Johnny Sunnex, aka Johnny Deep, has recently begun running his well-known training camps – attended by elite freedivers and beginners alike – on the Caribbean island of Dominica, in a dormant volcanic crater in the south of the island.
Not only does the island have the ideal conditions that we free divers are searching for: easy access to unlimited depth from shore, predictably calm, current-free and warm conditions in the water; it also boasts incredible natural beauty, friendly locals, and offers many activities for freedivers and non-freedivers alike. You can find hot springs, cascades and waterfalls, freshwater pools and gorges, trekking and even art galleries. I joined Johnny to assist him on one camp, and to develop my own diving on the second.
Known as the Nature Island, because of its unspoiled beauty, Dominica (pronounced: Domin-eeek-ah) is one of the Lesser Antilles, not to be confused with the larger, Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic further west. It lies south of Guadeloupe and Antigua, and north of Martinique and St Lucia.
The trip from the airport in the Northeast of the island to Scott’s Head in the Southwest – the location of volcanic crater where we were to freedive – takes you along a smooth, but windy and mountainous road, cutting through the unspoiled rain-forest and cloud forest that covers Dominica. You pass through Kalinago Territory, home to an indigenous population of Caribs: the original people of the Caribbean. Dominica is the only Caribbean island whose ‘first’ people were not decimated by the various attempts at conquering the island (Spanish, then French, then British), thanks to the inhospitable topography. The island is volcanic, with nine active volcanoes, though thanks to the many vents and hot springs it doesn’t suffer eruptions. The road winds along the rugged Atlantic coast in the North West, then inland through the rain-forest, passing rocky riverbeds, and dotted with pastel colored houses. For someone used to training in the arid landscape of southern Sinai, this place couldn’t be more of a contrast. The fauna is lush, green and so abundant it feels like you couldn’t squeeze another plant in. The giant leaves of the ferns, palms, bamboo and vines compete for every ray of sunshine.
The only city en route is Roseau, the capital, after which you are back on the road through the rain-forest until it rounds the peak of the hill overlooking the wide Soufriere Bay. The give-away that this isn’t just a bay, but a crater, is right over at the other side, where we freedive. A spit of land – only as wide as a road – connects the mainland to a tiny islet, forming part of the rim of the crater. The rough waves of the Atlantic break just meters away, but calm, current-free conditions were guaranteed for our training inside the deep bay.
The first day of the first camp began with introductions. I have assisted Johnny on a couple of his training camps and have participated in one before as an attendee, and I never fail to be impressed at how he is able to personalize the training to each individual, even within a large group. The introductions are vital for him to get to know everyone’s experience, background and goals. Some of this group wanted to return to depth training for competitions, others wanted to regain their enjoyment of freediving, or to get over fears of depth. Amongst the group were some spear-fishermen who wanted to improve their depth and technique.
Intros were followed by a session of body-stretching, breathing and guided-relaxation in the garden of the property where we stayed. Each morning after the first day, this session would also include thoracic- stretching and exercises for the mind. We would be joined by humming birds drinking nectar from the tropical flowers around us, colorful lizards scuttling between the plants, and watched clouds passing across the blue sky overhead. It was the perfect way to get us into freedive-mode.
Each day included a long water session, of two and a half hours plus. Even in my compressed old 3mm suit I never felt cold. The water temperature was a perfect 27 degrees centigrade, with no thermocline. We tied the buoys up to moorings just a six-minute swim from shore. On that side of the bay, we would swim over colorful coral-heads for 20m, and then the sea floor dropped away to well over 100m.
Since the island is volcanic, the clarity of the water is generally incredible because volcanic sand is heavy. In August 2015, the island was ravaged by tropical storm Erika. The rivers swelled and flooded much of the island, causing surface run-off to cloud the sea surrounding the island. We met a couple that have been scuba diving in Dominica every year for the past 15 years. They said there is typically at least 30m+ of visibility. Whilst we felt blessed with good visibility (20m+), we were assured it it’s normally even better!
In the early days of training, Johnny had each person work on technique, structure, equalization or relaxation, relevant to his or her goals and discipline. Smoothing out bumps at this stage would save valuable seconds and energy later. The group of amateur spearos from Guadeloupe worked particularly on technique, weighting, safety and rescue.
We would all emerge from the sessions hungry, and Johnny arranged for a local restaurant to make us lunches. These included either fresh fish or chicken, with lentils or beans, rice, sweet potato, salad and Caribbean favorites: plantain and bread-fruit. Nourishing post-freediving fare! Afternoons included theory, equalizing clinics and some dry or wet practices for those that were working on their mouth-fill.
We all cooked and ate together in the evenings. On a couple of days we bought fish from the local fishermen (wahoo, mahi mahi). Another afternoon one of our spearos caught our dinner. On the penultimate evening the whole group went to the nearby sulphur spa – mineral-rich volcanic pools of different temperatures, set within the rain-forest. We soaked up the minerals beneath the tree canopy and the stars. It was a blissful experience that left us all feeling very chilled as we drove home. It happened to be a Saturday night, so we could enjoy the sounds of ‘Soca’ and ‘Buyon’ music coming out of the beach bars as we drove past.
Between the two camps, we took a buoy to check out the other side of the crater. The beach where we entered the water had hot springs that had been formed into small rock-pools at the waters edge. A little beach bar served cocktails and beers – ideal for a post-dive relaxation! We swam for a few minutes along the edge of the bay to a place known as “La Bim”, where the sheer cliffs way above us continued vertically down below the water to over 300m deep. We dropped a rope down a meter or two away from the cliff, where I had the most beautiful warm up dive I’ve ever had. The wall was covered with sponges and ancient corals, and as I reached 15m to do a hang, the sound of whale song surrounded me. It has been my dream since I was a child to see a whale, and it hasn’t happened yet, but in that magical moment I felt privileged to be sharing the ocean with them. For that experience alone, coming to Dominica was worthwhile.
On the second camp I focused on developing my own diving. After two and a half years of teaching and competition safety, I was finally doing some training for myself! I was unfortunately troubled with sinus problems, which meant that I wasn’t able to follow the normal stages of progression that Johnny sets out in his camps. Like so many apparent hiccups in life, it was actually a blessing. Instead of going for meters, I had to step back and focus on EQ, technique and dive structure. It was my first time training with a monofin, so good structure and technique will be key to future progression. On the days that I was able to get deeper, it was invaluable for me to be able to rediscover the joy of freediving for myself, to be reminded of that feeling of switching off and sinking into the darker blue; and sinking into myself.
During this camp, some attendees were working on no-fins technique, a couple were completing requirements for their AIDA 4-Star, and others were working on equalization. The author of most of the photos in this article was pushing some impressive depths and making it look easy! Johnny is a generous instructor and accommodates everyone’s needs. He doesn’t confine people to all working on the same aspect of freediving as each other. He ensures that his students’ goals are met, and in many cases exceeded. He has an impressive ability to judge what each person is capable of, even when they don’t know themselves. That gives them the confidence to succeed safely.
Our afternoons and days off during and between the camps included a visit to the spectacular Trafalgar Falls, where two different waterfalls, known as Mother and Father drop from around 100m above. We clambered over huge volcanic rocks and boulders and through luke-warm pools where hot spring water mixed with the cold water from the waterfalls. Some of the group made it all the way to the base of the ‘mother’ fall and swam in the pools. We were there just before dusk, so there were hundreds of birds swirling around in the sky ready to roost. We walked back through the forest to a chorus of singing tree frogs. The fireflies along the path and catching the sunset as we emerged made the whole experience magical.
We also went to Emerald Pool. An easy walk through the cloud forest alongside the river valley leads to a picture-perfect waterfall, which feeds into a cool green pool. Perfect for a refreshing swim! If you’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (with another guy called Johnny) you will have seen Titou Gorge. Here, we swam into a cave with an internal waterfall at the far end. The water rushes through hard, so when swimming against it you just manage to stay still! Back outside the cave in the freshness of the mountain, there is a natural hot, sulphurous ‘shower’ to warm you up. All these places, and more, are within an easy drive from our accommodation in Scott’s Head.
One of the best things about freediving for me is the wonderful group of friends I have made, and all the fantastic people I meet along the way. Dominica was no exception. The freediving conditions were perfect, and the island beautiful with so much to explore. A cool breeze rolling down the mountain to freshen up the tropical heat made for a gorgeous temperature. Johnny has more exciting training opportunities coming up, so stay tuned. I think everyone who attended the camps would return for more. I know I will!
What You Need to Know
How to Get There
Flying to Dominica will invariably mean going via one of the neighboring islands and from there you take an island-hopper (usually LIAT) across to Melville Hall/Douglas Charles airport in the Northeast of the island. From Europe you’ll generally go via Antigua or Barbados. British Airways and Virgin have direct flights to both these places from London. From North America or from within the Caribbean or South America, you can also fly through Martinique, Guadeloupe, St Maarten etc. Once you arrive to Melville Hall, you have a 90min drive down to Scott’s Head, and it is a very beautiful journey. I paid $45USD, sharing the journey with other people on the same flight, in a people carrier, with a very friendly driver and on great roads. There is another airport in Dominica, near Roseau, the capital, but it is not the main airport, so flights arriving here are not so easy to find.
When to Go
The short answer is: when Johnny Sunnex is running a training camp. I was there during winter in Northern hemisphere, and the weather was lovely. The crater where we freedive has predictable – and very good – conditions all year round, and both the sea and air temp remain largely the same all year.
The EC or East Caribbean dollar is used in Dominica and six other countries, including Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Lucia. The US dollar is also widely accepted. One EC is around 0.33€ Euros or $0.37 USD.
Where to Eat
In nearby Roseau we found a great supermarket called ‘Save A Lot’ where we bought breakfast staples and general groceries. We, bizarrely, also found several items from Waitrose – a high-end, and probably the most expensive supermarket in the UK. Next-door was a lovely street market with local fruit and veg.
Our self-catering also included buying freshly caught fish from the fishermen, and serving them with local limes, or just as sashimi!
Lunchtimes we would get out of the water and walk straight to a local beach-side restaurant where lunch would be waiting for us, which would cost from $3-5USD, depending on what you wanted.
One of our favorite things to do in Roseau was to go to one of the coconut-men who would skilfully cut the tops off with a massive machete so we could drink the water, and then slice it open and make a spoon out of the husk, with which we could eat the flesh. This is good freediver nutrition!
We ate out at a couple of restaurants too. One was just around on the other side of the bay in Soufriere, called Coco Yeah, and served traditional Caribbean cuisine but with a more refined presentation, including local freshly caught fish. They were very accommodating to some of the hungry freediver’s requests for extra portions! We were also recommended a visit to Fusion, a restaurant in Roseau. Here you enter through a pretty bar, into a relaxed Caribbean–style fine dining restaurant, where we were very pleasantly surprised by delicious and well-prepared international cuisine.
Where to (Free)dive
We dived in Soufriere Bay, from Scott’s Head. Johnny Sunnex is the only person offering freediving in Dominica. Have a look at his website and check his calendar. You can also send him a message for more info, or to request bespoke training.
Where to Stay
For Johnny’s camps, he organizes accommodation close to the dive site with wonderful locals Randy and Edmay. Whilst living in London for 40 years, they built a house to return to when they retired. The ground floor of the large plot of land is made up of rooms and apartments, and a central living space and kitchen. Their home is completely separate on the top floor, but they are on hand for anything you need. The views over the bay are spectacular, and our hosts couldn’t have been kinder or more helpful. Rooms are large and have either en-suite bathrooms or a bathroom between two rooms. The rate is $50USD per night, and rooms can be shared. Any overflow of guests can be accommodated in neighboring houses.