It’s been 37 years, but we’re back in the Bahamas. The last visit was in 1982 when, after a notable expedition on Andros Island, we achieved a world-record penetration of a submarine cave.
Since then almost everything has changed; the world has moved on. Our state-of-the-art (British) approach seen in the 1983 film now seems farcical.
At that point there were no dive-computers. We wore horse-collar ABLJs for buoyancy control, regulators failed regularly, our trim was non-existent, and lines were 4-6mm diameter polypropylene. Significantly, my lighting for underwater photography was courtesy of single-use flash-bulbs.
My memories of our diving in 1981 and 1982 remain vivid, and certainly exploring in warm clear water was wonderful compared to the cold grim environments that we experienced back in the UK.
But despite the tremendous advances in diving as a whole, it was something different that was drawing me back.
Leading US cave-diver Brian Kakuk had first set his mark on the Bahamian blue holes in the 1990s, but since then he has gone on to reveal the most spectacular caves imaginable, on Abaco Island. We knew that there were lavishly decorated caves on Grand Bahama back in 1982, but the sights that Brian and others have revealed on Abaco are outstanding.
I had seen the magnificent images. Talking to people who had visited, it was clear that for elemental beauty, the caves of Abaco were the holy grail.
Now it’s February 2019, and Helen and I arrive in Marsh Harbour, Abaco’s principal town. The weather is great, and we think we’re pretty much prepared. We have brought 5mm wetsuits, new Apeks regs, modern flotation devices and every other hi-tec accoutrement we think we’ll need for two weeks of underwater activity.
Brian picks us up from the airport and takes us to his superbly equipped base “Bahamas Underground”, a short distance away.
Brian lights the rock roses in the area of Ralph’s Cave called the Glass Factory.
We learn that our host has recently secured government protection for a large tract of land that includes a number of caves. This South Abaco Blue Holes Conservation Area extends to many hundreds of acres of Caribbean pine forest and four principal sites – Dan’s Cave, Ralph’s Cave, Nancy’s Cave and Sawmill Sink.
We learn that all cave-diving in the conservation area is now regulated and has to be supervised directly by an approved guide, of which there are currently three. Because of some exciting archaeological discoveries made at Sawmill Sink, any underwater activity there requires a special permit.
Abaco, like Grand Bahama and Andros, is low-lying (its highest point is less than 20m above sea level) and covered in some unpleasant jungle undergrowth. Serious exploration did not get underway until the 1990s, largely because of the lure of dramatic discoveries elsewhere.
In 2018 Steve Bogaerts, one of the leading divers operating down in Quintana Roo, Mexico, returned to the Abaco caves, where he had been one of the earliest pioneers. As a highly adept long-distance explorer, he linked Dan’s Cave to Ralph’s, but given the intimidating nature of the terrain a through trip was to elude him.
Some 14-15 miles of passage has now been charted across the four caves, and clearly far more remains to be explored.
We are briefed thoroughly. We have seen the images, and utmost care needs to be taken on every dive. I have seen some amazing places, but nothing prepares us psychologically for the sights to be revealed in the following days.
Relatively few people have visited Abaco, so the caves are pristine. Brian and the other guides are passionate about conservation and maximum party size is three, of which our host is one.
This fragile environment is no place for speed. As Brian stresses, we need to modify the techniques we have learned in our training and implement in our normal dive environment.