I would love to give it a go, but my ears won’t let me. When it comes to excuses for being unable to go scuba diving, I can think of more exciting exit strategies – a phobia of sharks, perhaps – but there it is. I’ve said it. It’s my ears.
Apparently it’s to do with the build-up of air pressure, which increases as you dive deeper – and in my case causes my head to feel like it’s about to explode.
Most people solve this simply by pinching their nose and “popping” the air bubble – a process called equalising – but it never works for me.
For years I assumed that was the end of my underwater aspirations. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered the underwater sculpture park on the island of Grenada, shallow enough to give you all the thrills of scuba diving – minus the need for oxygen tanks, Padi certificates or the popping of ears.
Perched at the bottom of the eastern Caribbean, just above Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada is renowned among divers for its wrecks, rock walls and reefs where dazzling sea creatures come out to play.
It’s also incredibly good for snorkelling.
Indeed, at many spots around the island you can just dip your head below the surface and be surrounded by shoals of striped sergeant major fish, such is the abundance of marine life here.
But it was the sub-aqua sculptures I wanted to see. After booking a boat ride to Molinere Bay, I found myself speeding out across the turquoise water, with the town of St George’s disappearing into the background.
The sculpture park was created by the artist Jason deCaires Taylor in a bid to rejuvenate the island’s aquatic life following the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Opened in 2006, it was the first subterranean sculpture park on the planet: an impressive undertaking in itself. Now, though, it’s coming of age – with many of the artworks finally being colonised by brightly coloured coral. But is it art?
For Taylor, it’s much more than that. With 80 percent of the planet’s reefs predicted to disappear by 2050, this is about preserving something precious for posterity. And installing it was no mean feat.
“The materials (for the sculptures) have to be exactly the right pH-factor to attract coral, deployed at the right time of year to coincide with coral spawning.”
Since opening the Grenada park, he has created another off the coast of Cancun, in Mexico, with the similar aim of encouraging coral growth and attracting marine life.
According to my guide, Albert, it seems to be doing the trick.
Following a quick safety briefing, Albert and I plunged into the warm water. I scoured the sandy bottom for statues. In all, there are 65 scattered around the seabed at Molinere Bay, ranging from strategically placed tables with humble bowls of fruit (which are slowly being claimed by clusters of coral), to a circle of children.
After about five minutes of swimming from the boat, Albert suddenly duck-dived towards the seabed, beckoning me to follow. Ahead of us lay a writer sitting at his desk, blue and yellow fish darting around his typewriter: the ultimate in creative inspiration.
We spent a good hour or so exploring the sculpture garden. Most of the pieces lie at depths shallow enough to approach without causing any alarm to my ears.
From Molinere we continued along the west coast, stopping for a dip at Turtle Head Reef. With Albert leading the way again, it wasn’t long before we spotted a leatherback turtle languidly going about its business while monitoring us with its beady, cartoon eyes.
Tempting as it was to spend the entire week under water, there’s a lot to lure visitors on dry land. In the capital, St George’s, I wandered up to the Unesco-protected fort to find 18th century cannons still pointing out to sea. In the market, I shopped for spices, the air thick with the aroma of cinnamon, saffron, cloves and ginger.
In a strange way, Grenada still feels largely untouched by tourism. This was particularly noticeable on the beaches. I had vast strips of white sand to myself.
Even on the island’s flagship beach, Grand Anse, a large curve of talcum powder paradise that stretches for 3km, I saw only a handful of people.
Hotels and restaurants are mostly family-run. Patrick’s feels as if you’ve been invited into someone’s home. I worked my way through a home-cooked feast of freshwater crayfish, beef casserole and kingfish. And just when I’d eaten myself into a state of immobility, out came the banana cake.
Fortunately there were plenty of excuses to walk it off. Local guide Telfor Bedeau took me on a rain forest trail. Having led island hikes for more than 40 years, he seemed to know every plant in the forest.
He led me to Seven Sisters, a series of waterfalls where daredevils take the plunge. Despite his encouragement, I took one look at the 15m drop and thought better of it.
This time raw fear, rather than sore ears, was the excuse. – The Independent
l Grenada Tourism Board: grenadagrenadines.com