Last updated: December 13, 2019 at 16:10 pm
After a lengthy period of suffering and recovery, much good has come from the century-old cataclysm on this island of the French West Indies that today offers a diving and cultural experience unique in the Caribbean.
Illustrious French poet Aimé Césaire was born in the shadow of a killer, the infamous Mount Pelée of his native Martinique. He was captivated by the life and death duality of his Caribbean island home following the volcano’s 1902 eruption, and widespread destruction. Facing the many challenges of those years he nurtured in like-minded literati of the négritude movement, a political and cultural awareness known as ‘tabula rasa’, advocating the opportunity for a fresh start, a new beginning for his fellow islanders. With these hopes and dreams for a better world the rumblings of Césaire and his countrymen were heard around the world, echoing the eruption that years before had focused global attention on the tiny tropical island.
This prodigal son of Martinique was also figuratively known as Césaire laminaire or Césaire the Kelp. And just as his marine world namesake rises upward as if to escape its watery realm, yet is held fast to the ocean floor, so did Césaire rise above, but remained resolutely attached to his island home. Surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the island of Martinique is ringed with colourful sandy beaches in shades of white, gold and black. But it is the Caribbean blue beyond the beach that has long attracted divers from France and Europe.
ABOVE: The city of Saint-Pierre, just before its complete destruction (Public Domain).
The Clock Stopped Ticking
The town of Saint-Pierre at the northern end of the island was once called the Paris of the Caribbean. In the spring of 1902, nearby Mount Pelée showed many signs of imminent eruption. The volcano spat fire and lava, the earth trembled, and the city was covered with a layer ash heavy enough to collapse roofs. The smell of sulphur was so intense that horses dropped dead in the streets. Despite these warning signs, a Commission of Enquiry assured frightened residents that Pelée posed no immediate danger.
The Governor of Martinique, Louis Mouttet, even telegraphed Paris that the eruption was on the wane. Nonetheless, explosions and mudflows convinced residents of hillside communities to relocate to the city of Saint-Pierre where most of the population had reluctantly decided to stay put. Clara Prentiss, the wife of the American Consul, wrote her sister outlining their escape plan in the event the volcano became more violent. She said they would take to sea on the American schooner E. J. Morse, in the harbour on standby for a possible evacuation. However, in light of assurances from authorities that there was no immediate threat the schooner eventually departed.
On May 8, 1902, the clock in the military hospital stopped ticking at 7:50 a.m. when its mechanical parts were fused by the scorching heat of a hellish eruption. In less than four minutes, nearly 30,000 people were killed by superheated gases reaching over 1,830°F (1,000°C), including Thomas and Clara Prentiss and Governor Mouttet. Virtually all life in Saint-Pierre was extinguished when the city and its seaport were engulfed by successive waves of scalding gas, fire, and boiling mud. Fewer than five people survived one of the worst eruptions in recorded history, including Louis-Auguste Cyparis, a local fisherman who had just been confined to a reinforced jail cell after attempting to flee from incarceration on a previous conviction. He was rescued from the remains of the destroyed prison three days later suffering from third degree burns all over his body. After he was pardoned for his crimes, Cyparis toured with Barnum and Bailey’s Circus as ‘The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday’. He was also the first black man ever featured in the segregated show.
On May 8, 1902, the clock in the military hospital stopped ticking at 7:50 a.m. when its mechanical parts were fused by the scorching heat of a hellish eruption.
ABOVE: The Montreal-registered steamer Roraïma burns off Saint-Pierre following the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902 (Public Domain).
The Ghost Fleet of Saint-Pierre
The pyroclastic flow that swept down the mountainside and into the city in just seconds then smothered the small fleet of 18 ships anchored in the harbour. All of the vessels were instantly engulfed in flames. Only the British steamer Roddam managed to escape, although its captain and several sailors later died from severe burns. Passengers and crew aboard the Montreal-registered steamer Roraïma, which had sailed into the harbour less than 90 minutes earlier, raised their heads in horror when the volcano exploded with a frightful roar. When the ship’s cooper emerged from a hatch in a bid to escape, he found that most of the 68 souls on board were either dead or horribly injured strewn across the deck and covered in steaming mud. Those still alive begged for water that their burned, ash-choked throats could not swallow. Ships were sinking all around the Roraïma amidst patches of water alight with burning rum from the flattened distilleries and ruptured barrels. Her own cargo of potassium burned for three days before she sank.
Much like the famed fleet of Bikini Atoll sunk by fireballs from the nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands, Saint-Pierre owes its notoriety to a cataclysmic event, albeit natural, not manmade. Today, mostly sport divers from France and other parts of Europe travel to Martinique to explore the wrecks of Saint-Pierre, the world’s only known fleet of vessels sunk by a volcano. The 394-foot (120m) Roraïma is the largest shipwreck in the bay, a charred hulk that remains upright and relatively intact after more than a century. She was discovered in 1974 by French diver Michel Météry who guided Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s exploration of the sunken vessels during the filming of his Lost Relics of the Sea documentary three years later. Cousteau nicknamed the Roraïma l’épave aux cheveux blancs, meaning the white-haired wreck, since much of the ship’s exterior has been colonized by hundreds of light-coloured sea whips. Giant barrel sponges, gorgonians and schools of fish greet divers when they reach the bow at 138 feet (42m). A partially melted staircase serves as an eerie reminder of the devastating force that sank the ship. A dive plan and keen senses are a must on this wreck. The water is clear and blue but penetration into this ship’s innards can quickly take the curious diver to depths up to 197 feet (60m), and an unanticipated need to make decompression stops. Petrified lava flows and several other marine life-covered wrecks are also accessible at shallower depths.
In 2011, the French government passed legislation to further protect the wrecks of Saint-Pierre by establishing a no-anchor zone. Conservation efforts are apparent elsewhere around the island as well, notably in high traffic areas in the vicinity of Sainte-Anne, where I had the good fortune to dive with Alex Dobat, a native Martiniquan and a good friend of the late Albert Falco, celebrated captain of Cousteau’s flagship Calypso. Alex is the island’s foremost expert on diving the south end and he has long been a proponent of environmentally friendly moorings for dive boats. Together, we explored the expansive reef in the bay of Sainte-Anne. With shallow depths and an average water temperature of 85°F (29°C), you can easily dive for well over an hour in the midst of thriving colonies of colourful corals and sponges.
ABOVE: The Cousteau Odyssey: Lost Relics of the Sea (1982). Go to 00:40:15 for the segment on Équipe Cousteau exploring the shipwrecks of Saint-Pierre.
ABOVE: Lesser electric ray (Narcine bancroftii) observed while snorkeling off the beach in Le Carbet. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
No dive in Sainte-Anne is complete without a stroll at nearby Les Salines, one of the most picturesque sandy beaches in the Caribbean. On the horizon lies the colossal Rocher du Diamant or Diamond Rock, the remains of yet another volcanic upheaval that beckon divers from all parts along the southern coast of Martinique. The 574-foot high (175m) basalt island that once harboured a British garrison during the Napoleonic Wars was actually commissioned as a sloop, the HMS Diamond Rock. Approaching the steep cliffs of this volcanic plug, you can’t help wonder how anyone could make it ashore, much less set up cannons on any of its narrow ledges. Today, the uninhabited island, which is no longer considered a commissioned ship by the Royal Navy, is a wildlife refuge for several bird species as well as the endemic Couress grass snake.
ABOVE: Le Rocher Diamant, a.k.a. HMS Diamond Rock. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
Diving the Diamond was the highlight of my stay in Martinique. After 30 years of underwater exploration, this was undoubtedly one of the most exquisite sites I have ever seen. The imposing nature of the island above and below the surface was awe-inspiring and intimidating at the same time. Diving along the submerged precipice in gin clear water was nothing short of a revelation. Fish schooled in every direction and the rocky ledges literally teamed with life that included black and soft corals. To my dismay this was to be my only dive at the Diamond and because I wanted to see it all I had a hard time focusing on any one subject. Before long we made our way to the entrance of the famed 100-foot (30m) long tunnel running through the island at a depth of 45 feet (14m). My guide had told me currents frequently swept through the channel. “Once you’re in you may not be able to turn back,” he warned. Near the entrance I felt myself being sucked inside so I followed his example to go with the flow. The passage itself is relatively devoid of life due to the cleaning effect of ripping currents and with no thanks to the bad buoyancy skills of some divers. Emerging on the the other side of the island I was blinded by the light and vivid colours. As the current subsided, I was caught in an eddy that brought me face to face with a Caribbean octopus clinging to the side of the cliff.
ABOVE: A Caribbean reef octopus clinging to Diamond Rock. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
We then headed for the southern tip of the island where an even stronger current prevented any forward movement and would not allow us to cross back to the other side. Eventually we made it back to the boat after an exhausting return trip clawing our way through the tunnel on our stomachs. The dark passageway is mysterious and exhilarating but make sure you can arrange to have the boat pick you up at the opposite end. I still wonder what sights I missed during our escape from HMS Diamond Rock, yet I can’t wait to go back.
More than Diving
Most divers I know plan their dive travel to maximize bottom time, but I wouldn’t recommend this on Martinique. Because my visit was a familiarization trip, the itinerary involved seeing the sights, tasting local delicacies and sampling some of the best rum in the world. It was a remarkable change from my usual routine: eat and dive, dive and eat, dive, eat and sleep. On this trip I lived like a movie star for four days. I half expected to bump into Gérard Depardieu at the Hôtel Bakoua and the other establishments where we were treated to some of the island’s haute cuisine. Martiniquan chefs as well as the roadside cooks combine the flavours of French, Indian and African cuisine with local produce to create refined, spicy créole specialities such as spiny lobster colombo and poulet boucané (smoked chicken). No day is complete without the traditional ti-punch, made with fermented sugar cane Rhum agricole that was granted France’s coveted Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Traditional rum made from molasses is used to make the tamer fruity planteur, another local favourite often served by the boat captain or divemaster after the last dive of the day.
ABOVE: Sampling some of Martinique’s finest rhum agricole, a.k.a. cane juice rum, a style of rum originating from the French Caribbean islands. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
Although most of the establishments I visited were quite pricy, affordable hotels, resorts and eateries for budget-savvy travelers such as myself may be found throughout the island. Dive operators have also formed an association that allows divers to purchase a preset number of dives (Le Pass Madidina) that can be used at member businesses around the island. No matter where you stay, you need not worry about common irritants that plague most Caribbean destinations such as drinking tap water, treated here to European standards. Nor are hotels in or around the capital of Fort-de-France plagued by mosquitoes or the dreaded no-see-ums that leave you scratching long after you’ve returned home. Lionfish were nowhere to be seen (in 2011) although our skipper in Saint-Pierre reported his first ever sighting of the invasive species only two weeks earlier. For a while anyway Martinique remains one of the last bastions of the pre-lionfish Caribbean. And as a shark researcher, I was thrilled to encounter a lesser electric ray (Narcine bancroftii) while snorkeling off the beach in Le Carbet, which is believed to be in the upper range of this electrifying species. Martinique thus offers world-class diving, food and accommodations in a modern yet unmistakably Antillean setting.
When diving in Martinique, you can still hear the reverberations of the cataclysmic events that have shaped the many unique features of this Pompeii of the Caribbean.
During my flight home, a view of the smoking Montserrat Volcano was a chilling reminder of the fragility of life and the destructive force that created many of the islands in the Lesser Antilles. But through death comes rebirth. When diving in Martinique, you can still hear the reverberations of the cataclysmic events that have shaped the many unique features of this Pompeii of the Caribbean. And much like Aimé Césaire gave voice to the isolation that characterized Martinique in his day, divers like Alex Dobat and Michel Météry will help forge the island’s identity today as an exclusive and much prized destination for divers the world over.
ABOVE: The Coco Bar at Hotel Bakoua. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
Located at Pointe du Bout, little peninsula of Trois-Ilets, in the south of Martinique, the Hotel Bakoua is facing one of the most beautiful bay in the world : « La baie des Flamands ». Surrounded by a wonderful and luxurious tropical garden, the resort offers to its customers an incredible panorama. Its overflow pool and its white sand beach with cristal clear and warm sea invites for relaxing. The genuine colonial style is a pleasure for the eye. The resort has 132 bedrooms and 6 suites. All the accommodations, furnished with style and comfort, have A.C and are located in difference creole-styled buildings with a terrace and a balcony.
Direct flights to Fort-de-France (FDF), Aéroport International Aimé Césaire, are available from Montreal. From the U.S. flight options include departures from Miami and others route through Puerto Rico. Check with a travel specialist or search online.
Visitors from Canada and the U.S. need a valid passport, but no VISA.
Martinique is part of the French West Indies or French Antilles (in the Lesser Antilles) comprises seven territories under French sovereignty.
Martinique is cosmopolitan and modern, offering amenities you’d expect to find in Paris. Since most consumer goods are imported, the cost of living is substantially more expensive than on other Caribbean islands.
The official language is French but English is spoken in most establishments. French Canadians have a definite advantage when the local switch to Martiniquan créole, which shares some similarities with Québec French.
The best time to visit is from November to May.
Le Pass Madinina is available from www.plongezenmartinique.com
For general information about Martinique go to www.martinique.org
The Martinique Promotion Bureau is located in New York City. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 212-838-6887. In Canada for French language site go to www.lamartinique.ca
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Jeffrey Gallant is the Editor-in-Chief and Records Keeper of the Diving Almanac. He is also a contributing editor of DIVER Magazine, and the scientific director of the Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group (GEERG). Jeffrey started diving in 1982.