By: Francoise Giacalone & Lynn Costenaro, Sea Saba Dive Center
Like all gems, Saba's demeanor belies her birth: violent geophysical upheavals were her attendants. Eons later, her emerald forests, punctuated by the ruby roofs of her trim cottages, are ringed by her sapphire blue seas.
For centuries, only local fishermen and sailors knew Saba's waters. It wasnít until 1981 that American businessmen Del Bunker and Wilson McQueen brought scuba cylinders to Saba. From the first dive, it was obvious that Saba offered something truly special. A dive shop was established.
Dive tourism began slowly. In the early days, most of the visitors came for a one-day visit from St. Maarten. But as word of Saba's underwater riches spread, the number of tourists increased. The pioneering dive shops (a second had been established) had already reached a mutual understanding with local fishermen to avoid fishing on the favored diving reefs. For their part, the shops had begun practicing sound environmental procedures to protect the reefs before any damage occurred by establishing moorings made from blocks or large abandoned anchors.
These developments did not go unnoticed by the Saban government. After all, in 1981, sister Antillean island Bonaire had officially designated her marine park. (The concept of a marine park often strikes non-divers as odd. No parking lots, rollercoasters, or hot dog stands here! A marine park is a specific area in which regulations and zoning have been established to protect and enhance marine resources. Today, there are many marine parks and they have become an industry standard.)
Marine biologist Tom van t'Hof, who had been a key player in the development of the Bonaire marine park, was hired to conduct an official survey. His report was submitted in 1983 and approved by the government in early 1984. The Prince Bernard Fund and the World Wildlife Fund provided initial funding. Although the park was not officially declared until 1987, much was accomplished in the interim period, including drilling permanent moorings, establishing mapping, purchasing a truck and a boat, as well as publishing educational literature. In addition to the two dive shops, a live-aboard also began to pay regular visits. By 1987, two additional live-aboards were issued licenses. Diving became another sparkling facet of the Saban jewel.
Although Saba's underwater attractions include spectacular (and shallower) reefs and walls, it is for her pinnacles that she has acquired reputation as a must-go destination among seasoned divers. The pinnacles are actually the summits of underwater mountains, beginning at around 85 feet and extending to the abyss. They are awesomely impressive, not only to divers, but apparently also to the larger fish and pelagics that are frequent visitors.
Saba's marine park is different. The design of the park and its zoning were a collaborative effort between the dive shops, the government, and Sabans, including her fishermen. Unlike other marine parks that were founded after diving tourism was already having an impact on the underwater environment, Saba's reefs were protected before any damage occurred. Her reefs are pristine. Annual scientific surveys indicate that fish density, variety and size are increasing and the growing number of shark sightings bears this out.
The next level of recognition and safety was reached when Dr. John Buchanan coordinated with the Dutch Navy and the Saban government to bring a hyperbaric chamber to Saba. Saba's chamber is now the official sport diving chamber for a territory ranging from Puerto Rico to Barbados. It is owned and operated by the Saba Marine Park but is closely allied with The Saba School of Medicine. A hyperbaric master's program provides "call teams", medical students and local volunteers, to treat diving accidents and conduct research into treating barotraumas and wounds.
As the "second child", Saba benefited from experience gained from the development of the Bonaire park. Both parks have received numerous environmental awards and have been the subject of many studies. Saba's park was actually the first to be fully self-funding through user fees and donations. The fees are used to maintain facilities and to support a staff of three professionals. The Netherlands Antilles governments have enthusiastically embraced the marine park concept.
Saba now boasts three land-based dive shops and is visited year-round by one live-aboard and seasonally by another. This year, the Saba Conservation Foundation, with grant funding from the Dutch government, is producing seven brochures to assist visitors. From the history of the park, guidelines for visiting yachts, to hiking maps, these informative brochures are available at the Saba Tourist Office or Trail Shop or the new Saba Marine Park office at the Fort Bay Harbor. Come discover this sparkling jewel today!