Have you always wanted to dive with sharks? Hug a dolphin? Explore shipwrecks, caves and colorful coral reefs? What if you wanted to have all of these adventures wrapped into one destination? Then, it is time to visit the Caribbean island of Grand Bahama.
Located 55 miles due east of Florida and roughly 100 miles from Ft. Lauderdale or Miami’s International Airports, Grand Bahama is easily accessible from the U.S. mainland by plane, boat or cruise ship. It is the fifth largest of the approximately 700 islands in the Bahamas island chain while enjoying a modest population of only 75,000 people. The Bahamas capital city of Nassua alone has 250,000.
The relaxed atmosphere of Grand Bahama is apparent as soon as you set foot on the island. Simply looking down upon the turquoise waters during the flight in is enough to kick start your attitude adjustment. Those crystal clear waters are legendary for their astonishing visibility, so it is no wonder they have played host to several Hollywood movies including Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash, Cocoon and the James Bond movies Thunderball and Never Say Never Again.
Grand Bahama is the only place in the world where you can interact and swim with captive dolphins in the open ocean. The Dolphin Experience is run by UNEXSO (Underwater Explorers Society), and they are responsible for a breeding program of 16 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. These second and third generation captive dolphins live in a natural nine-acre lagoon called Sanctuary Bay.
There are several different dolphin encounters to choose from, with varying levels of involvement. The dolphin interactions range from standing on a submerged platform, to swimming with dolphins in the lagoon, to open ocean snorkeling and scuba diving with dolphins along the coral reef and ultimately to becoming a trainer for the day. At every level, the dolphins perform behaviors on your command, interact up close and personal and even pose for photos while you give them a hug or a kiss.
I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in both the open ocean snorkel and the scuba diving encounters with the dolphins. On both occasions, two dolphins escorted us from Sanctuary Bay, following their trainer’s boat through the canals to the open ocean.
Along the way, the dolphins were asked to perform jumps and spins beside the boat, and at their trainers command, they exploded out of the water in perfect unison, soaring high in the air, before splashing back into the ocean. Prior to each encounter, the dolphin trainer gave a briefing explaining the plan for the day and an overview of hand signals with which to elicit behaviors from the dolphins. Once at our destination, the trainer expertly managed the dolphins as they were sent to one diver or snorkeler at time to perform behaviors at our request. We were able to swim alongside the dolphins, have them spin us in the water, give them a hug and go for a ride while holding onto their dorsal fins.
I have spent a lot of time in the water with dolphins and have to admit that I never tire of the experience. There is something truly remarkable about interacting with these amazingly intelligent and playful creatures.
There are numerous shipwrecks to be explored in the waters around Grand Bahama. Some were sunk as the result of storms or ran aground on the coral, and others were sunk intentionally as artificial reefs.
The largest vessel we explored was called Theo’s Wreck. Sitting on her port side in 100 feet of water, the adventurous may penetrate Theo’s hull both at the cargo hold and the engine room. Formerly a 228-foot cement hauler, she was sunk intentionally by UNEXSO in 1982. Working your way down the mooring line, Theo’s Wreck is an impressive site as she materializes from the depths. The wreck has a myriad of coral and sponge growth on her hull and a resident green moray eel can usually be found. Given her size and depth, it takes several dives to explore the full structure properly. Sadly, we were only able to dive Theo’s Wreck once during our stay, and I look forward to seeing more of her on my next trip.
La Rose is a classic triple-decker tugboat that sits upright in 95 feet of water next to a dive site called Moray Manor. Sunk in 2004 as an artificial reef, the wreck’s close proximity to the sloping coral reef allows for longer bottom times by using a tiered dive profile. We were able to spend 10-15 minutes on the wreck at 80-90 feet and then work our way up into the large coral heads that populate Moray Manor, all the while being escorted by a large, inquisitive barracuda. Once on the reef, we were entertained by a school of bar jacks congregating above a huge colony of great star corals.
Another popular site we dove was Papa Doc’s Wreck. Though truth be told, the only thing left of the original 1968 shipwreck were the engine blocks. Sunk in a storm, the original boat carried a group of mercenaries headed to fight in the Haitian revolution to overthrow François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Now in its place, sitting 50 feet deep and upright in the sand, is a tugboat named the Badger. The wreck supports a healthy array of reef fish safely tucked away in the wheelhouse and significant coral and sponge growth is starting to show on its hull. If you look closely out in the sand you may even find a kitchen sink nearby. In my case, a Caribbean reef shark and some trailing bar jacks were kind enough to swim between the sink and the tug making for a fun photo.
The last of the shipwrecks we visited during out stay was called the Pretender Wreck. Other than the base of the hull and twin props sticking up a few feet out of the sand, there was little left to see. In fact, I would bet that most folks who dive this site never even notice the wreck at all. That is primarily because this spot is also called Shark Junction, and divers are usually kneeling in the sand along the edge of the Pretender, surrounded by circling Caribbean reef sharks.
The shark feeding dive on Grand Bahama is not to be missed. There are a couple of outfits that offer this dive, but I would recommend ...
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Big Mozambique issue: Mega fauna off East Africa with Don Silcock, Tofo and Zavora with Scott Bennett; Diving the islands of the Bahamas with Charles Stirling; Diving diversity on Grand Bahama Island with Matthew Meier; Audace wreck with Massimiliano Canossa; Tagging sharks on Palau with Georgina Wiersma and Peter Verhoog; Deep diving motivation by Wes Skiles; Natural light in underwater photography by Lawson Wood; Nudibranch safari in Norway with Christian Skauge; plus news and discoveries, equipment news, photo and video equipment, dive books, shark tales, whale tales and much more...