Diving The Abacos

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The Abacos, Bahamas

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Country: Bahamas  Area: Bahamas

Water Temp: 21 - 30°C (70 - 86°F)

Visibility: 20 - 50m (66 - 164 ft)

Depth Range: 4 - 18m (13 - 59 ft)

Lobster March

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The Bahamas means “Shallow Seas” and this is no more evident than in the Abacos islands.  Arranged along the eastern side of the little Bahamas bank, the Abacos islands cover over 263 square hectares (650 square miles) in the northern portion of the country.  Considered “out islands”, you will not find casinos and cruise ships here.  What you will find are laid back villages, charming colonial towns, secluded cays, awesome seafood, and endless diving opportunities.

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Surrounding the two main islands, Great Abaco and Little Abaco, are many smaller cays including Green Turtle Cay, Elbow Cay, and Lubber’s Quarters Cay.  Marsh Harbour, a town of approximately 5,000, sits on a peninsula on Great Abaco island.  Old men playing Dominos, young locals hanging out at the corner store, and tourists milling about add to the island flavor in this small town of faded candy colored concrete and wooden buildings.  This is the place for services such as a post office, grocery stores, specialty shops, and laundries.  Most of your rental agencies for boats, vehicles and vacation properties are also located here.

 

Marine Conservation

In 1959, the Bahamas National Trust Act created an organization whose resolve was the “conservation and preservation of places of historic interest and natural beauty”.  The Bahamas National Trust has made significant progress in building the Bahamas National Parks System.  By the turn of the twenty first century, twelve national parks, covering 127,476 hectares (315,000 acres) of land and marine area, were well established.

The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation has been conducting long-term field studies in the Bahamas since 1991.  Based in Sandy Point on Great Abaco Island, the organisation’s mission is “to promote conservation of marine mammals and their habitats through scientific research and educational outreach”.

The Beach, Credit

Climate

The Abacos has a warm and comfortable climate that varies little throughout the year.  The ocean breezes moderate the humidity felt on the more inland islands.  The waters are warm and generally calm throughout the year.  The dive season is year round.  Even in the rainy season, the water is crystal clear.  This amazing visibility is due to virtually no runoff from the land, whose porous limestone absorbs nearly all precipitation.

Hurricane season is from June through November, although the likelihood of a storm is greatest from August through November.

School of Fish, The Abacos, Credit

 
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Wildlife Calendar

                   
                   
                   
                   
                                               
                   
                   
                   
                               
                   
                                       
                   
                   
                   
                   
                   

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The Diving

The Abacos islands are directly exposed to the Atlantic and protected by the world’s third largest barrier reef.  The reef creates a large, expansive area of protected water known as the ‘Sea of Abaco’.  Most dive sites are in relatively calm waters from 3m – 18m (10ft – 60ft).  A wide diversity of dive sites exist including coral reefs, underwater caves, shipwrecks, blue holes and shark dives.  You are likely to see Nurse, Black Tip, Bull, Tiger, Great Hammerhead, and Caribbean Reef sharks, along with hundreds of species of colourful reef fish, corals, sea turtles, lobsters, and spotted eagle rays.

Fish, The Abacos, Credit

Walkers Cay National Park is home to a most unique dive opportunity.  The Bahamas is one of the few places in the world to conduct massive shark feeds for divers.  The feeding site is on a sandy bottom at a depth of 15m (50ft).  Caribbean Reef sharks gather in the hundreds.  Watching these beautiful and powerful creatures at close range is a heart pounding experience not soon forgotten.

Several popular dive sites can be found in the waters off of Fowl Cay.  Fowl Cays National Park and Marine Reserve covers 777 hectares (1,920 acres).  Here, you will find colonies of mountainous star coral, along with elkhorn, brain and other hard corals.  “The Edge” is a site that starts out at 6m (20ft) and descends to 21m (70ft).  This mini-wall is the cruising ground for large pelagic species like shark, sea turtles, and eagle rays.  At “Wayne’s World”, you will find an impressive coral peaks rising from a depth of 21m (70ft) to within 4.5m (15ft) of the surface.  Grouper, barracuda, triggerfish, and colourful parrotfish are frequently seen here.  “Towers” is the home of enormous elkhorn colonies full of swim-through tunnels and caverns.  “Cathedral” is aptly named, for within this city of coral is an immense central room.  Sunbeams filter through holes in the coral walls to dance along the seabed.  From time to time, thousands of glass minnows completely fill the tunnels and caverns.  Jacks and grouper arrive ‘in masse’ and shoot through the caverns at incredible speeds to prey on these minnows.

Corals, Credit

Off of Green Turtle Cay are tunnels interspersed among dramatic coral formations, shipwrecks and ledges.  Soft and hard corals, sponges, colourful reef fish, marine invertebrates, and green and loggerhead sea turtles congregate to create the underwater photographers dream.  The first US steamship ever made, the ‘San Jacinto’ sank in 1865 off the coast.  Feeding the moray eel that lives there has become quite popular.

Located 13km (8 miles) north of Cherokee Sound, Great Abaco, Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park offers divers undersea caves and extensive coral reefs.  Shallow reef systems 4.5m – 8m (15ft – 25ft) dot the sandy bottom.  The Elkhorn coral spreads its massive antlers less than 1.5m (5ft) under the surface.  Spotted eagle rays are commonly seen gliding along the sand here. 

The “March of the Spiny Lobster” is one of the oceans most spectacular migrations.  In response to the first polar storm front of the fall, lobsters leave their ledges and overhangs, emerging by the thousands to march single file toward deeper water.  Each lobster protects the one in front of it, and in this way, they march for days.  Seemingly oblivious or fearless, they will march right over the top of a diver who lies down in their path.

Turtle! Credit

Dan’s Cave on Great Abaco is filled with thousands of ‘other-worldly’ crystal formations found nowhere else on earth.  Featured in National Geographic’s August 2010 issue, the cave has over 12,195m (40,000ft) of underwater passages that range in depth from 24m (75ft) to 45m (150ft).  Nitrox tanks and 100 per cent oxygen decompression is necessary, restricting this dive to only the most advanced technical and cave divers.

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How to Get there

Most direct flights into Marsh Harbour International Airport originate in Miami, Florida; most into Treasure Cay International Airport originate in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Flights originating from Europe typically have a stop over in Nassau. Private airstrips are available at Moore’s Island, Sandy Point, Scotland’s Cay and Spanish Cay.  Both domestic flights and high-speed ferry service are available between Marsh Harbour and Nassau.

By far, the best way to enjoy the many cays and islands that make up the Abacos is to rent a boat.

Credit: P. Brown

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Where to Eat & Drink

In Marsh Harbour, tucked behind Memorial Plaza is The Oasis.  Antonio and his staff go a step above, creating fresh, well prepared dishes that surprise and excite the palette.  From fresh grouper and lobster mac-n-cheese to chocolate soufflé, the meals are beautifully prepared and truly satisfying.

Lighthouse, Credit: P. Brown

Cracker P’s is a restaurant located on the northeast side of Lubber’s Quarters Cay (NE of Marsh Harbour).  It is an open-air building looking out over Abaco sound.  Frequented by locals, it has a friendly, laid-back atmosphere.  The locals are more than happy to fill you in on the legend of Cracker P, alias ‘Cracker Pinder’, for whom the restaurant was named.  In 1915, Cracker was a wanted man in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, USA.  The story is that he killed the sheriff in an argument over an overly aggressive duck.  So he fled to the Bahamas, eventually settling on Lubber’s Quarters Cay.  He became known as ‘ the naked farmer’, bartering his vegetables for meat and fish.  Fishing was evidently not his forte.  The fruit from the Sapodilla trees he planted is still used today in the restaurant’s BBQ sauce.

Tucked away in a little cove on the southeast side of Great Abaco (Little Harbour) is Pete’s Pub and Gallery.  The pub, built from the pilot and dock houses of a sailing vessel that belonged to the Johnston family, the founders of Little Harbour, is right on the beach.  Inside it seems as though 

every square inch is covered with t-shirts that have been left over the years by those wishing to leave a part of themselves here.  The beer is cold, the rum punch delightful, the snapper fresh, and the pineapple slaw a flavorful twist.

Most of the nightlife in the Abacos is concentrated at the resort bars and marinas.  When Marsh Harbour’s main waterfront district shuts down around midnight, however, the indigenous late-night clubs come alive.  Dance the night away at “The Balcony” to Jamaican, hip-hop, and Bahamian music. 

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Other Activities

The favorable trade winds and shallow ‘Sea of Abaco’ create ideal conditions for sailing and kite surfing, both very popular activities.  Big game sport fishing, fly-fishing, and reef fishing are also enormously popular.  For the golfer, there are two championship 18-hole golf courses on Great Abaco, the Treasure Cay Golf Club and The Abaco Club at Winding Bay.

Credit: P.Brown

Pete’s Gallery, in Little Harbour on Great Abaco, is the only bronze foundry in the Bahamas.  In 1952, Randolph Johnston settled his family in a series of caves on the west side of the island.  Slowly, they built their home and foundry.  Randolph Johnston’s work came to be world-renowned.  His son follows in his footsteps today, casting bronze sculpture using a 5,000 year old process called ‘the lost wax method‘.  The foundry also provides education workshops and apprenticeships for Bahamian and international artists.  The gallery teems with sculptural works inspired by the local sea life (sea turtles, fish, sea horses, mermaids, etc.).

A short distance north of Marsh Harbour is Hope Town, a small village on Elbow Cay. Hope Town was founded in 1785 and settled by British loyalists seeking refuge after the Revolutionary War. It’s iconic red and white lighthouse is one of only three manual lighthouses left in the world.   A well-marked channel guides you into a harbour full of sailboats at anchor.  Stroll along narrow streets (no vehicles allowed, only bicycles and pedestrians) lined with shops and beautifully restored colonial era homes.      

Family Friendly

A number of resorts in the Abacos cater to families.  The resort properties offer children’s playgrounds and swimming pools.  Guest excursions allow kids to experience diving, snorkelling, sailing, fishing, and eco-tours.  The Bahamas Buddies Kids Program, a favorite of the Abaco Beach Resort, pairs visiting children with Bahamian children of the same age.   The children, led by a trained counsellor, participate in nature tours, water sports, and arts and crafts.  They learn how to catch fish, crack a conch, and peel a coconut.

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Tips

• In the winter months, a wetsuit is strongly recommended.  Also, it can be quite cool in the evenings.  A sweatshirt or light jacket will make your stay more pleasant.

• Pack sunscreen at any time of year and bug spray (with DEET) during the summer and early fall.  Dengue virus is a mosquito-borne illness that has become more prevalent in the Caribbean over the last few years.  Symptoms of the virus include fever, headache, rash, joint aches, and muscle and bone soreness.

Underwater, The Abacos, Bahamas, Credit

• Pack handheld VHF and GPS if you will be exploring on your own.

• British driving rules apply, so stay to the left.

• Electrical outlets are 120volt.  A 220volt converter and flat two-pin adapter are necessary for British and European appliances.

• Carry a well-stocked first aid kit.  Adequate medical care is difficult to find in the outer islands.

• Consider a global rescue membership, particularly if you plan to engage in more advanced and dangerous dives.  In the event of serious illness or accident requiring hospitalization, evacuation to the US is the normal route for care.

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