People often ask me what my favourite dive is. While it is hard to distinguish after thousands of dives around the world on dazzling reef systems and tantalising encounters with sharks and dolphins and all those classic ocean superstars that we all know. One of my answers is often received with a confused expression on the face of the enquirer. I was teaching scuba in the Bahamas, residing next to the 3rd largest Barrier reef system in the world. Home to the awesome Tongue of the Ocean and some of the clearest salt water I have ever seen in my diving career. The clarity of the water on a good day in the Bahamas in nothing short of spectacular and even astronauts have commented on its beauty from space. But that is not it. Turn the boat around and head to the truck because we are going for a 2 hour drive inland. One of my favourite dives of all time is a hole in the ground. Devoid of any visible marine life what so ever. A fresh water Blue hole to be precise, hidden deep in the forest of Andros, the 3rd largest island in the Bahamas and 5th largest in the Caribbean.
In my opinion, a dive is not just about the physical underwater section of the dive, it includes the experience before and after the event. For me this excursion in particular really encompassed the spirit of exploration and adventure. The legendary pioneer Mr Jacques Cousteau himself discovered and dived some of these Blue holes. In fact, a Blue hole just down the road that we also dive was named after him. Named Cousteau’s Blue hole of course.
We load all the gear into the back of the 4WD: scuba gear, radio, GPS, o2 kits, first aid kits, flares, cooler boxes of ice/ water, snacks and other necessities. Not forgetting a few of divers and a couple of machete’s for good measure, we embark on our quest. Navigating some of the largest road potholes known to mankind our 4WD rattled and winded down the challenging roads of Andros which at the time resembles the surface of the moon. When I say potholes I mean craters so big they could have been attributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
This is just the beginning, as we turn off at our exit the fun really begins. Bumpy terrain and low hanging branches punish our vehicle and rattle our bones as we shriek with glee. Although incredibly uncomfortable (for those in the back at least) we can’t help but enjoy the beauty of the surrounding environment. Rich coppice trees mixed in a dense and pristine pineland forest with sun beams dancing through the leaves treat your vision in every direction. No people out here. Then suddenly the bumps stop and you could be forgiven for thinking you are on an old road. Close, but if you look either side you will see that this is a very wide road indeed. It is actually an old abandoned runway. It is part of the aptly named ‘White road’ system. It was a run way built in the 80’s when narcotics smuggling into America was at its peak. It now remains overgrown and unused. The wreckage of an old swamp airboat (Jon boat) can still be seen as a reminder of this ominous era.
Our journey in is also our emergency exit so we have to stop and saw up the odd fallen tree that blocks our route. Literal blood sweat and tears (and 3 blisters) just to get to this dive site, just another day in the life of a dive instructor. Eventually we reach our destination. Unload, rehydrate and rest. With surface support set up we don our gear but carry our fins as we walk through the small line tree and to the edge of the Blue hole. It doesn’t look that big of a hole from the surface, a random pond of darkness in the lush green Bahamian forest.
We giant stride in and begin our decent into what seems a black murky depth. The first few meters resemble the beginning of a night dive. This is as far as some divers go. They can find the black void a daunting prospect and decide it is not for them. We descend further and pass through a brief greenish hue. At this point torches switch on for peace of mind but actually you don’t need them. We plan this dive to coincide with the sun being directly above us. This allows for maximum sunlight penetration into the hole. The first 20 meters of the blue hole are at an acute angle. If you dive too early or too late in the day this becomes a different dive completely. As we reach 20 meters the sides open up into a huge cavern. We teeter on the edges of the cavern, staring out and down into the back depths wondering what mysteries and monsters could be lurking there. This is not that kind of dive on this occasion. Exploring the edges we weave in and out of a huge upside down forest of stalactites. I notice occasional markings that resemble fossils of prehistoric Ammonites or something similar.
This place is amazing, crystal clear fresh water. A huge cavern in a prehistoric world that is completely untouched by human hand. More than 40 feet high stalactites that have been formed over millions of years cling from the cavern ceiling then drop down endlessly into the next chapter of this dive. Descending to 28meters brings us to the highlight of the dive, the hydrogen sulphide layer. It resembles an eerie fog/cigarette smoke that floats motionless hiding a tantalising mystery underneath. I can see the divers are curious as to what is in or down in this mist. Well, they are not going to find out either. They are all on strict instructions to stay above the layer. Max depth reached for this dive. A hydrogen sulphide layer is created by natural matter falling in to the hole, such as branches, leaves etc. that slowly rot for eons. It then gets trapped in a murky zone called a halocline where fresh rain water mixes with salt water from the sea. Some divers can smell of rotten eggs or experience burning or itching on their skin, it can also corrode your gear. This is my favourite part of this dive, hovering above this mysterious foggy layer. While admiring the stalactites that disappear deep into the spooky depths my mind starts to wonder. It reminds me of a film I watched when I was young boy, which gave me nightmares for a decade. It was about a mysterious mist that came in from the sea. In this mist came the ghosts of pirates old. With blazing red eyes and huge daggers they came to claim new blood for past stolen treasure before leaving ominously back the sea. You know the one.
Which of course is wonderfully appropriate for this area, just further north is a place called Morgan’s Bluff, the most northern point of Andros. This place (accurately or inaccurately) is dedicated to the famous Captain Henry Morgan (yes the rum). There is a small outcrop facing the reef out to sea. This is where Captain Morgan allegedly tied a lantern around a goat’s neck, as the goat walked up and down the rocky face the lantern would swing back and forth. Passing ships beyond the reef would be duped into thinking that this was a small boat at sea by the rocking of this lantern. Not being able to resist the temptation of an easy prize the ship would turn in and subsequently run aground on the reef. Captain Morgan and his band of rum drinking scoundrels would then seize the moment and plunder and pillage in fine swash buckling style. This is the local’s story at least. I like it so I am sticking with it.
Located a short walk into the forest is a small cave hidden from view of the new road that passes it. Aptly named Captain Morgan’s cave, this is where Captain Morgan allegedly hid his stolen booty. I adore this cave, a real spot of natural beauty (except for a small piece of graffiti, there is always one who insists on ruining a beautiful location). Deep in the Bahamian forest shards of sun light beam through the tree canopy down into the cave in stark contrast to the dark interior. Bright green ferns and branches decorate the exterior with exposed tree roots sprouting everywhere. You can scramble down the side into the cave easily enough. Then if you can fit you can crawl through and out a narrow opening at the rear of the cave. An escape exit if you like. It is small cave. In my mind I can still hear the ghostly echo of pirates laughing and cheering heartily over their stolen booty. Being slightly obsessed with pirates I don’t mind admitting that one of the highlights of my life was to drink Captain Morgan’s rum out of a Captain Morgan’s limited edition drinking cannon ball in the actual cave of where Captain Morgan hid his treasure. Not many people can say that. What can I say; it’s simple things that please me! I have acted out many wonderful pirate fantasies in that cave let me tell you. But that’s another story.
Back to the murky depths of this blue hole I can’t help but imagine the ghostly silhouette of Morgan himself popping up out of the hydrogen layer with dazzling demonic red eyes welding a huge blood stained dagger pulling me down into the depths of Davey Jones locker to end my days. Punishment you see, for trespassing into a pirates cave without permission. Narcosis anyone? Counting the divers I signal to start our ascent, sad to leave this utterly mesmerising place. The dive is not over yet as the finale is about to commence, I call it the snow effect. During our dive our bubbles would have hit the side walls of the hole. These bubbles then creep up the side and break into smaller bubbles. These bubbles then dislodge an alga that forms on the sides at the surface in big clumps. The alga starts to break up into tiny pieces as it falls. This leads to a wonderful snow effect all around you, which combined with a halocline can sometimes be visually disorienting.
The wonderful thing about this dive is that although you are given the illusion like you are inside a huge cave system of a lost world with seemingly bottomless black voids all around you, you are not. If you just look up, you will always see this huge circle of bright light, the top of the blue hole, resembling some mysterious time portal to another dimension, sometimes in a blue, white or green colour. This reassures you there is always a fast exit if needed so you can completely lose yourself into the fantasy of being in a world where few human beings will ever visit. Of course it’s not a fantasy, it is a genuine adventure.
With a thorough briefing, this blue hole and some others can be done on convention scuba and training. However some blue holes that incorporate cave penetration/overhead environments require specialist training. Never exceed your limits and always dive with a professional guide in these environments. If you get the chance to dive a blue hole, do it! It is a massive tick on your diving experience check list.
Arrrghhh me hearties!