Just barely off the East Coast of Florida, the 700-plus islands that comprise the Bahamas overflow with an incredible array of diving. We slip off to the edge-of-the-earth atmosphere of Andros to explore the world's third-longest barrier reef, slip into the inky depths of oceanic blue holes and rub shoulders with a shark or two. Then we join the BBC Natural History Unit off the cosmopolitan island of New Providence for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of their next landmark series called Life.
I'm only 158 miles away from the chic Miami skyline, walking through a pine forest on North Andros Island. All along the rocky trail, our small group passes delicate purple wild orchids, poisonwood, guayacan and a thick tangle of undergrowth. Locals use many of the plants we see as a pharmacy for bush medicine to heal stings, colds even impotence. The Andros pines, which exist only in the Bahamas, shoot skyward like bushy-tipped arrows. It's quiet, a kind of hush one might imagine existing only at the far edges of the earth. And the sharp, calming scent of the pines hangs thick in the humid air. As we walk, we keep our eye out for the chickcharnie, a mythical, cryptid creature said to be half man, half bird a legend that could only rise up from a remote stretch of land such as the one we're traipsing through.
Our guide, Jeff Birch, owner of the 20-room Small Hope Bay Lodge, tells us that where we see two pines crossed is a chickcharnie nest and if we see a chickcharnie and are good in our hearts, we'll have excellent luck for the rest of our lives. If not, our heads will be turned backward.
I try to think good thoughts with such an uneasy fate looming, but I feel lucky just to be here. To know that I don't need to travel for days to find places as raw and unexplored as this. Heck, Jeff is leading us through these woods like Tom Sawyer, barefoot. And what more needs to be said about a place where shoes are strictly optional? Then my luck just increases.
We come to the end of the trail and in an almost perfect circle before us is a massive freshwater blue hole, Captain Bill's Blue Hole, nearly a quarter mile across, with steep limestone sides that resemble a castle wall. There are hundreds of blue holes on Andros. So many that the early Spanish sailors called Andros the Island of the Holy Spirit due to the abundance of fresh water, Jeff tells us.
The surface of the water is flat and reflective. It looks as if it harbors its own blue sky and puffy white clouds, which float on the surface above its netherworld of water-filled passages. Most of these blue holes have never been explored. But this one has a wooden platform at the end of our trail, with a rope swing and ladder one of the world's coolest swimming holes, I muse to myself. Only an unseasonable winter cold front keeps me from doffing my clothes and launching myself into the water like Tarzan. Hardwood pines sidle up next to the hole and crowd the horizon like protective sentinels. It crosses my mind that one could grab a burger and fries in Florida, jump on a boat, and within a couple of hours get lost forever in the wilderness of this large, sparsely populated island.
Andros sits on the edge of the third-largest barrier reef in the world, 100 miles of vertical precipice that delineates the western edge of the Tongue of the Ocean, a deepwater canyon that sits just off Andros' eastern coastline. It reaches 6,000 feet down toward the core of the globe, and chances are good that at almost any moment while you're exploring its depths, there's a U.S. Navy submarine prowling silently deeper below you.
Like the island it rubs shoulders with, most of the wall along the Tongue of the Ocean remains relatively unexplored. The only dedicated dive resort on North Andros is the family-owned eco-resort Small Hope Bay Lodge, which has been around since 1960 and which has hosted such underwater luminaries as Jacques-Yves Cousteau and British cave diver Rob Palmer.
Andros also has perhaps the Western Hemisphere's most diverse diving. There are deep lush walls, false walls, shallow coral gardens, oceanic blue holes, wrecks, shark experiences, and cavern and cave diving. My first stop in this undersea wonderland is an oceanic blue hole called Alec's caverns. We slip into its deep blue maw and descend to about 130 feet. We don't venture any farther, but look back toward the surface and light where cracks, rents and fissures in the seafloor form dramatic vistas. Shafts of light pierce the depths like heavenly spears. We don't get long bottom times this deep, but the view is breathtaking, and I can't help but feel like there's a vast, adventurous underworld waiting below me.
Our guide, Mike Hornby, who has worked at the lodge for 12 years, shows us the highlights before we need to ascend, including a giant leopard-shaped rock formation that looks like the guardian of the deep. Around the opening of Alec's Cavern, we find groupers and a number of recent invaders to this seascape, Pacific lionfish. They aren't welcome oceanic immigrants, and the locals are fighting a Sisyphean battle to keep their numbers and voracious appetites at bay. Either way, it's easy to admire their mesmerizing, gypsylike beauty and slow sensual movements. Looking up, the dive boat sits on the surface like it's floating in the clouds as we off-gas.
From the oceanic cavern we make our way to Whip Wire Wall, a precipice covered with the curlicue twists of wire coral. The wall turns south pretty deep here at about 90 feet. But once you slip past 130 feet of this multilevel technical dive, the wall just erupts. It's like there's someone hiding in the shadows firing wire coral straight out in the blue. And black corals definitely have a stronghold in this deepwater environment. Their feathery stalks proliferate. Because we're skirting the edge of the Tongue of the Ocean, we don't know what might show up. And sure enough, we encounter a great hammerhead, slipping off into the blue. As we ascend, a green turtle spends some time acting as a tour guide, showing us around the shallower coral gardens at the top of the wall.
Between our diving sessions, we settle into the slow pace at Small Hope Bay Lodge and the timeless world of legends and myths that make up North Andros. Like many places in the Caribbean, the area got its moniker from its days as a pirate haven. No less a brigand than Henry Morgan is said to have used Andros as a hideout. And the legend of Small Hope derives from a statement attributed to the famous pirate. He's said to have stashed some of his booty in the area and was heard to say that there was "small hope of anyone ever finding it."
To date, no one has. But Jeff, the owner of Small Hope Bay Lodge, has found tantalizing bits of cannons and other artifacts from that era while snorkeling just off the beach at the lodge as a kid. One could argue, though, that the real treasure comes in the form of hammocks strung between palms on the beach just where the ocean breezes gather, phone- and TV-free rooms, and the peace and serenity of a fairly untrammeled escape. Add in that most precious treasure in today's urgent and insistent world: time to explore, read or just let the breeze and sun caress your skin. You can take bikes from the lodge and go off exploring this pristine island at pedal pace.
I set off to make my own treasure at the Androsia Batik Factory. General manager Merton Thompson takes me through the steps of batik making, and at least one of my efforts will soon adorn my wall at home (the firstwas "practice"). This small business looms large in the Bahamas, supplying most of the islands with batik. Prints of dolphins, turtles, rays, tropical fish and sharks adorn the colorful cloths in the same way they adorn the reefs.
But not everything is peace and quiet and tranquility. Before we leave the island, we need to log some of our time with the most famous of the Bahamas' reef dwellers sharks.
Every island in the Bahamas has its own style of shark feeding, and on Andros the fish is frozen into a chumsicle and dangled mid-water on a chain. With this technique, the food is slowly disseminated as the fish-pop defrosts. About 12 sleek Caribbean reef sharks show up, and as Mike says, there's no hand-to-mouth interaction and the sharks' hierarchy works as nature intended. Personally, I can't get enough of sharks and spend most of the dive watching these evolutionary marvels with awe as they slowly, then with much more alacrity, tear their way through this frozen treat. It's like watching a mob of normally peaceful citizens get riled and in a fit of blind fury go on a rampage, only to regain their senses and nonchalantly slip back into their normal routines afterward. From peace to chaos to peace. Like most things I've experienced in Andros, I wish they'd do two shark experiences in a row.
But it's time to jump off the edge of the world and spend some time with a well-documented little tugboat.
LIFE IN THE BAHAMAS We charter a flight to New Providence Island (locally called "Nassau" after its main city) about 15 minutes away to meet up with the filmmakers from the BBC Natural History Unit, including the renowned underwater cinematographer Mike Pitts and producer Neil Lucas. Like legions of people with underwater cameras before them, they've come to the Bahamas for its big blue back lot of predictably clear, calm and warm water. If it gets filmed underwater for TV or film, chances are it gets shot off Nassau, and if you spend any time at the movies or in front of your TV, you'll begin to recognize the local dive sites. So naturally, the BBC has come here to film the beginning of life. And they've given Sport Diver exclusive access to spend time chronicling the making of this landmark television series from behind the scenes.
Nassau, which is the most heavily populated of the Bahamas islands, sits in stark contrast to Andros. Here we start the day with a Starbucks coffee and end late at night with a delivery from Domino's Pizza and a local sleep inducer called sky juice a cocktail containing gin and coconut milk. That glamorous schedule revolves around the shooting of Life, and we'll spend most of our days and nights on or under the water, diving around an old island tug sunk just for this portion of the show.
Life is the follow-up to the wildly successful Blue Planet and Planet Earth series. The short and sweet is that the BBC bought and sunk an old tugboat in September 2007. They will visit the wreck periodically to monitor how marine life forms and populates Nassau's newest dive site. We were there for the sinking which was an exciting event to witness from the seafloor and we're here six months later to see how the ocean has begun its endless and whimsical transformation of this little tug. But naturally, the little tug needed a name besides "the little tug," so Stuart Cove, owner of PADI Gold Palm IDC Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas (with whom we're diving), came up with the idea of running a contest to name the wreck, and the winners would visit the Bahamas to dive with the BBC and Sport Diver as the team documented the wreck. After thousands of entries, Rob and Denise Bentley, who hail from landlocked Arizona, won the contest and the little tug instantly became Blue Plunder. Once again, we tag along and dive right alongside the filmmakers and Rob and Denise, as they tour for the first time the wreck they've named. They only just became divers before exploring, and they fin around the wreck with eyes wide with wonder. Sometime on the way home in the plane, it'll soak in for them: Hey, that's our site. When it appears on the Discovery Channel, they'll be able to watch knowing that forever in the annals of time that little tugboat will be called Blue Plunder. Not a bad welcome to the world of diving on their first few dives ever.
During its first six months, the Blue Plunder has grown a coat of starter corals, and juvenile reef fish have moved in. We encounter a large stingray and barracuda in the sand surrounding the wreck. For several hours a day, Pitts and his assistant cameraman, John Chambers, don their Inspiration rebreathers and carry the heavy HD underwater camera and tripods down to document the wreck. Pitts and Chambers move around the wreck like astronauts, meticulously recording every section. We dive all day and into the night. And the night dives are especially memorable. The team brought along a 1,200-watt HMI light to film Blue Plunder at night. And seeing the wreck peek out of the inky dark into a curtain of undulating, weightless and nimble balletic light is spectacular. The wreck is wreathed with movement and energy, almost as if it's coming alive. Which, of course, it is.
But it isn't all wreck all the time while we're in Nassau. I sneak off with Rob and Denise to follow in the fin-steps of Tiger Woods, Jessica Alba and a long list of celebrities and models who have done Stuart Cove's signature shark-feeding dive, which is usually attended by up to 50 Caribbean reef sharks.
The afternoon dive comes in two parts, a casual dive on the reef and the surrounding wrecks (the crinkled up Bahama Mama and the nicely intact Ray of Hope), followed by the actual shark feeding. But the sharks don't wait until the food appears. They circle the boat before we get in the water and generally mill about during the dive.
I like to head along the edge of the drop-off, about 100 feet from the feeding site to the 200-foot wreck of the Ray of Hope, which was sunk in 2003. The wreck sits upright on the sand. Its cargo holds, engine room, corridors and pilothouse are completely open for exploration. This time, I am escorted by several of the larger sharks while I swim among the silverside-filled holds. The wreck also harbors several lionfish and large groupers.
But we've all come for the encore to this warm-up. And soon enough we're back in the water, kneeling on the sand in a fairy ring ready for the big show. As the chain-mail-clad shark feeder descends from the boat to the center of the circle, the sharks follow him like anxious puppies. For the next 20 minutes we're all immersed in a whirlwind of bedlam and madness as 50 sharks push and shove each other to get to the food, a fish head speared on a pole. Sharks swim over our heads, brush against us, around us, between us. The sea becomes electric with heir intensity, force and presence. When the food bin is empty, though, the kinetic energy almost instantly dissipates into the blue horizon as the sharks go back to their haughty lives at the apex of the food chain.
After the dive I ask Rob and Denise, who have twin girls age 2 at home, "Which is more daunting, a 50-shark mob scene or 2-year-olds?"
Their reply comes instantly and in unison "2-year-olds." From Blue Plunder to sifting through the sand looking for shark teeth all in one 24-hour period. Shark Week will never be the same for the Bentleys.
After the bump and grind with the sharks, I reconvene with the BBC on a star-crowded night over the tugboat. There's nothing like the feeling of being on a boat at night, then slipping into the dark water to experience something that most of the world will never see. That's when I feel that swell of adventure well up and I know the sea will sweep me away once again: rocking me gently in the cradle of the deep and taking me away to worlds that continue to elude my best words and exceed the best my imagination can conjure.
And it happens again. As soon as I descend, a massive barracuda doffs the coat of darkness and sits at the edge of the light fighting its way down toward the wreck. The big predator waits until it is face to face with me. Mere inches from my mask. Then it turns toward the Blue Plunder with no perceptible fin movements and swims over the bow. I know I will see it on my next visit. And I know this is the beginning, not only of life on this little blip of a wreck, but also of the promise of even greater adventures.
Special thanks to Jeff Birch and Mike Hornby of Small Hope Bay Lodge (smallhope.com); Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas (stuartcove.com) and its staff and boat crew members (Monique Bridgewater, Chang Sien Chin, Alvin Duncanson, Terry Harrison, Adrianna Hutchinson, Marc Taggart and Clee J Vigal); Androsia (androsia.com); John Chambers, Neil Lucas and Mike Pitts from the BBC Natural History Unit; and Name the Wreck winners Rob and Denise Bentley.
On Andros, take a batik-making lesson from Androsia. Afterward, grab a bike from Small Hope Bay Lodge (they're free for guests to use) and ride into the pine forest to Captain Bill's Blue Hole for a swim. On New Providence, tour Fort Charlotte in Nassau and check out the cool "graffiti" left by the bored soldiers that were stationed there. Stop by Arawak Cay in Nassau and get a frozen daiquiri. While in Arawak, sample some incredbile conch offerings (fritters, chowder, etc.) at Fish Fry.
The Bahamas tend to get overlooked because of their proximity to the United States people generally believe they need to travel to far corners of the globe for great adventures. This is a good thing if you're reading this right now. Let them go. Then when they get home, tell them you went diving with dolphins off Grand Bahama and Bimini, sharks off Andros, Nassau, Long Island, Walker's Cay, the Exumas, Cat Island, the Abacos and probably off the other 700 or so islands that comprise this island nation. Tell them that you slipped into the inky jaws of an oceanic blue hole or slipped down the wall of the world's third-largest and some might say least explored barrier reef. Then tell them about the wrecks, dozens of them, prowled by sharks and rays, inhabited by giant groupers and filled with stories. Then woo them into a frenzy of envy with tales of endless beaches, a friendly welcome and nights filled with tropical breezes, rum punch and the magic of a star-filled sky. Then make them bend to your superior knowledge when you tell them that this diver's haven was just an hour from the U.S. East Coast.
The Guide to The Bahamas
- average water temperature: 75-82°F
- what to wear: shorty in summer, 3-5 mm jumpsuit in winter average
- visability: 80-150 feet when to go: year-round. You'll see sharks, dolphins, rays, giant groupers, wrecks, walls and blue holes.
Must DoGet Crafty Try your hand at batik making on Andros at Androsia.
Must DiveWhip Wire Wall, Andros
This multilevel wall dive is covered with thickets of wire and black corals.
Shark Experience, Andros
Watch a dozen Caribbean reef sharks tear into a chumsicle of frozen fish bits.
Shark Arena, Nassau Fifty-plus Caribbean reef sharks push and shove while a chain-mail-clad diver doles out the snacks.
Alec's Cavern, Andros Check out the face in the rock silhouetted against the blue light.
Dolphin Dive, UNEXSO, Grand Bahama For guaranteed dolphin en-counters, this is the place
Ray of Hope, Nassau This 200-foot intact and upright wreck comes complete with sharks, big groupers and holds full of silversides.
Must HaveHandmade Baskets
On Andros, pick up some handmade baskets woven from silvertip palm by craftsmen from Red Bays.
Travel TipsExit Strategy
You will clear U.S. Customs in the Bahamas, so give yourself some extra time at the airport.
Rigged & ReadyApple iPhoto Book
Create a customized travel keepsake from your own computer. Choose your photos, text, style and theme, then let Apple do the rest. apple.com
Sperry Top-Sider Men's Cabo 2-Eye Boat Shoes
Whether you are walking the sandy beaches in the day or going out on the town at night, these leather Sperry shoes will work for all occasions. sperrytopsider.com
Bahamas Diving Association
DIVE CENTERSStuart Cove's Dive Bahamas
DIVE RESORTS/HOTELSPelican Bay at Lucaya