The Island of Barbados: Adventures on ‘The Rock’

We hover at 130 feet (39 m) alongside the riotously colorful propeller on one of Barbados’ — and the Caribbean’s — premier wreck dives, the 365-foot (111-m) S.S. Stavronikita or “Stav” as the locals call it. My buddy snaps a few photos before we approach our no-deco limits. With the visibility nearing 100 feet (30 m) and virtually no current, we easily explore a considerable portion of this impressive structure as we ascend to shallower sights. The enormous masts rising to within 25 feet (7.5 m) of the surface provide the perfect shallow reef profile as we burn the last of our film on the mind-boggling profusion of marine life here.

We have to think that diving the “Stav” and many of the other great reefs around Barbados may one day prove to be a bigger draw to the island than its 1,200 rum shops.

The Rock

Barbados (bar-BAY-dose) is the easternmost island of the Windward Islands chain. It actually sits outside the arc, roughly 100 miles (160 km) due east of St. Vincent and unlike its nearest neighbors, it is curiously not of volcanic origin. In fact, many locals refer to the island as “the rock” because it is a limestone island that stands alone in the Atlantic Ocean, pushed up by the pressures of tectonic plate movement. With this in mind, you can understand why Barbados has no real “mountains.” On the other hand, if you tour the island, you will find rolling hills with endless fields of cane, gullies filled with dense tropical growth, an extensive cave system, and even a high limestone cliff about 1,000 feet (303 m) above sea level. Overall, the island’s shape resembles an odd pear with the stem end pointing toward the north and its capital of Bridgetown on the southwest curve. The island is 21 miles (34 km) long and 14 miles (22 km) across at its widest point. A relatively small island of 166 square miles (432 sq km), its population is the third largest among other Caribbean islands at roughly 265,000.

The coastlines are distinctive: Rough Atlantic waves pound the east coast, creating sheer cliffs and pocket beaches, while a tranquil Caribbean Sea laps against long stretches of beach and old estate mansions of the west coast. The climate is considered by many to be the nicest in the West Indies. With nothing to disrupt the cooling trade winds from the east, Barbados rarely experiences the more severe weather common to other areas of the Caribbean.

Bajan Roots

The Arawak are said to have been the first residents on Barbados, but when the Portuguese explorer Pedro a Compos arrived in 1536 the island was abandoned. Seeing the coastal banyan trees with air roots hanging like beards, he is said to have named the island Los Barbudos, which means “the bearded ones” in Portuguese. In a rare moment of territorial respect, Compos did not claim the island for Portugal and therefore Barbados remained unaffiliated until the first British party arrived in 1625. Within a few years, a British settlement was established and quickly sought guidance from the Arawaks of Guiana on how to grow plants in the tropics. It wasn’t long before thousands of African and European slaves were brought in to support a flourishing economy based on the tobacco, cotton and sugar cane trade. Barbados was initially seen by the British as a place to send criminals and dissidents to work and be punished. But in general, life was relatively favorable on the island by West Indies standards and thanks to the price of sugar, it soon became known as “the brightest jewel in England’s crown.”

For those familiar with West Indies history, Barbados is the sole Caribbean island to remain under continuous British rule for more than three centuries. Twenty-six forts along 21 miles (34 km) of western coast were surely a deterrent to aggressors, but many historians also credit the unusual location of Barbados. Being so far east, and with a strong easterly trade wind, it made it very difficult for a surprise arrival by sail from the west, where the towns and landing sites were located.

The island’s turbulent economy, linked to sugar and rum, continued to ebb and flow for the next 100 years. Slavery finally came to an end on Barbados in 1838. British rule was changing in the West Indies and by 1966 Barbados received full sovereignty; it remains part of the Commonwealth.

Today tourism is the most important industry on the island and though the British influence has dimmed a bit, it still remains obvious to the new visitor. The names of people, places, and things all bear a British stamp, including the local passion for cricket. But perhaps what will strike you most are the warm and friendly smiles you’ll receive when the locals stop to ask you what your “title” (name) is and how you are enjoying their island.

Bajan Waters

For a location that gets little mention as a top dive destination, Barbados will be a real eye-opener for almost any dive traveler. Our first dives began with cautious optimism, but our enthusiasm grew with every dive.

We started our diving journey with a quick run out of Bridgetown to Carlisle Bay, where a number of wrecks, all within a short swim of each other, create a very popular site for divers. A new wreck, the 80-foot (24-m) Bajan Queen, had just been sunk in 40 feet (12 m) of water and we dropped in on this still squeaky-clean vessel with surprisingly good visibility. The structure had great swim-throughs and a nice profile, but the real treat was imagining its future glory as we swam over to the next few wrecks. They ranged in age from 7 to 84 years and the amount of growth and marine life on these wrecks, resting within swimming distance of Bridgetown, is nothing short of a marvel. You can visit all these wrecks in one dive, but it would hardly do them justice. The compact wreck of the Berwind sits in less than 25 feet (7.5 m) of water and is understandably a popular snorkel spot. We planned to do our deco stop at the end of our dive on this little gem and when we surfaced the first word out of our mouths was “Wow!” Armed with a macro camera, one could easily spend an entire dive just capturing fish portraits and critter shots on this little oasis, maturing since 1919.

With a fresh respect for Barbadian diving, we ventured off to a site called Tropicana, a good example of the reefs around the middle coast. This is a lovely long ridge reef running north to south at about 60 feet (18 m) and sloping off into the blue. Because this is usually done as a drift dive, there is a good chance of spotting a turtle or cruising rays among the continuous garden of healthy coral.

As you head north of Speightstown the reefs take on another quality, while south of Bridgetown the diving is unique to that area as well. On Brightledge, one of the most northern sites, we were enchanted by an amazing reef of alternating bowls and ridges that formed an intriguing network of contours. This reef offered a wide-angle paradise with a huge variety of corals in a wonderfully chaotic melange. Also in this neck of the woods is a great wreck for all experience levels called the Pamir. This 165-foot (50-m) freighter sits upright in 60 feet of water.

If you dive more than once in Barbados, you’ll likely spend a surface interval at Turtle Bay. Here, a group of several large sea turtles comes “running” to snorkelers in search of a handout, which the divemaster gladly provides. The scene was certainly entertaining, but suddenly we noticed another denizen heading our way, and my buddy and I stared at each other in excited disbelief. Rising off the bottom and winging their way toward us were no less than 20-30 flying gurnards. Now as many divers know, one could easily travel the Caribbean for a year and never see more than a few of these creatures. But here in this little sandy bay were more than we had ever seen in our lives. I asked the divemaster if they were always there and got an “Oh sure mon” in response.

One last note on diving the aforementioned S.S. Stavronikita: This is simply a dive that should not be missed. For advanced divers, the stern of the vessel sits in 130 feet (39 m) with features garnished in colors straight from Van Gogh’s pallet.

Considering Barbados’ progressive approach to its artificial and natural reef programs, it’s safe to say there will only be more to look forward to in the years to come.

Bajan Rhythms

The island is divided into 11 parishes, with the capital of Bridgetown functioning as the hub from which roads radiate out like spokes of a wheel to the rest of the island. Anyone visiting this windward getaway should plan to spend at least one day exploring some of the land. Car rentals are not particularly cheap in Barbados, but they are perhaps the best way to venture forth on your own itinerary. The whole island is fairly easy to navigate once you get out of Bridgetown. Another fine alternative is to engage one of the better island tour operators who will at least make sure you catch some of the colorful highlights.

The visiting diver will never see all of Barbados in a day…and probably not in several. Our approach was to tour areas near our diving each day. If you go north from Bridgetown along the Caribbean coast you will soon pass along miles of beautiful oceanfront estates of the international well-to-do and some of the more upscale resorts on the island. Most of the accommodations of interest to the diver are somewhere along the west coast and cover the gamut from reasonably modest to extremely luxurious. The whole island is refreshingly free of high-rise resorts. Decades-old tropical trees beautify the coastal road. Also sprinkled in this area are a number of lovely beaches, some fantastic dining and, of course, several dive operators.

The farther north you go, the more traditional local Bajan flavor starts to take hold and the pace slows to “island time.” There are classic fishing villages to be found and a beautiful island lighthouse if you go far enough up the coast (as well as another all the way to the south).

If time and energy allow, the curious traveler might run down the west coast through little towns until they arrive at the famous surfing spot known as Soup Bowl in the town of Bathsheba. If there is no surf, then no worries, a mile (1.5 km) to the south is Andromeda Gardens, the perfect place to sip tea while enjoying the results of an island couples’ lifetime passion for tropical gardening. By now it is probably obvious you should not travel anywhere in Barbados without a camera.

Instead of going down the west coast, another option for the avid shutterbug is to head inland to the northern highlands where the Barbados Wildlife Reserve is next to the Farley Hill National Park and Granade Hall Forest. If you ever wanted a chance to get close to the green vervet monkey found here and on Nevis, this is the place to do it. The monkeys run free, along with some island deer, tortoises and lots of birds, while people wander the paths. Old-growth mahogany forests are nearby.

By now you or the day will probably be winding down, but as you head back through the cane fields toward the Bridgetown area, keep an eye out for the historic churches and plantation houses that dot the island. Plan a stop at the spectacular Flower Forest or a little farther down the road, the famous Harrison’s Cave. The access to the cave is in a stunning gorge setting and while a tad commercial in presentation, the cave itself is truly spectacular by Caribbean standards; it features underground streams and a 40-foot (12-m) waterfall.

After a day like this, chances are you will be pleasantly exhausted and looking at a map only to discover that you have covered just half the coastline and glimpsed a mere fraction of the island’s territory. Places like Turner’s Hall Woods, Welchman Hall Gully, Hackelaton’s Cliffs, Sam Lord’s Castle, Sunbury Plantation, many superb artisans, and of course dozens of beaches, are all still begging to be explored.

Fortunately, you are never far from a good meal on Barbados, as there is an overwhelming selection of international and Bajan restaurants to choose from all over the island. Settings range from historic buildings and bungalows, to romantic waterfront nooks and the occasional “Chefette” (a Barbados fast-food chain). One particular concentration of interesting eateries can be found in the charming area of St. Lawrence Gap, just south of Bridgetown. Here the street vendors come to the beach at night to sell their handicrafts and nearly a dozen various restaurants are within a short stroll.

Of course the one thing you almost have to do before leaving Barbados is to take a rum tour. “Rum shops,” as local bars are known, are as ubiquitous as sunshine in this part of the Caribbean. And considering how intrinsically linked rum is to Bajan history, it just might be the fiduciary duty of a visiting diver to take a plunge into the complete story at a place like the Mount Gay Distillery. The history is pretty interesting…and the rum tasting at the end isn’t too shabby either (but perhaps best scheduled on your last day).

A Warm Encounter

Barbados is an easy place to be a visitor. So easy in fact, that it seems many tourists never go beyond their “travel package” and miss much of what the island has to offer. By all means go to Barbados for the diving, but be ready to discover so much more. There is a reason the people of Barbados adamantly claim they live on the best island in the Caribbean.

After getting a sense that there is unquestionably high-quality diving in Barbados, the next surprise was discovering the well-established sea turtle research and tagging program that exists there. A dedicated group of scientists and students go out to gently catch, measure, weigh, tag, record and release hawksbill turtles to build on an ever-growing body of knowledge about these amazing creatures. We were fortunate enough to join the team on a trip to Tropicana Reef, a dive spot known for regular turtle encounters. This vibrant reef is apparently the right setting, as the intrepid turtle researchers successfully caught two turtles by hand. The care and effort that goes into the collection of data on these animals was an utterly enlightening experience and the cheer that rises each time a subject is returned to the sea is surely heartfelt.

Story and photos by Tanya Burnett and Kevin Palmer