Jamaica has an incredible reputation for so many things that draw travelers from around the world — original reggae, stunning beaches, delicious rum and coffee, lush mountains, incredible jerk chicken, and beyond.
One thing this isn’t isn’t known for? Scuba diving.
what Jamaica is known for
Over my years in the diving scene, I’d heard rumors that the diving in Jamaica was pretty unspectacular. Before my own inaugural trip to the the largest island of the Commonwealth Caribbean, I decided to do some research. Scientific journals confirmed that the reefs had suffered greatly and that fish stocks were dangerously low. Dive forums had threads with titles like, “Is Jamaica really that bad?” Here are a few responses that had me LOL-ing at their candor:
“The diving is sad.”
“The diving sucks sorry but it does. ”
“Dead, dead, dead.”
“Very clear water, little reef, no fish to speak of.”
“The short answer would be ‘don’t bother.'”
Well, sign me up! Ha. However, there were some encouraging opinions sprinkled in as well. Divers agreed that the waters are warm, the visibility is excellent, and while only eight percent of Jamaica’s coral reef is still alive and many of the fish that once thrived there have disappeared, the general consensus is that things are slowly improving. Cyanide and dynamite fishing, water pollution, damage from Hurricane Allen, overfishing and coral disease wreaked havoc on Jamaica’s reefs, but repeat divers report that conditions are progressively better each time.
I found that encouraging, though not quite as thrilling as the discovery that when my resort, Sandals Royal Caribbean, calls itself an all-inclusive, they really mean all inclusive. Unlimited diving is included at the onsite PADI dive centers at all Sandals resorts for certified divers! For that reason alone, I highly doubt this will be my last trip to a Sandals property, and I knew for a fact this would be my first time diving in Jamaica.
I also felt confident Sandals would be an ethical operator when I read they were the only resort chain to have all resorts Green PADI Certified.
The PADI Green Star is awarded to dive centers that show a commitment to conservation through fresh water conservation, energy use, environmentally friendly transportation practices, use of sustainable materials, conservation leadership and donations to conservation through Project AWARE. These are dive operators that care about the environment and are actively working to protect it — and clearly, that’s of utmost importance in Jamaica.
really wishing we had our sexy Swish Suits — don’t miss the exclusive Alex in Wanderland discount!
So, while I’m a PADI Divemaster, I’ve yet to convince my sister to take the plunge and get certified. (I did threaten her this time that her invitation to join me on future tropical press trips was contingent on getting her Open Water, so girl better get studying.) But it wasn’t a problem — Sandals offers a wide array of PADI courses, from Discover Scuba Diving through Rescue Diver.
The $100 Discover Scuba Diving, or DSD, meant that Olivia had to do a pool session before we could head into the ocean, but considering she’s done DSDs before in both Grand Cayman and Koh Tao, she moved through the skills pretty quickly. While I waited on the deck, I noticed Sandals also offers some interesting DAN courses, from First Aid for Hazardous Marine Life Injuries to Oxygen First Aid for Scuba Diving Injuries — a nice perk for my fellow continuing education nerds!
When we finally set off for the ocean, I was impressed with the dive boat facilities and even more so with the very short boat ride to the dive site, which our divemaster agreed was one of the great things about diving in Montego Bay.
The Sandals website has a great list of local dive sites for each resort and at Royal Caribbean ranks three as novice, six as advanced, and one as master level. I’d heard from other divers that favorite sites include the Window Maker cave and the Basket Reef wall, but we were sticking to shallow, easy waters to accommodate Olivia — and I was more than happy with that arrangement. My Canon PowerShot G7X and Waterproof Housing do best in shallow water, where colors are brighter and everything is lighter.
Olivia got a tad overwhelmed at first and struggled to get down, and I really admired the patience and skill of the local divemaster who eventually realized that the buoy line was freaking her out and helped her do a peaceful free-descent instead. Her confidence levels soared throughout the dive, which made my water-baby heart do somersaults of happiness!
Based on the reports I’d read, I was thrilled when we spotted an eagle ray, file-fish, healthy hard and soft corals, pufferfish, and one very happy little sister blowing bubbles. And of course with more dives, we would have undoubedtly had more discoveries — our divemaster reported seeing turtles, nurse sharks, dolphins, rays, sea horses, nudibrachs, moray eels and more on a regular basis.
Looks like Jamaican waters are, indeed, making a come back.
Back on the surface, I chatted with our divemaster about what divers always talk about — diving! Considering Sandals is not a dive-specific resort, I was incredibly impressed with the knowledge and skill of the whole dive team. Yet as I later learned, considering Sandals has cranked out more than 70,000 dive certifications over the years, I shouldn’t have been!
I only wish I’d had time to do more of it. Technically, “unlimited diving” is a bit misleading as you’re capped at two dives a day, but again, considering Sandals isn’t a dive resort and Jamaica isn’t a world-class dive destination, that’s more than enough. All dives are guided boat dives, and night dives and nitrox are available for an extra fee.
Planning to head to a Jamaican all-inclusive to dive? Here’s a few tips to keep in mind:
• While the dive schedules are refreshingly civilized (no pre-sunrise call times here!) morning dives will be deeper and more advanced, so it’s worth waking up if you want to go to the more spectacular sites. if you’re diving with a less experienced friend of family member like me, the afternoon dive sites will be lovely as well.
• The staff are used to new divers, so if you go on a few dives and show them that you are confident and competent, they will probably be pretty pumped to guide you to the more advanced locations. Once you establish a relationship, they will very likely take your requests and preferences into account when planning the day’s dive sites.
• All equipment is included aside from a wetsuit rental, or you can bring your own and rent a locker in the dive shop. Wetsuits aside, I was happy with all the rental gear.
• Sandals employees (aside from butlers and spa staff) are barred from accepting tips and this includes the dive center staff — they can actually get in trouble for accepting them. If I was diving heavily throughout the week I might get around this with a gift like a nice bottle of rum of some handy dive gadget brought from home.
I realize that after one dive in one part of a large island nation I’m hardly qualified to speak definitively on this topic, but I did a lot of research and spoke to many divers, and since this can be a fairly hot topic in the diving community, I thought I’d share my thoughts.
From what I’ve read and gathered, Negril is generally considered to have Jamaica’s best diving, but Montego Bay is rife with great sites for beginners. The great thing about diving with an all-inclusive (which, honestly, is where most visitors to Jamaica are staying) is it’s free so you don’t really have to do the normal cost-benefit analysis of trying to figure out if every dive is worth dipping further into your travel fund. And while certifications do come at an extra fee, they’re often cheaper than what other dive centers in North America and the Caribbean charge, so do some price-checking. You can always do e-learning beforehand to speed things along, too.
Overall? Don’t plan a dive trip to Jamaica — for that, head to the Cayman Islands, The Bahamas or Bonaire — but absolutely go diving if you happen to be in Jamaica, especially at an all-inclusive where it’s included. Don’t believe the negative hype. There’s plenty to see under under the sea, and more interest in diving will only convince the powers that be that reefs and ocean life are economically valuable to protect.
Have you been diving in Jamaica? What did you think?
Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from August of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. Right now, we’re in November of 2016 in Jamaica, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.