>We recruited four world-class marine photographers and tasked them each with visiting two or three islands and photographing and reporting on their adventures for Bahamas Underwater Photo Week. We all traveled simultaneously in the last week of May 2014. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism arranged for filmmaker Cristian Dimitrius (see "Shooter: Cristian Dimitrius") to document our adventures. The photo team included Eric Cheng, Alex Mustard, Berkley White and me. Wetpixel.com staff Adam Hanlon and Abi Smigel Mullens reported the event via social media. See their coverage at wetpixel.com/articles/coverage-bahamas-underwater-photo-week and www.facebook.com/events/700675866656754/?fref=ts/.
>We present to you, distilled from several terabytes of collectively produced digital data, Bahamas Underwater Photo Week 2014.
— Stephen Frink
>By Stephen Frink
>GRAND BAHAMA, BIMINI AND THE ABACOS
>While the deep-dive tank that once hosted Walter Cronkite, Arthur Godfrey and Kim Novak is long gone, and the boats that once transported Lloyd Bridges (with his sons Beau and Jeff) have been upgraded long ago, that early spirit of adventure and innovation still lives on at UNEXSO today.
>My first dive of this trip with UNEXSO was to Ben's Cavern, named for long-time UNEXSO dive instructor Ben Rose — who, according to local lore, needed water for his overheating radiator and hiked into the bush, discovering the cavern leading to the immense freshwater cave system that now bears his name. Reservations are required at Ben's Cavern to prevent overcrowding, and it can be dived only with skilled cave-qualified instructors to keep divers from penetrating the cave system beyond what their skills allow. We dived only the cavern portion, with the light from the entrance always visible; yet even just a few fin strokes beneath the pool in only 20 feet of water we encountered a beautifully decorated system that hints at the subterranean glory that makes the blue holes and caves of the Bahamas must-do sites for cave enthusiasts.
tinyurl.com/zenato-frink.) Cristina can bring these sharks to a state of tonic immobility by stroking them along their electroreceptors, the ampullae of lorenzini, to the point where she can support them gently, cupping their snouts as they lie perfectly still in her hand.
>At the Dolphin Experience visitors can interact with bottlenose dolphins in a controlled environment within a large canal and basin or as scuba divers in the open ocean. For the open-ocean encounter, divers are transported to the reef from one of UNEXSO's dive boats as a smaller skiff runs alongside, with the dolphins following their trainer out to the reef. They typically go to a shallow reef in 30-45 feet of water, a site punctuated by scattered high-profile clumps of coral and gorgonia. While the dolphins are attentive to their trainer with classical conditioning reinforcing their behaviors, the dolphins are swimming freely in the open ocean, and the proximity the divers enjoy is impressive.
>While Freeport offers plenty of activities above and below the surface for any dive holiday, Grand Bahama Island offers even more. An hour's drive can take shark-diving enthusiasts to West End, home of Tiger Beach. Here, along an area of shallow reef and rubble bottom, large tiger and lemon sharks have been conditioned to reliably appear by years of shark feeds. These are wild sharks in the open ocean; divers should exercise care. It may not be a dive for everyone, but it is a very popular encounter. The site is exposed to the prevailing winds in winter, so most prefer to visit Tiger Beach in the summer and early fall.
>Traveling east from Freeport, we arrive at McLean's Town, the gateway to Deep Water Cay. Well known from the late 1950s by bonefish anglers, new owners acquired the club at Deep Water Cay in 2009 and decided that the same bountiful marine life that endear the destination to fishermen would likewise appeal to divers. The fishing is mostly flats fishing — catch and release for bonefish, tarpon and permit, or offshore for wahoo, tuna or mahi mahi.
>Deep Water Cay defines casual elegance. While my whirlwind visit did not allow thorough exploration of their nearby reefs, I enjoyed two shallow reefs at Lisa's Point and Dean's Reef, but the highlight was drifting along the tidal flow in only 10 feet of water at Thrift Harbor and seeing schools of eagle ray, sargassum clusters growing from the seafloor, dozens of angelfish and even a few nurse sharks.
>Situated just 53 miles due east of Miami, Bimini has long been a destination of choice for yachtsmen and anglers. Hemingway lived there from 1935 to 1937 and wrote To Have and Have Not between days out trolling the Gulf Stream aboard his yacht, Pilar. Dive legend Neal Watson brought recreational diving to Bimini in 1975; his son, Neal Watson Jr., now conducts dive operations there.
>A boat ride north to the expansive sand flats where spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) freely roam is a must. This is definitely a snorkel adventure, for scuba is too slow and ponderous for these capricious and fleet marine mammals. When they choose to engage a snorkeler, it is on their own terms and usually with significant enthusiasm. They tend to lose patience with those who aren't willing to swim, dive and play with them, but for those able to be an amusing diversion for a while, close encounters are quite probable.
>The new airport at Marsh Harbour is the first stop for the water-taxi rides that take you to either of these dive destinations. I was familiar with Green Turtle Cay, having dived there several times previously and enjoying my time with Bahamas dive icon Brendal Stevens, who with his wife runs a popular dive operation that offers packaged accommodations with a variety of small hotels and guest homes.
>Our next stop was Coral Caverns, a site dotted with swim-throughs and cathedral light piercing through from above. Caribbean reef sharks have clearly been fed here, enough so that they promptly appear at the sound of an anchor drop. But this day the attractions were the friendly Nassau grouper that clearly knew Brendal as friend and protector and the massive concentrations of silversides clogging the reef canyons.
>While motoring to the next site I looked over the side and was amazed at the elkhorn coral garden visible just below in water of 100-foot visibility. I have seen elkhorn come and regrettably go on more islands than I could name; to see it here so healthy and pristine was absolutely inspirational. When the sharks and grouper from Coral Canyons followed us to the elkhorn forest, it made for a meaningful photo opportunity.
>The reefs of Abaco are relatively shallow, with most dives to less than 60 feet. Our first dive was at Mini Wall within the Fowl Cays National Park. The abundance and easy familiarity that Michael had with the Nassau grouper here made it obvious this was a marine preserve, with no hook and line or spearfishing allowed. The reef canyons held plenty of yellowtail, a species becoming more rare due to overfishing in other places.
>Maritime-history enthusiasts must visit the wreck of the USS Adirondack off the northeast point of the island. This Union ship ran aground in August 1862 while preventing blockade running by the Confederacy. The scattered remains lie in 10 to 30 feet of water, but the most prominent artifacts are two immense cannons, each 12 feet long and weighing 10,000 pounds.
>By Eric Cheng
>NEW PROVIDENCE AND ELEUTHERA
>I have been visiting the Bahamas since 2002 and have made 14 separate dive excursions to explore her waters. For this Alert Diver assignment, I spent time in both New Providence (staying in Nassau) and Eleuthera, a long wisp of an island to the east.
>Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi) join a diver at the Ray of Hope shipwreck near Nassau, Bahamas.
>Five James Bond movies have included underwater scenes shot in New Providence, where the capital and largest city, Nassau, is located. In addition to the obvious beauty of its beaches and resorts, the water in the Bahamas is clear and impossibly blue, so vibrant it almost defies reproduction on film. In the film Into the Blue, starring Jessica Alba and Paul Walker, the color and clarity of the water would have won an Oscar if there had been a "water quality" category. There are easily accessible shipwrecks, shallow reefs and the vertical wall of the Tongue of the Ocean. The most enticing of all for adrenaline junkies are the sharks. The Bahamas are one of the best places on the planet to view and interact with multiple species of large sharks.
>New Providence is best known for the sheer masses of Caribbean reef sharks and interactive encounters. My dives were hosted by Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas, the largest dive operator in New Providence. Dozens of Caribbean reef sharks investigating the bait crate on the sandy bottom at times completely obscured views of my dive guide and shark wrangler, Charlotte Faulkner. She was able to demonstrate a strange shark reflex called "tonic immobility," during which sharks become temporarily paralyzed when the area around their snouts is stimulated. During this state, some so-called shark whisperers can even balance a shark, tail up, on the palm of their hand. There are only a handful of places in the world where divers can get close to sharks without the use of an attractant, and shark diving brings many tourists to the Bahamas. Shark fishing is banned in Bahamian waters, a nationwide shark sanctuary.
>An aerial perspective is really required to get a true sense of the unusual geology of a blue hole; for this I was equipped with a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+, a small quadcopter that carries an integrated, gimbal-stabilized camera that shoots 14-megapixel stills and 1080p HD video. It beams back live video to a smartphone, which you use to control the camera during flight. Sending the Vision+ in the air a few hundred feet showed the true nature of the blue hole — a lone indigo spot in the huge blue-green expanse of the ocean.
>My second stop was North Eleuthera, a long, thin barrier island exposed to the open Atlantic Ocean on its eastern shore. Eleuthera is about 110 miles long, and at its thinnest point is barely wider than the span of the road. Home to about 10,000 residents, Eleuthera is one of the Bahamas' main agricultural centers and is known for pineapple farming. I boarded a water taxi for my final destination, Harbour Island, home to the famous Pink Sands Beach, among the most beautiful beaches in the world.
>The diving off North Eleuthera was wild. Tarpon Hole is home to about a dozen large, shiny tarpon, cruising the area like a gang in their 'hood. Strong surge at the Blow Hole crashed against rocks, creating turbulent clouds of air down into the water column. I have seen surge action create similar phenomena at Malpelo and Roca Partida in the Revillagigedo Islands. They are reminders of the unstoppable power of the ocean and are beautiful to witness and photograph.
>The next morning I made a couple of dives at Current Cut, a narrow channel with raging currents estimated to be 6-10 knots. The dive plan was straightforward: Jump in, descend, ride the current through the passage, and surface. The estimated dive time was 10 minutes (the shortest dive plan I've ever encountered), and the distance traversed was 2 miles. We saw numerous eagle rays (none would let me get close), and all the narrow cuts at the bottom of the channel were full of jacks, angelfish and other fish hiding from the current. Current Cut is a thrilling dive, best done on an incoming tide for optimal water clarity. Dive operators will drop divers in the water a few times since the dive is so short. I did three more dives that day, including dives at Hammerhead Point (no hammerheads for me that day, though), Split Head Reef and the Arimora wreck.
>By Alex Mustard
>SAN SALVADOR AND LONG ISLAND
>I emerge from the silent world to a commotion. The Riding Rock dive boat reverberates with joyful shouts, squeals and laughter — and I can't say I am surprised. I've just surfaced from an hour underwater, and my cheeks ache from smiling. Few things are as special as a wild animal choosing to hang out with you, and we've just had two friendly Nassau groupers, known as Tom and Jerry, taking the reef tour right in the middle of our group. I fall for the big brown eyes and rubbery lips that give the groupers a cartoonish charisma. Their favorite trick is to sneak up on your blindside and suddenly appear inches from your mask. Captain Bruce tells us they like a little tickle under the chin. As a photographer, having groupers posing inches from my lens is about as good as it gets. The captain tells us friendly groupers have been on San Salvador as long as he's been diving.
>"San Sal's tourist draw has always been diving," explains Jay Johnson, the manager of the island's office of the Ministry of Tourism. "Other islands are most famous for fishing, beaches, shopping, casinos — and we have great fishing, nature and beaches here, but what we're really about is diving. San Sal was one of the world's first diving destinations. Riding Rock Inn put San Sal on the diving map in 1973. Now two of the most popular places to stay are Riding Rock and the large Club Med Resort, called Columbus Isle." Our visit is split between the two resorts.
>The red sun melts into the flat ocean, and it's time for a night dive. I enjoyed the fun of group diving in the day, but at night I prefer my solitude, hunting macro subjects away from the distraction of flashing beams. I am thrilled to find bountiful subjects: lots of shrimp, handsome triplefins, a beautiful nudibranch and more lettuce-leaf slugs than I could count. San Sal is known for wide-angle subject matter, with superb visibility and a dramatic dropoff just off the beach that rims the island. But I am mightily impressed with the abundance of tiny charms.
>The next day I dedicate my dive at Pinnacle Reef to macro photography and turn up tiny treasures including an arrow blenny, roughhead blennies, whitefoot shrimp and a decorator crab with orange legs poking out of the gray sponge covering its body. The big stuff is exciting the rest of the divers on the boat. During my stay I see plentiful grouper on all the sites, schooling jacks, snappers and grunts. Most of the schools are clustered around cleaning stations, and the grunts seem to almost unhinge their mouths when yawning to attract cleaning gobies. San Sal's larger attractions include rays, turtles and sharks. Others see hammerheads on our dives, but I guess my head was too stuck in the reef looking for sea slugs. Jay says that you can see groups of scalloped hammerheads in February and March, but you will encounter individuals year round.
>A tiny roughhead blenny watches the world go past its hole. San Salvador’s coral reefs are rich in macro life.
>San Sal is a family-friendly destination. The dives are mostly easy, although there is the option of depth for those who want it. I saw reef sharks on almost every dive, but unlike the Bahamas' biggest islands, they don't run shark feeds on San Sal because they have found their guests prefer it this way.
>The big animals are certainly a draw, with a healthy population of reef sharks and frequent sightings of hammerheads. But my indelible memories were of the groupers — not just underwater, but how mutual curiosity with a wild creature energized a group of teenagers in a way that a computer game or chat room never can. Nassau may be the capital of the Bahamas, but when it comes to Nassau groupers, the Out Island San Sal must be the grouper capital.
>Our next destination has an even stronger Out Island vibe. Long Island has a super laidback, away-from-it-all atmosphere. The island gets its name because it is just 4 miles across but 80 miles long, with a population of 4,000. We're staying in the north at Stella Maris Resort Club and diving with their water sports crew, both of which are very hospitable and relaxed. From here you are able to dive Long Island's local reefs, visit a wreck, make a shark dive or take a day trip to Conception Wall, one of the most famous in the Bahamas. A drive south on Long Island reveals Dean's Blue Hole, much loved by freedivers as it is the world's deepest known blue hole at 663 feet.
>Long Island and Conception Island
>Our first dive is at the 103-foot Comberbach wreck, which sits upright in close to 100 feet of water; it is impressive, with good growth on it. The propeller is almost unrecognizable for all the encrustation. What really blows me away is the amazing water, which is exceptionally clear and an almost luminescent blue. Omar Daley, our instructor and skipper, has been diving Long Island for more than 20 years. He says that he has seen huge spawning schools of Nassau grouper at the wreck — "50 feet wide and 80 feet tall around the winter full moons. We even get whale sharks hanging around to feed on the eggs."
>Adam Hanlon inspects the rich marine growth, including colorful sponges, on the wreck of the Comberbach, off Stella Maris, Long Island.
>We sample a shark dive, which attracts a handful of regular Caribbean reefs and blacktips. It is quite a contrast to the high-voltage shark dives I have done elsewhere in the Bahamas, but it would certainly make a good introduction to shark diving because it is only 30 feet deep and the few sharks generally keep a healthy distance. As historical perspective, Stella Maris was the first dive operation in the Bahamas to offer a shark-interaction dive at Shark Reef.
>My favorite dive is at Split Rock, which is a pretty, shallow reef, with a high diversity of life. I spent time with an attractive school of horse-eye jacks and then watched a queen angelfish chomping through a sponge. Omar also loves this spot: "It's great for fish life, particularly with the friendly jacks that just follow you around. It feels like an aquarium with so many varieties of fish. It is bright and shallow, a perfect starter for people's trips."
>The next day we make the 16-mile crossing to Conception Island. The calmer summer months are best for visiting the 2-mile-long Conception Wall, which reaches up to 55 feet from the ocean depths. We make two drift dives on the wall, which is rich with sponges — barrels, elephant ear and dark volcano sponges and lots of deepwater gorgonia. Groupers and lobsters are common, and the whole place has a healthy, untouched feeling. Omar says summer is the best time for mantas, and divers sometimes see hammerheads or tiger sharks in the deep distance.
>The top of the wall is quite deep; we're diving on air rather than nitrox, so we are soon cruising above it, in the blue with the scenery clearly visible below us. Suddenly we hear clicks and whistles, then moments later a bottlenose dolphin blasts into view, makes a few circuits of the group to check out everyone individually, and then he's off. He was only in view for a minute or two, but the memory of an encounter with this wild dolphin will live much longer.
>All our dives are from the large and comfortable Solmar 2 dive boat. In addition to ample space, there is plentiful time. The dives sites are between an hour and two and a half hours away, which means full day trips. On both days, we pull in close to shore between the dives and find ourselves alongside deserted beaches of powder-white sand and inviting, glass-calm turquoise waters. They are places so beautiful that when I'm back home in England under leaden-gray skies I can't quite believe such places really exist.
>This seems ideally suited to the guests here, who love the feeling of being on "island time" and aren't necessarily trying to fill their logbook as fast as possible. They appreciate having the beautiful ocean to themselves, with no other divers or boats in sight. The reefs feel untouched, and we see sharks on every dive. It really is like diving back in time.
>By Berkley White
>ANDROS AND THE EXUMAS
>It seems impossible that the largest island of an archipelago could be the best-kept secret. Andros Island is only 200 miles from Florida and is lined by one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, but it's an island that time passed by. Big jets pass overhead, and cruise ships skirt its shores, delivering honeymooners and highrollers to the large hotels, mega-yachts and casinos of Nassau. My 15-minute flight from Nassau was a time machine to another world. As I crawled out of the tiny plane, the large smiles and firm handshakes confirmed this was my kind of place.
>In my short three-day visit I got only a small taste of the 2,300-square-mile island that is sliced and diced by waterways and pocked with hundreds of blue holes. The most accessible blue hole is a giant one near Small Hope Bay. Here your dive begins in a narrow slot canyon on top of the reef, drifts deeper and finally emerges into an otherworldly crater the size of a small stadium. The dramatic lighting and size make you feel like a true cave explorer, but the magic is you get that rush without ever going deeper than 100 feet.
>This feeling of being a cave adventurer can easily be continued on most of the outer-reef dives, where endless cuts and caverns in the shallow reef dump you into the rich blue of the outer wall face. The shallow reef begins in as little as 10 feet of water, and with more than 60 dive sites available from Small Hope Bay, I left feeling like I'd barely immersed myself in the many options. Whether shallow dives to coral gardens along the Andros Barrier Reef, vertical walls along the Tongue of the Ocean or spectacular silverside-clogged caverns like Dianna's Dungeons, my time was impossibly brief for the extraordinary opportunities presented.
>I repacked my cameras and dive gear for the 15-minute flight back to Nassau to rendezvous with the dive live aboard Carib Dancer, bound for the Exumas. The Exuma chain is a sinuous bridge of sand and stubbly rock bisecting the Bahamas for more than 130 miles. I had previously explored the southern part of the chain and was looking forward to new sites in our northern itinerary. While the southern islands feature popular dive sites (and even swimming pigs), I had heard tales of great walls and sites holding large numbers of fish in the north.
>Marine life has flourished in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, and creatures such as this gray angelfish are easy to approach and photograph.
>Diving by liveaboard is the best way to see the diversity of a large island chain such as the Exumas, and I was lucky to join a friendly group of skilled divers led by a fantastic crew. Unlike land-based diving, liveaboard ships can work a greater range of dive sites and typically offer more dives in a day. For me nothing is more peaceful than to be at sea for a few days and wake up to an anchor drop at a great dive site. While the weather ultimately limited our cruising range, I was able to see sites that further opened my mind to the diversity of the Bahamas.
>View the Bahamas Underwater Photo Week 2014 photo gallery.
>© Alert Diver — Fall 2014