Come with us to a cozy Island in the Caribbean. In Saba marine park we found the real and untouched Caribbean diving we didn´t know existed.
A vague shadow is spotted out in the big blue. We swim towards it and a thin underwater peak is rising from a seemingly bottomless ocean. The needle stops 27 meters below the sea surface. The shadow turns into an explosion of colors and fish life when we approach. Welcome to Saba marine park and the untouched Caribbean diving we didn´t know existed.
Too rough for Columbus
The tiny Island of Saba is barely visible on the map. Seen from the ocean, the steep volcano is apparently uninhabitable. In 1493 Columbus pointed his binocular towards its shores. The harsh coastline had no protected harbor and he kept on sailing for some easier land to colonize.
Today, Saba is a well-functioning society with just below 2000 inhabitants. Throughout the years, hard work has provided the island with modern infrastructure as airport, roads and a harbor. The 396-meter-long runway is the shortest commercial airstrip in the world. On both sides, steep cliffs plunge into the ocean. The passengers who dares to keep their eyes open during the landing will never forget the spectacular experience.
See the approach in our video:
In Fort Bay on the opposite side of the island, a harbor has been built. The harbor is small and no cruise ships can dock here. This is a huge advantage as mass tourism is wonderfully absent. Approx. 50 tourists visit the island every week. Saba is easy accessible and at the same time off the beaten track.
The road that could not be built
The airport and the harbor is connected by a road which goes by the original name; “The Road”. Swiss and Dutch engineers had stated that the road on Saba could not be built. Josephus Lambert Hassell refused to accept this. He took a correspondence course in road building and started to construct the road with local workers in 1938. Twenty-five years later a 10-kilometer-long masterpiece was ready and constructed without heavy machinery.
The sharp turns are attractions in themselves, and a scent of burnt rubber and clutch is hovering above the steepest parts of the road.
Every year, the island is hosting the Saba Hell´s Gate triathlon. With the slogan; “Even the swim is uphill”, the athletes should be ready for an exhausting event. If you plan on starting a bicycle store, Saba is probably not your best option.
Saba Marine Park
Lynn Costenaro is telling us that the Sabians where provident and created a marine park before diving tourism started. Together with John Magor, Lynn runs the dive center Sea Saba. The marine park was established in 1987 and is based on a zone system. Some areas are available for private fishing and scuba diving, while others are completely protected. The entire coastline from the high water mark and down to 60 meters is part of the marine park.
Permanent mooring lines are installed at all the 24 dive sites in the marine park. Many marine parks around the world are only on paper, but Lynn ensures us that the system works in Saba. One of the reasons is a fairly short coastline where everybody knows everybody. If an unknown boat is spotted in the wrong place, it doesn´t take long before the park rangers are scrambled. The importance of protecting the ocean is very well communicated at school. With the right attitude among the youngsters, the future looks bright for the marine park.
The marine park seems to be providing the required protection, because Saba has a large biodiversity in a Caribbean scale. Lynn can tell us that scientists have identified 186 different fish species in the waters of Saba. On an average scuba dive, 73 different fish species can be seen.
Saba was created by a subsea volcanic eruption. Mount Scenery extends 887 meter above the sea surface and is the volcanos highest point. A trained eye can see how the lava has shaped the landscape. The formations are often continued underwater. The ocean has eroded the landscape through centuries to what it is today. The result is an underwater landscape with huge boulders.
Most of the coral reefs on Saba are geological, this means that they grow on top of geological structures. This is opposed to the biological reefs which grow on top of dead corals. Different species of corals and sponges create a particularly colorful landscape. A healthy sign is that no species are dominating. A reef in balance is a healthy reef.
The big attractions on Saba are the underwater mountains. These are small volcanic eruptions which never reached the surface. In Saba, you can dive on five such mountains and the “Needle” is the most spectacular. The thin column rises from the sea bed at 80 meters and stops 27 meters below the surface. The diameter of the mountain is only 10 meters, so it is seemingly easy to swim around it.
The current can however be strong and make the swim in blue water out from the adjacent “third encounter” impossible. When the conditions are good, it’s a fantastic dive site. In good visibility, you will see the needle as a shadow out in the blue. The shadow comes to life when you approach and turns into an oasis of colors. Every inch is covered by sponges, corals and anemones in red, yellow and orange. The many cracks are hideouts for small fish. Ocean currents are pushed around and over the mountain and schools of red creol fish are enjoying the nutrient rich waters. Even with nitrox on our bottles, the time flies too fast.
When we leave the needle, we stare into the blue. There are good opportunities to spot sharks in Saba. The most common species are Black-tipped reef sharks, Caribbean reef sharks and Nurse sharks. Even if the reef sharks are curious, they are shy and keep their distance. The Nurse shark is not dependent on swimming in order to pump water past the gills and can be observed while it is resting on the sea bed.
Turtles depend on beaches to lay their eggs. You will not find a suitable beach on Saba. The closest is a rough beach with big rocks which only a couple of crazy local surfer’s dare to challenge. Despite this, we saw a lot of turtles on our dives. Scientists have concluded that Saba is an important feeding ground for young turtles in the age 6-10 years. They particularly thrive in areas with sea grass, but can be seen on more or less all the dive sites. They reach sexual maturity at the age of 25 and returns to their beach of birth to lay their eggs. Two types of turtles are mainly spotted; The Hawksbill and the Green sea turtle.
Sea Saba arrange daily boat trips which includes two dives. A third dive can be arranged on request. This is often done as a muck dive close to the harbor. This is a surprisingly good dive site with lots of exiting marine life and perfect for the underwater photographer; Moray eels stick their head out of the concrete moorings, Lionfish bounce back and forth with the swell and an octopus hides inside a shell and only reveal its eyes. And if you are lucky, a Frogfish might also come along.
The Lionfish is an introduced species in the Caribbean and many dive operators hunt them to limit their extension. This was also performed at Saba. However, the sharks started to behave differently and came too close for comfort. That’s why the hunting has been stopped.
Most of the hotels are located in the city of Windwardside which is at an altitude of 500 meters. Driving up here after a dive is against everything you learnt at you diving course. DAN has been here and tested divers for micro bubbles. The findings are that there are no significant difference on the sea surface or up in Windwardside. But the advice is clear; Avoid hard work after diving. Be careful if you plan on climbing Mount Scenery.
Charming cities in picturesque nature
Saba has a lot to offer above the sea surface as well. A stroll in Windwardside is a charming experience. The narrow streets are steep and all the houses follow a strict color code. They shall be white, the roof red, and the skirting green.
There is a network of hiking trails all over the island. These are the old main roads and often very well facilitated with steps. Mount Scenery can be climbed. Despite the height, the view is often a disappointment. The altitude generates clouds and the top part of Saba is actually classified as rain forest. It rains quite often at Saba, but it is usually short and intense showers during the night. Despite the frequent rain, there are no rivers. The water is absorbed and evaporates before it reaches the sea. This has a positive influence on the visibility around Saba which is usually very good.
A lower alternative to Mount Scenery is Maskhorne Hill at 547 meters. The reward is an excellent view of Windwardside situated in a green oasis.
Our previous diving experience in the Caribbean is from Cozumel in Mexico and Cuba. These are supposed to be good dive destinations, but we have not been entirely convinced. Hence we have named the Caribbean the Mediterranean for Americans. Now that we have discovered the unspoiled queen, the Caribbean has got a new star and regained its reputation. Saba is extremely charming with healthy and colorful reefs, rich marine life, fascinating formations, friendly people and beautiful landscapes above water.
Electricity: US-plug, 110V
Dive centers: Sea Saba or Saba Divers
Accommodation: Juliana´s Hotel, Scouts Place, Queen´s Gardens Resort
Sea temperature: 25-30 0C
Hurricane season: August, September, October
If you want to experience Saba yourself, do not hesitate to contact Thor at Dykkebazaar. He will be happy to make you an itinerary.
Our video´s from Saba: