I hadn’t heard of St. Vincent until I saw a presentation about the island at Sea Rowers, presented by Andrew J. Martinez. Don’t know what my dive-buddy Matt Wills was thinking, but the picture of a Flying Gurnard immediately triggered my interest. Have you seen one? Later I found out that, as this fish cannot literally fly, some prefer to call it “Helmet Gurnard”. But for me, the image depicted the soaring flight of a garish dream. Jumping ahead I’ll tell you that I saw it with my own eyes, even took a few shots. This species, when pastures on the sandy bottom, actually walking on its pelvic fins. But when this fish spreads its pictorial fins, they magically transform into beautiful and very convincing wings.

Flying Gurnard (Dactylopterus volitans)

More about what we saw at St. Vincent a bit later. But during the lecture, Matt and I looked at each other, and silently, almost in unison, we decided that we definitely must visit the island Andrew Martinez called “The Critter Capital of the Caribbean”.

So after some deliberation, we asked Andrew Martinez and he kindly agreed to lead a small group of divers to St. Vincent. Why with Andrew M.?” The answer – going with the guy who visited and dove around the island at least 9 times, has many positive advantages.
For instance, besides the fact that he knows most of  the dive-sites like the back of his fins, we did not need to gamble where to stay, eat or which dive shop to use. Then, upon arrival, he helped to arranged large electric transformers in our rooms, so we wouldn’t need to seek additional outlets for our exhausting supply of rechargeable batteries.  Prior to our departure, we were reminded not to forget an extension cord, a headlamp to inspect O-rings, dry bags, a small amount of cash and so on. But what was more important for Matt and me, that Andrew, for a very modest honorarium, agreed to share his 30 years of knowledge and experience in underwater camerawork. In other words; it would be a hands-on, educational trip with the man who publishes his work in well-recognized and highly respected books and magazines.( Published work)

So we packed and went to St. Vincent with the highest expectations that we were about to see and to learn a lot.

The Flight

Well, to quote the famous line of many anecdotes, “what would you like to hear first ..?”  But before I tell you anything, I must confess that we booked our flight at the very last minute. Those who haven’t visited St. Vincent, but are familiar with the geographical location of the island, would be somewhat surprised that flying from Boston, may take quite a long time to reach the point of the destination. The plane left Boston around  5:35 am., and 18 hours later, around 11-11:30 pm, we landed in St. Vincent. Does it have to be such a long trip? Is there a shorter way to St. Vincent? Oh absolutely, and Jackie, the travel agent, informed us that such a long route was chosen due to very late inquiry and our great concern to get our hefty luggage simultaneously with our arrival. Andrew’s prior experience with small, prop driven aviation, left much to be desired. Jackie also said that next time we’d get there much faster, as she’s investigating a private charter from Barbados (SVG Air), which should shorten the flight time considerably. But in the end, everything went fine; we landed at St. Vincent together with our gear. Thank you, Jackie, you’ve done a great job.

Getting ready to depart

Trinidad & Asa Wright Nature Center

All right, now the very good news. Yes, it was very long flight, but as a proverb goes; everything is a double-edged sword. An eight-hour layover in Port-of-Spain, gave us an opportunity to explore Trinidad? A bit of research (according to Wikipedia), the island once was called, “Lëre”, which in the language of Arawak means, “Land of the Humming Bird”. So, while Andrew was stretching his back at the Airport, Matt, Mike and I shared a taxi  (US $80 round trip) and went to “Asa Wright Nature Center” located up in the mountains of Trinidad. It is a well-known bird sanctuary established in 1967 by the group of naturalists and bird-watchers. Since then, the center was visited by many enthusiasts and, in 2008, even by Prince Charles and his wife.

At Asa Wright Nature Center

We spent there 4 and a half joyful hours walking around, watching, photographing birds of all shapes and colors. A gentleman on the airplane mentioned that we also could visit the Mount St. Benedict, also located not too far from the Airport. So, as you see, such flight arraignment actually played in our favor.

At Asa Wright Nature Center

Hotel Mariner

Divers, and especially those who travels with bulky photography equipment, realize how important to find a “diver-friendly” hotel. I mean the room must be large enough for all your gear to be sporadically scattered all over the place, and yet small enough so you can quickly find what you are looking for. It is also should be located not too far from a dock, so the walk to a boat would be a breeze. Fresh water must be within an easy reach, (to soak equipment after a day of diving). And an access to the Internet would be somewhat appreciated.

Hotel Mariners. Picture is courtesy of Andrew Martinez

It was my first visit to the island and for a whole week, the “Mariner” was my temporary home. I can’t compare it with anything else on the island, but I can tell you this place exceeded all my expectations.

The food was not just good, but great. At breakfast, we had freshly squeezed juice, farm fresh eggs prepared to order and your choice of sausages or bacon. Andrew, who traveled much more than we did, swears that he’d come to St. Vincent again and again just to get another serving of homemade yogurt, a few varieties of which were available every morning. People at the hotel held themselves with genuine dignity, and yet you felt very welcome and well pampered. Only once we went to a nearby restaurant for their special Friday BBQ.

Being very impressed with accommodation I asked Andrew if the “Mariner” was his first choice of lodging during his initial visit to the island? He said that at first he stayed in different place. But due to favorable location of the hotel and people – the Mariner became his solid choice of lodging for many years he was visiting St Vincent.

Pinnacle Rock dive site

“Dive St. Vincent”

Due to Bill Tewes’s illness, I did not have the privilege to meet the owner of the shop. But Andrew, DJ, Calle, Ray and a few other guys I’ve met at the bar often talked very highly about the founder of the “Dive St. Vincent” (the father of the diving industry of the island.) Bill Tewes, described by many as a ”certified critter nut”, was the first who dove around the island. He is so important to St. Vincent that his image can be found on the local stamp! I am mentioning Bill Tewes not only to express to him my deep appreciation for discovering St. Vincent for us, but also to thank Bill for his disciples. Every morning, afternoon and night, DJ and Cally, two quiet, patient, knowledgeable and very accommodating dive guides, were assembling our gears, loading everything onto the boat, driving us to the sites and leading our dives. Following Andrew’s advice, after a few excursions, I learned to watch Cally, who, if spotted something worth being seen, would beckon you by just a slight movement of his hand. DJ, in contrast, was attracting our attention with H2YO noisemaker, (available from ReefNet.ca) a very efficient and extremely noticeable instrument.

Bill Tewes. Dive St Vincent

With no room to spare, all walls of the dive-shop are covered by 8×10 framed pictures hanging very close to each other, depicting underwater flora and fauna of the island. A lot, of course, is not shown, as the amount of the displayed photographs is limited to the available square footage of the wall. I think that solution is to go digital. It would be easier to show new life forms on a big screen, spinning them from a large capacity hard drive. But I’ll tell you; those shots plenty stimulated my interest. I only wished that I would be able to see at least half of what was on those walls.

Blue-Streak Nudibranch. Flabellina engeli

Most, if not all of our dives would be called, “muck diving”. For those who are not familiar with the description (according to Wikipedia) “muck diving takes its name from the sediment i.e. muddy or “mucky” environment. Which is the preferred habitat for unusual, exotic and juvenile organisms, that make their homes in the “trash” that covers the bottom. Creatures like colorful nudibranchs, anglerfish, shrimps …” and so on. On the same page, you can find the following, “Perhaps those that enjoy muck diving the most are the macro photographers. The calm and shallow water provides amazing opportunities to photograph the creatures that hide amongst the muck.” And that is exactly what we were doing. Almost all our dive profiles were no deeper the 30-40 feet and 75-90 minutes in lengths. Cally, when asked if the shop has larger than 72 cu. ft. capacity tanks answered with a smile; yes, we do, but if we give you a bigger bottle you’d never get out of the water.

Shortnose Batfish

Could’ve we have gone deeper? Oh, absolutely, as deep as we wish. There are walls and reefs that can be explored. At “Orca Point,” we went to around 90 feet, shortening the dive to 45 minutes. But with so much to find at the depth of 25-40 feet we did not see a big advantage to wander deeper. I took with me two lenses; Canon 100 mm., for close-up work, and 17-40 for a wider shots. For my first dive, I assembled the housing with a port suitable for 100 mm lens. Needless to say, all 18 dives were completed with the same setup.

Frogfish with lure

Yes, sometimes I had to move a bit further away to get the whole fish, allowing more water between the camera and the object, which could’ve caused more backscatter. But luckily the visibility was great, around 50-70 feet and withdrawing from the subjects usually only helped to get a better shot.

Jawfish with eggs

How small can they get? Have you seen a commensal shrimp residing within the spines of a sea urchin? During one of our dives, Matt was first pointing at the sea urchin and then at my camera. I looked as hard as I could, through the lens of my mask, zeroing my concentration on animal’s needles, but fail to spot anything that could’ve aroused my excitement. Matt kept slowly turning the shell, pointing at its belly. So just to humor my companion I leaned closer to the urchin, nodded, like “aha, I got it”, aimed and took a few shots. I swam away, seeing as Matt was taking shot after shot of sea urchin and wondered what could have been so attractive in the spines of such a common organism.

Heart Urchin Pea Crab

After the dive, on the boat, Matt asked me if I got “Commensal crab” that he was pointing out to me.

“What are you talking about, what crab?”

“Remember sea urchin?”

“You kidding, Matt, there was a crab in there?”

“Of course”,  he said smiling, wiping dripping water from his beard.  “You didn’t see it?”

Thankfully, most of the other life forms I was able to see without a microscope) For instance, to photograph the Flying Gurnard with its open “wings” and 100mm lens, I had to keep quite a distance. At “Cruise Ship”, my favorite dive spot, DJ found juvenile Flying Gurnard and I was able to take a few close-ups.

Juvenile flying gurnard

Ray Haberman, diver and photographer, who lives most of the year in St. Vincent, builds, or rather creates, as he calls it, “condominiums” for small critters. A piece of plywood, with a rock on top and an apartment is ready to be occupied. A month later, after new “residents” settled in, he gets around collecting picturesque “rent” from his tenants. Thanks to his “renovations” we managed to take a few nice shots.

Snapping Shrimp. (aka Symbiosis Shrimp or Pistol Shrimp)

Night dives presented a whole new game. At “Cruse Ship” Matt was able to spot a baby octopus the size of a penny, resting by the entrance to his shelter. Lots of colorful shrimps and tiny crabs were meandering around open anemones, hunting and dodging our lights. Beautiful, spellbinding anemones were closing up fast detecting the light from our flashes. You really have only one chance to take a few photos.

Baby octopus

I asked Andrew Martinez why he keeps coming back to St. Vincent again and again. “The last time I visited the island, I spotted 40 new species, a year before – 53. Each time I came to St. Vincent, I knew that I wouldn’t be disappointed”

Well, I don’t know about Andrew, but as for me, my disappointment came when I had to leave the island. It’s very calm environment, offering relaxed, unhurried dives and an unlimited supply of marine life to be discovered.

Lessons in underwater photography

My underwater camera set up consists of Ikelite Housing for Canon 5D Mark II, two substrobes DS 161 and Canon 100 mm lens. Matt Wills had a similar set up except for the camera. He had Canon 7D and 60 mm lens. Mike used point-&-shoot Panasonic LX 3 with 10Bar housing with 2 Sea & Sea flashes. We all have different levels of experiences and looked forward to improving our skills.

At first, we tried to communicate some skills underwater, thought Andrew would show us how to prepare the camera and flashes. But very quickly realized with all commotion we would be left with nothing to shoot but grass. Actually, watching Andrew, we learned to get to and retrieve from the subject with great caution. The Jawfish, with a mouth full of eggs, as it keenly detects the slightest movement, was the first to disappear. And you don’t want to miss this picture … trust me. So we quickly discarded any attempts to learn underwater. Eventually, the following routine was developed; we would download all the pictures to our computers, get together at the dining area of the hotel and Andrew would go over sets of shots, explaining what needed to be done in order to improve outcome. We talked extensively about everything; what ISO, speed, and aperture should be chosen at each particular shot. Preparation of the housing, o-rings, ports, and lenses. The positioning of flashes, automatic vs. manual zoom techniques and much, much more. There were some very interesting thoughts about general composition of shots.

I can’t answer for all, but as for me, I came back with a lot of helpful material. And the most important revelation was… again … trying to learn new skills right from the beginning. I mean if it possible, find a good teacher before accumulating some habits that later will be very difficult to break or change. I’ll give you an example. For almost two years, if my pictures were coming out too dark, my first action was to open the aperture, allowing more light through the lens. Almost in all conditions, I tried to keep ISO at 100, thinking that it’s the most important setting that should stay unchanged. Andrew explained that with professional SLR’s, depth of field is a priority over higher ISO. So the next dive I raised ISO to 200, keeping DOF at 22. And the difference in the quality of the shots was noticeable. Before I would keep ISO at 100 and changed F-stop to 14. Comparing both settings, I saw that a shot with ISO 200 was brighter and sharper than its counterpart. Diving 4 times a day leaves one with almost no time for long deliberations. Therefore, each day was dedicated to one of the students and his “artwork”. This way we saw what each of us was doing and learned on errors and slip-ups of others as well.

Comclusion

The trip to St. Vincent introduced to me a very relaxed and extremely informative type of diving. I liked “hunting” for a good shot without too much worry for fluctuating depth or a lost anchor of the boat as shores were always within an easy reach. I wanted to better explore the island itself, but with so much to be seen underwater, I left it for another day.

Was it worth extra money to go and learn photography with Andrew Martinez? I can assure you no dollar was wasted. You realize that your communication is never limited to one topic. There are always more things to talk about and you can discover a few useful ideas during daily conversations. My only wish – I should have done a trip like this two years ago when I took my camera in my hands for the first time, primary is very important.

I hope in the next year we will be able to set up another successful trip to St. Vincent with Andrew.