This January’s trip was supposed to be a week on the Aggressor Liveaboard in the Cayman Islands. Sadly, COVID restrictions in Grand Cayman, requiring you to quarantine for 14 days before doing anything, basically take that off the table. We were informed by Aggressor that our trip was canceled about 45 days prior to departure. We sort of saw this coming when we booked so everything (outside of the liveaboard itself) was refundable. So we pivoted to search for an alternative.
After some research, it appeared St. Maarten was open and doable. We had previously considered Turks and Caicos, but liveaboards weren’t operating during our time windows. They shift to snorkeling with the humpback whales in the Silver bank, off the Dominican Republic.
Entry into St. Maarten only required a negative COVID test 120 hours prior to entry so that, we could do. Next, we started looking for either a Condo to live in on the island to day-dive from but ultimately found the Explorer Ventures Liveaboard aboard the Caribbean Explorer II. This seemed to fit our needs perfectly.
Unfortunately, our trip time (Jan 30th – Feb 6th) had (0) Reservations. Fortunately, the trip was on sale. So I reached out to them to figure out the minimum required to sail and was informed it was 4 people at the regular price or 6 people at the sale price. So we went to work and started inviting friends. Kim and Frank just so happened to be talking about needing a dive trip in January so it worked out. We now had 4 and agreed we’d go full fare if need be. Shortly thereafter Charles and Michelle agreed so it was game on.
We all did our research and made our reservations. We agreed to head in a day early “just in case” we ran into any issues, weather or covid. Charles and Michelle decided to rent a car and tour the French side of the island. We decided to keep a low profile and hang at a hotel near the marina. After some research, we settled on the Holland House Hotel on the boardwalk.
The hotel itself was great, right on the beach and boardwalk in Philipsburg. The place was a ghost town, we might have been the only actual overnight guests that evening. There were a handful of people in the bar and restaurant, but I didn’t see anyone else checking in on Saturday. If we weren’t the only ones there weren’t more than a few other people. It was pretty sad considering this is really part of their high season. Because of Covid, there are no cruises or cruise ships, and the island was eerily quiet. We have absolutely no problem keeping away from others “social distancing”. I won’t spend a lot of time on the hotel, it was more than adequate. I could stay there for a few days. Wouldn’t really want to be there if the island was hopping. We just don’t like crowds that much.
Saturday morning came pretty quickly, we had a late checkout and couldn’t board the boat until 3pm. Claudine and I walked about town, saddened by the closures and lingering devastation still apparent from Hurricane Irma in 2017. We had previously visited St. Maarten twice both from cruise ships. It was really moving to overhear conversations of the economic devastation that Covid has, and continues to have to the island without cruise and ease of regular travel. They make nothing there, there are no exports, travel is the economy.
Enough about the sadness. Onto the boat.
Boarding was simple, the crew took our luggage and fogged them following COVID protocol. We were shown to our cabin, then unloaded our dive gear into our dive spots. Since we were first to the boat we got to choose the spots closest to the entry points.
Frank and Kim followed shortly afterwards and received the same welcoming treatment.
The crew did their jobs both following COVID protocols as well as the safety briefings and tour of the boat, so we were all aware of at least two exits at any given time.
Let’s talk about the boat for a minute.
The boat specifications are listed on the Explorer Ventures Website here. It’s certainly an older boat but it’s well maintained and overall great condition. While this was our first dive liveaboard it’s certainly not our first boat trip.
The layout and rooms.
It’s a dive boat, the main deck is devoted to diving, with 4 cabin rooms. We arrived first and took cabin 1, which had a double bed but no bunk. All rooms had their own bathrooms and showers. The showers were surprisingly larger than expected, but still phone booth sized.
The other couples were in room 2 & 3, both with queen beds and an twin bunk. Frank and Kim used the upper bunk for storage (luggage). There was plenty of room under our bed for our luggage.
The lower deck… Rooms 5 and 6 were certainly larger and if I had it to do over again might choose one of those. The downside is that the stairs up/down from the main and lower deck were more of a ladder than stairs. I didn’t want to deal with that. If you’re not in your room or on the dive deck, all other time is spent up top in the dining room or sun deck. I honestly cannot imagine how busy that is with 18 guests. Having only 6 on board it was awesome and roomy.
The reality with up to 5 dives a day it is literally diving, eat, sleep, repeat. We only had one down day where visibility was so bad that diving wasn’t really possible so we played cards. No other entertainment was required for the rest of the week. During surface intervals, there’s still plenty of time to get some sun, read a book or take a nap in your room. Again, with 18 guests, I probably would have spent more time in my room as I’m ultimately an introvert.
The dive deck was clean and organized. You didn’t swap tanks, they simply refilled your tanks where they sat which was cool. The boat also had their own Nitrox generator. You need Nitrox on a liveaboard with 5 dives a day. The Nitrox routine was simple. Check your percentages (yourself with a meter they provided), log your percentages and tank fill before each dive. To be prepared I bought a Nitrox gauge prior to the trip. I didn’t know how many people would be on board but couldn’t imagine trying to share a meter with 18 people and we’ve all been on those boats where the DM says “We checked it for you this morning it’s 32”. I prefer to check and verify myself, thanks. That wasn’t the case here, they made you do it yourself which I appreciated.
COVID of course changes things, the only community rinse tanks were for camera gear. Again, with only 6 on board, rinsing with the hose was fine when we returned. With 18? not so sure. They were also picky about where you charged your gear (cameras and cell phones, etc.) and had a designated charging area with fire suppression just for it. You could charge in your cabin, only if you were in your cabin. Again, attention to safety and detail was top notch.
Claudine and I don’t get sea sick, the other couples used countermeasures. We had some pretty rough weather at times (sea wise), with 10-12 foot swells which really can move a boat like this around. Captain Nelson did a fabulous job hiding us from the weather when possible but during the crossing and some of the movement from dive site to dive site the motion was significant. Not significant from a sea sickness perspective, but significant from a “You better be holding on to something as you move around the boat” perspective. Hence the ladder/stairway of doom to the lower level would have potentially been unpleasant.
The weather also kept us out of a number of dive sites where a larger boat like this cannot use the smaller mooring lines. We ended up executing a few live drops which were ideal vs getting beaten up on the granny line to the mooring line on top of the water. As much as we didn’t like swimming to the front in rough seas, we get it. It’s all about safety.
The crew was Outstanding:
– Captain Nelson A+
– Purser Sarah A+ (also dove with us)
– Chef Julian A+ (Food was amazing)
– Engineer Terrance A+
– Dive Staff: Kirsten, Gabe, and Dale A++
The staff overall was amazing. We were very fortunate there were only 6 guests on a boat that can house or service 18 so we had extra attention. It was really great to eat with the crew, talk to them and get to know them. You don’t get that same opportunity if there are 18 guests.
We had dives led by Capt. Nelson, Sarah, Kirsten, Dale, and Gabe. All were awesome in their attention to detail and safety. All covered the site, navigation, flow, and wildlife we were likely to see. Gabe went the extra mile with “Science with Gabe” where he talked to us about Fish, mating, feeding, coral, colors, symbiosis, etc, etc. He was outstanding. Terrance and Chef Julian didn’t get in the water with us. Diving’s not for Terrance, and Julian was busy cooking 😉 though was an accomplished captain and diver in former careers. It was really great to get to know the staff.
Mad props to Explorer Ventures for dealing with COVID rules, regulations, and travel restrictions. One of our biggest fears became reality when, with less than 10 days from our trip, the US declared you must have a negative COVID test before being allowed to return. This sent everyone scrambling. How or where do you get a test? How much is it? St. Maarten is on island time which means people get to it when they get to it. Punctuality isn’t in their vocabulary. Venture Explorers stepped up and coordinated exit tests that met the criteria for us. We weren’t that concerned about a positive test, we all were negative 120 hours prior to travel, the boat was clean the crew was clean and they kept us safe. Not to mention we were living in saltwater for 5 hours a day. But you never know. Turning up positive would have meant quarantining in St. Maarten for 10 to 14 days prior to coming home. While not devastating for us, could be for other people. Getting stuck was certainly something to be concerned about and they did everything they could to minimize that.
As much as we love diving, we’re still somewhat new to it with around 100 dives behind us. We started with our PADI Open Water certification but added Advanced Open Water on our last trip. Advanced means we don’t really need to be ushered around by a divemaster. We should be able to complete these dives on our own and make it back to the boat without assistance (ability to navigate underwater). We can also go deeper (100ft vs the Open water 60ft floor). But we all know how that goes.
Our favorite place to dive is still Cayman Islands. For us visibility has always been outstanding, with little current overall. That caribbean blue dive water, makes it like diving in an aquarium. We were told all caribbean diving is well, caribbean diving. That hasn’t been our experience but OK. We were told diving St. Maarten, Saba, St. Kitts would be very similar to Cayman. In some ways it was, other ways not-so-much.
The weather played the biggest factor so certainly you could say, the same can happen in Cayman. We just haven’t experience that, and/or with 200+ dive sites to choose from there’s always one that’s ‘open’. Not the same around Saba. Again, our choices of sites were kind of limited by where the boat could moore.
Traditionally this trip is a one-way from either St. Maarten to Saba to St. Kitts or the reverse. At this time St. Kitts was closed to tourists and to diving off or around the island. So we had to dive Saba for 6 days. That, mixed with the weather made it challenging at times both from a visibility perspective (more on that in a minute) to the weather and currents blowing around the island. Saba is a SMALL island with many great sites, but it’s not the smorgasbord of sites we’re accustomed to in Cayman. Details here at seasaba.com.
Because of the weather, currents, swells, we were forced to stick to the western side of the island. The weather also kicked up the ‘Cloud of Doom’ which instantly dropped visibility to almost 0. Our first dive day Sunday was a complete wash out because of it. The first two dives were 20 minutes total, out and down the mooring line where we couldn’t see farther than 3-6 feet, then back up the line and back on the boat. You can’t control the weather so you just have to deal with it.
Captain Nelson spent the rest of the week searching for sites with visibility and navigable currents to get us in the water. It was frustrating at first, but it all worked out.
The Cloud of Doom
Saba is basically an ancient volcano. I’m sure I’m not explaining this properly as we heard multiple explanations. But basically, the island is surrounded by volcanic silt, and as the currents and wind shifts, it stirs up these clouds, clouds of doom. When this happens, visibility goes from unbelievable to zero or near zero in no time. Charles, who’s been all over the world, has never seen anything like it and neither had we. We’d be on a dive with good visibility (60+ feet) and you could see it coming, in minutes, you could barely seen your hand in front of your face. Time to huddle up with the divemaster and head back to the mooring line. This happened on a few dives. Nothing to be afraid of but be aware. The boats is still right where you left it and worst case, ascend and find it.
On our second dive on day one, heading down the mooring line, Claudine lost a weight pocket knocked loose from the swells and the mooring line, which prevented her from making it down. The divemaster told me to stay put, while she took Claudine back to the boat. Visibility was not good (maybe 7 feet). I found a coral head near the bottom of the mooring line and just watched the wildlife. I looked over to my right and could see Frank. Looked back over a minute later and he wasn’t there. I was told to stay put so I did and just hung out for about ten minutes. Just me, a small coral head, and some fish. After about 10 minutes it was time to ascend, I didn’t have a buddy, and it was time to go. I ascended to my safety stop. Kirsten found me there, chilling at ~15 or so feet, checked on me, and directed me back to the boat. The rest of the day was a wash.
Of course, I would have loved better visibility, and the option to dive St. Kitts but it wasn’t in the cards. I would take the trip again, under the same conditions and visibility.
I dove 22 of the 23 opportunities to dive. I only sat out of one night dive because I wanted a glass of wine more than I wanted a low visibility night dive on Wednesday.
Charles put together a highlight video you can can watch here:
Overall most of the dives were great, well worth it. Some were challenging either due to surge or visibility. Tammy has always said “You learn something on every dive” and that was very clear on this trip. We learned about low visibility, we learned about some crappy conditions. We learned swimming against the current back to the boat when the current changes, sucks, a lot. Just relax, take care of business, enjoy what you can enjoy. I’d leave tomorrow for the same boat, same conditions, including limited visibility.
The night dives were amazing. “The freaks come out at night”. We got to see some amazing stuff. Turtles and Sharks on Every Dive! We got to see a shark hunt and eat Dorry with the help of Charles’s big ass dive lights. “Chip” was Charles’s personal nurse shark for the week. He was everywhere Charles was. It was impressive the area that the shark covered, we spent a lot of time with him.
We never went hungry and the food was outstanding. Something new every day. Breakfast was great, from the omelets to the pancakes and french toast. Lunch and dinner were even better… Ribs, Lasagna, Burgers, Steak, and always a Salad for no reason. The deserts too. I have no idea how chef Julian did it on an often rocky boat. The ribs were really, really good and I know my ribs. He claims he’s converted more than a few vegetarians and I don’t doubt him for a second.
This was our first liveaboard but certainly won’t be our last.