Over the years many songwriters have referred to the beauty of this green pearl in the string of Caribbean islands, and today it is known throughout the world for its lush vegetation, reggae music, rum and coffee. One of the most overlooked attractions is, however, that part of the island that lies below the surface of the ocean that surrounds it.
Divers typically do not think of Jamaica as a prime diving destination, except for those who have explored its reefs and have found it to be the best destination of all. Where else can you do a breathtaking wall dive in the morning, enjoy the sea life on a shallow reef at noon, and have plenty of time left in the afternoon to go river rafting, horseback riding, play golf, visit a great house or indulge in any manner of activities.
Jamaica as one of the largest islands in the Caribbean has many excellent diving and snorkeling sites: shallow and deep, reefs and walls, wrecks and caverns, home to all manner of sea life: spectacular coral, exotic sponges, spiny lobsters, moray eels, sea turtles and multitudes of colorful fish, big and small. Below we have selected by region some of the unique diving opportunities available to you based on your level of experience.
All dives offered by commercial operators in Jamaica are guided dives. The dive guides must have, according to regulations, at least a dive master certificate from an internationally recognized association and be licensed by the Jamaica Tourist Board. Although this limits your freedom to dive wherever you like, this regulation increases the safety and fun of diving in an unfamiliar area.
The dive classifications employed below were assigned based on the following principles: Novice divers: Persons who are recently certified, or who have done only a limited number of dives with considerable gaps in between; this could include divers with as many as 20 dives. Dives in this category will tend to be less than 60 ft (18 m) or will not require advanced diving skills. Intermediate divers: Persons who have been diving on a regular basis but lack further training beyond certification, also those with advanced training who have not been diving for the past several months. The environment of this category of dive necessitates greater experience. Advanced divers: Persons with training beyond the open water diver certification that have been diving regularly in the last several months. This requirement will apply to most sites deeper than 80 ft (24 m) because those dives require a mastery of buoyancy and a thorough knowledge of the dive tables. These dives may also be accessible to the less experienced diver after a couple of refresher dives.
MONTEGO BAY Rose Hall Reef Depth: 20-45 ft (7-14 m) Class: Novice Named for the famous great house that overlooks the sea just a couple of miles east of Montego Bay, this shallow reef is teaming with marine life. At this location you’ll discover “Fairy Castle”, a massive colony of pillar coral, and “Fairy Bridge”, a coral formation that connects two sections of reef over a sandy “river”. The reef forms an intricate system of tunnels that are home to squirrelfish, goatfish, porcupinefish, bar jacks and grunts.
The Spanish Anchor Depth: 50-90 ft (15-28 m) Class: Intermediate Located on the west side of the marine park, the shallow reef drops to a sandy bottom at 50 ft. The site derives its name from the large anchor, undated but of Spanish origin, that rests on the sandy bottom. Within the reef wall one can explore tunnels and caverns with abundant sponge colonies. Sightings of eagle rays are quite common here, and in the deeper water large mutton snappers- and sometimes a docile nurse sharkmay pass by.
Widowmaker’s Cave Depth: 40-80 ft (12-24 m) Class: Advanced A deep dive along a wall with a vertical, narrow crack which forms the entrance to Widowmaker’s Cave. Inside the tunnel leading to the cave, there is wire coral with, in the beam of your dive light, red polyps, and the walls are covered with multicolored sponges. On this dive you’ll likely encounter schools of silvery blue bogas, glassy sweepers, schoolmaster snappers, balloonfish, trumpetfish, hamlets, wrasses and parrotfish.
NEGRIL The Throne Room Depth: 40-70 ft (12-21 m) Class: Novice The entrance to the Throne Room, a fairly wide but low cavern, is a crack in the reef about 25 feet long and 8 feet wide. The walls on the inside are covered with colorful sponges and on the bottom near to the exit you can see a large orange elephant ear sponge for which the site is named. Ceros, cruising along over the sandy bottom, are a common sight, as are small groups of yellow tail snapper.
The Caves Depth: 40-70 ft (12-21 m) Class: Intermediate This site is named for the two caverns, one small and one slightly larger, with a narrow tunnel connecting the two. You can find a variety of sponges here along with soft gorgonians. On the sand flat you will see the usual occupants: furry sea cucumbers, stingrays, jacks and some lane snappers.
Kingfish Point Depth: 80-90 ft (24-27 m) Class: Advanced Among the elephant ear sponges and yellow tube sponges, you may find Spanish hogfish, smooth and bandtail puffers, and of course the everpresent damselfish. Golden crinoids are tucked in between star and brain coral, and in the surrounding sandy area sand tilefish hover near their burrows. Kingfish, the Jamaican name for ceros, can be seen passing by. These silvery fish are generally solitary and are seen on reefs and drop-offs near deep water.
RUNAWAY BAY Reggae Queen Depth: 50-60 ft (15-18 m) Class: Novice The “Reggae Queen”, a 100-ft tugboat with a wooden hull, was sunk here in early 1993. The wreck lies upright in the sand in between two reef reas. Hovering over the wreck is a large school of blue chromis, bogas and creole wrasse. Southern stingrays have also been reported cruising the adjacent areas. In the reef you can see clusters of yellow tube sponges and green rope sponges covered with tiny zoanthids.
Pocket’s Reef Depth: 90-120 ft (27-36 m) Class: Advanced A wall at 80 ft dropping down to over 200 ft adorned with clusters of bright azure vase sponges, elephant ear sponges and large red sea fans. Large schools of fish go back and forth, and ceros and bar jacks pass overhead. Rainbow jacks are seen regularly and sometimes you may encounter an ocean triggerfish. A shallower reef plateau at 50 ft is home to grunts, goatfish and blackbar soldierfish.
OCHO RIOS Jacks Hall Depth: 30-50 ft (9-15 m) Class: Novice This medium-profile reef has finger coral, brain coral, star coral, an occasional elkhorn coral on the shallower end, and a variety of sponges. Drifting with the current you pass over a section of reef, followed by a sand chute, another reef section and another sand gully and so on. Nurse sharks frequent the area and can often be found napping in the sand.
Top of the Mountain Depth: 60-80 ft (18-24 m) Class: Intermediate Near Dunn’s River Falls, a massive underwater mountain plateau rises up from the sandy ocean floor to 60 ft below the surface. The top of the reef is covered with many different species of soft gorgonians and small coral heads, consisting of sea rods, sea plumes, sea fans, brain coral, star coral, and clusters of smooth flower coral. Look out for golden hamlets that frequent this area and the rare yellowcheck wrasse. Hiding in the coral heads are glasseye snappers, graysbys, and squirrelfish.
Snorkeling opportunities abound in Jamaica for guided tours to areas reachable only by boat or solo, shore entry reef exploration. Be sure to employ guides licensed by the Jamaica Tourist Board or if you have the experience to venture out on your own be sure to seek local advice on the currents and other potential hazards.
Excerpted with permission from the book “Diving and Snorkeling Guide to Jamaica” by Hannie and Theo Smit. This book is out of print but copies are available for purchase at the Montego Bay Marine Park visitor centre at Pier 1.
Montego Bay Marine Park Covering an area from the airport to the Great River west of Montego Bay, officially opened in 1992, mooring buoys and boundary markers are maintained, rangers patrol the area and spear fishing is banned from the park. Training programs exist to assist displaced fisherman in learning new skills and finding alternative employment. A zoning plan addresses the impact of various user groups on the park. Also, an extensive public education program seeks to make Montego Bay citizens more aware of the importance of preserving the marine environment. The effect of destructive environmental practices on land, which influences to a great extent the health of the reefs, is emphasized. For more information, call (876) 952-5619 or visit the head office and visitor centre, located at Pier 1. http://www.mbmp.org
Friends of the Sea Determined to halt the destruction of the marine environment in the areas of Discovery Bay, Runaway Bay and Ocho Rios this group of concerned citizens seeks to increase public awareness of this problem through education, water-quality monitoring and various conservation initiatives. For more information about their activities, you can write to: Friends of the Sea, P.O. Box 327, St. Anne’s Bay.
Negril Environmental Protection Area Covering over 80 square miles and including the Negril Marine Park and the Great Morass, as well as rain and limestone forests, cliffs, caves and blue holes. The marine park includes demarcation of recreational, fishing and replenishment zones with over 150 marker and reef mooring buoys, and the program incorporates educational projects and mariculture projects as well as an alternative to destructive fishing and farming practices, and a unique reef restoration program using mineral accretion to create artificial reefs. These efforts are financed by user fees, ecotourism activities, souvenir sales, donations and environmental levies. For more information, call (809) 957-4472.
**for more information visit http://www.jam-boree.com/, Jamaica’s visitor website, the complete source for travel and tourism information featuring hand-picked deals on vacation packages, hotels, villas, flights and car rentals**