|St Vincent calls
|REMEMBER THAT CLASSIC 1956 GEORGE STEVENS MOVIE GIANT It starred Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and was set in Texas. Ever wondered what really happened to its oil industry maverick Jett Rink, played by James Dean in his final role Well he might well have ended up in St Vincent with a dive centre!
Bill Tewes is a grizzled old Texan character who started his career in the oil industry, but hes been in St Vincent for a very long time now. I visited him more than 12 years ago, and I thought he was getting on a bit then. This time I arrived to find that nothing had changed, although he had done away with his ponytail.
His members of staff are the same. Even the guy I casually photographed last time, lounging on the Young Island dock, was still there. Time moves slowly in St Vincent - and Bill has not swapped a St Vincent accent for his Texan twang.
St Vincent & the Grenadines lies south of St Lucia and north of Grenada, and includes in its portfolio those posh islands beloved of royalty and the rich and famous, Bequia and Mustique.
Have you seen the 2003 movie Pirates of the Caribbean Then youve seen St Vincent. A lot of it was shot around this Caribbean island. Keira Knightley and Johnny Depp both stayed at the luxury resort of Young Island. If its good enough for them, I thought, it should be good enough for me too.
Those who need an even more luxurious setting tend to park their floating palaces in the channel that separates Young Island from the main island. There is a perpetual little ferry service for us mere mortals. But what about the diving
Last time I visited, all those years ago, I thought the coral reefs were nice, but nothing that would drag me the extra flying leg from Barbados. I dismissed it as typically Caribbean diving, suitable for rich Americans but not for us serious divers.
I was wrong, and so was everyone else at that time. Nothing has changed in St Vincent, only the perception of its diving. Even Bill admits that his love of diving has been reawakened since the islands true underwater treasure has been discovered.
Bill has the same dive guides working for him now as he had then, but instead of photographing them in wide-angle swimming over the colourful coral as I did last time, I noticed that they headed out over St Vincents black volcanic sand, armed with pointers and looking for critters.
I followed, my camera set for macro. For in the intervening years, St Vincent has become known as the muck-diving critter capital of the Caribbean.
Things may have been bigger in Texas, but they are certainly smaller in St Vincent. In fact you may say that the Jett Rink character has gone from Giant to Tiny. Bill Tewes has made himself an expert on the smallest and sometimes most bizarre forms of animal life, and many of those animals have not been scientifically described. They are simply not in the book.
I can tell you the names of some of the dive sites. Hands Reef, the Garden, Anchor Reef, Orca Point (the site of Pirates gold-filled cave), Orca II, Coral Castle, the Wall, Joyces and so on. Frankly it didnt matter where I dived, because I tended to leave the coral behind and head out over the featureless black sand or even sometimes plain sticky mud. I was always rewarded with discoveries of the unusual minutia living there.
St Vincent escaped the hurricane that devastated Grenada last year, but it did get a lot of rain.
Tons of debris washed out to sea, including the detritus of human existence and natural features such as dead trees. It all lies in the muck now, and forms habitats for many creatures.
Bills fast boats pick up divers from the Young Island jetty every morning at a very civilised 9.30am. It gives time for a relaxed breakfast first. He zips outto two different dive sites and has you back in time for a late lunch. Then you have all afternoon to laze in the sun or download your pictures, and discuss what youve seen. It seems that every diver now goes to St Vincent for the critters.
Accommodation at Young Island can be arranged on an all-inclusive basis, which means three cordon bleu meals a day, and you get to meet some high-quality people too.
Its all very relaxed. There are few annoying insects either, thanks to an army of hard-working and consequently well-fed gekkos.
You dont have to stay in the unadulterated luxury of Young Island, though it is very nice. I met Ray, a retired Deputy Sheriff from a county near Chicago, who spends months at a time living and diving in St Vincent. He told me that his all-up expenses, including food and rent for a very nice two-bedroom apartment, with a billionaires view, amounted to less than £600 per month. Thats cheap!
The people of St Vincent are very relaxed and friendly too - even shy. They havent been spoiled by too much contact with pushy tourists.
St Vincent is the old-fashioned Caribbean. Untouched by time, its sprinkled with impromptu wooden houses. People call out the name of your driver as you slide by in a taxi from its little airport. Its the original banana island, and most of its mountainsides are still made over to banana plantations, even though demand from Europe is very much down.
The American-induced banana-trade wars put a stop to that. Now remoter hillsides are devoted to a new cash crop - marijuana. The farmers still have to make a living somehow.
The diving is suitably relaxed. While the islands to the north and south, Beqia and St Lucia, are swept by strong currents, here the water is still and clear. Its too easy.
Bill supplies little steel tanks filled to only 175 bar, but you can easily get an hours dive out of them. Theres no effort involved in diving here.
You need perfect control of your buoyancy, and you need to be circumspect about your finning if you are not to stir up the mud and destroy the visibility, together with the chances of you and your companion getting good clear pictures. Bill uses a technique that involves pulling himself along with the aid of a stick dug down into the seabed. It removes the need to kick completely.
So what did I see Well, often, I wasnt sure until I got back and looked in the book, but Bill and his dive-guides are equipped with wetproof memo pads and usually write down the name of the animal at which they are pointing.
Seahorses are always popular with divers. Although they are usually found securely attached by their tails to a frond of weed or coral, they do break free and travel helplessly on the surge, so that each day they are found in different places. We spotted one on its travels. It looked a bit pathetic and could hardly be described as a strong swimmer.
Juvenile spotted drums and top-hats are very pretty, with their over-sized fins, and look as if they should be in an aquarium. The vicious little pistol-snapping shrimp can give you a bit of a surprise as you try to shepherd it with one hand into a suitably clear patch in the sand. One claw is grossly enlarged, and it snaps it shut with the violence and noise of a gunshot.
There seem to be all manner of eels looking out from crevices with mouths agape, including the familiar green, spotted and chain morays. Out on the sand there are numerous types of snake eel (spotted, sharp-tail and golden-spotted to name just three) slithering about hunting for small prey, or simply buried in the seabed and lying in ambush.
Flying gurnards may be sneered at by true macro-lovers but they make excellent and somewhat bizarre subjects as they cruise the sea grass areas. Startle them, and they spread out their iridescent-blue-fringed capes.
The same can be said of octopuses and squid. They may be common, but they always put on a fascinating show, as do the ubiquitous cornetfish that hover in whatever colour scheme they choose before dashing forward to grab some unsuspecting prey.
I found an electric ray lying out in the open. Equipped for extreme close-up photography, I recorded expressive close-ups of its mean-looking eyes.
Flounders are everywhere, and rely on their fabulous ability to merge with their backgrounds. Even when you have one lit with a full spectrum of light, its still hard to distinguish in a photograph.
I was lucky. I encountered one over the reef area that changed its coloration from moment to moment as it moved over different surfaces, but I was able to catch it as it moved on before it had decided on its next colour scheme. Even so, I was impressed by its repertoire of disguises.
There are more psychedelic tube- worms and Christmas-tree worms than you can shake a stick at. Then theres the plain surreal - the magnificent urchin. Yes, thats its name. These brightly coloured and extremely spiky animals scuttle around the weedy areas, complete with attendant shrimps and other minutiae. Banded coral shrimps are so common in these waters that one stops looking at them after a bit, even those carrying eggs.
Bill continually got excited about the most obscure fish. Punk blennies, triple-spots, high-fins, sail-fins, pirates - some of them were so tiny that they were out of range of my one-to-one macro lens. But if you get turned on by the unusual, the incredibly small and the out-of-the-ordinary, youll be like Bill.
I met a couple of shark-feeders from the Bahamas while I was in St Vincent. They were taking time out to interact with animals that left less visible scars.
If you get bored with the underwater world, take a hike up Mount Soufriere, St Vincents volcano, or a boat to the impressively powerful Falls of Balleine.
You can stroll round the Montreal Garden (privately owned and up a mountain), see some of the Pirates locations - or even look at the real thing.
In the storms of 2004, the sand washed away on parts of beaches on the windward side of the island to reveal the wreck of an old sailing ship, said by some to be a slaver.
|a seahorse roaming free |
|Enjoy a meal in what was used as a set in Pirates of the Caribbean |
|the Dive St Vincent boat |
|Texan to the core but enjoying the smaller things in life |
|flying gurnard |
|and a |
|Spot the blenny! |
GETTING THERE: Fly to Barbados with BA, Virgin or BMI, and onwards with Caribbean Star or LIAT. Otherwise fly to Puerto Rico (San Juan) with BA and onwards with Caribbean Sun. Diving: John Bantin travelled courtesy of Dive St Vincent (www.divestvincent.com).
WHEN TO GO: December to July. Water temperature averages 27°C, so a 5mm or 3mm one-piece wetsuit is fine.
ACCOMODATION: Young Island Resort. (www.youngisland.com)
COSTS:A seven-night package at the Young Island Resort, including 10 dives, transfers and dive gear, starts from US $1935, but there are lower-grade local hotel packages from around $770. Return flights start at around £500.
FURTHER INFORMATION: 0207 9376570, www.svgtourism.com
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