Water Gardens in a Pale Blue Sea
Under Sail in the Bahamas
Text and Photography by Walt Stearns
'That was so cool!' This excited interjection stopped me dead in my tracks as I took off my equipment. The four divers departing the water behind me were obviously jubilant about something they had seen, giving me reason to believe it was definitely different from anything I had encountered. The final dive of our last day around the Bimini chain had been on a nice small, shallow patch reef in 50 feet of water, featuring four large coral heads end to end, surrounded by a broad expanse of sand and eel grass. As prescribed by Captain Ron McCaslin, Quattro was a real producer of unique macro subjects. My prize find, less than four feet from the boat's anchor, was a three inch juvenile Jackknife decked out with a full dorsal fin streamer almost equal to his length. Still, the other divers' excitement caught my attention.
Questioning Dave, the divemaster on the Pirate's Lady, as he cleared the last rung of the ladder, I expected to hear about another encounter with a large Loggerhead Sea Turtle or a passing Hammerhead Shark, like those we had run across the previous day at the deep wall site, Nodules. His answer caused my jaw to drop.
A large Sawfish (Pristiophorus schroederi), between eight and nine feet long, had been discovered prowling the bottom. The divers had followed it closely for several minutes. I was in shock! This bizarre member of the shark clan, sporting a long bill lined on both sides with sharp spikes, is something you do not see every day on a shallow reef. The fish sport medieval looking weaponry, designed for swiping through schools of small fish in extremely poor visibility, effectively turning them into chopped sashimi. Sawfish normally dwell in the murky water around river mouths and saltwater estuaries from Florida Bay all the way up to Louisiana. But in The Bahamas, when it comes to the subject of witnessing unusual marine life, 'never rule out the improbable' even on sites that appear not the least unusual.
Encompassing a region almost equal in breadth to the state of Virginia, with 700 islands and cays dotted across it, The Bahamas is not only big, it is perhaps one of the most unique marine environments this side of the globe.
When the early Spanish explorers first wandered into The Bahamas, they encountered something they had never seen before: immense expanses of submerged shoals, averaging between 5 and 15 feet in depth. The very sight of these shallows stretching far into the horizon must have confounded these early adventurers. They called this new region, with its numerous islands, Bahia Mar--broad shallows. On a nautical chart, more than one-third of The Bahamas' range is part of the Great Bahama Banks.
Banks are one of the most productive biological replenishment zones in the tropics. Everything from lobsters and conch to snappers, groupers, sharks and rays are dependent upon the banks as a nursery ground. This might account for the Sawfish there and the schools of grunts and snappers as well.
Finding my way back to this inspiring region for a three day odyssey down the Bimini chain on board one of Blackbeard's Cruises vessels, was good for the soul. Besides its closeness to the U.S., a mere 58 miles east of Miami, Bimini is a fascinating region.
Fringing the western edge of the Grand Bahama Bank's massive expanse of shallows, this chain of tiny islands features the things serious divers desire most: striking drop-offs, shallow reefs and a few interesting wrecks endowed with a plethora of marine life. During the last couple of years, a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins and a pod of Spotted Dolphins have begun swimming with snorkelers in the shallows near North Bimini Island.
Enhancing Bimini's rich diversity of marine life is its proximity to the Gulf Stream. In addition to its massive northward flow, pushing warm water nearly the entire length of the American Eastern Seaboard, the stream also serves as a natural conduit for an impressive number of pelagics. Everything from migratory giants such as Humpback Whales and Sperm Whales to strange looking critters no bigger than a match head can be encountered in the stream. Some of the proof comes in the form of photographs that adorn the walls of The Compleat Angler bar on Bimini. Among the photos of big game bluewater sportfishermen is novelist Ernest Hemingway, pictured with a few of the huge marlin he caught there. This once favored corner of the world was turned into the setting for his last novel, Islands in the Stream; a romantic description I think still fits Bimini.
Butting up to the edge of the Florida Straits, with a starting depth of 70 feet, is one of Bimini's prime wall sites, Nodules. It is a series of huge, convoluted coral formations, bisected by short, narrow ravines to 120 feet. Below, the wall drops nearly vertically into the abyssal gloom. Breached by the Gulf Stream's flow, the site serves as a popular haunt to a broad assortment of both reef denizens, such as large groupers, jacks (Amber, Horse-eye and Yellow), sharks, sea turtles and Eagle Rays, and pelagics such as marlin, Sailfish, Wahoo and tuna. Often, this same current, besides providing some of the best visibility in the region (typically in the 110 foot plus range), can also make conditions highly conducive to drift diving. When the current heats up, expect to cover close to a mile during the dive.
Also catching a substantial part of the Gulf Stream's flow are Tuna Alley and Victory Reef. Running north to south, parallel to the edge of the Bimini wall near Cat Cay, these two dynamic sites feature a pronounced reef slope starting 45 feet from the surface and dropping to a broad sand valley 80 feet deep.
From the 1950s to the early I970s, fisherman knew these sites only as Tuna 'Alley. Between April and May back then, anglers often saw the Alley's clear waters turn black with giant Atlantic Bluefin Tuna weighing more than 1,000 pounds. Unfortunately, owing to the impact of commercial fishing, seeing even one or two during their annual migration has become a rarity.
|U.S. citizens entering The Bahamas should have either a current passport or a verified birth certificate with some form of photo ID such as a driver's license.
Even without the tuna, the Alley is a hangout for other predators, from large schools of jacks, snappers and grunts to large sharks, sea turtles, Eagle Rays and groupers. Giving both the Alley and Victory Reef drama are numerous 15 to 20 foot deep, winding ravines and arch-ways dropping down from the top of the slope all the way to the valley floor.
One of the great sites for shallow night dive adventures offers two wrecks, the Miami and the Rita. Lying in the middle of a 30 foot deep sand hole, the wrecks are the flattened remains of a barge and a tugboat. The scattered wreckage is a haven for all sorts of nocturnal fish, crabs and shrimp, as well as a bedding down place for one or two sea turtles.
I could easily go on and on about the Bimini chain, but then I'd be giving it all away. To really see and experience it, you just need to go there. When it comes to diving The Bahamas, Bimini, you might say, can be wonderfully predictable in its unpredictability.