The Bahamas From the inside out

Text and photograph by Bill Harrigan

Imagine island hopping The Bahamas, diving only the favorite spots of the most experienced divemasters. One dive after another of nothing but the best! What a trip that would be! We could start in the Abacos, then drop down to Nassau before crossing over to Eleuthera and swinging along the Exumas and around the southern Bahamas. Then it would be on to Andros, Bimini and Grand Bahama. At every stop we would dive those special places that have earned five stars, a big asterisk or a turned-down page in the logbooks of people who have seen it all.That’s the trip I pictured recently at the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) trade show in New Orleans when I looked down The Bahamas aisle and saw booth after booth of Bahamas dive operators and divemasters. These are the insiders of Bahama diving, a select group with a vast pool of knowledge about all the secret spots below the surface. This was the perfect chance to find out where to dive on a Bahamas dream trip, so I decided to ask each of them the same question, “Of all the dives you’ve made in The Bahamas, which one is your favorite?”

Purely to give our trip a logical itinerary, I started in the northern Bahamas, at the western edge of the Abacos, and traveled in a clockwise circle, ending up at Grand Bahama. This put Walker’s Cay in the lead off position, so I headed for Barry Albury, the assistant manager at Walker’s Cay Undersea Adventures.

“My favorite,” Barry said, “is definitely Shark Rodeo, held at a site we call Spiral Cavern. We’ve been doing Rodeo at Walker’s since 1979 and the dive just keeps getting better. We…gradually developed the current ‘chumsicle.’ This frozen treat keeps the sharks real happy without getting them too excited. Divers swim freely about during the dive; this lets everyone have a good look….after the Rodeo you have a great bond with sharks, a feeling of respect…”

About 60 miles east of Walker’s Cay, we come to Green Turtle Cay, home to some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. One of them is Brendal Stevens, owner of Brendal’s Dive Shop International.

“My favorite,” Brendal told me, “is a dive called Coral Caverns. It’s like an underwater Grand Canyon. The dive starts right at the surface among the elkhorn corals and drops down a sand channel that exits on the face of the wall at about 65 feet….what makes this dive so special, at least for me, is the fishlife. There’s a ton of grouper, including one 60 pound monster we call Goom Bay, who usually comes out to greet the divers. Spotted eagle rays are always in the area and we’ve even seen them mating on several occasions in the winter and spring. Big silver tarpon gather in schools along the canyon walls, feeding on the silversides in the summer….We often come across two or three reef sharks in the course of a dive here, too.”

Continuing to the east, we come to Marsh Harbor on Great Abaco, where Keith Rodgers owns and operates Dive Abaco.

Keith’s favorite dive is a dramatic spot called The Towers. “It’s a collection of four broad pinnacles,” he told me, “that rise up from the sand bottom at 60 feet to within 20 feet of the surface….A pair of pet groupers always greets us early in the dive and escorts us the rest of the way around the reef. In the summer, the caves are packed so full of silversides that it’s like swimming through some kind of living silver soup. All year long we see spotted eagle rays and sea turtles. Caribbean reef sharks are usually around too, since we have a feeding station not too far away.”

Ricardo Davis, a boat captain and divemaster at the Abaco Beach Dive Center also on Great Abaco, grew up in Marsh Harbour. Ricardo’s favorite is the wreck of the Deborah K., a 160 foot freighter sunk as an artificial reef in July 1997. The ship sits upright in about 120 feet of water with two masts extending upward to within 30 feet of the surface. “Photographers love this dive,” said Ricardo, “because the visibility is usually 75 to 100 feet and the current is rarely difficult. There are enough corals and sponges starting to grow on the hull to give it some color, but it still has a ghostly appearance that looks great in photos. The entire superstructure is intact, and there is easy access to the wheelhouse and crew quarters. The big propeller, which is missing one blade, is still attached to the ship, hanging clear of the bottom between the hull and rudder.”

Our next stop is Nassau’s Bahama Divers, in the heart of town, just across from Paradise Island. Abaco born Leroy Lowe joined Bahama Divers in 1978 and spent the next 12 years running boats and making three dives a day before becoming the managing director.

“I dived the Lost Blue Hole for the first time around 1982,” Leroy said, “and it has always been my favorite. There is a special magic to the place, maybe because it is so different from any other dive. You just never know what you’re going to see inside….The top of the hole is at 35 feet, surrounded by sand dotted with numerous coral heads. Stingrays can always be found sleeping in the sand or searching for food…. The hole itself is more than 200 feet in diameter and 200 feet deep. A series of ledges start around 60 feet down and at 70 feet there are some interesting caves that extend back 25 or 30 feet into the wall. Sharks seem to be attracted to Lost Blue Hole, and several species may turn up on any particular day.”

On the other side of New Providence we meet a dive instructor from the other side of the world, Junko Yamaguchi of Stuart Cove’s Dive South Ocean. Her favorite is Shark Wall.

“The clear blue water really gives you the feeling of flying here,” June told me, “and the wall is filled with color. It’s a lively, dynamic place with bold purple tube sponges, bright green sponges, swaying soft corals and mounds of beautiful star and brain corals. Tiger and nassau groupers will swim right up to you…. And, of course, there are the sharks. They are fed not far from here, so we always find them cruising the wall….”

Bahamian born Derek Tozer grew up in England, but returned to the islands 12 years ago to pursue a career as an instructor and shark feeder at Nassau Scuba Centre.

Coral reef“My favorite is the Shark Suit Adventure,” Derek said. “This is a two-tank dive we started two years ago….The first dive is a training dive, to get accustomed to the [chain mail shark] suit. On the second dive, the diver gets to feed the sharks with a pole spear and assist me while I hand feed them. I love to see the initial fear and uncertainty people feel…give way to exhilaration….There’s no other way to get so close and to interact with so many sharks.”

From Nassau we head northeast to meet Richard Rowe of Valentine’s Dive Center, on Harbour Island.

Richard’s all time favorite is White Hole, a superb section of reef at the northern end of Eleuthera. “White Hole gets its name from the extreme whiteness of the sand that surrounds the big coral heads,” he said. “The depth is only 50 feet and the whole reef is bright and colorful because of the clear water and reflected sunlight. The coral heads rise 10 or 12 feet from the bottom, providing lots of habitat for fish….we also see larger animals like spotted eagle rays, hawksbill turtles and Caribbean reef sharks, too. Several really nice swim-throughs provide a bit of navigational challenge, but this is an easy, relaxing dive. There is almost never any current and the surface conditions are generally calm. I think it’s the most enjoyable dive in The Bahamas.”

In the five years that Mark Bailey has been with Blackbeard’s Cruises, he has seen a lot of the beautiful underside of The Bahamas. As captain of Blackbeard’s live-aboard catamaran, Cat Ppalu, he has the chance to see the truly superb dive spots. His favorite is Dog Rocks Wall, on the northern end of the Exuma island chain.

“The dive starts at 35 feet” he said “descending through a maze of coral with many cuts. The wall starts at 85 feet near the spot where a pinnacle rises adjacent to the wall. As you swim south along the wall you come to a large swim-through lined with sponges and swarming with silversides. The light streaming in from above gives the effect of the sun coming through the stained glass windows of a church….The life here is incredible. You can see everything from big spotted eagle rays to tiny regal sea goddess nudibranchs.”

The island of San Salvador, thought to be Columbus’ first landfall in the New World, is our next stop. Chris McLaughlin, the dive operations and photo manager at Riding Rock Inn Resort and Marina chose Telephone Pole as his favorite.

“The visibility is so good that it’s easy to see everything. There is an humongous purple gorgonian nearby that has been photographed so many times it has become a signature of the site….To the right, the wall gives way to a huge sand slope, to the left is a long stretch of lovely wall to explore. Everyone sees something different on this dive, from scalloped hammerheads and hawksbill turtles to nudibranchs and lobsters.”

Far from the lights of any big city, near Conception Island, we hook up with Kristen Zirkle, the second captain and dive instructor aboard the liveaboard Bottom Time IL According to Kristen (“Kaz”), nothing beats Anchor Wall off Conception Island.

“This is one of the deeper walls” she said, “starting around 75 feet and dropping off into infinity….The visibility is always great so you get the feeling of flying through narrow mountain passes. The wall is packed with corals and sponges. I try to keep an eye out to the blue side, because that’s where the sharks and eagle rays go swimming past. The name of the dive comes from the anchor that is encrusted into the coral near the top of the wall”.

Stella Maris Resort on Long Island, founded 30 years ago by Joerg Friese and his partners, is a place for divers who appreciate the natural beauty of the islands. Joerg’s favorite is Lighthouse Point Wall at Conception Island.

“We usually see three to five sharks at a time here;’ said Joerg, “and two or three turtles. We always see southern stingrays, spotted eagle rays, and schools of barracuda and blue parrotfish. At least once a year during the last six years our divers have had the great pleasure of diving with whale sharks here …. Lighthouse Point Wall is a special place because of its unspoiled coral and sponges….”

Heading west and north, we continue to the Exumas, stopping at George Town on Great Exuma to dive with Johnny and Connie Dey, owners of the Exuma Dive Center. Johnny’s favorite is a place simply called The Wall. “This dive is only six miles from the shop” Johnny said, “and the visibility is forever. The top of the reef is about 80 feet down and the wall drops from there to about 6,000 feet in one big step. At about 100 feet, the face of the wall has caverns you can drive a truck through, and we always encounter interesting animals around them–sharks, mantas, morays, jewfish and, sometimesú bull sharks resting on the bottom…”

Small Hope Bay Lodge is on Andros Island, the largest Bahamian island. This is where we’d find Mike Hornby, a dive instructor. His favorite is Church Windows.

“This is an extended range dive,” he said, “where the wall starts at ll0 feet. It’s on the Tongue of the Ocean where the maximum depth is about 6,000 feet. This is a decompression dive, descending to a large coral head at 90 feet. From there a line is followed over the wall to a large horizontal opening at 225 feet. The cavern is lined with black corals and crinoids and is normally filled with silversides. A vertical shaft of light cuts through the cavern, imparting the feel of a great cathedral”

South Bimini is the home of Scuba Bimini Dive Center and Hyram Rolle, our guide for this dive.

Hyram’s favorite dive is a drift dive at the Continental Shelf. Only a half mile from South Bimini, this dive takes place along the edge of the Gulf Stream. “The lip of the continental shelf is 135 to 140 feet deep here,’ said Hyram, “and this unique dive lets us get a rare look at it. We do this one as a six minute dive at 130 feet with a five minute safety stop. We take a maximum of eight divers and we put a weighted line down to 130 feet with space for everyone to hang on. Once you’re down riding the Stream, you see daylight on the land side and blue night on the water side. It’s like being on the edge of the world. We see… marlin, hammerheads and jewfish”

Hopping across to North Bimini we come to Bimini Undersea and Melanie Philippi. She picks Tuna Alley off nearby Cat Cay.

“The wall at Tuna Alley has a great profile for divers. Depth ranges from 40 to 100 feet, and the wall runs generally south to north with [many] gullies and cuts running east-west. The corals thrive here, with large areas of pristine finger corals, big star coral heads, and delicate antler corals. Photographers love it. For macro or wide-angle, there are lots of subjects.”

Working our way northward again, we arrive at Freeport and Port Lucaya on Grand Bahama Island, home of the Underwater Explorers Society, better known as UNEXSO. Jason Carey, the diving supervisor, picked Theo’s Wreck, “…because it has everything all in one place. And it’s not only excellent during the day, it’s a phenomenal night dive. The ship is a 230 foot long freighter, sunk in 1982. It came to rest on the port side in 100 feet of water near the drop-off. There are two interesting penetrations: the main cargo hold and the engine room. The wreck is overgrown with encrusting corals and sponges, [which] attracts a great deal of fish life. Anything from sharks to eels could show up, you never know what you’ll see.”

Douglas Long, dive instructor and shark feeder for Xanadu Undersea Adventures, chose Shark Alley.

“You can’t find a better opportunity anywhere in the world to see sharks close up in the wild. The dive takes place in an area where the sand bottom is only 45 feet deep and the visibility is excellent. I get to hand feed the sharks while our divers kneel on the sand about 10 feet away….I can often put [a shark] into a sleep-like state by stroking its head. It’s only one of the many facets of shark behavior you can witness at Shark Alley.”

Live-aboard dive boats such as Nekton Pilot can take you to the far corners of The Bahamas, including spots such as Mount Olympus. This is the favorite dive of Kevin Cooper, Nekton Pilot’s activities director.

“Drop into the water at Mount Olympus;’ he told me, “and you’ll see three extremely large mounds of coral that rise up from the bottom at 100 feet to within 60 feet of the surface. The mounds are always surrounded by clouds of reef fish and pelagics, including big amberjacks, black groupers, horse-eye jacks and spotted eagle rays. The tops of the mounds are covered with healthy hard corals, and it’s sponge city on the sides….”

Lining up all of these dives on one grand trip would be phenomenal, but it’s unlikely because of the distances involved. It is easy to forget that The Bahamas include nearly 700 islands scattered across a blue stretch of water about the size of Connecticut. They range in size from very large islands to rocks with standing room for one person. The nice thing about these dives, though, is that they represent a handful of plums from a whole plum tree. No matter which island group you choose for your dive trip, you’ll probably be able to make one or two of these, plus many other great dives.