Billy
Billy Lawrence heads down to Solomons Reef, which he is working hard to preserve.


I HAVEN'T MET MR NIGEL LAWRENCE, manager of Dominica's only marine reserve, but I do know that he guards his realm closely.
So closely, in fact, that on my recent whirlwind tour of the Caribbeans nature island, organised by a tourist board keen to draw more British divers, he decreed late on that DIVER readers should not be privy to the wonders of Soufriere Scotts Head Marine Reserve.
I guess keeping divers out altogether is one way of safeguarding reefs, but I suspect it was local politics that motivated Mr Lawrence when he withdrew his domain from my itinerary. I don't bounce on coral that much.
Still, who needs Nigel Lawrence, when we have Billy Lawrence (no relation), kayak king of diving in the south-west of this gem of a Windward island, and something of a diving eco-activist in his own right.
Just south of Billy's new dive centre Al Diving, near Dominicas capital Roseau, is an unprepossessing quarry where tarrish, a volcanic residue used in construction, is excavated by a company called CSS.
At the foot of the tarrish cliffs is the main road, then some boulders and, a little way out to sea, Solomons Reef.
Al Diving is fond of visiting this site when not taking guests further south to the marine reserve.
When Billy discovered that the quarry manager was a snorkeller, he invited him to come diving with him, and showed him what a sweet coral reef lay precariously on his doorstep. The manager was impressed enough to agree to help preserve it. Whats more, according to Billy, the filtration on the excavation process had actually reduced the amount of damaging run-off that would occur naturally at the site.
Time will tell if his intervention has succeeded.
On a warm, calm day, paddling gently along the coastline to Solomons Reef in kayaks saves on fuel and is certainly preferable to taking out the boat (which in any case had gone off to the other Mr Lawrences reserve).
OK, we could have reached the site by road, but wheres the fun in that
Beaching our kayaks, Billy and I kitted up in the swell, which was easier than it would have been if wed stayed on the craft, and dropped onto the reef.
The at first unpromising volcanic rock soon gave way to coral structures and Dominicas usual impressive array of colourful sponges, in the shape of huge baskets, barrels and yellow tubes.
I had already seen more beautiful reefs in the north, and this shallow one had its share of storm damage, but it was appealingly rich in life. We immediately found a good-sized pink seahorse, tail wrapped around a frond and twisting, as seahorses do, as if to avoid offering us that prized profile.
Then it was on to a giant red basket sponge that proved to be a housing estate sprouting more antennae than I had seen in a long time. They belonged to cleaner shrimps, banded and spotted, waving their candy-striped claws, as well as Pedersons shrimps, with their long electric-blue bodies.
There were many moray eels, honeycomb and speckled, around the reef, and we found a hawksbill turtle nestled contentedly in a crevice. We also saw one or two fish traps, which you do find around the island, though they were barely occupied.
It would be tragic if Solomons Reef should be lost, but Billy is optimistic about its future, and believes that the way to engage islanders in protecting their heritage is to keep talking to them.
I later checked out Al Divings house reef and that too was enjoyable, a forest of gorgonians and sponges and a lot of fish, particularly shoals of snapper.
I saw morays and long-spined squirrelfish, big scorpionfish and lizardfish and, out in the sand, goatfish and fields of garden eels.

THIS WAS THE LAST OF MY three days diving in Dominica, making up just half of a two-island trip.
I had started at Cabrits, the only dive centre in the north. Its run by Peter and Helen Hepp, who revel in the quality of reefs on their doorstep. Peter is from the States but Helen is English, so she serves tea and biscuits to bemused American divers during surface intervals (tea is kinda coffee though, huh, I heard one say).
Cabrits normally runs three boats, but our group that day needed only one. On our way out we picked up four Brits who had chartered a yacht to explore the region, a great option for dive groups who want to be independent.
We dived Tucri and Sharks Mouth (there are few sharks around Dominica - the name comes from an oddly shaped barrel sponge no one can identify now).
These were two of the reef sites that rest on a gentle shelf, whereas most of this mountainous island plunges straight into the depths. I found them outstandingly colourful coralscapes, even by Caribbean standards, though as is often the case the keynotes are provided as much by sponges as by the hard and soft corals themselves.
Tucri also boasted some pleasant swimthroughs full of blackbar soldierfish and other bigeyes. Again, I saw scorpionfish and moray eels at this location, along with a southern sting ray and clouds of small reef fish.
On these and other sites, whirling pairs of spotted drums, the small black and white fish with hyper-extended dorsal fin and tail, also attract the attention of divers.
Then, midway down the western, diveable coast, I had stopped off at the Sunset Bay Club. This may well be as close as Dominica gets to an international-style resort, but it has nice homely touches and at the time was full of French families.
Sunset Divers was not busy, but had brought in for the day freelance guide, underwater photographer and former marine reserve manager Arun Izzy Madisetti. You may have dived with him in Dorothea Quarry in Wales if you were around at the dawn of UK technical diving.
Izzy, his wife and I, along with a diver from Guadaloupe, had the boat to ourselves. We headed out to Whale Shark Point (a small whale shark passed through once, long ago), but when we rolled into the water the current whipped us sternwards and the site was declared too wild to dive.
We headed instead for Maggies Reef, and it was a lot of fun, ribs of coral running out into the sand to form wide grooves containing southern sting rays and much else besides.
Again, seahorses were in residence. We found a plump red specimen early on, more Thelwell pony than sleek steed, along with big red and white scorpionfish and those unruffled red and green trumpetfish that hang at an oblique angle in the water, and which I always enjoy watching.
Filefish buzzed importantly around the big sponge outcrops.
Towards the end of the dive, Izzy beckoned me over. I thought at first that he wanted me to pose, as I had earlier behind some of Dominicas typical yellow and gold crinoids, but he was pointing. I noticed a little speckled moray eel, wondered why Izzy was quite so excited about it, but got in close to get some shots anyway.
The fact that I took so long to cotton on that it was a grey seahorse he had been pointing out gave rise, I felt, to undue merriment back at the surface.
OK, so much for my powers of observation - Id never make a dive guide in Lembeh Strait. That afternoon, I would even have trouble spotting a sperm whale.

THE TOURIST BOARD WAS DETERMINED that I should experience every aspect of the Nature Isle in my up time, and to that end I set off on Dive Dominicas boat, which goes whale-watching twice
a week with a crew who know what theyre about. The weather was turning, and a muddy rainbow hung under grey clouds over Roseau.
A French warship in port seemed to be emitting signals that interfered with our echo-sounder, and it was a long time before we got on a whales trail, the only diversion being the skippers offer to let us listen to the beast on his headphones.
I wished I had gone diving.
Wake me when the whale turns up, I was thinking. Finally the spotter gave a cry, the skipper jumped up and spun the wheel to turn the boat into the dazzling late sun, and we were instantly at fever pitch. We rushed to the bow and squinted into the glare.
People were shouting and pointing in different directions, and I would like to say that I was able to distinguish a sperm whales back from the rolling waves, but I cant swear to it. It seemed that a mother and calf had gone into a shallow dive (no upturned tails - which even I couldnt have missed), which meant they should reappear within 45 minutes.
We drifted for an hour or so until, when we were halfway to Martinique and about to give up, a pod of 100 or so pilot whales rewarded our dedication by letting us see their dorsal fins. They were pretty exciting fins, but a flying fish would have thrilled us by then.
Just as well we got some action, because the cooling system on one of the two engines failed soon afterwards.
We limped home, arriving five and a half hours after departure and too late for the night dive. Still, all the whale-watchers had bonded well, fuelled by a few moments of adrenalin and a fair amount of rum punch.

WHALE-WATCHING WAS NOT my only off-gassing activity, and at times I feared the sideshows would take over, but Dominica has so many natural attractions, I could understand the eagerness to show them off.
I was paddled up the Indian River, where Johnny Depp had recently played at pirates, and visited Fort Shirley garrison. I was taken to Scotts Head and allowed to gaze upon the hallowed marine reserve and the famous Champagne snorkel/dive spot where hot water bubbles up through the seabed (still, I can have a Jacuzzi any time).
We went into the mountains, where folk like to hike through the rainforest to places like Boiling Lake, and saw Trafalgar Falls and the bubbling sulphur springs and streams at Wotten Waven.
Best of all, and recommended for deco day, was Wacky Rollers Adventure Park (www.wackyrollers.com), halfway up the east coast. I was encouraged to zip-wire high above the forest and the Layou river, a sort of aerial assault course, before tubing down the river with its mild rapids to the coast. This popular site makes excellent use of the islands natural assets.
The 290sq miles of Dominica is so verdant, sprouting fruit trees of every description, that its hard to believe so much of this vegetation sprang up only since the devastating Hurricane David of 1979. We may think of hurricanes in terms of death and damage to property, but it only took Deans passing last summer to devastate Dominicas crops.
Which is why the island needs tourism, yet it has fewer than 900 rooms and 30% occupancy. Whats more, older Dominicans are rightly concerned not to compromise their homespun culture.
But times are already changing, what with satellite TV, KFC determined to import fast-food culture after bombing first time round, a falling birth-rate and youngsters leaving the island.
Dominica wont be inundated with tourists until a longer runway is built at Melville Hall airport - even landing in a little Dash 8 there counts as one of the islands adrenalin activities. But for divers and families who prefer activities to lying on golden sand (there is none), this is a welcoming island to be savoured while the goings good.
No doubt Dominicans can achieve a practical level of tourism without sacrificing what makes the island so good, if they all pull together. Good luck with that, Mr Lawrence.

Moray
Moray eel.
One
One of the many cleaner shrimps living in a barrel sponge on Solomons Reef.
Diver
Diver off a typically colourful wall.
Dominica
Dominicas interior is unremittingly green - this is the view towards Trafalgar Falls.
Turtle
Turtle at Solomons Reef
Seahorse
Seahorse at Maggies Reef.
Big
Big barrel sponges abound in Dominica.
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly from the UK with BA to Antigua, connecting to a LIAT inter-island flight. With no agreement between the airlines, you will have to recheck your luggage. Departure tax is around 11.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: North-west - Cabrits Dive Centre, www.cabritsdive.com. Heavens Best Guesthouse www.heavensbestguesthouse.com. Mid-west - Sunset Bay Club & Seaside Dive Resort, www.sunsetbayclub.com. South-west - Al Diving, 001 767 440 3483. Anchorage Hotel & Dive Centre has seaview rooms, friendly service and a complete whale skeleton by the bar, www.anchoragehotel.dm.
RESTAURANTS: Iguana Café near Cabrits (Rastafarian food), 001 767 277 0815. Bambuz Bar & Restaurant near Roseau, 001 767 440 4721.
WHEN TO GO: November to July to avoid the hurricane season. February-May are the driest months, water temperature 24-28°C. 2008 sees the 15th anniversary of Dominicas annual Dive Fest, from 11-20 July.
MONEY: US or Eastern Caribbean Dollar (US $1 = EC $2.70), credit cards.
PRICES: Dive Worldwide offers Dominica packages from 1189 per person, 0845 130 6980, www.diveworldwide.com. The price includes flights, transfers, seven nights B&B accommodation at Fort Young Hotel in Roseau and two boat dives a day for five days. A similar deal but staying at the Anchorage Hotel starts from 1330.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Discover Dominica Authority, www.discoverdominica.com