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Old Road Bluff is the southernmost dive site in the designated safe zone. It is somewhat affected by the outfall of the volcano. A field of boulders covers the sea bottom from the shore to a depth of about 30 feet. The boulders are covered by sponges, algae, corals and other sessile life forms. Also fish are plentiful. You will see all the usual reef fish. You may be lucky to witness a spotted eagle ray gracefully flying through the water. You will, very likely, see the southern stingray resting on the sand. Occasionally a nurse shark may sleep between the boulders. A long antenna, waving tentatively from under a small ledge, may give away the hiding place of a spiny lobster.
The bolder field of Old Road Bluff continues into the area of Lime Kiln Bay. Here the boulders are replaced by shallow ledges that stretch from the shore to about 45 feet deep water. Adjacent to the sand flat in 45 feet, there are some huge boulders densely covered with sea life and inhabited by a myriad of invertebrates and fish. The shallow part is dominated by sea fans and the skeletons of elkhorn corals that had been destroyed by hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Luis (1995). The careful observer will find small elkhorn coral colonies establishing themselves to rebuild a new elkhorn coral community. A few larger living specimens can still be found. One of them is a navigational hazard for small crafts just between the region of the Old Road Bluff and Lime Kiln Bay. If one travels from the deep end of the coastal reef into the sea by about half a mile, one reaches the rim of the shelf. On its slope, between 60 and 120 feet of depth you can study the Caribbean deeper reef community. You will also encounter some pelagic fish. This is the area where the line fishermen anchor their boats and drop their lines. Some damage is seen in the 60 foot range, but in general, the reef is pretty healthy.
The underwater landscape as seen in the Lime Kiln Bay area does not change significantly until you reach Woodlands Bay about two kilometers north of Old Road Bluff. In the region of the mouth of Nantes River the coastal reef is interrupted by sand bottom. In the region off the mouth of Runaway Ghaut, three huge pole anchors are witnesses of times bygone. The region from Runaway Ghaut to Woodlands Bay is particularly rewarding for divers. The shallow coastal reef can be reached from the shore of Woodlands Bay. It has, apart from the anchors, some exciting underwater vistas. Just close to the beach is a small cave, with three exits. Two of them large enough for a diver to swim through. However, the cave itself is narrow and penetration is not recommended. There would be not enough room for the regular tenants if they had to share the cave with the huge human. You can stick your head into the cave and admire the colorful walls, the banded coral shrimp, maybe the huge lobster, and thousands of copper sweepers. Outside of the cave you may encounter the resident barracuda that could grow to about four feet in spite of the spear fishermen who hunt frequently in the Woodlands Bay area. This is an ideal spot for underwater photographers who want to bring home impressive color compositions.
There are three systems of deeper reefs in the Runaway Ghaut to Woodlands Bay region. The first two reefs are the continuation of the shelf slope reef off Lime Kiln Bay. The roof of the first one is in about fifty feet of water and its base is about eighty feet deep. Beyond this reef a sandy plateau stretches toward the West for about 200m where another rocky ledge drops down to about 140 feet. This reef is known as the Inner Horn. Its special feature is the abundance of wire corals in the 90 to 100 feet range. Further towards the west the bottom of the sea rises again to form a dome shaped sea mount, the Outer Horn or just the Horn. Actually, it is the dome of an extinct underwater volcano. The top rises to about 60 feet. The dome is fairly symmetrical. Toward the West it drops into very deep water. The more or less level top of the mount has been used for centuries as an anchoring ground for ships and a convenient place for the fishermen to drop their wire traps. The result is a huge field of crumbled staghorn corals. The slopes of the old volcano, however, are teeming with life. It takes about four dives to circle the Horn in about 80 feet.Woodlands Bay proper is all sand bottom. Toward the North close to the coast boulders cover the bottom all the way to Bunkum Bay. Most of this area is too shallow for SCUBA divers. However it is a rewarding snorkeling site. One small patch reef is in the northern part of Woodlands Bay reaching from 70 to 50 feet depth. It allows for a dive of about 50 minutes. Nothing really spectacular but rewarding for the close-up photographer. The best feature is a large stand of staghorn corals in about 60 feet of water.
Off Bunkum Bay is an interesting reef on the shelf slope. On our last dive on this site we were impressed with the abundance and size of fish in this reef. The depth is 90 to 140 feet. We have not yet explored the shelf dives north of Bunkum Bay. Bunkum Bay proper consists of mostly sand bottom with some scattered boulders. It is a nice place for snorkelers.
North of Bunkum Bay, under the cliffs of Virgin Island is a large reef region similar to that in the Runaway Ghaut area. Some of our most enjoyable dives we have done in this region. This system of reefs, consisting of huge boulders and rocky ledges, extends into the bay adjacent to Soldier Ghaut. The boulder field under the cliff can be reached from Soldier Ghaut by snorkelers. It is one of the most rewarding snorkeling sites on Montserrat. The Soldier Ghaut Bay area, again, is mostly sand bottom.
In the north of Soldier Ghaut, all the way to Carr's Bay, the sea bottom consists of rocky ledges, divided by canyon-like valleys. These reefs extend from shore almost half a mile into the sea. Here they reach a depth of eighty feet. This is one of the heaviest fished regions on Montserrat. However, many beautiful dives have been made in this reef system.
Carr's Bay, now targeted as one of the major centers for the development of the north of the island, offers several dives from shore. Towards the south of the beach one can get into the reef system just described. In the center of the bay there are some huge boulders reaching from the sea bottom in 30 feet almost to the surface. These boulders are covered by colorful sponges and corals. Thousands of reef fish dart around. It is an el dorado for underwater photographers.
The next dive site to the North is the Potato Hill Reef. This reef can be reached from the south end of Little Bay. It displays the most stunning array of colors. You can stay here for an hour and you will not have a single dull second. Before Hurricane Luis struck, wire corals and a deep sea fan grew in the Potato Hill reef in only 20 feet of water. These coral species are found normally in deep water. The wire corals disappeared after the hurricane, the deep sea fan is growing back. A stand of bushy black coral can still be seen in only ten feet of water. A large pillar coral has survived all storms.
Little Bay has sandy bottom. However, its north shore consists of boulders that had dropped from Rendezvous Bluff. These boulders used to be a major breeding ground of fish and other sea creatures. In one spring we have observed millions of sea hares (aplysia) migrating across the bay towards a very small area in these rocks. Most likely they came to mate and/or to lay their eggs. Now, this reef became a busy sea port that threatens the ecology of the whole bay including the Potato Hill Reef.
One highlight of diving at Rendezvous Bluff is the bat cave dive. On the West face of the cliff is the partly submerged opening of a cave. You can dive into the cave in about eight feet of water. When you surface inside of the cave you are greeted by the chirps of thousands of fruit bats hanging from the ceiling.
The northernmost dive region on Montserrat's West coast is the reef system between Rendezvous Beach and the Northwest Bluff. This region is very similar to the region between Carr's Bay and Soldier Ghaut. Mostly boulders and ledges between the shore and about 60 feet of water support a rich reef community. At the Northwest Bluff submerged cliffs form a wild background for schools of reef fish and pelagics. The cliffs drop steeply from the surface to about 60 feet into a sandy bottom. On this dive site you might encounter strong surges and the growth on the cliffs reflects the harsher conditions.
On the northern and eastern shores of Montserrat are exciting dives too. However, the waves are usually high and dive trips to these sites are rarely possible. A few of these dive sites should be mentioned: Little Redonda is a rock that reaches the surface from a depth of 80 feet. It is a spectacular dive. The Pinnacles on the northeast corner of Montserrat offer fantastic submerged rock formations. In Yellow Hole, south of the Pinnacles, is the wreck of a 19th century steel schooner. She sank in 1886. Hundred years of battering waves have completely destroyed the ship. Her remnants are scattered over a wide area in 25 feet of water.
The recent calm in the activity of the volcano makes it very likely that we will soon be able to dive on the new lava deposits in the south of the island. We will be in the unique position to witness the birth of new coral reefs.
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