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  • RuudStelten

    St. Eustatius: Diving the Caribbean’s Historic Gem

    St. Eustatius, locally known as Statia, is located in the northeastern Caribbean at a stone’s throw from St. Maarten. While its neighboring island Saba is a well-known diving destination, Statia is often overlooked.


    I have lived on Statia on and off for the past 14 years and have spent a good 6 years of my life on the island. I’ve worked at the local dive center and have organized numerous underwater archaeological projects and exploration dives all around the island. As a result, I know Statia’s marine environment very well. I have also dived on nearly every island between Anguilla and Grenada, so I have plenty of comparative insights.


    Statia is one of those islands where time has largely stood still. It is not a resort destination. There are no casino’s, clubs, or shopping malls on the island. It’s a very laidback place, 8 square miles in size with a population of about 3,500 people. Everyone waves at each other on the street, people leave their homes unlocked when they leave, and cows, goats, and donkeys roam the streets freely. It’s quirky and not for everyone. If you’re after white sandy beaches and vibrant nightlife, don’t go to Statia. If you’re a nature lover and want to experience diverse diving, beautiful hiking on the dormant Quill volcano, and soak up some fascinating Caribbean history, this is the destination for you.


    Getting to Statia is fairly straightforward. You have to fly into St. Maarten first, and from there you either take a ferry or an 18-minute flight with Winair on one of their Twin Otters. There are several accommodation options on the island. If you want to be close to the water and right next to the dive center, I recommend the Old Gin House Hotel. If you don’t mind being further away from the water (a 10-minute drive), I recommend Quill Gardens, a Bed & Breakfast with a beautiful view that’s managed by a lovely Dutch couple who make some of the best food on the island. There are two dive centers on the island. The one I can recommend is Scubaqua (www.scubaqua.com). It is managed by a Dutch couple, Mike and Marieke, who have been on the island for 15 years. They are very passionate about the island and just really nice people. They train their staff very well and it’s a very good and safe operation. Check out their website and TripAdvisor reviews.


    As for the diving, it is very diverse, accessible, and uncrowded. All dive sites can be reached within 15 minutes from the dock. Most dive sites have moorings, but some are drift dives. The island’s main reefs are coral-encrusted lava flows situated on a flat sandy bottom, typically between 50 and 60 feet deep. There’s lots of life on these, typical Caribbean reef life with the odd reef shark and eagle ray passing by. These are very good beginner sites, but also great for photographers. My favorite site is one that I discovered several years ago with a ranger from the local marine park. It’s an elongated lava flow named Lost Anchors, after the five historic anchors that were lost on this reef in the colonial period. They are beautifully overgrown and add some history to the dive. Reef sharks are a regular appearance on the site, and you’re usually surrounded by several dozen big barracudas. It’s a more advanced site as it’s a free descent down to 80 feet and located quite far offshore where it can be choppy.


    Along the southern part of the island, bordering the dormant volcano, topography gets more dramatic. Here you’ll find steep drop-offs without a bottom, where it’s possible for anything to swim by. This is the most dramatic diving on the island, but not for beginners. Sites like Grand Canyon and Drop-off are not to be missed. If conditions are calm, the northern tip of the island offers some fun dives as well. Here you dive along boulder slides that end in a sandy bottom. Lots of life hides between the boulders, and around the rock called Gibraltar you have a very good place to see sharks as well. This is where great hammerheads sometimes make an appearance (far from guaranteed of course).


    There are several wrecks around the island as well. Two modern ones you shouldn’t miss: a 330 ft / 100-meter-long cable layer called the Charles Brown and the Chien Tong, a Taiwanese fishing vessel. Both were purposely sunk. The Charles Brown is home to a large school of horse-eyed jacks and provides lots of good photographic opportunities. Some parts are covered in lots of black coral. The Chien Tong is a fun dive during the day, but I recommend diving it at night, when it becomes a turtle hotel. Turtles from the surrounding area use the wreck as a place to sleep, and it is not uncommon to see 10 or more turtles on a dive. In addition to the turtles, there are lots of other critters that make an appearance. I’ve seen sharks, eagle rays, mating turtles, big stingrays, and every crustacean you can imagine on that wreck at night.


    You can even dive historical wreck sites on Statia. At sites such as Double Wreck and Triple Wreck, you can dive among historical artifacts from the colonial period. The wooden ships these artifacts were once part of have disintegrated due to teredo worms, but all the non-organic parts of the vessels are still there. I have conducted many years of archaeological research on these sites, and have learned a lot about them over the years. At these sites, you always see lots of southern stingrays in the sand, and there’s a good chance for turtles as well. These sites are also great for smaller critters such as sea horses and frogfish.


    Statia is great for non-divers as well. As I mentioned above, there is great hiking and many historical sites on the island. The black sand beaches are small but uncrowded. Snorkeling is fun, but a bit limited. Very special is to snorkel among the submerged ruins of the 18th-century port district. Throughout the day, there’s lots of life here, and at dusk, you can spot lemon sharks in this area.


    Statia is a very diverse diving destination. While the island (and the Eastern Caribbean in general) doesn’t have the vibrant reefs of the Coral Triangle, the big animals of the Eastern Tropical Pacific, or the fascinating shipwrecks of Truk or the Solomon Islands, it is one of the most varied diving destinations in the Eastern Caribbean. As a photographer or videographer, you have plenty of great opportunities to get interesting shots in a location that is not overcrowded like some sites on Cozumel or Bonaire.


    Having said all of that, we also have to be realistic and look at the not so bright side. The island is changing rapidly. There is now a big development on the eastern side of the island, where a large resort has recently opened. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease is wreaking havoc throughout the Caribbean, and Statia’s reefs are not immune to it. Moreover, the island experiences the effects of hurricanes, which can cause difficulties getting to the island and can change the marine environment dramatically. Eastern Caribbean reefs are not pristine environments anymore, far from it. There’s a general lack of top predators on the reefs, acropora corals have been decimated, and many species are heavily overfished. But within this context, there is still fun diving on Statia. Here you can get away from the crowds and experience the Caribbean like it was on other islands 50 years ago. Therefore I recommend it for anyone wanting to take a trip to the Eastern Caribbean and go off the beaten path.



    Bring a fisheye lens to capture expansive reef scenes



    A frogfish at Double Wreck



    An 18th-century anchor at the Lost Anchors site



    Snorkeling among the submerged 18th-century warehouse ruins just offshore



    The island has a lot to offer topside as well, such as hiking the 2,000-foot-high Quill volcano. You can even hike down into the crater.

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    Great article!


    I am wondering if the shark populations differ amongst the Dutch islands? Does Statia have higher densities due to it’s smaller human population?

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    @Mathieu Cornillon Unfortunately most of my pics are of archaeological remains! The best resource is probably the Scubaqua website, https://www.scubaqua.com/gallery/


    @ianmarsh Thanks! Statia, Saba, and St. Maarten definitely have more sharks than the ABC islands. While this observation is not based on any scientific data, my experience after 15 years of diving on Statia is that there used to be a lot more sharks than there are now though. I'm not sure if human population size/density is the best indicator, although it must have some effect. For example, some sites on the British Virgin Islands have lots of sharks, and these are close to Tortola which is very populated. I guess it has to do more with how the marine environment is managed/protected. Maybe there are marine biologists here on the forum who can provide some insights?

    Edited by RuudStelten
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