Andros also has perhaps the Western Hemisphere's most diverse diving. There are deep lush walls, false walls, shallow coral gardens, oceanic blue holes, wrecks, shark experiences, and cavern and cave diving.
My first stop in this undersea wonderland is an oceanic blue hole called Alec's caverns. We slip into its deep blue maw and descend to about 130 feet. We don't venture any farther, but look back toward the surface and light where cracks, rents and fissures in the sea floor form dramatic vistas. Shafts of light pierce the depths like heavenly spears. We don't get long bottom times this deep, but the view is breathtaking, and I can't help but feel like there's a vast, adventurous underworld waiting below me. Photo by Ty Sawyer
Our guide, Mike Hornby, who has worked at the lodge for 12 years, shows us the highlights before we need to ascend, including a giant leopard-shaped rock formation that looks like the guardian of the deep. Around the opening of Alec's Cavern, we find groupers and a number of recent invaders to this seascape, Pacific lionfish. They aren't welcome oceanic immigrants, and the locals are fighting a Sisyphean battle to keep their numbers and voracious appetites at bay. Either way, it's easy to admire their mesmerizing, gypsy-like beauty and slow sensual movements. Looking up, the dive boat sits on the surface like it's floating in the clouds as we off-gas.
From the oceanic cavern we make our way to Whip Wire Wall, a precipice covered with the curlicue twists of wire coral. The wall turns south pretty deep here at about 90 feet. But once you slip past 130 feet of this multilevel technical dive, the wall just erupts. It's like there's someone hiding in the shadows firing wire coral straight out in the blue. And black corals definitely have a stronghold in this deep-water environment. Their feathery stalks proliferate. Because we're skirting the edge of the Tongue of the Ocean, we don't know what might show up. And sure enough, we encounter a great hammerhead, slipping off into the blue. As we ascend, a green turtle spends some time acting as a tour guide, showing us around the shallower coral gardens at the top of the wall.
Between our diving sessions, we settle into the slow pace at Small Hope Bay Lodge and the timeless world of legends and myths that make up North Andros. Like many places in the Caribbean, the area got its moniker from its days as a pirate haven. No less a brigand than Henry Morgan is said to have used Andros as a hideout. And the legend of Small Hope derives from a statement attributed to the famous pirate. He's said to have stashed some of his booty in the area and was heard to say that there was "small hope of anyone ever finding it."
To date, no one has. But Jeff, the owner of Small Hope Bay Lodge, has found tantalizing bits of cannons and other artifacts from that era while snorkeling just off the beach at the lodge as a kid. One could argue, though, that the real treasure comes in the form of hammocks strung between palms on the beach just where the ocean breezes gather, phone- and TV-free rooms, and the peace and serenity of a fairly untrammeled escape. Add in that most precious treasure in today's urgent and insistent world: time--to explore, read or just let the breeze and sun caress your skin. You can take bikes from the lodge and go off exploring this pristine island at pedal pace.
I set off to make my own treasure at the Androsia Batik Factory. General manager Merton Thompson takes me through the steps of batik making, and at least one of my efforts will soon adorn my wall at home (the first was "practice"). This small business looms large in the Bahamas, supplying most of the islands with batik. Prints of dolphins, turtles, rays, tropical fish and sharks adorn the colorful cloths in the same way they adorn the reefs.
But not everything is peace and quiet and tranquility. Before we leave the island, we need to log some of our time with the most famous of the Bahamas' reef dwellers--sharks. Photo by Ty Sawyer
Every island in the Bahamas has its own style of shark feeding, and on Andros the fish is frozen into a chumsicle and dangled mid-water on a chain. With this technique, the food is slowly disseminated as the fish-pop defrosts. About 12 sleek Caribbean reef sharks show up, and as Mike says, there's no hand-to-mouth interaction and the sharks' hierarchy works as nature intended.
Personally, I can't get enough of sharks and spend most of the dive watching these evolutionary marvels with awe as they slowly, then with much more alacrity, tear their way through this frozen treat. It's like watching a mob of normally peaceful citizens get riled and in a fit of blind fury go on a rampage, only to regain their senses and nonchalantly slip back into their normal routines afterward. From peace to chaos to peace. Like most things I've experienced in Andros, I wish they'd do two shark experiences in a row.
But it's time to jump off the edge of the world and spend some time with a well-documented little tugboat.Find out what diving with filmmakers from the BBC Natural History Unit is like, and get a guide to the Islands in The Bahamas: Our Favorite Neighbor - Part II.