03/02/2007, Scott’s Head, Dominica
What a day … picture yourself looking straight up into the blue sky at a towering building reaching 1500 ft (about 460 m) into the air. Imagine yourself hanging off its edge or the side of the building. A bit scary, I’d say … Well, turn that image upside down with a similar structure plunging deep down into the Ocean and picture yourself floating off its edge… that’s what we did today. We went diving along a vertical wall that dropped 1500 ft straight down into the ocean blue, in the Marine Park off the south coast of Dominica. We couldn’t see all the way down to 1500 ft but rather it was deep blue darkness below us, as we swam around the edge of the wall at 80 ft (24 m) below the surface. And the visibility (the distance we could see) was easily to 120 ft (36.5 m). It was deep. And ooh, what an eery feeling.
What’s under the water? Over the course of three days, we were able to do 6 dives. We had two particularly stunning dives. Our guide, Simon Walsh (Nature Island Dive Instructor and guide) led us on our first dive to three pinnacles – three underwater cones, coming up just metres below the surface, that were formed following volcanic eruptions many years ago. In fact, the entire bay is an extinct volcanic crater that was a lava chute. On the first dive, we swam amongst an incredible coral garden – a full spectrum of bright colours, gargantuan sizes and an unbelievable range of different species. And this was home to millions of fish and other creatures. Halfway through the one hour dive, we turned a corner and came upon a very large (and hungry) adult Green Turtle settled in the middle of a reef munching away. Initially, I thought the reptile was stuck. But as I approached I could see it was feeding. Undeterred by its audience, who hung around for 10 minutes, the turtle simply carried on eating, without taking notice of any of us. It was amazing to get a close look at the power of its beak and watch how easily it broke off chunks of coral. A little further along, a young Hawksbill Turtle swam right up to David looking for its picture to be taken. It was magic – getting close-ups of the incredible range of wildlife. It made me think that it’s not something that happens on land very often.
On our final dive of the day we were on a mission to find a sea horse. Simon seemed to know where not one, or two but three sea horses had their territories. As with any wildlife sightings, he could make no promises. It was simply hoped for. We had seen a sea horse previously in a tank at the Nature Centre in the Solomon Islands in the Chesapeake. We both remember it being teeny tiny. So, with fingers crossed, we jumped into the water. After 15 minutes, we heard Simon’s rattle, indicating he wanted our attention. You can imagine our excitement when Simon pointed out the monstrous black sea horse. It must have been all of 12 – 13 cm (4-5 inches). It was just quietly sitting with its tail coiled around a piece of black fern coral, hoping not to be noticed. No wonder we couldn’t find any on our own. If you blinked, you’d miss it. But Simon’s trained eye knew exactly what to look for. He later told us the other two sea horses were much smaller. I imagine it ‘d be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Marine Park Back onshore, at the end of the dive, Simon sat down with us to talk about the importance of the Marine Reserve. He first pointed out that the Marine Reserve was established based on the model in St Lucia. In this area of southern Dominica, where the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea meet, the water is rich with diverse fish, at great depths. And the area is also rich with pristine coral reefs which are the nursery beds for fish. As with all parks, essentially they’re established to protect a very unique environment and its valuable resources. And Scott’s Head on the southern Dominican coast was a prime example.
In large part because of the richness of the coral reef, this area had been a great fishing area for local fishermen. So, when the idea to restrict access to certain parts of the area was made public, fishermen were not happy. Added to that, Scuba divers and snorkelers were also using the area daily, for recreational diving. More users meant limited access by fishermen as well. The notion of establishing a Marine Reserve became complicated. Simon emphasized that the key to the success of the Marine Park was communication. First you had to hear everyone’s concerns and then come up with solutions that would benefit everyone.
For the fishermen who’d been fishing in the bay for a long time one great solution was proposed. It was called a Fish Attracting Device and it was a very simple idea. Here’s how it worked: an area needed to be created in deep water where fish would be attracted and fishermen could then fish in that area rather than in the shallow reefs of the marine park. The device, in very simple terms, is like a large square canvas tarpaulin that is anchored to the sea bed at its four corners. The tarpaulin creates the feeling of a reef with its large overhangs. This is where small fish love to hide. With these small fish in a specific area, the larger fish, who were the predators, were now attracted. Like the fish, the fishermen were also attracted to this area in hopes of catching the larger fish. This Fish Attracting Devise was a great success – it allowed the fishermen to have a single place to fish in deep water where they caught the larger fish they’d been catching in the shallow reefs. The coral reefs were protected from heavy use by fishermen. This also meant that divers could safely dive on the pristine coral reefs, and nursery beds were protected. So, it was something that worked for everyone. Unfortunately, the Fish Attracting Device was recently damaged by Ship traffic, so a replacement is in the works.
To solve any communication problems of the Marine Park, a committee was created representing everybody who had a stake in the success of the Park to come together and discuss their concerns. These included fishermen, village councillors, the tourist industry, the Coast Guard, the Government Fisheries officials and the Watersports Association. Through the committee’s work, the park was divided into 4 zones: a fish nursery zone that protects breeding and spawning fish, a designated area for beach goers and swimmers, several Scuba Diving areas with mooring buoys for local dive boats to use, and a separate regulated fishing area. This arrangement seems to be working and as with all changes and plans, fine tuning will likely be needed.
It’s future Simon explained that Dominica’s Marine Reserve has a good chance of success if communication remains open with all the users and most importantly, time and energy is put into educating the next generations as to the importance of preserving a marine park. To this end, Simon together with the Watersports Association and the Marine Park officials are meeting with school children whenever possible to teach them about the treasure that’s right at their door step. Generations of Dominicans and visitors alike have alot to look forward to with individuals like Simon Walsh around. Simon is committed to preserving the natural beauty of this area for everyone. And he’s doing it with great gusto. We’re certainly looking forward to returning to one of the Caribbean’s natural beauties.