Rainbow Reefs of the Bahamas
Text and Photography by Rick Frehsee
I am standing barefoot on the deck of a sloop appropriately named Pirate's Lady. Its sleek white hull is cutting across what looks like a giant bowl of blue-green Jello--the shallow, amazingly clear waters of the Great Bahama Bank. A short time ago our group of now-salty divers surfaced from a site along Victory Reef, south of the Bimini chain--a dive loaded with fish on a reef as colorful as a painter's palette. Most of those on board agreed it was one of the best dives ever experienced. Now we are heading across the bank, just inside the chain of rocky, sandy, pine and palm clad islets that strings along the western edge of the great bank-our destination, the wreck of the Sapona. Reefs, wrecks, fish, turtles, rays, sharks, possibly dolphins, maybe even whales and who knows what else are the reality of sailing and diving the rainbow reefs of The Bahamas.
Such is life aboard one of Blackbeard's Cruises three, nearly identical 65 foot sloops that sail and dive their way through The Bahamas weekly.
Our outing emphasized the Bimini area and south, perhaps the most popular itinerary offered. Diving this section of the Great Bahama Bank is a complete diving experience and an eye-opener into what The Bahamas is all about. In the Western Hemisphere it is rare to find known sites that are still uncrowded and rarely dived. Yet here there is no waiting for a special dive site.
Out in front and close to Bimini are a series of middepth and deep reefs that feature fish life. We visited Moray Alley, a sand floor laced with coral spurs in 50 feet of water. Here we experienced a smorgasbord of reef and schooling fish, and encounters with stingrays and Hawksbill Turtles.
Off the north end of North Bimini is one of the most curious dive sites in the world: the controversial Bimini Road. Here, in only 20 feet of water, is a "highway" of huge square and rectangular rocks that appears to be manmade. After a psychic named Edgar Cayce predicted an outpost of the famed lost Kingdom of Atlantis would be found off Bimini, this site was discovered by investigators. Marine geologists studying the area offered a different interpretation-beach rock, a naturally occurring geological phenomenon that sections compact limestone into geometrically-shaped blocks. I once escorted a well-known movie company to the Bimini Road. The producer had been all over the world filming underwater sites that were possible remnants of Atlantean civilizations. His opinion was that the Bimini Road was the most visibly convincing of all the sites he had seen. Since then, I have accompanied several universities and many other film companies, including national Geographic and the Cousteau Society,to investigate the Bimini Road. Archaeology of nature? You can make up your own mind after you experience the dive.
The aforementioned Victory Reef area south of Bimini is an incredible bastion of coral that runs uninterrupted for nearly five miles. This, my personal favorite, is probably as great a dive area as you will experience in The Bahamas. We made several dives here; an entire week would not exhaust the opportunities for adventure and discovery. Here, like most of the dive sites that extend along the western fringe of the bank, the visibility was awesome. Individual sites include Blue Chromis, Rainbow Valley, Cathedral, Sponge Gardens and Tuna Alley--names that are derived from noted and/or consistent encounters these sites have produced. The general configuration of the Victories is a striated reef of high and mid-profile coral mounds parallel to the bank that begins in only 30 feet of water and tumbles or slopes to about 80 feet, where it levels off to a sand and coral talus plain. Constantly weaving through the coral mounds and pinnacles are caverns and swimthroughs laced with huge encrusting and tube shaped sponges and deep water seafans. Angelfish, groupers, Hogfish, parrotfish, snappers, grunts and wrasse flit about the reef like butterflies in a meadow. These reefs lie close to the blue-purple deep of the Gulf Stream, so we were delighted, if not surprised, to see Mackerel, Kingfish, Cobia, turtles and several big Barracuda.
If Victory Reef is not enough high energy diving, there is still more to come: a site called Bull Run is Blackbeard's shark encounter specialty dive. Divers usually fall into two categories--those who are dying to see a shark and those who think they will die if they do see one. The latter are definitely in the minority now that shark diving has been popularized around the world and especially here in The Bahamas. But if you haven't made a shark dive before, I dare you to be completely relaxed! If you can keep your concentration, you will realize this experience is part of your onboard continuing education. You will begin to appreciate the great banks of The Bahamas as a juvenile nursery-the base of the food pyramid for the patch and fringing reefs. From microscopic larval forms to minnows and from minnows to sharks, The Bahamas is a great big banquet of marine life.
The meal stops here, at Bull Run, where sharks gather in response to fish scraps offered by your shipboard divemaster/instructor. In this situation, these sharks are predictable. Caribbean Reef Sharks, the primary species at Bull Run, swam in and out of our group of divers, paying little attention to us but providing a close encounter we will never forget.
The subject and mood changed from sharks to the shipwrecked Sapona, a shallow dive on the bank south of Bimini. The Sapona lived several lives before it "died" here in 18 feet of water. Once a millionaire's yacht, then a rumrunner and then, after sinking at the present site, target practice for the U.S. Air Force--the Sapona has finally found peace as a dive site.
I found the wreck especially interesting for underwater photography; amidships inside the wreck are schools of snappers and grunts while at the stern the huge prop is positioned over the bottom.
After our late afternoon dive it was time to relax; cocktail hour on deck lighted by a sinking sun and then on to Bimini for a night of Bahamas style music and dance. Only a pirate could have this much fun.