ABOUT GRENADA, says I, thinking its about time I dived the most famous wreck in the Caribbean.
Yes, about Grenada, says Steve, the Editor. Its about time we did something about the rest of Grenada. Everything other than the Bianca C.
I dont need to say much about the Bianca C. Anyone who knows anything about wrecks in the Caribbean will have heard of this Italian cruise liner that caught fire and sank in 1961. And Steve is right. Almost everything I can remember reading about diving in Grenada is 90% Bianca.
Which is why I am not at all disappointed when Peter from Aquanauts announces that my first dive will be in a swimming pool - 40m down, on the back of a certain Italian cruise ship about which I am not supposed to write.
Well, it would have been a crime to visit Grenada and not dive it.
So before I get fired, thats my less-than-10% about the Bianca C (search on divernet.com if you want more). Now, for as much of everything else as can be fitted into six days and six dive centres. Its a complicated plan, but Im a sucker for cramming as much into a trip as I can. This one took place before last Septembers devastating hurricane, but that phenomenon changed little in terms of diving (see separate story).
Another day, another dive centre and another wreck. Devotion 2 Ocean takes me to the King Mitch, several miles south of Grenada and fully exposed to the brisk easterly wind and waves coming in from the Atlantic.
The boat ride becomes a bit exciting, even rough by Caribbean standards, but the customers are regular UK divers and the sea state isnt that serious compared to the average English Channel trip.
With a current running, the standard entry is to roll in negative and leg it for the bottom. The boat is positioned just upcurrent of the wreck and we drift perfectly onto the bow at 30m. Its not a dive on which to have sticky ears.
The King Mitch has an unusual shape for a freighter, long and thin, with a shallow boxy hull and twin engines. It was originally built in World War Two for the US Navy, and could do 45 knots before its conversion to a freighter, which involved cutting off the bow, inserting a couple of cargo holds and fixing a crane to the deck between them. The resulting vessel of dubious parentage comprises the guts of a barge surrounded by the bow and stern of a fast patrol boat.
The wreck rests on its starboard side. In the blue an eagle ray is gliding out of camera range. Stalking it would be pointless, but I hang out for a couple of minutes in case it gets curious. Twenty-five minutes later I have admired plenty of gorgonians, a nurse shark, bathroom fittings and the now-solid cargo of bags of cement, but not the eagle ray.
With time to kill between dives, we relax below the overgrown remains of an old Norwegian whaling station on Glover Island, closed in 1927 after killing too many whales to remain economical.
A few hundred metres south is the wreck of the San Juan. Everyone kits up in the shelter of the island before we head out and over the side for an even faster descent.
This small fishing boat lives up to its nickname of the Shark Wreck. Ten or so fully grown nurse sharks huddle beneath the keel. The wreck is only about 60ft long, a small wheelhouse at the stern of a round tub hull with fish-hold, though the rumour is that when she went down she was involved in the far more profitable business of smuggling whisky and cigarettes to Venezuela.
Like many divers before me, I search for the hidden cargo without success. The other rumour is that it was off-loaded before the wreck sank in dubious circumstances.
I soon forget the wreck and chill out with the nurse sharks, then play a similar game among a big shoal of Atlantic spadefish off the stern.
I rest on the seabed and wait for the shoal to form around me, holding my breath as long as I can so as not to scare them with my bubbles. A rebreather would have been handy.
And indeed the next day Scuba Tech, among its technical kit, just happens to have Inspiration and DrÅger rebreathers.
I borrow a Dolphin and soon settle down to diving with fewer bubbles on the wreck of the Shakem, a small coaster that sank on the Caribbean side of the island in 2001.
The Shakem reminds me of the Lucy in Pembrokeshire. Its a similar size, intact and upright, with some good bits to explore inside the superstructure.
It has accumulated a fair amount of marine growth, sponges and fans, though it isnt teeming with fish like the wrecks on the Atlantic side.
The nitrox of the rebreather allows me almost to double my no-stop time, though except for one nurse shark there is little chance to put my bubble-lightness to good photographic use.
On the second dive, Im heading for the San Juan, with the chance to get among those Atlantic spadefish.
It doesnt quite work that way. Three-quarters of the way out to the wreck, the boats steering springs a hydraulic leak. Dive-centre owner Rob decides to turn back. Just as well, because the pipe soon bursts and the steering fails completely; not the sort of thing you would want to happen with divers down.
With Dive Grenada I am back on the Shakem, then fill out the day with a couple of reef dives.
Its the days last dive I enjoy most - a repeat dive in Flamingo Bay, popular as an afternoon site because its good for snorkellers, try-divers and trainees all from one boat.
I have already dived there earlier in the week, with other reef dives at Purple Rain and Kahonee on the Caribbean side, and Shark Reef (which should have been called Queen Trigger Reef) near the San Juan on the Atlantic side.
Purple Rain is a hill of coral running parallel to the coast, named for the clouds of Creole wrasse that pour down from the surface and dart up again.
I speculate on who sacrificed their bits to name a dive site Kahonee, only to be disappointed to learn that it was the name of a West Indian tribe.
At Flamingo Bay, the standard dive earlier in the week was along the reef leading out of the bay and round the point. Nice enough, but I had noticed some good macro life at the start of the dive, so this time I fit a macro lens and go critter-hunting further into the bay.
I immediately spot a juvenile spotted drum, then some shrimps cleaning a lizardfish, a bristleworm, a golden-spotted snake-eel, a tiny eel that is too far into a hole to identify, and more juvenile spotted drum. It must have been a good dive, because I blow a film in 20 minutes and spend another 30 wishing I had a spare on the boat.
Getting even further from the regular Grenada dive sites, I take the ferry to Carriacou, an island at the bottom of the Grenadines that is administratively part of Grenada.
On the way out of the harbour at St Georges, the ferry passes an old coaster derelict at anchor, a bit like the Shakem. Further north, another derelict coaster shelters in a bay. Both are destined to become artificial reefs once the bureaucracy runs its ponderous course.
The catamaran ferry begins to bounce and pitch on the Atlantic waves. Some tourists start to look a bit green but three local grandmothers are having a wonderful time, smiling, screaming and laughing as if on a roller-coaster ride.
The ferry slows and winds between rocky islands guarding the bay at Hillsborough. Carriacou Silver Diving is a short walk up the high street, and from there its a five-minute boat ride back among the islands to Deep Blue at Sisters Rocks, a sloping and shelving wall luxuriant in gorgonians, octocorals and fish.
Drifting with a gentle current at 25m, the sandy seabed easily visible below, I reflect that Deep must refer to the shade of blue. I should have been paying attention, because a turtle snoozing in a small grotto of hard and soft corals bolts before I can get into camera range.
As the dive turns the corner, we divert to the shallows and a pillar of rock gently rolling with the waves, a gap of a couple of centimetres opening between it and the rock next door. Its too gentle to hear today, but apparently makes quite a bang in a heavier sea.
The Sisters are a pair of rocks with a shallow channel between them. We end the dive behind a submerged rock just past the channel, a light current streaming through past incredibly dense hard and soft corals. Barracuda are nicely lined up above.
Returning to shore between dives, I check into Ades Dream Guesthouse, next to the dive centre. The staircase is straight out of an Escher drawing, with bits leading off in all directions. I decide not to drink too much that night in case I get lost in a twisted dimension.
At Mabouya Island, we dive Sharkys Hideaway - on a mission. This fantastically varied reef has everything from big jacks to tiny nudibranchs, and it doesnt take Max long to track down, at the edge of a sandy bowl, a fish he has been unable to name definitively.
He has had two expert opinions: its a quillfin blenny, which is not supposed to grow that big; or a sarcastic fringehead, which shouldnt be in that part of the Caribbean.
Apparently 85% of the creatures described in Paul Humanns Caribbean guide books can be found off Carriacou. A weird worm known locally as The Thing has even found its way into the books as the common name for something previously described only in Latin.
Max and Claudia are waiting for their replacements as managers of the dive centre so that they can work for the Carriacou Reef and Environmental programme. Carriacou and the southern Grenadines are destined to become a marine reserve and World Heritage site.
I ask about wrecks. Max says that Carriacou can offer only some bits of yacht. It had been offered a freighter, cleaned and ready to go down, but the bureaucracy was too slow to prevent it going elsewhere. With the success of wreck-diving on Grenada, however, some tugs and another freighter have been lined up for sinking.
Next morning, I take the scenic route south to Tyrrel Bay and Lumbadive, packed with my dive kit into the corner of a minibus full of children. We wind in and out of the back roads, picking up children of all ages to drop off at various schools.
The diving from Tyrrel Bay would normally follow a similar pattern to yesterdays, in and out for each dive. But with only two customers besides me, Lumbadives boat is loaded with air and picnics, and we set off for a day on the wilder side of Carriacou.
As on the south side of Grenada, the key influence on diving here are the strong currents flowing between the Caribbean and Atlantic.
With many small islands and reefs peppering the gap between Grenada and Carriacou, however, the currents are faster, wilder and less predictable.
Behind Barrel Rock, we pass acres of pristine hard coral and seemingly billions of fish. Then, in the channel between the island of Seline and a sandbank, we drift in the shallows across endless rolling banks of finger corals. Elusive eagle rays remain tantalisingly in the distance. Next dive, I find a ray pit, a sandy grotto where sting rays like to snooze, though only a couple are at home today .
We finish the day with a bracing flagpole of a dive, anchoring hands into the sand with a current too strong to swim against between Lyme Kiln Bay and Southwest Point. It would normally be done closer to slack water, but with all these sites and only one change of tide, slack cannot be made to order. Our prize is a swirling shoal of sennet, an eel garden, many shrimps and a seahorse.
I have seen a lot, yet as usual there is plenty more of everything else I didnt get round to diving. Its been a case of more small dishes than I can eat, each of which could be served as a meal.
In fact, there is plenty more of everything else that no one has ever got round to diving. One look at the map shows numerous inlets and small islands begging to be explored. Add to that the potential for offshore diving and artificial reefs on the way, and there is indeed a lot more to Grenada than the Bianca C.
HURRICANES DONT USUALLY COME AS FAR SOUTH AS GRENADA, at the southern end of the Windward Islands. But this time last year, Hurricane Ivan caused widespread damage there.
All the locals have their survival story - the yachtie who took the forecast seriously and headed off to Tobago, returning with welcome supplies when the hurricane had passed; the hotelier who talked about his diver guests (an electrician, a cook and roofer) who forgot diving and started helping on the clean-up and reconstruction.
I visited Grenada earlier this year with my partner to see how the diving had been affected. Even back in February, the island seemed well on its way to having debris cleared, hotels reopened and business restored as far as possible to normal.
Construction work was continuing, the rainforest was damaged and available hotel rooms were at that time 50% of normal, though 70% is confidently predicted by September.
Of dive centres, Aquanauts Dive Centre at the True Blue Bay Hotel and Scuba Tech at the Calabash Hotel were fully operational, as were the hotels.
Dive Grenada was up and running, though the Flamboyant Hotel with which it is linked was still being rebuilt. EcoDive had yet to reopen, and Devotion 2 Ocean at the Rex Grenadian was expected to open its doors again this summer.
OK, we thought, we had a comfortable hotel complete with roof, everything shipshape at the dive centre, but what will there be on the reefs
Apart from the relatively deep Bianca C, some of the best diving is quite shallow, and the turbulence seemed likely to have stripped soft corals and sponges from the rock.
In Flamingo Bay, we dropped down beside the reef in only about 7m, and to our surprise tall branched corals swayed in the water, obviously the product of many years growth, and untouched by hurricane damage. Brilliantly coloured blue chromis and yellow-striped French grunt hung in shoals.
We explored the reef side, descending to 15m and returning back along the top. In only 6-8m of water, life was really busy. Yellow wrasse with blue heads and blue wrasse with yellow heads conspired to confuse my ID efforts.
Squirrelfish were easy to spot, and toy-like trunkfish picked food from the coral. A moray with spectacular black and white spots mouthed from a crevice and a scorpionfish lurked in a hole. Parrotfish munched at coral that grew in abundance.
The University of Grenada is located on a headland near the best dive sites (an excellent arrangement for the students) and there we met Dr Clare Morrell, Chair of Life Sciences, who did her doctorate on coral reef health.
Her initial survey after Hurricane Ivan, using volunteer divers and students, found remarkably little damage, and she was hoping to continue this work, with dive centre Scuba Tech, to develop a baseline of species present for future reference. Visiting divers are invited to contribute by collecting data.
Wrecks can be broken by storms, but we dived the Rum Runner, a catamaran that sank in the 70s, to find it in fine condition. Headed across the sand to about 30m, the hulls appeared in very good visibility.
Encrusted with purple-branched corals and large sea fans, they provided an atmospheric tour.
Ascending to the deck, more sea-fans grew on the struts holding the hulls together.
The wreck of the Veronica made a great dive next day, with shoals of Bermuda chub and Creole wrasse swimming around the decks and over the wheelhouse, and the crane providing a focal point for many different fish.
And the Shakem, another wreck in easy reach of all the dive centres, provided a good opening view of its rudder and propeller. All seemed normal as we looked down into the cargo hold, where fish live in a landscape of rectangular rocks still bearing the imprint of the ropes that secured the cement bags for their passage from Trinidad.
On a mercenary note, with Grenadas currency pegged to the US dollar, we enjoyed excellent restaurant meals at very reasonable prices and, in the wake of the hurricane, found many special offers being made.
People are very friendly and welcoming on this beautiful island, which has little industry, derives more than half of its income from tourism and is working hard to preserve its natural resources. It deserves our support.