Dominica: The Eastern Caribbean’s Nature and Adventure Island

Millions of years ago, volcanic eruptions unleashed their fury in what’s now the Eastern Caribbean. A towering island rose from the center of the rage. Smack in the path of the trade winds sweeping in from the Atlantic Ocean, the mountainous island was doused with rainfall. Six different types of forests sprouted, providing habitats for thousands of tropical plant species and hundreds of birds. Underwater, marine life thrived on the walls, pinnacles and reefs. This was the beginning of Dominica (dah min NEE kuh).

Today, the volcanoes rest in a peaceful slumber. But the energy and excitement that created Dominica are felt by hiking in the island’s rain forests, rafting rivers, swimming in waterfalls, exploring underwater reefs and watching for wildlife. Those seeking to grease their bodies with tanning oil, lie sluglike on a white, sandy beach and infuse their livers with fruity concoctions would do best to go somewhere else. But those who enjoy adventuring in nature’s realm will love Dominica.

Located 310 miles/500 km southeast of Puerto Rico between the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, Dominica is in the Lesser Antilles, Windward Islands group of the Eastern Caribbean. It is an English-speaking country, but there is one Spanish phrase that every Dominican knows: “mal encaminado a Santo Domingo — missent to the Dominican Republic.” Stamped in purple ink, this phrase appears on many letters received from abroad. Dominica is often confused with the Spanish-speaking country of the Dominican Republic, located in the Greater Antilles — “the big one next to Haiti — we’re the small one to the south,” Dominicans explain.

The People and Their History

Stone Age tribes from South America first inhabited Dominica around 3000 B.C. Arriving by dugout canoe, these early dwellers gathered shellfish, chipped stone tools, fished the sea and hunted the thick forests. Around the time of Christ, the first of the South American Arawak tribes settled in Dominica, farming the land in addition to fishing and hunting. The Arawaks’ relationship with Dominica’s natural world is found in remnants of their art. Designs of parrots, bats, frogs and turtles adorn clay pots and ceremonial incense burners excavated from dwelling sites.

Around A.D. 600, the Carib Indians started their northern migration from South America’s Orinoco River Basin, paddling 66-foot-/20-m-long canoes. Reaching Dominica around A.D. 1000, they named the mountainous island “Wai’tukubuli” — “tall is her body.” Seafarers and brave warriors, the Caribs took control of each island in the Lesser Antilles and numbered 5,000 strong when Christopher Columbus reached Wai’tukubuli in 1493. Sailing for Spain, Columbus named the island Dominica, Latin for “the Lord’s Day,” since he sighted it on a Sunday.

The strength of the Caribs, mountainous forests and rugged volcanic coastline deterred European countries from colonizing the island for the next two centuries. However, Dominica became a refuge for Caribs from other islands where French, British and Dutch settlers forced them from their lands. The Caribs joined forces on Dominica and launched attacks on the fledgling European colonies on other islands. In retaliation, the colonies conducted at least two massacres on the Caribs in Dominica — one at Anse De Mai in 1635 and another in 1674 at a village still called Massacre today.

By the early 1700s Dominica and St. Vincent were the last islands of the West Indies still under Carib control. But European colonization was inevitable, and France and Britain traded the island back and forth in battle for the next century. Caught in the middle, the Caribs retreated to the rugged northeastern part of the island, their numbers reduced by war and disease to a mere 400 people. In 1810 the French finally ceded control to the British, who were quick to create towns, customs dues, regulations and an elected House of Assembly. Land in Dominica was sold by public auction in Britain, and the new owners established plantations and imported slaves from West Africa. The island remained a British colony well into the next century.

Dominica achieved full independence with republican status within the British Commonwealth on November 3, 1978. The country’s official name is the Commonwealth of Dominica, and its historical melting pot has endured for centuries. Today, street names like Great George, Queen Mary and Hillsborough denote the British influence, while many mountains, bays and towns have French names. Roseau, the capital of Dominica, is named for the French word “roseaux,” meaning “river reeds.” While English is the official language, many Dominicans still speak a French Creole dialect. Perhaps the best result of the blending of the different cultures of Dominica is found today in the local Creole cuisine — a delectable palette of French, West African and Carib flavors.

Agriculture is the mainstay of the Dominican economy, with bananas being the largest export. Others include coconuts, cocoa, coffee, bay leaf, mangoes, grapefruit, lime, strawberries, cauliflower, broccoli, cut flowers and ornamental plants. Dominica also exports its abundant fresh water to the nearby drier islands.

Diving Dominica

The rugged terrain of the land continues into the sea. Volcanic rock formations plastered with life offer walls, pinnacles, caves, arches and canyons for divers to explore.

To dive Dominica, one must appreciate the smaller things in life. There are few large reef fish, and the reason for this lies in the fish traps seen on sandy bottoms. But the presence of so many smaller critters more than compensates for the lack of bigger fish.

The reefs are loaded with invertebrates and juvenile fish, ideal subjects for macro photographers. Anemones of all colors, sizes and shapes host tiny shrimps and crabs. Fireworms blanket the reefs, and feather dusters duck in and out of their tube homes. Fileclams, with their deep-red mantles and white tentacles, are plentiful. Wriggling spotted drums and tiny pufferfish are among the many juvenile reef fish. Crinoids, resembling gold and orange ferns of the sea, burst from crevices and iridescent sponges. Technicolor squid shimmer at the water’s surface, and the occasional octopus ventures from its cramped living quarters. In dark caves, schools of glassy sweepers seek protection. Lizardfish perch on sandy bottoms, while moray eels gape at divers from their holes. Sea horses and nudibranchs cling to soft corals, and spotted eagle rays cruise past giant barrel sponges.

All diving is land-based, with most sites reached by boat within 10 or 20 minutes. There is also terrific shore diving. One dive worthy of burning up a lot of film is right between the piers of the Castle Comfort Lodge and Anchorage Hotel, both of which have dive operations. The dive is shallow, between 10 feet/3 m and 30 feet/9 m. All the macro creatures found in the deeper reef dives are here, too, and divers can take their time looking for subjects to photograph. This same site is also a great night dive, as the weird and the wonderful come out when the sun goes down. The nocturnal orange ball corallimorph resembles an anemone with clear tentacles juggling tiny, bright-orange balls. Spotted snake eels bury themselves in the sand, exposing just their heads. Schools of flying gurnards are often seen resting on the bottom with their winglike fins outstretched.

Another site not to miss is Champagne Reef, where hot gases rise from volcanic fissures on the sea floor, creating columns of bubbles that never lose their fizz. A dive at this festive reef is like swimming in a glass of sparkling wine.

The area to the north toward Ports-mouth offers a large selection of dive sites with sloping walls and healthy reefs. From St. Joseph north, you’ll find the only sand beaches on this side of the island. This area offers a variety of dive sites only a short boat ride from shore.

When motoring to and from sites, be on the lookout for dolphins torpedoing through the water and escorting boats at their bows. Keep an eye on the horizon and scan the ocean for whale spouts, as resident sperm whales live in the waters of Dominica. In fact, frequent sightings of 18 different species of whales and dolphins near Dominica have earned the country a reputation as the “Whale Watching Capital of the Caribbean.” Boat tours are available specifically to locate these mammals of the sea.

Topside Adventures

Dominica is known as the Nature Island and sometimes as the Adventure Island. But with annual rainfall averaging from 50 inches/128 cm along the dry west coast to 300 inches/769 cm in the mountainous central range, the country could also be called the Water Island. It’s the water that nourishes the island’s rain forests, feeds the 365 rivers and creates the waterfalls cascading from the mountains. It’s the water that provides the nature and adventure in Dominica.

Visitors come to experience the country’s natural wonders. Since the island is volcanic and lacks white, sandy beaches, preserving the mountainous and forested interior is a top priority. Dominica’s commitment to conservation is reflected in the national motto: “Après Bondie C’est La Ter — After God It Is the Land.” Protected areas include the Central Forest Reserve, the Northern Forest Reserve and the Cabrits National Historical and Marine Park.

In 1975 Dominica was the first of the Commonwealth Caribbean countries to establish a national park. Named for the dominant volcano that appears to have three peaks, the 16,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park contains five ecological zones, six mountains ranging in elevation from 2,965 feet/903 m to 4,600 feet/1,402 m, and most of the flora and fauna species found in Dominica. The park was recognized in 1998 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first in the Eastern Caribbean. A popular trail in the park meanders through a beautiful rain forest to reach the Emerald Pool, a brilliant-green pool fed by a small waterfall dropping over a fern-covered cliff. Another highlight of the park is an all-day trek through the Valley of Desolation to the Boiling Lake, the second largest fumarole (a volcanic vent from which smoke and gases rise) in the world. The park’s wettest adventure is swimming up the dark narrow winding canyon of Titou Gorge to reach the base of a waterfall too deep for standing.

Waterfalls are some of Dominica’s main attractions. To get to Trafalgar Falls, hikers scramble over large boulders to reach a pool where hot springs flow from cracks in the rocks at the base of the falls. When positioned just right in the pool, it’s possible to have hot and cold running water soothing one’s body. Sari-Sari Falls is reached by walking up a shallow river. The force of the 100-foot/30-m waterfall plummeting over a sheer rock face makes wading into the pool at the base an exhilarating challenge.

Whether swimming in waterfalls or hiking in the rain forests, visitors to Dominica are surrounded by the island’s wildlife. Like many oceanic islands, there are few mammals and reptiles, but a profusion of insects and birds. With more than 160 species of birds, Dominica is a symphony of whistles, chirps, squawks and songs. Probably one of the most exciting bird adventures involves walking through the forests in search of the island’s two endemic and rare parrots, the Jacquot and Sisserou. Patient birders with a keen eye may be rewarded with sightings of the parrots swooping down amongst the bright-green foliage. The Sisserou parrot is the national bird of Dominica whose image appears on the flag, coat of arms and ceremonial Mace in the House of Assembly. Though protected by law, both the Sisserou and the Jacquot have been in decline due to illegal poaching and habitat loss.

Other birds found on the island include finches, flycatchers, hummingbirds, doves, herons, kingfishers, sandpipers, tropic and frigate birds. The bold bananaquit will land on dining tables in search of sugar, and hummingbirds may mistake those wearing bright colors for giant, nectar-filled flowers. The most common and vocal bird is the mountain whistler. Listen for its distinctive four-note call when walking in the forests.

There are six different types of forests in Dominica. Each one is determined by elevation and rainfall, and contains a distinct variety of plant species. The evergreen rain forest is Dominica’s most luxuriant and complex forest type, flourishing at elevations between 1,000 feet/305 m and 2,500 feet/762 m. The rain forest is comprised of different layers of vegetation, each supporting hundreds of plant and insect species. Because of the steep interior of the island, most of Dominica’s population lives along the coast, allowing the forests to remain. This fact combined with the rate of deforestation on other islands makes Dominica’s oceanic rain forests some of the last in the world.

The swamp forest is found in marshy lowland areas near the mouths of slow-moving rivers. A boat ride up the Indian River through a mile of swamp forest reveals the twisted roots of enormous Mang trees lining the banks and a thick ceiling of green foliage overhead. Watch for herons spearing fish with their harpoonlike bills and crabs marching among the tree roots on the muddy banks. It’s easy to imagine the Carib Indians, for whom the river is named, paddling down this mystical stream to the sea centuries ago.

Today, the mixed descendants of the last Carib people of the Lesser Antilles live in the 3,700-acre Carib Territory on the rugged northeast coast. It’s ironic that the brave seafaring Caribs, for whom the Caribbean is named, should now live in a remote part of the island where access to the sea is almost impossible. Only a few elders are full-blooded Caribs, with characteristic high cheekbones, oval eyes, copper-colored skin and long, straight black hair. To keep the race alive, Carib men can marry outside the tribe, but Carib women must marry Carib men.

The Caribs lost their native language long ago, but continue to carve traditional dugout canoes from tall Gommier trees and weave baskets, mats and hats from plant materials. While there has been no interaction for more than 500 years between the Dominican Caribs and their South American ancestors, the two distinct peoples still weave similar designs today using the same materials. Due to the fine craftsmanship of these historical designs, Carib handicrafts are considered the best in the Caribbean. There is no main village or shopping area in the Carib Territory, but small roadside stands sell the beautiful handicrafts. Carib artworks can also be found in Roseau, the capital, at several craft stores.

Roseau is the hub of government, commerce, health services, education and communications. While in Roseau, a visit to the Botanical Gardens will assist in identifying some of the plant species found throughout the island. The grounds also provide a pleasant setting for cricket matches and parades. Stop by the Public Market Place, a lively scene of barter and bargain where the French Creole language can be heard. Rural farmers display their colorful crops and flowers in piles and interesting patterns. Vendors sell anything from clothing to brown paper bags, whose hand-printed labels such as “upset stomach” and “vigor for men” advertise the purpose of their mysterious contents.

Story and photos by Amy Gulick