ENIGMATIC CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow sails his slowly sinking skiff past a rock arch. Suspended by a hangman’s noose in the middle are three long-gone corpses, sentenced to death for swashbuckling.
Tattered clothes dangle from their skeletal remains. Hanging alongside them, a painted wooden sign reads “Pirates Ye Be Warned”. A message for ancient buccaneers, or should it be taken as a warning for present-day visitors that there are scoundrels on this island? I was soon to find out!
I was visiting the picturesque volcanic Caribbean island of St Vincent, used as a base for cast and crew while filming Walt Disney’s blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean, the Curse of the Black Pearl.
This movie location was grounded in historical fact: St Vincent and the Grenadines had been no stranger to pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries.
On my very first day I had fallen prey to what seemed like modern-day piracy.
I had left my dive-bag outside the hotel’s dive centre and walked back to my room to collect my camera gear.
Ten minutes later I was back, but the bag and its contents were missing.
Hotel security staff combed the area, and a policeman arrived dressed in flamboyant T-shirt and Adidas jogging bottoms to take a statement.
His demeanour told me that this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, and that I was unlikely to be reunited with my much-loved and expensive dive-gear any time soon.
Undaunted, I decided not to let this incident ruin my trip. I would use rental kit and dive in a T-shirt and swimming shorts, although the thought of wearing ill-fitting full-foot budget fins offering snail-like propulsion filled me with trepidation.
Serenity Dive owner and PADI staff instructor Vaughn Martin was our skipper and guide for a six-day package of two morning dives a day on nearby sites around the western coast of the island.
Vaughn is a Vincentian of Dutch heritage. His large frame and Afro-Caribbean complexion seemed at odds with his piercing green eyes as we entered the warm water on the northern flank of the bay. A lone dwelling painted in rosy pastel hues stood on stilts at the tip of a lush green hillside above us, lending this site the name Pink House Reef.
The reef was spread out over a boulder-strewn seabed sloping gently away from the shore. The shallower depths were bathed in the morning sun as prism-like ripples of light skipped across the rocks and hard coral surfaces.
Clusters of almost fluorescent yellow tube sponges grew with impunity alongside deep crimson, purple, pink and green sponge formations. Pristine gorgonian fans provided shelter for some of the smaller reef inhabitants.
Bright red- and silver-flanked big-eye squirrelfish used the numerous pink barrel sponges for their daytime hang-outs, sharing them on occasion with large lionfish.
Vaughn had told us that the normal 30m visibility had been reduced by the previous day’s rain discharging from a small river into the bay – and there was me thinking that the 20m vis had already exceeded expectations.
This was one of the most prolific sponge gardens it’s been my pleasure to dive. The bonus was that it was teeming with small colourful fish, taking my mind off what had been a poor start to the day.
Back on the boat, I talked to Vaughn about the Caribbean’s invasive lionfish, prompted by seeing some dozen large specimens on the previous dive, looking well-fed, healthy and as bold as brass.
He told me that he felt it was his duty to remove as many as he could to help protect the native fish stocks from these beautiful but ferocious hunters.
Lionfish have no natural predators to fear in these waters, and the prey fish don’t recognise them as predators. “It’s win-win for the lionfish” said Vaughn. “Dive operators and conservationists throughout the Caribbean are trying to reduce numbers by spearing the fish and taking them home for the pot.
“Also, by feeding a few individuals to native species like moray eels, we hope they get a taste for the lionfish flesh and naturally prey on the aliens to redress the balance.” (see Alex Mustard’s Licence to Kill, February 2014)
Vaughn doesn’t normally hunt for lionfish when he has guests on board, but he accepted my request to demonstrate how it was done.
At our next dive-site he showed me his weapon of choice – a spear, home-made from a glass-fibre shaft with straightened barbed fish-hooks fixed to the end, a loop of surgical latex tubing providing the firing mechanism.
To contain the catch and provide protection from the fishes’ poisonous spines he had a large tub, made from a cut-down water-cooler bottle.
The lid had slots that radiated from the centre to create a lobster trap-type seal. Comically, the tub had been labelled “LCU” (Lionfish Containment Unit).
Layou Wall was our hunting ground. It wasn’t long before my buddy Stuart Barry found a large specimen hovering over a barrel sponge. Vaughn tensioned the latex and aimed the spear at the fish’s head – boom! It was over in a fraction of a second, the fish dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible before being safely deposited in the LCU.
It didn’t take long to fill the tub; the lionfish were prolific here, thriving in their new home. Back at the surface we found a local fisherman on a tiny raft, hook-and-line fishing over the reef to feed his family but seemingly having a lean day, with a meagre catch of two small wrasse. Vaughn offered him the contents of the LCU, which he accepted with a
gap-toothed smile.

THE WATERS AROUND ST VINCENT have been dubbed “Critter Capital of the Caribbean”, and I was keen to see if this was fact or hype on our second day out.
Orca Wall seems to promise encounters with large black-and-white marine mammals, but we were here to hunt its nooks and crannies for little creatures. The wall, like the previous day’s reefs, had prolific sponge growth interspersed with hard and soft corals.
Dense shoals of chromis hugged the contours, moving into open water en masse to feed on drifting plankton.
Curly tentacle anemones provided homes for tiny blue Pederson shrimps. Their cousins, the banded cleaner shrimps, advertised their services at stations set up among the sponges, and a white-mouthed moray lay relaxed and prone, ready for a wash-and-brush-up.
Juvenile angelfish displayed their black and yellow livery as sharptail eels hunted the reef for a meal.
Tiny blennies peered from holes in the coral, and stinging bearded fireworms crawled over gorgonian branches.
Vaughn signalled for me to join him as he gesticulated wildly at a scruffy-looking piece of yellow sponge.
I sauntered over to find that the sponge was in fact an impeccable little frogfish, so well camouflaged that I had trouble seeing it at first. Its front fins gripped the sponge tightly as it lay and waited patiently for us to move on.
In contrast to the vibrant reefs, our next destination at Petite Byahaut consisted of a shallow bay with fields of eelgrass growing on the sandy seabed. Sparse sponge and coral outcrops were dotted among the grass.
Our critter dives would continue here, with seahorses and more frogfish our target species. Divemaster and sharp-eyed guide Angela Picknell, resident ecologist at Serenity Dive, had joined us. She has an enviable reputation for finding the bizarre and wonderful populace of the local reefs.
It wasn’t long before Angela found a large seahorse hiding in the thick fronds of grass, its tail tightly wrapped around a sponge with the same colour and texture as its skin.
Secure in the thought that its camouflage rendered it invisible, it sat facing me with snout turned down, eyes glaring red as if angered by my intrusion.
Flying gurnards, slipper lobsters, damselfish, small shrimps and crabs completed the list. The critter claim seemed to be founded on fact.
The following day, a family from the UK joined us. On a cruise around the Caribbean islands, they had booked a snorkel trip with Serenity, and the youngest member, Leo, was bursting with excitement to get into the water.
Kitted out with a junior-sized mask and snorkel and a pair of Mothercare inflatable armbands the five-year-old was first in, his squeals of delight clearly audible through his snorkel as he saw the prolific marine environment laid out below him.
The journey back was filled with his questions: “What were those yellow things and why are there so many blue fish and are there sharks and will they eat me”? This little guy was going to grow into an ambassador for the marine environment, I thought.
No dive trip would be complete without a few wrecks thrown into the mix, so we headed south to the capital port of Kingstown.
Sitting upright on the seabed at around 20m, the remains of the Siemanstrand lie adjacent to the wreck of the tugboat she struck before they sank together more than 30 years ago. Both wrecks are intact and covered in prolific marine growth, the interiors accessible to suitably qualified and experienced divers.
A third wreck, an 18th century French frigate, sits a little deeper just off the harbour’s reef wall. Try as we might, we couldn’t find it, and had to be content to explore the more recent shipwrecks.

ST VINCENT IS THE LARGEST ISLAND in the country St Vincent & the Grenadines. It is volcanic, and its biggest volcano La Soufrière is still active, though it last erupted in 1979. This volcanic background gives rise to black-sand beaches and tree-covered coastal
basalt rock cliffs that climb from the sea.
Local towns and villages feature brightly coloured properties sitting partially on stilts on the steep mountainous green terrain, giving the whole island a spectacular and pretty appearance.
War between the native Carib Indians and French and English colonials in the 17th and 18th centuries saw the country constantly changing hands until 1969, when it became the last of the Windward Islands to gain independence.
We were staying in a luxury, detached villa at Buccament Bay Resort, where imported sand provides the only white beach on the island.
The tourist industry seems still to be in its infancy compared to nearby Barbados, Grenada and St Lucia, with few resorts or holiday hotels from which to choose.
As with other Caribbean islands the beaches are public, with the locals enjoying access for subsistence fishing. Over three consecutive evenings I saw fishermen casting their huge nets off the beach at Buccament Bay.
Their fishing practices don’t appear to be regulated, and Caribbean signature species such as grouper, eagle rays and turtles were conspicuous by their absence during our dives. It appears that most Vincentians have yet to realise the value of a live turtle in tourist dollars.
Whale sharks are a rarity in this part of the Caribbean. They don’t have the protection offered to their Florida and Gulf of Mexico relatives through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) but they are on the list of species under threat.
So it was extremely upsetting to see fishermen who had recently harpooned
a 5m adult dismember the huge dead fish with machetes in the surf-line of the resort’s adjacent beach.
We witnessed the grisly scene as we were leaving for our return home, by which time I had packed my camera gear, but it was a bloody spectacle that I’ll never forget.
The title of this piece sums up this trip. It was filled with good diving, the theft of my dive gear by bad people and ugly scenes of bloody slaughter on the beach.
St Vincent! It has it all, but some of it isn’t for the faint of heart.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Nigel Wade travelled from London Gatwick with British Airways to Barbados and transferred to Kingstown, St Vincent with Liat Airline, www.britishairways.com, www.liatairline.com
Diving & ACCOMMODATION Serenity Dive, www.serenitydive.net, has a satellite base at Buccament Bay Resort, www.buccamentbay.com
WHEN TO GO Year round, although July to October is the wet season and prone to tropical storms. A high-factor sunscreen is essential, as is mosquito repellant in the wet months.
CURRENCY Eastern Caribbean Dollars (ECD). US Dollars and credit cards are widely accepted.
PRICES BA return prices to Barbados from £696 and Liat inter-island from US $270. Seven night all-inclusive packages at Buccament Bay Resort from £1399pp including ground transfers. Serenity Dive offers a two-tank dive for US $140 or a 10-dive package for $625, nitrox costs extra.
VISITOR INFORMATION www.discoversvg.com