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There was a great explosion. A horrifying cloud of molten lava, flames and smoke came twisting down the slopes of the mountain followed by an endless vortex of vapours, fires and burning gas. We tried to raise the anchor, but in an instant the destructive forces hit us. A cyclone of fire had destroyed the town and now sent the Roraima lurching to starboard.
The funnel and masts were whisked off while fires broke out all around the ship. Those who didnt perish were soon covered in hot mud.

So Ellery Scott, Chief Officer of the steamship Roraima, described the eruption of Martiniques Mt Pelee on 8 May 1902. Scott was one of a handful of survivors able to describe how his ship became what is now one of Martiniques prime dive sites.
The Roraima burned for three days before sinking in the middle of the bay at 57m. It wasnt the only ship destroyed - the tidal wave produced by the explosion sank the Grappler and Gabrielle instantly. Others - the Tamaya, the Theresa Lovigo, the Diamant and the Dalhia - went down in flames soon after.

COBWEBS AND SPIRITS
Rounding the final corner of the coast-hugging road to the north, you cant miss Mt Pelee. It looms menacingly over the rebuilt Saint-Pierre, its summit shrouded in mist.
On the beachfront we find Tropicasub Plongee, the only diving operation in this part of the island. Owner Lionel Lafont introduces me to veteran diver Michel Metery, credited with rediscovering the wrecks of Saint-Pierre.
Michel tells us how, in 1974, he came across a vision extraordinaire after trying to free a crabbing pot caught on an obstruction. This was the wreck of the Tamaya, a three-masted schooner lying in 85m. Jacques Cousteau arrived soon after aboard Calypso to explore the wrecks with Michel.
Our journey to the site is short; the Roraima sank only 600m out. Before long we disappear into the dark blue and, as we pass through the last of several thermoclines at 30m, the bow shimmers into view.
Once amidships, Lionel points to the round base of the funnel that fell off in the blast. The ship is intact but twisted in places by the furious heat. In a companionway leading past the passenger cabins, I try to imagine the occupants horror as the burning gases choked them.
Caribbean wrecks are usually adorned with bright corals and sponges, but the Roraimas decorations consist of thousands of whip corals, and the contorted sponges on the hull are muted in colour as if they have been in a shop window too long.
As we continue, Lionel points out metal and glass distorted by the heat. I shiver as I weave past the whip corals, reaching out like cobwebs into the dimming light. Its dark and eerie - a bizarre experience enhanced by the narcosis that is slowly creeping up on me.
Back on the boat, Lionel pulls out a bottle of what looks like oil, with small twigs in the bottom. He takes a swig and offers it to us. Its the traditional post-dive rum drinking - one mouthful of this homemade firewater and Im gasping.
Lionel laughs and thrusts the bottle at me again. I realise why he is a larger-than-life character. Its the stuff he drinks.
Back at his shop, Lionel tells me about the other 10 wrecks he visits. This is no place for beginners, as most of them are in 30m-plus. Is there anywhere Lionel has yet to dive He grins and shouts: Scapa Flow of course! Where else could possibly beat Saint-Pierre for its wrecks

DIVE WHOSE PLAN
About a mile south of the island is a vast pinnacle called Diamond Rock. At one time fortified by the British Navy to defend the area from the French, its hard to imagine a lonelier, more hostile posting.
The Sub Diamond Rock operation regularly takes divers there. Owner Jean-Luc Cecillon speaks only French but we find an English-speaking instructor for our visit. Its a bumpy ride, the tradewinds blowing constantly at 15mph or more. However, once in the lee of the rock we are able to kit up.
Diamond Rock looks even more impressive from beneath its overhangs and cliffs, though with the vegetation clinging to its sides, Emerald Rock would seem a more fitting name.
We receive our briefing: visit a cave at 30m, then tour the gullies at about 20m. Passing 30m we can only just keep up with our guide. He clearly doesnt want to waste time in the shallows, flying down the slope like a downhill skier.
I look at my computer and, as we pass 35m, wonder about the change to the plan.
Forty metres, and whip corals similar to those on the Roraima are growing everywhere. At 45m our guide drops off the edge of a rocky outcrop. We fly over the edge and see him waiting for us down below.
We join him at 51m. He gestures at us to enter the cave with him - its really just a large crack in the rock. But I feel were too deep, and in any case, we would damage the beautiful whip corals growing from the interior walls.
Back in the 10-20m range we start to enjoy the dive. Theres a lot of marine life here, despite the eight room-sized fishpots we see - all empty. Plenty of gullies and small archways provide swim-through entertainment past corals and sponges.

EEL AT THE WHEEL
Towards the end of the dive we discover a small hole in the rock that is home to more than 20 lobsters, from juveniles to good-sized adults. For our last five minutes we watch them shuffle around in their constant battle for space.
Next day we wake to a storm, and from our hotel room can see huge waves crashing into the sides of Diamond Rock. We call Francois Cavernes, who invites us to join him at Plongee Passion in Grand Anse. There on the west coast he is protected by the hills and mountains.
Francois is the driving force behind the Association des Centres de Plongee Professionnels de la Martinique (ACPPM). I wanted to make everything better: the safety, the professionalism and the welcome! The standards in the islands dive shops vary so much. To join us a store would have to achieve very high standards.
As we set off in his boat he points out some of the 10 new fixed buoys on the most popular dive sites.
They are the first to be placed in Martinique and the French National Trust paid for them, he says. I hope this will be the beginning of a movement to protect the marine life of the island.
Francois wants to see Diamond Rock become a marine reserve, though at present it seems that there is too much opposition from fishermen.
We soon reach the dive site, the intact wreck of the Nahoon, a large sailing ship sunk several years ago in 35m. As we follow our guide Manu down the mast, large shoals of silversides part to make way. An impressive number of fish occupy this wreck - the mast reaching to within 8m of the surface discourages fishermen.
A large moray eel is entwined around the base of the ships wheel. Blackbar soldierfish protect the entrance to the engine room and several species of snapper lie motionless in protected areas. Its an enjoyable dive, though very different to the wrecks of Saint-Pierre. Back at the centre we drink rum in the rain.

JUMP-OFF POINT
The storm continues to beat the island and the long-range forecast is poor. We fly to St Martin, an island shared between the French, on the northern side, and the Dutch.
In the capital, Marigot, the Caribbean meets the south of France. Visitors might do the odd dive to interrupt the monotony of savouring its mixed cuisine and basking on the many beautiful beaches, but the diving is among the poorest Ive come across in the Caribbean.
St Martin is best used as a staging post for the surrounding islands. Blue Ocean Divers in Baie Nettle and Scuba Fun in Anse Marcel both have boats catering for different experience levels, and arrange day trips to nearby St Barts, Saba and Anguilla.
One site on my wish-list is the wreck of the Fuh Sheung, a large Korean fishing vessel in 35m on the Dutch side of the island. When we arrive, however, the mooring buoy has gone.
Cyrile from Blue Ocean Divers explains how strong winds often rip it away. So we visit an old upturned barge called the Gregory in 15m. There is little growth on it, though snappers and blue-striped grunts hug the stern.
After 15 minutes of pottering around, seeing only one moray eel and a scorpionfish, we set off for the surrounding reef to find something more interesting.
Cyrile makes the sign for lobsters. We fin over to a ledge about 100m away but find only a few fish. Cyrile later says the lobsters have probably been taken by fishermen.

BACK TO THE BEACH
On our way back to the Gregory I find a small hole in the rock with a juvenile lobster hiding in it. How long it survives is in the hands of the Dutch government and its plans to introduce a marine park here.
We visit the old pilings and blocks of concrete that used to be one of the old bridges on the island. Although not particularly attractive as a backdrop, there is some life on it - small shoals of fish hug it for protection.
We also visit HMS Proselyte, a frigate that hit the nearby shallow reef in 1801, and is now one of the islands most popular dive sites. Some of its cannon are just visible, and a large anchor provides a photo opportunity. Thats about it.
St Barts is closed for business: this is September, the hurricane season. The next best option is the English-speaking island of Anguilla, not a French island at all but only 20 minutes ferry ride from Marigot.
Anguilla too is quiet, with some hotels and most restaurants closed. We do have a dive boat to ourselves, but most of the buoys are missing off the wreck sites and Dog Island, with its sharks and pelagics, is too far for the small boats operating at this time of year.
Christophe from Anguilla Divers takes us to one of the more popular wreck sites, the mv Oosterdiep, a cargo ship sunk in 1990 as an artificial reef. Although starting to collapse in places, its still in one piece and home to shoals of baitfish, which are entertaining to watch as they dart in unison.
At the end of the dive we spend five minutes examining the encrusting corals on the bow, colonised by a vast number of multi-coloured Christmas tree worms, and with small gobies using some of the holes left behind.
Our second dive is on a shallow reef. Visibility isnt that good but we see plenty of macro subjects, including more Christmas tree worms, flamingo tongues and cleaner shrimps hiding in the arms of anemones.
In the afternoon I lie back on a long, deserted, powder-white beach. This is what Anguilla is for.

TOMBSTONE SPONGES
From St Martin we set off on the final leg of our journey, to the very French island of Guadeloupe. The Cousteau Marine Reserve on its west coast is to the French what the Cayman Islands are to the British. Actually, its more. Guadeloupe, with its mountains, rainforests and incredible beaches, offers a real feeling of untouched Caribbean.
We dive with Les Heures Saines in Malendure. Perched on the end of a small headland, the centre overlooks the Pigeon Islands at the heart of the reserve. No site is more than five minutes away, and all can become wall - or steep slope - dives.
The slope starts only metres from the shoreline. A few secluded bays allow for shallow diving but even these eventually fall into the deep waters surrounding the islands.
Our first dive is in Le Jardin de Corail. Fish are everywhere on its slope.
A puddingwife swims past, followed by a trumpetfish doing its best to rub against the puddingwifes body. This is soon followed by a solitary horse-eye jack that spends five minutes bullying two-banded butterflyfish, until they manage to hide under a ledge.
It circles them until, frustrated, it shoots off into the depths. And all around us are vast sponges, like the ornate designs of a crazed glass-blower.
Most of the dives around the island offer a similar experience. The exception is Source dEau Chaude and its springs, where the hot water ripples as you place your hand into the flow.
On a night dive at the Piscine, a sheltered bay, octopus creep along the top of the reef and squadrons of squid stand out against the moonlight. The slopes are alive with the grunts and clicks of unseen creatures, sound effects for the eeriness that comes from shining a torch on the vast barrel sponges.
These cast a gravestone-like shadow on the slope behind, and you are aware of the bright beady red eyes of shrimps in the folds of the sponges glint back at you like cats eyes.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Just outside the reserve are the only two diveable wrecks in Guadeloupe's waters, both sunk as artificial reefs. One, the Gustavia, is an old inter-island ferry sunk in 40m in 1991, but it is already liberally coated in black gorgonians, especially around the bow.
A ball of baitfish drops to the base of the mast, only to return when the pelagic fish skirting the wreck move in to make a kill. This deadly game serves as a distraction from the wreck itself. Most of it can be penetrated, but this is a deep dive and the cool stuff happens outside.
The centre allows us to make only two dives a day. The rest of the time we must relax by the pool, visit the beach or trek to waterfalls straight from your dreams. It all seems as good as it gets - until we take an excursion to Iles des Saintes, a small group of picturesque islands to the south.
Between the mainland and these islands lies Sec Pate, a series of pinnacles. Les Heures Saines is the only operation that visits them. They rise to just 16m from the surface, but getting onto them requires a dive plan of military precision.
A buoy is attached to the summit of one of the pinnacles 10m below the surface. With the boat still making headway, our guide Nico jumps off the platform and immediately descends, trailing a line attached to a second buoy.
Minutes later he's back, waving us in. Hand over hand we make our way to the buoy, then down the line against a fast-running current.
The pinnacles are only 100m long and about 30m across at their widest. Its like freefalling onto the top of a mountain.
As soon as were out of the current, Nico leads us through the first gully. As we spill out of it I look below and see only the dark blue of deep water. The current soon picks me up and pushes me along a wall covered in vast black gorgonians and huge red and pink soft corals.
Out into the blue, pelagic fish hang like birds in the wind. We hit the next gully and have to fin hard to get into it. This site is a sensory overload of colour, size and shape. Inside the gullies and tunnels that separate the peaks, we see enough to fill a fish guide. After 20 minutes at 30m we have managed to complete the circuit - its adrenalin-pumping action all the way.
Back on the boat we down a couple of rum punches, and 10 minutes later our hearts are still racing. If there is one site you must visit in a lifetime its Sec Pate. Trust me, there is really no experience like it.
We carry out a second dive around Iles des Saintes, but after the mornings adventure, it really isn't worth discussing. Leave Sec Pate to the end of your trip.


FACTFILE
Martinique
Getting there: Air France and AOM fly daily direct from Paris.
Diving: Visitors recommended to use only dive centres that form the ACPPM (0596 687178). Its Carte Passe book of 10 diving vouchers, valid for all six centres, costs about 190, compared with 25 for a single dive. Hire car vital to travel between centres, as taxis are expensive.
Accommodation: All centres have links with variety of hotels and self-catering apartments.
Language: French.
Money: French Franc and US dollar.
When to go: Year round, but weather from August until October
unpredictable. Expect storms and possibly hurricanes.
Diving suitable for: Experienced divers, especially those tired of follow-my-leader packs at restrictive depths.
Cost: Seven-day package with flight and hotel on board-only basis£830 - Harlequin Worldwide Travel (01708 850330).

St Martin
Getting there: KLM, Air France and AOM fly daily via European hubs to airport on Dutch side.
Diving: Numerous centres, but try Blue Ocean in Baie Nettle (0590 878973) and Scuba Fun in Anse Marcel (0590 873613).
Accommodation: For hotels contact Tourist Office (0590 875723).
Languages: French, but English widely spoken.
When to go: See Martinique.
Money: French Franc and US dollar.
Diving suitable for: Beginners.
Cost: Depends on needs - dive-tour operators can arrange packages.

Anguilla
Getting there: As St Martin plus island-hopping flight or ferry.
Diving: Anguillan Divers can pick up for day trips from St Martin (264 497 4750).
Accommodation: Expensive, generally four or five-star - call Tourist Office (0171 937 7725).
Language: English.
Money: Eastern Caribbean and US dollars.
When to go: See Martinique but note many facilities closed or limited in hurricane season.
Diving suitable for: Those who want to break up a beach holiday.
Cost: Expensive, try to get all-inclusive package.

Guadeloupe
Getting there: Air France twice-daily from Paris, AOM daily.
Diving: Les Heures Saines in Malendure offers range of boats and English-speaking instructors. CMAS 2-star or above divers qualify for discounted dive package without guide (0590 988663, e-mail heusaine@outremer.com).
Accommodation: Recommended is Paradis Creole, family-run hotel with 10 rooms and 2 bungalows, excellent food.
Language: French.
Money: French Franc.
Best time to go: see Martinique.
Diving suitable for: All levels, but not for wreck fans.
Cost: Seven-day package at Paradis Creole including flights, breakfast and six dives with Les Heures Saines from£899. Contact Harlequin Worldwide Travel.