SCATTERED LIKE PRECIOUS JEWELS over 1500 square miles of clear tropical sea, the chain of islands that make up the Bahamas are best known for sparkling coral reefs.
However, the real diving treasures are to be found beneath your feet, in the hundreds of blue holes that can be found across the islands.
Until recently the blue holes, which are submerged caves, were known only to hardcore explorers and scientists.
British divers such as Rob Palmer, Rob Parker and Martyn Farr added to the rich lineage of cave exploration in the Bahamas, discovering many blue holes in the 1980s and ’90s and setting some impressive records along the way.
Largely because of logistics, many of the blue holes have remained relatively undived until recently. When I heard about Bahamas Underground, based in Marsh Harbour Abaco, I decided that it was time to experience the caves myself.
Run by one of the world’s foremost cave-divers, Brian Kakuk, the facility caters for adventurous divers of all qualification levels, offering everything from cavern tours to deep mixed-gas cave penetrations and training in all levels of cave and technical diving.
The crystal caves are fragile, so much of the diving is done using sidemount configurations. Back-mounted tanks can easily hit the delicate formations, and one careless movement can destroy structures that are thousands of years old.
Aware of this, I decided to do a sidemount course at Bahamas Underground, so that I could reach the most decorated and intricate sections of the blue holes in Abaco. The course started in a secluded bay, where I was able to practise my skills before heading into the caves.
The training started with understanding and getting comfortable with a sidemount configuration. The course then progressed onto buoyancy drills, which included slowly finning up to a fixed point, touching it with your nose and them propelling yourself backwards to slowly move away from it.
Kakuk explained that this drill was designed to acclimatise the diver to moving in a careful and controlled manner around the crystal structures in the blue holes. I expected it to be easy but it proved much harder than I had anticipated in my new rig.
It took several attempts before I felt able to perform this new skill.
Once I had mastered the ability to remove a cylinder and swim with it in front of me, I had the skills necessary to navigate narrow passages, and was ready to enter the caves.
My first dive was in Dan’s Cave, one of the best in Abaco, with depths ranging from 18-50m and with around 7500m of underwater passages. Slipping past a murky sulphurous surface layer, caused by stagnant vegetation at the cave’s entrance, I entered another world.
Crystal formations glistened in my torch beam as it bounced around the initial large chamber. It was immediately clear that I was in a cave of immense and pristine beauty.
Following Brian through the crystal grotto, I headed from the main chamber and up towards the huge Blue Cascade room. I moved slowly and carefully, with reverence for my fragile surroundings.

THE DELIBERATE NATURE of my movements provided me with an inner calm and heightened awareness of my surroundings. While this is potentially a dangerous activity, my training meant that I felt focused, relaxed and ready to react to any eventuality.
I carefully finned up a long passage that began to narrow towards the top. Looking up, I could see a small rock shelf, towards which Brian beckoned me.
I grabbed it, and slowly lifted my head up into a huge chamber.
I had reached the Crystal Palace, a forest of huge, spectacular, calcite formations, or speleothems, extending as far as I could see.
One thing Brian had forgotten to mention on the course was that you should try not to drop your regulator as you open your mouth in disbelief.
Alongside their natural beauty, the blue holes of Abaco have significant scientific importance. In 2004, Brian Kakuk found an exceptionally well-preserved tortoise shell and crocodile skull in the blue hole called Sawmill Sink.
Teaming up with scientists from the University of Florida and the Florida Natural History Museum, the team has collected and dated what has been declared to be the most significant fossil find in the history of the West Indies.
The discovery has provided new insights into how the Bahamas were formed following subsequent ice ages.
With the support of a number of local bodies, proposals to create a nine-mile-long Blue Holes Conservation Area on the southern part of the island are now being discussed with the Bahamian government. The zone would contain some of the most highly decorated underwater caves on Earth, including Dan’s Cave.

AS I DEVELOPED MY SIDEMOUNT SKILLS during our stay, Brian Kakuk took me to rooms with increasingly intricate and delicate structures.
The highlight was the Glass Factory in Ralph’s Cave. Aptly named, the room is a treasure-trove of crystal straws, which you must literally crawl into using only your fingertips. A careless fin-kick would cause immediate, permanent damage.
I crawled past the large crystal roses, hanging like chandeliers alongside the hundreds of spelothems. I hardly dared to breathe. As I reached the main chamber I was surrounded by thousands of crystal straws the thickness of string, forming what looked like frozen rain.
I was so stunned that I needed to be reminded of the dive plan and the need to start our exit.
After the Glass Factory, I doubted whether it could get any better. But it did. The final dive was in Fangorn Forest, named after Tolkien’s fictional forest in Middle-earth. This room lies a reasonable distance into Dan’s Cave, past the Crystal Palace and Cascade Room.
Fangorn Forest is a vast chamber and arguably one of the most decorated underwater passages in the world – imagine an underwater cathedral decorated by Tiffany. Helictites, intricate curly structures that defy gravity, hang from the ceiling alongside crystal straws up to 2m long. Hundreds of huge columns, some 10m tall, with widths varying from a few centimetres to more than a metre, require careful navigation.

AS I SWAM THROUGH the crystal maze, I had to keep my eyes firmly on the guideline, as it would have been easy to get lost among the density of stalagmites and stalactites, which range from translucent to opaque.
When I reached the Ents, a row of stalagmites the size of tree trunks, it was time to turn the dive.
As I headed towards the exit, I was already planning a return trip.
Of the thousands of blue holes, Brian Kakuk estimates that only around a fifth have been explored. Even those that have been found offer many unexplored passages. It’s still early days for blue-hole diving in the Bahamas, and a golden age of exploration lies ahead.
The blue holes have a reputation for offering some of the most beautiful and decorated underwater passages in the world. This trip proved that they are within reach of adventurous divers who are looking for something different.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: British Airways operates direct flights to Nassau, Bahamas from Heathrow, www.britishairways.com. Bahamas Air provides transfer flights from Nassau to Marsh Harbour, Abaco, bahamasair.com
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Bahamas Underground is the Bahamas’ only technical-diving-oriented training and adventure facility. Located in Marsh Harbour, it provides facilities, training, rental and guiding to some of the best blue holes in the area, www.bahamasunderground.com. The centre can also provide or arrange reasonably priced self-catered or catered accommodation.
WHEN TO GO:Hurricane season is from the start of July to the end of November, but the diving is all year round.
PRICES: Accommodation at the Cottage, next to the dive facility, costs US $85 per night (two sharing). Bahamas Underground charges $700 for the two-day side-mount course, which includes one open-water and three cave dives. Guided-diving rates for one diver are $200 (one dive/ half day) or $300 (two dives/full day) and for two divers, one or two dives a day, $200pp. Prices includes hotel transfers and water. Cylinder hire costs $25 for air and $35 for nitrox per tank, and twin-sets are used. Lights, sidemount rigs and all equipment can also be hired.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.bahamas.co.uk

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