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In Depth | Bahamas
A movie backdrop and an abundance of sharks make the Bahamas a worthy destination on diving’s grand tour
This is the place where Hollywood comes when it wants to film action-packed, striking underwater scenes. With their glamorous topside scenery, clear, tropical waters and variety of marine life and underwater topography, the islands of the Bahamas lend themselves to the big screen. And it’s not just big-shot directors who find these islands an attractive underwater destination – for decades the Bahamas has continued to feature high on most divers’ holiday wish-lists.
The Bahamas is made up of 700 islands and 2,000 sand cays that stretch across 100,000 square miles between Florida and Cuba. The islands vary in both size and topography and offer tourists everything from James Bond-style casino and luxury yacht decadence to laidback escapism. Although close to Florida, the islands have maintained their unique charm and cultural heritage. The area is much more understated than the built-up Florida coast, and preserves the white sand, blue sea, postcard image.
Bahamians are hospitable people, and always keen that visitors should get a taste of island life, whether through drinking famous Bahama Mamma rum cocktails or by dancing to the drums and loud wind instruments at the vibrant Junkanoo festival. Underwater, the life is just as varied and colourful. Healthy shallow reefs, vertical walls, wrecks, pelagic and tropical species, caves and caverns – the Bahamas offer divers a wealth of choice.
Often, people make the mistake of assuming the Bahamas is part of the Caribbean. However, although it is not technically part of the Caribbean, the reefs and marine life are very similar to those found in the Caribbean Sea.
The diving combines the best of the Caribbean with thriving marine life from the Atlantic. And, without doubt, there are two particular reasons that draw many thousands of divers to Bahamian waters each year. These are heart-racing shark encounters and the chance to explore the blue holes which are peppered throughout the region.
The Bahamas is one of the few places in the world where divers are guaranteed to see large numbers of sharks up close in their natural environment. Thousands of divers experience close encounters with sharks every month in places such as Nassau in New Providence, Freeport in Grand Bahama, Maris in Long Island and at a number of sites in the Abacos.
Whatever your view of shark-feeds, it’s astonishing to learn that more than 60,000 divers have taken part in shark feeds in Bahamian waters over the last 20 years with no serious accident.
The most common type of shark encountered here is the Caribbean reef shark. However, it is possible to see lemon sharks, bull sharks, hammerhead sharks and a number of other species including the tiger shark.
The waters of the Bahamas provide the backdrop to many underwater films such as Thunderball and Open Water. Both below and above the water, the Bahamas is a varied, vibrant and striking part of the world to experience.
South Shark Wall, New Providence
No dive trip to the Bahamas is complete without an adrenalin-packed encounter with at least a dozen sharks. There are plenty of shark dives to choose from on the islands, but this one is particularly special as it eliminates the need for a chain mail-suited dive guide to attract sharks with food. South Shark Wall off New Providence is an hour’s boat ride from the popular Stuart Cove’s dive centre. Here, Caribbean reef sharks turn up on site as soon as the boat arrives – clearly indicating years of human interaction and regular feeding.
Dark shark shapes cruise around the blue as you kit up, and, as if on cue, their fins cut through the surface just before you backward-roll into the water. The only thing missing from the Jaws-esque atmosphere is the dramatic musical build-up, but you can usually expect one person on the boat to oblige with a few ‘Dah, duh’ sounds.
The boat moors in about 10–15m of water on a sandy bottom, near a reef wall which slopes down to about 50m. The sharks follow the divers throughout the dive, moving from one to the other in search of food. The sharks are not aggressive, but they will get up close and personal and offer plenty of photographic opportunities. The reef is healthy and is peppered with sponges and a wealth of life, including angelfish, morays, grouper and wrasse. There is also a number of stingrays and flounders cruising at the top of the reef wall.
As the dive group returns, the sharks will become visibly excited, but this is no cause for alarm – they just know it’s time for a few fish heads to be thrown overboard. Once everyone is safely back on board, the guide will throw food into the water, causing a frantic and frenzied fin thrashing at the surface.
Southwest Reef, New Providence
Southwest Reef is extremely shallow (1–12m) and makes a great second dive, as it’s an excellent opportunity to check out healthy and colourful coral in this part of the world. It is situated a short boat ride from South Shark Wall and is good for macro photographers. The reef covers a large area and is dominated by staghorn and elkhorn corals, as well as an array of purple sea fans and soft corals. Schooling fish species and a plethora of reef inhabitants will keep even the most experienced divers entertained and relaxed.
Inland Blue Hole, Abaco
After sharks, blue holes are the biggest underwater attractions in the Bahamas. The majority of blue holes are situated around Grand Bahama, Andros, Cay Sal Bank and the Exumas. These deep limestone holes leading to networks of caves have formed because of changing sea levels and chemical reactions over the past 10,000 years.
Diving the inland blue hole in Abaco is a unique experience. The site is an hour’s drive from Marsh Harbour and then a ten-minute, four-wheeled drive bounce through a pine forest. The perfectly circular hole is extremely dark, and once inside may seem a little intimidating to those not used to low-visibility diving. You need to hold on to the shot to keep you orientated as you descend into complete blackness.
At 30m, fresh water becomes sea water, a meeting which looks like a mist-covered lake at dawn. As you move towards the side of the bowl-shaped hole, your eyes begin to adjust and the clearness of the water becomes evident – divers look as if they are being suspended by an invisible line. The hole descends to 90m where, like most blue holes, a network of caves begins. Standard recreational dive trips generally involve a descent to 30m and an exploration of the hole’s huge and impressive stalactite formations, which reach up to 5m in length.
Theo’s Wreck, Grand Bahama
Theo’s wreck is one of the most popular wreck dives in the Bahamas. This 80m-long freighter was purposely sunk at 30m off Grand Bahama in 1982. Over the past two decades the structure has become a haven for a mass of marine life. The wreck is intact and is covered in a blanket of yellow and orange cup corals and pink and red sponges, as well as colourful algae. Life found here includes barracuda, parrotfish, angelfish, snappers and moray eels. At the nearby reef drop-off you are likely to find larger fish and turtles. There are plenty of safe access areas in which to penetrate the wreck.
Need to know
The high season for tourism in the Bahamas is mid-December to mid-April, when the islands experience their most settled weather and often the best visibility. The wettest and windiest months are usually between August and October. To avoid crowds and high-season prices, some visitors prefer to come here in May, June or November. Winter temperatures (from November to April) generally remain around 25ºC. In the summer season, temperatures can reach as high as 33ºC. June to November is hurricane season.
Direct flights from the UK are operated by British Airways (from London Heathrow), Virgin Airlines (from London Gatwick) and First Choice (fortnightly from Manchester). American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines fly via the US from London. Bahamas Air flies throughout the islands and there are also private charter flights available for travel within the Bahamas.
Where to stay
There are plenty of accommodation options, to suit just about every taste and budget. The main island of New Providence has everything from the 2,300-room Atlantis Resort to the quaint, family-run resorts, such as the 32-room Orange Hill Beach Inn close to Stuart Cove’s dive centre. The smaller islands also offer a good mix of accommodation facilities. The Abaco Beach Resort is a popular choice for those diving with Dive Abaco, which is conveniently based next door.
Grand Bahama also has an excellent choice of hotels. If you are looking for a little more luxury and finesse, then the Pelican Bay Hotel here is ideal.
Dive centres throughout the Bahamas will often recommend hotels close by, where they can also offer free transfers to and from their centre.
What to pack
Light, casual clothing year-round, although it’s advisable to take a jumper or jacket for cooler evenings between December and February. Most hotels and restaurants require guests to dress a little more formally in the evenings. In laidback, remote areas, the dress code is more flexible.
Water temperatures are between 22 and 26ºC from December to April and between 25 and 30ºC from May to November. A shortie or skin suit is more than adequate in the warmer months, while a 5mm may be a more suitable option during the colder months.
The visibility varies from good to excellent in the Bahamas, with regular reports of 30m. The blue holes offer particularly excellent visibility, even though they tend to be dark.
The marine life in the Bahamas does not compare with that of the Red Sea. The health of the coral is good, but this is not enough reason in itself to organise what could be a costly diving trip. However, the Bahamas has other treats that make this a must-do trip. For technical divers, the prospect of navigating complex networks of caves running off breathtaking blue holes should get them running to pack their bags. For the rest of us, guaranteed shark encounters are more than enough reason to book a ticket.
AquaTours | 020 8398 0505 | www.aquatours.com
Barefoot Traveller | 020 8741 4319 | www.barefoot-traveller.com
DiveQuest | 01254 82632 | www.divequest.co.uk
Dive Tours | 01244 401177 | www.divetours.co.uk
Greenforce Conservation Expeditions | 020 7470 8888 | www.greenforce.org
Hayes & Jarvis | 0870 333 3782 | www.hayesandjarvis.co.uk
Kuoni | 01306 747002 | www.kuoni.co.uk
Snooba Travel | 0870 162 0767 | www.snooba.com