Grand Bahama, June/July 2001

The Bahamas was somewhere I'd always wanted to go, so when JMC started doing charter flights there, and the price of package holidays dropped, I started to investigate the various hotels in the brochure. One of them, the Viva Fortuna, looked too good to be true. The price for a fortnight was £960 each for an all-inclusive package covering all food and drinks. So I asked on the Internet and other people had been there and enjoyed it, so I went ahead with the booking.

The flight over was uneventful until we were about 20 minutes from Freeport when the captain announced that the airport had been closed because of a thunderstorm. So for the next 20 minutes we flew around this large, black cloud until it had moved away from the airport. The runway was still a bit slippery on landing, but it was OK. Clearing customs, we met the JMC rep and were directed to wait for a taxi. 6 of us were put into an old, American limo that had seen better days.

At the hotel, we were given our welcome pack, which contained a remote control for the television and a key for the safety deposit box. The room was reasonable, with a shower in the bathroom and a balcony. There was a rather noisy air-conditioning unit and a television with 50 channels, including BBC World, but sadly BBC America was encrypted. The remote control we'd been given didn't work though. Neither did the replacement that I got from the rather abrupt receptionist, but you could still change channel without it, and we didn't watch it much anyway.

So we went for a look around despite the fact that it was still raining very heavily. The cracks of thunder were almost as loud as the Jerry Springer style whooping that greeted them. Most of the guest were either British or American, with some Italians, so every level of obesity was well represented right up to the "too fat to walk properly" category.

The food was alright. Breakfast had the usual choices, including fresh eggs cooked while you waited. Lunch was probably the worst meal of the day. Apart from a couple of choices, there was also a selection of American junk food, including deep pan pizza, hotdogs and a burger bar. Dinner was better, because there were two chefs, one carving fish and the other a joint of meat. There were a couple of local dishes. I particularly liked the jerk pork, the conch wasn't really to my taste. At least one Italian dish was also available at lunch and dinner. There were also snacks available from 4pm-6pm which again were hotdogs, pizza, cake and melon. It was quite handy for those days when I missed lunch because of the diving and it also seemed to be popular with those intent on maintaining their 300lb figures.

There was one bar and the bar staff were friendly. There were two types of beer on tap. One was a local brew and was fairly insipid, the other was Becks, which was a very pleasant surprise. They also had a cocktail board and the usual soft drinks. There was a machine on the bar so that you could help yourself to lemonade and fruit punch. The dining hall had a Pepsi machine and you could also help yourself to red or white Californian wine at lunch and dinner.

The beach was covered in white sand and there were a few coral heads off shore for snorkelling. It wasn't particularly exciting, but there were some juvenile fish to see. There was also a largish, though very shallow swimming pool (5ft) and it was the pool that was the centre of the daytime entertainment. The brochure had mentioned evening entertainment, but it's hard to be sure the extent of it from a one line description. There was actually a complete theatre and they had a show every night. Normally this consisted of dancing and themes included Grease and West Side story. Once a week they would also have a comedy show, which had its moments but was a bit hit and miss, and they also had a games night.

At the end of every show they played the Viva official song and encouraged everyone to get up and join in with the dance. Now I do remember having a similar experience at an English resort, but I was about ten at the time. It was all rather reminiscent of Hi-De-Hi and made worse by the fact that the song was so appalling. Sung in English with a heavy Italian accent, it wouldn't have been out of place on Eurovision, where it would probably have scored "nil point". Naturally everyone used to dive off to the bar as soon as it started.

However, the shows were worth watching and we did go to all of them. The daytime entertainment was less of a draw and was quite intrusive. They insisted on turning the music up very loud, often until it distorted, so that whilst there would be about ten people taking part in the dance lessons or water aerobics, everyone on the beach and around the pool had to put up with the racket. However, they did also have a kids club to keep the smaller children occupied.

There was a dive shop on site at the hotel, but I'd asked around on the Net and several people had recommended Grand Bahama Scuba to me. I emailed the owner, Fred, and he agreed to come and pick me up. I booked a ten dive package with him and also wanted to do some cavern diving. He had two boats. I only ever went on the larger one, which could comfortably take 12-14 people. Unfortunately there wasn't any water on the boat, so you needed to bring your own. I bought a bottle in the hotel shop which cost an outrageous $2.75. The joke was that I really only wanted the bottle. The water out of the tap is perfectly drinkable. I had plenty of it and it didn't do me any harm.

The boat used to leave before 10am and we'd go out to a site which was usually about 15-20m. The dive was supposed to be 40 minutes, which I thought was a bit short. The instructor on the boat seemed to think that this included the safety stop too, and on one dive I was a bit amazed to see him start going back up the line after only 28 minutes. However, most of us tended to stay down a bit longer after he left, so my dive times were usually a more respectable 50 minutes or so. The surface interval was 40 minutes and then we would do another dive, typically a bit shallower in 12-15m. I don't think my computer ever had less than 30 minutes no-deco left on it during the second dive, so we weren't exactly pushing things.

The dive sites all had permanent mooring buoys, which meant that you had to be a bit careful with the ropes. Some of them had rather a lot of growth on them, which was either sharp or stung. Those that need to hang onto the rope during their safety stops would be well advised to bring a glove. I didn't bother with the ropes most of the time. There was never any current on the dives. Visibility was excellent. People were complaining when it was as low as 20m. It was often well in excess of 30m. The water temperature was 28-29C on all the dives. I felt fine in my 3mm shorty wetsuit. Other people didn't have a wetsuit at all, though I think I may have got a bit cold on the second dives with no suit.

The sites were all quite similar. The coral growth was healthy and in the form of coral heads. At some sites, there were swim-throughs and gulleys between the heads. One novel feature of a couple of sites were the fresh water vents. At Triangular Hole and Ben's Blue Hole, there was colder, fresh water coming out of the sea bed. The temperature difference was quite noticeable as you got nearer and there was a shimmering effect in the water.

Grand Bahama is known for it's shark dives. UNEXSO have been doing shark feeds for 20 years. I didn't go on a shark feed dive, but we did go to the site where they do the feeding, called Shark Junction. We saw at least 6 Caribbean reef sharks which were about 2m (8ft) in length. Sharks were a common sight on the other sites nearby. There would often be one or two circling around nearby. The fish life in general was good, with porkfish, blue tang, surgeon fish, butterfly fish, grunts, soldier fish, trumpet fish and grouper common on most dives.

There were also a couple of wrecks. One was quite small, at a place called Octopussy Garden. It had only been down there about 3 years, so there wasn't much life on it. The larger wreck is called Theo's Wreck and was a cement freighter. I mentioned to Fred that I wanted to do it and so, on my last day, the boat went out there. It was an impressive dive. It lies in about 30m (100 feet) and when I went over the side, I stuck my head under the water and could see the whole wreck lying on the bottom in front of me. The visibility was that good. The dive itself is interesting. We swam along the hull, which is covered in whip corals and gorgonian fans. Then we went into the hold and a brief swim through the engine room. It was the one dive that I would have appreciated using nitrox on, as our bottom time was too short. Fred does nitrox, but there was no-one else on the boat using it that day.

In addition to the sea dives, I really wanted to try my hand at cavern diving. The best cavern is called Ben's Cave and it's located in the national park. Normally it's closed in the summer because migratory bats nest there. This year, for the first time, they decided to leave it open and see whether the bats were affected. This was great news for me, whether it's good for the bats remains to be seen. Fred is one of a few dive operators who can get permits to the cave. Only one group is allowed in per day.

So we drove out into the country side to the national park. The scenery is fairly boring. The whole island is as flat as a pancake and it's covered in Caribbean pines with smaller palm trees in between them. Once we got to the cave site, we kitted up in the car park and walked the short distance. Then it was down a spiral stair case into the cave itself. The entrance was formed when the roof of the cave collapsed. So there is a cone shape of rock on the cave floor.

The Entrance to Ben's Cave
The spiral staircase down to the water's edge
The roof is covered in small bats

The water was 24C at the surface, which would have been cold in my shorty, but for the walk to the dive site. Fred had reels of line and he tied one end to the steps above the water. I was to follow him, and make sure that I could touch the line at any time. As long as I could do that, there was no danger of me getting lost. Because we were cavern diving and not full cave diving, we had to be able to see the light at all times. This wasn't a problem as the water was crystal clear and there wasn't that much silt in the cave.

When the cave was formed, it was dry, so there were features you'd associate with dry caves, such as stalactites and stalagmites. Some of them seemed to be made of a marble type rock, whilst others seemed to be made of iron. At about 9-10m, we came to the boundary between the fresh water and the salt water. The water became very hazy where the two layers met. It was almost as bad as not wearing a mask and was a quite strange experience. Once in the salt water, it was a much warmer 29C but crossing the boundary does really strange things to your buoyancy. As you go down into the salt, you suddenly become more buoyant, so actually have to dump air from your BCD. And of course on the return, you need to add air as you're going up, which felt quite strange.

I dived the cave twice whilst I was there and enjoyed it. It's something I'd like to do again, though I'm not about to give up diving in the sea. There wasn't much life in the cave. There were some fish in the fresh water layer and there is apparently a centipede type creature which is unique to the particular cave that caused biologists to rewrite a few books when it was discovered, but we didn't see it. What I did see were interesting rock formations. One thing that was noticeable was how some of the rocks were honeycombed. Apparently this is caused by bacteria which live in the layer between the fresh and salt water.

One thing I would have liked was a better torch. I didn't take my UK DS4R with me because I didn't have a 110v charger for it. I must get one next time. So I was using the shop's non-rechargeable version and these only have about a 10w bulb in them. Ben's Cave is a big cavern and at times I couldn't see the walls. It really made me appreciate why cave divers use 50w torches, which have always seemed like overkill even in the dark conditions of the UK. In crystal clear water, with no back scatter, but with very little ambient light, they would have come in really handy. As would a handle on the torch which left your hand free. What with trying to control my buoyancy, keeping my fingers ringing the line, and trying to hold the torch, I didn't really have enough hands.

All in all, I really enjoyed my holiday. The hotel was great value, the diving was good and Grand Bahama Scuba were really helpful. I'd definitely go back despite the minor annoyances of the holiday camp style entertainment. Apart from the diving and boat trips, there wasn't that much else to see or do. The hotel is located quite a way out of town, and it's about $12-15 dollars taxi fare, so we didn't try out the duty free shopping. It's not something that greatly interests me anyway.