Its hard to believe that St Eustatius, or Statia as the locals call it, was once the hub of all trade in the north-east Caribbean. In the 18th century more than a mile of waterfront warehouses serviced 300 ships a month, and the island population was 20,000. Statia was so prosperous, it was called the Golden Rock of the Caribbean.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Then came the American War of Independence. Statia made the mistake of trading with rebel ships, before recognising America as a sovereign state by offering a gun salute to one of its warships. The British government dispatched a fleet under Admiral Rodney which in 1781 sacked the warehouses and closed down the merchants. The waterfront fell into ruin.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Only a few stone walls from all those warehouses remain today. The population is a few thousand, and Statia is one of the quietest islands in the Caribbean.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Its chilled-out atmosphere is typified by Duncan, the boss of the Golden Rock Dive Centre. Most of the time he snoozes behind the counter, though he likes to go for a swim now and then. Duncan is so laid-back that assistants Glenn and Michelle have to do all the work.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ When I walk through the door, Duncan sniffs then gets up to welcome me, nuzzling my hand and wagging his tail. Duncan is a chocolate Labrador.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Glenn takes me diving and Duncan gets back to keeping the floor warm. We begin with Nurse Reef, a volcanic ledge with plenty of overhangs, corals and sponges on top, and named because nurse sharks like to hide in the cracks. Glenn brings his camera and I dive with instructor Lisa.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Of course, we dont find any nurse sharks. What we do find are lots of fat, happy-looking lobsters, packed as tightly as possible into every crack, 10 or more to a dwelling, antennae waving into the open. Statia has a well-established and enforced marine park, and Nurse Reef is in the middle of it.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Everywhere I go, I challenge dive operators to show me what is unusual and different. The size and sheer number of lobsters at Nurse Reef was certainly unusual, and our second dive at the Bead Pit qualifies as different.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Among the trade goods of 18th century Statia were slave beads, blue octagonal glass baubles used to pay slaves. At some time a ship had either sunk in the middle of the bay or lost a few sacks of cargo, because an area of sand a few hundred metres across occasionally turns up a slave bead.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Its not really a pit. I cant even perceive a gradient. The dark volcanic sand is peppered with small rocks and clumps of coral. For divers its a classic muck dive, with a variety of shrimps and other little critters.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Lisa looks for beads, while I look for macro subjects - but the only bead on our dive is the one she wears as an ear-ring. Glenn and buddy Marc do find a couple, and the good news is that divers are allowed to keep them. Any other finds have to be left for the archaeologists.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The Old Gin House where I am staying is a remnant of the 17th century. The ships ballast bricks used to build the front part of it date from 1680. Guest-rooms at the back are more modern. I get excited about the gin connection, until its explained that gin was short for cotton ginny.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ In the morning I look out of my bathroom window to a blue sky, and goats grazing the hillside behind the hotel. On my way to the dive shop I pass a couple of chickens.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ By the time Glenn ties the boat up above the Charlie Brown its grey and the clouds look ominous. Thats the trouble with December, the weather is all confused, with wind coming in on the normally sheltered Caribbean side of the island.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The Charles L Brown was a cable ship sunk as an artificial reef about 18 months ago. After warships, these have to be among the best types of wreck to dive. Above and below deck is festooned with the cable-laying equipment: huge gantries, winches and rollers. Its good now and promises to become one of the best wrecks in the Caribbean, given a few years for the reef to become established.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Our next wreck site, Twin Wrecks, is at the other end of the spectrum. There is little wreckage, just some big anchors with ballast stones from two wooden ships which are difficult to pick out from the patches of reef.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Sting rays are the attraction here. Every morning a horde of big grey ones can be found snoozing on the sand and they dont mind divers swimming right up to them. Lisa settles beside a big ray and strokes its wing while I close until my camera port is virtually touching its nose. It seems to be enjoying the attention.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The patches of reef and ballast stones are home to a good variety of fish, with plenty of juveniles - another sign of a healthy marine environment. We finish the day at Wreck City, a collection of wrecks to the north of Twin Wrecks, in a condition about halfway between Twin Wrecks and the Charlie Brown further south. Theres a big barge, a small tug, the gutted stern section of a small freighter, and assorted debris from the oil terminal at the north of the island.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Wreck City was left out of the marine reserve as a sop to local fishermen. Even so, a small turtle follows us in the distance and there are plenty of fish about, including a resident grand-daddy barracuda, a few more sting rays and several spotted drum.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ In most places these are rare but on Statia they are so common that they are used on the marine reserve logo.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ For my final day, I dive some more conventional Caribbean reef. Grand Canyon is a classic spur-and-groove leading out to a wall from 30m downwards. The sides are decorated with a forest of black gorgonians.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ A hundred metres or so inshore, Mushroom Gardens is a low reef of hard corals with biscuit-coloured whips, gorgonians and assorted sponges. Then finally, at Hangover, it takes me 15 minutes to descend. A shoal of big jacks hang out above the reef and I spend the first part of the dive floating among them in midwater.
Saba is all mountain. Putting a road there was always thought impossible until a local man did a correspondence course in civil engineering and built its twisting, precipitous roads in the 1940s and 50s. Villages are built into the hillside, with steep alleys linking the zigzags of the road.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Diving has finished for the day. Sea Saba dive centre manager Seneca is busy teaching Kane, the apprentice hotel manager at Julianas, all the important job skills, such as chewing ears and sniffing bottoms. Seneca is a German Shepherd and Kane a Labrador puppy. Senecas assistant Lynn points me in the direction of the Saba Day Spa.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ For the past few days on Statia, I had been walking and diving like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Twenty-something years ago I whiplashed my neck pulling on a drysuit, and occasionally it flares up. Michelle from Golden Rock had phoned ahead to book physiotherapist Amy. An hour with her has me almost asleep on the table - and my neck sorted out.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Its just one of many aspects of Saba that gets me thinking: ski resort. The gods took a small alpine resort with mountain, brushed off the snow, increased the temperature by 30Ã‚ or 40Ã‚C, sprayed it with rampant jungle, dumped it in a remote corner of the Caribbean, replaced a few thousand skiers with a few tens of divers, turned the pace of life down by 50% and called it Saba.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ If the impossible road had never been built, I could imagine its villages being connected by chair-lift.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Diving next morning begins at Shark Shoal, one of Sabas celebrated offshore pinnacles. This sponge- and coral-encrusted spire of volcanic rock rises from the depths to a tip at 28m.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Pinnacles are wonderful for concentrating marine life. The pace of life above water may be slowed down but on Shark Shoal the fish life is frantic. Clouds of Creole wrasse shadow the upcurrent side. Smaller chromis make up for their lack of size by their sheer numbers. Closer to the rock, golden snapper have their individual spots staked out. Further out, a couple of Caribbean reef sharks circle, wary of divers, wavering at the limit of visibility.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Even with 32% nitrox, a no-stop dive at 28m doesnt leave much bottom time, but the dive doesnt end there.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Hanging off the buoy line for a safety stop, the sharks can be seen circling below. A barracuda comes in to check us out, followed by a wahoo that must have been there all the time, but only now do I notice it.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ We move inshore to Diamond Rock, a pair of pinnacles but this time rising from about 20m to a jagged point a similar distance above the water. Another boat has just finished as we tie onto the mooring buoy and make our way round the rock in a fair current.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The current feeds sponges, fans and a surprising number of big anemones, particularly in the surge area in the saddle between the pinnacles. It may be an effort to swim against, but current does line the fish up nicely - in this case, a shoal of 50 or so jacks.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The afternoon dive is inshore at Torrens Point, ridges of lava on a dark seabed that run out from the shallows to 15m or so. I chase fish with camouflage schemes varying from a very obvious dotty boxfish to an almost invisible dark flattie.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Beginning the day with a deep pinnacle is the standard diving pattern. Twilight Zone is one of three pinnacles on the corners of a triangular plateau, the other two being Outer Limits and Third Encounter.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Its a generally bigger area than Shark Shoal, with equally good sponges and corals and plenty of fish, though without the same concentrating effect of an isolated pinnacle.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ A big Nassau grouper presides over the reef but stays well clear of divers. Off the wall, a Caribbean reef shark hangs in the distance. Back on the plateau, I manage to sneak up on a nurse shark sleeping in a gully before it spooks.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ These pinnacles are both exciting and frustrating. As a photographer, I would love to dive them solo with a rebreather.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The serious nature of the pinnacles constrains those who can participate. Back on ski-ing, its a Red Run, and the divers who get the most out of Saba will be those up to such dives. But dive two at Hole in The Corner is a Blue Run, a sloping field of enormous boulders, and dive three at Hot Spring is a Green on the bunny slopes, so less experienced divers can still enjoy two good dives a day.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ On my crammed schedule its soon decompression day again, and I hike to the top of Mount Scenery. With my neck playing up, I had missed a similar trek up the mountain and into the crater on Statia. A crew are at work on the telecom mast, the donkey used to carry their supplies grazing nearby.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The cloud swirls clear and I can see in all directions, past Statia to St Kitts in the south-east, then out past the airport to St Maarten in the north. Dive boats are tiny specks above the mornings pinnacles.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Arriving at Sabas small airport, landing had been more like a dive-bomb attack. For my onward flight to St Kitts via St Maarten, the plane doesnt so much take off as fall off the end of the clifftop runway.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Connecting flights are short and at low altitude, which leads some divers to cut their time between diving and flying. I stick to 24 hours. With some better planning I could have used the ferry between St Maarten and Saba to gain an extra days diving - but then I would have missed that mountain hike.
St Kitts is a bigger island than Statia and Saba, with a population to match, and far more farmland. Its shiny modern airport can handle wide-bodied jets on intercontinental flights, and in midtown a couple of monster floating resort ships are tied up at the cruise dock. Despite the daily exchange of passengers grockling between shore excursions, the town centre retains the old colonial atmosphere befitting Britains first Caribbean colony.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ A mile south of town, the Bird Rock Hotel is quiet, less than a quarter full out of season. Staff are sprucing the place up for Christmas. The dive boat carries mainly cruise-ship passengers on our morning excursion.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ I mentally cringe, but when we reach the wreck of the River Taw, they turn out to have competent buoyancy control and reasonable air consumption. Rather than overfed, newly wed and nearly dead, they resemble the mix I would expect on any Caribbean dive boat. So much for stereotyping.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The River Taw was a small coaster that sank in 1985, to be broken in two by Hurricane Hugo four years later. The stern and superstructure now lie in line with and alongside the two holds and bow.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Whether sunk as artificial reef or just dumped, a lot of other stuff lies close to the River Taw, including piles of reinforced-concrete debris, the remains of waterfront properties wrecked by the hurricane and tipped at sea. They provide substrate and habitat on which reefs are slowly becoming established. I follow a line from the stern and manage to locate the tip of River Taws propeller poking from beneath a pile of rubble.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Our guide Kent leads us off the starboard side of the bow and past a van to a bulldozer. I linger - I never got over my boyhood fascination with construction machinery.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Next day, on the wreck of a tugboat, Kents briefing shows that he has remembered my minor obsession. He suggests that I head up a gully in the reef to an excavator.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ It turns out to be an old crane with a turret body above a tracked base, with bucket suspended by cables and drag lines. The jib is back on the sand, covered in red and pink sponges. Nearby are a generator trailer and a steel barge or pontoon.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The tug itself is also a nice little wreck, with that high wheel-house of cartoon tugboats. Its about twice the size of the Statia tug, and the prop is still in place.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Between the two wrecks, we dive on a selection of reefs. At Broad Bar I follow a sandy hourglass-shaped channel through the reef, which boasts sting rays, monster lizardfish and an eel garden. Then, at Nags Head, we drift along a reef used to murkier water than others with its predominance of sponges, though there is still enough hard coral to create alternate spurs and gullies perpendicular to our drift.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ At Boulders, I find the best-quality conventional hard coral reef of the trip; a slope from 15 to 35m with layered tiers of reef-building corals from top to bottom. Its decorated with fans, whips and sponges, but its the hard corals that stand out, particularly the two large boulders that give the site its name.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ But something is missing. There are plenty of small fish, but the only larger ones I see are some medium-size sting rays, a very big lizardfish, a solitary angelfish, one barracuda and a handful of grunts and snapper. The diving is quite good, excellent in places, but it could be so much better if it wasnt so over-fished.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ I dont get to meet the part-time relief manager at Dive St Kitts. Captain Mangy is a stray who turns up as and when he likes every other week or so. I just get to see his picture on the notice-board, airing his privates. Apparently he likes to cool off in front of the air-conditioning.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Then, on the beach, I meet a local who has come for an afternoon swim and brought the more respectable-looking Taboo with him. But he could never work in a dive centre; hes scared of water.
The situation is different at the Holland House Hotel on St Maarten. Sasha the Rottweiler could best be described as security consultant, spending most of her time looking after manager Pauls house, though occasionally joining him at work to check it over.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Then, at Dive Safaris, owner Bobby introduces me to Muffin, an affectionate Jack Russell who gets very excited about meeting divers.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The character of St Maarten is different again - its a very cosmopolitan island, with lots going on.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The waterfront at Philipsburg looks and feels like a fashionable Mediterranean resort. Theres a promenade at the top of the beach, trendy cafÃ…-style bars, live music, duty-free designer shops and casinos. St Maarten manages to be lively and friendly but not oppressively noisy.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Its clear and pleasantly cool as I walk along the beach to Dive Safaris at the marina. As is usual in the Caribbean, strangers smile and exchange greetings with me. On the far side of the harbour, three cruise ships lie docked.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ I get a surprise at Dive Safaris. Last time I had seen Carl and Sally, they were my hosts at a dive centre in Zanzibar. We had got on famously. It doesnt take us long to plan my diving.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ With plenty of customers from the cruise ships, Dive Safaris is a big operation. I am introduced to more instructors and dive guides than I could ever remember, all wearing floppy Santa hats, Christmas being only a week away. Diane, from Brazil, shows me round the Caribbean Cargo, a 230ft barge-style cargo ship that sank during Hurricane Bertha.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ We sweep out to the side of the wreck, looking for sting rays on the white sand before anyone scares them off. The sand is peppered with reef balls, hollow concrete orbs that provide a foundation for corals and a home for fish.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Theres a fair bit to see, through the superstructure and down among the engines, then forward across the open cargo deck to either side of the split bow. Even so, with the seabed at 18m there is more than enough time to see everything both on and beyond the wreck. I can see why the reef balls have been scattered about.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ An hour later, at Fish Bowl, we swim round flows of undercut lava with corals and sponges above, fish and lobsters hiding below. Where the cuts below the reef are big and deep enough, they meet on the other side to make a few tunnels.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ St Maarten kindly sank an artificial reef hours before my arrival. Staff are still tidying it up, so I get to dive it with Bobby and Trinidadian guide Bally before any tourists arrive.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The Porpoise is another tug, about twice as big again as the one on St Kitts. At the bow is a deep scour where it has nose-dived into the 30m seabed. Having toured the outside, I drop below decks to the crews quarters, then back through the engine-room and up to the wheelhouse.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ There is plenty of general shipboard tat and no marine life yet, save at the stern, where the propeller and rudder have a light coating of sponges. Hardly surprising, as it has been down so briefly.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ St Maarten is split between Dutch (south) and French (north) halves. The French half is spelt Martin, the currency is the Euro and it is run more like a province of France than a self-governing colony.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ I join Paul from the Holland House for dinner on the French side, then stop off at a beach party near the airport. The Wailers are playing, without Bob Marley of course. Parties dont get going until after midnight, and as I am tired and have a full day ahead, I stay only for the first few songs.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ After too little sleep, the day begins with the remains of HMS Proselyte, a British frigate that struck the reef in 1801. With another full load of cruise-ship divers, I cant have the luxury of a guide to myself, so Bally draws me a map and sets me off ahead of the crowd.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Despite a good encrustation of corals and sponges, I have no trouble finding three big anchors, eight or so cannon and a pile of ballast stones.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The whole area is called Proselyte Reef. Yesterdays second dive at Fish Bowl and todays second dive at Maze are all part of the same system of lava flows. Maze turns out to be what its name implies, a narrow labyrinth of deep fissures in the lava just wide enough to swim through. Some divers even get to see Big Moma as she cruises round in the distance.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Its not until later in the afternoon that I get to see Scratch, Xena, Big Moma and a host of smaller Caribbean reef sharks much closer up, on the Shark Awareness dive.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Shark Awareness is the politically correct name for a very well thought-out and implemented shark-feed. It is held three afternoons a week, a few hundred metres downcurrent from the other Proselyte Reef dive sites, so the sharks are conditioned to expect feeding only at a site at which divers would not be in the water for any other reason.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Shark-wrangler Jefferson sets up by a concrete block with a case of 15 or so snapper tails, just enough for the lightest snack. The divers form a part-circle, taking station on a ring marked out with more concrete blocks, and the sharks come in past Jeffersons right shoulder and pick their snacks off the end of a metal skewer.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ By taking care to share the snacks out evenly, and offering food only every fifth or so pass, the action is kept going for at least 30 minutes. The sharks occasionally get a little pushy, barging in beneath Jeffersons legs and jostling each other as they circle, yet overall they stay remarkably civilised and polite. It must be the Dutch influence.