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April 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Riding Rock Inn, San Salvador, Bahamas

wall diving close to the U.S., but still far from crowds

from the April, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

With money tight for exotic dive trips, its good to know interesting wall diving and numerous shark sightings can be had just 360 miles southeast of Miami. Morning dives were the best part of my trip to San Salvador. On one morning dive, after a 35-minute boat trip to North Pole Cave at the islands southern end, I passed a school of blue-striped and white grunts at the top of the reef, with chubs, schoolmasters and horse-eye jacks in the mix. Making like Santa Claus (the site name refers to his Christmas Eve descents), I entered a chimney at 60 feet, headed down to 110 feet, then into a crevice that exits into the blue at 135 feet. Curly wire corals grace the wall around the exit, along with big barrel sponges, one with three big spouts. One crack further on was loaded with a dozen black jacks. Yes, San Sals walls put it among the better dive destinations in the Caribbean/ Atlantic, offering up sharks on most dives.

Waterfront View of Riding Rock Inn

Waterfront View of Riding Rock Inn

The Bahamasair connector flight from Nassau to tiny San Salvador is a short hop but a world apart. I stepped off the plane into one of those delightful little airports where the luggage comes to you on a four-wheeled cart and shopping options are limited to rum or beer. Riding Rocks van driver surprised me by saying that my partner and I comprised the entire Saturday group of divers. Maybe its the winter off season -- water is considerably cooler then -- or the economy that kept people away. Riding Rock Inn, San Salvador, BahamasThe group on my planned dive-shop trip dissolved when the recession hit some of the divers hard, so my partner and I were the only ones that remained from that bunch. On the upside, we pretty much had the dive boat, the sharks, and sometimes the whole resort to ourselves.

Even for just two divers, Riding Rocks dive operation didnt give short shrift. No need to haul tanks to the 42-foot dive boat; they had been loaded and filled, always to 3,000 plus. Divemaster Lynn, a competent Brit with experience in the Pacific and Caribbean, prepped two divers for their last two openwater course dives. Captain Bruce, a Nassau native who has steered this boat for years, took us to the morning dive at Shangri-La, where he hooked to a buoyed mooring line, the routine for all dives. The general pattern for dives was down the wall one way, then back along the top of the reef, usually at 40-50 feet, toward the boat. Current was nil all week. I was underwhelmed by Shangri-La -- not the big wall scene and swim-throughs I expected. Still, three reef sharks cruised a short distance off in the blue. They appeared on every dive, usually six-footers in a mellow mood, sometimes shadowed by a bar jack.

After plumbing the depths of North Pole Cave, I found what looked like a killing field of staghorn coral rubble back up top, with scattered live colonies. The coral did look very healthy at some sites but there were dead and algae-covered patches, too. A scientist at the reef research station there told me they have tracked significant loss of live coral since he started 17 years ago. Its not only from global warming, the increased desertification of the Sahara is stressing and killing corals in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic via a fungus that travels from Africa on dust particles in the trade winds.

The dive rules up front: computer required, 45 minutes maximum dive time, and a maximum depth of 100 feet unless the dive is planned deeper. The 8:30 a.m. dives were a 35-minute ride to San Sals south end and its deep cracks, tunnels and sand chutes. The 2:30 p.m. dives were usually within 10 minutes of the marina. Because it was just us two on dives, I had plenty of time to explore the coral and cracks with my light and magnifying glass. The two V-hulled boats with twin diesel engines have bench seating along a rack for about 24 tanks on each side, sun cover, a head, and a DAN O2 kit. Each holds 20 divers. Lynn said a big group would get two divemasters, with entries spaced by five minutes. Drinking water and orange wedges were handed out during the hour-long morning interval on board. Captain Bruce and Lynn helped with gear and hosed off my BCD and regulator each afternoon, while I rinsed and hung my wetsuit at their dive shop.

Riding Rock is managed by San Sal native Michelle Williams, whose family has owned it for 20 years. Riding Rock Inn, San Salvador, BahamasThe place is nothing fancy, 42 rooms in motel-like buildings bordered by the beach, pool and open-air bar. My deluxe room on the second floor was comfortable and spotless, with two queen beds, mini-fridge and cable TV. On the small balcony overlooking the ocean, I sat to read and watch kestrels flying between trees. The inn has the friendly feel of a family-run operation but the schedule is run on a strict Saturday-to-Saturday regimen. Conch fritters are served in the bar Saturday and Monday, night dives are Tuesday, BBQ is Wednesdayyou get the idea. Tuesday afternoons are for an interesting twohour tour around the island where Columbus probably landed in 1492. During high season, groups tour by bus but during this slow period, Michelle took us in her own car.

Weather is definitely a concern in February because San Sal is north of the Caribbean. While daytime temperatures were comfortable, water averaged 75 degrees; I used a 3-mm suit but I got chilled at the end of dives. While an occasional cold front can bring wind, swells, murky visibility and cool temperatures on the boat, I had sun every day and wind just one afternoon. I wouldnt go there again in winter, because weather could spoil much of the week. When weather blew out the Tuesday night dive, management didnt offer to reschedule. I didnt press the point because I preferred sunny afternoon dives to cool evening ones but I had some regrets when Lynn said reef sharks are in hunting mode after dark, and lionfish use divers lights to hunt.

Speaking of lionfish, that Indo- Pacific species is now common here (go online to the Undercurrents September 2007 issue for details about how they got to the Atlantic and Caribbean). We saw up to six on most dives, usually in pairs nestled in the wall. Riding Rock divemasters once speared lionfish to reduce numbers locally, but no longer. As dive shop manager, Lynn told me she wont allow it until research demonstrates its the right approach to eliminating them. Captain Bruce said he eats them regularly and finds them quite tasty. Skip the grouper, pass the lionfish?

One afternoon I walked to Cockburn Town to pass time. Its one of the two main settlements on San Sal, with a population of 1,200. I visited the few stores and bars, pausing to read the small-town announcements about upcoming Valentines Day parties posted on storefronts. A rusty 10-foot iguana statue guards the town and the long, deserted beach to the south. Colorful bananaquits and palm warblers made more noise than the sparse car traffic. My kind of place.

In the inns Driftwood Lounge, Peaches, the longtime bartender, suggested rum drinks with a dozen ingredients but I stuck with Kalik, a decent Bahamian beer at $4. We ate in the 40-seat dining room, where a few fishermen and boaters sometimes joined us. Michelle told me rooms are already booked solid for most of June and July, when water temps reach the 80s. Then the place definitely would have a different feel, with 30 divers on the two boats and packing the funky Driftwood, which Lonely Planet calls the happening place on San Sal. I usually shared the bar with a few folks off a sailboat stopping at the RR marina or fishermen, who reported landing big wahoo daily.

Meals were above par for such an isolated venue. American-style breakfasts are to order. No menu, just order what you want in your omelet or what meat with your pancakes, with OJ and a choice of fresh fruit on the side. Lunch started with an excellent conch chowder, then a couple of choices like a sandwich or baked chicken. Dinners began with a simple salad and a glass of wine, followed by a couple of entre choices. Half the time, I had fresh fish, usually wahoo or mahi. Other entres included steak, Cornish hen, and lamb chops. Dessert was homemade cake or pie.

Lynn was determined that I see great hammerheads, so we spent the latter half of my trip on the back reef where the big guys are common, but I would have been happy there anyway. Most sites had huge fields of garden eels, with rosy razorfish and the occasional green razorfish diving under the sand, yellowhead jawfish hovering above, bridled blennies, and tilefish near their rubble piles almost as big as beaver lodges. Southern stingrays all seemed to have a darkened bar jack hunting partner, and they were outnumbered here by smaller yellow stingrays. Halfway into the dive at Stew Pot, Lynn put two fists on her temples, and there it was -- a 10-foot hammerhead halfway up the water column. On the next dive at Three Barrels, I saw another, this time in better display as it glided over the reef top into the blue.

On my sixth and final dive day, I got to choose two sites to revisit. At Double Caves, one tunnel entrance was nearly barred by a big blue parrotfish. I entered another and emerged on the wall at 115 feet just as a reef shark passed. As I worked my way up, four eagle rays glided by in close formation. Soon after, two 10-foot hammers came into view just off the reef. I watched them disappear, then a minute later one of them returned for a second look at me. As I neared the lip of the reef, Creole wrasse poured over the top and parted around me, along with a school of yellow goatfish nearby. Great barracuda dont often aggregate, but 30 of them gathered over the sand here, as well as on several other dives. Clearly a good fishy Atlantic/Caribbean dive.

Riding Rock offers an all-inclusive package, but theyre somewhat pricey. You could book a similar all-inclusive dive week at CoCoView for $500 less but, depending where you live, you would probably pay more to fly to Honduras, and not get the variety of dive sites, nor the chance to swim with sharks. If you dont have the time or the airfare to travel double-digit hours for diving, fly to Nassau between May and July (or later if you recognize the hurricane risk), then take the daily puddle-jumper to San Sal. Thats all it takes to get you finning along the walls and near the sharks.

-- M.A.

Divers Compass: I paid $1,663 per person for an all-inclusive, double- occupancy package in a deluxe room, with 17 dives over seven days . . . taxes and restaurant tips were included, liquor and boat tips were extra . . I recommend the upstairs ocean-side rooms . . . The only other charge I incurred was $20 for a golf cart (keep to the left) on my last afternoon to go birding at the ruins of Watling Castle and walk miles of beautiful, deserted beaches . . . Bahamasair (www.bahamasair.com) charged $190 for the round-trip flight from Nassau; I had to layover there because I couldnt arrive early enough to catch the daily flight to San Sal, so I stayed at the Nassau Palm ($156 double, breakfast included), did a nice walking tour of colonial downtown, then walked to the lively Fish Fry area for dinner . . . US dollars and plastic accepted everywhere . . . San Salvador has a chamber at the Club Med resort . . . Web site: www.ridingrock.com

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