A hand beckons and I swim closer. I don’t see anything at first but then, directly below us on the seabed, I catch sight of a huge patchwork shell. The little face attached to it is chewing slowly and steadily, too busy with its seaweed supper to pay attention to the interlopers overhead.
I become enraptured by the solitary green turtle, getting on with its reptilian business mere metres from where people are sunbathing and sipping drinks. Why aren’t they all out here, I wonder. Surely if they knew there were turtles, there would be no one left on the beach.
Taïna, my guide, gestures to where another turtle is grazing, and we float around for a few minutes, watching. Suddenly, a speckled flipper sweeps up in my peripheral vision, then a third creature glides through the water with more grace than one might expect of something so hefty. Instinctively, I reach out to touch it, but the animal propels itself deftly to the surface for a breath before retiring to the deep, distant darkness.
It’s hard to believe that just a few moments ago we were pulling up at Plage de Malendure, on the Caribbean coast of Basse-Terre, one of the two main islands of Guadeloupe. An overseas department of France, Guadeloupe remains little-known among non-Francophone travellers, but its combination of volcanic landscapes, lush rainforest and idyllic coastline has long tempted visitors to cross the Atlantic.
Among them was Jacques Cousteau, explorer, filmmaker and conservationist, after whom this marine reserve is named. Here, in the 1950s, Cousteau shot scenes for his film The Silent World, and today there’s a bust of him 40ft beneath the surface for scuba divers to spot — a little Easter Egg for scuba divers.
We, however, have chosen to snorkel. And this is the charm of the Jacques Cousteau Underwater Reserve; Guadeloupe does have more beautiful beaches — you only have to head a few miles north to find vast stretches of seemingly untouched white sand — but at Malendure you can wade into the water and be amid colourful corals within minutes. Having said that, the beach here is certainly no eyesore, with a smattering of colourful shacks housing beach bars and diving schools, and a fringe of palms screening the hills beyond. The curve of soft, dark sand betrays the island’s volcanicity; La Grande Soufrière (‘The Big Sulphurous One’) is still active, towering over the rainforest in southern Basse-Terre.
We leave the turtles’ feeding ground and swim to the end of the beach. Just under a mile offshore lie the tiny Pigeon Islands — the epicentre of the reserve — but we don’t need to go that far. Taïna, who’s half-French, half-Guadeloupean and has been coming here since she was a child, leads the way to a colourful reef she later tells me is called The Garden. In place of foliage are vibrant corals, dotted with sponges and urchins, and instead of bees and birds are fish of electric blue and neon yellow — though this analogy comes up short when I spot the frankly bizarre sea cucumbers, which are unlike anything on land, lounging benignly below.
I hold my breath for a few seconds to listen to the ocean. It’s not quite as silent as Cousteau’s film suggests; I can make out a distant, gentle trickling and a few soft creaks.
I’m tempted to linger, but it’s soon time to go. A short drive along the coast brings us to Bouillante, a town whose name translates, aptly, as ‘boiling’. Another symptom of the island’s geothermal activity, hot springs emerge in some surprising places around Basse-Terre — in this case, directly into the sea.
Hand-painted signs for ‘bains chauds’ lead us along a footpath to the spring; it’s encircled by a rock pool, a kind of natural hot tub. I slide in and gaze out over the Caribbean. There’s little sign anything is going on under the surface, but the tiny fish milling around are a reminder of the other world we’ve just left behind.
Western & Oriental has seven nights in Guadeloupe from £1,755 per person, flying from London City via Paris Orly, B&B accommodation and car hire. Guadeloupe Explor has day tours from £75 per person. westernoriental.com guadeloupe-explor.com
Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)