The Bahamas offers visiting divers a heady cocktail of luxury and excitement, but do its shallow reefs have enough variety to justify a liveaboard cruise? Paul Critcher reports from the Exuma Cays
The reefscapes of the Bahamas is no doubt one of the most impressive in the world. The underwater walls, canyons and pinnacles are overgrown with lush coral of all shapes and sizes from fragile red gorgonians to the solid brownish branched of elkhorn coral and boulder-like brain coral.
Fancy living the dream? Sleek yachts, tropical beaches, luxury hotels, casinos and sharks in perfectly clear water? The Bahamas has it all, combining all the adventure of tropical diving with all the comforts and luxuries you could ever dream of.
Straddling the area running to the east of Miami down to the northeast of Cuba, the 700 or so islands of the Bahamas act as an exquisite bridge between the developed coastline of Florida and the heart of the Caribbean. And I think it’s fair to say that the Bahamas encompasses the best of both worlds. The country’s proximity to the USA – flights from Miami to the Bahamian capital of Nassau take less than an hour – means that large numbers of Americans visit the islands, bringing with them high expectations of customer service and top-quality food and accommodation, which the Bahamas delivers in style. Combine that with pristine islands that are well protected environmentally, aquamarine waters to die for and truly friendly locals, and you have a winning combination.
The attraction of Bahamian diving lies in its variety: you get some amazing shark encounters, some good-quality reefs, and the interesting topography of the swim-throughs and walls. However, as with the rest of the Caribbean, you don’t get the large schools of fish that you find in the Indo-Pacific, so if you just want to count fish, this might not be the place for you.
A visit to the Bahamas is about the overall quality of the experience – everything from the expertly mixed rum cocktails to the perfectly organised shark feeds. With so much choice and so much to see in the Bahamas, this feature will focus specifically on the islands of the Exuma Cays, starting at the capital Nassau on New Providence and moving down through the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park by liveaboard.
New Providence and Paradise Island I’ve always imagined an ideal version of the Caribbean. It’s a Caribbean formed from James Bond movies and comprising classic white-sand beaches, aquamarine waters, bustling towns and friendly locals. It’s the Bahamas in which a suave Roger Moore would breeze out of the airport in a safari suit and step straight into a chauffeur-driven car to be whisked off to an amazing beachside hotel where he becomes a mojito-sipping Pierce Brosnan checking out the view, before changing into his scuba gear to become a night-diving Sean Connery slipping into inky black waters to mix it up with the bad guys and wrestle a few sharks.
Back to reality, and I have to say that arriving at Nassau airport was not far off my fantasy. Admittedly, we had to go through the bore of security, but even that was relatively easy and the guards were pleasant – a reflection of how important tourism is to the islands. We stepped outside to a sea of friendly faces offering to help with bags and generally being very welcoming, before being ushered to our car. A 40-minute transfer to Paradise Island took us to the location of the Aqua Cat, our home for a week, where we were welcomed by cooling rum punch and a smiling crew – but more of boats later.
New Providence offers the full range of activities that you would expect from a tropical island destination and plenty more besides. The international airport is served by flights from London five times a week, and there are other routes available via Miami and other US cities. The Georgian streets of Nassau are well maintained, with plenty in the way of markets and shops, and nearby Cable Beach (a three-mile ride by bus or taxi) is the heart of the island’s nightlife. There is all manner of accommodation to choose from: everything from high-rise hotels to privately owned inns.
The majority of dive sites are concentrated around the southwest of the island. There are a few dive centres in the area, the best known being Stuart Cove’s, which offers daily two-tank trips, a photo and video centre and a shop. The centre was used in the film Flipper, and a number of underwater movie sequences have been shot here, including Splash, Cocoon and Thunderball. The area offers a variety of dive sites including the purpose-sunk David Tucker wreck, the Cessna airplane sunk for Jaws IV and the Thunderball wreck used in the film of the same name, as well as for Never Say Never Again. However, the centre is best known for the shark adventure dives that take place on a daily basis.
A short hop from New Providence is Paradise Island, which is joined to its neighbour by two bridges. This four-mile-long island is dominated by the Atlantis resort, comprising towering hotel blocks, an open-air aquarium, and a 141-acre water park. It is architecture at its most decadent, with marble everywhere, large casinos and rows of shops and restaurants. The resort even manages to dwarf the huge cruise ships that dock here as they make their way through their Caribbean itineraries.
Cruising the Exuma Cays
The Aqua Cat provides everything you would expect of a Bahamas liveaboard. At 31m in length, the boat is spacious, and its twin hulls make for an extremely stable ride. Each of the 11 cabins is well above sea level, with a proper window (no pokey portholes here) and an en-suite bathroom with shower. The main salon features a widescreen television and games console amid comfy sofas and a large dining area. The sundeck at the top of the boat is fitted out with sunbeds and has the added benefit of an open bar, with draught beer on tap for when the day’s diving is over.
For non-divers or if you fancy taking a dive off, the Aqua Cat has a 9m skippered tender called the Sea Dog that is available for all sorts of trips, from snorkelling with nurse sharks to feeding iguanas or enjoying a beachside beer and conch salad.
Underwater, the Bahamas is characterised by the deep water of the Atlantic on the eastern side and the relatively shallow water of the Great Bahama Bank on the western side. In between these two areas, stretching from north in a south-southeast direction, is the Exuma Cays island chain. Sheltered on both sides, the area offers clear water diving that is relatively current-free.
Having done a couple of checkout dives near Paradise Island, we headed south towards Highborne Cay to a site known as Pillar Wall. We dropped down onto a sandy bottom at 15m, then made our way through channels in the reef towards the wall itself. Just below the boat was a large single barracuda, and through the channels were groups of spadefish and a small stone-coloured ray.
Channels that lead out to walls, such as the ones found here, are typical of many of the dives in this part of the Bahamas. Small swim-throughs through the channels at this site are home to beautifully coloured angelfish and glinting balls of silversides. And for a bit more excitement, there is a swim-through here at 24m that leads you out onto the wall at 30m. Sponges and fan and whip corals were in abundance, and we also saw soldierfish and squirrelfish. It’s also worth looking out in the blue for reef sharks, turtles and eagle rays – all regular visitors to this site.
Exiting the water is relatively simple on the Aqua Cat: there is generally little swell and it’s simply at matter of going up one of the two ladders, where you’ll be given a quick hosedown as soon as you get on board. The refilling of tanks is seamless too, and there is a choice of air or nitrox for those who are qualified. Be aware that nitrox is not included in the price.
A similar channel and wall dive takes place at nearby Blacktip Wall, where again we were greeted by a large solitary barracuda, which fixed a steely gaze at the videographers who moved in to film it. The dive guides were quite clear: ‘Go through the swim-through on the left.’
Unfortunately, we took the one on the right, and ended up rapidly reversing as the channel became tighter. Still, it was a busy site, with big grouper, jacks, lobster and, for the lucky few who opted to visit it twice, a manta sighting on the second dive.
Without question, the highlight of the week’s diving was the shark feed. Most people on board had not done one before, and you could feel the atmosphere heightening with expectation. The feed takes place on Amberjack Reef and is within the boundaries of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Managed by the Bahamas National Trust, this park was established in 1958 and covers 176 square miles of sea.
The shark feed was reassuringly well organised. Everyone jumped in the water and settled down in a semicircle around a rocky outcrop. Once we were all settled on the reef at 15m, the lead dive guide Tonto dragged a line to which a block of frozen bait was attached halfway up, the line was buoyed to keep it in place and the end of the line was attached to the outcrop. As Tonto moved in the Caribbean reef sharks, which were already milling about, closed in for the grub and were joined by large grouper and jacks. It’s great fun: these sharks are relatively safe to dive with, and they look like ‘real’ sharks – with the classic torpedo shape. Towards the end of the dive, when the food was gone, we all looked for discarded shark teeth on the bottom.
While the feed was a great buzz, I also enjoyed the second dive on Amberjack Reef – the sharks were still around, so I got a chance to watch them without being distracted by the frenzied action. The grouper, too, were milling about, and there were massive lobster hiding in an overhang, as well as stingrays, a large barracuda, schooling jacks, snapper, sweetlips, scribbled filefish, needlefish and soldierfish – a fantastic dive.
MORE TOP WRECK DIVES
Maximum depth: 10m
There were lots of schooling grunts and snapper over this flattened wreck, and purple fans home to flamingo tongues and nudibranchs. There were also a plethora of lionfish – an invasive species that has no natural predators in the Caribbean and is causing huge problems by predating on native species. Lots of grouper and midnight parrotfish were also in attendance.
Maximum depth: 30m
Another site where a solitary barracuda was under the boat. We headed through channels in the reef where there were large sponges and brain corals. Schools of jacks and snapper came out to the edge of the reef wall, where a hawksbill turtle swam leisurely by.
Maximum depth: 30m
Channels of healthy corals led to a wall where we saw two Caribbean reef sharks close by. An eagle ray put in an appearance as we made our way back to the boat.
Coral Cut Drift
Maximum depth: 10m
This gentle drift calls for a negative entry. We moved through a coral garden where there were plenty of reef fish including queen parrotfish, emperor angelfish and blue tangs. There were plenty of good fan and brain corals and large barrel sponges.
Cracked Coral Head
Maximum depth: 24m
A coral garden with a network of swim-throughs and a wall some 70m away. We headed to the wall where there were plenty of barrel sponges and fans. Again, you’ll find beautiful swim-throughs featuring plenty of pretty corals and packed with silversides.
Dog Rock Wall
Maximum depth: 18m
This wall has a pinnacle with rare black coral – rare because it is often used for jewellery. Heading back, we entered a cavern known as the Church, its entrance marked by a huge elephant ear coral. Inside was a large school of silversides, which made for a stunning backdrop.
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Shop around with the various operators, but a typical price per diver in 2010 is from £1,859 – this includes return flights on British Airways from London Heathrow, seven nights sharing a twin cabin on Aqua Cat, all-inclusive meals, five and a half days of diving (including tanks and weights), transfers, port fees, marine park fees and fuel surcharges. Gratuity for the crew (Aqua Cat recommends 15 per cent) and nitrox (US$150 per week) are extra.