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    Blue Holes, Sharks and Deep Wall
    Adventures in the Cay Sal Banks

    by Walt Stearns, Nov. 1997

    Pausing for a moment during my descent, I looked back to the upper rim of Little Hole. With the twin hulls of our dive vessel, the Bottom Time II, in clear view, I had to marvel at how much this blue hole's 200 foot wide circular opening reminded me of a monstrous well shaft. Some of these immense blue hole formations extend to depths of 300 feet or more, with a mouth spanning up to one-quarter mile across. When seen from above, they often appear deep blue against the sharp contrast of the surrounding shallows, hence the name blue hole.

    Dropping to a depth of 60 feet, the walls of Little Hole taper sharply inward some 50 to 60 feet, creating a pronounced ledge. At 120 feet, there are several stalactites, the largest measuring close to seven feet in length. Looking at these icicle-like structures in the blue gloom, it becomes clear this large cavern was once dry.

    Stalactites develop through an excruciatingly slow process of water seeping through the cavern's ceiling, leaving deposits of calcium carbonate in its wake. The last time this could have taken place was during our planet's ice age, 25,000 years ago, when sea levels were as much as 200 feet lower than today.

    Geologically, the origin of The Bahama range was a tectonic uplift several million years ago, forming, in theory, a huge singular island and/or subsea plateau. Over the course of several millenniums, which included four interglacial periods, this massive precipice succumbed to an extensive build-up of sediment layering and coralline growth and to a series of tectonic shifts forming colossal chasms splitting it into several segments.

    Following the earth's last ice age, this comprehensive mesa of karstic rock became submerged, forming broad, shallow water banks up to 100 square miles in size, with depths averaging less than 30 feet. The environment this unique geological occurrence created is known as a biological replenishment zone. Everything from the smallest reef fish and invertebrates to the tropical Atlantic's larger predators; groupers, jacks, sea turtles, rays, sharks and dolphins; comes here to feed, find a mate and/or give birth. The Great Bahama, Little Bahama and Cay Sal Banks constitute 85 percent of The Bahamas, which include 3,200 islands and cays stretching across 100,000 square miles of ocean.

    Formerly called Shark Hole, owing to its large population of Atlantic Sharpnose Sharks (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae), Little Hole bottoms out at around 250 feet. Clinging to the walls and sills in this realm of perpetual twilight, small, ghostly cream colored gorgonians, whip corals and sponges are found in abundance.

    Although centered between the Florida Keys, Cuba and the Grand Bahama Banks, the Cay Sal Banks feel isolated and remote. With barely enough land to make a seabird happy and no human habitation, the only way of reaching this area is by live-aboard.

    The Bottom Time II

    Since its launch in 1987, the Bottom Time II has earned an international reputation for safety, comfort, courteous service and, above all, its remote island itineraries. The Bottom Time II travels as far south as the Silver Banks (for the Humpback Whales in the winter) to the Little Bahama Banks, Bimini, Exumas and, of course, Cay Sal in the spring and summer.

    Measuring 90 feet in length with a 31 foot beam, the boat's triple deck configuration features a roomy, main deck with 14 air-conditioned cabins, seven shower/head compartments, E-6 photo lab and wide aft dive staging area with two swim platforms and ladders. There are four double bed cabins and 10 with twin bunks, all of which have their own sink.

    Since the Bottom Time II can produce 3,600 gallons of fresh water a day with its watermaker, taking a rinse after each dive is not a problem. The upper deck features the vessel's sundeck and air-conditioned dining salon and lounge, complete with TV, VCR and stereo.

    The flow of food is continuous. Every day, the BT II's chef serves excellent hot breakfasts, lunches, afternoon snacks and gourmet dinners with plenty of seconds, including tantalizing desserts.

    On the water, the Bottom Time II is fast and sleek. With its twin hull design and massive 1,300 hp Caterpillar diesels, BT II can cruise at 24 knots. The jump from Ft. Lauderdale to Cat Cay for customs took less than three hours. Following lunch that day we made a couple of dives in Bimini before heading to Cay Sal, where we arrived shortly after 10:00 pm.

    When it comes to diving, the Cay Sal Banks excel in two areas; blue holes and deep walls. Our first two days were spent exploring four of Cay Sal's dark and mysterious blue holes.

    Big Hole, a monstrous round pit one-quarter mile across, with a recorded depth of 300 feet, was a thrilling dive. After dropping over the edge of the rim (starting at 37 feet) we were greeted by several of the hole's overseers, three to five foot Caribbean Reef Sharks. The sharks; even without food; got up close and personal.

    Leaving the blue holes behind, we spent our final two days exploring Cay Sal's famous 100 fathom drop, adjacent to Double Shot and Elbow Cays.

    Washed by the Gulf Stream, underwater visibility along this stretch can range from good; 90 to 110 feet; to an exhilarating 150 plus. But, two things need to be considered: depth and current.

    Cay Sal drop-offs begin their descent to the abyss at about 80 feet, becoming vertical near 90 feet. Anyone who tells you the walls in The Bahamas are not as spectacular as those in the Cayman Islands or Belize has not been here! Throughout this mighty precipice are deep fissures, tunnels and archways, some of which drop past 150 feet. Intertwined with the reef's convoluted formations, tapestries of ornately colored sponges seem to glow against the inky dark void of the deep.

    Working with the Gulf Stream's never ending push north, dives are conducted as drifts, in a group, with a divemaster trailing a float.

    These drifts commonly yield impressive fishlife cruising the edge of the shelf. Besides the usual schools of small colorful reef fish, big critters also come calling. I have happened upon some of the largest Black Groupers I've ever laid eyes on. Other denizens include sharks, snappers, jacks, mackerel, tuna and billfish.

    The walls of Cay Sal Banks feature a species unique in the Caribbean, a true soft coral belonging to the order Alcyonacea, similar to those found in both the Red Sea and South Pacific. However, unlike its cousins, Neospongodes portoricensis (found in pastel shades of orange, yellow and pink) rarely reaches more than a few inches in height. Why this species of soft coral is found here and nowhere else in the Caribbean is a mystery. But then again, The Bahamas brim with a fair share of mysteries.

    After four days in the Cay Sal Banks, the Bottom Time II rounds off the week in the Bimini chain, making visits to sites such as Riding Rock Reef, the wreck of the Miami, Fisher's Reef (for a shark dive), Tuna Alley, Turtle Rocks and the Bimini Barge wreck, and then returns to Ft. Lauderdale. This impressive itinerary could not be accomplished by any other boat in the same span of time.

    For more information, Bottom Time Adventures can be reached at (800) 234-8464; fax (954) 920-5578.