The Caribbean Explorer


by Bill Harrigan

You haven’t dived the Caribbean until you’ve been to Saba and St. Kitts on the Caribbean Explorer. The dramatic underwater topography, such as Saba’s Eye of the Needle, is not found anywhere else. The Needle sticks straight up from the bottom like a giant’s lance, thickly coated with colorful sponges and surrounded by fish. Off St. Kitts the reefs and wrecks are home to unusual creatures such as seahorses and Flying Gurnards. During a week aboard Caribbean Explorer you can see both islands, above and below water.

Completely refurbished in 1995, the 106 foot long Caribbean Explorer is the product of almost ten years of refinement from the original crewboat configuration. Eight cabins, each with air-conditioning and sink with vanity, provide accommodations for 16 passengers. There are five bathrooms, including one on the dive deck and one in the crew’s quarters. The dining room is full width, with huge windows for great views. The top deck is a combination sundeck and shaded lounge area aft, with cabins forward.

A Cast of Competent and Congenial Characters: Jim Merrill, captain and co-manager of the Caribbean Explorer, has been with the company for five years and knows the waters around Saba and St. Kitts intimately. Activities aboard and special guest needs are handled by Sue Bertram, the co-manager and purser. Her job is to make sure everyone is happy; her energy and enthusiasm are legendary. Engineer Bill Woodburn keeps all those live-aboard essentials, such as engines, air compressors and air-conditioning, running smoothly. The quality of the maintenance program aboard Caribbean Explorer is reflected in the excellent condition and reliability of the vessel. Chef Brendan Sutton is a talented culinary institute graduate, who must have been at the top of his class. The food doesn’t just seem good because diving has accelerated your appetite into overdrive. The meals Brendan serves up with the assistance of stewardess Diane Ryan would be judged delicious anywhere. On the dive deck, PADI Instructors Gary Lazorick and Brad Whittenburg do a great job of organizing up to five dives, including a night dive, each day. They also teach diving courses from open water to rescue diver, plus many specialty courses.

The Diving: The diving routine provides a nice combination of structure for safety and freedom for fun. Either Gary or Brad will guide a dive if requested but normally divers are free to explore with their buddies. Use of dive computers is encouraged, within accepted sport diving limitations. The dive deck is well organized and spacious. Beneath each seat is a large bin for fins and other gear; a hanging rack is provided for wetsuits. Two warm, freshwater showers are conveniently near the ladders. Special features for photographers include a large, carpeted camera table with safety rails, a battery charging station and separate rinse tanks.

Saba and St. Kitts: Between Saba and St. Kitts there is an incredible variety of dive sites. All of the dive sites in Saba are within the Saba Marine Park, which has managed the underwater resources around the entire island since 1987. The park is operated by a private, nonprofit organization called the Saba Conservation Foundation, which collects a $3 per dive fee from each diver to pay for maintenance of the moorings, enforcement, research and monitoring. Saba may be best known for its relatively deep pinnacle dives, but there are also many reefs where you can dive shallow or moderately deep profiles.

Third Encounter is a deep delight, especially the narrow vertical spire called Eye of the Needle, an amazingly straight, thin formation that rises from deeper than 200 feet to 95. The surface of the Needle is completely encrusted with massive sponges, Deep Water Seafans and hard corals. The depth on the top of the adjacent seamount varies from about 95 to 125 feet and the vertical sides drop off into the deep blue. The encrusting growth is prolific here, too, and the Orange Elephant Ear and Purple Tube Sponges provide striking colors despite the depth.

Twilight Zone is another section of the same seamount as Third Encounter but the topography is very different. The shallowest area at Twilight Zone is an 80 foot outcropping at the extreme eastern end; the area to the west is generally between 100 and 110 feet. Thick stands of Deep Water Seafans, Black Corals, Plate, Star and Brain Corals coat much of the surface of the seamount, along with many Elephant Ear and Tube Sponges.

Diamond Rock rises almost straight from the sand bottom at 80 feet to the surface, tapering into a point another 90 feet in the air. The sides of the rock are covered with extraordinarily thick growth, which harbors countless fish and invertebrates.

Adjacent to Diamond Rock is a similar formation called Man-O-War Shoals. This pinnacle doesn’t reach the surface but comes to within 15 feet of it. Like Diamond Rock it is thick with gorgonians, sponges and corals.

Ladder Labyrinth is a maze of tall coral mounds surrounded by sandy channels. Depths here range from about 20 to 80 feet. Swimming along the mini-canyons among the mounds, you’ll encounter hundreds of fish. Caribbean Reef Squid are often seen in pairs or small schools in the shallower areas.

The profile on Tent Reef runs from around 20 to 50 feet among sand channels and coral encrusted ridges. In addition to mounds of Star and Brain Corals, there are finger-like Porites Corals and Cactus Corals. Large Nassau and Tiger Groupers can be observed at the numerous cleaning stations while Neon Gobies and juvenile Spanish Hogfish remove their ectoparasites.

Tent Wall is the extension of the Tent Reef ledge, where it changes to a steep cliff that drops from about 25 feet to 80. Every square foot of the wall supports life of some kind, including red and yellow encrusting sponges, delicate plate and Wire Corals. A sand chute flows over the wall like a slow motion waterfall, providing a convenient landmark for navigation.

Less than a mile off the coast of St. Kitts, the MV Talata is an excellent dive site with a 35 to 65 foot profile. Only the bow and part of the stern are intact and upright. In the stern area there are resident schools of Blackbar Soldierfish and Smallmouth Grunts. This is also a superb site for macro photography.

The MV River Taw lies upright but broken in two at 45 feet on the sand. It is a delight for fishwatchers and photographers. Seahorses, Flying Gurnards, Purplemouth Morays, Queen Triggerfish, File Clams and Green Sea Turtles are a few of the more colorful residents. Inside the bow area, three different species of black coral grow in only 35 feet of water. Both the Talata and the River Taw are also visited at night; they are even more spectacular when the sun goes down.

Paradise Deep Reef off St. Kitts is an hourglass-shaped coral mound surrounded by swarms of schooling fish. The sides of the mound gently slope downward from about 85 feet to a sandy bottom just past 130. Visibility usually exceeds 100 feet and the coral cover is excellent. Mounds of Smooth Brain, Star and Giant Star Coral compete for space with Moose Antler, Purple Tube and Elephant Ear Sponges. Hawksbill Turtles, the only sea turtle species that feeds primarily on sponges, are often seen munching on their favorite meal here.

Paradise Reef is a testimony to the reef building abilities of Star Coral (Montastrea annularis). Centuries old mounds are piled on top of one another, creating high living ridges with sand channels among them. Mixed schools of Blue and Brown Chromis, Bar Jacks and Creole Wrasse constantly swirl over the coral in search of food. Even the sand is fertile ground, with vast fields of Garden Eels and pairs of Flying Gurnards.

Special Touches: All of the services divers have come to expect on live-aboards are provided on Caribbean Explorer plus many special touches. For instance, when you finish the night dives, there is not only a warm towel waiting for you but a cup of hot chocolate, too. Another nice touch are the extra wide steps at the bottom of the dive ladders.

Island Tours: There is a mistaken notion that diving is the only thing you can do on live-aboards. Caribbean Explorer is one boat that offers the option of several very worthwhile land tours. The St. Kitts tour includes a visit to the Brimstone Hill Fortress, a restored British fort that was begun in 1690 and took 104 years to complete, as well as shopping in town. A Saba tour is also available, covering almost the entire length of the handbuilt road on this charming island.

Travel Information: American Airlines flies nonstop to St. Maarten from Miami and through its San Juan, Puerto Rico, hub from many other cities. Divers meet the Caribbean Explorer in St. Maarten on Saturday afternoon and a night crossing is made to Saba so diving can begin first thing Sunday. Although the itinerary changes to accommodate conditions, Sunday and Monday are usually spent diving Saba. On Monday night the Caribbean Explorer crosses over to St. Kitts, where diving continues on Tuesday and Wednesday. Wednesday night it’s back to Saba through Friday afternoon. Arrival back in St. Maarten is normally planned for around 3:00 pm Friday.

For more information, contact Explorer Ventures toll free in the U.S. and Canada at (800) 322-3577. From other locations, call (307) 235-0683 or fax (307) 235-0686. E-mail can be sent to expven@coffey. com. The Caribbean Explorer Web site is at http://www.caribexplor