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Monserrat, a tiny island in the eastern Caribbean, got tremendous publicity from her erupting volcano. The volcano has brought destruction to the southern part of the island, indeed. However, a large part of the island remains safe from the fiery mountain. In this part of the island, the mountains are covered with lush tropical vegetation. Some secluded beaches invite sunbathers and swimmers, and the spectacle of an erupting volcano can be witnessed from a safe distance.
Some of Montserrat's greatest treasures lie in the sea. This volcanic island was never densely populated. In her best times before the Souffriere Hills Volcano erupted, not more than 12 000 people lived on the island, too few to seriously pollute the surrounding sea. Thus, Montserrat is one of only very few places in the Caribbean, where hard corals are virtually free of the destructive diseases attributed to pollution.
The island is surrounded by a shelf that gently slopes from the coast to about 60 feet depth. Then the sea floor abruptly drops into the abyss of the Caribbean Sea. The shelf is covered with sand and volcanic rocks. The rocks form the base of extensive patch reefs. The rim of the shelf slopes down by about 45 degree. Outcroppings of rocky material provide substrate for deep water reef communities.
The east coast of the island is exposed to the heavy surf driven from the Atlantic by the trade winds. Only the hardiest of the species can cope with the forces of the heavy surges that constantly wash over the rocks. The conditions for diving and snorkeling on the east coast are very demanding and only the most well trained and strongest individuals should attempt it.
The west coast is in the lee of the island for the most part of the year. Thus, the conditions are usually calm and the shallow reefs could develop to their full potential. Most of the diving and snorkeling is done on the West coast. However in the winter months quite often waves from the North West can generate heavy surf on this side of the island too.In general, the distribution pattern of rocks and sand mirrors the contour of the coast line. At places where the coastline is shallow and where beaches form, the sea floor is usually sand bottom. Under cliffs, the sea floor is usually littered with rocks and stony ledges. Here, the diving is spectacular.
In the very shallow region (10 to 30 feet), adjacent to the cliffs, we find mostly boulders of variable sizes. They are covered with sponges, and hard corals. Small to medium size brain corals, star corals, and pillar corals compete for space. Sea plumes and sea fans provide a fairy-tale forest. Colorful reef fish dart around. Snails of all kind forage for food. An occasional octopus climbs over rocks, and in small caverns, formed by rocks piled one upon another, one might spot a spiny lobster. Cleaner shrimps and tiny cleaner fish advertise their services.
A little further out to the sea at a depth of 40 to 50 feet the bolder fields are replaced by rocky ledges separated by valleys, that often have been compared to isles in a supermarket. But what a supermarket! You could stay in one spot for an hour and you will not have seen all of the stunning details on the shelves. This is the region where large barrel sponges mimic medieval castles, where the brain and star corals grow to considerable sizes, where you find small caverns full of copper sweepers, spotted drums, and other creatures who wait out the daytime hours in the safety of their hiding places. Larger fish patrol the reefs and you may be lucky to find a sea turtle resting under a ledge.At about 50 feet the shelf of the island is covered by sand. The sand flat extends into the sea until it reaches the rim of the island's shelf in 60 to 70 feet of water. Here you enter the region of the deep reefs. They consist of large patches of rocky outcroppings embedded into the slope of the shelf. These areas are protected from the surges of most storms. The most delicate life forms of the tropical reef community can survive. You will find spectacular brain corals, star corals, gigantic barrel sponges and slender tube sponges. The fish are plentiful and most of them carry on their lives undisturbed by the visiting SCUBA diver. You may encounter huge pelagic fish darting along. Some areas may be covered with the delicate branches of the fragile staghorn coral, an ideal hiding place for the smaller and more timid creatures of the reef.
The activity of the Soufriere Hills Volcano has gone back to almost the pre-volcanic level. However, some restrictions still apply and diving mainly done in the northern part of the island. The area from Old Road Bluff to the North West Bluff comprises the majority of the dive sites anyhow. The relaxation of the safety restrictions will allow us soon to dive on the new lava deposits. We will witness the formation of new coral reefs.
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