Hiking Trails

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

The story is salvaged above and below the waterline on a little-known Dutch island in the Caribbean.

With a marine park larger than the island itself, Saint-Eustache (or Statia, for the 3,500 people who live there) is one of the region’s top diving destinations. Located just five miles northwest of the popular city of St. Kitts, the island has more protected historic sites underwater and on land per square mile than anywhere else in the Caribbean.

On land, Saint-Eustache flourishes with nature. Surrounding the volcanic island are rocky coastlines lined with inky black sand beaches that form important nesting sites for endangered sea turtles. To the south, Quill/Boven National Park is a refuge for rare birds, including the red-billed tropicbird, and a habitat for 17 types of orchids. Crowning the island is the Quill, a dormant volcano at the center of dozens of hiking trails, including one that winds its way into the forested crater.

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

Immerse yourself in history

In the 18th century, Saint-Eustache was a free port, making it one of the busiest in the Atlantic and a major hub for the slave trade (the island was colonized by the Dutch in the early 17th century). At its height, more than 3,000 ships anchored in the harbor each year. The island’s economic success enabled it to supply the United States with ammunition during the American Revolutionary War – a secret act of alliance revealed with the arrival of the American brig, the André Doriaend of 1776.

When the ship sailed into port carrying a copy of the Declaration of Independence, Statia greeted it with a formal cannon salute, making the Dutch the first to recognize America’s independence. The act capped long-running tensions between the British and Dutch, leading to the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. Since then, the “first salute” has been celebrated in Saint-Eustache with a re-enactment every August 9, Statia Day, one of the biggest parties on the island after Carnival.

Today, remnants of Statia’s past feed the 36 dive sites of the Saint-Eustache National Marine Park, which encircles the island. One of the highlights of this sanctuary is Anchor Point, a coral-covered French anchor from around 1750, which is hidden behind giant sponges and reef walls filled with lobsters and schools of fish off the coast. southwest of the island. Nearby is the Charles L. Brown Wreck, a cable ship that sank in 1954 and one of the largest ruins in the Caribbean.

(How are wrecks found and who owns them?)

“From historical sources, such as old newspaper articles and government correspondence, we know that hundreds of ships were wrecked all around the island during colonial times,” says Ruud Stelten, archaeologist and director of the Shipwreck Survey, an underwater archaeological field school that studies shipwrecks. around the island. “We’ve only found a few so far.”

In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria unearthed the remains of an 18th-century ship now called Triple Wreck (or SE-504), which Stelton’s organization is studying with the Saint-Eustache Archaeological Research Center. The team aims to find and preserve artifacts to help researchers better understand the island’s history. Anyone with a diving certificate can take part in the survey, which takes place twice a year and explores other wreck sites around the island.

Tokens from the past

By law, divers are not allowed to take home any artifacts, except for one thing: blue beads. Found only in the waters around Saint-Eustache, these cobalt tokens 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 Sint Eustatius and possibly other nearby islands, where they were used as currency for the trade in goods and to signify rank among slaves.

According to local tradition, when slavery was abolished in 1863, the newly emancipated cast the pearls into the ocean to celebrate. However, studies suggest that a ship carrying pearls could have sunk near the island, causing the pearls to collect in one place. Either way, their cultural significance lives on through the oral history of Statia. “The blue beads are my favorite artifact, and I often wear them with great pride because they make me feel more connected to my ancestors,” says Misha Spanner, guide at the Saint-Eustache Historical Foundation Museum. “When a blue bead is found, most locals consider it luck.”

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

Statia’s history of slavery is also excavated on land. In 2021, archaeologists discovered an 18th century cemetery and an indigo vat on the site of the new Golden Rock Dive & Nature Resort, a former plantation. The vat was probably used by slaves to produce the azure tint prized in the dyeing of fabrics.

These new discoveries inspire a holistic approach to learning Statia’s slave history with the participation of the local community, said Gay Soetekouw, president of the Saint-Eustache Archaeological Research Center. The hope is that such an approach will shed more light on a population whose personal histories have never been documented.

Caribbean Conservation

In addition to history, the preservation of the island’s natural spaces is a priority. Saint-Eustache National Parks encourages travelers to learn about the island’s flora and fauna through guided nature hikes and volunteer science projects in its three protected areas: Marine Sanctuary, Quill National Park/ Boven and the Miriam C. Schmidt Botanical Garden.

One such program brought together community helpers 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 at sea, with recruits planting native species, such as gum trees and sea grapes, both of which contribute to biodiversity and hurricane protection. .

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

(Here’s how you can help mitigate the effects of overtourism.)

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

On a recent walk, Gibbs forages for the bitter root to make a medicinal tea and explains the dental benefits of gum tree leaves; its activity stems from ancestral know-how. As one of only three local guides, he says sharing this passed down idea with young people and travelers is essential for the future of the island. “Once people have had a taste of nature,” he says, “they always want more.”

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