The islands of the Bahamas are a diving paradise, offering a plethora of colourful reefs, dramatic walls, stunning shipwrecks and in-your-face pelagic action. Mark Evans recalls some of his most-memorable moments
Photographs by Mark Evans
The sprawling archipelago of the Bahamas is quite rightly regarded as one of the Caribbean’s top diving spots, and with a sublime blend of abyssal walls dropping to well over 2,000m, vibrant reefs swept by sometimes fierce currents, artificial and ‘genuine’ shipwrecks and other sunken attractions, and several bucket-list shark species in regular attendance, it is not hard to see why it has built up such a stellar reputation.
The islands hold a special place in the heart of Editor-in-Chief Mark Evans, who has made several trips to the Bahamas over the past 20-odd years, visiting the capital island of Nassau several times, as well as enjoying stays in Grand Bahama and the Out Islands of Eleuthera, San Salvador, Andros and Abaco, and he has notched up some stand-out dives along the way.
The Bahamas have a long list of shipwrecks and other sunken attractions to explore, and most of them have been sunk on purpose as artificial reefs for divers, or for feature films. Nassau is the hotspot for wrecks, though there are a few on some of the other islands as well. The dive operators are now well-versed in sinking ships, but occasionally, even they get things wrong…
The Anne was supposed to land upright on the very edge of the drop-off, with the bow poking out into the blue, so divers could do a ‘Titanic’ for a photo op, but it ended up turning turtle with the rear superstructure hanging over the wall, meaning all but the very bottom of the hull was beyond the reach of most recreational divers. For more-experienced deep divers, it offered a stunning dive, and it was extremely dramatic hanging off the wall looking at the upturned superstructure, but alas, a series of storms moved its position, and it plummeted over the drop-off and disappeared into the abyss, meaning this became a dive that can only live on in memory.
“Dropping down, my buddy Larry Speaker and I left the rest of the divers in our group swimming around the upper portion of the ‘bottom’ of the bow with the dive guide, and then once we reached the reef, we started finning along the wreck, heading steadily deeper towards the stern. For the first time in my life, I experienced a ‘dark narc’ – I had tunnel vision, my heart was pounding in my ears, and I had an eerie feeling of dread – but just as I was at the point of thumbing the dive, we dropped over the edge of the drop-off and as soon as I saw the overhanging superstructure and focused on that, I suddenly regained clarity, relaxed, and snapped off a series of photographs with Larry alongside the wreck for a sense of scale. This wreck might not have ended up on the bottom as it was intended, but it made a great dive site in its own right, and it is such a shame it is now long-gone into the deep.”
Many of the Bahamian islands have some nice reefs to explore, but as Mark found out, hidden in plain view off the west end of Grand Bahama is a reef system of truly god-like proportions – Mount Olympus. Most visitors to this area are there for one thing – Tiger Beach, and its resident tiger and lemon sharks – but they are missing out on one of the healthiest, most-visually stunning coral reefs in the entire Caribbean, never mind the Bahamas.
“Rolling off the monster RIB into the warm Bahamian waters, I dropped quickly down to 5-6m and then turned around to be greeted by the most-phenomenal reef scene I have ever witnessed in the Caribbean. Honestly, the riot of colours, and the heady blend of soft corals, hard corals, sponges, seafans and encrusting marine growth, would not have looked out of place in the Indo-Pacific. Deep crevasses, gullies and swim-throughs were just liberally blanketed in a thick coating of growth. And it was not just the coral that caught my attention. The whole place was absolutely teeming with marine life, from all of the usual reef dwellers to barracuda, moray eels, trevally, grey reef sharks and eagle rays. I could have spent several dives just exploring this one location, there was that much to take in, and it is just unbelievable that more divers don’t have the pleasure of exploring this fantastic site.”
Wall diving is one of the Bahamas’ undoubted highlights, and you have sheer drops into thousands of metres from Nassau and several of the other islands, but one spot that has cornered the market in ‘extreme’ wall diving is Andros, which sits on the very edge of the so-called Tongue of the Ocean, where depths can exceed 2,500m.
“It was safe to say we had one very excited bunch of divers ready to jump off the boat into the calm waters off Andros. A dive site called Over the Wall awaited us. Descending on to the reef, we made our way steadily deeper until, at a depth of around 18-20m, the coral just stopped and a truly abyssal drop opened up in front of us. Dropping down this wall, we passed 30m, then 35m, then 40m, and as we sped past 45m, we saw a relatively narrow ledge materialise below us. Hitting the brakes by pumping air into our BCDs, we ‘touched down’ on this sandy plateau – the so-called ‘prehistoric beach’ – at 52m. Peering over the edge revealed nothing but inky black below us. After a minute or so, just as most dive computers were clicking over into deco-mode, we started heading back slowly up the wall, and by the time we were going back on to the reef top we were back into no-deco mode. A truly memorable dive, and even better, once you did it during the day, you were allowed to go ‘Over the Wall’ at night…”
You cannot write about diving in the Bahamas without talking about sharks. This island nation is one of the world’s hotspots for shark diving, and enthusiasts can take to the water with everything from majestic Caribbean reef and lemon sharks to mighty oceanic whitetip, tiger and great hammerhead sharks.
Nassau and Grand Bahama are great locations to see Caribbean reef sharks, both on regular wall, reef and wreck dives, and on specific shark-feeding dives. Grand Bahama is also the place for tiger sharks – the afore-mentioned Tiger Beach area is a regular hangout for tiger and lemon sharks in just a few metres of water. Cat Island is renowned for its oceanic whitetip encounters, while Bimini is rapidly making a name for itself in shark-diving circles with its great hammerhead dives. However, one of Mark’s earliest memories of a shark encounter in the Bahamas occurred off the wall on San Salvador, when he was diving with Paralympic Gold Medallist Danny Crates.
“Danny was ahead of me as we descended down the wall into deeper water. The drop-off was very steep, and narrowed to a gully before plunging into thousands of metres. As we neared 35m, I noticed Danny gesticulating wildly, waving his one arm (he lost the other in a nasty car accident in Australia) like mad and then pointing below us. At first I couldn’t see what he was getting all worked up about, but as I closed on his position, I could just make out a strange blue-grey shape beneath us, moving fast in a weirdly hypnotic side-to-side motion. I glanced at Danny and he had his straightened hand up against his forehead, and then moved it into a fist on the side of his head. He was right – it was a hammerhead shark. Looking back down at the shark, it was now much closer, and suddenly dramatically speeded up, rocketing up out of the deep directly towards us. I hastily tried to bring my camera – back then, a good old film Sea&Sea Motormarine II – to bear on the rapidly approaching predator, and at the same time glanced at Danny. His reaction nearly made me drop my regulator out of my mouth, I was laughing so much – he was busy stuffing his one arm inside his BCD! Later he told me ‘I’ve only got one left, can’t be too careful!”