Andros - On stage
Act 1: The Pact
My colleague and I have a rather unusual pact. Wait. Let me back up one step. I like to make images underwater. She's Michelle Makmann, Sport Diver's multimedia producer and videographer. And we both love to dive with sharks (well, everything, but especially sharks). For some strange reason we both feel the invincibility that comes with holding a big hunk of waterproof metal and strobes. It's as if the sharks should think, Hey, it's the press, and journalists are friends, not food. These underwater guys are trying to help us. So, no chewing on the guys with the cameras! But the reality of it is that we both fully understand that once in the water, we're in the food chain and it's not a zoo. Anything can happen when dealing with wild animals whose brains are ruled by instinct honed by millions of years of survival in an unremittingly hostile world, not by intelligent reasoning.
That said, our pact. On numerous occasions, my strobes, when they've fired off, have emitted an electrical signal that must mimic a hurt fish, because various shark species - Caribbean reef, lemon, blacktip, gray - have decided that my strobes are a meal. I've actually had to chase sharks down the reef when they have bitten and taken off with my strobes, housing, arms - my whole setup. We've been bumped, gotten some really, really, close footage of open shark mouths, and rubbed shoulders with the men in the gray suits on numerous occasions.
So we've often mused, morbidly, about the possibility of getting nipped.
Which led to our pact: Get the shot, then help the other person.
It's become a joke between us. Yes, a sick one. And we repeat it to each other as we giant-stride into the water just off the island of Andros in the famously sharky Bahamas. We're diving on the chumsicle - a frozen hunk of fish parts that slowly melts and drives the sharks batty trying to get to it - which leads to a nice bit of action. We're out with PADI Dive Resort Small Hope Bay Lodge, just off North Andros. Well, the action picks up predictably. I move in for the shots, feeling invincible in the moment and not paying the slightest bit of attention to what's going on behind me.
Makmann, on the other hand, has noticed that a small, 4-foot shark seems to be feeling a bit daring and has made several close passes by me. She moves her camera into place, focuses and frames a nice shot. Then this little bugger decides to pass on the chumsicle and go for the expensive entrée, my camera. More specifically, my strobe arm. The shark bites, knocks out a few teeth on the metal, shakes my camera a bit just to make sure there are no hidden bits of meat. Then he lets go in exasperation, probably mumbling a little shark curse word, heads back to the chumsicle hierarchy (in which this small shark gets leftover table scraps, maybe) and resigns itself to savoring the scent of fish. The frenzy on the frozen treat crescendos in the wild abandon of a street brawl, then the sharks calm down and continue about their day.
After I recover, I look up at Makmann. She signals that she got the shot. I see her smile so big, water leaks into her mask.
We can't wait to review the footage. Everything's good until the moment the shark moves in. Then, inexplicably, the camera moves to the side, then up. Makmann was so shocked that it actually happened, she, without even realizing it, looked out from behind the camera to see if it was true and quit filming while she watched. She ended up with a nice shot of the bottom of the boat. She couldn't believe it. But, at least I knew at that moment that pact or no pact, she would have moved in to help me if I needed it rather than get the shot. But we'll see next time, right?
Act 2: Holes of Life
If you look at Andros from the air, it looks like someone aimed a Tommy gun at this, the largest of the Bahamas' 700 islands, and riddled it with bullet holes. And then if you zoom in from that 30,000-foot vantage, you'll see, at this very moment, a boat heading right to a spot where three such holes can be seen. I've just left the dock at Tiamo Resort, one of the world's leading sustainable "eco-luxe" resorts. They take sustainability seriously with composting toilets, solar-heated water and solar-powered lights, low-impact cottages and a host of other sustainable features in their private beach bungalows. But, it's the natural heritage in the water that draws our little boat across the bight.
We settle over one of the blue holes. Here, fresh water and salt water mix; the tide rushes in and out of the cave system, and all around the blue holes that pockmark the bight between North and South Andros, you can find marine life. It's as if they're the marine world's version of "watering holes." Everything shows up to socialize, perhaps to gossip and mingle at the cleaning stations. The edges of this particular blue hole are surrounded by southern stingrays, probably 30 to 40 of them snuggled into the sand, eyes peeking out to watch the world. Schools of jacks flit in and out of the deep-blue maw of these blue holes. Caribbean reef sharks pass by. Then a hawksbill turtle, then another. Big grouper hover in the water. Parrotfish circulate. And there are piles of jittery macro critters and cleaning stations.
We snorkel over to the other two blue holes - same story. Life crowds the rim. It's like they're acolytes waiting for some marine messiah to rise from the deep mystery that hides somewhere in the magenta. I watch - waiting, mesmerized, in the same way, just one more passing pilgrim caught up in the blue paradise.
Back at Tiamo, time slows. The waves, inches high, lap at the shore. Seabirds dash at the water's edge. That night we all settle around a communal dinner, and the talk roams from bonefishing to Andros' unique world to the sea, until we've all wandered off to our bungalows to enjoy the wonder of a true, deep sleep.
Intermission: The Air We Breathe
Between dives, Andros exists in a state between tranquil and raw. The 2,300-square-mile island - which is actually two main islands, North and South Andros - remains mostly wilderness. It's the least inhabited and least explored of the Bahamas Islands. I love to wander the trails to find rare orchids (yes, I think this is manly), or go with guides to swim in inland blue holes or roam through the islands' several unique and fragile eco-systems to learn about bush medicine. And I always keep my eye out for the Chickcharnie, a mythological creature that roams the pine forest (sometimes, if I have enough "sky juice," a coconut-gin mind-bender, I can see them). And the fastest pace I can ever achieve, or want to, on Andros is a slow amble on bike, by foot or by the silent stealth of a kayak. Because it's so untrammeled, I usually have entire beaches to myself, especially during that magical hour of sunrise. And Andros is a bonefisherman's nirvana. Every resort on the island will take you out to the flats to wage war with a flimsy stick against this legendary game fish. At the end of the day, it always creeps into my head that Andros is only 155 miles from the neon explosion of South Florida, and when I look across the horizon, I can see the bright glow of a bustling Nassau, the most-populated city in the Bahamas. That's how far the edge of the Earth is, I think, just beyond the bright glow of a world ruled by man rather than nature. And then I look up at a blanket of stars and at that moment a soothing, Caribbean breeze wraps around me and carries off the last of my stress.
Act 3: Vertical Bliss
A five-minute boat ride from Andros, and the world falls away in a rush. The world's third-largest and least-explored coral reef sits right at the doorstep. It's a deep, mysterious world, where you never know what will show up from the 6,000-foot depths - spotted eagle rays, submarines or sperm whales. With its on-site PADI Dive Center, Coral Caverns Dive Center, which is right in Cargill Creek on the southeast corner of Central Andros, uses mooring balls at all their sites along the wall. Start at any one of them, and you could come back speechless. Or, light (I'll explain in a minute). The deep walls are heavy with black corals, whip wire corals and sponges. A parade of possible encounters - eagle rays, hammerhead sharks, silky sharks - rise up from the deeper waters. But come prepared to dive a little deeper - and possibly experience nitrogen narcosis - to see the big stuff, especially on the wall. Makmann had her first real encounter with narcosis here off Andros. The wall came alive in ways I hadn't yet experienced. I slipped down a little past 123 feet under the close supervision of the divemaster. Massive wire corals spiraled out like giant springs. Family-sized lobsters peeked out from their sponge lairs. The wall was thick with life. My more-conservative computer made me ascend before the others, so I watched them tour the top of the reef, in and around giant, black-coral trees, with a hawksbill turtle as a willing guide. Schools of spadefish circled me on my safety stop.
Back on the boat, when Makmann stepped up the ladder, she took out her reg, eyes wide with the thrill of the dive, and said: "Wow, it's amazing how light you get at 160 feet. I felt like I was floating. Woo so much fun. I like diving deep."
I laughed. "That's called narcosis. Rapture of the deep."
The divemaster chuckled.
"Really? So, I wasn't floating? What about the turtle?"
"No, the turtle was real. And all I could do was watch," I said.
We can't wait to slip over the edge of the wall again.
Encore: Indulgent Me
Time for an admission and a confession. Sometimes I like a little pampering. Actually, more and more so the older I get. And that's what I'm thinking as I drive a golf cart down a palm-shaded lane to my spa treatment at the private-island getaway of Kamalame Cay. This 96-acre enclave has swept me away with its casual island elegance. I'm staying in, perhaps, the most romantic cottage I've experienced - on Andros or any place in the world. It's private, with a wall of French doors that open to a verandah and miles of wide, soft beach and a shallow, quiet bay. The muslin curtains billow soothingly in the breeze. There's a soaring feeling to the 20-foot ceilings. It feels like a dream - like the kind of villa you might imagine having in heaven. Truly.
And there's even a PADI Dive Center just for guests. When I arrived at the dock earlier, the dive boat was pulling in, and the guests had a surprise encounter with a sperm whale between wall dives. I mentioned that I'd like to experience the same in the morning, and I truly believe this place could make it happen.
But for now I'm at the spa, which sits in a building at the end of its own dock over the water. The wall in the treatment room opens to the sea. It's a refuge within a refuge, a place where you begin to feel rejuvenated as soon as you enter. The salt air mingles with the aromatic oils meant to inspire tranquility, and within minutes I'm asleep. I awake to seabirds hovering in the breeze, and a lone stingray passes in the water below.
That night, I stay in - the cottage is just too nice to leave. I eat a Caesar salad with grilled chicken out on the verandah. Quiet music plays on my CD player, and the palm fronds rustle just enough for ambience. I read a bit, then soak in the oversized tub with a cup of tea. The bed wraps me up and I sleep on the crest of a cloud, dreaming of nothing at all.
Small Hope Bay Lodge (smallhope.com), a full-service dive center since 1960, is minutes from the third-largest barrier reef in the world. You can dive reefs, wrecks, walls, blue holes or caves, or rub shoulders with sharks around the chumsicle. The family-run lodge is simple, rustic and perfect for a relaxed getaway. Nondivers can choose from activities, such as birding, kayaking, sailing and windsurfing. Tiamo (tiamoresorts.com) is a luxury eco-lodge on South Andros. There are no roads; you take a boat to the resort. You can dive, fish for bonefish, snorkel or explore on guided treks. Coral Caverns Dive Resort (coralcavernsresort .com) in Cargill Creek on Central Andros sits five minutes from the barrier reef. Plus, you can kayak, go on nature walks, bike or just lounge poolside. Kamalame Cay (kamalame.com) is a 96-acre private island off Andros. This enclave of privacy, pampering and luxury features exclusive beachside villas and barefoot elegance for the discerning traveler. Nondiving activities include tennis, windsurfing and much more. For more information on diving in the Bahamas Islands, contact the Bahamas Diving Association (bahamasdiving.com).