The islands of the Bahamas are a diving paradise, offering a plethora of colourful reefs, dramatic walls, spectacular shipwrecks and in-your-face pelagic action. MARK EVANS recalls some of his own most memorable moments there
The sprawling archipelago of the Bahamas is 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 as well as “genuine” shipwrecks and other sunken attractions – and several bucket-list shark species in regular attendance – it’s not hard to see why it has built up such a stellar reputation.
I have made several trips to the Bahamas, visiting Nassau and Grand Bahama as well as the Out Islands of Eleuthera, San Salvador, Andros and Abaco, and have notched up some stand-out dives along the way.
Best of Bahamas reefs
Many of the Bahamian islands have nice reefs to explore, but as I found out, hidden in plain view off the west end of Grand Bahama is a reef system of god-like proportions – Mount Olympus. Most visitors to this area are there for one thing – Tiger Beach, with its resident tiger and lemon sharks – but they are missing out on one of the healthiest, most visually striking coral reefs they are likely to see.
Rolling off the monster RIB into the warm Bahamian waters, I dropped quickly to 5-6m before turning to be greeted by the most phenomenal reef scene I had ever witnessed in the Caribbean. Honestly, the riot of colours, and the heady blend of soft corals, hard corals, sponges, sea fans and encrusting marine growth, would not have looked out of place in the Indo-Pacific. Deep crevasses, gullies and swim-throughs were 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 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’s unbelievable that more divers don’t have the pleasure of exploring this fantastic site.
Wall-diving is one of the Bahamas’ undoubted highlights, with sheer drops into thousands of metres from Nassau and several of the other islands. One diving spot has cornered the market in “extreme” wall-diving and that’s Andros, which sits on the very edge of the so-called Tongue of the Ocean, where depths can exceed 2,500m.
We had one very excited bunch of wreck divers ready to jump off the boat into the calm waters. A dive-site called Over the Wall awaited us, and we were keen to see this iconic location for ourselves. Descending onto 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 ahead of us.
As we swam over this sheer drop-off, a cable vanished into the endless blue below, beckoning us down into the depths. Dropping down this wall, we passed 30m, then 35m, then 40m, and as we sped past 45m we saw a relatively narrow ledge materialise beneath us.
Hitting the brakes by pumping air into our BCs, we touched down on this sandy plateau – the “Prehistoric Beach” – at 52m. Peering over the edge revealed nothing but inky blackness below us.
After a minute or so, just as most dive-computers in the group were clicking over into Deco mode, we started heading slowly back up the wall, and by the time we were getting back onto the reef-top we were back into No-Deco mode. A truly memorable dive and, even better, once you had done it during the day you were allowed to go “Over the Wall” at night…
The Bahamas has a long list of shipwrecks and other submerged attractions to explore. Most of these have been sunk on purpose as artificial reefs for wreck-divers, or for feature films. Nassau is the hotspot for wrecks, although 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…
One scuttled ship 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 pose for a photo op, but it ended up turning turtle, with the rear superstructure hanging over the wall. This meant that all but the very bottom of the hull was beyond the reach of most recreational divers.
For more experienced deep divers, it offered a spectacular dive, and it was extremely dramatic to hang 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. It became a dive that can only live on in memory.
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 on the point of thumbing the dive, we descended 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 to provide a sense of scale.
This wreck might not have ended up on the bottom as intended, but it made a great dive-site in its own right. It’s such a shame that it is now long-gone into the depths.
Shark-diving in the Bahamas
You cannot write about the best diving spots 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 aforementioned Tiger Beach area is a regular hangout for tiger and lemon sharks and 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 my earliest memories of a shark encounter in the Bahamas occurred off the wall on San Salvador, when I chose the best diving spots with Paralympian gold medallist Danny Crates.
He was ahead of me as we descended 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 like mad (he lost the other in a nasty car accident in Australia) and 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 BC!
“I managed to compose myself somewhat and got a single, half-decent shot of the hammerhead before it veered away from us when it was just a couple of metres below. I then looked back at Danny, who was extricating his arm from his jacket.
When we were back on the boat 30 minutes later, I asked him what he had been doing. “Heh, I’ve only got one arm, I wasn’t taking any chances!” he replied. I spilled some of my post-dive fruit-juice on hearing that comment!
Photographs by Mark Evans