I have the good fortune to be the partner of someone who has been seconded to work on the island of St Maarten in the Caribbean. Much though I loved our Amsterdam home, the thought of tropical sunshine in the Caribbean with a COVID winter approaching was a blessing. We’ve been here three months now.
I’ve logged almost 2000 dives all over the world: UK to Australia, Philippines, Indonesia (including running a dive operation in the Lembeh Straits), lots of Caribbean islands, the Red Sea, the US, Bonaire loads of times. St Maarten, or St Martin on the French side, is turning out to be a delightful dive surprise.
Diving here is boat-based. If you are staying on the south (Dutch) side of the island dive sites are usually about a 15 minute fast ride. Conditions can be slightly choppy but nothing that would bother the majority of Wetpixelers. Current and surge are occasional but not common. Site depths are usually in the 14-20m (45’-60’) range so perfect photo depths. Many sites have fish in abundance. Reef sharks and stingrays are on most dives; turtles on many. Water temperature so far is usually about 28-29C (82-84F); air temperature about 30-32C (86-90F). Slightly colder in December I'm told.
Dive sites drop nicely into either the macro or wide-angle category. For macro, sandy/gravelly bottoms and low coral outcrops with Pedersen and Spotted cleaner shrimp, Flamingo tongues, jawfish, yellowline arrow crabs (brilliant snoot country). Wide-angle with many small wrecks, coral encrusted with schools of hanging fish and colourful hard corals. Some very interesting and varied reef topography with swim-throughs, passageways and gullies. Reef cracks with life in them. A very broad range of Caribbean reef species. It is way better than many of the island I have visited including, gasp, Bonaire.
As for dive operators, I’ve been diving with Ocean Explorers [https://stmaartendiving.com]. Long established on the island, run by a husband and wife (Jef and Lu). Hugely friendly, accommodating and, with Jef a photographer himself, definitely photographer-friendly. He’ll do his best to pick the site for your lens choice and will critter-spot. He will also let you do your own thing on the sites without chivvying or chasing. Nitrox is available. 6 divers on the boat for a morning 2-tank dive. In the busier seasons, afternoon too. Take your time, take your pics, relax and enjoy. I can recommend Jef and Lu heartily - two of the nicest dive owners I have met.
As for the non-diver on the island: given that it’s half-French and half-Dutch, there is really nice cultural diversity complete with historical sites of interest. Great beaches, easy on-island travel with rental cars, friendly, helpful people. Cheap gas. If you want baguettes, French cuisine, great wines, pain au chocolat, it’s on the French side; if you want bitterballen and drop (Dutch liquorice), Heineken, you can get that too on the Dutch side which arguably caters more to American tastes. Don’t get me going on local rums. Excellent supermarkets (Carrefour and Super U). Loads of restaurants are open - very many with outdoor seating - and are very good at a huge price range. So lots for the diver and non-diver.
On the Dutch half everyone speaks English and the US Dollar is king. On the French side, on parle français, English is widely understood, and it’s the Euro. Power is 110v on the Dutch side with US-style plug sockets.
Social distancing is practised and, there is a relatively low level of CV19 cases. Everyone wears a mask in shops and indoor settings. Hand shakes are a thing of the past. But other than that, and a PCR test before you board the aircraft (which you need to upload to a St Maarten government website before arrival), life is relatively normal or maybe better than what now passes for new normal. Although you will see plenty of evidence of the devastating impact of Hurricane Irma in 2017 especially on the French side,
If you feel in need of a dive break, “escape” from COVID, some warm sunshine and you can get on Air France, KLM, American Airlines, Jet Blue, United, Spirit or Delta, St Maarten is open for business and I can heartily recommend it.
And no, I’m not getting paid or anything to promote St Martin. But I am deeply grateful to my lovely partner for bringing me here. And for modelling on my wide-angle shots :-)