Diving Vacation in the Bahamas

 

Wednesday, November 22, 2006.. 2

Thursday, November 23, 2006.. 7

Friday, November 24, 2006.. 14

Saturday, November 25, 2006.. 14

Sunday, November 26, 2006.. 14

 

20 years ago almost to the day I became a PADI certified Open Water diver in Cairns, Australia at the Great Barrier Reef. Since then I had been diving occasionally off the coast of South East Florida (Delray and Palm Beach) or the Florida Keys. However, I had never gone to a resort or on a boat trip specifically designed for or catering to scuba divers. For Thanksgiving this year, Jill and I had planned just such a trip: We would get to the Small Hope Bay Lodge on Andros Island, the largest of the Bahamian Islands just a short 45 min flight away from Fort Lauderdale

 

Here is a short extract about Andros and the diving it offers:

Andros Island, Bahamas some 2300 square miles in size, is perhaps the largest tract of unexplored land in the Western hemisphere. Andros is also the largest island in the Bahamas. A coral limestone formation, Andros is dominated by thick inpenetrable bush, sliced in pieces by inland waterways, and edged by mangrove swamp. To the north are hardwood and pine forests--including Andros Pine, Mahogany (Madeira), Horseflesh, and Lignum Vitae; along the east coast are the fishing and diving grounds of the Andros Barrier Reef. On the West Coast are the pristine fishing flats of the Great Bahama Bank.

   The Andros Barrier Reef, the third largest in the world and the second largest and most unexplored in the western hemisphere, stretches 140 miles along the east coast of the island and rims the Tongue of the Ocean, with its 6,000-foot drop-off. Additionally Andros abounds in Blue Holes (underwater cave systems)--which have been the scene of some of the deepest underwater cave explorations in the world.

These attractive features plus the fact that it is wthin such close range of Florida (< 1 hr flight) made it our choice for a short diving getaway vacation.

 

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Jill picks me up and we leave my office in Fort Lauderdale at 12:30pm for the airport.

A short, but nevertheless international flight in a small propeller plane operated by “Grand Bahamas Airlines” brings us to the Bahamas. After 45 mins we touch down on a narrow airstrip with pine trees lined up on both sides so close that it feels like they’re clipping our wings.

The entire international airport consists of a pair of tiny buildings, each the size of a two-car garage. The immigration staff is very friendly, just as the local taxi operator aptly named “Jonnie’s Reliable Taxi”. There are only about 8000-9000 people on Andros Island, and the main traffic artery along the Island is a small rural road with one-lane bridges.

Cars drive on the left side – apparently this country must have been under British influence at some point in the past. The cars that still drive are typically quite old and dated; the ones that don’t drive anymore are often abandoned – either discarded on some public land or even just left on private properties, overgrown by plants and showing years of rust and decay. Proper disposal of waste seems to be a luxury most poor countries can’t afford…

After no more than a 10 min drive the taxi pulls into the Small Hope Bay Lodge. We are immediately surrounded by the charm of this small resort and its beach and boat dock.

There are a dozen or so private cabins with very nice views of the Ocean. We get to our room and unpack our gear and clothing.

Thanks to the all-inclusive pricing there is a minimum of fuzz and hassle: All meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the package. Likewise, you just go to the bar and help yourself to any drink you like.

Before dinner we want to go for a little walk. We reserve the East-facing beach for sunrise the next morning and venture instead towards the interior of the Island. We get to a little lake just before sunset.

Back at the lodge, dinner is served inside today, as it has been unusually cold not only in Florida (where we had reports of snowflakes in Orlando and wind-chill advisory in effect for central Florida this morning), but also here in the Bahamas. In addition to the warm food we also stay warm next to the open fire place of the general dining area. Who would have thought that we would sit around a fire place in the Bahamas!

 

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Day 2006. The morning dawns clear and cool. Facing East, we see the sun rise over the Ocean behind the Small Hope Bay with the dive boats at anchor.

Who wouldn’t want to wake up to a view like this?

Today will be our first day of diving. And it starts with a bang: Two dives in the morning, one of them the famous Blue Hole down to 105 ft, the other one a shallower reef dive to about 60 ft.

After some initial gear rental and check we assemble on the boat and listen to the dive master’s briefing. Additionally, as it is our first dive here at this resort, both Jill an I are asked to demonstrate perform some basic skills like taking your mask off under water and putting it back on again. All fairly routine, except for the fact that the shallow water under the dock is cold (due to the very cold air the last couple of days) and quite rough. It also means that we are wet during the boat ride, making the cold even more uncomfortable. Here Jill re-emerges after her skill demonstration onto the dive boat.

We cruise out to the Blue Hole dive site, perhaps a 15 min boat ride. Once there we suit up for the dive. Here Jill is getting some assistance from dive master Moose – he reminds me of the slogan on my “Life is Good” T-Shirt I bought in Maine during our recent trip to Acadia National Park: “Cool as a Moose!”

Once we are all in the water we descend down the boat anchor line to about 70 ft. Then we follow the reef to a drop-off which opens up down into the Blue Hole. Here we all follow the lead dive master into an opening next to an overhanging wall, almost like the entrance to a cave. This Blue Hole is one of the signature dives here in Andros. You certainly get a strong sense of 3-dimensional perspective with black walls, colorful coral, rock openings with light flooding in from above, and a labyrinth of boulders and walls to navigate through. All very exciting, in particular for the first dive here on site.

After about 35-40 mins of dive time we come back up to the boat and take a brief rest, during which the boat brings us to the next dive site called Libens Point. The surface interval between these two dives in the morning is quite short, typically just 20-30 mins. So before we can really warm up comfortably it’s time again to suit up the BCD, regulator, tank, mask and fins and get in the water again.

The second dive is less spectacular, but still provides plenty of opportunity to study the reef and fish down below. I also get more familiar with my rented scuba equipment and learned how to deal with the new mask which always fogs up after a few minutes. (The trick was to use some toothpaste to wipe off some initial coating off the lens!)

Once back to the lodge we get off the boat, rinse our equipment, hang up the wetsuit to dry in the wind, and warm up a bit in dry cloths. We then refresh ourselves with buffet lunch, topped off with coffee and icecream. Ahhh, the “Eat – Sleep – Dive” rhythm J

My National Geographic T-Shirt has a fitting theme: A Great White shark on the front and back with the tag line: “Let’s do lunch!”

But there is hardly enough time to rest prior to the next high-light: We did sign up for the afternoon specialty dive at the Shark Emporium. There we will witness the feeding of about a dozen reef sharks!

Again we pull away from the dock and set out to the dive site about a 20 min boat ride from the lodge. When we get there we are all somewhat excited. Sure enough the first sharks are circling the boat in anticipation of the feast. Pawlov not with dogs, but with sharks. My first thought is this: With these sharks in the water, I’m not going to jump in there! But of course, the dive masters go in first and assure us that everything is fine. After all, they want us paying customers to come again (and pay again J) and they have a flawless safety record. No risk, no fun! Hence we all take the plunge and glide down to a sand bottom in about 60 ft with pretty clear visibility. We see a total of 11 reef sharks – about 6-7 ft long – awaiting their lunch!

After coming back up we’re really psyched, but also cold and exhausted. The boat ride back with the low sun and cool wind is chilling. Everybody is wrapped in their towel and anticipating the hot showers back at the lodge.

And of course we’re treated to a spectacular dinner – it’s Thanksgiving after all! They really put on a tremendous effort, with plenty of food and very friendly, warm atmosphere. To top it off they serve no less than 23 different deserts outside.

Well, in this case they favored quantity over quality, but we won’t complain. We’re all hungry after 3 dives today and simply enjoy the food. Of course, after all this fresh air, salt water, sun and plenty of food, we are very tired and sleep like babies…

 

Friday, November 24, 2006

Today the morning dawns clear, the weather is still cool but supposedly warming up a bit. We get up and check out life at the beach:

After some relaxing in the hammock we get ready with many others to get on the boat for our morning boat trip with two dives.

Today the first dive site will be the socalled Whip Wire Wall. Named after coral which grow on it like whip wires, this wall is a unique geological feature.

No more than 1-2 miles off the beach the coral and sand bottom of about 90ft plunges away in a near vertical wall down to depths up to 6000ft! Diving along this wall gives a spooky feeling when looking down into the blue-black abyss. Lose your dive light or a weight belt there and you can kiss it good-bye!

Here is a satellite image courtesy of http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/search.php?q=Bahamas. South-Florida is on the top-left. The yellow arrow in the middle points to the location of the Small Hope Bay Lodge on Andros, the largest Bahamas island. You can see the dark-blue water right off the shore, where the water drops down to 6000 ft.

This dive is our deepest dive. We go down to about 130ft, which also marks the limits of recreational diving. If you go any deeper, you almost certainly face mandatory decompression time on the way up and your risk starts to increase considerably. From 130ft, while I can still see the surface thanks to the excellent visibility, I don’t think I could get to it in case my scuba would fail. That’s where the buddy system comes in, i.e. the close proximity of a partner. This effectively brings redundancy and reduces the likelihood of both scuba systems failing to near zero. On even deeper specialty dives they have 1 dive master for every two clients and may even bring fully redundant gear for everyone when cave-diving.

I can understand the phaszination of exploring the mysterious deep. There are many excellent books / audiobooks in this regard, such as:

·       Shadow Divers The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II, by Robert Kurson

·       The Last Dive A Father and Son's Fatal Descent into the Ocean's Depths, by Bernie Chowdhury

We have a nice dive without any incidents. In fact, the dive master continues to film our dives so we can later view ourselves underwater and even buy a DVD with all footage.

The second dive is a shallow water reef dive at a place called Jeff’s Ladder. Nothing too special, compared to the Whip Wire Wall anyway.

On the way to the dive site we motor past the sight of a wreck: A tug-boat which ran aground one night when mistaking shore-lights for a different location with a channel and inlet. This boat has been sitting there on the reef since about 8 years or so…

After the second dive we are all pretty cold and get back to the lodge for lunch and some rest. We go out one more time in the afternoon for another dive. On the way back we’re very tired, but also very happy.

In the evening we have good dinner with a birthday celebration for one of the guests. Life has it’s own rhythm here on Andros, one we can get used to quickly.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

 

Today will be the last day for us to dive, since you can’t dive more than 24 hrs prior to boarding an airplane. We go out for another two dives in the morning, by now almost routine.

There is a specialty dive for another group – a family of four – which leave with the other dive boat and dive master Moose just for their small group.

We come back to the lodge, relax in the sun and have lunch. The weather is warming up and it is more like the typcial weather in the Bahamas.

For the afternoon, Jill decides to go Kayaking on the lake we saw on the first evening. I am joining some other divers on the boat, but I plan to just go snorcheling. We stop at a nearby key, where Sae will do an intorductory scuba lesson in shallow water for two guests. I also go out there as I assume there is a good spot for snorcheling. I plan to swim around the little key in search of fish and coral. However, it turns out that the water there is quite shallow and sandy, and the visibility isn’t all that great. So I see the boat leaving to their dive spot and wish I had stayed on it.

But wait, the boat isn’t going much further – the dive site is pretty close nearby. Once I see them anchoring with the red-white-red dive flag flying, I decide to swim over there to the boat. It is a bit spooky to wim all by yourself a few hundred yard from land and the boat, with the knowledge that there are sharks in the water etc. But after maybe 15 min of swimming with the fins I reach the boat.

All the divers are in the water. So I just stay in the water and look down about 50 ft to the scuba divers. At times I take a deep breadth and freedive down to the scuba divers at 50 ft. Feels strange to mix in with the others, as I’m the only one without a scuba.

I also see dive master Sceebo blow a perfect ring-shaped bubble twice. I have never seen this before. The ring comes up from the deep and expands – looks a bit like a hula-hoop – until it finally falls apart.

After 75 minutes in the water I get out with the divers on the boat and need to warm up. Dinner feels even better tonight after so much sun, salt and water during the day. Eat, Sleep, Dive…

There is also a celebration every night to award a diploma for those guests who will leave the next day. Jill and I are up tonight for our diploma. We also play Scrabble with a local girl, who plays surprisingly well.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Today we get up early and watch the sunrise again.

We have breakfast early in the morning and then sit in a swing right next to the beach.

There is also a signature tree root stranded on the beach, simply called “Jeff’s tree”:

We reserve two bicycles for our last morning outing. These bikes are some beach cruisers, sturdy with broad tires.

Our goal on the bike, about 45 mins away: The Island Blue Hole in the Andros Central National Park. The road leading back to the Blue Hole is a narrow dirt road, flooded from some recent rain.

Finally we reach the Blue Hole, a circular hole in the ground with deep, blue water.

There is a platform about 15 ft above the water from which to jump into the water. To climb back out, there is a wooden ladder leading up the near vertical rock.

Jumpin gin is fun. I get an idea as I swim back to the ladder: How about climbing on the roof and jumping from there! While I do that, Jill takes a picture of me looking back while in free fall:

After having some fun and splashing in the water I climb back out to warm up and dry the swim suit in the hot sun.

On the way back we encounter some wild orchids along the road. As well as multiple car wrecks – a really sad sight.

Soon we get back to the main road and ride back towards the lodge.

We have a short stop at the Love Hill Beach. After that we get back to the lodge and finalize packing our gear. Shortly after lunch we need to leave this friendly place and start heading for home.

After a short cab ride we’re back at the airport, and after waiting some more time there we board the little propeller plane again.

The flight back to Fort Lauderdale takes about 45 min. It is rather uneventful, except for a few thick clouds we have to negotiate on the way back to Florida. The afternoon sun is getting low and paints beautiful lights against the water and under the low-hanging clouds. We finally see the Florida coastline again just North of Miami.

At 5:00pm we’re back on the ground in Florida. Our trip to the Bahamas lasted just 4 days – time flies when you’re having fun!