This tiny island is the best place to dive in the Caribbean

History is restored above and below the waterline on a little-known Dutch Caribbean island.

With a marine park larger than the island itself, St. Eustatius (or Statia, for the 3,500 residents who live here) is one of the top diving destinations in the region. Located just five miles northwest of popular St. Kitts, the island has more protected underwater and land historical sites per square mile than anywhere else in the Caribbean.

On land, St. Eustatius thrives with nature. The volcanic island is fringed by rocky coastlines fringed by inky-sand beaches that form important nesting sites for endangered sea turtles. To the south, Quill/Boven National Park is a haven for rare birds, including the red-billed tropicbird, and is home to 17 species of orchids. The island’s crowning glory is Mt. Quill, a dormant volcano at the center of dozens of hiking trails, including one that leads into the forested crater.

Here’s what travelers need to know to explore this often overlooked historical and natural wonderland.

Immerse yourself in history

In the 18th century, St. Eustatius was a free port, making it one of the busiest in the Atlantic and an important hub for the slave trade (the island was colonized by the Dutch in the early 17th century). At peak times, more than 3,000 ships anchored in the port every year. The island’s economic success enabled it to supply the United States with munitions during the American Revolutionary War – a secret act by the Allies that began with the arrival of the American brig, the Andrew Dorialate 1776.

When the ship pulled into port with a copy of the Declaration of Independence, Statia gave it an official gun salute, making the Dutch the first to recognize America’s independence. The Act ended longstanding tensions between the British and Dutch and led to the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. Since then, the “first salute” in St. Eustatius has been celebrated with a re-enactment every August 9, Statia Day, one of the island’s biggest holidays after Carnival.

Today, the remnants of Statia’s past fuel the 36 dive sites in the St. Eustatius National Marine Park that surrounds the island. A highlight at this sanctuary is Anchor Point, a coral-covered French anchor dating to the 1750s, hidden behind giant sponges and reef walls teeming with lobster and schools of fish off the island’s south-west coast. Nearby is the Charles L Brown Wreck, a cable laying ship that sank in 1954 and one of the largest ruins in the Caribbean.

(How do we find shipwrecks – and who owns them?)

“From historical sources, such as old newspaper articles and government correspondence, we know of hundreds of shipwrecks around the island in colonial times,” says Ruud Stelten, archaeologist and director of the Shipwreck Survey, a school of underwater archeology that studies shipwrecks around the island. “So far we have found only a few.”

In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria uncovered the remains of an 18th-century ship now called the Triple Wreck (or SE-504), the Stelton organization studied at the St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research. The team aims to find and preserve artifacts to help researchers better understand the island’s history. Anyone with a diving certificate can participate in the study, which begins twice a year and explores other wreck sites around the island.

signs from the past

By law, divers are not allowed to take artifacts home, except for one thing: blue pearls. Found only in the waters around St. Eustatius, these cobalt marks are scattered throughout the marine park. Blue Bead Hole is a particularly popular dive site. Researchers say the beads were spun in glass factories in the Netherlands and shipped to St. Eustatius and possibly other nearby islands, where they were used as currency to trade in goods and to mark rank among the enslaved people.

When slavery was abolished in 1863, local lore has it that the newly emancipated threw the pearls into the ocean in celebration. However, Studies suggest that a ship carrying pearls may have sunk near the island, causing the pearls to pool in one place. Regardless, their cultural significance lives on in Statia’s oral tradition. “Blue beads are my favorite artifact, and I often wear them with great pride because it makes me feel more connected to my ancestors,” says Misha Spanner, a guide at the St. Eustatius Historical Foundation Museum. “If a blue pearl is found, most locals consider it lucky.”

(The search for lost slave ships led this diver on an extraordinary journey.)

Statia’s story of enslavement is also being unearthed on land. In 2021, archaeologists discovered an 18th-century burial site and an indigo vat on the site of the new Golden Rock Dive & Nature Resort, a former plantation. The vat was probably used by enslaved humans to produce the prized azure hue for dyeing fabrics.

These new findings inspire a holistic approach to learning more about Statia’s slave history while involving the local community, says Gay Soetekouw, president of the St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research. The hope is that such an approach will shed more light on a population whose personal stories have never been documented.

Caribbean Conservation

In addition to history, the preservation of the island’s natural areas is a priority. St. Eustatius National Parks encourages travelers to explore the island’s flora and fauna through guided nature walks and volunteer science projects through its three protected areas: the Marine Sanctuary, Quill/Boven National Park, and the Miriam C. Schmidt Botanical Garden.

One such program brought together volunteers from the community to monitor turtle nesting sites on Zeelandia Beach, research whale and dolphin routes and identify manta rays. Another focused on reforestation both on land and offshore, with recruits planting native species such as rubber trees and sea grapes, both of which contribute to biodiversity and protection from hurricanes.

“We are blessed to have this natural environment intact,” says guide Celford Gibbs. “When you look at a place like St. Maarten and the other Leeward Islands, which is booming with tourism, hotels and casinos, you realize we’re behind them in terms of development. But it’s a good position because we can learn from their mistakes.”

(This is how you can help mitigate the effects of overtourism.)

As Statia looks to its future, Gibbs says there is a growing interest in ensuring tourism benefits local communities and ecosystems. That means preserving the island’s cultural heritage as well as its natural gifts.

On a recent walk, Gibbs looks for bitterroot to make a medicinal tea and discusses the dental benefits of gum tree leaves. its activity derives from the knowledge of the ancestors. As one of only three local guides, he says sharing these ancestral lessons with youth – and travelers – is essential to the island’s future. “Once people get a taste of nature,” he says, “they keep coming back for more.”

Julia Eskins is a Toronto-based writer specializing in travel, design and wellness. Follow her on Instagram.

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