Critter Diving in St. Vincent

St. Viincent as seen from Young Island

Scuba diving sometimes seems like the three-ring circus of the animal world. On a typical topical reef dive, you’re likely to see more fish than you can ever learn the names of, and in my experience, sea turtles, sharks, rays, and even the occasional dolphin make regular appearances.  Coral reefs are the richest biological ecosystems on the planet, with some of them harboring hundreds of species of fish and corals in colors ranging from bright purple to neon green. So I don’t usually spend much time looking at the underwater equivalent of, well, bugs.

Diving with Bill Tewes at Dive St. Vincent changed all that.

Tewes’s “critter dives” are famous for showing divers a whole other world: the world of tiny creatures that many of us overlook.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Diving with an expert naturalist is always an eye-opening experience.
  • You’ll learn about an aspect of coral reefs you’ve most proablay overlooked
  • Good for divers, at any level, particularly underwater photographers.

Our dive took place on a sandy sea bed near, but not directly on, a coral reef. The nooks and crannies under rocks, the sand sandy patches in a sea-grass beds, tiny holes in the sand: This is the realm of what Tewes, who owns Dive St. Vincent, calls “critters,” creatures like sea horses, shrimp, clams, and jaw fish. It’s its own miniature universe of fascinating marine life that is often overlooked on traditional dives, and Tewes’s passion for sharing the details of this strange world has made his dive shop the Critter Capital of the Caribbean.

The Overlooked  Denizens of the Undersea World

Tewes carries a pointer, an underwater slate, and a marker, so he can point to and identify each creature. He also uses hand signals, although I’m spectacularly unintuitive when it comes to figuring out hand gestures: I much prefer it when he writes down that the miniscule worm that we see sticking out of the sand is a migrant from South America. Once in a while, he hands over a creature that is safe to touch or pokes at a mollusk, sending it improbably scuttling. (Did you know a mollusk could scuttle? I didn’t.)

Tewes can’t exactly predict what divers will see on any given dive. Light conditions, wave action, currents, tides, and water temperature all affect who is hanging out where.

Sea horses are semi-transparent

You just have to know where to look, and Tewes does: Here’s a partial list of likely sightings: sea plumes, sea whips, sea fans, sea snakes, sea horses, gorgonians, red banded lobster, fingerprint flamingo tongues, frog fish, clams, crabs, a variety of shrimp in their anemones, peacock flounders, brotula, pikeblennies, flying gurnards, box crabs, yellowface pike blenny, flying gunards, cardinal fish, and a species of blue-bar jaw fish that moved up to St. Vincent from Brazil, traveling on the Gulf Stream. For some reason, I found myself transfixed by the tiny seahorses: You can practically watch the life force flowing through their semi-transparent bodies.

The remarkable thing about these creatures is their adaptability:Each has its own unique way of finding food — and avoiding becoming someone else’s dinner.  Popping down a hole in the sand is one way. Stirring up the seafloor or spurting something that obscures the visibility is anther. Speed, aggression, making reciprocal arrangements with bigger stronger neighbors, or simply sitting still looking like the surrounding are  all techniques we see up close as the residents go about their daily lives and we pop in for a visit.

St. Vincent SCUBA Sites for Critter Diving

Tewes typically goes to about a dozen dive sites, most on the leeward side of the St. Vincent where seas are typically calm and visibility is excellent. The sites range from 20 to 120 feet deep, and include sea-grass beds, reefs, and “muck” diving (where, he tells me, some of the strangest and most interesting creatures are found). There are a number of shallow dives, which are ideal for critter diving: Not only do they allow for longer bottom times, but the light at shallow depths is better for photography.

Indeed, Tewes is known as an underwater photographer, and divers interested in underwater photography should talk to him about what they want to shoot, because chances are he knows where to find it and how to shoot it. Five of his photos were used on special collectors government issue stamps – and a photograph of Bill himself is on a postage stamp for St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In fact, that’s what he “stamps” my logbooks with after the dive.

Practicalities

  • Water temperatures are warm – about 85 degrees Fahrenheit, making wetsuits optional.
  • Good buoyancy control is a plus, because stirring up the sea bed is going to wreck your visibility
  • Young Island Resort  (located on a  private island by the same name) is a quick hop from the main island, and only a few minutes from Dive St. Vincent. Dive packages are available.
  • Dive St. Vincent is located a few minutes from downtown Kingstown.
  • Indigo Divers is also located closeby, if you want to check out a variety of different types of dives.

About 

Karen Berger is the author of 16 books, most recently "America's Great Hiking Trails" (Rizzoli, 2014). She has hiked, ridden horses, kayaked, scuba dived, climbed, sailed, skied, and marveled on six continents.

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