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For a Bahamas dive destination, San Salvador is certainly different. Unlike the majority of subsea plateaus that dominate the Bahamian archipelago, the 12 by 5 mile island of San Sal stands alone, a remnant of a submerged mountain peak rising from the extreme depths of 11,000 feet. San Sal also holds a special place in history; many consider it Columbus’ first landfall in his momentous discovery of the New World in 1492. San Salvador’s greatest claim to fame is its wonderful wall diving and diver friendly marine life.
In addition to dazzling underwater clarity, often exceeding 150 feet, the groupers here are incredibly friendly, the sea turtles are laidback and the Barracuda, well, they’re just big! Throw in a few sightings of Hammerheads and you have a fairly complete picture of San Sal.
Riding Rock Inn and Marina
Providing access to this marine splendor is San Sal’s oldest dive establishment (built in 1976), the Riding Rock Inn Resort and Marina. Casual in setting and atmosphere, the entire resort and marina grounds line a 500 yard, west facing stretch of beachfront south of Riding Rock Point. The name Riding Rock was acquired from the point’s natural accumulation of large rocks. Overlooking the point and beach is the resort clubhouse, featuring the front desk, management nerve center, Drift Wood Bar and dining room (serving an excellent combination of American and Bahamian cuisine), all of which opens out onto a large, wooden deck veranda.
Under the ownership of Bahamian businessman James Carter Williams for the past six years, Riding Rock treats its guests with ‘home away from home’ attention. Upon arrival, they are greeted with a welcome rum punch before departing to the resort. After clearing customs, luggage is gathered and automatically delivered to each guest’s room. The following morning, dive gear is picked up outside each room and taken to the dive center.
Guest lodgings start with 18 deluxe units in the two story complex overlooking both the pool and private beach. Inside, each unit has two double beds, telephones, color satellite TV and mini refrigerator; rooms on both floors have a direct view of the beach. Next door, toward the clubhouse, one of the resort’s original, single story complexes was recently renovated. In addition to new roof and interior, the building now has new standard units facing the pool, with three more deluxe models overlooking the beach.
Slightly smaller than the deluxe models, each standard unit comes with a double and twin bed, air-conditioning, ceiling fans, satellite TV and private bath. Similar to the deluxe units in the two story building, the one floor models have all the creature comforts; air-conditioning, mini refrigerator, etc., and sliding glass doors facing the ocean. The newer deluxe units feature queen sized beds.
Following the walkway toward the marina are the property’s six, fully furnished beachfront cottages; three of which are available for rental. Just beyond the tennis courts is Riding Rock’s Scuba Center, Guanahani Dive Ltd., run by Riding Rock’s veteran guide and scuba instructor, Kevin Collins.
For a small dive operation, Guanahani Divers has things well covered with a fleet of three, large dedicated dive boats. Measuring 40 feet in length and powered by twin diesels, the fleet’s complement includes the Guanahani I and II and the newest addition, the Guanahani III.
What makes Guanahani III special, besides her large protective overhead covering (a portion is a sundeck), is her speed; she is the fastest of the three (powered by twin 375 hp diesels), able to reach the prime sites in French Bay in one-third of the time. Also, this boat features a medium sized camera table and extra-wide swim platform. Similar to the older boats, the Guanahani III has plenty of deck space to comfortably handle 25 divers. However, Guanahani Divers prefers to carry no more than 16 divers.
To facilitate U/W photo services, Guanahani Divers Photo Center features everything to help make great images happen. Managed by U/W photo pro, Chris McLaughlin, the center is outfitted with a series of large work benches, charging stations and light tables. In addition to providing daily E-6 processing and equipment rentals, Chris is there to lend his expertise in underwater photo instruction with Nikonos or housed cameras; he can also shoot your diving adventure on video. For entertainment before dinner, videos from the day’s dives are previewed at the Drift Wood Bar. Following dinner a few evenings a week, Chris orchestrates a variety of slide shows at the photo center.
San Sal’s Wall Dives
One of the reasons for San Sal’s great diving is its abundance of wall sites. They invite exploration along both the western and southern shelves. When it comes to these wondrously entertaining dives, several of the dramatic drop-offs in the French Bay area are considered some of the best of The Bahamas. In San Sal’s strikingly lucid waters, filled with lush communities of coral, colorful sponges and a plenitude of fishlife, the walls remind me of Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Wall.
Sites such as Black Forest, Doctor John and Double Caves commence their dramatic drop from depths as shallow as 45 to 36 feet. Descending virtually straight down to a second, shallow sloping shelf at 150 to 170 feet before dropping into the abyss, the walls are packed with deep water gorgonians, Giant Barrel, Orange Elephant Ear and various Rope Sponges. Double Caves is a two tunnel system starting inshore and running parallel to the reef’s exiting on the wall at 111 feet.
Around Sandy Point, some sites such as Great Cut, Gardener’s and Devil’s Claw might be lacking in colorful tapestry but make up for it in drama. On Great Cut, the top of the wall starts at 60 feet, with a vertical descent to 165. There, a second, massive ridge of coral rises to a depth of 80 feet and reconnects with the main wall at one end. When weather permits, which is usually spring through early fall, Guanahani Divers uses this area for first and sometimes second dives in the morning.
One of the perks of diving with Guanahani Dive Ltd., other than its non-congested boats, is the emphases on computer diving. The divemasters simply ask divers to stay above 130 feet, don’t make decompression dives, stay with a buddy and off the coral, perform the proper safety stop at 15 feet and return with 500 psi. On board the boats you’ll only have to keep track of your wetsuit, mask and fins, the dive staff handles the rest. When you’re ready the staff will settle you into your gear and help you off the swim platform.
Farther up, off of the western, leeward side of the island and 10 to 15 minutes from the dock, are several fishy sites. Normally reserved for the second wall dive of the morning and/or afternoon wall/reef trips, sites include Hamlet Hole, Shangri-La, Vicki’s, Turtle Alley, Grouper Gully and Telephone Pole. Along this leeward stretch, the upper crest of the wall is met by a broad plain of brilliant white sand at 45 feet. Back over the edge, the reef’s western facing drop descends to a narrow lip at 150 feet. Along this tract the grades can vary from steep sandy slopes with scattered, 10 to 12 foot high, nob shaped coral formations to almost vertical profiles with narrow protuberances or clefts in their jagged fronts.
Telephone Pole is named for a large telephone pole half buried in the sand at the entrance to a 90 deep foot ravine that passes through the crest of the reef. There are several Nassau Groupers here that take great pride in getting underfoot and make great live photo props for your dive buddy. In addition to the groupers, a pair of large Barracuda also make frequent visits; don’t be too surprised to find one a foot or two in front of your face.
In addition to the groupers, a broad assortment of inhabitants include various angelfish, wrasses, damselfish, butterflyfish and sea turtles.
San Sal is also home port to a relatively abundant population of Hammerhead Sharks. Most prevalent are the Scalloped, Sphyrna lewini, which grow to a maximum of eight to nine feet. The same species is known to school in large aggregations (often numbering from 100 to 500) in the Eastern Pacific. Similar to their Pacific Ocean kin, the Scalloped Hammerheads of San Sal do occasionally school in groups of 8 to 30. They can be found along the edge of the reef’s drop-off at depths between 70 and 150 feet, particularly from winter to early spring. San Sal is still the only place on record in the Atlantic or Caribbean to feature this unique phenomenon. During a week’s stay, it is considered rare for guests not to see a few of these T-headed rogues passing by. Presently, the most consistent sightings occur from the tip of Sandy Point to Telephone Pole/Turtle Alley.
Besides the diving, San Sal is a neat little island with miles of some of the most beautiful, deserted beaches in The Bahamas. Worth visiting is the Dickson Hill Lighthouse, built in the early 1800s and in its original, operating condition, and the ruins of the colonial plantations. The staff at Riding Rock Inn is more than happy to set up a short tour or you can grab one of the inn’s bicycles and do your own exploring. With the great diving, friendly staff, good food and casual, tropical setting of Riding Rock Inn, San Sal, the only difficult part of the trip is knowing you have to go home.