The Bahamas: Our Favorite Neighbor - Part I

Photo by Ty Sawyer
Just barely off the East Coast of Florida, the 700-plus islands that comprise the Bahamas overflow with an incredible array of diving. We slip off to the edge-of-the-earth atmosphere of Andros to explore the world's third-longest barrier reef, slip into the inky depths of oceanic blue holes and rub shoulders with a shark or two.

Then we join the BBC Natural History Unit off the cosmopolitan island of New Providence for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of their next landmark series called Life.

I'm only 158 miles away from the chic Miami skyline, walking through a pine forest on North Andros Island. All along the rocky trail, our small group passes delicate purple wild orchids, poisonwood, guayacan and a thick tangle of undergrowth. Locals use many of the plants we see as a pharmacy for bush medicine to heal stings, colds--even impotence.

The Andros pines, which exist only in the Bahamas, shoot skyward like bushy-tipped arrows. It's quiet, a kind of hush one might imagine existing only at the far edges of the earth. And the sharp, calming scent of the pines hangs thick in the humid air. As we walk, we keep our eye out for the chickcharnie, a mythical, cryptid creature said to be half man, half bird--a legend that could only rise up from a remote stretch of land such as the one we're traipsing through.

Our guide, Jeff Birch, owner of the 20-room Small Hope Bay Lodge, tells us that where we see two pines crossed is a chickcharnie nest and if we see a chickcharnie and are good in our hearts, we'll have excellent luck for the rest of our lives. If not, our heads will be turned backward.

I try to think good thoughts with such an uneasy fate looming, but I feel lucky just to be here. To know that I don't need to travel for days to find places as raw and unexplored as this. Heck, Jeff is leading us through these woods like Tom Sawyer, barefoot. And what more needs to be said about a place where shoes are strictly optional? Then my luck just increases.

We come to the end of the trail and in an almost perfect circle before us is a massive freshwater blue hole, Captain Bill's Blue Hole, nearly a quarter mile across, with steep limestone sides that resemble a castle wall. There are hundreds of blue holes on Andros. So many that the early Spanish sailors called Andros the Island of the Holy Spirit due to the abundance of fresh water, Jeff tells us.

The surface of the water is flat and reflective. It looks as if it harbors its own blue sky and puffy white clouds, which float on the surface above its netherworld of water-filled passages. Most of these blue holes have never been explored. But this one has a wooden platform at the end of our trail, with a rope swing and ladder--one of the world's coolest swimming holes, I muse to myself. Only an unseasonable winter cold front keeps me from doffing my clothes and launching myself into the water like Tarzan. Hardwood pines sidle up next to the hole and crowd the horizon like protective sentinels. It crosses my mind that one could grab a burger and fries in Florida, jump on a boat, and within a couple of hours get lost forever in the wilderness of this large, sparsely populated island.

GRAND VISTAS

Andros sits on the edge of the third-largest barrier reef in the world, 100 miles of vertical precipice that delineates the western edge of the Tongue of the Ocean, a deepwater canyon that sits just off Andros' eastern coastline. It reaches 6,000 feet down toward the core of the globe, and chances are good that at almost any moment while you're exploring its depths, there's a U.S. Navy submarine prowling silently deeper below you.

Like the island it rubs shoulders with, most of the wall along the Tongue of the Ocean remains relatively unexplored. The only dedicated dive resort on North Andros is the family-owned eco-resort Small Hope Bay Lodge, which has been around since 1960 and which has hosted such underwater luminaries as Jacques-Yves Cousteau and British cave diver Rob Palmer.

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