Diving in the Caribbean by Phil Carta and Jenny Darby

Upon arrival in St. Maarten it was a short taxi ride to Bobby's Marina to a warm greeting aboard the Caribbean Explorer. Even though I arrived on the late flight and it was now 11:00 PM, Jennifer, the cook, had a wonderful hot meal await for me. My gear bag was left on deck and my small bag of clothes was carried to my cabin by a crew member. These are just a small sample of the service you receive on board the Caribbean Explorer.

As a veteran of liveaboards, having been on most in the Caribbean, I was impressed with the level of service on the Caribbean Explorer. This boat has, without a doubt, the best crew of any liveaboard in the world. Captain Luc Callebaut and Photo Pro Jackie Lee have traveled extensively around the world on their own boat and as operators for other dive operations. This has given them the knowledge needed to make the Caribbean Explorer dive experience what it is. As an extra benefit you get the opportunity to watch slide shows or video each evening that Luc and Jackie have shot in many of the exotic destinations they have visited.

After everyone is on board the crew casts of for the trip to Saba. The next morning you awake to the smell of coffee brewing and Jennifer's smiling face in the kitchen. Breakfasts were wonderful with the largest variety of menu selections of any liveaboard I've been on. Choices ranged from eggs (any style), waffles, French toast and at least 10 different types of cereal.

As soon as everyone finished breakfast we had our dive briefing from dive instructor Rich Buttenshaw. Rich explained the rules of the boat: always dive with a buddy (if you do not have one a crew member will gladly accompany you), never exceed the depth limit of 130 fsw and no decompression diving. We were then given an excellent briefing of the dive site and off we went on our first dive. Entry is from sides of boat with a short 5 foot drop into the water.

The typical diving day consisted of breakfast, dive, rest, dive, lunch, dive, rest, dive, dinner, rest, night dive, watch slides or video . . . and then try to get to your room before falling asleep. Then you wake up and start all over again.

Saba is fondly called the Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean and when you see the underwater life you will surely agree. The area is known for its pinnacle diving volcanic mounds that just up off the floor of the ocean with the tops starting in 90 feet of water. My experience diving the Eye of the Needle was just spectacular. I entered the water and descended the mooring line to wait for my buddy. I was greeted by a large gray reef shark that slowly circled me as I shot my roll of film. Then to my amazement the shark followed us around the pinnacle. The Eye of the Needle is awesome enough with its covering of colorful corals but the shark added a little something extra.

Other pinnacles include Third Encounter and Twilight Zone which have depths of 300 to 3000 feet. You can imagine how they got their names. In the afternoons we did shallow diving on the reefs in the area (Saba is a protected marine park) where we saw turtles on almost every dive along with stingrays, garden eels, flamingo tongues, flounder, porcupine fish, huge parrotfish, blue tangs, coneys, butterfly fish, filefish, barracuda and schools of every kind of Caribbean fish imaginable. On one dive I spent the entire time playing with a pair of beautiful squid which changed colors constantly for my camera.

After 2 days in Saba we departed for St. Kitts to dive an area that few divers have the opportunity to visit. It was a 3 hour trip, made after dinner while we sat on the top deck watching movies and reading. The next morning several of us decided to take an island tour of St. Kitts instead of the morning's diving. Diving is always available the tours are optional at a slight cost.

St. Kitts is a gorgeous island well worth the time spent there. Highlights of the land excursion include a trip to the Brimstone Hill National Park along with a visit to Romney Manor, home of Caribelle Batik one of the few places left that make real Batik, not the cheap wax print stuff found in some shops. They will give you a free demonstration and explain the process of true Batik. You may also purchase shirts, wraps and art from them. After returning, some guests took the ferry over to Nevis while the rest of us decided to try the diving.

Diving in St. Kitts is mostly shallow with several wrecks and some very nice reefs. What impressed me most was the fish were not scared of the divers and the photographers on board had great results. I was especially pleased with the porcupine fish, which I call ET fish because of the big eyes. They did not shyly disappear like in most places they came right out and posed for the camera.

After two days in St. Kitts we headed back to Saba, again after dinner so as to not interfere with the dive schedule. We did more pinnacles, reefs and even took an optional tour of the island of Saba. That evening the Caribbean Explorer treated us to dinner at Brigadoons for some excellent fresh fish cuisine. My marinated conch steak was heavenly.

Saba is a very unusual Caribbean island in that it has no sand beach. The top of an ancient volcano, it is a huge rock jutting out of the ocean with a rain forest on top. You must try Saba Spice, the spiced rum made by some of the ladies on the island from a secret and very ancient recipe. I enjoyed it so much that a case followed me home!

All too soon it was Friday and our last day of diving. We did 2 morning dives, had lunch and then started the return trip to St. Maarten. For part of the trip we were treated to a pod of dolphins which circled the boat and gave us a show. Upon arrival in St. Maarten we packed our gear and spent the afternoon shopping in the duty free shops around Phillipsburg. That last night we all got together at a local restaurant for a final dinner.

The 106 foot Caribbean Explorer carries 18 passengers in 9 cabins (6 cabins have private lavatories) There are 3 heads, 2 on the lower deck, 1 on the upper. The crew has a head in their quarters. There is a reverse osmosis water maker with a 1500 gallon per day capacity. She is also well equipped for photographers with a dedicated camera table and lots of outlets for charging. Plus 2 monster coolers on the top deck were well stocked with soft drinks and beer.

At the risk of overusing a cliche, the food was first class and plentiful. There was lots of fresh fish and fresh fruit for snacks. Buffet lunches and were served on the top deck: salads and grilled burgers. Dinners were varied and, when it wasn't fresh fish, it was chicken and barbequed ribs. It was true divers' food.

The atmosphere aboard the Caribbean Explorer was outstanding: the crew was always smiling and happy. They all receive 5 stars for making my week on the Caribbean Explorer a success.