They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Well, at 31 years of age I’ve learned to ski, back country hike, fly-fish and scuba dive – all in the space of a year.
But I think I’m getting the hang of scuba diving
I’ve had a fascination with the ocean for a very long time. I was a water baby, learning to swim right around the time I learned to walk. Some of my earliest memories are of my Dad encouraging me to push through the pounding breakers at Scarborough Beach in our home city of Perth to reach the calmer water out the back.
It was terrifying but once I’d conquered my fear the water became my second home.
What lay beneath had always been a mystery that I’d never had the chance to uncover. Snorkelling and duck diving gave me a glimpse of the world under the sea but only scuba diving gives you access to the good bits. I just never found the time to learn how to do it.
Learning to dive on Dominica
When we scored a two-month long house sitting assignment on Dominica in the Caribbean we decided to use our time as well as we could and learning to dive was top of the list. Dominica’s dive sites are world famous for their beauty, clarity and diversity so we had no excuse for missing out.
We went to see Billy and his wife Sam at ALDive Dominica just outside the capital of Roseau. Billy is known as ‘The Master Chief’ and is a diving expert with years of experience under his (weight) belt. He agreed to teach us and gave us copies of the PADI school DVD so we could study up before our first lesson.
We swotted up and on our first day Billy kitted us out with a BCD vest, wet suit, mask and flippers, weight belt, regulator and tank and told us to jump off the jetty at his facility and into the ocean.
Don’t worry, we had studied how it all worked so it wasn’t sink or swim!
But I was very nervous right before I took my first giant stride into a new world. Breathing under water is not natural. Would I freak out? I remembered being freaked out by snorkelling the first time I did it, so how would I take to scuba diving?
No problem at all. Carmen loved it too.
We did our buddy checks, deflated our buoyancy vests and went down, down, down to the bottom where Billy ran us through some drills. We took our regulators out of our mouths then popped them back in. Took our masks off and put them back on.
It was a little freaky but once we’d conquered our fears the water became our playground.
After three days of intense learning we were ready for our first proper dives. Billy took us in his very fast Boston Whaler to a dive site called Solomon, named after a magistrate who died there when his car ran off the coast road and plunged into the sea; a grim portent.
But the water was very calm and clear that day and we plunged into the water right next to a huge jetty used to offload rocks from a nearby quarry.
Thousands of fish have made their homes among the weed-covered jetty pylons and swam around us like ballroom dancers. It was stunning and for a long while I forgot I was there to learn. It’s lovely bobbing along at the bottom of the beautiful briny sea.
The sensation of flying through the water, ears muffled by the hiss and gurgle of your regulator is very meditative. After the dive I surfaced and smiled for the rest of the day.
When we’d completed the rest of our dives and I got my PADI Open-Water certification I smiled even wider. Now Carmen and I could do some proper dives. We signed up for five days – ten dives in all – and Carmen’s mum (and scuba fanatic) Vanessa was flying out from Australia to join us.
We spent the next week and a half exploring the tranquil waters of the Caribbean Sea , diving every second day with Billy leading the expeditions.
If you’re going to Dominica to dive Billy is your man.
Here are 4 of our favourite dive sites in Dominica:
1. Champagne Reef
This dive site is probably Dominica’s most popular and when a cruise ship (or three) docks in Roseau the water there will be crowded. But for good reason.
The still active volcano of Dominica rises up behind the rocky beach at Champagne Reef and under the water there are hundreds of vents that send streams of bubbles rising to the surface. It looks just like champagne and swimming through the bubbling water is an amazing experience.
The water there is quite warm so there are scores of species of fish – trunk fish, trumpet fish, squid, goat fish and more. Spiral coral, wave coral, coral galore. It’s a magical place and we did two separate dives at Champagne as well as two snorkeling expeditions. It’s unmissable.
2. Scott’s Head
There are two sides to Dominican oceans – calm and furious. The calm side is the Caribbean Sea where Billy’s dive shop is located and most of the dive sites are. The Atlantic side of the island is very rough and only the most intrepid and experienced divers attempt to do their thing there.
Scott’s Head is right at the bottom of the island at the tip of a long, curving bay. A tall spit of land divides the water there between Atlantic and Caribbean, and where the two waters meet there is a submerged volcano crater filled with fish, coral and caves. Quite sublime.
3. The Wall
The submerged volcano off Dominica’s Caribbean side is huge. Inside the bowl there is a mix of deep and shallow dive sites all teeming with fish. But if you go to the edge of the volcano and look over the side, you stare into an abyss. It plunges down and as you float there looking at the dark it can be quite scary. But turn around and look at the wall and you are in fish watching heaven.
There are so many species of brightly coloured fish, turtles, nurse sharks and squid that I was overwhelmed. We dove the wall twice and loved it both times.
4. Coral Gardens
This dive site is close to shore and quite warm when the sun hits it. There is so much coral you can lose yourself in it, almost! The biggest challenge here is buoyancy, making sure you don’t drift onto the delicate coral formations. If you can manage that then the views are spectacular – lots of red and orange beds with green tubes and blue fans. Magic.
What you need to know:
Cost: Expect to pay less diving in Dominica than you will in most other islands in the Caribbean. ALDive Dominica is great value, and the more dives you book, the cheaper it gets. We ended up paying around US$65 per dive, as we got a discount because we did the PADI course with them.
Our PADI course cost us US$500 each.
Where to go: ALDive is a five minute drive south from the capital Roseau on Loubiere Rd. It has its own jetty.
When to go: The rainy season is a bummer and hits Dominica between June and November. But December to May is perfect and when the sun shines Dominica does too. Go for it!
Anything else: The gear and dive boats are top notch at ALDive and Billy is a fantastic, safe, organised and fun dive leader with a well-trained crew backing him up.