each other along with anything else, while eighteen-inch sand tilefish hovered near the sandy bottom in pairs. Triggerfish, spadefish, a school of blue tang, barracuda and huge lobster were all part of the show.

Caribbean Explorer II, Lesser AntillesCruising over volcanic spurs and winding paths in Ladder Bay, I marveled at smooth juvenile trunkfish the size of peas, bobbing around in a recess. Corals looked like bouquets of yellow daisies. Lettuce leaf slugs were trimmed in light blue, lavender and red. A curious grouper eyed me. In a sandy area discolored with yellowish sulfur and warm to the touch, Tuna buried his dive computer for a couple minutes to check the temperature and when he pulled it out, it read 90 degrees. He warmed his hands over new warm water vents, which he later hypothesized as new activity from the long-dormant volcano on land. On the night dive, William tried to boil an egg in the hot sand, but when he cracked it against his forehead all he got was a runny egg facial.

On the second dive here, I wanted to repeat the Labyrinth, so Ashley agreed to accompany me due to the no-solo-diving rule. Overhangs revealed more than a dozen lobster, cleaning stations, shrimp, tiny juvenile fish en masse, turtles and a variety of small tropicals.

Essentially all diving is from the mother vessel. Instead of giant-stepping from the side with a five-foot drop, I stepped off the stern; another diver made the same choice due to knee issues. A crew member was always ready to carry my gear down the steep stairs and give a balancing hand while I donned my BCD. The seas were often choppy and a breeze made for surface current, so the strategy is to pull oneself along the granny line to reach the mooring line, then follow it down. One day, the waves knocked me against the vessel, and my fins got tangled in the slack line. I prefer to drop straight down, but most times the dive plan was to use the granny to get to the mooring line.

Rather than join others for the tour of Saba, I elected to dive Tent Reef. William had lost his compass on the previous dive there, and another diver and I wanted a second view of the four-inch red frogfish. Tuna took us out in the chase boat for a drift dive. Several reef sharks joined the parade, and I spotted several juvenile and adult spotted drum, and even a frogfish. And William found his compass. Finding shrimp on coral whips was a treat, as were the dozens of lettuce slugs. And, as on most of the dives, flamingo tongues were munching away.

A dawn dive on the last day! Just one other diver and I got up early to join William. The surface was smooth, visibility was 100 feet and no current. A shark greeted me with close passes, but did not stay around long. A red hind was patiently getting an early-morning mouth cleaning, and goatfish were foraging for breakfast. A nice way to end the week.

While Caribbean diving doesn't match the Pacific and Indian Oceans for sea life, big fish and beautiful corals, a trip on the Caribbean Explorer II provides plenty of diverse terrain and a chance to see the best of what the Caribbean can offer. And it is better on the wallet and body, given those 24-hour flight days and the hassles of getting to, say, Indonesia. No doubt, I'll be back again another day.

-- J.D.

Caribbean Explorer II, Lesser AntillesDivers Compass: I made my boat reservations directly with Explorer Ventures via its handy live-chat option . . . My willing- to-share single was listed at $1,895, but the true price is $2,125, due to $115 for port and marine park fees, a non-optional $115 fuel surcharge; add to that $125 week for nitrox . . . Taxis in St. Kitts and Sint Maarten were $15 to $20 per trip . . . My overnight in St. Kitts at Timothy Beach Resort, was $170, plus a 22 percent hotel tax, and included late checkout; once again, I'm glad I followed my instinct of arriving a day early, because my luggage was delayed . . . Website: www.explorerventures.com

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