CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS WROTE in his log on 16 October, 1492, that Long Island was the world’s most beautiful island.
To be fair, he had been at sea for rather a long time. He was probably very pleased to see any land!
Admittedly, these low-lying coralline islands don’t have the immediate visual appeal of the volcanic mountainous islands of the Caribbean, but a remarkably transparent crystalline
blue sea surrounds them. Columbus named the area Los Baja Mars (pron: Bahamas), meaning “the shallow seas”.
The archipelago of the Bahamas stretches over a vast area and encompasses more than 700 islands and cays, but few modern-day visitors get past the main international destinations of Grand Bahama or Nassau (New Providence).
Although often billed as the “Gateway to the Caribbean”, the islands actually lie in the Atlantic,
north of Cuba and east of Florida.
The outer “Family” islands are very different. After the American War of Independence, many British loyalists were offered compensatory land, but the agricultural conditions proved less than successful for them. However, we visitors can enjoy these sunny islands and the clear blue water around them.

STELLA MARIS – LONG ISLAND
Seeing Paul Allen’s yacht Tatoosh moored off Stella Maris, Long Island, reminded me that the Bahamas might be too rich for some people’s blood.
Allen made a lot of money out of computer software with his pal Bill Gates. He’s not the only rich man to appreciate the Bahamas. I struck up a conversation in the bar one night with the pilot of a private jet belonging to America’s beef-jerky billionaire, another big yacht-owner.
Stella Maris (Sea Star) Resort is a rambling estate, built on former plantation land that failed to produce any proper crops from its thin soil. It offers villas, conventional hotel rooms and numerous swimming pools, bars and beaches, many of which are known as “love beaches” – presumably because the guests are so scattered that you will always find some privacy. It represents the ultimate getaway holiday.
Set up by some adventurous German families in the mid-1960s, it is now operated by their offspring. There have been plenty of improvements since I was last there about 15 years
ago. That said, most of the staff seem to be the same as they were, only, like all of us, a little older!
Nothing much seems to have changed at the dive centre. Robbie still fills standard 80cu ft (11.33-litre) aluminium A-clamp tanks with air, and the self-designed dive vessel that looks a bit like a small car-ferry remains in use, though we used the smaller sport-fishing-type boats that are almost standard equipment among US-run dive centres.
We appreciated their speed because, although the sea around Long Island looks deliciously turquoise and luminous, that’s because the Bahamian sun reflects off the sandy seabed back up through the shallow water.
The downside is that you need to travel a long way from the little Stella Maris marina to find anywhere deep enough to dive.
We would leave the hotel at around 9am, load up and travel out to sea. We persuaded Robbie to let us do three dives a day, but with short surface intervals of around an hour each, so we were back at the resort by 4pm. Three one-hour dives in the space of seven hours might sound as if we were pushing it, but when I tell you that the deepest we went was 12m, and some dives were only 7m deep, with little or no current, you’ll understand that this was extremely easy diving.
So what were we diving on Low-lying coral reefs that by and large seem very healthy, with profusions of soft and hard corals, and plenty of Caribbean species of fish in water almost as clear as the gin and tonic that awaited me on my return.
This area is not under pressure from divers. Seeing another dive-boat was worthy of comment.
The Comberbach, a 30m freighter that once brought building materials for the resort, was later sunk to make a good 30m-deep dive. It’s eerie to see the whole ship sitting upright, loud and proud and covered in coral and sponge growth, in such clear conditions.
The remains of a VW Microbus still lie in the hold, in less-than-pristine condition. The hull of a sailing sloop lies nearby.
Peter, one the original founders and now retired, tells me how a German film company made a documentary long ago about sharks, and filmed them close to Stella Maris in a staged feeding frenzy.
He was concerned that the resulting TV programme would scare divers away, but it caught the imagination of the then-predominantly German audience, and the demand was self-generating. Stella Maris became the first dive centre in the world to offer shark-feeding dives to leisure divers, and Robbie, heading the diving department, still carries out these dives from time to time, though over the years he has had to modify how he goes about it.
Fifteen years ago, I visited as part of a comparison of shark-feeding operations in the Bahamas, and this one put the wind up me.
Instead of taking a bucket of dead fish as bait, the guys went spearing live fish during the dive and, as you can imagine, the sharks, alerted by the vibrations from dying fish, went crazy.
It seemed to be a shark-feed on the edge of chaos. Not only was it a feeding frenzy, but the sharks often hurtled around unpredictably with the speared fish, complete with the long spear sticking out of their mouths. One of those could take your eye out!
Today, things are very different.
I wasn’t the only one who considered the old routine risky. Robbie told me that the sharks were getting too frisky, and people were reluctant to get into the water with them.
He said he had only to bang a weight on the side of the boat to have sharks nearly jumping out of the water. I can imagine it.

NOWADAYS, THE BOAT STOPS over a sandy patch near the old shark reef. It’s only around 10m deep. Divers are instructed to kneel on the bottom a safe distance from the stern.
The deckhand waits 10 minutes to allow everyone to settle, by which time a dozen Caribbean reef sharks have gathered under the boat. He then drops a bucket of bait into the water, and the sharks make short work of the contents.
We’re too far away to get good pictures of the sharks feeding from the bucket, but as each one grabs a mouthful, it swims away to avoid having to share it.
It’s as the sharks circle that you get a clear view, but the sharks are not interested in the divers. They want to get back to the bucket before their mates have grabbed all the bait.
Eventually, some bits of bait get taken by little grouper competing for a free meal. This is the most hazardous time, because the fish will dart away looking for somewhere to hide, and that can often be under the stationary body of a diver.
Vigilant Robbie uses a long pole to push these grouper and their pursuing sharks away. No one wants to get bitten by mistake during such a tussle.
Once all the bait has gone, most of the sharks disappear, though two or three hang around in case more food should magically appear.
It is these sharks that come close enough for good pictures, and the action is more relaxed. The sunlight reflecting off the white sand gives perfect conditions for photography.
The event will appeal to those who have never seen a shark close up before, but it will probably be a bit tame for anyone who has seen shark-feeds elsewhere. The most dangerous bit of the exercise was rushing back up to the boat and climbing on board.
Robbie didn’t want anyone hanging around doing safe ascents and safety stops, because of past experience with sharks being interested in what’s happening around the stern.
Bahamas resorts are often dominated by Americans, the islands being so close to US shores, but the operators of Stella Maris have built up a loyal repeat-guest list from all over Europe. Both French and Germans accompanied me on dives during my few days’ stay.

SAN SALVADOR
It may be where Columbus made first landfall in 1492, but San Salvador is, so far, well off the beaten touristic track. Club Med imports regular numbers of French-speaking people, but when that resort is unoccupied the island is very quiet indeed.
WC Fields is credited with saying that he once went to Philadelphia but it was closed, and San Salvador can feel like that at times. Still, the island’s under-used international airport has a runway as smooth and flat as a billiard table, and looks set for greater things.
I was one of five people staying at the Riding Rock Inn, and only three of us were divers.
The same Bahamian family has owned the resort for more than 26 years. The buildings may look a little tired but the rooms are functional and the beach outside is exceptionally clean, because all of the detritus washed up appears to be hanging as decoration in the rafters of Peaches’ Driftwood Bar. Peaches serves up highly effective piña coladas that go down well at the end of the day.
The coastal water around San Salvador looks as clear and turquoise as off Long Island, but soon gives way
to the dark blue of the dramatic drop-off, promising spectacular underwater scenery. The dive boat, based a few hundred metres along the beach at Riding Rock Marina, is captained by Bruce, an Italian Bahamian who sounds like Morgan Freeman.
San Salvador is blessed with deep water abutting its sheer underwater cliffs. Led by Geordie expat Lyn, we headed down through a shaft in the reef onto the open wall, to be escorted
by a quartet of cruising Caribbean reef sharks.
The clarity of the water at depth gives huge visual perspectives, and the occasional friendly Nassau grouper posed helpfully for my camera. In fact one posed so helpfully that I edged my way into some minutes of deco-stops and was waiting under the boat at 5m when I witnessed a great hammerhead meandering, wraith-like, along the reef at the top of the wall.
When I mentioned this to Bruce he seemed quite nonchalant, suggesting that hammerheads commonly hunt for rays in the sand of the back-reef.
A tour of the island reveals that there isn’t much to look at other than the British-built lighthouse, one of the few still manned.
The island makes a great base for scuba-diving, wind- and kite-surfing and fishing. Bahamian people in the outer islands are larger than life, and far from shy.
Everyone appears to be very friendly and honest. Dive-kit was left assembled on the dive-boat or on the dock overnight, and there was no need to lock my hotel-room door.
San Salvador must be one of the least visited of the southern islands, an undeserved accolade. Buy now while stocks last!

CROOKED ISLAND
The diamond set in Robbie Gibson’s gold tooth twinkled in the bright Bahamian sunshine. The gold dolphin pendant around his neck dangled on its chain. Everyone is called Gibson at the northern end of Crooked Island, and Robbie’s is a one-man operation, but his brothers help him out.
There is a strong social system on the island. It appears that Robbie’s family are not Seventh Day Adventists, unlike most of the rest of the settlement, so we could dive on Saturday, but everything else was shut.
Crooked Island lies at 22°N, south of the Tropic of Cancer and close to Acklins and Long Cay. If San Salvador looks unvisited, Crooked Island looks positively off the map. They say that many of today’s rich families in Europe won their initial stake by digging up the treasure buried by their pirate ancestors there. Others are still optimistically searching.
I was met at the airport by tall and distinguished-looking Bernard Ferguson, a man born on the island and who returned from a career in Nassau with his wife Daphne to run his new resort at Tranquillity Bay.
Though recently built, it looks to have come straight out of a Western movie, complete with sagebrush rolling by on the breeze.
Sitting on the veranda of my cabana, the silence was deafening. I don’t think I have stayed anywhere so devoid of people. But the five rooms and facilities proved both spacious and immaculate, and Bernard is prone to serve up grilled lobster to unsuspecting guests.
We drove 17 miles north to meet Robbie at the Landrail Point settlement and go diving. The sea was so calm, clear and pure aquamarine that when I took a photo of Robbie’s boat, it looked as if it was flying in a blue sky.
We headed towards the lighthouse where Robbie grew up – his father was the keeper. In its shadow lay the massively engineered remains of a Victorian steamship, long smashed to pieces by the incessant action of the sea in these shallow waters.
Massive gearboxes, propeller-shafts and boilers were among the only elements now recognisable.
Huge snapper took refuge within the few broken-up sections of the hull as we snorkelled down to take a look.
Nearby, some staghorn coral was still surviving in the shallows. Sadly, this species is rapidly becoming extinct, thanks to rising sea temperatures.
Where the water turns from a transparent aquamarine to indigo, the existence of an undersea wall and the third-longest barrier reef in the Bahamas is revealed.
Wow! What a beautiful coral reef, and what superb visibility! That was my first impression as I dived with Robbie over the drop-off. Every type of sponge, including massive barrels and purple tube sponges festooned the coral substrate, with black corals and black gorgonia present in their masses, and I could see for miles. There was little sign of the suffocating algae growth I’ve witnessed in other areas of the Atlantic/ Caribbean, and the reef top was intricate, with gullies and tunnels formed in the coral.
Among the reef-dwelling fish were queen and grey angelfish, as well as every other kind of Caribbean marine life, including spiny lobsters.
Whip-tailed rays hunted for tasty morsels in the white sand of the back-reef, while a big solitary barracuda lazed close to the brightly lit sandy bottom. Marauding jack made improbable passes at hordes of smaller reef fish.
Those bad-boy lionfish skulked under the overhangs. The shank of an ancient anchor was revealed under a coral head, where it had been abandoned centuries ago. Spanish hogfish browsed among the massed soft corals that waved their feathery fronds in the gentle surge on the reef-top.
Unfortunately there seemed to be a lot of those lionfish. These predators are not endemic, and are proving a problem in the whole region. A female can around 30,000 eggs in a week,
and the endemic fish find the eggs unpalatable – thereby lies the imbalance.
On my first day I found myself helping Robbie by driving the boat and casting the anchor into the sandy seabed when needed. We were joined by a couple of American gentlemen who could talk the talk and walk the walk, but I noticed that one put his BC the wrong way up on his tank.
I helped by rigging their gear for them. I had never seen anyone use 9kg of lead without a wetsuit before. I learn new things every day, and I learned that this was a mistake.
Happily, Robbie left me to my own devices under water, once his time was taken up keeping these two joes alive.
It was nearly as exciting as the rum-fuelled drive back the 17 miles to my accommodation at the end of the day.
Diving over the reef wall presents its own unique hazard. The water is so clear, and visibility so sharp, that you can find yourself spending too much time at 40m. The reef-top appears to be close to the surface, whereas in fact it is around 15m deep, so there is no gradual ascent up the reef into the shallows.
Once you get into deco-stops, you have to be able to do them in the blue water between the reef and the surface.
Without a reel and SMB, you really need to have perfect control of your buoyancy for this, and I found myself being tested on a regular basis, especially at the end of repeat dives.
Crooked Island looks perfect for any group of like-minded divers who love coral-reef diving and can provide their own entertainment during the evenings.
Bernard and Robbie are incredibly accommodating gentlemen. With so few people on Crooked Island, I was invited to a Mother’s Day lunch with Robbie and extended family. This unexploited destination is now open for business.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: BA flies direct from London Heathrow. Bahamasair can offer inter-island flights, but check with the resort in case it can arrange a better connection with an independent carrier such as Pineapple Air or Southern Air Charters.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Long Island: Stella Maris Resort. San Salvador: Riding Rock Inn. Crooked Island: Tranquillity On The Bay Resort/Thunderbird Enterprise. Nassau: Orange Hill Club and the more luxurious A Stone’s Throw Away are handy for the airport.
WHEN TO GO: December to August..
MONEY: Bahamian dollar/US dollar.
PRICES: Bahamas Flavour (www.bahamasflavour.co.uk) is offering £150 off for bookings up to 30 November: Stella Maris, flights and seven nights’ stay (two sharing), £1199pp; Riding Rock Inn, flights, seven nights’ full board (two sharing) and 17 dives, £1999pp; Tranquillity On The Bay, flights and seven nights’ B&B (two sharing), £1500pp, plus dives with Thunderbird Enterprise at £45. All prices include taxes.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.bahamas.co.uk