New Providence | Grand Bahama | Abaco | The Out Islands


There's plenty to look at

But don't touch

JAN 2004 © Etienne Dupuch Jr Publications Ltd

With miles and miles of white sandy beaches and azure seas, it's easy to spend your time sunbathing and relaxing. But if tanning is not your idea of a sport there's lots to keep you busy here: from diving, snorkelling, fishing and windsurfing to rugby, tennis, golf and horseback riding. Whatever your sport, you'll find a way to enjoy it.

A surreal world of wonder lurks under the ocean's surface no matter where you are, but in The Bahamas that world includes some spectacular sights that you won't find in most other places.

While the warmth and clarity of these waters are well known, what is truly notable is the volume and variety of life harboured in its depths.

Schools of brightly coloured tropical fish stream past. Gaily striped sergeant majors, blue-green parrotfish and triggerfish, silvery-red grunts and vivid blue tangs create a memorable scene above the reefs.

Living, breathing reefs

Swaying purple sea fans wave back and forth with the current. They are a feast for the eyes - but not for the hands. A cardinal rule in diving - don't touch anything - ensures that these beautiful examples of underwater life stay that way for the next generation of divers to enjoy.

Coral reefs are living, breathing animals. Because they have a hard limestone shell, many people think that they are just big, brightly coloured underwater rocks. The thin film of living tissue that makes up the outer layer of a reef is especially susceptible to damage caused by divers touching and bumping the reef.

" The coral has a protective mucous and if you touch it you wipe that mucous off and it allows bacteria to eat at the coral," says David Eads, operations manager at Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas.

Low-traffic reefs are best

Reefs around New Providence have suffered much damage as a result of dive traffic, says Leroy Lowe of Bahama Divers. But there are still lots of healthy reefs to be found. "The farther from the island you go, the better condition the reefs are in," says Lowe. "Brain coral, elkhorn coral and sea fans are all very healthy at reefs that are not visited as much." He recommends a trip to Thunderball reef for a chance to see healthy coral in a spectacular environment.

Bryan Cunningham, manager at Nassau Scuba Centre, agrees that reefs within 200 yards of shore are in poor condition, due to run-off from the island, too much snorkelling traffic and a lack of education about the fragility of coral reefs. But some reefs near the island have lots to offer, says Lowe. The most common types of coral seen at dive sites near New Providence include brain, elkhorn and fire coral, he says.

Lots to see at Athol

Lowe favours a reef at Athol island that is frequented by snorkellers. Although it's very close to Nassau, Lowe says, "It's pretty. There's a lot of stuff to see there. Small tropical fish, yellowtails, grunts, angelfish, tangs, triggerfish - all the colourful tropical fish are there." Keith Cornell, assistant instructor with Divers Haven agrees that the reef at Athol Island is especially pretty. "It's a marine park so you have all the tropical fish like sergeant majors, tiger groupers, Nassau groupers, yellowtail snappers, mutton snappers, angelfish, queen angelfish, parrotfish? there are about 50 different species of fish on the reef."

Healthier coral than in US

" If you compare the coral here to what you find in the States, it's a lot better here," says Eads, who feels that southwest reef, off the south side of New Providence, is the prettiest reef of all.

" The reef is a pretty good size, almost a mile long. It's eight miles offshore so the spearfishermen don't really get out there," says Eads. "You'll see yellowtail snappers, sergeant majors, grunts, barracuda, schoolmasters? a little of everything." Cunningham, of Nassau Scuba Centre, says that the reefs along the Tongue of the Ocean are in excellent condition. The dive operators do their part in preserving these reefs by installing and using moorings. Boat anchors can cause severe damage to reefs, and can even break off pieces of coral that have taken many years to grow. "Anchors can be disastrous for coral," says Cunningham.

Cuts and stings

There are other reasons to avoid touching the reef. Some corals can give a nasty sting. An encounter with fire coral, for example, is a memorable experience. It lives up to its name.

" It looks like tree limbs, after the leaves have fallen off the tree," says Cornell. "It's brown-gold in colour. If you look very closely, you can see that fine stuff is coming out of the limbs. That's what burns."

Sharp corals can also cut divers who bump or brush past them. Quite often, divers don't even know they've been cut until they get out of the water, says Lowe.

Practice good buoyancy

The best way to avoid bumping the reef is to practice good buoyancy control. Maintaining neutral buoyancy is an essential skill that will keep divers from using the reef to steady themselves or to push themselves off the bottom.

As with most things in life, practice makes perfect. Although divers learn buoyancy control during the initial certification course, it's a good idea to practice on your own before venturing out to the reef, especially if you haven't mastered the fine tuning necessary to stay neutrally buoyant.


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Copyright © 2005 Etienne Dupuch Jr. Publications Ltd. All rights reserved. No images, editorial matter, or advertising may be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from the publisher.

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