Diving in the Bahamas

From the air, the archipelago of the Bahamas seems as ephemeral as cloud vapor — on the verge of dissolving and reforming again inside a vast turquoise swash of water. The first of these 700 islands and 2,500 small cays appears just 50 miles off the South Florida peninsula in an island chain that stretches all the way down to Great Inagua, not so very far from the tip of southeastern Cuba. Look closer and you'll see that this entire island-nation sits atop two vast limestone plateaus, sand-covered banks that rise from the abyssal sea floor, a mile or more below. Look closer still and you'll find islands edged with mangroves and white sand beaches, coconut palm, and willowy casuarina, all cooled by prevailing trade winds. Underwater you'll find a spectacular diversity that surprises even veteran divers, with both shallow and deep reefs, plunging walls, shipwrecks, symmetrical blue holes, and lots of megafauna — from dolphins to sharks.

Most visitors only know the Bahamas as Nassau-Paradise Island on New Providence, or Freeport-Lucaya on Grand Bahama, simply because these destinations have made themselves over to accommodate mainstream tourists via cruise-ship ports and fancy resorts, casinos, and international airports. Indeed, four-fifths of the population is centered here. However, travelers seeking less glitz and more solitude often find their way to the Out Islands, which includes all the rest of the Bahamas.

Islands in the Stream

For a sampler of underwater opportunities, begin your trip at Freeport, perched on the westerly tip of Grand Bahama Island where it is washed by the deep blue of the Gulf Stream. One of the most spectacular wrecks is found lying on its port side in 100 feet of water just offshore. Called Theo's, the wreck is a 230-foot freighter intentionally sunk in 1983 as an artificial reef. Huge predators like Atlantic amberjacks and horse-eye jacks patrol the wreck, and both spotted eels and morays hide in the crannies deeper inside.

Staged shark dives were also pioneered in the Bahamas, with divemasters chumming and sometimes even hand-feeding local gray and Caribbean reef sharks as divers watch from a safe spot on the bottom. Freeport and Nassau both have veteran operations, while Long Island to the southeast may be the granddaddy of this practice. Although disruptive to the sharks' natural feeding cycle, such dives do expose divers to the grace and wild beauty of this impressive predator — and the education may help build consensus for the protection of all sharks, which are diminishing worldwide because of heavy commercial fishing.

Make the transition from megacritter to megamyth by traveling to Andros, a scantily populated Out Island where an old Bahamian legend still has a monster called a Lusca hiding at the bottom of geological formations known as blue holes. Andros, largest of the Bahamian islands, perches on the westward edge of the Tongue of the Ocean, which has licked out a 6,000-foot-deep abyss in the Great Bahama Bank. The 40-by-104-mile island is scored with wild hog trails and dotted with limestone ruins of old Loyalist plantations and some dry caves named for the pirate Henry Morgan. Andros is also serrated by bonefish-rich bights and tidal flats and punctuated with at least 400 blue holes, only a fraction of which have been explored. Offshore are 120 miles of barrier reef, the third longest in the hemisphere. If your wall-diving skills are up to it, a dive anywhere off the reef's outer edge takes you soaring over the abyssal Tongue.

Continued In: Diving in the Bahamas - Part 2

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