It was early September and we were anchored 90 feet above a dive site named “Cathédrale” off the west coast of Mauritius. Our guide was Gérald Rambert, the Franco-Mauritian who literally wrote – and photographed – the book on sea life surrounding his island. He and his wife, Estelle, run Sun Divers, a small shop based out of one of the resorts in the small coastal town of Flic-en-Flac. Together, they make a photogenic couple, fit and tanned in their wetsuits, like a modern day Hans and Lotte Hass.
Even though we were parked almost directly on the Tropic of Capricorn, there was a chill in the offshore breeze; after all, it was winter in the southern hemisphere. I tucked my neoprene hood into the collar of my wetsuit and double-checked my life support system—full tank of air turned on, regulator working, buoyancy vest inflated, and weight belt secure. I activated my digital dive computer on my right wrist and on my left, I spun the bezel of my watch—the DOXA 50th Anniversary SUB 300 Professional—to align the zero marker with the oversized minute hand. Then I clutched my mask to my face and back-rolled off the gunwale into the Indian Ocean.
Though DOXA considers 1967 the official launch of the SUB 300, some early examples from 1966 and possibly even ’65 have surfaced among collectors. Regardless, the 50th Anniversary edition is modeled after these earliest watches and in a crowded market of vintage-inspired “heritage” watches, this one is perhaps the most faithful. To wear it, especially while diving, is to enter a sort of time warp, and glancing at my wrist underwater, I had to reassure myself that this was a modern, water-resistant timepiece and not a rare vintage collectible.
“Cathédrale” is aptly named. The dive site consists of towering rock formations with numerous caves and swim-throughs. Shafts of sunlight penetrate the chambers of these caves, like the dusty beams that pass through the stained glass windows of Notre Dame or St. Paul’s, giving a majestic atmosphere. Under the ledges lurk schools of colorful fish—orange squirrelfish, yellow goatfish, and the psychedelic lionfish. As we descended over an underwater cliff, a gash in the rock revealed a small cave. Gérald waved us over pointed inside, then backed away to allow a look. Inside were half a dozen whitetip reef sharks, their tails waving in the current and their gills pumping as they slept. Whitetips, unlike most other species, can remain motionless and still breathe by drawing water across their gills, rather than having to constantly swim. This suits them well, as they are nocturnal hunters that sleep by day and emerge at dusk to prowl for octopus and small fish. Though harmless to humans, a shark is a shark and I remembered Gérald’s advice and left ample clearance should one decide to wake up.
Mauritius is a magical place, even beyond its cave of sleeping sharks. Situated east of the African continent, it is nearly at the center of the Indian Ocean. Historically unpopulated by humans, it was first discovered by Dutch sailors, then colonized by the French, and finally wrestled away by the British, though it has kept its French language and unique culture. It is an island of extremes. At the south end, Le Morne Brabant rises dramatically like a mountain fortress; and indeed it was once the hideout of escaped slaves. The entire island is ringed by a coral reef that protects it from the sea’s fury and keeps out the bull and tiger sharks that have terrorized the beaches of neighboring Réunion. The island’s interior is a mix of sugarcane plantations, rocky volcanic peaks and jungle, from which giant fruit bats lift off in giant squadrons for nightly foraging. Mauritius is perhaps best known as the home of that famous cautionary symbol of extinction, the dodo, a large flightless bird that once was only found here before Europeans introduced invasive species that quickly decimated the population. But we came to dive and during our short stay, left the land behind for subaquatic exploration.
With the 50th Anniversary SUB 300, DOXA dusted off the original specification drawings of its earliest dive watch and duplicated its dimensions to the millimeter. The case is still 42.5 millimeters across but, like the original, is thinner than its descendants, at 13.4 mm tall. While viewed from the top it has a broad-shouldered chunkiness to the tonneau shape, in profile, it tapers down to an elegant curve that sits flat on the wrist. The solid steel caseback features the sailboat logo that once graced DOXA dive watches in the 1960s. For the commemorative watch, DOXA is building 300 of the orange dial Professional, 300 black-dial Sharkhunters, and 300 Searamblers with a silver dial, all faithful renditions of their historical prototypes.
While modern DOXAs all have retained a vintage look, what makes the 50th Anniversary SUB 300 so much more so is its distinctive dial. At 25.5 millimeters in diameter, it is tiny by modern standards, an appearance amplified by the distorting effect of the domed crystal. DOXA debated whether to stay entirely true to the original by fitting an acrylic crystal on the new watch but ultimately opted to use sapphire instead to ward off the inevitable scratching that would occur on a bubble crystal. Despite this concession to modernity, it is impossible to tell the difference. Acrylic usually has a soft, warmer look to it than glass or sapphire but somehow this one looks every bit like a 1960s plastic lens. It lends a nostalgic quaintness to the watch, enhanced by the delicate rounded font used on the dial. Surrounded by the broad case and polished steel bezel, the orange dial is quite small compared to other modern watches, like peering into a porthole at that iconic dial. And it makes all the difference, giving it the most faithful vintage flavor of any of the throwback divers on the market.
A dive watch must do one thing well—track elapsed time dependably under extreme conditions. There is little reason to fuss with complications or finely decorated movements in a true “tool” watch. DOXA has, since the SUB 300’s genesis, made use of sturdy, reliable ETA movements. In the 1960s, it was the ETA 2784 and for the 50th Anniversary SUB 300, that movement’s successor, the 2824-2, is used, but of the high grade chronometer grade, which keeps time accurately enough to perform celestial navigation in a pinch.
Other than the sapphire crystal, the only other modern concession on the 50th Anniversary SUB 300 is the bracelet. The original 1960s DOXAs came fitted with an intricate “beads of rice” style steel bracelet with two outer rows of conventional links flanking a center made up of crimped links that formed an almost chain-mail-like appearance. The new watch emulates the look of the vintage one but replaces the “beads of rice” with solid “rice beads” instead of crimped ones, a big upgrade in durability. Sadly missing though, are the expansion links and ratcheting clasp of the original, replaced with a more conventional fold-over closure with a dive suit extension. So perfectly replicated, however, are the case dimensions of the original SUB 300 that should you find a vintage DOXA bracelet, it fits the case perfectly, using the solid steel end-links of the new watch.
We left the sleeping sharks and cruised along the rock wall to a low overhang that hid the entrance to a larger cave. While only one diver at a time could fit into the opening, once inside the cave opened up to fit two or three divers. Our exhaled bubbles collected at the ceiling, eerily illuminated by my underwater torch. Eventually, those bubbles would find any possible crack in the rock and emerge in a steady trickle outside, evidence of our presence in this airless realm. The water inside the cave was noticeably warmer, perhaps fed by an underground spring. I examined the inside of the cave with the beam of my torch and then shut it off. The dial of the DOXA glowed bright green, the massive minute hand and sweep hand flag now carrying SuperLumiNova instead of the radioactive tritium found on the original. I followed the sliver of light from the bottom of the cave to find my way out, emerging into sun dappled water.
The SUB 300’s design cannot be described as beautiful or elegant in a conventional sense. If anything, it is a bit awkward, with the wide case, lopsided hands and garish dial. But its beauty is in its purposefulness, a relic from the years when watches were worn as instruments and designed as such. To wear a DOXA dive watch is as much a statement as would be wearing a depth gauge or strapping a knife to your leg, and if you do, you’d better have some stories to tell, like exploring caves of sleeping sharks.
Up from the cave, we followed Gérald single file through a narrow rock chimney to the top of the reef. At 35 feet, we lingered in the sunlight watching tiny fish flit in and out of the jagged orange fire coral. Then, as the bezel on the DOXA indicated, it was time to ascend, with a pause at 15 feet for a bit of decompression. As I hung there, neutrally buoyant, counting down my three minutes, a school of large pufferfish swam above, their awkward bodies and tiny fins belying their grace. Time was up. I rose towards the silhouette of the boat above me, breaking the surface into the brilliant tropical sun.
Base Camp Mauritius: Maradiva Resort Villas and Spa
There is some debate as to whether receiving a deep tissue massage after scuba diving increases your risk for decompression sickness since it wrings the nitrogen in your body into the bloodstream. So I was happy to hear Dr Sreeragh, the Ayurvedic doctor on staff at Maradiva Resort, recommend an “Abhyanga” massage, which is meant to promote relaxing and overall healing. The women performing the massage used long sweeping movements from shoulder to ankle, with ample oil selected expressly for me. Afterwards, I left feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, with no signs of the bends.
Maradiva () was our base camp during our time in Mauritius and was luxurious enough to make us feel guilty, though we soon got over it. The resort consists of a 27-hectare campus of private villas on the southwest coast of the island, near the small community of Flic-en-Flac. Each villa boasts an outdoor living space complete with plunge pool and small garden, and a large bedroom suite with indoor and outdoor showers. The private beach wraps around the coast, its lagoon ringed with a reef that keeps the sea at bay, and offers views of the Le Morne Brabant mountain, which rises dramatically at the island’s southern tip.
During our short visit in Mauritius, we fell into a loose routine—a dawn stroll down the beach from our villa to Maradiva’s Coast2Coast restaurant, where we filled up on strong coffee, omelets and Mauritian specialties like chilli bites and chutneys. Then it was off to Sun Divers at a neighboring beach for a morning of diving among the rocky caves offshore, before returning to Maradiva in time for an afternoon nap, an impromptu rum tasting, or an Ayurvedic massage at the spa.
Besides Coast2Coast, Maradiva also boasts two other restaurants – Cilantro and the Teppanyaki Counter – for Indo-Mauritian or Japanese, respectively. And on our last night, we ordered in, a huge spread of curries laid out in our villa, delivered piping hot.
Diving is an adventure, fraught with fickle weather, tricky currents, uncertain visibility, and lots of gear. So it’s always nice to have a base camp to return to recharge batteries, download photos, dry gear, all the while drinking a beer. We’ve had our share of accommodations, from spartan to comfortable, over the years but Maradiva Resort was by far the most luxurious. That twinge of guilt we felt leaving our new dive buddies behind to return to our villa passed as quickly as we downed our first Phoenix lager, and was long forgotten by the end of the Abhyanga massage.
Editor’s note: For more on the DOXA SUB 300 Professional and Jason’s time in magical Mauritius, stay tuned for the December print issues of Revolution.