Volcanic Free Dive

There was no need to worry about rain on our fourth morning on Dominica because we were starting the day with a snorkel tour at Champagne Reef, a volcanic area where hot air bubbles up from the ocean floor. We met our tour provider, PH Whale Watch, at Champagne Beach early in the morning, which meant that we would have the reef to ourselves for a couple of hours before tour groups from the cruise ships arrived. Pam (the P of PH Whale Watch) set us all up with snorkel gear and introduced us to Kerry, a marine biology student who would be our guide.

Just as we were stepping into the water to begin our snorkel, Kerry spotted a flounder amongst some colorful rocks in the shallows. I quickly pulled my mask over my eyes and slipped into the water to see the flat fish skimming along the sea floor. This was definitely a promising start to the morning.

Kerry led us out to the reef, stopping to point out endless interesting finds along the way. He noted a scorpionfish, identified different kinds of coral, talked about the efforts that locals are taking to combat coral bleaching, and found a tiny lettuce slug, which I never would have spotted. Every time he slowed down, I knew that more amazing fish facts were coming my way, and I wished I had a waterproof notebook with me so I could write down everything he said. He even showed us a distant pair of hills that had been used as a filming location in Pirates of the Caribbean II – I rewatched the movie once we were back home, and recognized the spot immediately.

Along with his mass of knowledge about local marine life, Kerry was also an impressive free diver, and he easily dived down to the sea floor at 90 feet at the deepest area of our tour.

But the main reason we’d come to Champagne Reef was to swim in the bubbles which are created by volcanic thermal springs under the sea bed. It was obvious when we were approaching the springs, not only because of the shimmering bubbles floating around us, but also because the water in this area was much warmer.

The bubbles made the experience unique and unforgettable. Out of all of the places I’ve snorkeled, this is the only one that has been over an active volcanic crater, and it still feels surreal for me to think about it like that.

We swam around in the bubbles for a while, and then Kerry showed us a couple of coral-covered canons that had come from a 17th century Spanish ship. He dived down and picked up a massive chain link so that we could see it, and then I made a successful effort to dive down the canons myself. My body composition (i.e. 32-year-old-lady fat content) makes me fairly buoyant and as a result I’m not amazing at free diving, but I was proud of myself that I was able to swim down to the canons at 13 feet, get some footage, and resurface without even feeling out of breath.

The next interesting finds would be far beyond my depths however (pun intended).

As it happened, the ship that the canons had come from was wrecked nearby, and even though the visibility wasn’t ideal, Kerry was still willing to take us out to see if we could find it. Along the way, he spotted a spotted eagle ray (I know, sorry). It took me a few seconds to see it through the hazy water, but eventually my focus locked on the otherworldly creature seemingly flying above the ocean floor. Kerry took my GoPro down closer to the graceful ray.

Further out to sea, we finally saw a couple of huge dark shapes far below us. The ship was broken in two pieces, and we could see its shadowy outline through a deep, blue expanse. Kerry offered to take my GoPro down once again, but when he’d gotten about halfway to the ship, he resurfaced and excitedly told us that he could see a turtle, and to be on the lookout for it to move as he approached it. Then he dipped back underwater and dived all the way down to the wreck. I couldn’t see the turtle until it moved, swimming over the wreck.

Once we were back on dry land, I couldn’t stop grinning about how much fun I’d had on the tour as Pam doled out refreshing rum punches to all of us. We left Champagne Beach with a list of tips on how to spend the remainder of our day on the southwestern tip of Dominica.

A short drive brought us to the little town of Soufriere, where Kerry had told us to ask anyone in town where to find Mr. Bubbles and Jennifer who makes roti. It wasn’t hard to locate Mr. Bubbles, since he maintains Bubble Beach, one of the town’s main attractions.

Bubble Beach is a picturesque crescent beach with red volcanic sand that sits in a bay surrounded by towering green mountains and backed by St. Mark’s Parish, a Catholic church that was made from volcanic stone in the 18th century. A section of water is barricaded with sandbags that trap in the warmth of the bubbling volcanic springs, and visitors can soak in the warm water while enjoying the panoramic views and Mr. Bubbles’ rum drinks.

The sand at Bubble Beach was so hot that we had to hurry into the water or risk burning our feet, but the water itself was perfect, and of course, bubbly. I struck up a conversation with a local man who told me a lot of interesting stories about some of the other volcanic features of the island, and eventually offered to show us where to find Jennifer who makes roti. Vince, Bonnie and I followed him uphill through a cemetery and then into town, and he told us all of the good places to get food and ice cream along the way. Jennifer ended up having exactly enough roti left for the five of us, so we bought them all and she bagged them up for us to carry back to Rachel and Jared at the beach.

On our way downhill we made one more stop to meet a man who was building an awesome hostel/restaurant/garden/art piece out of driftwood and other treasures he finds at the beach. He showed us around, and told us about his vision for the place to be a vegan restaurant with fresh-grown ingredients combined with a guesthouse, then he showed us the array of herbs that he grows on site. It was definitely a beautiful project, and looked like a fun place to stay.

Back at the beach, we wolfed down the roti, and then ordered some rum from Mr. Bubbles. It rained for a bit, which made the warm spa even more enjoyable, but once it cleared up we decided we’d better get moving and take advantage of the good weather to fit in some sightseeing. This led us to drive up to the top of Scott’s Head, where we got to enjoy one of the downright prettiest views of the whole trip.

On our left was the tranquil Caribbean Sea, and on our right the choppy Atlantic. The two bodies of water were separated by a thin isthmus that led from the colorful little town of Scott’s Head, out to the small mountain we were standing on. Vince, Bonnie and I decided to hike back downhill so that we could have more time taking in the beautiful sight of green mountains surrounded by brilliant blue ocean, while Rachel and Jared met us downhill with the car.

When we reached the isthmus, we grabbed our masks and snorkels from the trunk, and jumped into the water on the Caribbean side to see what we could see. The reef here was rocky and we had to be careful because it was covered in urchins, but we ended up seeing several puffer fish with iridescent, blue eyes.

Jared got out of the water first so that he could send his drone up for a different perspective of the peninsula, and he ended up getting some gorgeous footage.

© Jared Hauck
© Jared Hauck

Eventually, the rest of us dried off too, and we all hopped back into the car to move onto our next destination. However we only drove a few yards before we had to stop again because I’d noticed some brown pelicans in the bay nearby. Thankfully, everyone else was nice enough to accommodate me getting back out of the car and stalking along the rocky beach to take some pictures. Although I’ve seen pelicans on many occasions, I’ve never actually been within a good range to photograph them (clearly I should spend more time in south Florida), so I was very appreciative that the others were willing to humor me as I went full Nigel Thornberry over the birds.

There was a somewhat awkward amount of daylight left, so we decided to go uphill to investigate Soufriere Sulphur Springs National Park. I say investigate because we weren’t sure that the park was even open, but we were willing to go check it out anyway. As we neared the park, the road became overgrown with plants, which did not bode well for the chances of it being open.

Sure enough, the place was deserted, but we got out of the car and walked down the road a little ways to see if we could come across anything that looked like a trail. We had no luck, but a power worker drove up and stopped to tell us that the park had never reopened after Hurricane Maria, but it was possible to bushwhack up to the sulphur springs. He recommended hiring a guide since the jungle is dense and difficult to navigate, but we decided to send Jared’s drone up to get a look at the springs since we clearly didn’t have enough time left in the day to tackle a hike like that.

© Jared Hauck

Soon it was time for dinner, and we returned to Scott’s Head to eat at Chez Wen Cuisine. After dinner, we finished our eventful day by watching the sunset as waves crashed against the rocky shore of the Atlantic.

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