Some of the biggest dive attractions in the Bahamas are shark dives, along with dolphin encounters, imposing wrecks and walls, blue holes and shallow reef dives. No, there are not more sharks in this country than anywhere else. Sharks, all 300 plus varieties, are pan-global. But the interaction between sharks and divers has been explored and developed here more than in any other destination on the planet. The island nation of the Bahamas has been called 'The shark diving capital of the world'--and this is in conjunction with many other fascinating oceanic adventures. This diversity is the essence of the Bahamas.
Bottlenose Dolphins vie for a diver's attention during UNEXSO's Dolphin Experience.
In fact, on my first trip to the Bahamas on a live-aboard dive vessel some dozen years ago, I had my first experience with dolphins, one that will never leave my memory. We were on White Sand Ridge, north of Grand Bahama and south of Walker’s Cay, with Atlantic Spotted Dolphins leaping next to the boat. Within the next hour, I accomplished three of my finest images ever. A pair of dolphins jumping in synch above the water, a pair of dolphins shadowing each other underwater and a pair of dolphins mating, one of the rarest shots possible. Was I good? Well....but it was more a matter of circumstance and opportunity than skill. The truth is you can travel the world for years and never have these moments thrust in your face.
Exploring the 25 islands, 650 cays (pronounced keys), 2,400 islets and 100,000 square miles of water that is the Bahamas is the work of a lifetime. For divers, the Bahamas encompass one of the broadest pools of potential blue thrills in the sea.
Dive operators in the Bahamas have developed one of the finest collections of shark dives available in the world. Over the past decade, we have seen many of the myths and misconceptions about sharks blown out of the water. No, they are not mindless killers. In fact, over a quarter million divers have slipped into the water with them with no negative incidents. We are simply not on their menu. Most shark attacks are directly connected to feeding activities. This is why spearfishermen carrying struggling fish are at risk but regular sport divers are seldom attacked.
Caribbean Reef Sharks buzz feeder, divers and photographers at Shark Junction.
Visiting divers have a variety of shark dive experiences and activities in which they can take part. You can simply take a passive role of watching as the sharks are fed or get right in the middle of the action, slipping on a chainmail suit and hand-feeding them yourself. It is up to you.
There are a variety of approaches to shark feeds. In Walker’s Cay and off Andros, for example, the feed is done with what is called a “chumsicle.” Masses of fish and heads are frozen in blocks of freshwater ice, anchored to the sea floor and suspended with a buoy. The sharks feed calmly on the melting chumsicle, while divers swim in their midst. The only time it starts to get frantic is at the end when the block has melted and begins to fragment.
Off Freeport and Nassau, the feeding is done either by hand or by polespear, with some operators utilizing chainmail arms and gloves, while others utilize full chainmail sharksuits. Off Long Island, they position divers in the water and simply toss in a bucket. This is closest you can get to a true feeding frenzy. No matter how it is done, it is a thrilling experience for visiting divers.
The sharks in attendance are largely Caribbean Reef or Nurse Sharks, though every once in a while there can be some surprises. Walker’s Cay, the northernmost island, sits on the edge of the Atlantic and gets the greatest number and type of sharks. Their feed is regularly attended by 100 to 200 sharks, Caribbean Reef, Blacktips, Lemons, Nurse and the occasional Tiger or Hammerhead. Other locations seem to get a dependable 30 to 40 sharks. Off Nassau, on the Tongue of the Ocean, the sharks gather so dependably one can swim with them even on a regular wall dive at Shark Wall, Shark Arena or Runway. They are simply meandering around and sometimes approach divers as if to ask, “Food? You got any food?”
Blue Hole lures divers to Long Island.
The Bahamas is an archipelago extending in a southeasterly direction from Florida, connecting with the Turks and Caicos and extending down a submerged mountain range to the remainder of the Caribbean islands. In the distant past, the islands of the Bahamas and the Florida peninsula were practically one piece of land with a deep saltwater river (the Straits of Florida/
Gulf Stream) running between them. Per-haps 10,000 years in the past, the levels of the seas were at least 300 to 400 feet lower than they are now.
Many of the islands of the Bahamas are arrayed around the edges of several platforms of pure limestone called the Banks. These massive formations are between three and a half and five miles thick. This base has been created by sediment deposited over the millennia.
Internally, the banks are honeycombed with tunnels and blue holes, the result of water flow and fluctuating water levels as well as carbolic action. Similar to inland sinkholes, blue holes were formed when the ceiling caved in, and many lead to caverns interconnecting the holes. A few blue holes even possess remnants of stalactites and stalagmites. While exploring these caverns and caves is beyond the scope of the average sport diver, diving in the open blue holes themselves allows for a fascinating glimpse into the inner geographic workings of the islands. Found throughout the Little Bahama Bank, the Great Bahama Bank and the Cay Sal Bank, they are accessed by numerous dive operators. Expect to find coral heads surrounding them and an abundance of fish, lobster, crabs and other invertebrates.
I don’t think there is a single diver who is not fascinated by dolphins. They are among the most charming and engaging animals in the ocean. Stories of their intelligence, their playfulness and their loyalty are rampant. Many people consider them to be potentially as smart as humans. In any case, the chance to get in the water with them is always thrilling.
In the Bahamas, dolphin encounters happen on a regular basis, both wild, chance encounters and well-organized encounters with captive animals. The most common encounters with wild dolphins in these waters is with the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin. These encounters happen in numerous areas. The most notable and dependable spots are on White Sand Ridge to the north of Grand Bahama on the west side of the Little Bahama Bank, off the north side of Bimini and to the south of the Bimini chain near Orange Cay. White Sand Ridge and Orange Cay are in the realm of live-aboard dive vessels. The Bimini dolphins are accessible to day boats from the island and the encounters have become somewhat predictable, though there are never guarantees with wild animals.
The Spotted Dolphins are somewhat smaller than Bottlenose Dolphins and can be very gregarious. When in the water with them, they tend to stay with the most entertaining snorkelers or divers. If you can freedive (the waters are only about 20 to 25 feet in depth), they will swim circles around you, mimicking your actions.
Another very popular dolphin encounter is available in Freeport, Grand Bahama. This is UNEXSO’s Dolphin Experience. The animals are captive Bottlenose Dolphins that live in Sanctuary Bay, a large inland bay connected to the ocean by a canal. There are more than a dozen animals, and the encounters happen in various fashions. It can be a simple “getting to know each other” encounter with the dolphins approaching guests standing on a slightly submerged platform, a snorkel with the dolphins in the bay or the ultimate, a snorkel or dive with a couple of the dolphins in the open ocean. UNEXSO is one of only two groups in the Caribbean doing open ocean encounters with captive dolphins. It is such a kick to be suspended in the ocean with two dolphins spinning around you, nuzzling you with their snouts and just having a great time playing. I consider this to be a must-do dive if you are visiting the island. A second dolphin encounter with Bottlenose Dolphins is available in Nassau at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island, where one can snorkel in an enclosed pen with several animals.
With a history of piracy, rum-running and wrecking (luring unsuspecting ships onto the reef for plunder), one would suspect wrecks to be a big part of the dive menu. You would be right. There are shipwrecks strewn throughout the islands. Some are historic wrecks, the victims of storms or other natural disasters, and some are artificial reefs, ships past their prime that have been intentionally placed on the ocean floor.
The greatest concentration of wrecks are found around Nassau/
New Providence. Nassau has been used for years as Hollywood’s favored oceanic studios due to the clear waters, the abundance of sites, the big animals and, of course, the wrecks. The list of movies shot here is far too long to go into. Suffice it to say there are many Bond movies and such huge hits as Jaws. Wrecks run the gamut from airplanes to freighters to huge tankers. This is not meant to exclude the other islands. Virtually every island in the country boasts some type of wreck and all are fascinating.
Within days of submersion these wrecks acquire resident populations of fish. Within months they start getting fuzzy with the beginnings of sponge and coral growth. Years later they have been transformed into true reefs as viable and brilliant as any natural coral reef. This patina of life, together with the strikingly noble lines of the ship, create imposing and thrilling images.
Walls and Reefs
This is the heart of Bahamas diving. As most of the islands are perched around the edge of the banks with intersecting deepwater trenches such as the Tongue of the Ocean, Exuma Sound and a number of others, wall diving is on everyone’s menu. To the southeast, many of the islands separate from the banks are the peaks of subsea mountains. Shallow reefs extend out from the shoreline to the edge of the walls allowing for any variety of dive profiles. These shallow reefs are thick with lush hard and soft coral growth and are home to a host of marine life.
If your love is sailing over the edge of a drop-off, it is difficult to beat the world-class walls off San Salvador, Conception Island, Cay Sal or the Tongue of the Ocean, accessed from the south side of New Providence or the east side of Andros.
If you prefer shallow, healthy reefs rich with hordes of schooling fish and invertebrates, this desire can be satisfied at almost any island on the Bahama Banks, especially the Exumas, Bimini, Long Island and Eleuthera. The fringing reefs of the Abacos offer extensive, interconnecting coral caverns replete with schools of baitfish.
There are so many islands and such a variety of diving available, it is beyond the scope of this article to deliver all the information. I suggest you contact the Bahamas Diving Association and request some of their highly informative print or digital materials. Also, if you would like to get a taste of what it is like being on the road diving, photographing and researching an article, join us on the web at www.skin-diver.com and click on the TV icon. There you will find a day by day, blow by blow account of our latest trip to the Bahamas.