THE PRECIPITOUS WESTERN WALLS of the Piton mountains vanished beneath the surface of the warm Caribbean ocean. Their crests rose majestically towards a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds as we explored below the waves in the shadow of their peaks.
We discovered a seabed adorned with huge volcanic boulders long since laid to rest after their birth in fiery cauldrons of molten lava, and a brief but violent journey down steep slopes before crashing spectacularly through the interface between air and water. Their once-polished hard granite was now softened with multi-coloured sponges, coral and algal growth.
Small, bright purple patches stuck neatly onto some of the rock faces gave away the presence of eggs laid, and now robustly protected, by valiant parent sergeant-major damselfish. These would bravely confront anything that dared to come close, regardless of size or species.
Dense schools of silver-flanked chromis weaved their way above and through the maze of valleys, tunnels and overhangs as we tried in vain to follow them on their daily quest for life-giving plankton washed up from the depths.
The current was moderate as the tide picked up, carrying us along effortlessly and allowing us to drift gently between slackwater eddies offered by the big rock clusters. The exposure to the current and the shooting of scenes for the movie Superman II gives this dive-site the unimaginative but apt name of Superman’s Flight.
Bright violet vase sponges came in and out of view as we flew past; they glowed with an almost iridescent sheen as the dappled sunlight from the surface struck their sides.
The reef was also littered with big sponge formations in bright orange, red and yellow hues, along with dark red gorgonian fans, creating a kaleidoscopic colour pallet to assault our senses. The orange sponges seemed to glow and their form made it appear that red-hot lava was still oozing from beneath the Earth’s crust.
It was the first time I had dived these clear blue waters since a family holiday back in 2004. Images burnt into my mind reappeared as if from the day before, and the sight of Petit Piton towering above as we surfaced made me feel as if I had time-warped, the underwater excursions of today and yesteryear blending into one.
I had joined a group of British and American divers on a Scuba Place trip visiting the island of St Lucia in the eastern Caribbean Sea, on the boundary with the Atlantic Ocean.
St Lucia is one of the Windward Islands that form the Lesser Antilles, situated just north-west of Barbados and north of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
It is green, lush and mountainous, its highest peak at around 950m being the inland Mt Gimie, but it’s the two sharp-tipped mountains on the west coast that have become St Lucia’s iconic landmarks. Gross Piton and Petit Piton rise to 771m and 743m above sea level respectively and are linked at their base by the Piton Mitan Ridge.
In 1660 the French, the first European settlers, named the main towns, ridges, mountains and many bays and called the island Sainte-Lucie after the patron saint of Syracuse, martyred in 310AD.
Like most of the Windward Islands, sovereignty was fiercely contested between the British and French colonialists. St Lucia changed hands no fewer than 14 times until in 1814 the British took definitive control.
As with neighbouring islands, pirate ships took advantage of the preoccupied nations fighting each other and slipped unseen into hidden bays and inlets, using them as a safe berth to hide or trade their ill-gotten treasures.
In 1979 St Lucia became an independent Commonwealth state, retaining its associations with the UK.
Dawn Shewan is Operations Manager at Dive Saint Lucia, a recently opened PADI 5* Instructor Development Centre located in the marina at Rodney Bay in the north-west of the island.
A mad-keen diver, she jumped at the chance to buddy with me for a week of exploration of west-coast dive-sites.
Our second dive of the day was at Coral Gardens. There must be hundreds of sites of that name around the world, some living up to their designation, others in need of reporting to trading standards.
This one delivered the goods. Stretching the length of Gross Piton, it is the island’s longest reef. Its underwater topography is typical of the boulder-strewn foundations of the mountains.
A small forest of sea plumes lying between rock outcrops and sponge-covered bommies caught my eye. It seemed the perfect place to hunt the elusive critters and juvenile fish for which this area is renowned.
Dawn and I made our way under the tall waving fronds, joined by the ever-present schools of chromis along with creole wrasse and bold two-tone damsels.
A pair of small barrel sponges gave refuge to a curly tentacle anemone. Tiny transparent Pederson’s cleaner shrimps with bright blue-and-white-spotted livery wiggled majestically among the poisonous appendages advertising their commensal trade to passing fish.
They shared their home with two large yellow-striped arrow crabs, their rangy legs making them look more like big garden spiders than the crustaceans they are as they sat sifting particles with their tiny claws.
Dozens more purple egg patches could be seen dotted around the rocks. This looked to be a key nursery for the sergeant-majors, but it was a hunting ground too. We looked on in horror as one doting parent became preoccupied fending off a single damselfish, only to have its unhatched young quickly ravaged by the rest of the marauding gang.
Was this an organised raiding party, or just a chance encounter? We pondered the question as the cannibalistic carnage ended suddenly, and the shocked parent fish woefully inspected the damage.
Like Superman’s Flight, this reef seemed to be in excellent health, with large swathes of soft and hard corals along with big intact gorgonian fans decorating the real estate between the prolific clusters of sponge. I wasn’t surprised to hear that this is one of the sites most visited by divers in St Lucia. What did astonish me was that unlike other popular reefs it didn’t appear to have suffered from the increased diver activity.

OUR NEXT DAY’S DIVING started on the oddly named wreck of the Lesleen M. The ship’s owner Pappy Mac had apparently selected a letter from each of the names of his grandchildren to arrive at “Lesleen”, and the single “M” from the family surname, McQuilkin.
The remains of this 50m freighter lie upright on a sandy seabed at a maximum depth of 20m, the deck elevated to just 10m. It was sunk in 1986 as part of an artificial reef project by the fisheries department, so was prepared for divers by removing doors and hatches, giving unrestricted access to most of the interior.
The whole of the freighter was clearly visible as we descended beside the permanent mooring line attached to the foredeck’s windlass. We headed for the seabed to take in the view of the silhouetted bow as it rose boldly towards the surface.
The metal surfaces are no longer painted and bright but dull and covered in rich marine growth. Seafan branches reaching out from the steel hull obscure the vessel’s original sharp lines, making it appear soft and yielding.
The cargo hold, large and empty, allowed us unrestricted access to the stern and the covered superstructure of the engine-room. An open rusting steel stairway led to the aft deck, wheelhouse and crew cabins.
The larboard gangway was clear enough to swim along, our exhaled bubbles creating air-pockets under the covered way. These transformed into shivering silver mirrors that reflected the scenes below as we passed through.
The aft deck held an abundance of growth. Big fan corals grew upside-down, hanging stiffly from the underside of the ceiling resembling stalactites, spreading their fronds like fishing-nets to catch tiny morsels funnelled through the confines of the ship.
Red-flanked big-eye squirrelfish loitered around pillars in groups, adding to the profusion of colour, crabs and moray eels, and the ubiquitous lionfish that have thrived on the Caribbean reefs occupied little nooks and crannies around the deck, waiting for the cover of darkness and the opportunity to go hunting.
It was noticeable that the Lesleen M had changed since my first visit 11 years ago; it is metamorphosing into a prolific man-made reef, worthy of a visit by divers seeking an easy, relaxed and possibly extended wreck dive.
Next on the list was a critter-hunt around the Anse Chastenet reef, with Hippocampus on the list of animals occasionally found here. Dawn and I spent our dive time searching out the little branching sponges that sometimes host these beautiful creatures – the seahorse family doesn’t swim well and can become fatally exhausted in even mild currents, so it made sense to concentrate on the slackwater areas.
It took fewer than 30 minutes for Dawn to find one, her sharp eyesight and local knowledge paying dividends.
Triumphantly thrusting her fist in the air to celebrate her find, she pointed to what at first appeared to be a scruffy-looking stub of sponge. On closer inspection I could see a handsome longsnout seahorse calmly confident that its incredible camouflage would keep it invisible and safe from predators.

ALTHOUGH 32 SPECIES of seahorse have been identified worldwide, only three of these, the dwarf, lined and longsnout variety, can be found in the warm Caribbean waters.
This one was dark brown and blended perfectly in colour and texture with the small piece of sponge around which it had wrapped its tail. Unfortunately, as is often the case with these hard-to-find creatures, it had secreted itself in a position that made it almost impossible to capture with my camera.
We instead gave it space, marvelling at its beautiful form before setting off to find other species.
During the rest of our dive we enjoyed seeing small blennies as well as needlefish, crabs and scorpionfish, but there were also an alarming number of lionfish. These fish are worryingly fat – their new-found habitat obviously suits these skilled and voracious hunters of the reefs.
Further dives at sites north of the Pitons yielded an array of differing underwater terrain, from wall dives at Anse La Raye to the Key Hole Pinnacles, where an encounter with a large crab, tangled in discarded monofilament, led to a search for a knife to cut the poor animal free.
Knives are banned for visiting divers, but a member of the dive-crew had one and the crab was quickly released from its life-threatening predicament.
The species list grew as large reef squid put in an appearance, ghosting in and out of view as they changed colour and skin texture, Turtles were spotted along with rays and grouper, and we enjoyed some cherished encounters with the bold two-tone damselfish that are abundant around the reefs.
The diving in this wonderful Caribbean destination is a relaxed affair. The currents are insignificant, the water warm and clear.
St Lucia proved to be as spectacular under water as it is on land, and that’s saying something when you feast your eyes on the majesty of those verdant twin peaks rising from azure waters.


FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Nigel flew direct to St Lucia with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick. www.virgin-atlantic.com
DIVING: Dive Saint Lucia offers a full complement of diver training and daily guided two-tank boat-dives including on-board lunch and beverages, www.divesaintlucia.com
ACCOMMODATION: Nigel stayed at the 4* Coco Palm Resort & Spa, located in Rodney Bay Village on an all-inclusive board basis. www.coco-resorts.com
WHEN TO GO: St Lucia is rarely affected by hurricanes, but does see heavy rainfall in June through to November. The reefs can generally be dived year-round.
MONEY: Eastern Caribbean or US dollars.
HEALTH: Take a high-factor sunscreen at all times and mosquito repellent during the rainy season. The nearest recompression facilities are in St Lucia’s capital Castries.
PRICES: The Scuba Place offers seven-night trips including flights, transfers, all-inclusive hotel accommodation and a 10-dive package from £1499pp, based on two sharing a room at either the Coco Palm Hotel or the Harmony Marina Suites, www.thescubaplace.co.uk
VISITOR INFORMATION: saintluciauk.org