Steps
Steps are being taken to protect Nassau grouper, the Bahamas flagship fish, from over-fishing


I BLINKED. I CANT BELIEVE IT, this is surreal, I thought. We were finning along the top of a reef and being followed by a pack of Caribbean reef sharks. There were more than 20 of them, some nearly 3m long. They would come right up to us, glide past, turn and repeat the manoeuvre.
But these sharks didnt seem to like the depths. When we went down a wall, they stayed on top, rejoining us when we came back up.
They obviously werent here for the fish - there werent that many. We came across the odd small group of snapper, a large sting ray and a big grouper and a few tiny blue chromis, but that was it.
And they didnt seem to be sizing us up for a meal. They even followed us up the shotline and joined us in our three-minute statutory stop.
Climbing up the dive ladder was a bit distracting. Several dorsal fins were cutting the waters surface, and some of the divers were being bumped as they got out of the water. Did they not want us to leave I never thought sharks would like our company so much.
Theyre getting frisky! exclaimed the dive guide. He disappeared, returned with a steel box full of fish-heads and started feeding the now-ravenous pack.
Sharks are intelligent, he said, encouraging them half out of the water for food. They only turn up when dive-boats come. They recognise the sound of our engine. Theyre hungry - we havent fed them for a few days.
It seemed unnatural to see this beautiful top predator of the seas reduced to begging, following divers around in the hope of getting a meal.
Much of the attraction of diving is seeing wildlife in the raw. This was like diving in an aquarium. Still, the underwater shark-feed was spectacular, with tails, fins and bodies everywhere. Buried in this melee was a diver holding a steel rod, bent at right angles by the snap of a sharks jaw. Mis-timing their approach, three sharks careered into his midriff. Another was whipping its body back and forth like a snake, as it buried its snout in the steel box full of fish-heads in front of the diver What would Emperor Nero have given for such a spectacle at his Roman games - a gladiator taking on monsters of the sea
We spectators knelt on the sand a couple of metres from the action. The reef sharks glided in from our sides and behind us, some passing between our heads, their eyes focused on the chain-mailed diver.
Sometimes the sharks knocked us with their tails. They looked so graceful and their skin appeared so smooth that it was so tempting to touch them - until you remembered that bent steel rod.
Stuart Cove, who runs the biggest diving operation in the Bahamas on New Providence Island, reckons that 40% of the divers who visit these waters come for the shark experience. Its virtually guaranteed! Stuart has six dive boats and 20 instructors.
He says none of the visiting divers - and he has 23,000 annually - has been bitten. Shark-feeders get bitten all the time, despite their chain-mail, but these are tiddly bites. We only call it a shark-bite when it needs 30 stitches or more, said one of the instructors.
Stuart is aware of the controversy surrounding shark-feeding, but believes that he is helping the eco-system by maintaining the top predator, as marine biologists believe that sharks contribute to the health of the reef. Fishing takes them out, argues Stuart. Were keeping them there.
What next in the fantasy world of the Bahamas A trip to Grand Bahama for the experience of a lifetime - a swim with dolphins. UNEXSO organises this twice a day. Anticipation was high of capturing images of these magnificent creatures under water out at sea.
But the 18 dolphins were kept in pens up a creek. Besides swimsuits, we were permitted to wear fins and, if we must, face masks. Cameras were off-limits.
In groups of six we would be allowed to slip into the water in one of the pens. The dolphins would be introduced and then, like circus animals, perform tricks for a fish reward.
The Americans in the party loved it as dolphins came up to greet them when they slapped the water, and then towed them around. A UNEXSO photographer stood by to capture the magical moment. Several dollars more, and prints and a CD would be supplied.
My anticipation drained away, and I refused to join the dolphins. Two others in our party also declined. Why You have paid $169 for this. You cannot get a refund, said one of the trainers.
In fact, we hadnt paid. We were guests of the Bahamas Tourist Board.
It was the start of October, when US visitors to the islands decline. Its a lean period until Christmas, so the tourist board was looking to fill the gap from other areas, such as the UK.
Weather-wise, this is the worst time of the year to visit. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had just passed through the Caribbean and other storms were brewing while we were out there. For the first five days of our week-long stay, it rained every day and the sky was black.
The seas are often rough in this last quarter of the year, and rainfall at its highest in October. If you want to guarantee a full diving holiday in relatively calm seas with good vis, you may be wise to avoid June to November.
Roads under water, airfields partially submerged - this didn't match my image of the Bahamas. Neither did the colour of the sea: not azure-blue, as in the guides, but a silty, grey-brown.
We couldn't dive in the sea for the first three days, and when we did the visibility was only about 4m and, for taking pictures, down to 1m.
I wouldn't dive in Cornwall in these conditions, I joked to others in the group. We managed only five sea-dives - one at Shark Junction in Grand Bahama with UNEXSO and four with Stuart Cove in south-west New Providence island.
Nassau, capital of the Bahamas on New Providence, is synonymous with the James Bond films part-produced here. Many divers are keen to experience the mocked-up Vulcan bomber featured in Thunderball, and the Tears of Allah wreck from Never Say Never Again.
Several other ships have been sunk as film props in what is now the worlds underwater film capital.
We dived on two wrecks, Ray of Hope and Bahama Mama, but both looked bare and sanitised, with little marine growth and no fish shoals around them, though one had been on the bottom for 10 years. Hearing that the Bond wrecks were similar, we decided to stick to reef dives.
Among the Bahamas fantasy wrecks, all that seemed to be missing were a few Greek temple ruins and some broken statues of the gods. But that is being remedied. On Paradise Island next to Nassau, the developers of a $2 billion hotel called Atlantis apparently found, when digging its foundations, remains of the original Atlantis!
Yes, the fabled land swallowed up by the sea in antiquity has been found in the Bahamas. Tour the archaeological site - see the primitive diving apparatus used by the lost Atlanteans!
Our reef dives yielded surprisingly little in the way of marine life. Yes, there were the sharks, the big grouper and yellowtail snappers - at least partially maintained by feeding - but little else outside the feeding areas.
Some of the Nassau dive guides reckoned that South-west Reef was one of the prettiest dives in the area.
On a sea of sand in 10m depth, a series of small coral heads act as miniature coral reefs, with gorgonians, sponges, fire and brain corals. Here we saw blue tang, trumpetfish, blue chromis and parrotfish, but only in small numbers.
Some blame global warming, not only for the record spate of hurricanes last year but for rising sea temperatures that seem to be affecting the coral.
Joel Knowles, Watersports Manager at the Sandals Hotel in Nassau, says that the elkhorn coral is disappearing. Suffering from white band disease, it could be on the verge of being an endangered species. Corals flourish in the narrow 25-29C temperature range.
We were diving in 30C water, and that was in October, when surface waters would already have started to cool. Bleaching is said to occur when temperatures reach 32C.
The Nassau grouper, the Bahamas national fish, is also under threat - but from over-fishing. A ban on taking this fish is being imposed from December to February, when it breeds.
On Abaco we heard tales of these normally solitary creatures congregating in immense schools of up to 100,000 during spawning time, providing a spectacular display for divers.
Unfortunately, this had also become harvest-time for the fishermen. These huge balls, shoals and walls of grouper have also been observed off Andros, Long Island, Cat Cay and the Berry Islands.
Fear of losing more marine life is leading to the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs), though the fishermen are resisting. There are proposals for new MPAs covering the south-western reefs of New Providence Island, Abaco, Walkers Cay and the Biminis.
MPAs already exist at Exumas Cays; Pelican Cays; Abaco and Lucayan; and Grand Bahama, which has one of the worlds most extensive charted underwater cave systems, over six miles long.
We discovered on Abaco that if the seas are too rough you can still dive - in the middle of the island.
At the end of a mile-long pine-wood track, accessible only in 4x4s, we came to what looked like a pond about 10m across. The water looked black, lifeless and very still. This is a blue hole! said instructor Tim Higgs from Abaco Dive Adventures.
It was our most unusual dive in the Bahamas. For the first 30m, we were diving in fresh water. Below that depth it was salt water and at the boundary was a grey-blue mist.
Eerie is the only way to describe passing through that boundary. Just below it, you could look up at what seemed an impenetrable ceiling. And the water was crystal-clear.
The blue hole was cone-shaped, and you could easily see from one side to the other, down into the depths or up to the green surface, which looked like a tiny hole. The bottom was at about100m.
Around the sides were caves and tunnels that connected the blue hole with the sea. We were told not to enter them. Where the cone was widest, 2-3m long stalactites ringed the hole. The only life we saw were two very white, blind cave fish.
Those in the party who werent spooked by the experience agreed that this was a Bahamas dive not to be missed.


Divernet Divernet
Shark-feeding
Shark-feeding frenzy with Stuart Cove
Divers
Divers search for photographic quarry on the reef.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Virgin and British Airways fly to Nassau and several airlines fly between the islands. The national airline is Bahamasair.
DIVING: Stuart Cove on New Providence, Grand Bahamas UNEXSO and Abaco Dive Adventurers are among nearly 40 operators. Aqua Cat operates a liveaboard out of Paradise Island and Blackbeard cruises from Grand Bahama. ACCOMMODATION: On New Providence one of the best and cheapest hotels catering for divers is the 32-room Orange Hill Inn.
WHEN TO GO: All-year diving is offered, but its best to avoid the hurricanes and storms from July to November.
MONEY: Bahamian Dollar (BSD) or the matching-value US dollar.
PRICES: UK tour operators offering packages include Aquatours (www.aquatours.com) and Barefoot Traveller (www.barefoot-traveller.com). A week-long land-based trip with accommodation and flights starts from £1100; liveaboard plus flights from around £1600.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.bahamas.co.uk