Snorkeling the Caribbean Windward Islands from St. Lucia to Grenada
by Pam Thomas
(Miami Beach/Rhode Island)
In March of 2016, I went sailing one-way from St. Lucia to Grenada, in the Windward Islands, with some avid snorkelers. I have been snorkeling since my first time in the '80s in the Whitsunday Islands on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, when coral was extremely healthy. Ever since I have been in search of good snorkeling spots. I appreciate the help that tropicalsnorkeling.com gives. So here’s what we found in this part of the Caribbean.
After we left the Moorings dock with our charter boat, we sailed to the Pitons. We picked up an overnight mooring off Anse Chastanet, named one of St. Lucia's best snorkeling sites. This was one of the best stops of the trip. We saw lots of interesting fish, including an unusual orange triggerfish, and the coral -- Brain, Tube, Staghorn, Elkhorn (not sure of all names) was in pretty good shape by today's standards. The fan coral was huge and spectacular, in beautiful colors including shades of yellow. Visibility was excellent.
We spent the next day on a long sail to Bequia, and the day after that on land in Bequia. This is supposed to be great territory for divers, not so much for snorkelers, although opinions differ. We can't attest to anything!
On the fourth day we sailed to the Tobago Cays, four islands where you can only stay overnight in a boat. No land accommodations. But you can come here on day trips from surrounding islands. It's supposed to be among the best snorkeling spots in the Caribbean because of a huge horseshoe reef.
At first we met with disappointment. We had been advised by our charter company that Baradel island was now a turtle sanctuary, and we would swim with "hundreds" of turtles. Baloney! When we dinghied to the beach and got into the water, we saw a couple of turtles and not much else, though the beach itself was beautiful.
We had heard that dinghy moorings had been installed to protect the reef, and our charter company told us to use them. So we left Baradel and went in search of a dinghy mooring. THERE WERE TWO. As many as 70 boats anchor in the Cays in peak season. Are you kidding me? Seemed incredibly irresponsible. And the way the moorings were configured, we couldn't safely get our dinghy onto either of the two that already had a couple of dinghies on them.
Fortunately our overnight mooring backed up to Jamesby Island, and back at the boat, we jumped off to snorkel the reef there. The fish were interesting, and the coral was a 3 out of 5. Not quite the quality we expected from the Tobago Cays. We saw some great trunkfish and some beautiful yellow and blue triggerfish. Big schools of yellow grunts and Blue Tangs (I think). And I saw my first Manta Ray in the wild -- twice!
I liked that experience so much that the next day I was in the water before 9 snorkeling that reef again. When everybody else was ready, we took the dinghy and its anchor out to the horseshoe reef. The snorkeling was about the same as the reef by the boat, but there was A LOT of it. One of our party felt like she saw a bunch of things she hadn't seen before, but the rest of us dubbed it average. Surprising to us, the closer we got to the outer edge of the reef, the fewer fish there were. Maybe too much turbulence.
On this dinghy trip we got to try out the Seasteps Ladder I had brought from home, which is a strap that helps you get back into an inflatable without looking like a whale being landed. It had one step and worked really well. I found it at the chain store West Marine.
After lunch a few of us went back to another point in this huge reef, at the edge of some pale green water. Now this was much nicer! The visibility was great. You could look up underwater and see a long way, from coral patch to coral patch like you were in a huge garden or aquarium. There were lots and lots of waving soft corals. Corals were in relatively good shape too. Then we spotted a Mantra May, a big one, like a graceful spaceship. We saw an unusual red and white striped fish with a giant black eye, and then a large dorado (perhaps) looking fiercely out a hole. All in all, a great outing. Back at the boat, I snorkeled the nearby reef again -- another ray!
The next day we headed over to Saltwhistle Bay on Union Island, where we had lunch but did not snorkel. We moved over to Chatham Bay for an overnight anchorage. The next morning we dinghied over to Rapid Point where the snorkeling was purported to be the best. No dinghy moorings again so we threw the anchor over near the wall where lots of birds were swooping around, from boobies to pelicans.
Underwater, we saw thousands of tiny fish darting around. No wonder so many birds were here. Initially, it was completely rocky and the coral was mostly dead, although some coral was trying to grow (frustrated I'm sure by dinghy anchors). But as we swam along, the rocks turned into huge boulders. You could swim between them with coral and fish on all sides. Not a ton of fish, but good ones -- the giant schools of luminescent white ones, big schools of yellow grunts, more big tangs. Triggerfish, trumpetfish and trunkfish were all represented.
What made it beautiful was the boulders and hollows. The farther we swam, the more healthy corals there were. I saw several good big plate corals (or Elkhorn), a burnt sienna color. One huge boulder with a flat top had a coral garden growing on it, with 5 or so of different shapes and colors. Really pretty. Even though the point itself looks turbulent, you can go around it for quite a ways.
After lunch we hauled anchor and took off for Clifton Harbor. A boat boy helped us to a mooring in pale turquoise water not far from a little island. Spectacular colors. I jumped in and snorkeled almost to the island. It was extremely clear and extremely shallow. Short white hard coral was everywhere, with teeny aquarium fish darting about. It was so shallow I was almost afraid to kick my flippers for fear of hitting coral. This was clearly not the main snorkeling area here but it was interesting!
The next morning we cleared customs and then took off for the island of Carriacou, where our snorkeling destination was Sandy Islet, a teeny spot with a big reputation. Anchoring is in the middle; the reefs are on the north and south. We took the dinghy to the beach where we met a couple from Washington State who frequent this area, and they recommended the north reef as best (this was confirmed by one of our party who snorkeled the south when he went in to check our anchor). We walked down the brilliant white beach and into the water. Initially all we could see was shallow wavy vegetation. The current, which we had worried about where we were anchored, was inconsequential here.
As we headed deeper, huge boulders appeared, covered with coral (not brain) that made them look like manicured shrubs. At the edge of the reef, it fell into deeper and less transparent water. At the edge we saw a good variety of fish, including the most beautifully colored parrotfish on this trip, small schools of luminescent Blue Chromis, some burnt sienna triggerfish, and some big trunkfish. More schools of yellow grunts and tangs. One of us spotted a lobster in a hole!
The boulders created deep pools. We saw beautiful bright yellow finger/tubes, gorgeous Brain Coral, and those shrubs. Good color in spots. We were out there at least an hour.
So, though our cruising guidebook described the snorkeling on Sandy as "perfect" (ha! that was the '80s), we wouldn't say that. It was not much different than our other places. But in retrospect, we decided that each place we had snorkeled had had its merits.
We spent the rest of the day on Carriacou, then left early the next day for the long sail down the western side of Grenada to Dragon Bay. We picked up an overnight mooring on the south side, and our guidebook promised good snorkeling on both sides. The next morning, while two of our mates were cooking breakfast, I was snorkeling off the boat on the southern reef. The sun was diagonal, but the reef turned out to be much bigger than expected -- right up to our mooring ball. And the coral offered a bit of drama. I saw big skinny vessels of coral standing on their ends, kind of the way giant clams do. And I saw a four-foot parrotfish, plus the most beautiful parrotfish yet, with bright yellow coloring on its lower half, like a mutant. Plus trunkfish, trumpetfish and the Blue Chromis.
Later, around 1, I would go into this site again, and we discovered canyons of reefs with coral, lots of waving stuff like huge fans and the soft branching ones, though not as many fish as in the morning.
After breakfast though, we all dinghied around Moliniere Point and grabbed a close-in dinghy mooring (we only saw one). Big red mooring balls were scattered around but the marine park guys (who collected $10 that morning) had told us these were for the dive/snorkel tourist boats. The attraction: the Caribbean's only underwater sculpture park (so far).
Later we read there are 65 sculptures but we didn't see nearly that many. We started by snorkeling around the edges of the point and saw nothing at all, living or sculpted. So we headed for the middle and came upon a sculpture of a dozen life-size figures in a circle, holding hands. Pretty haunting. One mate saw another with a dozen women lying down. We saw one of a single woman praying, then a big mermaid, and then some Mayan-ish big cement mask laying around like artifacts. The rest of the snorkeling of live critters was unfruitful.
After that we were off to St. George's to turn in our boat. All in all, a good snorkeling vacation, far superior to our experience last year in the islands around St. Martin.