''Cool! I've never seen anything like it! How big was it?'' Halfway out of my dive gear, I paused to listen to the excited comments of the other divers. We had just finished the final dive of a three-day tour around the Bimini chain -- the site was a shallow patch reef known as Quattro that consisted of several large coral heads. I had found a number of interesting macro subjects, from scarlet lady shrimp to jackknife still in the juvenile phase, but nothing big. Questioning the boat's divemaster as he cleared the last rung of the ladder, I expected to hear about a rendezvous with a loggerhead turtle or a passing hammerhead shark. His answer was enough to make my jaw drop. His group had spent several minutes swimming with a sawfish of some 8 to 9 feet in length. I was shocked. This bizarre member of the shark clan, sporting a long bill equipped with sharp, spiked teeth on both sides, normally inhabits bays and river mouths where it can use its medieval-looking weaponry to swipe through schools of fish in poor visibility, effectively reducing them to quivering sashimi. Running into a sawfish on a shallow reef was a very unusual and improbable event. I shouldn't have been surprised. Over the years, I've learned that in the waters of the Bahamas, you can expect the unusual and improbable. A Bit of Everything Rising from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, the Bahamas consist of more than 700 islands and cays, all set within a huge expanse of shallow reefs and sand flats. Known as banks, these shoal waters form a 750-mile arc between the Florida Peninsula and the island of Hispaniola. Above water, the Bahamas offer everything from the solitude of the deserted Out Islands to the glitter of world-class resorts in Freeport and Nassau. Below the surface, divers will find diverse landscapes that range from turquoise sand flats and colorful patch reefs to high-relief coral pinnacles and precipitous walls. As a result of this diversity, the Bahamas can offer something for every type of diver. For example, the south shore of New Providence Island offers miles of white-sand bottom punctuated by occasional patch reefs. Here, divers can tour the Bahamas' largest collection of shipwrecks in benign conditions and depths of 60 feet or less. Just a few miles away, more adventurous souls can hover alongside a coral-encrusted wall or watch divemasters feed a swarming school of reef sharks. Grand Bahama, Andros, the Abaco chain, Bimini, Long Island and other destinations throughout this island chain offer a similar mixed bag of diving excitement. In the course of a weekend, divers can enjoy wreck dives, dolphin encounters and shark feedings in shallow, protected waters or go a bit farther out for some high-voltage drift and wall diving. Among the southern Bahamas are several islands that offer precarious vertical drops beginning as shallow as 45 feet. San Salvador, Conception Island and Rum Cay are not part of the Bahamas' larger system of sub-sea plateaus. Instead, they are individual, partially submerged mountain peaks rising from the abyss 11,000 feet below. According to some historians, the island of San Salvador was the first landfall made by Columbus on his momentous voyage in 1492. Others contend that it could have been Conception Island. One thing is for sure: the notoriety of discovery did little to change the course of island history. Five hundred years later, San Salvador's population would barely fill a high school gymnasium and uninhabited Conception Island can only be reached by boat. Mysteries and Wonders Although geologists theorize that the entire Bahamian range resulted from massive tectonic uplifts millions of years ago that created a series of broad, sub-sea plateaus, some have taken the more colorful belief that it is the lost continent of Atlantis. Either way you look at it, the Bahamas are full of mysteries and wonder. For example, what created the Tongue of the Ocean? This colossal chasm separates two of the Bahamas' larger plateaus with depths approaching 7,000 feet! Or for that matter, what are the strange, dark-blue circles often seen in the middle of the Banks? Known as Blue Holes, these pothole-like structures may measure 200 feet across and can drop to beyond 300 feet. Scientists postulate that these holes are the remnants of huge subterranean caverns with collapsed ceilings. According to island lore, they are the home of a giant sea monster known as the Lusca and the tidal ebb and flow of water from these holes is said to be the monster's breath. Fishy Waters In addition to varied undersea terrain, the Bahamas are known for their diversity of marine life. Species ranging from lobsters and conch to grunts, snappers, groupers, sharks and rays use the region's shallow reefs, grass beds and sand flats as nursery grounds -- and prime hunting territory. Hawksbill, green, loggerhead and leatherback turtles tipping the scales at up to 800 pounds roam from open ocean into the shallows, while deepwater gamefish such as marlin, tuna, wahoo and dorado may swim within a few hundred yards of an island drop-off. And, of course, there are the sharks that have become one of the Bahamas' greatest underwater attractions. From staring down a 200-pound reef shark to shadowing an angelfish through a forest of sea fans, the waters of the Bahamas offer something for every breed of fish watcher, wild or mild. Dive With Dolphins More than a half dozen varieties of dolphins reside in the waters of the Bahamas, including Atlantic spotted, bottlenose and spinner, plus the larger, black-bodied false killer and pilot whales. Divers flock to both the island of Bimini and the White Sand Ridge region of the Little Bahama Banks for encounters with pods of spotted and bottlenose dolphins. While not guaranteed, such encounters take place with greater frequency here than anywhere else in the world. For those preferring not to leave such encounters to chance, the Underwater Explorers Society's (UNEXSO) Dolphin Encounter Program in Freeport, Grand Bahama, provides divers and non-divers the opportunity to both swim with and touch a bottlenose dolphin. For divers, the encounter is actually conducted in the open sea, without the presence of fences or boundaries, other than the sand and coral reef bottom 40 feet below. Swim With Sharks Dive long enough in the Bahamas, and you will inevitably see a few sharks. But if the idea of seeing a shark pass by in the distance is not good enough, there are means to meet the guys in the gray suits up close and personal. Diving with sharks, or shark diving, is big business. Dive operations throughout the Bahamas - from the top of the chain in Walker's Cay, down through Freeport, Bimini, Nassau, all the way to San Salvador Island - have formulated specific shark-feeding sites. With any of these dives, watching 20 or more big reef sharks feed can be an adrenaline-rich experience. For information about live-aboard diving in the Bahamas, click onto the information bar below.
Find exclusive opportunities and packages offered to Society members on the member benefits site.