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May 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sonny Dive Shop, Isla de Providencia, Colombia

quirky, sleepless, sleeper of a destination

from the May, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

It's 5 a.m., and the neighbor's roosters behind our cottage at Cabanas Agua Dulce have been crowing off and on since 3 a.m. The guests next door never heard them, but the damn fowls have been waking me every night.

I'm beat. Yet, just yesterday, I took delight in the diving, as divemaster Santiago identified one of my sightings as a leopard goby, explaining that in 26 years of diving on the island he had yet to see one. That find, a first for me, made my whole trip.

Cabanas Agua Dulce (sweet water, but not always hot water)The elusive leopard goby was just one of the treasures I found diving on Isla de Providencia, in the Eastern Caribbean, 145 miles east of Nicaragua and a once a favorite haunt of the pirate Henry Morgan. Not to be confused with Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos, Providencia is a tiny island with fewer than 6,000 inhabitants -- more Caribbean than Colombian -- and part of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve. A 12-mile road more or less encircles it, passing through villages as it rarely leaves sight of the sea. The rugged dormant volcanic peaks in its interior don't invite development.

On my first morning, the talk among the young divers was all about whether we'd see sharks and whether they would be dangerous -- just what you would expect from vacation-goers making a diversionary dive or two. Sonny Dive Shop doesn't feed sharks, but its competitor, Felipe's Dive Center, does, and minutes into our 80-foot wall dive on the site named Confusion, a trio of sizable reef sharks swam in, nosing about, and circled our group. Having seen plenty of sharks, something more subtle captured my attention: a brown tangle of rope sponge wrapped in a bumpy sponge zoanthid that looked like coral polyp openings, not found in Humann's Reef Creatures. For me, diving is all about finding life I've never seen before, and I'd scored a personal first on my very first dive.

Surfacing in the tranquil sea, the chilly January water (77F at 84 feet) made me glad I'd worn my 5mm full suit and hooded vest. Our deeper morning dives averaged less than 80F, while shallow second dives hovered around 82F. Overall, visibility ranged from 30 to 70 feet.

As we next headed for Manta City, I asked if we'd be seeing any. Cuacer (pronounced KWA-see), our burly, affable young local boat driver, chuckled, shaking his head. "No." He was right. I saw no mantas, but the list of fish and other sea life flitting about the patch reefs dotting the sandy bottom would fill a nice checklist of most classic reef dives. A plump cushion sea star rested on a bright white, sandy bottom. Schools of cottonwick and tomtates, occasionally a white margate, bluestriped grunts and yellow goatfish populated the reef. Blueheads darted about like bullets ricocheting off invisible walls. Several southern stingrays rose from the sand and flew away, slowly to settle again. The smaller, stubbier yellow stingray seemed more restless, looking for its next meal along the bottom of the reef. Fairy basslets hung under ledges like a series of purple-flamed gaslights, as surgeonfish, porcupine fish, blue chromis and Creole fish swam about. I'd mounted my Tokina 10-17 wide angle for the first shark dive, but its macro capability let me get close-ups of a flamingo tongue munching on gorgonian soft coral and a delicate Pederson shrimp dancing in the arms of a translucent corkscrew anemone. A nice, typical second dive in Providencia.

Map of Isla de Providencia, ColombiaThroughout the week, I dived with a mix of friendly Latin American tourists in their 20s and 30s and one European, a 30-ish Norwegian sea captain, all of whom spoke English in varying degrees. Like me, they seemed drawn to Providencia by its reputation for being unspoiled -- and less crowded than San Andres, 60 miles to the south. Typically, we had three to four divers in the 28-foot uncovered skiff and two divemasters, leaving plenty of room to gear up. By contrast, we often passed Felipe's boat, which was packed cheek to cheek as the divers had no room except to sit up on the gunnels in full dive gear.

With Cuacer driving from a rear console, we sped to sites in 5-10 minutes, taking an hour's surface interval back at the shop, where Sonny offers decent rental gear, a deep concrete rinse tank and drying room, and plenty of aluminum 3000 tanks. Although I saw others completing pre-dive paperwork, I never filled out a form or showed a cert card (stating I was a Master Scuba diver with multiple additional certifications seemed to be enough). The owner, Gerardo Arenas Robinson, son of the original "Sonny," stopped by the shop from time to time, sometimes to lead students.

The next morning I kicked past an undersea statue of Christ, then swam along a beautiful wall called "Sonny's Place," past brilliant red sponges, indigo hamlets, a butter hamlet, trumpetfish, parrotfish and blue tangs. On my second dive among big brain corals at Bajo de San Felipe, Providencian Matthew Whitaker, my lean, young, recently minted divemaster, patiently let me stretch my dive to almost 90 minutes, despite his shivering. In addition to colorful reef fish, I spotted a shiny-netted snail, with a thin pink crisscross "netting" on its creamy shell, and later spied a fish with a panda bear's black mask over each eye, a masked hamlet.

Sonny Dive ShopThough sleep-deprived, my days fell into an untaxing rhythm, beginning with a simple breakfast (eggs, juice, toast cereal -- coffee was never available until 7:30 or later) served by a languid Spanish-speaking staff. After breakfast, it was a five-minute walk to the dive shop. Our dives usually ended around one, and after schmoozing, I'd hit our hotel's warm swimming pool for a quick gear and body rinse.

The owners of my lodging, Cabanas Agua Dulce, deliberately did not pipe hot water into the cabanas, fearing their guests might use too much water; yet, by mid-afternoon, the sun had warmed the pipes and the water. I'd shower, then grab a snack (peanut butter, rolls, a ginger cookie or fig bar) from the food my nondiving partner and I had purchased in town. After reviewing the day's photos and a nap in the king-sized bed in our spacious cabin (two-story -- complete with two additional beds on the second floor, plus AC, mini-fridge and ample 110v AC outlets), it was usually time for sundowners on our covered porch, which faced an open courtyard dotted with coconut trees, cute lizards and a hefty iguana. The island's arid climate seemed to explain why biting insects were scarce.

The hotel's outdoor dining area was 15 steps from our cottage; the one dinner we ate there -- snapper in coconut sauce -- was delicious. Most evenings, we walked to small,informal nearby restaurants. At the Caribbean Place, I shared bites of my spouse's black crab chef's special in a brandy, cream, nutmeg, and mustard sauce while enjoying my rock fish in ginger sauce. (The indigenous black crab is noted for its overland migrations, with thousands blocking roads at times.)

One night, after crossing paths with dive shop manager, Rudy, in the town center, he took us on his motorcycle to Café Studio, a mile away, for a tasty snapper in Creole sauce, or black crab Creole, with fried plantain. Blue Coral is partly owned by Gerardo; he let us run a tab and pay it at Sonny's when we checked out. Rudy worked in the kitchen, offering up fare such as Hawaiian and pepperoni pizza, a snapper in garlic sauce, and garlic shrimp and coconut rice. A typical bill for two, with tips and beers, was 100,000 Colombian pesos -- less than $33.

Cuacer with the Sonny III dive boatThe town center of Sweetwater Bay was a busy hub, with motos whizzing through it. A small grocery and sundries shop was stocked with everything from bread, canned goods, liquor and fresh vegetables, to T-shirts and bathing suits. By night, tables outside were filled with locals hanging out while skinny dogs wandered about. Across the road sat the bright orange Hotel Pirate Morgan and Sonny Dive's storefront. Clad in blue, occasional police officers making their rounds stood out as the only motorcyclists wearing helmets.

The night of our arrival at Cabanas Agua Dulce, an extended family of 30 funloving Colombian teens, parents, grannies and grandpas celebrated a family get-away by dancing exuberantly to a variety of salsa and modern Latin beats, soaking their clothes in the 80+F heat. It was a hoot. The remainder of our week, the feeling at our 24-cabin getaway reinforced the island's peaceful reputation. The resort staff was pleasant, but spoke only a little English, but we got by fine.

Following suit, Sonny's dive operation was also relaxed, to say the least, with the 9 a.m. boat diving often leaving at quarter past. The crew hauled our gear and set it up for each dive. Briefings were on the boat, in Spanish: I'd get the basics translated since both divemasters spoke English well enough. With so few divers, I usually had my own guide. Matthew did a great job of getting me back to the boat's sturdy ladder after 50-60 minutes, after pointing out many unique critters. Another divemaster, who had been a naturalist with the island's park system for many years, was an underwater bloodhound -- Santiago Posada, a fortysomething mainland Colombian.

Diving with Santiago at Tete's Place, I stretched my bottom time to 93 minutes as a kaleidoscope of fish -- highhats, lantern bass, a spotted moray, butterflyfish, parrotfish, yellowtail snapper and hundreds of schooling squirrelfish -- went about their business. Even a deep-water cero streaked past. I photographed a discshaped corallimorph from which sprung a patch of iridescent blue bulbs. A Spanish slipper lobster strode along the shallow bottom, seemingly unconcerned with my strobes flashing away.

Midweek, with two bags of snorkel gear, my spouse and I sandwiched ourselves aboard a passing moto (motorcyclist for hire) and roared off to explore Santa Catalina, a few miles to the north. We crossed the beautiful floating wooden bridge and snorkeled off a sandy beach.

Rating for Sonny Dive, Cabanas Agua DulceOn other dives, Santiago pointed out an uncommon dark mantis, distinguished by its red, white, and blue claws adapted for striking and smashing crustacean shells. At Bajo de San Felipe, the water was chock-full of marine life, including a hybrid hamlet, a chain moray, long-snout butterflyfish and a queen angel. A barred and indigo hamlet reinforced my impression that Providencia's tagline could read "hamlet haven."

Sonny was a friendly operation with which to dive; Gerardo seemed emotionally unengaged, perhaps busy with other ventures. Perhaps his aloofness may be why his former partner, who now operates Felipe Diving Center, sends out full boats. And Rudy, pulling night shifts at the restaurant while staffing a desk by day, had a laid-back vibe that made Sonny's Dive Shop seem positively sleepy. He needed more of the Colombian coffee he would brew during our surface intervals.

Even so, Providencia -- Old Providence, as it is called -- proved to be a friendly island for a unique, two-tank-a-day vacation with decent reef diving, clearly in the style of the old, undeveloped Caribbean, a destination many Latin Americans seek out for its relaxed, safe environment. Being a volcanic island like Saba and St. Vincent, it's not a coral island with weird underwater formations, swim-thrus, or challenging pinnacles or walls. Still, observant (and lucky) divers should easily log some exciting finds. To enjoy the expedition even more, bring a camera, use the trip as your excuse to stop over in Panama, and visit the Panama Canal. Just be sure to pack earplugs plus some strong sleep aids in case the roosters are crowing.

- S.P.

Our undercover diver's bio: S.P. says, "Learning to scuba (35 years ago), my beavertail neoprene wetsuit got me through my YMCA silver-level certification, even if I did freeze my bippy during 100-foot descents onto Great Lakes freighters. I've gradually earned all the main certifications, including Master Scuba Diver, and I have an SDI/TDI/ ERDI solo diving certification that comes in handy when I am sometimes left on my own on dives while taking photos. In between frequent dive trips, from the Caribbean to the Asia Pacific, I am a public safety diver and try to dive once a week year-round when our local lakes are not frozen over, and when they, are I'm ice diving."

Kosrae and Yap, MicronesiaDiving Compass: Diving was $73.50 for two tanks a day; night dives were never offered, but seem to be available by special arrangement. . . . Cabanas Agua Dulce ran $110 per night, which included two breakfasts. . . . Hotel Pirate Morgan is almost next to Sonny's and may be farther from roosters, though less charming ... Exchange $300-$400 for Colombia pesos to increase your dining options, since credit cards aren't readily accepted. . . . Sonny Dive advertises nitrox, but I was never asked if I wanted it and saw no evidence of it; dive with care and make sure your DAN membership is current since the nearest chamber is on San Andres. . . . I flew to Panama City via the excellent Copa Airlines ($1,107 from the Midwest) to San Andres, then a puddle jumper to Providencia, while stopping in Panama City for two nights on return. . . . The Grace Panama hotel at $135/night was a screaming deal given the quality of the rooms, complimentary nightly champagne, and filled breakfast buffets. Andy James (andyj@belizetravelpoints.com) put the entire package together with expertise and courtesy. . . . Check out a list of dive sites on www.diveoldprovidence.com/sites.html; some them describe underwater features that could have made another week worthwhile. Sonny Dive Shop: http://www.caribbeancolombia.com/content/sonny-dive-shop-providencia-y-santa-catalina-colombia/asa41808411ADD01607E Cabanas: http://cabanasaguadulce.com

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