Escape to the Exciting
Islands of the Bahamas
Adventure Diving Capital of the World
by Stephen Frink, May 1997
With 700 islands, 2,500 tiny cays and 100,000 square miles of surrounding ocean, the Islands of The Bahamas collectively comprise a massive scuba and snorkel paradise, with options as diverse as the country. You can enjoy a heart pounding, adrenaline pumping shark dive; have an up-close and personal encounter with dolphins; explore wrecks; or visit serene shallow reefs, teeming with marine life. All in all, I've found these islands justify a lifetime of exploration.
Grand Bahama: Grand Bahama is the fourth largest island in the country (after Andros, Eleuthera and Great Abaco) but it is the second most populous owing to the development in the Freeport/Lucaya area. Only 55 miles east of Palm Beach, Florida, the island is washed by the Gulf Stream along its western shore and protected by the shallow waters of the Great Bahama Bank along the east.
According to Fodor's Guide to the Bahamas, about one-third of the 3.5 million visitors who come to The Bahamas each year visit Freeport. 'They are drawn by two bustling casinos, a row of plush hotels offering close to 2,900 rooms, two large shopping complexes, and a variety of sports activities on land and sea.' There are golf courses, exceptionally beautiful sand beaches, fine dining, duty free shopping and a wonderful marina that hosts dozens of multi-million dollar yachts at any given time. The two casinos, the Princess and the Lucayan Beach, attract huge numbers of visitors but, for those with a more active recreational intent, tremendous dive and snorkel opportunities are available.
There is relatively minimal visitation to the West End of the island, probably owing to the lack of hotel infrastructure and longer rides to the dive sites. This part of the island is also exposed to the prevailing winds during the winter but, during the summer, is a great cruising ground for live-aboard dive boats. The big attraction is the resident pod of Spotted Dolphins at White Sand Ridge that for years have not only tolerated but seem to invite snorkelers into their midst. Scuba divers find the shallow Sugar Wreck an amazing dive during the day because of its huge schools of snappers and grunts. At night the Southern Stingrays and Loggerhead Turtles that take refuge amid the scattered wreckage are the main attraction. Oceanic pinnacles, such as the famed Mount Olympus, and dozens of dramatic mini-walls make the West End itinerary a Bahamas live-aboard icon.
Far greater Grand Bahama visitation occurs off Freeport, where the boat rides are short and the dive opportunities spectacular, although the three best dives exist with the help of local dive operators. Theo's Wreck is a 230 foot freighter, sunk intentionally in October of 1982. She settled on her side in 100 feet of water on a sand plateau near the wall. In her decade and a half on the bottom, Theo's has acquired lovely sponge encrustations. A large Green Moray, long fed by divemasters, often swims out to greet divers.
The Dolphin Dive provides divers with the rare (and reliable) opportunity to interact with a pair of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins in the open ocean. Part of UNEXSO's Dolphin Experience, which also includes educational programs in a specially constructed enclosure in nearby Sanctuary Bay, the dolphins are brought to a group of divers situated on a sandy bottom in 50 feet of water. The dolphins come very close to the divers, affording a wonderful chance for still or video images.
The other segment of the Freeport Big Three is the famed Shark Junction. Here as many as 30 Caribbean Reef Sharks swarm a shark feeder clad in chainmail. They swoop in dramatically, presenting cavernous maws and razor teeth as they compete for the baitfish. Local divemasters are able to pet and placate these predators to the extent that they rest in the feeder's arms like domestic lapdogs.
The unique natural attractions off Freeport include Ben's Cave, an inland blue hole featuring a scenic cavern and miles of submarine tunnels for those skilled in cave diving techniques. Elkhorn Corals delight snorkelers along Freeport's Shallow Reef and divers enjoy exploring the small tugboat Jose in 65 feet of water, as well as reef dives such as Pygmy Caves, Silverpoint Reef and Gold Rock.
New Providence: Most people wouldn't normally assume an island that is home to a city of 150,000 residents (Nassau) or one that hosts two million tourists a year would be one that offers world-class dive opportunities but New Providence does.
It should be no surprise that an island with such a rich history of shipping would have had pirates, contraband runners and island freighters run afoul of the extensive coral reefs surrounding it. Many of these derelicts now provide outstanding dive and snorkel sites. The Mahoney is a 212 foot steamship sunk near Nassau Harbour in a 1929 hurricane. While little superstructure remains, the scattered wreckage hosts clouds of grunts and Sergeant Majors. Other wrecks have been sunk more recently as dive attractions. In one unique area off Nassau, referred to as The Graveyard, four ships in the 95 to 150 foot range have been sunk so close together that all can be dived on a single tank of air. Reef divers and snorkelers visiting Nassau will certainly wish to visit Atholl Island, where years of fish feeding bring Yellowtails and Sergeant Majors reliably near. Farther east is the Lost Blue Hole, a circular depression in the 50 foot seafloor that is 100 feet across and 230 feet deep.
There is exceptional diving along the southwest side of the island as well. This has long been a favorite destination of Hollywood filmmakers and sport divers seeking clear water, reliable shark encounters, pristine shallow reefs, shipwrecks, excellent dive infrastructure and easy access.
There are several ships that have been sunk intentionally as dive attractions, including the Tears of Allah, a 100 foot freighter sunk for the James Bond classic Never Say Never Again, the 150 foot Willaurie, the 95 foot Sea Viking and, perhaps the most popular of the wrecks, the Bahama Mama. While all of the wrecks are in 45 to 65 foot depths and offer similar levels of encrustations, the Bahama Mama offers the best possibility of shark sightings.
Actually, shark diving is huge business for operators at the southwest end of New Providence. Between the Silky Sharks found near the offshore Deer Island Buoy (aka Shark Buoy) and the Caribbean Reef Sharks so reliably found at the Shark Runway, Shark Wall and Shark Arena, this may be the richest destination anywhere for shark photo ops.
Sharks and shipwrecks are reason enough to make New Providence a must-do destination but I also enjoy the exceptional wall diving along the Tongue of the Ocean at sites such as Razorback and Tunnel Wall. There is great beauty in the shallow reefs here as well, with both Southwest Reef and Goulding Cay offering inspirational vistas for both scuba and freediving enthusiasts. Pumpkin Patch is an example of a medium depth reef that is especially popular among fish ID enthusiasts.
The Out Islands: Of the 700 islands potentially large enough to support some level of habitation, only 30 actually do. That means there are essentially 28 Out Islands; by definition any of the islands other than Grand Bahama or New Providence. The major Out Islands are, alphabetically: Abaco, Andros, the Berry Islands, Bimini, Cat Island, Crooked Island, Eleuthera, Exuma, Harbour Island, Long Island, San Salvador and Spanish Wells. There is good to excellent diving and snorkeling off all of these islands, the following is but a brief overview.
The Abacos: The Abacos chain stretches 130 miles from Walker's Cay to Great Abaco. Marsh Harbour, on Great Abaco, is the third largest town in The Bahamas but the feeling is quaint and rustic rather than cosmopolitan. Scuba infrastructure is well developed at Walker's Cay, Green Turtle Cay, Spanish Cay and Great Abaco.
Many of the reefs throughout the Abacos are fairly shallow, often decorated with caves and crevices. There are inland and oceanic blue holes, shipwrecks and a terrific shark dive at Walker's Cay. At Marsh Harbour's Fowl Cay Land and Sea Preserve no fishing is allowed, resulting in impressive marine populations and particularly tame groupers. Cathedral is so named for the shafts of light that penetrate holes in the cavern ceiling and Maxi Cave Bay provides seasonal refuge for large schools of Silversides. Green Turtle Cay offers a dive called the Catacombs, which is penetrated by light beams and hosts Copper Sweepers and Silversides. Tarpon Reef is a lovely mini-wall made memorable by the almost certain appearance of a school of Tarpon. Pillar Coral abounds at the site appropriately named The Pillars but probably the most oft-requested dive site is not a reef at all but the remains of a Civil War gunboat named the San Jacinto, run aground here in 40 feet of water in 1865. Although years of wave action have flattened her superstructure, she hosts schooling fish and a couple of resident Green Morays.
Walker's Cay offers a variety of interesting reef dives, including Flower Gardens, noted for its resident Loggerhead; Pirate's Cathedral; and the fish feeding favorite known as White Hole. But now Walker's is internationally renowned for its Shark Rodeo, where, in only 35 feet of water, local divemasters have created one of the world's amazing shark feeds. Bits of fish are frozen in a large garbage can to form a chumsickle, which is suspended in midwater by an anchor and buoy system. Literally hundreds of sharks show up for this melee.
Andros: Andros is the largest island in The Bahamas but one of the least developed. The entire western shoreline, 120 miles, is barrier reef, plummeting to depths of more than 6,000 feet along the Tongue of the Ocean. There are plentiful shallow reefs to attract snorkelers, as well as inland and oceanic blue holes, walls and shipwrecks. Inauspicious in terms of superstructure, The Barge has nevertheless attracted a large resident grouper. A 345 foot tanker run aground in 1929, the Potomac is more impressive. Along the north end of the island, she is broken in two with the shallow portion partially exposed at low tide and the deeper section home to numerous Nurse Sharks and parrotfish. Wall dives begin at about 80 feet at sites such as Over the Wall and Black Forest, and are notable for prolific sponges, gorgonians and Black Corals.
The Berry Islands: This small chain of islands rests along the eastern edge of the Great Bahama Bank. Long popular with private yachtsmen and live-aboards, the Berries are noted for superb shallow Elkhorn reefs rimming scenic, uninhabited islands. Chub Cay has long been considered the Fishbowl of The Bahamas. Divers will find prolific reef creatures amid the 40 to 60 foot depth range.
Bimini: Bimini has long been revered for its dive opportunities but visitors now enjoy a mix of wild dolphin encounters as well. A pod of wild Spotted Dolphins (Stenella plagiodon); receptive to interaction with snorkelers; has been reliably encountered along a shallow sand flat not unlike the famed White Sand Ridge off the West End of Grand Bahama.
Divers still have the traditional Bimini favorites to enjoy, such as the incredible schools of reef tropicals at Rainbow Reef, the possible pelagic encounters at Victory Reef and Tuna Alley and shallow reefs such as Kinks and the Strip. Shipwreck enthusiasts will enjoy the Sapona, a cement Liberty ship still standing with much of her superstructure above the plimsoll mark; the Bimini Trader, a freighter resting upside down in 80 feet of water; and the Bimini Barge, an outstanding FAD (fish attracting device) that draws schools of Horse-eye Jacks, snappers, Barracuda and groupers.
Cat Island: In the southern Bahamas, Cat Island is home to a couple of small dive resorts and is also occasionally visited by a few live-aboards. However, these reefs have received minimal dive visitation and provide a wonderful enticement for scuba adventure. Near Columbus Point the odds of pelagic encounters are excellent. Dozens of wall dives, beginning in just 50 to 80 feet of water, feature rich wide angle potential.
Crooked Island: Just more than 400 residents occupy Crooked and nearby Acklins Islands and, although there is scheduled air service via Bahamasair, these are popular destinations for private pilots as well. Sportfishing is one attraction, as is diving sites such as the wall at Black Coral Forest and the unusual Haitian 44, featuring six separate pinnacles that can be visited on a single dive.
Eleuthera: Eleuthera is essentially three different dive destinations, Spanish Wells, Harbour Island and Eleuthera. While there are common features, such as miles of pristine and uncrowded beaches, friendly people and small, picturesque settlements dotted with pastel cottages, each is really quite different above and below the water. The chain is 100 miles long and supports three different airports (Governor's Harbour, Rock Sound and North Eleuthera). Decide in advance where you are going in Eleuthera and book your flight into the nearest airport to avoid a very expensive taxi ride.
In terms of underwater attractions, some of the highlights include the Train Wreck off Spanish Wells (the remains of a Civil War era locomotive being transported on a barge that sank), the Plateau (a site off Harbour Island with friendly groupers), the Arch (noted for its 60 foot wide coral archway) and, of course, the famed Current Cut. Here a channel only 100 feet wide funnels tidal currents at high velocity, making for a wild ride for scuba divers who are dropped at one end and picked up by the dive boat at the other.
The Exumas: While there is habitation on Great Exuma and Little Exuma (some 3,500 people reside here), many of the 365 isles of the Exumas are uninhabited. The 177 square mile Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park preserves much of the area from fishing, trapping and shells and coral collection. In place since 1958, the park really has done a great deal to enhance marine life and fish populations are much greater within its boundaries.
Angelfish Blue Hole, off George Town, Great Exuma, drops from 30 to 90 feet before entering a cave system best left to cave certified divers. However, the schooling fish and large angelfish that occupy the blue hole are quite special. The Mystery Blue Hole and Crab Cay Crevice are other shallow oceanic blue holes, while Dog and Puppy Reef is notable for its Pillar Corals. The Edwin Williams is a 95 foot former Bahamian Defense Force vessel now sitting perfectly upright in 55 feet of water off Highbourne Cay. For drift dive enthusiasts, the tidal flow off Wax Cay Cut propels divers past an incredibly scenic coral, sponge and gorgonian conglomeration. Shark enthusiasts will especially enjoy the high voltage Shark Encounter with Caribbean Reef and Nurse Sharks off Danger Cay.
Long Island: At 90 miles long and only four miles wide, this appropriately named island in the southern Bahamas features a mix of ironshore, idyllic beaches and scenic hillsides overlooking the blue Caribbean. Pioneer and innovator of Bahamas dive services, Stella Maris has an extensive resort development, complete with its own airport and marina. The dive sites are along both the east and west coasts and include Conception Island's pristine walls and shipwrecks.
Shark diving in The Bahamas began with Shark Reef more than two decades ago. It remains an adrenaline pumped dive when divemasters drop the bait bucket to the shallow reef and the feeding frenzy begins. Divers line up with their backs to the high profile corals and watch in awe as more than a dozen sharks make short work of the fish carcasses. At Grouper Village the frenzy is less extreme but still there are a half dozen or so semi-tame groupers that are quite happy to take a hand-out. The ultimate grouper encounter, however, is reserved for Grouper Valley, usually in November, when hundreds of groupers congregate for their annual spawn. The 103 foot freighter MS Comberbach adds yet another dimension to Long Island diving. This perfectly upright freighter rests in just 90 feet of water.
San Salvador: Off this sparsely populated island I have had some of the best visibility anywhere, with water color that strikes me as positively electric. While the broad sand beaches of the terrestrial portion are scenic, it is the underwater topography that is truly stunning.
San Salvador is wall diving at its best. While the ocean drops to depths of 13,000 feet, the top 120 feet are most notable for colorful tube sponges and Black Corals. At Telephone Pole, the wall starts at just 40 feet. Nassau Groupers are likely to follow you around like pet poodles. Other wall dives, such as Double Caves, Devil's Claw and Great Cut are perhaps even more impressive but there are options for shallow water enthusiasts as well. The 261 foot freighter Frascate lies scattered in just 20 feet of water, its massive boilers large enough to swallow a diver (or two). Stewpot and Snapshot Reef are two examples of shallow patch reefs that have traditionally excited U/W photographers.
Live-Aboard Diving: A diverse fleet of live-aboards operates in The Bahamas. Some cruise The Bahamas from South Florida ports, such as Miami Beach, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale or the Palm Beaches and some choose to depart Bahamian gateways such as Freeport or Nassau in order to reduce crossing time and extend their optimal diving range.
Because of the tremendous variety in potential dive sites, many of which are situated far from populated areas and airports, live-aboards have explored vast new vistas for recreational diving in The Bahamas. Places such as the Cay Sal Banks, White Sand Ridge with its Spotted Dolphins, much of the Exuma range, Little San Salvador, the Gingerbread Grounds and the wreck of the Hesperis, and a wide range of southern Bahamas sites such as Rum Cay, Conception Island and Hogsty Reef would be largely inaccessible to sport diving were it not for The Bahamas' fine fleet of live-aboards.