Two weeks after Hurricane Dorian hit, I was on the phone with my mom and mentioned I’d be leaving for the Bahamas the next day. My comment was met with silence and then an astonished and slightly worried, “Why are you going there?” I was headed for a weeklong liveaboard trip on Aqua Cat departing Nassau and diving the Exumas and Eleuthera. We’d be diving over 200 miles from where Hurricane Dorian did most of its damage, but I found every time I mentioned my travel plans, people replied with shock, asking why I was going to a country the media claimed was “wiped off the map.”
For a quick geography lesson, the Bahamas consists of more than 700 islands and cays that stretch more than 500 miles across the Atlantic. The islands cover a lot of distance, so it’s not surprising that some parts of the country were hardly touched by the hurricane. Dorian did plenty of damage to Abaco and Grand Bahama, but largely spared areas to the south. So while this probably isn’t a good time to take a vacation to Abaco, there are plenty of other parts of the Bahamas where it’s business as usual and they are ready to take you diving, show you their beautiful islands, and serve you some rum cocktails (if you so desire).
Aqua Cat – Exumas and Eleuthera
My first stop was a week diving aboard Aqua Cat, part of one of its normal itineraries taking divers to the Exumas and Eleuthera. Dorian had the boat docked during the worst part of the storm, but once the weather cleared and the captain deemed it safe, the crew was able to head south and still get a few dives in the week of the storm in protected areas.
We took the same route and spent our time underwater with all the typical characters you’d expect to see in the Bahamas. We dived in the sea grass beds close to land, searching for seahorses and pipefish with stingrays doing fly-bys. On wall dives there were huge sponges and sea fans on the reef, and the occasional eagle rays out in the blue. Shallow reefs had plenty of macro life, including flamingo tongues, nudibranchs, jawfish and adorable juvenile angelfish.
Excellent service, fantastic food and awesome diving are the components of every great dive trip, and I experienced all of that.
Stuart Cove’s — Nassau
After my week on Aqua Cat, I headed over to Stuart Cove’s on Nassau, which is also still up and running. The area had a few days of strong winds and rain, but things are back to normal and I can confirm the sharks are doing just fine too. Being underwater with sharks is always exciting, no matter how many times you get to do it, and Stuart Cove’s shark dive adventure is a great way to get up close and personal with Nassau’s reef sharks.
My shuttle driver transporting me from Paradise Island to Stuart Cove’s spent the drive telling us about his life on the island and the highlights of Nassau. As we neared the end of our trip he made quite a speech thanking us for coming to the Bahamas. He said that in Nassau they are down to one-third of typical tourism this time of year because of public perception that all of the Bahamas was badly damaged by Hurricane Dorian. “But we are 30 major islands and only two were affected,” he continued. “The media, they didn’t specify what part of the Bahamas was destroyed, and we miss the tourists. You see? My bus is only half full.” (It was actually less than half full.)
We live in a world that loves a dramatic news story, but these over-exaggerations can cause further damage to a country with an already struggling economy. Tourism accounts for about 50 percent of the Bahamian gross domestic product and provides jobs for around half of the country’s workforce. When the tourists stop coming, people stop working, making the situation even worse. Those who have lost homes and jobs on Abaco and Grand Bahama may try to go to another island to work or possibly start again, but when the residents of the other island are already struggling to find work, it will be even more difficult for newcomers. When travelers are misinformed, thinking an entire country is destroyed, they cancel trips and make a bad situation even worse.
UNEXSO – Grand Bahama
I flew over to Grand Bahama at the end of my trip to say hello to the folks at the Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO), and they told me they are ready for divers. They kindly took me out for a dive and the crew seemed genuinely excited to be going out on the water. I heard them talking among themselves, saying they hadn’t been diving in a month and were looking forward to getting back in the water. (I can vouch for this mentality—one doesn’t become a scuba instructor or guide to sit on land all day.)
As we prepared to back-roll off the boat into that indescribable shade of blue water known only to the Caribbean, a turtle popped his head out to take a breath. Underwater, we had several reef sharks cruise by, and we inspected the numerous coral heads with parrotfish and angelfish. We even found a tiny lettuce leaf sea slug.
Freeport did not get the brunt of the damage that the east side of the island received, and now, a month later, a lot of the damage to the city has been cleaned up. Many hotels and restaurants are open, although many are currently servicing aid workers and others vital to getting the island back up and running.
Many of the tourism operations are ready to welcome divers and visitors back to the island, and I heard several mentions of possible dates in the next two weeks that the cruise ships might return. My driver from Grand Bahama Nature Tours, who took me around the island, seemed to know everyone (as is common on small islands) and stopped to say hello to almost every car we passed. Many conversations discussed “the boats” coming back, and he spread the word to coworkers about when tours might be running again. Land-based tour operations have also halted, and the owner told me she had to lay off around 40 people since the storm.
Going on your trip to the Bahamas is one way to help the country. There is no reason to cancel your trips to Nassau and the islands to the south, as they did not receive any damage form Hurricane Dorian. Freeport, on the west side of Grand Bahama, is ready for divers, and the people are looking forward to getting back to work. While it is going to take a long time for Grand Bahama to recover, helping residents there return to a state of semi-normal is important too. It’s almost as if the storm has caused twice the blow, first the physical destruction and now an island dependent on tourism is at a standstill.
Obviously it’s always important to do your homework. Contact your liveaboard operators or dive resorts to find out the truth about a destination after a natural disaster. They have eyes on the ground and know where it is still OK to go and what to expect. If you’re headed to Nassau or the southern islands of the Bahamas, you can expect things to be just as they were prior to Hurricane Dorian. The people there will be ready and willing to greet you and show you their amazing country. Freeport is getting ready to welcome tourists back and looking forward to their return.
In no way am I trying to discount the unbelievable amount of damage done to Abaco and Grand Bahama from Hurricane Dorian. It will take years to recover, and the islands will likely never be the same. But the people of the Bahamas are strong, and they are rebuilding and will come back even better. More than ever this is a great time to visit the Bahamas.
For other ways to support Abaco and Grand Bahama please visit the Bahamas Relief Website.