Preparing
Preparing to dive in the marine reserve overshadowed by the Pitons.


THE HAWKSBILL TURTLE looked casual enough as it departed, but it was moving deceptively fast through the blue - certainly faster than my clumsy fingers could sort out my focus and lighting. As I realised that I was being led down the steep reef slope, not a particularly good idea this late in the dive, I pulled away to see the other divers some way off. Some of them were signalling.
I thought they were concerned that I had been about to make a reckless descent - as if! - but they were actually trying to point out the much larger turtle that, seconds before, had been at my feet. They said later that, Mr Magoo-like, it had seemed no more aware of my existence than I was of it, and a shell-to-fin collision had been averted by centimetres.
One of the outstanding features of the diving off the mid-west coast of St Lucia is that turtles seemed to turn up on every other dive, at least while I was there in May, at the end of the tourist high season. These were pleasantly relaxed turtles, too, as if aware that here in the National Marine Park their worst problem would be over-eager photographers.
The following day, for example, we came upon another hawksbill apparently enjoying a siesta in a crack in the reef and I had plenty of time to get close and make an addition to my point-and-shoot collection. My subject gradually became aware of my looming presence but there was no sign of panic - it simply turned its head, manoeuvred slowly out of the hole and ambled away in search of some privacy.
And in case youre wondering, your average marine turtle can stay under water for up to 45 minutes, though the bigger green, also found in St Lucia, can manage up to five hours submerged.
Turtles visit St Lucias beaches every March to lay their eggs, flippering onto dry land with but one thought in mind, and oblivious of any holidaymakers who might be lying in their way.
In August, hatchlings heading for the waterline in their thousands are a popular attraction for visitors.
St Lucia was getting back to normal after the cricket World Cup, cab-drivers still smiling about Freddie Flintoffs early-morning pedalo adventures there.
They also smile at the reaction of passengers to their first sight of Jalousie Plantation, because theyve seen it all before.
Forgive me for employing a criminally over-used word, but the setting for the plantation is, I fear, stunning, especially when first seen in a glowing sunset. The celebrated west-coast resort nestles in a steep rainforested valley set between the two soaring mountain peaks known as the Pitons.
We had seen these lifted-and-separated natural wonders from the plane, and had spent 45 minutes driving back towards them along twisty roads from the airport in the south (the round-the-coast helicopter option favoured by some guests takes just 10 minutes).
Cab-drivers get through brake-linings fast in St Lucia. As we descended to sea level, the Pitons reared above us and I could appreciate why this had been named a World Heritage Site. Jalousie, named after the far-from-sweet rivalry between two brothers in the sugar business centuries ago, is based around an imposing colonial mansion and consists of clusters of self-contained villas with or without plunge pools, and everything you might need after a day spent in the sea.
You can walk to the mansion, the dive centre, the leisure centre or the various restaurants and bars, but a 24-hour shuttle system ensures that you dont have to unless you want to.
The staff, of whom there are hundreds, are consistently friendly and efficient, and their bonhomie seems to be absorbed by the guests. Certainly the dive day-boat was always friendly and fun to be on.
Jalousie Dive Centre is small compared with Scuba St Lucia up the coast - it has one boat and eight staff - but there are plans to enlarge it and move it from the north to the south of the bay. Some of the best diving on St Lucia is reckoned to be in the Soufriere marine reserve that stretches north to the Canaries and Anse Le Raye and takes in the famous Anse Chastenet, though this is reportedly not as good as it was.
Divers come from the popular northern resort areas to dive here, and there is also good scope for training on the easy shore dives, though the seabed shelves sharply to the drop-off.
There would also be scope for divers to scare off some amazing wildlife close to shore, however. We were about to go back out for a second boat-dive one morning when dive centre manager Vitus mentioned that he had seen a number of seahorses and a pink frogfish on a training shore-dive that morning.
We voted unanimously to take a look and found no fewer than four orange and black seahorses at about 8m, though the frogfish must have hopped off.
The seabed here consists of sand and red algae-covered rocks, with some coral and sponge interest as we gradually moved deeper, though a far cry from the colourful reefs we had been enjoying on our boat-dives.
The shore environment was however rich in life for anyone with time to look closely. I saw a number of flying gurnards here, fanning out their extravagant ultra-violet-tipped wings, as well as yellow-spotted snake eels and lizardfish. Smaller attractions included an array of colourful gobies and blennies, nudibranchs and darting juvenile drums.
This was Caribbean muck-diving enjoyable in its unexpectedness, though bigger players included a bloated scorpionfish wedged into a crevice and a big lone barracuda, contrasting with the dense shoals of smaller specimens we had been seeing all week.
Boat rides north or south rarely lasted more than five or 10 minutes, because Jalousie Plantation is right in the centre of the marine park. Diving on the fringing reef slopes and off the walls was never less than enjoyable. Usually it took the form of a gentle drift, though currents could be unpredictable at places such as Grand Caille, with sudden underwater gusts requiring a dash for shelter, though nothing to cause concern.
Supermans Flight below Petit Piton (Christopher Reeve was once filmed here collecting a rare orchid for Lois Lane for Superman 2) was reportedly the fastest drift. And so it was, but it was still the sort where you can slow down any time you want to take in the splendour of the volcanic rock wall.
The reefs are extremely colourful, much of that thanks to a thriving sponge community, which has done a great decorating job and not been afraid to use bold colour schemes. There were a few signs of the coral diseases found all over the Caribbean these days, but as one American diver put it to another on the boat (guests were fairly evenly split between British and American): This is scuba-diving the way it used to be! His compatriate could only agree.
Yellow tubes and big pink barrel sponges - always worth a look to see what has slipped inside - vied for space with gorgonians and emerald sea-whips. Big old crabs and bright red lobsters with candy-striped legs lurked in many a crevice, while spidery yellowline arrow-crabs were a common sight.
You expect to see certain fish on Caribbean reefs but different destinations throw up their signature species. Here it was good-sized trumpetfish, doctor and surgeonfish (no nurse sharks to be seen, unfortunately, or wed have the NHS); blue-spotted flounders, long-spined squirrelfish with their bright red and orange markings, big brown porcupinefish and tiny green and speckled moray eels.
Also common were the feisty blue and yellow damselfish that dart about to scare divers off and arent afraid to nip your hand if you linger too long on their territory, as I discovered.
We dived the wreck of the Lesleen M, a 50m freighter sunk off Anse la Raye in 1986 as a diving attraction, which indeed it is. It lies upright in around 20m, is well encrusted in sponges, corals and hydroids and the wheelhouse explodes with red clouds of cardinalfish.
Morays can be seen free-swimming as you explore the hull, then follow the hold through to the engine-room and up the gangway to follow the wheelhouse round - but be careful where you put your fins, to avoid dislodging all that natural growth.
My only disappointment was that a projected dive towards the end of my week, to a deeper freighter wreck called the Waiwinette in an area of stronger currents to the south, had to be cancelled when some new divers booked on board that day. Regular visitors assure me its well worth doing if you find yourself in the vicinity.
Dive-boat departures were very Caribbean in their nature, by which I mean flexible and relaxed, but, hey, we had no pressing appointments.
At the same time the centre is less regimented for experienced divers than is often the case, and dive guides like our regular, Miguel, really knew their way around the reef and were finding new sites all the time - Migs Reef, where I nearly collided with that turtle, was a particular favourite.
The only sour note for me was to see fishermen spreading their nets from a boat just off the dive-boat jetty, next to snorkellers exploring the northern side of the bay. They would drag their catch in on the shore, and were allowed to do this a couple of times a week in the marine reserve.
As they were after sardines in mid-water there was nothing particularly unsustainable about this, but you had to hope that all the seahorses, flying gurnards etc were safely below net-level.
Should a serious diving accident occur on St Lucia, I was told, it would be necessary to fly the 90 miles to Barbados, where the nearest hyperbaric chamber is situated.
Then one day an American woman called Barbara joined us on the dive-boat, clearly a resident of the island and, it turned out, a big wheel in real-estate and a recent convert to diving.
It was only the next day that I learnt that she and her sister Patricia had just that week pledged US $200,000 to build a recompression facility at a hospital in St Lucias capital Castries. The sisters surname is Perfect, which seemed appropriate, and the facility should be in place by the time you read this.
There is no pressing need to leave the plantation during your stay. Well worth sampling is the rare opportunity to stand inside the crater of a volcano at the top of the valley, smoke issuing from the ground and black water bubbling in pools. Go if you can stomach the rich sulphurous aroma. A number of St Lucians can, because there is actually a settlement inside the caldera, relying on the fact that the Caribbeans volcanic islands are linked to provide early warning of an eruption. Now thats living on the edge.
There are also waterfalls close by, and, in the bay to the north, the town of Soufriere offers some limited shopping opportunities and alternative restaurants. The sloop Unicorn (Jack Sparrows Black Pearl in the movie) can often be found at the jetty, taking holidaymakers on pleasure trips under the Jolly Roger flag.
Another option for deco day would be a whale-watching boat-trip (100% success rate claimed) or, if you still have the energy, a trek up the Gros Piton trail to the 800m summit.

Moving
Moving up the wall towards the end of a dive, Brits Jeff and Caroline Murten are serial returnees.
Jalousie
Jalousie Dive Centre.
A
A goldentail moray eel.
A
A waking turtle seeks some privacy.
Longspine
Longspine squirrelfish.
A
A spiny lobster.
Crab
Crab and blackbar soldierfish.
The
The Unicorn, best known from the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, moored in Soufriere.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Steve Weinman flew out with BA via Antigua and back direct with Virgin Air.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Jalousie Plantation Resort (www.jalousieplantation.com,
0870 389 1931)
WHEN TO GO: Any time outside hurricane season (late summer/early autumn), especially December-April, is good.
MONEY: Eastern Caribbean dollar or US dollar.
COSTS: Long-haul specialist Kuoni Travel (01306 747 008, www.kuoni.co.uk) offers tailor-made Caribbean holidays, including seven nights at Jalousie Plantation from £1123. This includes flights with BA, transfers and Cottage room (two sharing). Meals are quite costly if bought separately. A 10-dive package is US $347 plus $4 daily marine park fee.
FURTHER INFORMATION: 80870 900 7697, www.stlucia.org