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April 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Small Hope Bay Lodge, Andros Island

Bahamas diving with one big happy family

from the April, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

I surfaced from my first-ever shark dive, ending a day that began at an ancient sandy shoreline 185 feet below the surface. The sun was shining, but wouldnt be for long. Still, I had beaten Mother Nature by doing twelve dives in four dramatically different undersea environments before she could slam the door shut on diving for the remaining three days of my trip with a cold front and high winds. The sunny Bahamas is a risky winter vacation venue because the weather and temperature can literally change overnight. But Small Hope Bays way of arranging dives helped me dive a blue hole and make a shark observation dive, four deep wall dives, and five coral garden dives in just four days.

Despite its price and limited coverage in dive publications, I tried Small Hope Bay Lodge on Andros Island based on its rave review in 1000 Places To See Before You Die. Andros is the Bahamas largest island, dominated by thick bush and mangrove swamp perfect for divers like me who dont want to share the waters with cruise ships and concrete resort compounds. The lodge is the Bahamas oldest dive resort, founded in the 60s by deep-sea diving pioneer Dick Birch. Because there are only 21 coralwalled, pine-roofed cottages around a central compound, I booked eight months in advance to ensure a New Years week stay.

Small Hope Bay’s main lodge

Small Hope Bay’s main lodge

Though a weeks dive package was almost double the rate of Caribbean dive spots like Cozumel, diverse diving made Small Hope Bay worth the expense, at least once. The lodge sits on the edge of the 140-mile-long Andros Reef (the third largest barrier reef in the world) so trips to most dive sites were only a 15-minute boat ride. The reef drops into a 6,000- foot trench known as the Tongue of the Ocean and because this canyon is so close to shore, access to deep wall dives was a breeze. Small Hope Bay Lodge, Andros IslandThe expansive system of caves makes for 178 freshwater blue holes on the island and 50 along the reef.

Dick Birch has passed, but his family still runs Small Hope Bay Lodge. While not sleeping or diving, I spent my time on comfy couches by the main lodges fireplace, chatting with guests and locals over Bahama Mamas at the bar, and playing pingpong in the game room. Birches and their staff mingled at all meals. Kids and pets are welcome. I felt pampered even before I arrived. By phone and e-mail, office staff Anastasia, Tracy and Bhruna communicated promptly and in friendly tones. When I asked whether the bar stocked my favorite gin, they said no but would be happy to fly it in -- at no extra charge.

Jacques Cousteau gave a thumbs-up to Andross Great Blue Hole, and I have to agree. Fresh water from the island exits through a narrow, cavern-like opening. I swam into its darkness and through slimy white strands, the byproduct of detrituseating bacteria floating like webs in a Halloween spook house. My Andros born-andbred divemaster Skeebo, who claims to have made nearly 9,000 dives, led us down to 104 feet. After we lined up single-file into a crevice-like entrance, visibility was too bad to continue so we turned around to exit. Skeebo led us into the skylight room, a more spacious cavern. Below me, the hole extended down to 320 feet. Visibility was still not great so I didnt get the full experience of this former dry-land waterfall and its swim-throughs, but I was glad I brought my light to inspect crevices.

Shallow reefs, wrecks and cavern dives categories are among the 40 dive sites crew regularly visits. The lodge offers custom specialty dives to openwater sites, coral caverns and more blue holes but theyre pricey at $140 for one person, $100 for two or more. I did shell out extra for the shark observation dive, but I saw everything else on my package-allotted sites. Visibility averaged 55 feet; sunshine boosted it to 80 feet while the lack thereof dropped it to 30. No remarkable current but 50-minute dives in the winter seasons 78-degree water became chilly fast. I wish I had traded in my 3-mil wetsuit for a 5-mil. My spouse snorkeled while I dove and reported that the trips, led separately, were to equally beautiful coral gardens. A Lodge favorite was 12-foot-deep Red Hill, named for the rusty-colored Elkhorn coral in which French and blue-striped grunts hang.

I took giant strides off the dive boats, large and stable pontoons, and removed fins before climbing up sturdy side ladders. No more than 10 divers were on board though capacity was double that. Mask and camera buckets were refilled daily. Aluminum 80 tanks ranged between 2800 and 3200 psi. Crew gave thorough briefings and suspended safety tanks and regulators on all dives. Two large rinsing tanks and a hose were dockside. At the dive center next to the docks, each cottage was assigned a bin to stow small gear and a space to hang the rest. However, bring a save-your-dive kit, because despite rental gear and computers, this was no fullservice dive shop.

While diving didnt compare to Bonaire, and the rather plain coral gardens didnt hold the drama of Grand Caymans Japanese Gardens, I counted up to 40 fish species at most coral garden sites. Ive never seen such a concentration of redtail parrotfish, harlequin bass, barred hamlet and Nassau grouper. I also spotted seven invasive lionfish, which are now spreading into Caribbean waters. To my photo album, I added rare shots of a Black Jack and a male quillfin blenny. At Brads Mountain, I snapped a pair of queen triggerfish and a yellowtail grouper while two reef sharks circled at the edge of visibility.

I liked that dives were not follow-the-leader style except on deeper walls and the Blue Hole. Divemasters were always close but not enough to point out anything unless asked. The laid-back dive schedule was ideal for divers wanting to sleep in: Two tanks at 9:30 a.m., another at 2 p.m., and I was back in my room by 4:30 to clean up for drinks and dinner. They offer night dives twice weekly but with six people needed, I never got a chance.

Given what I was paying, I was put off by the drive up to the unimpressive entrance, past a gasoline tank and maintenance yard. My smallish room had no bathtub to dry gear, just a small stand-up shower. But all cottages sit on a lovely private beach facing east, and sun lovers can go au natural in a private screenedoff area. Still, this is not a place to loll about in your suite no phones or TVs, and only half the cottages have air-conditioning. Thanks to three dives a day and a hearty dinner, I fell into my rock-hard, king-sized bed too tired to care when offshore breezes blew in odors from the mangrove shallows.

Small Hope Bay Lodge is the Caribbean version of family camp. Rubbing elbows with lodge owner Jeff Birch, son of Dick, and his staff was an everyday occurrence. At one breakfast, we got a wakeup call from batik-clad conga drummers emerging from the kitchen, led by Jeff. After one dinner, Skeebo stood on a chair handing out awards for adventures and mishaps experienced by each departing guest. Dives were arranged over drinks every night. Ive never interacted so much with staff at any place, and it was never to complain about service. Many have worked there for years, and many guests have been returning annually for a decade or more. The make-yourself-at-home feel applied to complimentary bicycles, kayaks, small sailboats and hot tub to use whenever I wanted. The unstaffed gift shop ran by an honor system; I could bring what I liked back to the room and just fill out a chit for what I took. When I walked along the road, passing cars would wave or honk in greeting. But my walks also took me past a lot of roadside litter.

Buffet-style meals were plentiful and varied, and seafood was especially tasty. I went back for seconds of herb-encrusted grouper and blackened snapper, followed by desserts like whiskey bread with butter pudding or pecan pie. If I didnt want the daily Bahamian breakfast dish like stewed mackerel or boiled bologna, I could order eggs, an omelet, pancakes or french toast, and sample oatmeal, fruit, and cold cereals. Lunches were leftovers, but that still meant a surface interval feast of salmon with citrus-herb butter. Even the locals came here to eat. Booze and beer were on the house, so I also went back for seconds of Bahama Mamas.

On New Years Day, I put myself into Skeebos capable hands for the Over the Edge of the Wall dive, as the lodge allows qualified divers to explore below 100 feet on certain guided dives. Whip wire and other small coral lined the wall as I sank to my destination, a ledge of sandy beach at 185 feet, with just six minutes below 100 feet and a slow 30-minute no-deco ascent. The second dive at Peters Mystery Special, a 25-foot-deep coral garden, was followed by lunch, pan-seared wahoo with fruit rum reduction eaten under thatched umbrellas at the seaside bar.

My third dive that day was the shark observation dive at Shark Emporium. Knowing that the cold front and high winds would make diving iffy going forward, Jeff scheduled it for me and two others. Small Hope Bay Lodge, Andros IslandFollowing a no-handfeeding policy, crew suspended a frozen chumsicle 40 feet below the surface. My spouse snorkeled overhead, getting a great view of my buddy and me kneeling on the bottom while a dozen reef sharks attacked the frozen chum ball just 20 feet above our heads. Afterward I searched the sand for sharks teeth while the sharks did after-dinner circles; some approached me within a couple of feet, staring at me with cold, unblinking eyes.

Dive sites were not marked on the surface but boatdriver/divemasters Skeebo and Moose, Jeffs thirtysomething nephew and native Androsian, navigated unerringly without GPS. With no mooring balls, boats relied on heavy anchors, which divemasters hoisted by filling an inverted pail attached to the anchor chain with air to boost lift. No one stayed topside with the boat. A large grappling hook was suspended 10 feet off the bottom on all dives. Skeebo told me that in the very unlikely event that the anchor line parted with no one on board, the hook would eventually catch. That made me ponder, but nothing happened during my stay.

When the cold front hit, overnight temperatures plummeted from the low 80s into the 60s and logs were thrown into the fireplace. On one night, we visited the local batik factory. It was a hoot dipping tropical-themed molds into hot wax to make unique patterns onto white sheets that would later become blue batik fabric. Another night after dinner, notable underwater cave diver Brian Kakuk presented a PowerPoint slideshow about the geographical, archeological and technical diving aspects of his explorations. Another day, Skeebo took us at no charge on a guided nature tour of Captain Bills Blue Hole, then to Staniard Creek, where he introduced us to his mother and family home.

My week at Small Hope Bay Lodge was worth the hefty price, despite the nasty weather, maybe even because of it -- I dont know where else I could have packed so many unique dive experiences within such a tight time frame. The best time for the Bahamas is May through August, when the water is warmer, the days hot, the nights not so cool. As summer progresses, hurricanes become more likely and there can be frequent but short-lived rain squalls. Luxurious its not, but Small Hope Bay Lodges family-hug feeling makes it feel like a second home. Its a great place to bring the kids and get them excited about diving and marine wonders. Life is too short to miss out on the good diving just off the Lodges doorstep, weather notwithstanding.

-- S.P.

Small Hope Bay Lodge, Andros IslandDivers Compass: An eight-day, all-inclusive dive package during low season (April 27 to December 19) is $1,945, then increases to $2,083, while the all-inclusive daily rate for snorkelers is $235 during low season and $254 in peak season . . . Nitrox fills are extra at $10 . . . My weekly bill for two adults, 12 dives, three snorkel trips, four percent gratuity and dive staff tips was $4,054 . . . U.S. dollars accepted, but little cash is needed since all fees, including tips, can be charged . . . If you want A/C, request it in advance . . . Small children eat dinner separately under complimentary supervision; babysitting is available . . . Flights to Andros Town on Continental puddle-jumpers leave from Fort Lauderdale four days a week and cost approximately $300, but the Lodge also helps arrange charter flights . . . I checked four bags, each less than 50 pounds, with no problems from Continental . . . Taxi to and from the airport is $10 per person one way; no need for rental cars and the Lodge arranges land excursions . . . Web site: www.smallhope.com.

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