Bahamas Travel Guide (2003) | Scuba Diving

Bahamas Travel Guide (2003)

| Stuart and Michelle Cove take shelter off New Providence, one of several islands in the Bahamas that offer regular shark encounter dives.|

December 2003

By Nick Lucey

Photography by Stephen Frink

Sometimes, it's easy to overlook the obvious. Take the Bahamas, for example--a massive archipelago of 700 sun-drenched islands that emerges just over the horizon from South Florida and contains a lifetime of diving opportunities, spread out over a chunk of Atlantic the size of Wyoming. To sum up its offerings in a book is difficult enough; in a magazine article it's nearly impossible. Whether you're looking for wreck diving, big animal encounters or lush reefs, to curl up with a good book in a hammock or roll the dice in glitzy casinos, for good nightlife or a good night's sleep, you'll find it.

Many people sample just one or two islands in the Bahamas and make sweeping generalizations about the rest of them. To do this is to shortchange this island nation of multiple personalities. There is perhaps no bigger contrast in the Caribbean than the one between bustling Nassau or Freeport and the pastoral Out Islands. Many of the islands look similar, but each is completely different.

Before diving was a glimmer in the eyes of most Caribbean destinations, divers were beating fins down to the Bahamas. Operators like Stuart Cove's, UNEXSO and Stella Maris recognized early on that they'd need to keep divers busy--whether by staging dolphin encounters or feeding sharks, sinking ships or zooming over reefs on underwater scooters. They've accomplished their mission; now, it's time for you to reap the benefits of their hard work.

| The eastern edge of Long Island rises sharply, and then abruptly drops to the sea.|

Bahamas' Best: Shark Feeding

Shark feeding started at Long Island about three decades ago and continues throughout the islands today. More than 100,000 divers have safely witnessed these feedings in the Bahamas. Safety is emphasized, and divers are urged to avoid having exposed skin and dangling white snorkels from their masks.

WALKER'S CAY > Shark Rodeo is the dive that made Walker's Cay famous. This unique brand of shark feeding features a frozen bait ball that draws as many as 100 animals at a time. It's possible to see reef, bull and lemon sharks all on the same dive.

NEW PROVIDENCE > Thousands of divers a year make a beeline for the shark sites here. Places like Shark Alley, Shark Arena and Shark Runway, mid-depth reefs with an abundance of Caribbean and blacktip reef sharks, are the backdrops for countless toothy photos.

LONG ISLAND > The folks at Stella Maris Resort were feeding sharks in the mid-1970s before it was cool. With a depth of about 30 feet, Shark Reef is one of the island's most popular dives.

DON'T OVERLOOK > Dangerous Reef in the Exumas; Bull Run Reef off Bimini; Shark Dive off Marsh Harbour.

Bahamas' Best: Dolphin Encounters

Movies including Thunderball and Cocoon were filmed in the Bahamas, but don't forget about Flipper, which was also shot here. It's no wonder why--this place is loaded with dolphins.

BIMINI > The surest encounter with spotted dolphins can be found off this island at White Sand Ridge on the flats of the Little Bahama Bank.

GRAND BAHAMA AND NEW PROVIDENCE > The planned encounters off Grand Bahama and New Providence provide guaranteed adventures with dolphins.

| Conception Island's prolific wall is covered with massive elephant ear sponges and is rarely visited by divers.|

Bahamas' Best: Wall Diving

| | San Salvador, believed to be Christopher Columbus's first landfall in the New World, is also famous for its seaside grottoes and dramatic offshore walls.| Look at a topographic map and you'll immediately notice that the island chain is perched on the edge of the abyss. Light blue on the charts immediately gives way to dark blue at the Tongue of the Ocean and along the southeastern edge of the archipelago.

SAN SALVADOR > San Salvador (also known as Watlings) is the undisputed capital of Bahamas wall diving. At Doolittle's Grotto, a series of crevices leads you from the sand on top of the wall to a sloping bank of coral riddled with swim-throughs.

NEW PROVIDENCE > Another contender in the wall diving arena is New Providence, which is perched on the abyssal Tongue of the Ocean. Grab a scooter and zoom out.

CROOKED ISLAND > Far off the beaten track is Crooked Island and The Black Forest, where currents nourish a thick black coral jungle, warp sponges and help attract reef fish, grouper and lobsters.

DON'T OVERLOOK > Chub Cay Wall off the Berry Islands; Andros's Hanging Gardens, Giant's Staircase and Turnbull's Gut.

Bahamas' Best: Wreck Diving

| | Long Island's MV Commerbach sports a couple decades of growth at 100 feet.| Over the centuries, the islands and islets of the Bahamas have snared seafaring vessels like an enormous net. Not so good for sailors, but great for divers like you.

GRAND BAHAMA > Theo's Wreck is a 230-foot steel freighter sitting on its port side in 100 feet of water and is the island's signature artificial reef. The Sugar Wreck is also a must-dive.

LONG ISLAND > The MV Commerbach is Long Island's big attraction--upright, intact and sitting on the edge of a deep drop-off in 100 feet of water. Totally encrusted, this intentionally sunk vessel is home to grouper and enormous tube sponges.

ELEUTHERA > In 1865, a Confederate smuggler departed from North Eleuthera with a heavy load--a locomotive and several railroad cars. He never made it; the Train Wreck sank during a storm and now sits in 25 to 35 feet of water.

NEW PROVIDENCE > Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas sank the 200-foot Ray of Hope in July, the island's newest wreck. It sits next to the Bahama Mama, another classic New Providence wreck.

DON'T OVERLOOK > The San Jacinto off Green Turtle Cay; Bimini Barge off Bimini. {mospagebreak}

Bahamas' Best: Blue Holes

The Bahamas' limestone skeleton is the perfect breeding ground for blue holes, or underwater cave systems that meet the sea. The coast of Andros, the Bahamas' largest island, is riddled with them, but you can find them throughout the chain.

ANDROS > The biggest blue hole in the Bahamas is simply called The Big Blue Hole and is a complex of three levels that are dived separately. This vertical cave is made up of numerous dark cave passages and was once known as King Kong's Cavern. Unless you're cave-certified, stick to the uppermost portion of the dive, circling the edge of the cavern past rugged limestone formations.

GRAND BAHAMA > Take the spiral staircase to Ben's Cave off Grand Bahama, a great example of the flooded caverns that dot the limestone islands.

NEW PROVIDENCE > The Lost Ocean Blue Hole is a vertical cavern that gapes open in just 30 feet of water on a sand bottom that's popular with southern stingrays and nurse sharks.

EXUMAS > At Angelfish Blue Hole, tidal action brings in millions of gallons of nutrient-rich water, which paints the walls in the breathtaking colors of a million sponges.

Bahamas' Best: Nightlife

| | Riding Rock's bar on San Salvador is decorated with dive bric-a-brac collected over the decades.| You know the nightlife is good when Ernest Hemingway makes a special point to get here to party. As a general rule, nightlife on New Providence and Grand Bahama is more energetic and loud; in the Out Islands, more low-key.

BIMINI > The Compleat Angler may be the country's favorite watering hole--after all, it was Hemingway's.

GRAND BAHAMA > Turn back time and act 18 again at the spring break hot spot Kaptain Kenny's.

NEW PROVIDENCE > Real rock stars head to Compass Point right outside Nassau, where you might witness a fashion shoot or music video being filmed while you sip on a Cosmopolitan. They're still wondering who let the dogs out at The 601 Club--the Baha Men's old stomping grounds--and dancing the night away in sweaty fashion at The Zoo.

Bahamas' Best: Beaches

With 700 islands, lots of sun and warm, clear water, life's a beach down here. You're guaranteed to find a stretch of sand to suit your fancy on any island, whether it's to people-watch on New Providence or Grand Bahama or to relax in seclusion in the Out Islands.

GRAND BAHAMA > The island boasts 60 miles of sandy shoreline, and Xanadu Beach is perhaps the best swath of it.

HARBOUR ISLAND > The Travel Channel named Pink Sands Beach one of the top 10 beaches in the world for 2003.

NEW PROVIDENCE > Stumble off the plane and onto some of the best beaches in the Caribbean, including Cable Beach and Old Fort Beach, or Paradise Island's Cabbage Beach.

DON'T OVERLOOK > The Abacos' Tahiti Beach; Eleuthera's Ten Bay Beach; the Exumas' Saddle Cay and Lee Stocking Island.

Bahamas' Best: Photo Opportunities

Underwater photographers are so demanding. They want special treatment on the boat, they travel with tons of gear and are unhappy with any diving conditions that are less than perfect. And they're welcomed with open arms in the Bahamas.

Checking loads of camera gear isn't a problem on the major carriers that connect North America and Europe with Nassau and Freeport, but is a logistical consideration when taking a puddle jumper to the Out Islands. Try to pack light, but if you can't, make sure your gear is protected in hard cases and be prepared to pay an excess-baggage fee. Once settled in on your island of choice, you can rest assured you'll probably be shooting in some of the best visibility that the Caribbean region can offer.

Bahamas' Best: Family Activities

While some might argue that more developed Nassau and Freeport are ideally set up to handle the logistics of a family vacation, we would argue that any island in the Bahamas is a great place for kids to learn about the environment above and below the water, be safe and have fun. Swimming, fishing, beachcombing, nature hikes, cultural tours, shopping and just bonding with the family are all possible on any of the islands. And snorkeling is a no-brainer. Clear, warm and calm water--the right ingredients for perfect snorkeling, and the Bahamas has it all. Bring at least a mask, fins and snorkel for each member of the family.

Six More Ways to Pass the Time

| | | Be a Good Consumer: The islands of New Providence and Grand Bahama are a mecca for duty-free shoppers. Don't miss the chance to hunt for bargains at Nassau's Straw Market.

Conch Yourself Out: If you've never eaten the meat of the shellfish Strombus gigas, you'll have plenty of opportunities to change that fact in the Bahamas. Try it any which way--fried, cracked, in a salad, in chowder or as a steak.

Look Through the Glass: If your family isn't into diving or snorkeling, they can still see what they're missing at Atlantis Resort's 11-million-gallon aquarium on Paradise Island--the world's largest artificial marine habitat.

Go Fish: The Bahamas are legendary among anglers for good reason. You can fish off any of the islands, but some of the most productive are Andros, the Exumas and Bimini.

Tee Off: After your morning dives, hit the links at any of a handful of golf courses on Grand Bahama, New Providence and Abaco.

Roll the Dice: There are four casinos in the country, two on Grand Bahama and two on New Providence.

Bahamas Travel Guide

Dive Conditions: Winter water temperatures drop to the 70s, while summer temps peak in the high 80s. Visibility ranges from 80 to 100 feet.

Climate: From December to May, temperatures average 60 to 75 degrees, while summer temps are in the low 80s.

Entry Requirements: U.S. citizens need proof of citizenship such as a passport or a birth certificate and driver's license.

Money Matters: The Bahamian dollar is equal to the U.S. dollar, and the two are used interchangeably. Credit cards and traveler's checks are accepted by most hotels and dive shops.

Departure Tax: $15 to $20, depending on which island you are on.

Time: Eastern Standard. Daylight saving time is observed from April to October.

Electricity: 120 volts, 60 cycles. U.S. appliances are compatible.

Health Matters: Food and desalinated water are safe.

Language: English.

Direct Dial Code: 242.

Just In Case: The Bahamas Hyperbaric Centre is in Nassau. Operating hours are 9 to 6, and it is on call 24 hours a day. For emergencies, call (242) 422-2434. For more information,

Dive Operators: For information on Bahamas dive operators, comprehensive travel guides, special dive deals and recent trip reports submitted by users, click on "TripFinder," located at the top of our home page,

Tourism: Bahamas Ministry of Tourism,; the Bahamas Diving Association,; Bahamas Out Islands Promotion Board,