Guadeloupe

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elgringoperdido

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Guadeloupe report (4 July – 17 July 2018)
This is my first Scubaboard post. Over the past decade or more, I have consulted this helpful forum many times to find information regarding diving and surface activities at various locations but I have been reluctant to create an account and post. Nevertheless, I have noted a dearth of information regarding Guadeloupe and I want to share my experiences with those interested. This compendium was made from notes I took while on vacation, and is likely to be a long post.

Clarification: This post regards Guadeloupe, an archipelago of at least five islands in the lesser Antilles, and an overseas department of France. Note the unusual (French) spelling of Guadeloupe. This is not a report about Isla Guadalupe, a Mexican island in the pacific. I mention this because I have found that any search for “Guadeloupe” on Scubaboard turns up multiple hits with this (mis)spelling of the Mexican island, which properly has the more common Spanish spelling of Guadalupe (used also for place names in Spain, Texas, Mexico, California, etc.) Note that the pronunciation is different as well.

Hassle factor: After several months of searching itineraries, I managed to finally find a reasonably-priced round-trip itinerary to Pointe-à-Pitre from Newark without unreasonably long flight times on expedia.com. ($440 per person for myself, my wife, and my son)

The plan: 8AM flight from Newark to Atlanta, a bit more than one hour layover in Atlanta, then fly to PTP. Arrive at PTP at 3:50 PM.

The reality: We awoke at 3:30 to have breakfast and make the two-hour drive to Newark, parked the car, arrived at the Delta check-in at 6AM only to be told that the flight would be delayed by 2 hours. Unfortunately this meant that we would miss our connecting flight to Guadeloupe and there were no other flights to Guadeloupe that day. After much frantic searching, the Delta agent said that our best bet would be a flight to Miami (from JFK!) at 3pm, an overnight in Miami, then a 9:05 AM flight to PTP. She apologized profusely, provided a voucher for the nearly one-hour cab ride from Newark to JFK, a 50-dollar voucher for us to have breakfast at JFK, and Delta paid for our hotel room in Miami that night. We accepted the offer, made long cab ride to JFK, ate breakfast, and cooled our heels for several hours at JFK. The 3pm flight was on time, luggage managed to get on the correct flight, and our hotel room wasn’t bad (Double Tree). In the morning, we took the 6:30 shuttle from Double Tree Miami International, and flew to PTP on an Air France flight, which stopped at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for about an hour while we waited on board.

Silver lining: the Air France food was much better than Delta, and we were given two small meals, one between MIA and Haiti, and one between Haiti and PTP. The plane was also clean and comfortable compared to Delta and there was a nice selection of movies. I watched “The Darkest Hour.” You’ll enjoy this film if you’re into military history.

I relate that story mostly to impress upon you that getting to PTP from the USA can be a major hassle. Most flights are very expensive and require 20+ hours transit. I managed to find one, reasonably priced, that should only have been eight hours, but we were at the mercy of factors beyond our control, and ended up having a 29-hour transit time anyway. A cursory scan of TripAdvisor will confirm that many others have had similar experiences.

Arrival in Guadeloupe: I was pleasantly impressed by the PTP airport—very clean and in good shape. Also I was surprised by the lack of bureaucracy upon entering Guadeloupe (especially given the impressive number of complaints I’ve heard from Frenchmen about their government’s burdensome bureaucracy.) No forms to fill out on the plane. No forms upon landing. French and foreigners were all in the same fast-moving line. We just showed the woman at immigration our passports, she stamped them, and we moved on. Luggage arrived immediately. No hassle at Customs either. No red light/green light. No questions. Everyone just passed through while the customs officers smiled at us and waved us onward.

Outside, we immediately found the car rental place. Another pleasant surprise was that they (at least the Budget people) spoke English rather well. I was prepared to pick up an airport phone, tell the person answering it that we had reservations and were awaiting the shuttle, in French, but none of that was necessary. They gave us a tiny white Opel Z five-speed (cheapest available car) noted the scratches on the exterior, and sent us on our way with an admonition to return the car full of gas.

The drive to St. François: Highways were in good condition, smaller roads were treacherous. Major roads signed well. Secondary roads not so much. We had to double back twice, but overall it wasn’t bad. Driving was interesting, but not as stressful as driving in, say, NYC or Washington DC.

We arrived at our Condo in St. François where we stayed the first week (well, six days because of the flight delay). Our condo owner spoke no English, but we expected that. She was very friendly, showed us the place, gave us the wifi password, explained about the garbage, keys, etc., and I was able to communicate well enough with her in my schoolboy French. (If you do not speak any French your experiences in Guadeloupe will be somewhat limited.)

Diving in Grand Terre: In Grand Terre, I dived with Noa Plongée: one two-tank package. (I would also dive on Basse Terre; more about that later.) We met at their shop (a block from the pier) at 7:30 am and, as the battery in my Mares Puck had just died, they lent me a dive computer—off the record, no charge. I was buddied with Jean-Louis, a 63-year-old from Lorraine who spoke no English. He is a CMAS*** diver, and since I have 13 certifications and have been down to over 100 meters they considered me to be roughly 3-star slso and said that Jean-Louis and I would be “autonomous” and make our own plan. The others on the boat, a French couple and a Guadeloupean, were less experienced and were not considered to be “autonomous” and they stayed with Alexis, the captain/instructor/mate. I call him all that because he was the only employee on the boat. The boat was nice (covered, shade), and looked like it could accommodate about 12 divers. It had a large platform at the stern with sturdy ladder. But there was no crew. The sea was choppy that day. Really choppy! 2.5 meter waves, according to Alexis. The boat was tossed quite a bit and Jean-Louis lost his breakfast over the side. We got to a site called Le Lac, which was maybe 17 meters max depth, very flat, with some coral formations and a strong circular current. Alexis gave a briefing in French and kept looking at me (“vous comprenez?”) Yes, I understand (mostly). Units were bars, meters, and degrees celcius. He wanted Jean-Louis and me to inform each other when we got to 100 bar (a symbol that looked like a US football “touchdown” symbol) and again at 50 bar (the right hand made into a loose fist and placed right of the forehead). They do not seem to have familiarity with the TDI one-handed numeral system for indicating pressure, but some have an awareness that English people, Americans, Canadians, etc., use the index finger to begin counting, unlike the French and Germans. I used 4 kilograms of lead. Two kilos each in my BCD pockets. They loaned me a DIN-to-A clamp adapter and a hex wrench to install it. It worked out well.

Visibility was not as high as Cozumel or Bonaire, but better than the North Atlantic. The waves were very big. (Think: NJ wreck diving in October.) St. François is near the westernmost point of the western edge of the butterfly, where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean. The water was warm enough (28°C) so I only wore a lycra skin and heavy booties. I also used my big scubapro tech diving fins. Otherwise, I used my recreational gear (Cressi Travel-light BCD, Oceanic CDX5 first stage with oceanic primary and alternate 2nd stages, Cressi Big Eyes low-volume mask, and Sea-Life camera).

The second dive was similar. 16 meters max depth, 55 minutes. Vis was okay (15 meters maybe). Some sea life, but not much. Large barracuda, peacock flounder, wrasses, puffers, groupers, lobsters. One very special moment was when Jean-Louis found a juvenile spotted drum. Tiny black-and-white ribbon among the reef. I usually don’t find such small things on my own, so I am glad he pointed it out.

Bear in mind that the boat was completely unmanned during our dives. Alexis explained that this is normal in Guadeloupe. The captain is also the divermaster, mate, etc. We all rolled in backward from the side, then he joined us. We went down, Jean-Louis and I together, and the other four together. We met again about 45 minutes later on the bottom near a fixed anchorage for a tie-off buoy, and worked our way up to a 5-meter safety stop near the boat. We were given very specific instructions about climbing aboard, which was good because when we looked up from the safety stop we could see the latter going up and down out of the water, testament to those two-meter waves. Do not remove fins. Grab the ladder firmly on the third rungs during a trough in the wave. Get the feet quickly on the bottom rung. Keep all the weight on the ladder to keep it from bouncing and bruising the legs. With fins on, step carefully one rung at a time, keeping full weight on the ladder. Get to the top and keep holding on to the rail. Make your way quickly to the bench and then remove fins. (I suspect that he has had to go down to retrieve fins more than once, thus the admonition about keeping fins on.)
 
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Afterward, we docked, rinsed gear, and I paid the guy in the shop, whose only job seemed to be collecting money. (No one at this shop ever asked to see a certification or logbook. They had asked me about my experiences and seemed satisfied.) The standard two-tank dive is €90. There is a €3 per dive discount if you bring your own gear so I paid €84. I also gave Alexis a €5 tip. I’m not a big tipper but this guy was working his ass off. He had bruises, cuts, and scars, and was doing everything. He even told me exactly where to get the battery and which one I would need.

Nature of the trip: This was a family vacation (sort of a bribe/reward for my son for making an A every quarter in his first year of French in school—although I don’t need much of an excuse to go to the tropics), so it wasn’t a full-blown dive trip of the sort I’d do with my Local Dive Shop. Those were the only two tanks I dived in St. François. Alexis said that most of the sites on that side of Guadeloupe are similar so I feel like I got the gist of it.

Hurricane Season: Tropical storm Beryl passed by on the fourth night of our stay at St. François. Luckily it was a disorganized system, so we only had about 12 hours of wind and rain. What had been a beautiful, white, sandy beach (Plage de Raisins Clairs) on Sunday was, on Monday, a brown, dirty beach littered with jetsam, sargassum, coconuts, and the corpse of at least one octopus. The condo owner told us that the municipal government regularly cleans up the sargassum.

Travel from Grand Terre to Basse Terre: On Tuesday 10 July we checked out of the condo, piled into the car, and made the two-hour trek to the other side of the island (Basse Terre, technically a different island) where we stayed for a second week at a condo in Plage de Malendure. Our host there also did not speak English.

On the way there we passed through a major industrial zone called Baie Mahault just west of Pointe-à-Pitre where one can procure whatever provisions which may be needed. I found the store called Mille et un Piles (“1001 Batteries”) which Alexis recommended and purchased the CR2450 battery (€6.99) for my Mares Puck. Problem solved.

Once past the heavily populated middle of the islands, we entered the “wilder” Basse Terre, where the driving is reminiscent of Italy: winding roads, very small cars, around every corner a magnificent vista, with occasional stretches of blue sea hundreds of meters below. I cannot overstate how beautiful (and dangerous) the landscape was on the western side of Guadeloupe. We also noted that although many beaches on the southern shore of Grand Terre were littered with sargassum (due to Beryl), none on the leeward shore of Basse Terre showed any sign of either sargassum or tropical storm damage.

Plage de Malendure: We stayed in the Residence Island Bay condos, built onto the side of a mountain. The owner here was very friendly and helpful. Location was excellent. 3-minute walk downhill through a forest to a small, secluded beach with excellent snorkeling. Another five-minute walk to the big beach. My son and I rented kayaks for three hours for €25 per person. (A full day is slightly more, around €40 as I recall.) It is about 1 km of hard rowing to the Pigeon Islands, part of the Jacques Cousteau Marine Reserve. It took us 23 minutes to kayak there. We took snorkels, fins, and masks. Excellent snorkeling: fan coral, brain coral, tube sponges, tangs, parrotfish, trunkfish, wrasse, snappers, etc., We also saw a turtle and two squid. There’s a good hike up to the peak on the island (maybe 40 meters above sea level) where there are excellent 360-degree views of the cove and the Caribbean.

Diving on Basse Terre: I booked two dives (€54) with PPK diving. They do one dive at a time. Three per day. Go out at 9:30, come back by 11:30. Go out again at noon, back by 2. Go out again at 2:30, back by 4:30. I decided to do one dive on Thursday and one on Friday.

This shop vetted the divers more thoroughly. They wanted to see certification cards. No one seems set up for nitrox. They looked at me funny when I asked about it. Also, few have ever heard of TDI. Eventually they took my Rescue cert for 2-star (even though I also have NAUI Master Scuba Diver cert which was, at least for me, much more rigorous). After some internet searching, they took my TDI Extended Range for the equivalent of 3-star. They didn’t seem impressed with my trimix certs—not surprising, if they’re not doing nitrox, then they aren’t doing trimix either. All the diving is fairly shallow (less than 150 feet) so you don’t need trimix. My insta-buddy was a French FFESM 3-star. They told us to head down first. We were followed by the others, who were in groups of four each led by either a CMAS or FFESM moniteur.

The water is very calm here. It’s on the leeward (western) shore of the island. I dived on the Franjack, a Danish cargo vessel sunk in 1996 as an artificial reef. It is about 50 meters long and lying flat on its keel on a sandy bottom at 24 meters. Good general condition with the exception of the front cabin which is collapsed. There were 12 divers when I went. A little crowded for my tastes (little difference between encadré and autonomé with so many divers on one wreck) but they mostly left me on my own. Calm seas. Mild current. Water was 28°C. Visibility was maybe 20m (Less silt than St. François.) I saw lots of yellow and purple tube sponge, fan coral, brain coral, stag coral, small baskets, star coral, etc. Many small reef fish (yellow, blue, purple, and green wrasse.) Some medium sized (spotted trunkfish and a puffer, many snapper, hogs, squirrels, tang, angel, sergeant major, butterfly, etc.) and a few larger ones (grouper hiding in the engine room and some compartments below, and some some scrawled filefish swimming about outside the hull).

We penetrated the wreck fairly thoroughly. I forgot my flashlight so my camera flash was the only light I had. Luckily the guy in front of me didn’t kick up too much silt. It was a good dive. I took lots of video and stills. They gave me 198 bar (a little light) and they made us come up at 60 bar, but in-between I got in about 45 minutes including 3-min at 5 meters. I think they were playing it safe. Consulting a dive table, you’ll see that 40 minutes is the no stop limit for 24 meters.

On the second day the dive was in the Jacques Cousteau Marine Reserve, very near the islands where my son and I snorkeled. Water was 29°C on that day. They sent me off with a rather thick-headed and somewhat obnoxious CMAS*** diver named Sophie and told us to come back when we had 50 bar. Tank was very light: 189 bar (compared to the 210 in St. François.) Everyone on board noticed the same thing. Nevertheless, the dive was pleasant. I must say that Sophie, who was built like a refrigerator, was a good navigator and had excellent buoyancy control and gas management. Vis was slightly better than at the wreck. Maybe 25 meters. Lots of marine fauna, some large and some small. One hawksbill turtle as we were on the safety stop. Lots of marine flora as well. According to my Mares Puck, 32.6 meters max depth.

Their website claims that they also regularly visit the Augustin Fresnel and the Gustavia, but they weren’t planning on visiting those wrecks while I was there, unfortunately. I guess if you showed up with a big enough group (or enough euros) they’d probably take you.

General observations regarding diving in Guadeloupe: No paperwork. At both shops there was no long form, in fact there were no forms or waivers at all. No one asked to see my DAN insurance. Mainly they wanted to know my cert level.

Both dive shops I dived with, but particularly the second one—and all the divers I met—seemed to be deeply concerned, perhaps overly concerned, with my level of certification. A couple of times when I was sitting at the shop drinking coffee someone would come and sit down by me and the first question they would ask “Quel est votre niveau?” (“what level are you?”) How weird. You can google “things that French people normally do that Americans find rude or annoying” and “things that Americans normally do that French people find rude or annoying.” There’s no shortage of that kind of stuff on Youtube. It’s entertaining, but we can chalk most of that up to cultural norms. No harm done. This seems fundamentally different, as it is directly affects the way people dive. I have heard of CMAS and FFESM levels, but because I have not read their manuals I couldn’t say what all that means. I do know that rather than watch me dive a bit and figure out whether I know what I’m doing, they base everything on certification level. They reckon me to be “autonomous” because I have what they consider to be roughly a 3-star level, even before watching me dive. They do the same with the other divers. Any diver showing up with a 1-star certification, regardless of experience, gets a babysitter. Any diver showing up with a 2-star cert can be without a babysitter to 20 meters, regardless of experience. Any diver with 3-star can go down to 40 meters without a babysitter, regardless of experience, or something like that (I may have the exact numbers wrong). This can even have the result of separating couples. For example, the reason I was paired with Sophie was because she was 3-star and her husband was 2-star and he went with the 2-star people. I don’t have a dive shop, but if a middle-aged couple showed up who had been diving together for years very well as a team, the last thing I would do is say, “you go with these guys to 60 feet; and you go with these guys to 120 feet.” I have dived in various locations in the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of California, and in a few freshwater lakes, but this is the first time I have dived in a place under the sovereignty of the French government. Maybe this is an example of the infamous French bureaucracy.
 
I have met divers with only an open water card from PADI who were excellent divers, comfortable in the water, good navigators, and calm in emergency situations. I have also been with people who have 10 or more certs but who have trouble with buoyancy and navigation. You really only know how well a person dives when you observe that person diviing. I go to the Caribbean a couple of times per year. When I show up solo at a new shop, where they don’t know me, sometimes they put me in a cattleboat for the first day. Then, on the second day, I say, put me on that fast boat with people who won’t be kicking up silt and who don’t suck down their air in 30 minutes. Or in some spots they want me to do a check-out dive. It takes a few minutes for them to figure out my comfort zone or skill. In Mexico, for example, all dives are “guided” dives. I don’t have a problem with that, so long as the divemaster leaves me alone to do my own thing. What I think is weird is that the French dive shops seem to put more faith in one’s level of certification rather than in empiricism.

Enough complaining! All diving is good diving. Anyway I think the provider of gases, weights, and the boat can and should vet the divers before the dive.

Hiking: On the drive from Grand Terre to Basse Terre we stopped at Cascade aux Ecrivesses (“Crawfish falls”). There’s a lovely waterfall into a pool, maybe 5 feet deep, for swimming. The falls are about a 5-minute walk up a nice path through the forest, at an altitude of maybe 100 m above sea level. Very cool and refreshing, well signed, with a parking lot for about 20 cars and shacks selling water, snack food, and souvenirs.

My son and I hiked Trace du Petit Malendure, a moderately difficult up-and-down 2.5-km trail littered with boulders, not unlike the Appalachian Trail north of Mason and Dixon’s Line. It followed the edge of a cliff and in places we were able to shimmy down to the water’s edge for some snorkeling. We took masks but not fins, and lots of water and dry snacks. Do this hike in the morning, and preferably on a cloudy day, if you decide to try it. Some leaf cover, but hot.

I regret not hiking about in the Pointe des Châteaux, on the westernmost tip of Grande Terre, when we were in St. François. We could see it from the dive sites near St. François, but by the time we would have done the hike TS Beryl was upon us and we didn’t go out that day. I’m told that it is affords excellent views of the Atlantic Ocean.

Feral cats: Both condos we stayed at were populated with cats. At the first one, we were told specifically not to feed the cats. At the second place, no one said anything, but within 24 hours we could tell that there were many. They were loud as well; sometimes at night I could hear moaning and screeching and I couldn’t tell whether they were making war or love. Apparently the people who stayed at the unit before us were kind to them, because several kept coming around. I tried to shoo them away, but they wouldn’t go. Then I remembered that they were French cats, so I waved a sandal at them and shouted “Allez!” and they finally went away. One of them took a dump on our doorstep, perhaps in revenge, but at least they left us alone.

Spirits, wine, and beer: Rhum (spelled that way) is the firewater of choice hereabouts. Guadeloupe produces at least a couple of brands sold everywhere. Rhum Bologne (clear, 100 proof) is what I have been buying because it’s cheap. Really cheap. Good with orange juice, mango juice, or just for sipping—neat—with breakfast. I also have a bottle of Séverin Rhum Vieux (brown, 88 proof). Less cheap, but still cheap; good with Coca-Cola. There are some Guadeloupean beers but they’re not really cheap. I had a couple of different brands, but I’m not a big beer drinker to begin with so I haven’t had much of that. Wine is what it’s all about: I had a bottle of Château Puy LaBorde Bordeaux that was €5.76 at Ecomax. In fact, there are all manner of Burdeaux and Saint-Émilion in the €5-8 range which is much more expensive back home. Every day I was getting a good Jimmy Buffet rum buzz with lunch and a nice bottle of red with my evening meal, on the cheap!

The people: The locals are Guadeloupeans. The seem to be mainly of afro-caribbean stock. A small minority appears to be of European stock. All speak French and Guadeloupean creole (Kweól). Gwadloup is the Kweól word for Guadeloupe. Karukera is the original indigenous Carib name of the land, so you’ll see that word from time to time, although little else of that language survives here. Some signs are in both French and Kweól. Everyone has been very friendly and helpful. No hassle. No aggression. Most seem to work in the service industry, although not necessarily in tourism. Most do not speak English. Tourists here are mostly from metropolitan France. They are also very friendly. A few of them speak a little English, but if you expect to converse about diving, restaurants, hiking, etc., you’ll have to switch over to French. Other than airport workers and a few dive shop workers, I did not hear any English other than that spoken by myself, my wife, my son, and a few people who wanted to practice their English. In a few cases when my French wasn’t quite up to the task and I had to resort to arm gestures, I managed to get my point across. In two weeks I did not run into any US, UK, NZ, Australian, or Canadian tourists. Not that they don’t ever come here, but I don’t think Guadeloupe figures prominently on the Anglophone radar. Or so I thought till I got back to the airport at the end. I noticed that while waiting for Air France flight 0608 to Atlanta about a third of the people around me spoke regular American English. (But surely there will be gringos on any flight to Atlanta.)

Other advice: Bring a bag for shopping. The supermarkets, even the nice ones, are like those in much of western Europe. Having lived and worked in Germany for a year and in Amsterdam for a few months, I should have known that they would not have baggers and bags. I guess I wasn’t thinking about that—These are the lesser Antilles, after all, not the Côte d'Azur. Luckily, we had already unloaded the luggage before setting off for provisions that first day, so we just rolled the shopping cart out to the car and filled its tiny luggage compartment with our groceries. Also, note that the electrical outlets are 240V, two big round prongs of the type used, for example, in Bonaire. An adapter probably came with your mobile phone. Bring it.

Holidays: Travel Guides always list local feast days. I usually ignore them. Not a good idea. We found out the hard way that most stores are closed on 14 July, La Fête National, or what we call Bastille Day. We had used up all our groceries for breakfast on the 14th and headed to Ecomax, only to find it closed. Then we went to Leader Price, which was also closed. Luckily, Carrefour was open for a few hours that morning and we got there just in time to stock up on food and wine. The following day all the stores were open, which is a good thing because France defeated Croatia 4-2 to win the FIFA world cup. There was quite a bit of hootin’ and hollerin’ well into the night on the 15th of July. I am reminded of the time I happened to be in Cabo San Lucas during el día de votación, Presidential Election Day, about 15 years ago. I went to get beer and learned the hard way that no alcohol sales were allowed anywhere in Mexico on election day. Saddened, I decided to do a hike. I climbed for hours over the dry, cactus- and rattlesnake-infested desert between the Marina and El Arco, at the tip of the peninsula. There’s a little beach there accessible only by boat, or to anyone willing to brave the climb like I did. There, on the secluded beach, two enterprising young Mexicans were selling cold bottles of Tecate from an icechest. Unfortunately I brought no money with me. What I did have was a Death Pack, the cards issued by the Army with Saddam for the Ace of Spades, his sons for other Aces, and other Baath Party leaders on all the cards to help US soldiers identify them. I had purchased a few decks as gag gifts for my neocon friends. I opened one of the packages for personal use and always kept it on me. I showed the cards to the Mexicans, who admired the deck and after some haggling traded me four cold beers for it. Moral to the story: Learn about local holidays.

Propagating negative stereotypes: Sorry, I have to do this. The cliché is common: “a cigarette? ask that guy for a cigarette. He’s speaking French so you know he’s gotta have one.” Back in May I was in Cozumel for about a week and I remember these two young French women asking the captain if they could smoke on the boat and he said, “no. se prohibe fumar.” Of course not. I kinda chuckled. On this trip to Guadeloupe, on both days with PPK I noticed that two (of the three) moniteurs smoked before and after the dives, while on the boat. Multiple cigarettes each on the very short way to and from the dive sites. I also saw dive industry workers running around between dive shops smoking, while wearing BC and cylinders. Yes, they were French.

Summary: I’m glad we visited. I enjoyed the diving, snorkeling, hiking, and human interaction. I do not know whether we will return, but I would plan ahead if I really wanted to do some of the more advanced wrecks or go down to Sec Paté or Les Saintes. I’d be sure to come on a day that they are already planning those dives.

I hope some of you might find this information useful.

cheers,
elgringoperdido
 
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Thank you for your report! Excellent content, coverage and readability. All I'd suggest adding would be some photographs. It should be helpful to some people; like you, I've seen a scarcity of reporting on it, and people ask about it from time to time. A few points:

1.) Thanks for the heads up about the travel time/cost/airfare situation. Travel hassles are part of the 'package deal' one embraces with a destination.
2.) You mentioned the 'Frenchless' would find their experience somewhat limited; wonder how so? Assuming an English-only speaker. Wonder if most English-only people should pass on Guadeloupe? I appreciate this piece of your review:
Most seem to work in the service industry, although not necessarily in tourism. Most do not speak English. Tourists here are mostly from metropolitan France. They are also very friendly. A few of them speak a little English, but if you expect to converse about diving, restaurants, hiking, etc., you’ll have to switch over to French. Other than airport workers and a few dive shop workers, I did not hear any English other than that spoken by myself, my wife, my son, and a few people who wanted to practice their English.
3.) Wonder if unmanned (during the dive) boats really are common there, and whether the relatively rough seas you experienced at your 1st stop are typical? That's a combo. that'd raise some eyebrows. If that area has rough seas much of the year, would be great info. to have making plans.
4.) Is this why you chose Guadeloupe, to take your son to a French & French-speaking destination? If not, why here, out of all the places you could go?
This was a family vacation (sort of a bribe/reward for my son for making an A every quarter in his first year of French in school—although I don’t need much of an excuse to go to the tropics), so it wasn’t a full-blown dive trip of the sort I’d do with my Local Dive Shop.
5.) I agree with you about the difference between certification and in-water competence; there are people with fewer cert.s than I have that are much more capable. That said, I wonder if dive pro.s' experience in that area supports the view that CMAS has sufficient quality control to trust their certifications?
6.) Awesome.
Then I remembered that they were French cats, so I waved a sandal at them and shouted “Allez!” and they finally went away.
7.) Will you tell us other places you've dove (you mentioned Bonaire, Cozumel, the North Atlantic and New Jersey in particular), and how the diving in Guadeloupe compares?

Richard.
 
Cool trip report! Definitely off the beaten path as dive locations go!
 
2.) You mentioned the 'Frenchless' would find their experience somewhat limited; wonder how so? Assuming an English-only speaker. Wonder if most English-only people should pass on Guadeloupe? I appreciate this piece of your review:

I haven't been diving in Guadeloupe, but I have been there (once, in 2011). For reference, I'm not French but I used to live in France and I speak French. Guadeloupe is part of the DOMTOM, which basically means it's either part of France or France-affiliated. Going to Guadeloupe is going to a tropical version of France, where the people look like a mix of French people you would stereotypically think of and Caribbean people you would stereotypically think of. The street signs look the same as you see in France, and they're written in French. The stores are French chains. You can buy baguettes. People will say "bonjour" to you instead of "hello." Not everyone on the island, by a long stretch, speaks English. Most tourists who go there are French or Francophones. We stayed at the Club Med, and we were a small small minority of non-Francophone there. Almost all the conversation we heard was in French, so if you want to strike up a conversation at the guy next to you in the pool, he may not speak English and certainly won't be expecting you to speak English. Was any of this a problem for us? No, but we speak the language.

So, should you pass on going if you only speak English? Depends on your comfort level with being an outsider and possibly not understanding everything that's going on, because there won't be English translations for everything.

As far as diving goes, like I said, I haven't dived there. But I have dived elsewhere with the French, and they approach diving in a different way, as they do many things that require some kind of certification. Take what elgringo says at face value around certifications. The French can be very particular about how they do things like that.

One final anecdote: we rented a car and visited much of the two islands. We went to a local restaurant for lunch one day in one of the towns, and the teenager who was working there with his mom called up his friends while we were eating, and they all showed up and hung around the restaurant listening to my wife and me speak English, because it was surely a very rare thing for them. When we left one of them smiled and shouted "Goodbye!" It was cute and charming.
 
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All I'd suggest adding would be some photographs.

Thanks for reading. Here's a shot of the sign I mentioned, and few more photos explained below.

To clarify, it is not as though no one on the island speaks English, but most did not seem to be able to speak much English. Not that I usually asked, but when a cashier or clerk would hear us speaking English in line, rather than say how much we owed they would just point at the numbers. Whenever I approached any dive shop worker, restaurant worker, retail sales worker, etc., I always started with French. In a some cases they were able to speak some English, and in the cases where their English was more proficient than my French we switched to English. Also, the condo owners I rented from did not speak English and made that clear to me in their initial emails. I said that if they speak French slowly I could understand them. Twice I had to resort to hand signals because I couldn’t come up with a French word, but it worked out. (stupid, really. I asked where the washing machine was. Couldn't remember washing machine. I was saying "lavateur automatique" and other silly things and making rotating motions and she said "la machine à laver?" Yeah, that's it! Machine à laver.)

It's definitely not Paris. Middle-class people from England have been visiting Paris regularly for a couple of centuries and the tourist industry there has grown up with that. You could get around without a word of French there if you needed to. This just isn't the case in Guadeloupe. (Although I suspect that at a major all-inclusive resort the reception staff and food servers would know at least some English.)

Why Guadeloupe? It wasn’t really a dive trip but rather a family vacation with a few dives. A sort of reward for my son. Diving was important to me, but it wasn't the main goal of the trip. So the idea was a French-speaking place, on the sea. Originally the plan was St. Martin, but about 70% of structures on St. Martin were destroyed by Hurricane Irma last September. Plan B was either Guadeloupe or Martinique. Both seem to have major hassle factors when you start looking at flight itineraries. Norweigian Air does offer a seasonal non-stop from New York but not in the summer. St. Pierre and Miquelon are on the sea as well, but that’s cold water. Marseille and Cannes are on the coast, but that’s a 5-hour time difference and it always takes me a couple of days to get my circadian rythm in sync. Maybe next year. Other francophone locations are remote and in the south pacific, or in sub-Saharan Africa, which I'd be up for but my wife isn't so adventurous.

Regarding unmanned dive boats, I can’t say how common it is altogether. In St. François, I was told that it is normal, but on the other side (in the Réserve Cousteau), the boat was manned during the dive. Also in St. François he said that the water was usually fairly choppy there, but it may have been some braggadocio. I would expect more waves on that side because it faces the Atlantic and is the windward side, but on that day it seemed particularly choppy.

Regarding your question about how closely CMAS controls things, I’m not sure. With any agency it is the teacher who is potentially the strongest or weakest link in the chain, and I'd imagine that some are better than others. I respect CMAS as an organization. From what I have read, I believe that they hold, at least in principle, to the old NAUI credo: dive safety through education. But the emphasis placed on cert level seemed excessive to me.

Regarding other places and how they compare: I have been certified for over 20 years, but I guess I don't dive as often as some people. I average probably 20 tanks per year. I generally like the warm, clear waters of the Caribbean. In the east I've been diving in Puerto Rico, Vieques, Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Lucia, Aruba, and Bonaire. In the west I've been diving at Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Paamul, Tulum, Belize, Honduras (Utila), Costa Rica, and Panama, as well as a few inland caves and cenotes in Quintana Roo. Additionally I have done some diving in the southern Gulf of California (La Paz, Cabo Pulmo, Cabo San Lucas), and at a few spots in the Pacific including three of the Hawaiian Islands and just off the central coast of California. In the Gulf of Mexico I have dived from Galveston, Pensacola, Panama City, Destin, and two of the Florida Keys, including a number of wrecks off Key Largo. Also I've been boat diving off the coasts of New Jersey and North Carolina, and shore diving in a few rivers and small lakes in Pennsylvania.

Mostly I go to Mexico. First, I speak Spanish much better than I speak French. Second, it's a very familiar culture because my parents took us to Mexico several times in the 70s. Third, I just really like hanging out in Mexico. As an adult, I've been to 22 of the 31 states. I've driven solo deep into the interior of Mexico multiple times. I've entered Mexico by car at 6 northern borders (2 from California and 4 from Texas) and at two southern borders (once from Belize and once from Guatemala). I've also flown into five different Mexican airports. I have camped on the beaches on the East and West coasts of Mexico, and dived in many different spots. I've stayed in Mexico for up to two months at a stretch, although that was when I was younger. These days family and work would prohibit such long absences.

Cozumel remains my favorite spot in Mexico. I like the drift. Visibility is excellent. Topside everyone is mellow. No aggression from the locals. Guides are excellent. Every Mexican DM I've met had an good sense of humor. And they'll babysit you if that's what you want, or they'll leave you alone to do your own thing if that's what you want. (Once they get to know you.) Also, Cozumel in particular is anglicized enough that even if you didn't speak a word of Spanish you could get around there. Restauranteurs, hoteliers, and retailers all speak English. Also, down south there are nice beaches and San Miguel has enough diversions for the non-diving members of the party. (I also learn a few words of Yucatec Maya from the divemasters every time I go, which is a special treat because I have an interest in languages.)

I had only one bad diving experience there. We were a group of four and we all got separated at a depth of about 250 feet tech diving up north (around Barracuda), owing to a particularly swift current. But I remembered my training. Did all my deco stops, carefully checked the computer and the labels on the bottles, deployed the SMB at 50 feet with a good fill so that it stood erect on the surface. Scariest part was when I actually surfaced and found that I was far from land with no boats or other people in sight. (Captain later told me I had drifted about 6 miles). I was bobbing on the surface for about 45 minutes, alone, when the boat finally picked me up.

Bonaire might be my favorite for unguided shore diving. Just load up the truck with bottles of nitrox and dive anywhere and everywhere. Excellent visibility. My local dive shop (Lancaster Scuba Center) organizes trips there once in a while and I usually get put with three other guys in a suite and we share the cost of a jeep.

The shop also organizes local wreck trips about once a month. In two weeks they'll be doing the Great Isaac off the Jersey coast. I haven't been on that one yet but I'm planning on going this time. When it gets cold enough that a 7-mm is no longer enough, like around late September/early October, that's when I hang it up for the season. Any diving I do between October and April involves a trip to the tropics. I guess I'm a wimp. :)

Relative to Cozumel and Bonaire, the visibility in Guadeloupe wasn't as good, at least not while I was there. On the other hand, it was better than Panama and Costa Rica. The sea on the atlantic side was rough (sort of like it sometimes gets in New Jersey). The lack of undersea life was disappointing on Grand Terre, but as I said there was much more sea life in Basse Terre. In fact, the snorkeling there was excellent. You could see as much by snorkeling as by diving. Just jump in anywhere, but especially around the Pigeon Islands in the reserve. I don't want to put anyone off Guadeloupe. There are a couple of very famous dive sites that I did not visit so I'll just say that those I did visit on Grand Terre were not as interesting as what I have seen elsewhere in the Caribbean. One thing you can count on anywhere in the Caribbean these days is the invasive Lionfish. I saw many. Here's a shot of a fairly large specimen, along with a shot showing some sponge growth on what looks like a big gun on the Franjack. (color setting is a little off so it's blue, but you can get an idea about the visibility). Finally, there's a shot of a trumpetfish who is perfectly camouflaged for his environment. I hung around for a while hoping to watch him eat--I've read that they are highly carnivorous and can open their tubular mouths quickly to generate a sucking force--but I guess all I really did was scare away his dinner.

I hope I've answered your questions. Thanks again for the positive feedback.
 

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I first heard of Guadeloupe and Martinique when I lived in France over 30 years ago and was surprised to discover that they were in the Caribbean (At the time, I naively thought that all French colonies in tropical areas were in the Indian Ocean or the South Pacific. I quickly forgot about both islands until a few years ago when I found that I was running out of new places to dive in that particular body of water. There is a remarkable paucity of information about diving these islands so I was very glad to see your detailed report. I think that it is the most objective thing I have found on the subject anywhere. I’m still “on the fence” as to whether or not I would dedicate one of my hard-earned dive holidays there.

This community (scubaboard) is an excellent source of information on all aspects of diving- I too consulted it for years when planning trips or equipment purchases but only became a member recently as well. We’re all lucky to have it!
 

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