New World record for wreck diving

By BOB STERNER
For Northeast Dive News

The Dominican Republic may have the New World record for
generating wreck diving sites. Christopher Columbus arrived
with a bang at this eastern Caribbean island on Dec. 5, 1492,
splintering his flagship, the
Santa Maria. Columbus and his crew
returned to Spain aboard his other ships, the
Nina and Pinta.

Archeologists continue to hunt for evidence of the vessel that
brought the first Europeans to America's shores on what is now
the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola in the Greater Antilles. It's
doubtful if anything remains, since the wood was used to build a
fort named La Navidad for its Christmastime origin. The fort
later was destroyed as natives tried unsuccessfully to push the
increasingly unwelcome visitors from their shores.

If any relic does exist underwater, there is a good chance that it
will survive to be found. A marine preserve protects wrecks and
sea life. The government takes conservation seriously, knowing
that such resources are what draw divers from around the world.

Preservation paid off just last winter when scientists determined
that a shallow wreck was that of privateer Captain Kidd's ship
Quedagh Merchant. "Wreckreational" divers won't be able to go
near that site until archeologists document the find near Catalina
Island, which is in the Bayahibe Preserve just off the Dominican
Republic's southeast coast. However, divers and even snorkelers
can get a sense of visiting a pirate-ship wreck.

Cannons, cannonballs, ceramics and other artifacts from the
Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe and other 16th and 17th century
wrecks have been placed in the Underwater Archeological
Reserve just off Viva Wyndham's beach at
La Romana. The
relics are strewn at 15 to 30 feet, much the way they were found
at various sites along the coast.

While true wreck divers appreciate surf-scattered relics, they
don't evoke a sense of seeing a sunken ship. For that, dive the
Saint George, a 262-foot-long freighter sunk as an artificial reef
in 1999. After hauling cargo for decades, the ship was
abandoned at the port of Santo Domingo. It was stripped of
contaminants and towed to Bayahibe, where it now rests at 115
feet, rising majestically upright to within 52 feet of the surface.

Being a bit offshore puts the
Saint George in clear blue waters,
with visibility of 50 feet or more and almost no current. Sponges
and polyps coat holds that once were packed with merchandise.
Barracudas, eels, bass, parrot fish, octopi, lobsters and crabs
patrol decks and rooms that once were the domain of sailors.
Police patrol waters surrounding the wreck to enforce the
no-fishing policy of the marine preserve.

By protecting waters off Bayahibe and the Eastern National Park,
the Dominican Republic has created a wonderland for reef
divers. Endangered sea turtles pass through waters that hover in
the low-80s F year-round. Nurse sharks, crabs and eels make
homes in nooks. Schools of snappers and other brightly colored
Caribbean fish thrive under overhangs. While casual vacation
divers wear light shorties or Lycra skins, local dive masters and
visitors doing multiple days of multiple dives wear 3-millimeter
wetsuits and hoods.

Cave divers have lots to see at Bayahibe. The natives, whom
Columbus dubbed the Tainos or good, noble people, had lived in
caves and decorated them extensively with carved and painted
petroglyphs. Ones exposed to the elements fade over time. But
ancient artworks that had been created in passages during the last
ice age, when water levels were 70 feet or more lower, survive
vividly intact.  

Natives called their home Quisqueya, or highest land. But
Columbus and the good people he met here could never have
guessed that the high point of visiting this paradise would be
exploring the depths of waters beneath the island and its
surrounding shores.
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GETTING THERE
There are regular flights to La Romana International Airport
from gateway cities in the United States and Canada. Upon
arrival, visitors must purchase a $10 tourist card allowing stays
of up to 15 days. Fees vary for longer visits. Save $20 in cash
for the departure tax.

The local currency is the Dominican Republic peso, although
U.S. dollars are readily exchanged. Spanish is the official
language, but most people speak English and, especially at
resorts, are fluent in French, German and Italian as well.

Appliances work fine on the 110-volt, 60-cycle current. Not so
fine is the water; don't drink it. Resorts provide bottled water.
Drink lots of that to avoid dehydration in a sunny land where
temperatures vary between lower-90s F by day and mid-70s F
by night year-round.

Dress is casual. Pack shorts and light shirts. A light jacket and
slacks can feel good in the evening. Bring sunscreen and a
wide-brimmed hat for protection from the direct overhead sun.

With planning, good divers might never see the recompression
chambers at Bavaro-Punta Cana or the navy's San Rafael Clinic
at Santo Domingo. Breaking up the dive week with an on-shore
excursion day can add a safety margin for those doing lots of
repetitive dives. Fortunately there is much to do.

Golfers have their choice of world-class Pete Dye courses.
Equestrians can ride horses. Tour Bayahibe Village to learn
about the natives and early life on the island. Cool off touring
caves or try your luck at casino gambling. Kayaking, sailing,
deep-sea fishing or just lying on the beach and soaking up fresh
air and sunshine are all possibilities.
Saint George prop
Guadalupe artifact
Nurse shark
Turtles abound
Colorful sponges
Cave petroglyph
Sunset in paradise
One horsepower
World-class golfing