Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Lawson Wood
DISCOVERED IN 1492 BY CHRISTOPHER Columbus, the Islands of the Bahamas are set astride the Tropic of Cancer and situated only 30 minutes’ flying time southeast of Florida. Originally called Bajamar (shallow seas) by Columbus, the name eventually changed to Bahama. It was made famous by the series of films based on Ian Flemming’s fictional hero James Bond, as most of the underwater action was filmed around the islands. The wrecks used as props lie around Nassau and some of the cavern locations are in the Exuma chain.
During the last Ice Age, the Bahamas were the top of a plateau more than 90m (300ft) above sea level. As the ice melted, the waters rose, submerging the plateau. Mostly just a few meters deep, the plateau is cut by a deep trench, called the Tongue of the Ocean, created by the upwards thrust of tectonic plates. Many of the shallow islands are riddled with caves filled with stalagmites and stalactites.
The Bahamas, although not located in the Caribbean Sea, are nevertheless associated with the Caribbean and are regarded as one of the top diving locations in the world and certainly the number one location where divers can be guaranteed action with sharks. Most people know the Bahamas by their respective tourist locations, yet they comprise more than 700 islands, 2500 small cays and are scattered over approximately 259,000 sq km (100,000 sq miles) of ocean. The larger islands of New Providence, Andros and Grand Bahama offer some of the most varied scuba diving in the Caribbean. However, it is the smaller islands to the south that are considered by many to have the best diving that the islands have to offer. This is for divers who enjoy vertical walls, challenging drift dives and even encounters with larger mammals - such as happens during the migration of the Humpback Whales from December through February. Because of the parallel formation of the reefs and the close proximity of each of the dive sites, the dive types are split into three different depth ranges to suit different standards of diver. Most diving is done as a twin-tank dive in the morning and a single-tank dive in the afternoon. This means that you will venture out on a boat for two dives leaving around 8:30 and returning around lunch time, with the deepest dive being the first dive of the day, followed quickly by a medium site and a shallow (or training) site in the afternoon.
THE NORTHERN ISLAND GROUPS
GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND
Grand Bahama has a mixed terrain with an ancient limestone rocky base and small rolling hills covered in scrubby vegetation. As you fly over the island, you are struck by the colour of the water, ranging from light turquoise to the near-black of the circular sinkholes inland to the green of the shallow grass beds dropping off to indigo off the wall, where most of the diving is done. The dive centres on Grand Bahama all operate along the same stretch of southern coastline and all the dive sites are protected by mooring buoys to prevent anchor damage.
Under these scrub-covered hills is one of the island’s greatest assets - huge subterranean sink wells, similar to the cenotes of the Yucatán in Mexico. These underground passageways are currently being explored and mapped by Rob Palmer’s Blue Holes Foundation, headed by his wife Stephanie Schwabe.
The reefs along the south shore of Grand Bahama Island are of a classic spur-and-groove formation - the result of wind and wave action over millennia. There is a secondary inner barrier reef, similar to the reef formations around Bermuda that protects the islands from the worst of the storms.
For experienced shark divers it is still possible to dive with tiger sharks without a cage from one live-aboard boat but some of the other operators condemn this practice.
One operator on Grand Bahama Island offers diving with tiger sharks from the safety of a cage at Tiger Beach 1 32km (20 miles) off the coast of West End. This operator uses a ‘hookah style’ air supply system where air is supplied form a compressor through a long hose to each diver so you do not have to be a certified diver to participate. By eliminating the need for air cylinders, it is easier to move about in a cage and to take photographs. The dive boats depart for Tiger Beach from the Marina at Old Bahama Bay Resort near West End, approximately 40km (25 miles) west of Freeport.
Social Feather Duster Worms (Bispira brunnea) are tiny fans which grow in clumps at the base of sea fans. They prefer shallow water for its bright sunlight and moving water.
Boulder Brain Corals (Colpophyllia natans), one of the main reef builders in the Bahamas, prefer cooler, nutrient-rich water.
The majority of the dives in Grand Bahama are just a short boat trip from the marina in Freeport. It is also from here that visitors can have real hands-on experience with a group of Bottlenose Dolphins. The Dolphin Dive 2enables you to dive with these masters of the sea in their open ocean environment.
There are several locations which offer interaction with a number of species of sharks. This type of ‘pay and display’ diving makes it possible for divers, for a little extra money, to sit back on the seabed and watch these maligned creatures being stroked and hand-fed. Essentially, these are spectator sports, with divers positioned in a semicircle and staying still while large groups of Caribbean Reef Sharks come in and take bait from the experienced shark wranglers dressed in chain mail suits.
A shark feed on Grand Bahama Island is often the first opportunity for many divers to witness these wild animals as they come in and take bait from experienced shark wranglers
There is a daily shark-feeding programme at the Hydro Lab (Shark Junction) 3 just 10 minutes’ boat ride from the dock. A detailed lecture is given before each trip and divers are made aware of the risks involved in hand-feeding large wild animals.
Bimini, referred to as the Gateway to the Bahamas, is just 79km (49 miles) east of Miami. Made up of two main islands, North and South Bimini, a few rocky cays and a large area of sand flats used by sports fishermen hunting bonefish. Little is known of Bimini’s early history and the Lucayan, Taino and Arawak Indians. There is an enduring myth about the discovery of an ancient underwater road, reputed to be from Atlantis, based on the column-like formations in 6m (20ft) of water, clearly discernible from the air. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon also sought the fountain of youth on South Bimini. The more worldly can visit Hemingway’s old haunt, The Complete Angler, in the capital, Alice Town, on North Bimini.
Much of the diving is done around the shallow inshore reefs and cays that are home to some of the largest schools of fish in the Bahamas, with sightings on every dive of reef sharks, Nurse Sharks and barracuda. Operators offer two exhilarating underwater experiences. Northwest of South Cat Cay, at the south end of the Bimini chain of islands, is Tuna Alley 4, which can be reached by boat only. It is exposed and tidal, with current. The Victories 5 is 3km (2 miles) south of Tuna Alley and you can expect surface surge and tidal current.
Of special interest to divers is the eastern seaboard of Andros, which has the third-longest barrier reef in the world, running parallel to the coast for 225km (140 miles). There is a massive, almost impenetrable inner barrier of Elkhorn Coral that takes the brunt of the bad weather and stormy seas. However, it is the outer edge of the wall that divers come to see. It drops 1800m (6000ft) into the Tongue of the Ocean with canyons, sand chutes, caves, caverns and blue holes.
Andros Island has the highest concentration of blue holes in the Bahamas. For the most part, these are gigantic circular depressions in the limestone matrix that lead to undersea caverns filled with stalactites and stalagmites. The Ocean Blue Hole 6 in North Andros is particularly well known. On entering the gloomy world of sulphurous water, tinged green, it is even possible for divers to smell this sulphur underwater, through their face masks. There are shallow blue holes within the inner barrier reef and deep sinkholes on the island, the majority of which are unexplored, with virtually all of them connecting. Due to the extreme conditions surrounding the exploration of these caverns, a number of divers have lost their lives over the years. It is imperative to receive instruction with qualified guides. Rob Palmer’s Blue Holes Foundation on Grand Bahama will be able to advise on any aspect of blue holes diving.
Small Hope Bay Lodge and Dive Resort just north of Fresh Creek has been at the forefront of blue hole exploration since 1960.
One of the more exciting and perhaps most serious dives is under the United States Naval Buoy 7, or DNM (Deployed Noise and Measurement Buoy), which is used for submarine tracking and exercises by NATO. The buoy is anchored to the seabed in 1800m (6000ft) of water and when you jump over the side of the dive boat, you know that it is a long way down. The attraction of the dive is not only the deep-water, open-ocean experience, but also the high probability of encounters with Silky Sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis). The naval buoy is 6m (20ft) in diameter and the flat underside has become overgrown with algae. This attracts pelagic fish which eat the algae, small organisms land there during the planktonic stages of their lives and are preyed upon by larger creatures and so on up the food chain until the sharks show up. The sharks are also attracted by the vibrations of the attaching cable as the current passes through this natural deep-water trench. This is a superb open-ocean encounter, but only for experienced divers.
NEW PROVIDENCE (NASSAU)
The diving along the south shore of New Providence Island is diverse. Apart from the huge number of wrecks, many of which have been used as Hollywood film props, the island offers the opportunity to dive with sharks under relatively controlled conditions - it is important to remember that these are wild animals, competitive, and at the top of the marine food chain.
The Bahamas became the diving world’s most important shark destination after lengthy habituation of large numbers of, primarily, Caribbean Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus perezi). While these sharks are the mainstay of the island’s diving industry, the wall dives are splendid because the edge of the continental shelf starts in quite shallow water, at around 12m (40ft). Therefore, unlike other areas of the Bahamas, it is not necessary to undertake a deep dive with limited time just to get to the edge of the wall for regular encounters with large schools of pelagic fish. Divers visit this 1800m (6000ft) drop-off every day of the year. The south shore was used as a film prop in the Flipper movie. There are drop-offs, an abundance of fish, and coral reefs littered with wrecks, many of which have been used as props in a number of James Bond movies.
The James Bond wrecks 8 south of Clifton Point, are close to shore, but can only reached by boat. The conditions are generally quite sheltered.
Longlure frogfish (Antennarius multiocellatus) are rendered almost invisible by their shape and coloration.
The Bahamas are renowned for the small schools of Grey Angelfish (Pomacanthus arcuatus), which inhabit the inner reefs.
Eleuthera, called Cigatoo by the locals, is now known as the birthplace of the Bahamas. Harbour Island, Brisland to the locals, is the oldest settlement and original capital of the Bahamas. Harbour Island was founded before the United States became a nation. Much of the diving and snorkelling takes place on the more exposed ocean side of the island and inside the protective barrier reef off the north of the island. This reef is 11km (7 miles) long and known as The Devil’s Backbone due to the jagged coral ridges that come close to the surface in many areas, and have been responsible for the destruction of many ships.
Travelling south down the island, the main settlement is Governor’s Harbour which has its own airstrip, a sheltered cove and a resort suitable for couples with children. In the extreme south of the island, off the vertical drop-offs south of Bannerman Town, is a reef that stretches southeast past Little San Salvador and then on to Cat Island. Little San Salvador has been sold to the Princess Cruise Line and casual visitors are discouraged. So live-aboard dive boats are the best way to dive these pristine reefs and walls.
Probably the best-known dive in the area is not really a dive as we know it, and there is little coral growth. Current Cut 9 is essentially a race along the seabed with a strong localized tidal current, with speeds reaching up to 19km/h (10 knots). Divers are dropped into the water at the peak of the tidal race about two and a half hours either side of high or low water. There are no corals between the two islands, but there are large numbers of fish, particularly those which like fast tidal streams such as Eagle Rays and Blacktip Reef Sharks. The current moves so fast, and the dive is so short, that divers take two or three exhilarating shots at the current.
Directly opposite George Town, the capital of the Exumas, is Stocking Island with an adjacent barrier reef which stretches over 7km (4 miles). The reefs are pristine, but relatively shallow and subject to autumn storms. However, the islands are better known for the sheltered diving in blue holes. Angelfish Blue Hole 10, in the shelter of Stocking Island, is a vertical shaft that drops to 29m (97ft) before branching off at right angles. Nearby is Mystery Cave 11with thousands of metres already explored underground. Crab Cay Blue Hole 12 starts in only 4m (13ft) of water. To the north of the island chain is the Exuma Land and Sea Park 13, set up by the Bahamas Government. Covering 285 sq km (110 sq miles), there are hectares (acres) of Staghorn and Elkhorn Coral, mangrove forests, which are essential fish nurseries, and numerous blue holes, caverns and caves. The northern islands of the sea park are bordered to the west by a shallow sandy bay where much bonefish-fishing and conch collecting is done. On the eastern shores, the edge of the continental shelf comes close to shore, offering spectacular, unspoiled diving only rarely visited by live-aboard dive boats.
THE SOUTHERN ISLANDS
Cat Island is midway down the Bahamas archipelago, northwest of San Salvador. It is 79km long (48 miles) and has been described as one of the most beautiful of the Bahamas, with the highest point in the chain at the Hermitage on Mount Alverina at 62m (206ft). This famous monastery was built by Father Jerome (John Hawes), an Anglican who converted to Roman Catholicism. The island probably received its present name from a contemporary of the infamous pirate Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach - Arthur Catt - who used the island as a staging post for his raids. It also has a large number of feral cats that were left when the Spaniards abandoned their settlements. One of the least dived areas in the Bahamas, the majority of the diving here is done along the south coast in Cutlass Bay, between Columbus Point in the east and Devil’s Point 14 in the west. The reef wall starts at only 15m (50ft) and plummets down with gullies, canyons, chimneys and swim-throughs. This is virgin territory at its best.
Located 320km (200 miles) east-southeast of Nassau and southeast of Cat Island, San Salvador is known as the original landfall of Christopher Columbus on 12 October 1492. Known as Guanahani by the Arawak Indians, the it is quite small at 20km (12 miles) long by 8km (5 miles) wide. Famous for its crystal clear and flat, calm waters, the walls are for the most part pristine and vertical. All dive sites have mooring buoys to prevent anchor damage. However, it is the outer vertical wall dives that are of greatest interest, with dives such as The Telephone Pole 15, Devil’s Claw 16 and Double Caves 17 offering outstanding scenic diving.
Most of the dives are 5-15 minutes south from Riding Rock Marina. On a couple of the sites you are greeted by gregarious Nassau Groupers (Epinephelus striatus). If you want a grouper in your face, this is the island. Well used to being handled, these fish are willing to pose for queuing pho to graphers. The dives on the outer and west-facing walls have huge sculpted sand chutes, caves and deep slashes in the reef, topped by elegant sea fans, all surrounded by masses of fish. The outer walls have hundreds of wire corals spiralling into the depths. Groups of Black Jacks (Caranx lugubris) mingle with Bermuda Chub (Kyphosus sectatrix). Keeping just out of arm’s length, they will accompany divers for most of the dive. This area is also home to whip coral shrimps. At Double Caves there are regular sightings of hammerhead sharks (honest!).
Located in the centre of the triangle created by Long Island to the west, Cat Island to the north and Rum Cay to the south, Conception Island 18 is uninhabited and has been declared a terrestrial and marine wildlife sanctuary by the Bahamas National Trust. The vertical walls plummet into the depths around the island and a number of turtles breed on the island.
Divers are now able to visit this remote island from Long Island. The trip takes between two and four hours, depending on the boat and weather conditions, rendering this an all-day expedition. Although the wall dives are deep, the reef edge is riddled with caverns and tunnels where silversides shoal in the summer months, buzzed by barracuda, jacks and tuna. Every sea fan appears to have Flamingo Tongue Snails (Cyphoma gibbosum) and tiny filefish hiding amid the sea plumes.
Located to the southeast of the Exuma Chain, Long Island is 106km (66 miles) long. The island’s 35 small communities are linked by the newly paved Queen’s Highway.
As far as diving on Long Island goes, the corals are not that good inshore. However, there is a splendid wreck, the Comberbach 19, which was a 30m (100ft) steel-hulled coastal freighter that plied its trade around the Exumas and Long Island. Intact and sitting upright, she was deliberately sunk as an artificial reef in the 1980s. Since then the ship has become home to large numbers of snappers, grunts and parrotfish which graze on the algae, corals and sponges that now completely cover the wreck. The engine room is accessible, as are the holds, the forward part of which has a wrecked Volkswagen van. Near the Comberbach are the remains of a yacht 20 that was destroyed during a recent hurricane. It too is slowly being claimed by the sea, with several species of algae, corals and hydroids attaching themselves to the hull.
The island has rolling hills, which drop into the exposed eastern side’s surf and on the west slopes down slowly to a massive shallow sandy bank that stretches over to the Exumas. Dean’s Blue Hole 21 on the Atlantic side of the island is on private ground, so access is limited, but it is spectacular if you do get the chance. The Big Green Hole 22 at Lochaber, south of Clarence Town, is worth a visit, if only for the beaches. In the south, there are several old churches that are worth exploring.
Long Island is more of a stopping-off point for diving Conception Island and the shark diving that originated here over 20 years ago.