San Andres belongs to Colombia, but lies hundreds of miles to the northwest, just 90 miles off the coast of Nicaragua. Six miles long and roughly 'seahorse' shaped, with its 'body' running N-S, the coral island is relatively flat, fringed nearly everywhere with jagged, unforgiving ironshore. On the north and east sides, sandy beaches attract the attention of tourists. But because the tradewinds come from the east, most diving is done on the west side of the island.
Despite its political attachment to Colombia, San Andres looks and feels just like any other Caribbean dive destination. Most locals are quick to point out that their heritage and that of the Colombian government are two very different things.
Because of its country's unsavory reputation, San Andres is virtually unknown to North American tourists. This affords the island a unique advantage -- while the reefs of other islands have felt intense pressure from the tourism industry, those around San Andres remain in remarkably pristine condition. To us, the island represented an exciting opportunity to explore waters that had hardly been explored before.
San Andres offers a variety of dive sites, from vertical walls and deep drop-offs to beds of seagrass in waist-deep water.
The most dramatic dive sites are found on the southeast side of the island. There, the reef plateau extends a few hundred yards from shore, remaining only 20-30 feet deep. The plateau ends abruptly with a vertical (and in places overhanging) wall that drops hundreds of feet. Unfortunately, because of its exposure to the wind, currents are frequent, visibility can be reduced, and the trips to and from the dive site can be bone-jarring. We were only able to make the trip a few times, when our captain indicated that conditions were favorable.
Also on the east side, but toward the north end of the island, is a region of very shallow water that is protected from the onslaught of the open ocean by a barrier reef. Within the protected zone are a wide expanse of seagrass beds and some isolated coral formations. We also made the trip to this area only a few times because of its distance from our base of operations on the west side. We would have liked to more thoroughly explore the grassy shallows.
The majority of our diving was done on the calm west side, where the bottom profile is similar along most of the coast:
-SHORE: jagged ironshore riddled with cracks, overhangs and caves (0-30 ft deep).
-TRANSITION ZONE: shallow sandy/grassy/rubbly flats (25-40 ft deep)
-REEF: coral islands separated by sand 'rivers' out to the dropoff (40-60 ft deep).
-DROPOFF: moderate to steep with coral and sand chutes down to 140+ ft
The reefs are in fantastic shape. We all agreed that we had not seen as much living coral in such good condition anywhere else in the Caribbean. Sites near the dropoff such as West Point and Wildlife are beautiful examples of healthy coral communities. Unfortunately, because our diving style favours long/shallow dives rather than short/deeper dives, we didn't spend as much time near the dropoff as we would have liked to. It is impossible to do a deep dive unless you are willing to sacrifice (a lot of) bottom time...there are no shallows near the reef in which to offgas.
Fortunately, the shallower region near shore offered plenty to keep us occupied. We spent many dives simply swimming along the base of the ironshore exploring dark overhangs and caves. Many of the caves have very unassuming entrances -- just big enough for a diver (and camera :-D ) to safely fit through. But on the inside, they often open up considerably, and many could accommodate several people. One cavern in particular started at 25 feet or so and opened into a massive chamber whose ceiling was nearly at sea level. A few cars could have fit inside.
The flat transition zone was just as exciting to explore: frogfishes, pipehorse, spotfin gobies, shorttail snake eels, and a slew of other-worldly invertebrates that we are still sorting through.
Some of our most noteworthy sightings included:
Masked hamlet (many!)
Sargassumfish (our first ever sighting in 20+ years)
Shorttail snake eel
False papillose blenny
Whitestriped squirrelfish (name assigned by ReefNet)
The squirrelfish is particularly exciting, since our only other sightings of this fish were last year in St. Vincent. After considerable research last summer we concluded that what we had photographed was an undescribed species. Seeing the same species in the same habitat but on the other side of the Caribbean was very reassuring! Photos of this species can be found in our GAFC 2003 and GAFC 2004 galleries (see below), as well as in our 3rd edition field guide software.
But the excitement was not limited to fishes. Our latest trip accentuated the need for a really good, comprehensive field guide to marine invertebrates. We'll be the first to tell you that we're not experts (yet!) when it comes to shrimps, flatworms and nudibranchs. But we DO know when we've found something really unusual...it happened a lot! Some of the puzzling finds are displayed in our photo/video galleries in the hopes that one of you might be able to tell us what they are.
The above description is a summarised extract from the last ReefNet visit to San Adres. For more information please visit: http://www.reefnet.ca