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Making Waves in Jamaica

Guest post by Chris Leadbeater

It flits past my mask in a haze of azure and yellow, its flanks paint-box bright. ‘Flits’ may be the wrong word. ‘Cruises’ would be better, because this parrotfish is so large that it looks like it must have the turning radius of an ocean liner. Then – as if to contradict my uncharitable thought – the beast suddenly changes direction with a deft flick of its huge tail, and vanishes into the deep.

This many-hued brute is not a lone specimen. All around me, the water teems with life. Fish of all shapes dart and scurry, flash and dash. I see stingrays and rockfish. A balloon fish floats by and a moray eel entwines itself around a gnarly lump of coral. They are quite a welcoming party. Many international flights to Jamaica now touch down at Montego Bay in the northwest corner of the island, which is an ideal location for heading below the waves. I’ve barely had time to unpack before I venture into the blue in Montego Bay Marine Park.

I must admit, I’m a little surprised. Jamaica has a reputation for many things: a carnival atmosphere; glorious beaches; giving birth to reggae; a dalliance with piracy (Port Royal, the 17th century den of rogues, struck fear and hot lead into Spanish galleons). This famously laid-back country is not normally thought of as a destination for underwater exploration, but it should be. The third biggest Caribbean island (behind Cuba, and Hispaniola – the island that on which both Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located) Jamaica has 634 miles of coastline and a lot of warm, scuba-friendly water.

In the last 20 years, Jamaica has started to take good care of the surrounding ocean. Montego Bay Marine Park was established off the north coast in 1991. Now it is a protected pocket where things with fins thrive, and divers are able to glide among them in relative isolation. If you head to the west coast (and manage to avoid the sandy temptation and cocktail-touting bars of the iconic Seven Mile Beach) you will find Negril Marine Park.

Two days after my escapades off Montego Bay, I slip below the waves in this vast sheltered expanse (it covers160 square kilometers). Bescaled species are just as abundant here, even though I do not encounter a parrotfish the size of a small submarine.

The island boasts several other excellent locations for diving. The holiday hotspots of Ocho Rios and Runaway Bay, both on the north coast, are popular scuba sites, while Port Antonio in the northeast has reef walls that are alive with hard and soft coral. More experienced divers can also test their mettle by staring into the gloomy abyss of the Cayman Trench – the boundary between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates. Here, unsurprisingly, is below-the-surface terrain perfect for epic wall dives.

Of course, watersports in Jamaica are not confined to what lies beneath. Three days after my parrotfish moment I get into splash and spray of a different sort. I head east to Ocho Rios, where I kayak the White River, which crashes down from the interior. I ride the rapids and (largely) avoid the urge to capsize as I pilot the sturdy craft beneath heavy rainforest vegetation and through thick bamboo groves. Here is further proof, if proof were needed, that there is far more to Jamaica than soft beaches.

Chris Leadbeater is a UK travel writer who has crossed the world in search of exciting destinations (and the beers available therein). He knows far too much about indie music.

Lead photo credit: kaymoshusband

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