Break out your Reef ID books, readers. When you visit St Vincent, you’ll want them handy. But don’t count on the stuff you find being in any book…
Many of these pics are of creatures I’ve never seen before, and are marked as “first sightings”
Bumblebee Shrimp, on the belly of a Sea Cucumber. About ¼ inch. First Sighting.
Spotted Porcelain Crab. First Sighting.
Opossum Pipefish. First Sighting.
St Vincent often turns out to be one of the last places an intrepid Caribbean scuba traveler visits. It’s not particularly well known, it’s a bit of a pain to get to, and the diving there is rather specialized. While not blessed with an abundance of spectacular reefs and for the most part devoid of fish larger than a dinner plate, the draw of St Vincent is the out-of-proportion bounty of marine creatures that are scarce elsewhere in the region. In fact, I’m limiting the photos I include in this report to things I would consider unusual for the Caribbean.
Getting to St Vincent with a full scuba/camera kit can be expensive and nerve-wracking. At 2010 rates, checking two pieces of luggage to St Vincent costs $240 over the price of airfare, and even at that crazy price you can’t be sure you are going to get both bags there on time. LAIT AIR is the only regular carrier to serve St Vincent, and they don’t have a luggage agreement with any of the majors, so you get dinged twice for luggage. It costs $25 plus $35 each way for US Air, plus $60 each way (first bag free, second bag $60) for LAIT. LAIT flies smaller turboprops, runs full most of the time, and one or both of your bags is quite likely to be delayed to a later flight. On the way down be sure to ask at the check-in counter for a priority tag on the bag you need the most, and on the trip home ask for “connecting” tags on your bags. That ups the odds a little. Maybe.
I booked my trip and dove with Dive St Vincent. They offer attractive lodging/diving packages, and from among several lodging options I chose the Mariner. For the price, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Mariner. The room I had was in the main building, with a lovely westward view of the small but tidy swimming pool and the ocean beyond. The room itself was spacious and comfortable, with strong AC, a small fridge, and plenty of hot water. The free wireless Internet worked reliably. There is no tub, which I miss only for a long rinse I like to give my gear at the end of the trip, and the room lighting is annoyingly dim. They do provide a room safe, also at no charge, and there is dual-voltage wall power in the room, your choice of 240V British or 120V US styled sockets. Tap water is safe to drink but a little off-tasting.
View from my room at the Mariner
Located beside the pool and only a few steps from the ocean is the on site restaurant, the French Verandah. My package included a free breakfast and 20% off the price of the evening meal entrees. I found the food quality to be somewhat spotty and entrée prices a bit steep, but they do offer some good pasta and pizza choices for the frugal diver, and you can order items from the lunch menu any time of day. The service was excellent. There is a cozy and well-stocked bar, and the house wine was served in tiny glasses but was priced accordingly and not of a bad quality.
Dive St Vincent is only about 100 yards from the Mariner. On the first morning of diving, you and your gear are picked up and transported to the shop, after that you reach the dive shop by walking to the ocean, turning right, and navigating along the top of a narrow and moderately treacherous seawall which leads to the dive shop. The inside walls of the shop are tiled with sun-faded photos of wonderful things: the creatures, the reason you are here. Photos of beautiful sea life that you’ve rarely or never seen, things that are right out there somewhere. And standing nearby, sizing you up, is a weather-beaten man with a scruffy white beard, the guy who can find these wonderful things for you, Dive St Vincent owner Bill Tewes.
If you have considered a trip to St Vincent, it’s likely you’ve already heard about Bill Tewes. If you happen to live in St Vincent, you’ve definitely heard of him. He’s on a St Vincent postage stamp, for goodness sake.
The things you have heard about Bill Tewes (pronounced Two S) are probably true. He is abrupt, opinionated, churlish, impatient, and I began liking him the moment I met him. It only takes a few minutes to see that behind the bluster is a guy that loves diving, and is supremely good at what he does best: finding, identifying, and mentally cataloging the thousands of creatures inhabiting the local reefs and sands. And at an age when many people are hanging up their cleats, Bill is still adding to his logbook of more than 10,000 dives at the rate of 300-plus dives a year.
Shortfin Pipefish. First sighting.
Gray Triggerfish. First sighting.
Cryptic Teardrop Crab on a Vase Sponge
The Dive St Vincent boats leave the dock at 9:30 sharp, a departure time that allows for a leisurely breakfast and an unhurried assembly of your camera rig. There are three boats in the DSV fleet; ours was a partially open topped cruiser with twin 200 HP outboards. I don’t know the capacity of our boat but it was getting cozy with four divers, so I assume six would be the limit. Beneath one of the bench seats is a bait box that served as a camera rinse tank of sorts. I did not see nor was I informed of any emergency gear on board beyond life vests and a 2-way radio. The front berth is converted into tank storage while the rear is kept clear of clutter until right before the dive, when the crew would bring aft your already-assembled kit (DSV handles all your gear for you throughout your trip if you like) and help you into your gear on the gunwale.
Goldspotted Eel, hunting
Magnificent Urchin, rarely seen at recreational diving depths. First sighting.
Heart Urchin Pea Crab
Whitenose Pipefish, rare. First sighting.
Yellowfin Grouper, first sighting.
Snowy Grouper, first sighting.
Dive briefings were…brief. We all knew why we were here, I suppose. After back rolling off the ample freeboard and spinning my arms to right myself, I would go to the bottom and wait for Bill. He’s not hard to spot. He dives with no wetsuit and no weights, just his retractable pointer and erasable slate. No-weight dives are more feasible with DSV, the standard tank provided is a steel 72 filled to 2500 PSI. Subtract about 4-6 pounds of lead from what you would use with an AL 80. I wasn’t too happy with a smaller, low-pressure tank; I rather like having a lot of air. But when I kvetched about it a little I was provided steel 80’s rated at 3000 pounds and consistently filled to 2800 for the rest of the week. With the relatively shallow profiles of most of these dives, that’s plenty, even for the 80-plus minutes marathon dives that were not only tolerated but tacitly encouraged. Nitrox is not offered on St Vincent, and Bill doesn’t put much stock in the whole Nitrox thing anyway.
Underwater with Bill, you realize how he earned his reputation for being a critter finder extraordinaire. He is relentless in his search for things that most people never notice. Every moment of every dive, he is scanning the reef, carefully scrutinizing each sponge, every hole; no hiding place is safe from Bill. Reliably, he calls you over and points out creatures that you can barely see even when he is holding the tip of his steak/dive knife right next to it. He is supremely patient with photographers. I guess he must know how hard it is to locate a shrimp the size of a low-density molecule in a camera viewfinder.
Simnia Shrimp. First sighting.
Itty Bitty juvenile High Hat
It is when you swim away from the reef into the sand and grass that Bill really shines. The apparently barren sea bottom comes to life before Bill’s remarkable eyes. A glance at Bill at work first leads you to conclude that he’s lost a contact lens, but in fact he is kneeling on the bottom, slowing moving his hands over the sand, carefully looking for the tiniest movement that reveals a hiding creature. And this is not work for the impatient, sometimes it’s a long wait for something interesting to look at, but it’s almost always worth the wait. Sometimes, he even scares up the elusive Nib….Not in Book.
Who knows? This is a previously unidentified shrimp.
Which book? His Bible, the Humann Reef ID books, are never far away, and there was not a surface interval where Bill wasn’t thumbing the pages to show detail on a creature we had just seen, or to reinforce his recollection of an obscure critter the dive had produced. And Bill has righteous knowledge of the book; many of the photos contained therein were taken right here.
The diving day at DSV proceeds at a leisurely pace. With the unusually late departure and the normal 20-minute ride to the largest concentration of sites, divers are splashing as late as 10:15. Nobody is watching the clock underwater, or herding the flock. You have the option of following the dive guide if you care to, or wandering off by yourself. I rather like that. Even with the generally modest profiles, the dives are frequently long enough to spin your computer; so full hour surface intervals were usually observed. It was not uncommon to get back to the dock after 2:00.
Opossum Pipefish. First sighting.
Banded Jawfish brooding eggs in mouth. First sighting with eggs.
Jaundiced Spotted Drums? Nope, Jackknife Fish. First sighting.
Rare Lined Seahorse, pregnant. First sighting.
Flame Boxcrab, first sighting.
Spotfin Flounder, first sighting.
There isn’t much to do topside in St Vincent. I managed a couple pleasant, extended afternoon strolls from the Mariner, but I found myself longing for a third dive most days. DSV will accommodate you if you can find at least one other diver to go along, but business was slow when I was there and I couldn’t scare up another taker for more diving, so I ended up doing a lot of reading and napping. If you want to pay for two divers, they will take you solo, but that adds up to a $140 dive, too rich for my blood. You can shore dive in the channel anchorage in front of the dock if you like, but there is a lot of boat traffic and unpredictable current, so without the benefit of a guide, I opted to pass. At the end of the week, I had logged 11 dives. For me, that was not enough diving, although to be fair the dives were unusually long and I probably accumulated bottom time equal to fourteen or fifteen dives elsewhere.
I was able to talk one St Vincent regular into joining me for a night dive. Ray, a retired police officer, spends half of every year living on St Vincent and diving regularly, but surprisingly had never taken a night dive there. So Ray, the DM, and I enjoyed what I was sure would be a stellar night dive. Just across the channel from the Dive St Vincent dock is tiny Young Island, which features the premier area resort, Young Island Resort ($$$$). For our night dive we visited one of the sites on the far side of the island, which meant both a short ride home in the cool evening air, and a site protected from the sometimes-fierce current we encountered on the further away day sites. Even without Bill along I managed to see at least three crab species that were completely new to me, a couple of unique fish, seahorses, lobsters, octopus, even an odd-swimming Black Brotula; the critter parade never seemed to end. The hour passed very quickly as I enjoyed both the variety of things to see and the knowledge that around every corner and in every shadow there was a good chance of finding something interesting and unusual to photograph.
Black Brotula, yet another first sighting.
Unique Decorator Crab. This crab cuts pieces of sponge and has specially adapted rear legs which spear the sponge and hold it in place.
Divers on their last day of diving choose the site. I had no real preference, so instead I chose a creature I had hoped to photograph here, a Leech Headshield Slug, and asked Bill to find me one. He nodded. On the second dive, we visited a shallow bay called Ray’s Place, and once we were on the 15 foot bottom Bill put his nose down and set off on the hunt, and I followed. As the minutes went by we stumbled over an unusual colored pipefish, a rare pregnant Lined Seahorse perfectly camouflaged in the grass, a Lantern Bass, a Magnificent Sea Urchin (with a couple tiny shrimp on board of course), an unfamiliar yellow starfish. Before I knew it, 70 minutes had passed. I had plenty of air, but Bill didn’t seem to be heading toward the boat. Fine by me, I’ve certainly got nothing better to do. Ten minutes later, I hear Bill’s signal rattle (toward the end of the trip my shutter finger would twitch involuntarily whenever I heard the rattle) and sure enough Bill had found not only a Leech Slug for me, he had located a whole herd of them, probably 10-12 in about a square yard of grass. He wiped his brow and wrote “finally!” on the slate. I took all the shots I wanted and we ended up back at the boat with 92 minutes on the clock and received a few “stern looks” from the other divers who have been rocking in the sun for the last 40 minutes or so. I tried, but probably failed to look guilty…
Leech Headshield Slug
So, Should you go to St Vincent and dive with Bill Tewes? It depends. If you are looking for major league reefs or jumbo marine life, there are better, closer choices. But if you enjoy viewing unusual creatures, and especially if you are a macro photographer, then St Vincent might be a good fit for you. If you are a photographer who frequents the Caribbean and is getting jaded with the same old photo subjects, but can’t find the time or money to get to the South Pacific and Asia, then St Vincent is where you want to go, with one major caveat: Bill must be there. Contact the shop and be sure. The other divemasters at DSV are perfectly okay and run a safe ship, but they can’t hold a candle to Bill’s locating abilities, and the critters here don’t come out and wave at you.
It will be interesting to see what the St Vincent dive scene will be like when Bill finally moves on. His company is one of only two thriving dive operations on the island, and the other, Indigo Dive, appears to be less oriented towards critter diving and may well offer a diver a completely different perspective on the St Vincent underwater scene. I realize I’m portraying the island as a narrow-focus dive destination, but I encourage you to give it a try and come to your own conclusions.
St Vincent is called the Critter Capital of the Caribbean, but maybe it really isn’t. Maybe these critters that seem rare are actually abundant but smugly hiding all over the Caribbean, with no Bill Tewes to skillfully and patiently seek them out. I personally think the Critter Capital of the Caribbean would be wherever Bill decides to hang his hat.