Saint Martin: Underrated Diving Destination

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Saint-Martin, Sint-Maarten or SXM was a last minute destination. One of those cases where your body can no longer take the stress you’ve been putting it through and cracks start to show in the armour, or in this case the immune system. I’m not talking about myself obviously but of my  dive buddy. So asked if I would organize a quick dash to the islands I obliged.

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I scanned for possible destinations based on airfare deals and correlated with condos for rent, a proximous (not a real word) dive shop and that was that.

SXM, on the north eastern edge of the Caribbean is a relic of the colonial power struggles that shaped much of the region. Divided between the French and the Dutch in 1648, the border as it is, essentially a marker on the side of the road, runs roughly west to east, not along the middle of the island but a bit more to the south. This makes the French side slightly larger, apparently the French negotiated the treaty with a good chunk of their navy anchored right off shore. I just realized that there could be some sort of parallel to be drawn with it’s namesake saint, the one that cut his cloak in half with his sword, and the division of the island, I’m the only one in this? Ok then.

When you read about diving destinations in the Caribbean some places crop up regularly, first and foremost Bonaire (we look forward to spending a month there, eventually) and then other perennial favourites (Cozumel, Utila), but not St-Martin. However, in this case the greater need  was on some well deserved R&R (and a reasonable budget), again obviously not for me but for my dive buddy (not because I’m an übermencsh but because I’m a slacker, much less work=much less stress), and so as scuba divers we went with zero expectations. I mean nothing with a side of SFA. We settled on Grand Case because that is where the dive shop was and according to the internet many of the finest tables in the islands. Of course as we went off season a lot of places were closed but no matter, this isn’t about fine dining. There are dive shops in other spots around the island including the Dutch side, but generally speaking I really like France and French foods so I was biased from the start. Plus this one had a cool logo, it looks a little bit like the octopus is giving you the finger.

It does sort of look like it's flipping the bird.
It does sort of look like it’s flipping the bird.

So disclaimer right away (caveat urinator, and I can’t believe the latin for diver is that word, it dovetails with my last post somewhat), this is not a review of Octopus Diving, nor is it a promo/shill piece for them. We dove with them, it was a well run shop, they were nice, we liked it, enough said.

St-Martin is known for its short runway, you know the place where you see people on the beach with planes right overhead? That’s it. Not the best video, but I was giddy like a little boy for some reason.

Once you land the pilot really stomps on the breaks, or most likely reverses the thrust controls and leans on them. Not your average landing, your seat belt gets a workout. We made our way from the airport to our rental. There’s always some trepidation involved, renting over the net carries a bunch of unknowns, even for semi experienced vrbo/homeaway/flipkey users, you never quite know how old the pictures are and obviously the place is shot to look its best. It could have been a closet with a nice view, it wasn’t. This place was pretty sweet, some wear and tear but you really can’t beat having breakfast on the beach and indoors at the same time.

Sound of waves, smell of sea and breakfast? Fantastic.
Sound of waves, smell of sea and breakfast? Fantastic.

As it turns out Grand Case also has an airport and it’s right smack in the middle of town. These pilots know what they’re doing. Unlike the person filming, vertical video noob.

So we stocked the fridge with essentials and let the beer chill.

Pretty much the official beer of that trip.
Pretty much the official beer of that trip.

Then we headed to the terrasse to survey the kingdom and enjoy something from the local drinkskultur (I told you it was going to catch on).

That's right, rosé with ice, deal with it.
That’s right, rosé with ice, deal with it. Cheers Saint-Martin.

Throughout most of the Caribbean good wine is either absent or insanely pricy. We once had a locally made white wine served in martini glasses, a bad omen I should have heeded, I had cramps for a week. Ever since we stick to cervezas or to shaking our own cocktails (we sometimes travel with a shaker, luggage always gets inspected). However since we were in France, every store carried a relatively decent wine selection, superb by island standards. Don’t be upset about the ice. Rosé with ice is a Provençal custom, that’s how they drink it where the stuff is produced and they frequently do so  shockingly early for us North Americans. I was introduced to this by members of the D&C who spent some time in that region. One of them also created the crab dance, more on that in another post.

So we let our gaze wander and wonder over the land, rising and falling with its topography, gliding over the waters. Our senses wakened by the higher destiny of grapes, we declared it good. Across the channel from Grand Case you can see the British island of Anguilla, it is completely flat and I’m guessing probably a sedimentary outcrop. I regret not going. Catch the ferry from Marigot and check it out.

And it was good.
And it was good.

I am tempted to go full national geographics on your collective asses but that would probably stretch my skill and your patience. Let’s just say that the bedrock in the area is volcanic in origin and has been metamorphosed. Around Saint-Martin this translates to a noteworthy underwater topography. The thick layers of rock warped and eroded make for unique canyons and amphitheaters with step like sides, you can see this at sites such as Basse Espagnole and Cable Reef.

Once the rosé had given up the ghost we went on a walk to discover a bit of Grand Case, find the dive shop and make arrangement for the next day.

Grand Case is fantastic but it is not Cancun or Honolulu if that’s what you like, there are no high rises and only one biggish hotel/resort at the very north end of the beach. At the south end, just after the cemetery, you’ll find what I guess is a remnant of hurricane Luis in 1995. One of the several wrecks we saw on this trip, but the only one not underwater.

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Grand Case used to be a fishing village and it retains much of that feel, it’s not picture perfect it’s wabi-sabi. The concrete dock that divides the beach has partly collapsed into the water, and  there’s a gritty feel to the town. Because of all that it looks like and remains a real place, a place where locals still live, where you can hear chickens and in some places it smells rank. It’s awesome, it’s not a tourism disneyland. You’ll see older gents playing dominoes in a garage, quite a few kids on bikes, families barbecuing between houses and you’ll hear the music from private parties not resorts. It’s an actual living town. Which sort of brings me to the question of security and crime.

Oh yeah, you're in France.
Oh yeah, you’re in France.

If the D&C was an army unit I’d probably be the security officer. I’m the one that makes sure all the doors are locked at night, and that generally everybody is safe and secure. I used to travel with a large maglite, btw that also guarantees having your luggage searched. So I read up about crime in Saint-Martin, and boy the horror stories. In the planning stages it almost made me reconsider the destination. I’m glad I didn’t.

I’m not making light of the reports of crime, far from it, that issue is always present in my mind, but remember you also get many horror stories from big destinations like Nassau, and what you read about Mexico can be simply terrifying. That’s a fact of travel, you don’t have diplomatic immunity and shit can happen. I think the fact that on top of the police, the Gendarmerie is now patrolling Grand Case is telling. The Gendarmes (literally “men of weapons”) are essentially the police forces of the French army, they are military personnel with law enforcement powers. Also on Friday evening and weekends private security was visible on main street, clearly a situation was being addressed. During our stay part of the road that circles the island was closed one day, apparently there had been a shooting. Then again, there was a shooting in my hometown last week so…

Did we stay watchful? Always. Did we walk along the beach at night? No. Did we stumble home drunk? Hellzno! Was I wearing an expensive watch? Never. A) I don’t own one B) it’s indecent/looking for trouble to wear several months of someone’s wages on your wrist, especially when you travel. Would I go back to Grand Case? Absolutely, and I would still remain vigilant. Also I would take the opportunity to go to Anguilla.

Take from that what you will, you can’t live in fear (you will never do anything), nor in denial/perpetual spring break mode (you will get into trouble, possibly very bad trouble). Keep your wits about you and don’t do anything abroad you wouldn’t do at home. Stay in charge of your safety, you are the boss of you.

Now to the diving.

Over a ten day trip that included 7 days of diving, we went under 17 times and it was glorious.

And a good morning to you sir.
And a good morning to you sir.

I’ll post a video montage eventually, when I’ll get less sucky at editing. For now you’ll just have to trust me. We dove from several boats, all comfy, varying in size and configuration, but you know, Kraken.

Release it! Release it!
Release it! Release it!

The dive sites are pretty much scattered around the island, so if you are there any length of time you’ll end up diving both the French and Dutch sides, and in the vicinity of Tintamarre island as well. All this is awesome because you get to see more of the island from that special vantage point that is the dive boat.

Helpful display outside the shop.
Helpful display outside the shop.

In October 2015 the water was warm, 80F/27C, the dive were usually around 50-60 feet, lasting anywhere between 45 to 60 minutes or a smidge beyond that. The only exception was the wreck of the Fusheng, one of several cool wrecks we got to dive along with the Gregory and the Carib Ghost.

The Fusheng, now a lionfish condo.
The Fusheng, now a lionfish condo.

A dive with a fairly square profile, bottoming out at 108 feet in my case, it was necessarily short, 28 minutes and two safeties. There was something sad and majestic about that wreck lying lonely on its side.

Another wreck, the Carib Ghost was shallower, around 65 feet, there were fun short swim throughs, as well as a host of sea life: giant lobsters, spotted eels, an unhurried eagle ray, and a lazy shark that kept coming around. You know the kind, it’s not dangerous, but you still keep an eye on it. Quite a few reef sharks on this trip actually, and one lonesome nurse shark.

The Carib Ghost
The Carib Ghost

The Gregory wreck was noteworthy for the amazing colours and for all the fish hiding inside it.

Dude! Don't perv on us through our window.
Dude! Don’t perv on us through our window.

Also it’s an actual wreck, not an artificial reef. Sitting upside down at about 50 feet it’s a great dive for all experience levels.

Zero colour correction!
Zero colour correction!

There are a lot of cool critters in these waters and surprisingly many many big lobsters. Apparently some parts of the channel are protected from fishing and it really shows. We saw several lobsters walking about in the open, not even hiding from us.

Here’s a quick gallery of some of the critters we encountered.

Like I said sharks, quite a few of them, majestic creatures every inch the hunter. No matter what you’ve been told, when a shark comes straight at you, there’s always some alarm going off inside your head. A small oh shit moment.

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We were pleasantly surprised that the place was not overrun with lionfishes. Spearfishing is not my thing, especially if it’s purely for sport/contests, I think that sucks, don’t kill it if you’re not going to eat it. Rant over. Anyways, Iionfish caught in our waters should be on all our menus. I’ll give you my Doritos crusted lionfish recipe one day.

Kill 'em and grill 'em we say.
Beautiful, yes, but kill ’em and grill ’em we say.

Several turtles as well. These guys are the like the embodiment of underwater zen. I just love them.

Putting the chillin' in Diving & Chillin'.
Putting the chillin’ in Diving & Chillin’.

Usually all you see of lobsters is their feelers sticking out of a crack. Not so here. We even saw a few walking on their legs extended straight underneath them, giving them a  War of the Worlds like appearance.

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Also I’m a fan of flamingo tongues. It amazes me that the spots on the shell are actually part of the mollusk mantle, they come out of the shell and drape over it.

Do you see it?
Do you see it?

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They feed on the coral (everything feeds on something else in the sea) the dark parts of this coral are scars, for lack of a better word, where the soft coral has been eaten.

Tons to see really, and that’s without mentioning all the other fishes, juvenile spotted drums, high hats, wrasses, basslets, butterfly fish, sergeant majors, as well as spanish lobster, cleaning shrimps, arrow crabs, octopuses and squids. Yeah, it was amazing. One DM took the piss out of us all week because we missed out on a pod of dolphins they met on the one morning dive we didn’t do. He wasn’t lying, I saw the video. Lessons.

We also got a night dive in around Creole Rock, and were treated to phosphorescent plankton on the surface. Night dives are a special experience, they can suck horribly or verge on the transcendent. If you feel uncomfortable with legions of tiny fishes smacking into you,  avoid them.  I got bullied by a squid this time, then I ate him. No I didn’t.

Yeah, huge darkness, tiny beams of light, keep your imagination in check.
Yeah, huge darkness, tiny beams of light, keep your imagination in check.

Saint-Martin really surprised us, partly it’s because we went with no expectations at all, but in it’s own right I believe it’s a kick-ass dive destination, humble opinion.

Agree, disagree?

Elkhorn coral.
Elkhorn coral.

 

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