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Bahamas December 1997

By John Buxton

Some of you will know that I am a geriatric cave diver, and if you have read your BB Vol. 48 No.6. (The 60th) you will know that I have in the past dived in the Bahamas.  This last year in December I went on my 4th expedition, this time I persuaded my wife Audrey to go too of course her baggage allowance did come in useful.  It allowed me to take a full set of diving gear and lighting with me!  All I had to use of the equipment on the boat were weights, cylinders and a reel.  Nevertheless by the time I had 6 torches and a dive helmet, a l2V Nicad dive light (by Stewart Kirbythe fancy coloured one!) and 4 demand valves and all the usual equipment that seems to be essential for serious cave diving these days, we found it quite a load.   We had to use most of our clothes as padding for the more delicate parts of the equipment such as chargers.

I had extolled the virtues of this type of diving, and found out not long before our departure that Robbie Warke from Devon was going on the same expedition.  We had not talked in detail but we found ourselves at Heathrow waiting for the same AM Virgin flight to Miami.  We chatted and found that Robbie was on a different connecting flight to Nassau and we did not see him again till the next morning. International luggage can be "booked through" from one Airline to another, so we had no problems with luggage to worry about; but schedules for change over have to include a certain time for the luggage to travel from one airline to the next.  We had allowed about 2¼ hrs and booked on American Eagle who fly a frequent service to Nassau.  Robbie had booked on Bahamas Air with about l½ hrs between the two timings. Unfortunately the Virgin plane was an hour late mainly due to head-winds.  We had a leisurely walk through the airport to the AA departure area and found that due to violent electrical storms (which apparently started half an hour before our takeoff time, and half an hour after Robbie left - he got to Nassau on time!) most flights were on hold.

Following on from this, one or two planes went unserviceable mainly from weather problems.  With the available day crews running out of hours, efforts were made to get crews who were off duty.  The weather gradually improved, and postponed and delayed planes began to load.  We had now been waiting from 5.0pm to midnight.  We got on a flight that was packed solid - some of the passengers had actually been loaded onto a plane that turned into a shower cubicle just before take-off!  We left about 1.0am and arrived at Nassau about 2.0am.


Brian and Graham in “The Victor’s Pose’

Finding a Taxi who knew where we were going was not easy, we had to share and do a detour through a very upmarket residential area with a security man on the gate.  We had an interesting search in the dark for a "canal basin" sort of mooring at the bottom of someone's garden.  Knowing that it was in sight of Nassau Scuba Centre helped our location directions quite a lot!  Eventually we found our boat the "Ocean Explorer" tied up No.3 from the shore.  By 2.30 in the morning we had carried all our luggage on board over the two yachts, the movement woke the skipper Gene who came down and showed us our cabin.

The following morning we staggered out for breakfast and were introduced to the crew and the two divers who were already on board.  One, of course was Robbie Warke, and the other one was introduced as "Brian"; it was late that day before I realised his other name was Kakuk.  He had explored Guardian Hole in North Andros to a depth of 420ft. amongst many others.  Friday had a fairly easy start, Robbie told us during breakfast he had got to Nassau airport by about 5.30pm the previous evening; but his luggage had not made it!  He soon departed by taxi to do some luggage hunting.  We were also waiting for Kevin Mack and Murray Bilby to arrive from America. I had met them both on previous trips.

Eventually Robbie and his gear were aboard and as nothing much was happening he and I decided to assemble our kit and sort out our buoyancy in the canal, which was fairly clean salt water (with a sea fish population which was quite friendly).  We were allocated cylinders from the large selection on board and we fitted them with the Side Mount attachments for our style of diving.  When the rest of the party had arrived with their gear, we set off for Andros under the early afternoon sun.

When we got into the deep water of the Tongue of the Ocean Gene put on speed and we had a reasonable trip, only rolling a bit when we turned towards the Andros shore and were across the wind.  Progress was halted three times while fish were removed from fishing rods; these had lures which were pulled through the water by the boat.  The first one was a "Wahoo" a local delicacy, and Gene had just started to fillet it when the engine was shut down again.  (The person operating the boat can hear the reel scream when the fish hooks itself, and immediately shuts down the engine to a tick-over).  Those in the know immediately rush to the stem to watch.  The second event had two rods in action with a fish on each. These turned out to be "Wahoo" also.  With three large fish on the stem the cameras were busy - 3 at one time was a first!

Brian's scooter in its 'parked' mode

By the time all three were filleted the stern was a rather bloody mess and the fire hose was exercised to restore order.  When all was clear and we were on our way again another rod started to scream and again the engine was shut down.  A volunteer was called for who had not landed a fish before.  Never volunteer they say! I did.  I was fitted with the pukka leather harness with a socket at the front to hold the butt of the rod (rather like Anna who carried the Banner.. ... I).  I began the familiar process (to those who have seen it/or on the telly) of pulling in, relaxing and winding in, pulling in, relaxing and winding in etc; and I had pulled in some 50Mts. out of some 150Mts., and was thinking this is not too difficult, when there was a terrific pull and despite all my efforts line was pulled off the reel against the brake at quite a rate.  When the pull stopped I started winding in again, and again a vigorous pulsing pull could be felt, but not as bad as before.  I carried on winding and it got easier, I thought the fish was tiring. It definitely was!  When in gaffable range it was seen that a gigantic mouthful was missing from the middle, and the tail piece had gone.  In fact after photographs, it was thrown back into the sea!  It was decided by the experts present that it had probably been nibbled by a large Wahoo - identified by the shape of the bite.  I hesitate to think what would have happened if it had hooked itself.

Quite soon the sun was sinking in its usual Tropical splendour and dark came quickly.  Gene with the skilful use of Radar, Depth-sounder, the odd flashing light and a lot of local knowledge, navigated through the shoal water.  We ended up anchored near the Benjamin Blue Holes, just south of Lisbon Creek.  We moored there for the night.

The following day, i.e. just after midnight, we started our standard routine for the rest of the week. Dive the holes as the suck dies away, if possible, so that the change in direction helps on the swim out.  Kevin and Murray, who both dive back-mounts were paired up together.

Brian was really a one man diving crusade, he had a large customised Aquazepp with twin cylinders underneath it, and it had a stab jacket wrapped round it to adjust its buoyancy as needed.  He himself carried two side-mounted cylinders also mounted on a slender stab, jacket, and usually took with him, a cylinder of oxygen to leave at a suitable place for decompression.  This left Robbie and myself to form a pair.  Robbie had not done any long deep swims before and so he was introduced gently to our first dive.

Benjamin's No 4.  This is the "Cousteau dived here" cave where they all used underwater flares - yes I am old enough to have seen it the first time round!  The dive starts as a wide inclined bedding plane; this soon steepens into a vertical rift where the line runs at about 36M.

The S. line follows the easiest route along a deep rift descending to 46M before rising up to the Stal Chamber.  We turned the dive here after admiring the scenery with my 50 watt light.  We had Nitrox 40 available on all dives for decompression and/or extra safety as we decompressed on our air computers.  Most of our dives followed the same routine.

Our next dive was to be the North passage, but having followed the jump line down we could not find the N. line - so we did the S. passage again.  Robbie said that he enjoyed it probably more than the first time. I found that these big rifts were a bit overwhelming when I first met them.  On most of these dives we were dropped by the RIB in pairs, but sometimes as the boat swung on the anchor with the tide it was much nearer, and we swam back on the bottom at about 3M.

The author after swimming back to the boat from a Blue Hole

The next dive was to be Stargate, - arguably the most awe-inspiring underwater decorations most divers are ever likely to see.  It is an inland Blue Hole, where the diver jumps in and climbs out.  The kit is pulled up by pulley.  Apart from the formations it has a Halocline where the freshwater lens sits on top of the lower salt water.  This has an interesting effect on vision at the junction and also produces a rotten egg taste in the water - hydrogen sulphide. The water gives a greenish hue to daylight filtering from above.  We set out on the S. passage; Murray, Robbie and myself in procession, and found the line, a blue English style poly-prop. on the R.H. wall at about 30M deep.  We followed the S. line, admiring the decorations as we went, until the large passage ends at a narrow rift on the RH. side. There was Brian's scooter parked on end by the wall and a faint haze where he had swum off into the rift. Murray elected to swim down too, but I being the cautious one, decided that as there seemed to be two lines in there already, and Murray had added somewhat to the silt, two was company, so I indicated to Robbie we should hold fast where we were for a while.  When Murray had not returned after a couple of minutes we swam back up the line and by the belay into the greenish twilight zone beneath the entrance and looked for the North line.  It was not easy to spot, it was a white American style parcel-string belayed on a white flow stone sheet.  The delay in finding it allowed Murray to catch us up.  We swam rapidly along the line, admiring as we went as our air supplies were approaching turn round point.  We did get to the Cathedral like end of the chamber and then swam back to the green zone and slowly ascended to our Nitrox deco cylinders hanging on ropes, put in by the shore party.  I had dues of some 35 minutes decompression (we had been at an average depth of 40M for some time) but as usual I did extra. Robbie had a definite twinkle in his eye after this dive.

The next dive at 04.30 I declined, and slept in.  Brian had another go at Benjamin's No.2, in case he got to No.4 the jump line was left in. Early the next morning I volunteered to take out the jump reel and the marker buoy, so the others would not get large deco penalties.  Brian took me out in the Rib., I had put one cylinder only on my wings and extra weights, but as the hole was in full blow I had to swim hard vertically down the rift. The whole operation took only 9 minutes, but I got to 36.2M!

The next dive was Atlantis where the entrance shaft soon opens up into a very large chamber.  There are three labelled lines in it, so divers have a choice.  Robbie had already elected for a bit of depth so we started on the Highway line and when we were above the deep line we dropped down to it.  Both of us decided at the same time that 57M was enough, and we ascended to the Highway line and followed it towards Murray's chamber. Thirds beat us to it, so we never got there.  The next dive we decided to do Murray's chamber first! but as we kited up Robbie felt "proper poorly" and retired to bed with Aspirin etc.  So left to my own devices I dived solo down the Middle line, this goes down to an arch at 72M and ascends a big white (coral) sand bank.  I went a short way up the sand slope and decided I was far enough for a first time look.

The next dive was Funnel Hole which was discovered and first explored in 1996.  Robbie, after twelve hours in bed declared himself fit.  We turned right (S) along the rift and swam to the end of the line at 68.2M, another deepest for Robbie.  Deco was done in the early dark on a sand slope in front of two large Brain corals and quite a selection of fish.  The next dive was the left (N) passage and again we found the line we had laid in 1996 was in good order, leading down to a mere 65.6M. Deco was made more interesting by a large crab sitting on one of the Brain corals "knitting".

Towards the end of the week we had two quiet calm sunny days, and as the morning sun and the tides coincided, we could see the Blue Hole effect of rising water over the coral heads.  A snorkeler was despatched to check out potential sites, and about six were considered possible and put on the GPS for further investigation.  The last three dives were devoted to some of these new holes, some were named after Alena, the crew member who did the first recce by snorkel, and two were named after Brian Kakuk who was once stationed at the mothballed Autec base on Highpoint Cay.  He could have swum out to some of the holes from the shore in ten minutes! Robbie and I tackled Ellenita No 3 (I am not sure we got the right spelling on the boat).  It was also called "The Cheese Grater" by those who looked at it!  We had a thrutch but failed, we only got down to 12M.  It had a maze of small passages at the top.  Brian had a go later and achieved 146ft (he dives in Imperial units!) he thought he had missed the way on.  We had a go at Ellenita No l  next. Murray and Kevin had tried with back-mounts and had managed about ten feet.  When we started the cave was still sucking gently, and our progress was hampered by our own silt - this was a virgin cave with a fair bit of soft silt on the floor of tightish bedding planes.  Robbie decided he had lost the way on and we turned, as we exited the flow changed and he saw a clean water passage on the right, but by then I was wriggling out of the entrance.  We had achieved a depth of 22M which in England would be quite promising, but in Blue Hole terms was a comparative failure!

Our last dive together was to be Brian's Remorse (North of Highpoint Cay).  Robbie and I started together, but having found a suitable dumping spot for the Nitrox cylinder, I looked around for him and saw him back at the RIB (he had bunged up ears from his bug of three days ago).  As he had the exploration reel, and surfacing would have seriously reduced my air supplies I carried on down and followed a descending line put in by BK a few minutes earlier.  (He was still on the other end of it).  This followed a steeply descending rift which narrowed here and there and was blocked by wedged rocks and coral.  These had made useful belay points for the line.  I was now quite deep, 70M+ so stopped my descent at a largish blockage.  I could see lights coming up from well below me and soon BK appeared.  We exchanged greetings and after an exchange of courtesy (after you; no after you!) we exited in convoy.  RW met us at 55M on our way back, having sorted out his ears. I did a deliberate stop of 2 minutes at 35M and carried on to the entrance shaft to decompress alongside BK- but due to his long deep dive he still had an hour to do when I left.  In fact we both did our dues at 6M where we had a comfortable lie, BK entertained us both by teasing a young Grouper from behind a rock-rather like a pussycat!

I was now to leave the boat and so there was a feverish washing of gear in fresh water and it was all hung up to dry and was packed with some twenty minutes to spare.  At Lisbon Creek we were ferried ashore to catch a taxi to our hotel on Andros, for a short stay.  Of course the phone on the quay would not work; but fortunately Leroy Bannister was at home in the Aqua Marine Club and we used his phone.  Leroy provided accommodation and transport for George Benjamin when he was diving the Blue Holes in the 60' sand 70's. Leroy is now a very old Bahamian, but still has a fund of anecdotes.

Well, that ended my diving holiday; I will attempt to persuade Audrey to describe her impressions.