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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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October 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sea Saba, Saba, Dutch Antilles, Caribbean

a delightful village, still pristine diving

from the October, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

One of the first tourist factoids you learn about Saba is that the island's airport has the shortest commercial runway in the world (and it scares the bejesus out of lots of travelers). You also learn that the five-square-mile island is an extinct volcano rising from the sea, with no beaches, one road (The Road), and U.S. dollars are the currency. Most activities are centered in the picturesque town of Windwardside, with its lovely red-roofed white cottages with green shutters and white-picket-fenced yards and gardens. As it turns out, it was close to a perfect week with but one tiny hiccup, probably not even worth mentioning, but I will: our assigned taxi driver for pick-up from the airport failed to show, but it was quickly remedied when another driver shuttled me up the hill.

The island of Saba in the Dutch AntillesJuliana's is a hillside collection of traditional Saban-style structures connected by open wooden stairs and decks straddling a narrow lane in Windwardside, with two suites, three cottages, and a dozen or so ocean or tropical garden view rooms -- even the chef has a garden. The hotel pool, with its huge flamingo and swan plastic floats and a stuffed toy pig collection, is across the road from the rooms and between the café and bar. We had the hotel's top-level Mango Suite, named after the large mango tree outside our spacious covered deck, and a mural of mangos on the free-standing bedroom headboard wall. We had a living room and kitchenette cooled by AC or ceiling fans under the vaulted ceilings, a glass-walled stone shower, pedestal sinks, wicker furniture, and a built-in closet. When it's part of a ten-tank dive package for $1410/person, breakfast and nitrox included, you know you have a deal.

After check-in, we walked through town to Sea Saba's dive shop, up a steep hill, as is everything. Co-owner Lynn Costenero checked our c-cards as we signed forms and checked out their spacious shop with a large stock and selection of scuba items and adventure gear. John Magor, her husband, is a Brit and Lynn is originally from Indiana; they have been on Saba since 1989. She pretty much stays in the shop running things. He is a cutler, and the next-door shop sells John's top-notch knife creations.

Our first dive -- there was no checkout -- was Tent Reef Wall South. By the end of the week we dived several additional Tent Reef sites, named after the bay's hilltop stone structure that resembles a teepee. My wife and I were the first to drop in when the pool opened. As I started my descent, I was greeted by a huge Caribbean reef shark that altered her path for a close drive-by to check us out. I did a double-take because it was at the high end of their size range, easily eight feet. There were plenty of tropicals, including princess parrots, black durgons, blue chromis and spotted filefish on the wall and barracuda patrolling off a bit. I spotted a huge queen angelfish during my 51 minutes, which took me down the nice wall, result of a long-ago volcanic fissure upheaval, to 101 feet in the tepid 81ºF water with 50-foot visibility. My next dive on a rocky reef named Greer Gut included lots of nurse sharks including a puppy, and several large spotted drums and French angels, with a depth of 81 feet (when I reviewed my video of this dive, I realized I had recorded many dolphin clicks as well). After our first dive day, we knew Saba's diving was special.

Unfortunately, visibility deteriorated throughout our week, dropping to 25 feet or so, but it did not diminish the beauty. Several planned dive sites were abandoned due to the murk. The marine-park dive sites varied from pinnacles to boulders to walls, well covered in healthy Caribbean reef life; few sites were true coral reefs. I saw many yellowheaded jawfish on the sand, parrots, triggers, trumpets, trunks, morays, crustaceans and beautiful stands of healthy elkhorn coral, a refreshing sight. Caribbean reef sharks swam along the walls and pinnacles, while nurse sharks settled among the reefs and boulders. Turtles were also a constant.

Saba MapOur first night, we heeded Lynn's dinner recommendation and dined above the dive shop at Chez Bubba, where the dishes were elegant and delicious. The white pea soup ($11) was velvet-smooth and very flavorful and was followed by Saban lobster ($31) and lobster pasta ($29). Heineken's and wine were $7.50. We passed a couple of open-to-the-street "pubs" with some ongoing Saturday night action on the way back to the hotel but opted for an early bedtime.

Breakfast at the poolside Tropics Café provided a choice of the standard offerings with Dutch and local twists. Omelets had local ingredients, as did the pancakes, French toast, and house-made yogurt offerings. Lunch and dinner were great pub/cafe fare, and bar food was available along with many libations, frozen concoctions, beers and wines. Dutch owner/husband Wim Schutten (with his wife Johanna van't Hof ) was the breakfast chef and waiter, up early daily catering to divers on pick-up schedules, fixed a room maintenance issue, bartended, waited tables, hosted, and managed. Handsome and ever-smiling, he was born in Holland, grew up in California, and went to school in Paris.

Patty, whose family arrived on Saba over three centuries ago, was our assigned shuttle driver for the week and arrived each morning at 8:45. Immediately likable, his strong Saban accent required my full concentration. He drove "The Road" as if it were in his bloodline. At the harbor, the dive crew transferred our gear to the boat. Embarking and disembarking was a little tricky as the pier was almost the same elevation as the upper/bridge deck on some tides.

Sea Saba's dive boats at the dockWhile Saba is known as the Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean, actually my queen and I were spoiled by the Sea Saba staff. They analyzed the nitrox cylinders and switched dive gear over during surface intervals in a flash. Daily, they rinsed and stowed our gear and after our final dive, rinsed and dried our gear and returned it to our hotel. The crews often rotated, perhaps to spread the work as it was offseason. Two Bens -- one a Brit and the other a German -- were good guides. Aaron was memorable with his dry humor and Texan drawl. Will, a very nice guy in the shop, also made pizzas two doors down. We often ran into them in the local bars enjoying a post-dive beer.

They run two purpose-built Delta Canaveral dive boats, each 38 feet long plus dive platform. The Sea Dragon (one screw and no head) worked all week, but the Giant Stride (two screws and a marine head) went idle after day two when the guest count decreased. Both have a covered area, with benches and tank racks down the sides. Though well worn, they seemed sturdy and well maintained. Each easily accommodates 10 divers plus a crew of three. Most dive sites are 10- to 15-minute boat rides, not far from shore, since it gets deep fast on Saba.

A serious photographer might register some disappointment with Sea Saba, since there is no dockside camera/charge station and a small red tub on the boat, which didn't even contain water for a couple of days due to government-imposed water usage restrictions, as the drought taxed the island's desalinization plant. But, the not-so-picky will find macro to blue water subject matter and plenty of colorful pinnacles such as Outer Limits and Shark Shoals. One must drop down to the mooring lines to 90 feet, where I gradually descended to 115 or so, then ascended, swimming circles around the pointy rocks that rise from hundreds of feet from the bottom almost to the surface. One pinnacle dive, I found an octopus rooting around during the day and a large spotted moray among the multitudes. Another day, I discovered a long-lured frogfish hiding in the colorful yellow sponges and a three-legged -- or is it flippered? -- green turtle at Man-O-War Shoals. At Tent Reef Deep, two scorpionfish hid in the clutter and file clams clung where they could. We made two morning dives daily, but could only do one of the two offered afternoon dives due to a scheduling conflict. The boat's departure for the afternoon dive was soon after the morning trip's return, tank exchange and hotel-restaurant-provided box lunch consumption. The harbor does have a small waterfront Latino-vibe bar and grill that should have gotten our business. We skipped the one night dive offered during our week for a romantic dinner.

Dinnertime view at the Bird NestSea Saba staff mainly let you do your own thing while diving, but kept a careful eye, once kicking out to turn everyone around because some divers had failed to turn back at half a tank of air. On some sites, it was impossible to do anything other than what everyone else was doing -- winding around the pinnacle. I found no currents, so aside from the depth, diving is easy for all levels, and, just in case, Saba has a working chamber.

One afternoon I acquiesced to my wife's desire to take a class at JoBean Glass Art. Resigned to my marital duty, I packed several beers in a bag of ice and sat on the front porch enjoying Booby Hill. When the beer completely evaporated (no other explanation), I went inside to determine how much longer my sentence would continue, but I became fascinated by the glass bead-making process. While my wife seemed to master it quickly, I tried my hand at replicating a Statian blue slave bead without success.

We were pleasantly surprised with the restaurants on Saba, and as a resident of New York City, I don't say that lightly. We had great meals at high-end Chez Bubba Bistro and Brigadoon, both in Windwardside, and a memorable meal in the Bird's Nest (a secluded and romantic treehouse table) at Queen's Garden in The Bottom (the larger town). We had many good meals at Tropics Café and the 'cross-pool' Tipsy Goat, a fantastic café with a Tiki bar. Friday night is barbecue night at Swinging Doors, its only food service of the week, and "everybody" was there. We had many beers, stories and laughs with the proprietor, Eddie, a Saban and an affable retired sea captain. Our plates of ribs each had a full rack, a mountain of potato salad and a second peak of rice and beans -- huge and delicious -- served up by Ed's lucky lady, Pat, a lovely Irish lass abducted from NYC during one of his pirate raids. I enjoyed passing through the saloon entry doors like in the old Wild West movies.

Aside from diving, the only other tourist diversion on Saba is hiking. We taxied to the Tidal Pools Trail at the north terminus of The Road and took a short jaunt -- it became more of a rock scramble and boulder crawl as we approached the sea. We squeezed beneath a boulder gap to see a spectacular rough and rocky shoreline and several pools fed by splashing waves, some containing sea life.

Saba was in the throes of a three-month drought, and, unfortunately for us, the prayers of the locals were answered during our last three days. When the morning's torrential rains finally abated on Friday afternoon, our no-dive-due-to-flying day, we climbed to the top of Mount Scenery, the highest point in the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands. It was a miserable climb up a crappy staircase to 3,000 feet above sea level. The great views of Saba and Statia and the curried chicken salad sandwich from Bizzy B consumed at the top made the climb almost worth it. But it was a slippery and bumpy descent, and after getting down safely but slightly battered, I entered the Trail Shop and announced I'd like to donate $1 to trail maintenance for every time I fell on my butt on the hike. The young lady in the Trail Shop was rather bewildered looking at the $20 I dropped on the counter.

Even a little bruised, I can only say this was a memorable trip on a beautiful island, with plenty of nice people, great restaurants, scenic towns, rugged terrain, and superior dive operation. It's worth repeating -- and hopefully I will.

-- R.A.M.

Our Undercover Diver's Bio: "I was exposed to diving at a young age by my father and Jacques Cousteau and got certified in 1977. Although possessing dry-suit certification, I prefer diving the Caribbean, Yucatan, Micronesia, Hawaii, and the Philippines, and am always accompanied by my lovely wife-buddy. I only feel truly stress-free at work when I have two dive trips planned ahead."

Divers CompassDivers Compass: There is an American medical school in the capital city, The Bottom (closer to the harbor), which accounts for much of the island economy. . . . Several airlines fly to Sint Maarten, where one picks up a short flight to SAB ($200 RT) aboard the Winnair Twin Otter (upon approach, the runway does look tiny and intimidating with 30-foot-high cliffs down to the sea at both ends, but our skilled pilots used about half the short runway with zero drama. . . .Our travel package ($1,410 each) included seven nights' accommodations, daily breakfast, airport and dive boat transfers and five days of two tank boat dives . . . Sea Saba has rental gear, oft-used but in good condition; unlimited nitrox is $59/week. . . .Their website states that their repair capabilities and spare parts inventory make their dive and marine operations self-sufficient . . . . . The high air temperature was 81ºF with the overnight lows in the 60s due to elevation.

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