hen one thinks of the Out Islands of The Bahamas, several images immediately spring to mind. These are long strands of powder fine beaches sloping into an ocean colored with a subtle yet dazzling palette of blues, stretching to the horizon; settlements and villages populated by strongly rooted and honest people, smiling at you; and a sense of tradition and history stretching back to the edge of memory. If that representation is too prosaic for your taste, consider this. There is one thing that seems to represent modern life: the stoplight. Search the Out Islands and you will find that in one place only, Marsh Harbor in the Abacos. And, by the way, there is only that single stop light-throughout literally hundreds of Out Islands and cays!
The Out Islands, also commonly known as the Family Islands, are defined as every island outside of the most populated islands in The Bahamas-Grand Bahama (Freeport) and New Providence (Nassau). This has come about due to the fact that the two big islands are the center of population and commerce and have been the focus of international attention. However, the Out Islands hold the very essence of Bahamian culture and life. With a population of only 50,000 spread through many occupied islands, there is a sense of rootedness, calm and sincerity.
For divers, there is always the feeling you are one of the first to experience and view an area. This holds true whether you are visiting an established dive destination-such as Andros, San Salvador, the Abacos, Long Island, Eleuthera or Bimini or being lucky enough to find yourself in the truly unexplored islands, such as the Ragged Island, the Inaguas or other untouched territory in the southern Bahamas. In the Out Islands, you can be an adventurer by simply dropping in the water or just walking down a truly deserted beach. This is the stuff of which dreams are made. Let's take a quick look at the Out Islands currently offering professional dive services to visitors.
The islands of the Abacos rest on the east edge of the Little Bahama Bank. Sophisticated yet quiet villages hold echoes of New England coastal communities-a fishing tradition, which has easily evolved over time into a solidly Bahamian sense of life. Visit Green Turtle Cay or Man-O-War Cay and you will find yourself cast back into a time when British Loyalists fled Revolutionary-era America to settle here. Victorian-style filigrees adorn solid, hurricane-resistant, pastel-colored Bahamian homes arrayed around curving, narrow lanes. This is prime territory for casual sailors looking for easy island-to-island jumps.
Directly exposed to the Atlantic, the reefs of the Abacos take a different form than much of the Bahamas. Many sites are relatively shallow, 60 feet or less (with some exceptions). Subjected to slightly cooler temperatures during the winter, they are just on the edge of what hard corals require to survive. The general form of the fringing reefs is an ornate, extinct coral base with a healthy top growth of Star and Elkhorn corals. The base reef has been etched out by tidal flow to form a maze of interconnecting tunnels and cathedral-like caverns.
Professional dive services are a given in the Abacos. Let's start in the north and go south. Walker's Cay, the northernmost island, has been an Out Islands diving tradition for decades. In addition to myriad mazes of shallow and complex caverns, an abundance of fish and some deeper sloping walls, Walker's features one of the most unique shark dives in the Bahamas. Groups of up to 150 sharks gather at the sound of the dive boat's gunning engines in a coral arena to feed on the "chumsicle", a chunk of frozen fish (heads and all), while divers mingle with them, much like an odd underwater cocktail party.
Green Turtle Cay features tremendous shallow reefs as well as superb fish life, one of the earmarks of the Abacos. Dedicated snorkeling trips are available daily as are numerous water and beach oriented distractions. The topside atmosphere is fascinating as well. Visit Marsh Harbor on Great Abaco for the "big city" feel of the Abacos. Remember, they even have a stoplight. There is a huge selection of sites for snorkeling and diving. Maxi-Caves is an historically great spot for comfortable cavern dives in the company of friendly groupers and Barracuda.
Eleuthera & Harbour Island
Eleuthera is the pineapple capital of The Bahamas (really, pineapples!). It stretches north to south 112 miles. It is the home of the first republic in the "New World", has more natural wrecks than any other island, is sparsely populated and is both rugged and beautiful. The Devil's Backbone, a shallow and jagged reef extending across the northern edge of Eleuthera, has torn the bottom out of more vessels than any other reef in the nation. It also created the island's name after an emigrating Bermudian group, the Eleutherian Adventurers, became yet another group of marine victims. They survived the disaster and brought their sense of hope and faith to the island. Harbour Island, lying just off the northeast corner, is arguably the prettiest community in the islands. Quiet, quaint, small, fascinating and easily explored, it benefits from the services of two professional dive operations. Both provide great dive services for snorkeling shallow reefs, checking out the wrecks, Current Cut (one of the most exciting high current dives in the Caribbean) and a variety of deep reefs and walls.
Andros is home to two dive operations: Seascape Inn and Small Hope Bay. Segmented by an abundance of creeks, Andros is one of the least-known islands, despite its proximity to the U.S. and probably owing to its size. The richness of the island includes all the cultural wealth of the remote Out Islands, a thick marine community plus a geological definition of The Bahamas. It is bordered by the third largest barrier reef in the world, over 130 miles of continuous reef. Blue holes are an integral part of the development of these islands and Andros is blessed with possibly the largest numbers of these natural phenomena. Defining the primary dive sites off Andros is virtually impossible because of the vast territory. Just let it be known that one can partake of everything from shallow snorkeling adventures to walls to wrecks to big animal encounters to truly edge oriented technical diving. You definitely can make your choices here.
Sitting only 48 miles from Miami, Bimini is the closest and most accessible island of The Bahamas. It's proximity has given the island a rich history, much of it couched in cloudy and mysterious practices perched at the edge of the law: These past practices run from wrecking (luring ships onto reefs and then plundering their cargo under the legal umbrella of maritime salvage laws) to rum-running and smuggling. It is all part of the enticing tapestry of Bimini.
Today, Bimini is relaxed and inviting and is a prime dive destination. Two operations run daily trips to a variety of shallow reefs, a few great wrecks, and unusual sites, such as what some believe to be the remains of the Fountain of Youth and the remains of the ancient civilization of Atlantis. Dolphin dives, riding the current over the edge of deep walls, shark dives and more allow visitors to choose from a broad menu of activities. The Sapona sits high and dry in only 15 feet of water, creating a great snorkeling and diving site. Operators also explore the Bimini chain of islands stretching south.
The Berry Islands are small and largely undeveloped but offer great island getaways. Activities include snorkeling and beach relaxation along with deep-sea fishing and bonefishing, much like almost all of the Out Islands. The only active dive operation is located on Chub Cay. Shallow reefs border the island and sharply sloping walls are found within minutes of the dock. The dive operator also reports frequent contact with Pilot Whales, Manta Rays and dolphins. No guarantees of course.
Cat Island features the highest peak in The Bahamas, a whopping 207 feet. More than that, on this island it is fun to get out on the road and explore, talk with locals and enjoy the heart of The Bahamas. One of the finest shallow Bahamian reefs, Dry Heads, is here, along with tons of other shallow and medium depth reefs, miles of walls and a couple of excellent wrecks.
The Exumas consist of an array of more than 350 small islands and cays streaming down from just 35 miles south of New Providence to the anchor islands of Great and Little Exuma to the south. The northern islands present wonderful dive opportunities with an intriguing combination of walls and rich shallow reefs. The northern islands are the realm of liveaboards, and two New Providence operators, Stuart Cove's and Custom Aquatics, offer trips here as well. Two professional operations are functioning on Great Exuma, Peace & Plenty and Exuma Dive Center, offering trips to shallow reefs as well as some perfectly defined Bahamas blue holes.
Home to Stella Maris, one of the oldest Bahamian dive operations, Long Island is not only a great dive destination in its own right, but is also a launching point for trips to uninhabited Conception Island (great wall dives!) and Rum Cay. It vies with San Salvador as the first landfall of Columbus and has a monument on the northern end commemorating the event. Long Island has a huge number of shallow dive sites, some deeper sites, the deepest recorded blue hole in the Bahamas (over 600 feet!) and a very nice wreck to the north.
San Sal (as it is now commonly called, or Guanahani to the Lucyans) is at the very heart of Bahamas diving. The debate about the origin of wall diving (Was it at Andros or at San Salvador?) goes on and on. The answer is as yet unresolved. San Sal has produced more published underwater photos than any other destination in the world. Its walls are world-class. They are vertical and undercut with striking topography, groupers so friendly you have to push them away, dependable visits by Scalloped and Great Hammerheads-and offer so much more it is astounding. It has a great shallow wreck in only 18 feet of water, a luxurious Club Med, historic Riding Rock Inn, ruins of centuries old plantations, sea caves and miles of absurdly perfect beaches. Oh, by the way, it is also the historically acknowledged first landfall of Christopher Columbus.
The Undiscovered Bahamas
There are significant areas of The Bahamas which have barely felt the touch of a human foot, a touch which is quickly washed away by the ocean and the shifting sands. The future will hold exploration of the Inaugas, the Plana Cays and Mayaguana as well as exploring the underwater territory of other populated but as yet unmapped areas of the Ragged Islands, the Crooked Islands, Hogsty Reef and other territory. The Out Islands offer as rich a marine nation as any found on the planet. Visit and be part of both the present and the future.