Saba is a Dutch island in the Caribbean Sea. Only five square miles with a population of 2,000, this small island is known as the Unspoiled Queen. I’d have to agree with that…with little commercialization and no cruise ships…this island is a tropical paradise!
Saba was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 but did not consider the mountainous landscape important enough to colonize. From its discovery until 1816, Saba changed hands many times…from the Spanish, to the French, and to the Dutch who took final possession.
The island includes four small settlements, the world’s shortest commercial runway (1,200 feet), the tallest mountain in the Netherlands which is the potentially active volcano Mt. Scenery, and world class SCUBA diving.
SCUBA Diving in Saba
I found out about Saba a few years ago from a fellow diver while diving in Turks and Caicos. When he mentioned sea horses and an island in the Caribbean of which I had never heard, my interest was peaked enough to mention it to my dive buddies Rootie and Julie. The next thing I knew, we were on our way to SCUBA diving in Saba.
Diving the Pinnacles
SCUBA diving in Saba is unique because the island includes a wide variety of distinct dive sites. Saba is most famous for its pinnacles that rise from the ocean floor and top out at 95 feet. Only one of the structures is a single standing true pinnacle. It is known as the Needle and the dive site is named Third Encounter.
Divers drop down the mooring line at the bow of the boat to about 70 feet and swim across the deep blue water where suddenly the needle appears. In my opinion approaching the needle is the coolest part of the dive as there isn’t much space for a group of divers to explore. And at such deep depths (95 feet) and diving Nitrox, there wasn’t an option of diving deeper.
These depths result in short bottom times, so we didn’t stay long at this special column of coral, but it was a really unique experience to only see water in every direction and out of nowhere find the Needle!
Diving the Geological Coral
Another area for SCUBA diving in Saba includes geological coral. Geological coral is volcanic rock on which coral has grown. The volcanic rocks creates caves and tunnels. While we didn’t dive in any caves or tunnels, we did dive a popular site called Man O’ War with lots of fish life and lobsters that hung out between the two geological corals reefs.
Diving the Volcanic Area
A third type of site found while SCUBA diving in Saba is volcanic. Lava flow creates a labyrinth of formations and the yellow/brown sand in between are hot spots. There is a noticeable temperature change. It was fun to stick our hands in the sand!
This area is called Ladder Bay and the site with the warmest sand is appropriately called Hot Springs. Ladder Bay is also appropriately named as this location features the original steps Sabans used to access the island before Fort Bay harbor was built. Originally, all materials on the island had to be carried up these 524 steps. Thus items larger than planks and poles could not be transferred for construction. As a result, the quaint towns are peppered with uniform architecture of white buildings with red roofs.
Diving the Wall and Surrounding Reefs
Closest to the harbor from which the dive boats leave is the Tent Reef area which includes four sites. I really enjoyed diving Tent Wall. I like wall dives because I can follow the wall out at one depth and come back at shallower depth. In this case the top of Tent Wall was at 15 or so feet, so we could do our safety stop while inspecting the sea fans and other life on top of the reef.
Diving the Biological Coral
Finally, the last area of diving was on the East side. To dive this side, the wind needs to be light and the seas need to be calm which doesn’t happen that often, so the dive shops don’t go there often. We were fortunate to have nice weather the last two days, and this side of the island features biological corals reefs rather than geological. Thus, it is a regular reef that isn’t growing on rock.
Diving the Coral Farm
In addition to all these dive areas, there is also a coral farm that the Saba Conservation Foundation operates. In general, Dutch interns who are studying marine sciences work on the program. The coral farm includes several trees made of PVC pipe on which coral hangs from a fishing wire.
The small pieces (only a few inches) grow into a grapefruit sized piece in a year. The coral is cut and then transplanted onto reefs. The group recently transplanted coral onto a reef which took them about seven dives to complete.
To keep the coral growing on the trees, the algae needs to be cleaned off the fishing wire and pipes weekly. Somehow, we found out we could volunteer to help. Sea Saba, the dive shop we used while diving in Saba, donated free tanks and transferred our gear to the Foundation’s small boat. Though a safe boat, it didn’t compare to the comfort of Sea Saba’s boats! Fortunately, we didn’t have to go far.
The interns took us to the farm, handed us the rough green part of the back of the sponge, and advised us to clean the fishing wire first and the pipes second to keep the algae from overtaking the coral. They also cautioned us to stay up current, so the debris didn’t float onto us. Beyond that, it was up to us to watch our dive time remaining as we all descended 45 feet to give back to nature.
While we cleaned, we spotted a ray and a few turtles. We really enjoyed doing something different. I encourage any divers visiting Saba to ask about it.
Dive Shops on Saba
There are two dive shops on the island. Sea Saba and Saba Divers. Divers may book directly with the dive shops or purchase a package through some of the resorts. The Saba Divers dive center is located in Fort Bay harbor which is also where the dive boat is located. The closest and nicest accommodation is Queen’s Gardens Resort at the Bottom, the main town closest to the harbor.
The Bottom hosts a very good University, most of Saba’s government buildings, and Saba’s residents. There are a few restaurants, a church, and some hiking trails, but the Windwardside caters more to tourists. Generally speaking, I avoid the “more touristy” area on vacations, but in Saba’s case staying in the Windwardside was perfect. Though still quiet, it offered a little more to do.
The Windwardside featured twice as many restaurants as the Bottom, a few retail shops, a church, some hiking trails, and Sea Saba’s dive shop. We purchased a dive package at Sea Saba through Juliana’s, our hotel. The owners at Sea Saba and Juliana’s were extremely helpful. Lynn, at Sea Saba, also acted as our personal concierge! She made us reservations at restaurants each night, which we actually needed, and told us about different things happening on the island.
Sea Saba Dive Shop
The dive shop offers first class service. Sea Saba has two boats for diving, so they can split beginner and advanced groups up if necessary. They provide front door “taxi” service. We were picked up and dropped off at our hotel every day. The boat, with space for twenty, was maxed out at ten divers which provided comfortable passage to all dive sites which may be reached in 20 minutes or less.
Our boat included a captain and two dive masters. We went through a dive briefing before each dive, and after each dive our tanks were changed for us. In addition, at the end of the day, they rinsed our gear on the boat and stored it for us. On our final day, they delivered the gear to our hotel!
We completed two-tank boat dives in the morning. The boat didn’t leave the dock until 9am! I think that’s the lastest I’ve ever gone out on a dive boat. They only return to the harbor between morning dives if they are picking up divers from the St. Maarten ferry that comes three times a week. Otherwise, they only return to the dock after the second dive and we complete our surface interval on board. My guess is the relaxed morning departure accommodates the ferry folks. Regardless, we enjoyed a leisurely morning breakfast daily.
Only water and lemonade are served on board, so remember snacks. For those adding on a third afternoon dive, the dive shop will order a “to go” lunch upon request. Since we stayed at Juliana’s, we just ordered a to go lunch when we ate breakfast. As far as the logistics are concerned, diving in Saba couldn’t be easier.
SCUBA Diving in Saba
The actual SCUBA diving in Saba is somewhat deep compared to other places in the Caribbean. Many of our first dives of the day, including the famous pinnacles, began at 95 feet. As such, Nitrox diving is recommended, but not required. While there are shallower dives, most of the time we were in the 60-70-foot range.
There is a variety of fish life and reef life. We spotted several Caribbean reef sharks, a ray, lots of turtles, jacks, grouper, angelfish, wrasse and the typical tropical fish. There were a few eels and some nice sponges and coral. Some of the small creatures like shrimp, crab and sea horses were harder to spot. From what I understand, the devastating hurricane last year wiped out most of the sea horse population which is kind of a bummer.
The SCUBA diving in Saba is ranked in the top 10 in the world. While I’m uncertain I could rank it in my top ten dives, I can say the variety of diving provides something for everyone. I like the small stuff. Rootie likes the big stuff. And Julie, she may as well be a fish. Virtually all her vacations require her to be underwater!
We really enjoyed SCUBA diving in Saba, and were pleasantly surprised to find many fun things to do in Saba such as hiking, exploring the tide pools, taking an island tour, and even popping into a few museums. ETB