Well we went on a package tour with Airtours to Barbados. The flight was OK, although they did insist on making banal announcements all over the soundtrack of the film, and it took just over 8 hours. When we arrived at Grantley Adams airport, we were warned that it might be a bit slow getting through. In the event it was fine and we were soon packed onto a minibus, with a dodgy door, heading off to our hotel.
We were staying at the Sea Breeze Hotel in Maxwell, which is a small town on the south coast. The sea's a bit rough there, with waves slightly bigger than the Channel, so if you want somewhere good for snorkelling, the west coast is a better bet. It is more expensive there though. The hotel was nice, with two swimming pools and ample sun loungers round them, and it was right next to the beach. Most of the guests are British or Dutch with a few Canadians. All the British guests seemed to either be on their honeymoon or getting married in Barbados. There were 5 other couples on our flight and every single one of them fell into this category.
Our room had air-conditioning, a fridge, cooker and bathroom.The restaurant was a bit pricey and they had a dress code requiring you to dress "elegantly casual". This meant no shorts or T-shirts but was widely ignored by most people. One night I was the smartest man in there, which is quite a novelty for me, and I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. There was a bar too and they had a happy hour from 5-6 for all rum-based drinks.
Maxwell is very quiet. There were a couple of restaurants, which rarely had many people in them. For slightly more choice, St Lawrence Gap was about 15 mins walk away and, though it wasn't exactly buzzing, it did have a few fairly busy bars and restaurants. You could also get a minibus into Bridgetown. They keep to fixed routes, and hoot at every pedestrian who even vaguely looks like they might want a ride. Most of the drivers also seem to be completely mad, driving well over the speed limit with one arm out of the window and the other on the horn. But it's a definite experience.
The unit of currency in Barbados is the Barbadian dollar. All prices in this report are quoted in them. The exchange rate is fixed so that $BDS1.97 = $US1, so there were about 3 to the pound when we were there.
The minibuses charged $1.50 for any ride of any duration. A beer in the hotel bar was $3.75 and in other bars about $2.75-3.50. You could get a six pack in the supermarket for $9. A meal for two typically cost about $70 with a couple of drinks each. In the hotel breakfast was about $22 for a buffet style, so if you were prepared to make a pig of yourself, it wasn't too bad value. They also did evening buffets at about $45. A la carte meals were a similar price, though we never actually had one.
Well what about the diving? Barbados is made of limestone from millions of years of coral growth and has a wide selection of fringing reefs. Unlike most other Caribbean islands, which are volcanic in nature, it doesn't have wall dives.
I chose to go diving with an outfit called The Dive Shop Ltd based in Aquatic Gap, which is just south of Bridgetown. They picked me up from my hotel at 9.15ish usually for a two tank "morning" dive. Of course, this being Barbados, I was rarely back before 2pm. They were running up to 3 boats whilst I was there, though they did have a larger one out of the water. January-March is usually their busiest time. The boats they had in use consisted of one for 8 divers (with a big V6 engine on the back) and two others for 4 divers, which they used when they were busy. There was no cover from the sun on the boats, which was the main reason I wore tracksuit trousers when diving. You certainly didn't need anything else for thermal protection. The water temperature was 28 degrees Celcius.
The dive sites are all within about 15 minutes boat ride, so they return back to shore for the surface interval. This was quite handy because there was a guy further down the beach who sold cold drinks and excellent rolls. He was also cheap, $2 for a ham roll, and the place was heavily frequented by local workers from the oil terminal.
On the first day I went diving, there was a guy from Ireland, myself and an American off a cruise ship. So I asked around what the qualifications were and the Irish guy was with ISAC. The American guy was a PADI Recue Diver, which is the same as me, so I assumed he'd be reasonably experienced, because most people don't bother with the higher qualifications unless they're quite keen. Anyway, on the boat the American guy took charge a bit and said he'd like to run through the hand signals. So the Irish guy and myself humoured him, and he then started preaching the gospel according to PADI. He suggested the Irish guy might like to put his weightbelt on the other way, because PADI teach right hand release, and then advised us never to put our mask on our head because it was a sign of distress. So then I asked him how many dives he'd done. It was 18 including all the certification ones, which was less than I'd done this year. The Irish guy was just shy of his century. The American then shut up.
Anyway we started the dive and went down on a fringing reef to about 25m. It was my first experience of diving in the Caribbean, so I found it really interesting. There was quite a bit of brain coral about, though relatively little staghorn, big gorgonias, loads of trees of black coral and lots of vase, barrel and tube sponges, including those bright yellow tube sponges that you always see in all the photographs. The fish life was a little disappointing, because although there were plenty of brightly coloured tropicals about, there wasn't much in the way of big fish.
Anyway, about 2/3rds on the way into the dive, the American guy ran low on air. I still had about 100bar left, so the DM got him to ascend alone whilst keeping an eye on him. Even at 25m down, you could still see the surface, so he was in view the whole time. Then we finished off our dive.
The dive was fairly typical of the reefs around Barbados. The visibility was always very good, though there was often some surge, and we had to once change dive sites because of strong currents. On my last dive of the holiday, we went to a shallow reef called the South Winds reef (after the adjacent hotel) which was much further south off the coast of Dover. Here there were far more large fish, including a barracuda that circled us aggressively, baring its teeth before swimming off. So I suspect that this reef hadn't been fished or spearfished so extensively.
As well as reefs, Barbados also has a number of wrecks. There are 3 in shallow water in Carlisle Bay itself. These are the Berwind, the Ce-Trek and the Eillon. The maximum depth for these wrecks is 15m right down to the prop of the Eillon and they can all be covered on one dive. The Berwind sank in 1916 and so is absolutely covered in fish and the Ce-Trek sank about 20 years ago and also has plenty of life on it. The Eillon was sank whilst I was there. It was a derelict that had been seized for drug smuggling 7 years ago. Obviously, there weren't any fish on it within 2 days of sinking, but it has the potential to be a good wreck. There's even some scope for some limited penetration of the bridge, because all hatches and doors were removed before sinking. The area of the 3 wrecks can get very busy. In addition to a large number of dive boats, there's often a lot of snorkellers in the water and a glass bottom boat to make friendly or obscene gestures to, depending on your mood.
One other wreck is that of a freighter called Friar's Craig which sank in 1984 and has recently broken up into 3 pieces because of the ocean surge. It's just past Asta Reef, so you usually finish up your dive there. It did seem to have a lot of life on it, but I never really had time for a really good look. The second time I dived it, there was a group of three Americans, myself and the DM. Two of us went in first and were told to wait at the bottom of the anchor line until the other 3 joined us down there. In the end we had to wait 13 minutes. Apparently the woman, who was supposed to be certified, in the party was very nervous about going down and took rather a lot of help and persuasion. In the meantime, it did give me a chance to have a real close look at everything, and it's amazing what you find when you really start looking. For one thing, the fish tend to come close if you're not moving around a lot and I saw quite a few small fish and spindly shrimp like creatures inside the sponges. Anyway, the woman had to have her hand held by her husband for the entire dive, because she had no bouyancy control at all, and she ran out of air after less than 20 minutes. So the DM motioned for me to stay with the guy I'd gone down the anchor line with, and he took the other two up. Just as I was about to have a really good look at the wreck, the other guy started waving his pressure gauge at me, so I ended up climbing back in the boat with 80 bar left. Sigh.
The best dive of the lot though, is the Stavronikita. It was a 348 feet long Greek freighter that caught fire and when then sunk deliberately in the Folkstone marine park. Prior to sinking all the doors and hatches were removed to provide easy access to the interior. The plan had been to sink it in 20m, but it slipped down in the night and now rests in about 40m, with the deck at about 20m and the top of the mast at about 8m of the surface.
I dived the Stav twice in all. The first time, we did the standard profile of 20 minutes with a maximum depth of 30m. We swam through some of the corridors and out through the holds and it was a fascinating dive. The second time, the dive shop owner Haroon took us himself. We had a fairly experienced group consisting of the crew of a cruise liner. We went down to 37.5m, swam past the huge propellor from which several whip corals were growing, then up the side of the ship and in through a blast hole at about 34m. Then we worked our way shallower through the interior of the wreck. It was absolutely fantastic and I stayed comfortably inside the no-deco time on my computer as we spent about 25 minutes before starting our ascent.
During my holiday, I went diving 12 times and it was well worth it. The dive shop I used was:
The Dive Shop Ltd
Their prices were as follows:
|No. of dives||US$||US$(own jacket & regulator)|
|1 Tank Dive||45.00||35.00|
|2 Tank Dive||65.00||55.00|
|3 Dive Package||85.00||85.00|
|6 Dive Package||190.00||165.00|
|10 Dive Package||240.00||220.00|
They were a friendly bunch and I'd recommend them to anyone. If you're looking for luxury, someone to assemble and carry your kit and hand you a drink when you get out of the water, then you might be disappointed, but the boats are fast and they don't have lots of petty restrictions on what you can do, and they're certainly one of the cheaper operations. It is a good idea though, to check which days they're going to be busy, and avoid them if possible. As you've gathered I wasn't too impressed with the standard of the American cruise ship passengers' diving. Whilst they all had nice, shiny mask, snorkels with a bizzare array of valves and a bottle of defog (every single one of them!!!), all except one of them suffered from the fact that they had very little in the way of practical experience and many hadn't dived recently. Most of them managed to suck a 207 bar 10 litre aluminium cylinder empty in about 20 minutes. Fortunately, the dive shop is quite accomodating and I rarely had to share a boat with them. There was often just myself, the DM and one other person.
All in all I'd recommend Barbados. The diving is pretty good with excellent viz, reefs in good condition and some good wreck diving. Besides, where else in the world are you going to get the chance to log a dive on a reef called "The Muff"? As for cost, well including insurance, the price was just under £620 per person. June is the beginning of the wet season, so not the dearest time, but it didn't rain too much and, when it did, a shower rarely lasted longer than half an hour before the sun came out. On the non-diving side, it was a bit quieter than I expected, but it was still enjoyable. The people are genuinely friendly and the whole atmosphere is very laid back. I probably won't return in the near future, but it has wetted my appetite to explore some of the other islands in the West Indies.