An intimate knowledge and genuine enthusiasm for marine life are attributes that define some of the best dive guides. Such qualities enable them to turn an hour underwater into an enriching learning experience. Bill Tewes, proprietor of Dive St Vincent, takes that experience to a whole new level. He has single-handedly transformed St Vincent into the “Critter Diving Capital of the Caribbean.”
Bill is a weather-beaten Texan, full of energy and anecdotes. “I’ll dive every day until I die. Hell, there’s nothing else to do, is there?” he quips in a strong Texan twang as the huge twin engines of the dive boat roar into life. Bill moved to St Vincent 21 years ago. Previously, he was based in Papua New Guinea, running one of the pioneering dive outfits there. “I left New Guinea because every night when I came home, I had either been robbed, was being robbed or was about to be robbed. It grew kind of tiresome after a while,” he tells me.
“I saw that a guy was selling a dive centre in St Vincent, so I thought what the hell, looks like a nice place but I had no idea just how special it really was,” he continues. Until recently, St Vincent was generally described as typically Caribbean. It had nice reefs, and was popular with American divers due to its close proximity to the United States but it had nothing that really stood out to entice divers from afar.
It is not that St Vincent has changed since then. Rather, Bill had used his time well, focussing on a more unique aspect of what this island has to offer in its surrounding waters. Entering the old shack that forms the dive centre, you are bombarded with a plethora of colour. Images of the weird and wonderful – including some animals which I’d never seen before – adorn the entry porch to the dive hut. There are also images produced by some well-known photographers. My own attention is immediately focussed. Pointing out any one of the animals portrayed in the images prompts Bill to reply with a description of the animal and where the photo was taken. He follows with a description of the animal, like a living encyclopaedia. I can’t help but feel eager to get into the water, his enthusiasm is that infectious.
The dive boat leaves at a respectable 9:30am, leaving time for a relaxed breakfast. His boats are fast, so we’re at our first dive destination, known simply as “The Steps”, in no time at all. Tanks are filled only to 175 bar; with an average dive depth of 10 metres, this is enough for an hour or more of diving. The dive is slow and relaxed, mimicking the pace of life above water. The aim is not to cover ground, but to find the unusual, the weird and the wonderful. Good buoyancy control is a must – it’s all too easy to stir up the sediment and ruin visibility. We spend most of the time moving along the sand or mudflats, which at first appear as no more than a barren moonscape, but it is here that some of the most unusual critters can be found. It seems that every square metre of this underwater realm contains life, some of it more obscure than what I had ever encountered. Bill and his guides identify each creature and use waterproof writing pads to name what they have found – it was akin to diving with an active guide book.
Indeed, after only one dive here, it is clear that St Vincent is unusually rich in marine fauna. I wonder if the other dive destinations are equally as rich; of course, it really boils down to the guide’s ability to find the unusual that makes this place seem so special. Bill has a theory on this. “I believe it’s the nutrient-rich currents that run from the Atlantic through the channel between our neighbour Bequia and us that have made St Vincent what it is. When I first came here, I didn’t realise that this place had the treasures it has. But over the years, I’ve come to realise that it is a truly special place,” Bill tells me.
Special it most certainly is. The divers that visit Bill were certainly not what I’d call casual divers – they were keen photographers and critter enthusiasts equipped with an array of animal identification books; these people are serious divers and some whom I spoke to visit several times a year. Such is the attraction of this relatively unknown place. Some world renowned marine life experts have also recognised the uniqueness of what Bill has discovered. The chances of discovering the undiscovered is so high that Bill himself found an undocumented species when I was diving with him. “My enthusiasm for diving has never been greater,” Bill informs me. “I just never know what I’m going to find, even on reefs I’ve visited countless times before.”
St Vincent itself lies about 35 kilometres from St Lucia, its nearest neighbour to the north. Although a small island just 29 by 18 kilometres, its interior is a tangle of lush vegetation, and is distinctly mountainous with deep valleys. The Grenadines group of islands run 75 kilometres south all the way to Grenada, and include islands such as Mustique and Bequia – popular with the rich and famous, and known for their white sandy beaches. It’s also a popular sailing destination. St Vincent is much like Dominica in that it has shied away from becoming a package destination, having no international airport. Its period charm is evident in my choice of accommodation. The Mariners Hotel is styled in typical Caribbean architecture – fresh, clean colours and full of character, it boasts a superb restaurant and lies only a few minutes’ walk from Dive St Vincent’s jetty. Together, they lie on the edge of a small stretch of water that runs between the mainland and the more exclusive Young Island Resort. St Vincent therefore offers good accommodation within easy reach of the best diving spots.
It is off the shores of the aforementioned Young Island, only a two minutes' boat journey from the dive centre, where I had one of the most bizarre of dives. After having moored on an anchor buoy, I took around 20 minutes to reach the seabed, which lay only eight metres below. The reason is testament to Bill's theory on the nutrient-rich waters. It was because I found that the entire buoy rope was in itself an oasis of marine life. I never have before seen a rope so encrusted with corals and sponges with a whole variety of creatures making this place their home. I daren’t touch the rope itself, for fear of the absolute destruction I would have caused to this fragile mini-ecosystem.
The remainder of the dive was no less interesting – burrowing starfish, decorator crabs, jawfish, the rare golden coral shrimp – all found on a flat, seemingly featureless sandy bottom.
St Vincent's coastline is no less absorbing than its undersea environment. It is pocketed with coves and hidden bays, whilst various sea bird species nest on the steep cliffs. It fuels the imagination.
“You may recognise this place,” Bill quips as our boat snakes around the headland. Indeed, our dive site today is Orca Point, the bay used as the “Treasure Cave” setting for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
As we descend beneath the boat, we quickly discover our own undersea treasures, far more beautiful than any man-made creation. The rare magnificent urchin greets us with a plethora of colour, reds richer than I have ever seen. I look on in wonder as I observe that these animals are actually capable of walking at some speed. I wonder if they know where they are going, as one heads off in the same direction as the other, clearly with intent.
Not satisfied with such a wonderful find, Bill is keen to point out the miniscule shrimp that live amongst the spines of this rarely seen animal. Our attention turns now to the green vegetation that blankets the seabed. Perseverance pays off as we spot the tiny Bumblebee shrimp – no less special than our earlier find. Smaller than the fingernail on my little finger, we tracked it as it darted amongst the seaweed, ever eager to escape our prying eyes.
Every dive on St Vincent ends with you wanting more, and every dive begins with the excitement of not knowing what you will find. But always, you have a feeling that you will certainly find many things, most of which will be new to you. Despite the slow pace of life on St Vincent, the time there ends too quickly. I now recall my visit to St Lucia when the dive guide, Bernd, made a statement about how different the diving can be from one island to the next in the Caribbean – how right he was.
After so many years of pointing out “critters” and over 30 years as a dive instructor, Bill has decided to hang up his flippers, put his pointer away, recline in his hammock with a rum and coke and enjoy the life of retirement. His shop will continue to show the healthy reefs, fish and, of course, the “critters” that have made Dive St. Vincent famous. His shop will continue to show the healthy reefs, fish and, of course, the “critters” that have made Dive St. Vincent famous. Thanks Bill for the experience we have made with you.
Top Dive Sites on St Vincent
The majority of Dive St. Vincent's dive sites are on the leeward, or western side of the island. The journey to the sites by speedboat takes an average of 10 to 15 minutes. Moorings have been installed at the most popular sites to protect the reefs.
The Wall: Beneath the cliffs that protrude into the sea, this reef has a richness of life that rivals the topside flora and fauna. The wall is full of black corals in an array of colours. Gorgonians, barrel and vase sponges intersperse the reef. Large populations of chromis and creole wrasse swim over the seascape.
Orca Point: This site is full of critters of all shapes and sizes, making it an excellent spot for night dives. A wonderful area for macro photography, you can see several types of seahorses, Flamingo tongue snails, frogfishes and a whole variety of crustaceans on a typical dive. The site descends from six to 30 metres, and the best way to explore it is to start out on the deep side and work your way to the shallow boulders with swarming fish.
Orca II has the best of both worlds, encompassing a beautiful reef and an area for muck diving. The reef side is very coral-rich, containing an abundance of life. The muck diving side displays many of the critters St Vincent has become famous for, including flying gurnards, seahorses and a diversity of crustaceans, in addition to pike blennies.
Critter Corner: A photographer’s dream site. In only eight metres of water, you’ll be limited by the amount of film or the space in your flash card rather than bottom time. Pistol shrimp, cardinalfish, torpedo rays, gurnards, seahorses – they can all be seen here. As mentioned, the buoy line itself is so encrusted in coral and sponges that my descent took 20 minutes. There’s just so much life was to be found in this small space.
Useful websites for St Vincent