Dear Fellow Diver:
Sharky’s Shop, also known as ‘Shark’s Crew’, is a family-run dive center in Bayahibe. We had trawled through Undercurrent Reader’s Reports without coming to agreement apart from the location of the best diving on the Caribbean coast of the Dominican Republic, so we emailed every center we could, including others identified through Google. Sharky’s promptly responded to our emails and answered all our questions. Even so, there was an element of potluck when we made our booking on the Internet.
Petr, is the more enigmatic of the two brothers that run the diving and I was surprised to discover they were Czech. His older brother Robert is tall and slim, happy and obviously very fit, despite a recent serious motorbike accident. Both men are in their late-thirties. Petr’s girlfriend, Nati Gonzalez, from Argentina, was busy conducting diving courses while we were there. They made a good-looking trio. All spoke good English and their Golden Labrador appeared to understand everything we said too.
The dock was a few minutes’ walk from Sharky’s Shop, itself a single-story building, divided between the equipment storage and the shop counter with tank filling station. The compressor was hidden in a small room behind with the air-intake well away from the road. The premises were just adequate in size, although the equipment for rent was sufficient for the number of customers expected and was either in very good condition or new. My buddy borrowed a new BC. She thought she’d rented it but it apparently came with no charge.
From the moment we arrived, we never had to touch our gear. When we revealed our certifications and logbooks, Petr exclaimed they had diving dinosaurs to look after. I don’t think he was referring to our ages. They set up our equipment in front of us and rinsed it thoroughly with fresh water after every boat trip.
Tanks had convertible valves that could accommodate both my yoke-style regulator and my buddy’s DIN fitting. Avoiding back troubles, our accompanying token man-friend normally uses a side-mount rig and we were amused to find they’d never come across such a thing before, although it proved to be no problem.
Robert took us for our first dive to Lighthouse Reef a few minutes boat ride from the dock. Their regular purpose-built dive boat was busy servicing other customers, probably doing learn-to-dive courses, and as their second boat was not yet finished being built, they temporarily rented a third boat all week to take the three of us more experience divers out. It was around 20-feet long with forward-facing benches organised to accommodate 20 non-diving tourists. Not ideal for divers, it had little or no protection from the sun, which was of consequence to my very blonde dive buddy but less to our token man-friend and I. We both tan up easily. That said, it was all ours and ours alone while we were there and we spread about the space available.
Lighthouse Reef dive wasn’t too exciting. It was only 45-feet deep with at least 30-feet of visibility, the coral was immaculate, the current almost non-existent; and Robert checked out that we lived up to the promise of our C-cards and thousands of dives.
Despite it not being specifically a dive boat, the vessel we used had a low freeboard, meaning back-roll entries were uneventful, and it was an easy clamber up the short ladder after passing up our tanks and weights to the young skipper.
During dives, we saw all the usual suspects among the pristine gorgonia and lovely Caribbean hard corals – morays, spiny lobsters, Southern rays and spikey porcupine fish.
During the surface intervals, we enjoyed copious amounts of assorted fresh fruit, inevitable cookies, and there was plenty of fresh water to drink, albeit in plastic bottles, which they collected to recycle.
Less than an hour after finishing the first dive, we were at Park One, a similar site but with much poorer visibility. It had been a very relaxing start to our trip. There was no limit to dive times and we ladies normally ended our dives once our token man was down to his reserve on his 80-cu-ft tank. Water temperature was typically 81°F.
The Dominican Republic shares Columbus’s island of Hispaniola with Haiti, a not altogether attractive destination for a tourist with the whole world to choose from. When our fellow traveller and man friend declared he had a huge number of British Airways Air Miles to use up, and was prepared to treat my dive buddy and I to a suitable dive trip, we ladies thought it would be churlish to turn down the offer. It was an otherwise unplanned vacation. But how to keep the other costs down? Travel costs apart, the Caribbean can prove a lot more expensive than similar Asian destinations and I am not a big earner. Airbnb with self-catering was the answer.
Until we got there, all I knew of the Dominican Republic was that it provided the jumping off point for those traveling to the Silver Banks to snorkel with humpback whales. We didn’t know what to expect of our accommodation and the thatched roofs of the airport buildings didn’t auger well, looking a little primitive despite its popularity with international tourists. Italians have long been developing holiday resorts and encouraging visitors to the island and European holiday-makers have always had a tradition of being prepared to rough it in exchange for the reward of being somewhere different.
We need not have worried. The Airbnb people had arranged a taxi to transport us from the airport although we later found out that the dive center might have done it cheaper. It was a 75-minute drive to the recently built holiday village of Dominicus where we were to stay, about 30 miles from the border with Haiti. We had rented a modern single-bedroom first-floor apartment that slept three. It was part of a larger complex. Token man got the sofa to sleep on. Our food supplies initially came from a small but well-stocked shop about 20-minutes stroll away, but it had few if any fresh fruit or vegetables. Food was typically Caribbean in price too.
Once we’d established a relationship with Sharky’s, Robert or Petr were very accommodating and took us to the wide array of small shops in Bayahibe town, and waited while we bought supplies at the same prices locals paid, before taking us back to our accommodation each day. Bayahibe came to life at the weekend, with locals dancing to loud music in the streets.
It was probably a mistake to book only two dives each morning and none in the afternoons. During those afternoons there was little to do other than download pictures, prepare cameras, read novels and sunbathe on the terrace or use the Dominicus complex’s swimming pools. However, regular as clockwork each morning, one of the Czech boys collected us from our apartment in their pick-up and took us to Sharky’s Shop in Bayahibe from where we walked over to where to boat awaited us, for a two-tank dive.
The dive sites were all within the wide channel separating Bayahibe and Dominicus from Isla Saona and were rarely as much as 60-feet deep. It was hardly worth paying for nitrox. It was totally unchallenging diving. The only deeper dive was to the wreck of the St. George, a small freighter lying almost upright on the seabed at 112-feet. Inauspicious in its operational days, the St. George made for a stunning dive accompanied by masses of sergeant majors and schooling jacks, with an eagle ray cruising by us as we descended. If we’d had the benefit of a better briefing, I’d have been more likely to explore the companionways and passages. Robert seemed eager to please and, whatever we suggested, he went along with. He was full of enthusiasm and didn’t seem likely to try to enforce his own rules, if he had any, because it was pretty obvious we knew what we were doing. In turn, we avoided flaunting descriptions of other, maybe better, places we’d dived.
Sharky’s Shop is off the beaten track to most experienced divers. The mainstay of their business is probably novice divers taking their first breaths underwater, although their web-site features all manner of specialities.
We made a point of enjoying what was there rather than bemoaning what was not. For example, the shallow wreck of the Atlantic Princess, close to the town, was too broken up to see what it once was, although it probably had been a typical tourist cruiser. At 45-feet deep, it made great swim-thru’s full of fish life, but the surrounding area was filled with sterile boulders.
Aquarium II was similarly shallow, which meant that it was extremely well lit in the Caribbean sunshine. This was knee-deep in eels peeking out from nooks and crannies. Even the garden eels out on the sandy areas were not too shy.
Some dives inundated us with little brown-spotted yellow rays, like so many clusters of tortillas cluttering up the seabed. We were pleased to say we saw fewer lionfish than we expected. In the channel, cloudier water could push through at times reducing the visibility to disappointing levels, but it always cleared during the dive and before an hour had elapsed.
During the week, we saw very large marble rays as well as several smaller Southern rays. Anemones had attendant crabs and we came across a solitary white eel along with handfuls of black ones. I cannot say there was any one ‘signature dive’ – a large orange seahorse was the only high point of one.
Our last and tenth dive of the week encompassed two dive sites – Star Point (Punta Estrella) and Penon. We finned between the two. We saw dozens of little yellow rays, a couple of scorpionfish, and hermit crabs out on the eel-grass. Afterwards, we went over to a beach on Isla Saona where we feasted on fried lionfish fillets. Delicious! The island is otherwise uninhabited but the beach there is fully equipped for daytime visitors. It made a fitting end to a relaxing dive week but attracted an additional cost.
On our last and non-diving day, we made a trip to the capital Santo Domingo. Sharky’s organised the air-conditioned car and driver ($200). While there, we hired who proved to be most knowledgeable guide with a passion for his country, for about 2 hours ($50). He took us around the old colonial city and gave us an account of its Spanish history. We went inside the cathedral ($1) and strolled around the streets of the first European settlement in the Americas. Lunch in a clean local restaurant cost $25 each including beer. It consisted of a typical meal of chicken and rice. We were told there were American fast-food chains in the newer part of town. The area we were in was leafy and quiet, and felt safe.
On the way back, we stopped by Los Trés Ochos: underground caverns with fresh water lakes at the bottom of a long sequence of steps ($5). We also stopped by a small cigar factory.
On our last day, we ate in the restaurant of the Tracadero Hotel, close by our apartment. Our meals consisted of expensive if delicious solitary steaks (with sautéed potatoes and chimichurri sauce) and fries on the side, while token man had seafood pasta – linguini with clams and cherry tomatoes. At around $45 each, it was the only extravagance of the very economical week.
Not counting airfares or tips, it cost less than $1200 each. Out of that I reckon we spent no more than $200 each on food during the week. We’d taken the precaution of carrying our week’s supply of high-quality wine with us from the UK.
Our Undercover Diver’s Bio: F.M., a mother-of-two and schoolteacher, has been diving since 1979, but after a hiatus became enthusiastic in the mid-90s, visiting dive sites as different as Scapa Flow and the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, Iceland, and Vancouver Island, to the Caribbean, the Galapagos, Yemen, Baja, the Philippines and Truk Lagoon. Nowadays she often travels with a girlfriend, leaving her long-suffering husband at home.
Diver’s Compass. A ten-dive package cost $499 in advance by PayPal (An extra day is $139). To make it a 3-dives-per-day add $39 per day. $95 extra for a trip to Isla Saona inc. 2 dives and lunch. Sharky’s Shop www.divingdr.com. Airbnb (twin bedroom & sofa) apartment for 6 nights $610. www.airbnb.com Self-catering, $250 per person goes a long way. Taxi airport transfer $100 (each way). Major credit cards accepted everywhere. Best time to go: Caribbean Season Dec – July.
Sharky’s Shop, Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
Diving (experienced) 3
Diving (beginner) 5
Service and Attitude 5
Money’s Worth 5