BIFF! POW! BAM! Holy Nitrox! It’s the caped crusader, Batfish! My quest to find, outlined in a bright beam of light, the elusive and rare walking batfish was what had brought me to Dominica.
Running the gauntlet through the emerald-green mountain ridges, wings seemingly mere metres from either side, the small aircraft dived towards the runway.
Sandwiched between Martinique and Guadaloupe in the Windward Isles, Dominica is the epitome of old-time Caribbean islands. Reminiscent of St Lucia 15-20 years ago, it is volcanic in origin and fringed by either black sand or stony beaches. What it lacks in white beaches, it more than makes up for in underwater life.
This environment promises macro heaven, as well as interesting rock formations, healthy soft and hard corals, and plentiful sponges and marine life.
A string of minibus taxis vied for my business as I left the airport. Sharing one with two other people (they all run on a share-only basis), we headed towards Roseau.
I had been told that the journey to the south-west of the island should take 45 minutes, but the main road was being rebuilt (it had been closed for a year, and was likely to stay closed for another year), so we had to take the beautiful coastal route, which took twice as long.
Castle Comfort is a small dive lodge that faces the Caribbean sea. I was shown the Dive Dominica centre even before being shown my room. This is going to be good, I thought, they know where my priorities lie!
In fact the small dive centre was only steps from every room, and few more steps from its own pier, where waited four well-set-up dive boats ranging from a 17.5m power catamaran capable of taking 97 passengers, to a 9m diesel-powered sedan for 10.
The pier is also the setting for a great shore dive, with easy access from steps by the shore, or a ladder at its far end. First, however, I had arranged to do a two-tank boat-dive, starting at 8.30 the next morning.
There were lots of helpful staff around. Brad, my dive-guide, set up my equipment on the boat and made sure I had my own camera-bucket.
We headed out over flat-calm seas, balmy blue skies making the green island sparkle like a jewel. The six divers on a boat meant for 20 felt very spoilt.
Swiss Cheese lies at the point where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic and, as its name implied, promised swim­throughs and caves. There was no current or surge, and a short swim along a colourful, healthy reef brought us to a 40m-long swimthrough passing from one side of the reef to the other.
It was packed with soft corals and schools of bigeyes, and lobsters occupied nooks and crannies wherever I looked.
We filed through one by one. Further along the wall a smaller swimthrough, equally full of life, offered a more challenging passage, requiring us to duck down under branching coral to enter a hole filled with soldierfish, before squeezing out the other side.

ANOTHER DIVE FOLLOWED at Condo, where I was surprised to see white-sand spits among the coral boulders, teeming with life among the soft corals, including many crabs, shrimps and other critters.
That afternoon I began my quest to find batfish. Dive Dominica allows you to shore-dive at any time during the day or night, just by informing the reception desk that you’re going diving, and putting up a dive flag at the end of the pier. It has no issues about diving solo, unlike other places in the Caribbean. Perfect for an underwater photographer!
I had been told that walking batfish could be seen in a general area stretching 100m along from the pier and about 200m out. This didn’t seem to be too big an area to search at the surface; under water, it was a different matter.
I had also been told that these batfish live as deep as 300m, coming up to shallower waters only occasionally at night.
Walking Batfish belong to the Ogcocephalidae family, related to anglerfish, and are found in warm and temperate seas. They have broad flat heads, slim bodies and are covered in hard lumps and spines. Some species have upturned snouts, and they have a lure attached to the end of an elongated rostrum. Most species have thick red lips.
These fish can grow to around 36cm, but they are poor swimmers. They usually walk along the seabed on their thickened, arm-like pectoral fins, which they use for balance, and pelvic fins.
The fins are also used to burrow into the sand to cover their bodies when they need to camouflage themselves.

I KNEW THAT SPOTTING these weird-looking creatures would be difficult but the task looked impossible when I entered the water from the end of the pier. The black-sand bottom was dotted with boulders, hard and soft corals, sponges, seafans, eelgrass and assorted relics from long-ago hurricanes. Trying to peer between all of this to find something known as a camouflage specialist seemed doomed to failure.
I scurried around the dive site, observing king-spotted snake-eels buried in the sand with only their eyes and the tips of their snouts visible. There would be another 2m of eel buried in the sand.
Electric rays hovered over the seabed in search of food. All manner of crustaceans, tiny cleaner shrimps, blennies, juvenile fish and morays were in evidence. This was one tough assignment.
After using all but 10 bar of my air, I had to come up disappointed. Batfish, that master of disguise, had eluded me.
Over the next couple of days I dived from the boat every morning, at such sites as Mountain Top, around the tip of a pinnacle at 20m or so.
Mountain Top is full of life and that includes, unfortunately, the bane of the Caribbean – Pacific lionfish.
On one dive alone guides Brad and Imran speared and removed 21 lionfish, part of a continuing campaign to cull this invasive creature.
L’Abiss was a macro dive starring tiny blennies, shrimps, flamingo tongues, nudibranchs and crabs – though the site, with its white-sand bottom, masses of corals and schools of fish would also work in wide-angle. Dangleberry Knot and Witches Hat, full of sand-spits and cut-throughs, again swelled with life, including large turtles.
And one of my favourite dives was Champagne Reef, famous for hot freshwater spring jets spurting through the sand in tiny bubbles from the island’s active volcano.
Unusual creatures attracted to the site included tiny pipefish, snake and garden-eels, hundreds of arrow crabs, octopuses, fireworms, electric rays and a beautiful orange longsnout seahorse. I also found two flying gurnards resting on the sand, one male and one female.

IN THE AFTERNOONS, I would return to Castle Comfort to continue my batfish quest. Four more shore dives saw many more encounters with the varied marine life found that first day, but the wily batfish remained concealed.
I felt that a break from routine might help. Whale-watching trips are offered year-round in Dominica, because female sperm whales call the island home and 21 other species of whale and dolphin have been observed.
Barana can carry 50 passengers, so with only eight of us whale-watchers on board it proved a very comfortable and spacious vessel on which to spend five hours at sea, alternating between peering into the distance while cruising about or listening to the underwater microphone for whale song.
We avoided the rainstorms pelting the island six or seven miles back.
Two hours into our cruise, one of the crew shouted: “Whale!” Ahead of us was a pod of around 50 pilot whales, dipping and rising in the slight swell, and occasionally spy-hopping and swimming under the boat.
We followed them for 90 minutes. Halfway through that period, they were joined by a pod of Fraser dolphins, with their distinctive raccoon-like masks and pink bellies.
On my penultimate day, I asked Daniel, who with his sister Ari owns and operates Castle Comfort Lodge, to arrange for someone to help me look for the walking batfish.
He appointed Brendon, who proved to be the perfect sidekick!
Our game-plan was to ignore all diversions and focus on seeking the batfish’s lair. People in the waterside restaurant and bar later told me that our lights appeared to be conducting some crazy spasmodic dance as we darted around scanning the seabed.
After 35 minutes of intense concentration, I saw Brendon’s torch going crazy. Holy Red Lips – I couldn’t believe my eyes!

KNOWN AS ONE OF THE UGLIEST and weirdest creatures in the ocean, to me the sight of that long ornate proboscis and plump rosy lips made me want to kiss them. What an amazing sight, my nemesis squatting in a sandy clearing at 20m, studying me curiously as I took its picture. It didn’t move, just followed me with its eyes.
After several minutes I bade farewell to the batfish, and swam slowly up the sloping bottom towards my safety-stop depth, happy and contented that, finally, I had found what I came for.
Slowly swinging my torch from side to side in a lazy arc, after my frenetic search, I enjoyed a gentle look around.
Then, at 8m, I stopped in my tracks. There below my torch-beam, just under the dock, nose to nose, sat a male and a female batfish. Looking for all the world like star-crossed lovers on a date, staring into each other’s eyes, it was very nearly the cutest thing I have ever seen.
A few shots later, not wanting to be a gooseberry for too long, I left them to their romantic night together.
On my final evening two of the other guests, Martin from Hampshire and Jeff from New York, asked me to lead them on a shore dive so that they too could see walking batfish. After my previous failed attempts, I didn’t hold out much hope of seeing any, and told them as much, but I agreed to go with them anyway.
Following a similar pattern, we scanned frantically with our torch-beams, like the searchlight on top of Gotham City Hall.
Almost at the end of our dive, Jeff suddenly swirled his light round and round. There, on the bottom, sat one lonely walking batfish. Success!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE The airport is too small for international airlines, so flights from the UK go to Antigua or Barbados, with an airline such as LIAT completing the journey.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Dive Dominica, www.divedominica.com. Castle Comfort Dive Lodge, www.castlecomfortdivelodge.com
WHEN TO GO Air temperatures range from 28-32°C year-round, water 24-26°C. Hurricane season is between June and October. It can rain at any time on this mountainous island, although coastal areas are much drier.
MONEY Eastern Caribbean dollar.
PRICES Diving and accommodation packages start at £750 for seven nights’ B&B, five days’ diving and unlimited shore dives. Expect flights to cost from around £700.
FURTHER INFORMATION www.dominica.dm