IF THE SECOND HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY saw the accessibility of air travel turn the world into a smaller place, the first few years of this century have seen anxieties about world travel increase. John Bantin travelled as a guest of Barefoot Traveller (020 87414319, www.barefoot-traveller.com). More information from the Bahamas Tourist Office (020 7355 0800, www.bahamas.co.uk)
SARS, chicken flu, Al Qaeda and its friends, natural disasters; they have combined to give people second thoughts about going east, while paranoia among US immigration officials has made going west more stressful, even if you are only in transit through the States.
So where can you get good diving and good infrastructure without the worry about getting there The Bahamas is one option. It has 700 different islands which, between them, can give divers what they want, and its all via a direct flight to Nassau from London.
I recently travelled there with a group of diving-holiday operators on an educational visit. After our first days diving, one fellow-traveller confessed that he could see little reason to send any of his customers to the Bahamas.
But that was because we were in the wrong place - for his tastes. Things changed dramatically after he had savoured the next location on our whistle-stop tour.
Thats the Bahamas. Stay on the wrong island and its a bore. Stay on the right island and youll be glad you did.
So what are you interested in Do you want high-voltage diving during the day and a high-voltage night life to follow Do you want a Robinson Crusoe existence in a community of divers much like you would meet on a liveaboard, but based in a remote shoreside settlement with good diving to order
Do you want the variety that only live-aboard diving can provide Or do you want the remote land-based aspect combined with unadulterated luxury and haute cuisine, with some relaxing diving the cherry on the cake
You can have any one of the four provided you choose the right holiday. The Bahamas is all about diversity. Ill tell you about our trip, and you decide.
Nassau is the capital and its on New Providence island. There you will find the razzmatazz of the Bahamas, with luxury hotels on Cable Beach; the billionaires retreat of Lyford Cay; and Paradise Island, a place that can outdo Miami in its Miami-ness!
But you dont have to subscribe to that. We stayed at Orange Hill Club, the Fawlty Towers of New Providence. Its quirky but kinda nice!
The name Bahamas comes from baja mar, the Spanish for shallow sea, and most of the islands are surrounded by seductive turquoise water made luminous by the sunlight reflecting up from the shallow sandy bottom.
New Providence became the capital because it is surrounded by deep water suitable for big ships.
The Tongue of the Ocean is a dark blue shape on the map that licks around the western side of the island. This provides excellent diving, because the fish of the ocean come up the steep reef walls to visit us in the shallows. New Providence is famous for its shark dives, and nowhere is more famous for these than Stuart Coves Dive South Ocean.
Stuart and Michelle Cove are the glamorous couple who supply under-water facilities to Hollywoods film- makers, including both sharks and wrecks. Their can-do attitude gives them unwavering popularity with producers.
If you have seen a movie with sharks in it, theres a good chance that the Coves were involved. That includes Open Water. Even their dive centre was a set from the movie Flipper.
And what a dive centre it is! Its probably the busiest in the world, and the number of modern purpose-built dive boats that leave the dock each day is surpassed only by the number of wrecks (13) sunk specifically for divers to visit.
Unsurprisingly, many of the other customers are American and may be a bit brash. Dont let that worry you. Bahamians have a wry sense of humour, as do the European and Commonwealth members of Stuart Coves staff. Youll soon feel at home. This is the Bahamas, not America.
You will see sharks on nearly every dive, because they feed them every day. If you want to see sharks close-up - which means in your face - youll need to go on a shark dive.
Theres something special about being close to a swirling mass of sharks as they get fed in an orderly manner by the feeder, with his helmet and chainmail gloves. Youll mainly see Caribbean reef sharks here, but the occasional nurse shark will try to suck all the fish-bait out of the feeders box if he doesnt stop it.
Thousands of customers have passed safely through Stuart Coves hands, and it all goes on in 11m of water, with little or no current and almost in sight of the dock. If this isnt exciting enough, get them to take you on a 40-minute boat-ride to Shark Wall, where the really big sharks hang out.
Wherever you dive around the South Ocean part of New Providence, you get so used to seeing sharks cruise by that you stop looking at them. Thats when you start to notice how many different sorts of grouper there are.
There are other dive centres on New Providence, such as Nassau Scuba Centre, but lets just say that Stuart Coves is a hard act to follow.
If this is all too frenetic, and your idea of a good time between dives is to slump in a hammock with a good book, you could always take a brief flight across the Tongue of the Ocean to the island of Andros, and Small Hope Bay Lodge.
Andros is the largest and least developed of the Bahamian islands and it is fringed by a barrier reef that forms part of the third largest barrier reef in the world. Small Hope Bay Lodge was built along the waters edge by the Canadian father of the man who still runs it, Jeff Birch. Its a get-away-from-it-all sort of place. The bungalows are basic but nice. The food is buffet-style, much as you might get on a liveaboard. When youre not diving, you make your own entertainment or read a book. There are no phones or TVs.
Small Hope Bay organises the occasional shark dive, too, using the chumsicle method. A pre-frozen bucket of dead fish scraps is suspended from a buoy by a tethered wire in the water and, while the fish defrosts, the sharks circle around, biting off parts. You can choose either to watch from the seabed or swim around with the sharks.
The other attraction of Andros is its big blue holes. These are caused by the collapsed ceilings of submerged caves making darker patches of deep water in the otherwise pale turquoise of the surrounding sea.
During previous Ice Ages, sea levels were lower and the Bahamas were high and dry. Caves were formed in the carbonate substrate by rainwater that trickled through them. Later on, sea levels rose to their present levels, flooding the caves.
Andros is riddled with these caves and, although cave-diving is a serious undertaking, you can dive around the entrances to blue holes where they are found in the ocean. Youll find twisting canyons, crevices and tunnels.
We enjoyed a brief visit to one as big as a cathedral, but youd need a week to get the best out of it.
There are ocean blue holes, coral caverns and inland blue holes. Im told that nine different blue-hole dives are offered out of the 59 known about around Andros. That includes Conch Sound Blue Hole, where Martyn Farr once set a world record for the greatest distance covered in a sea cave, and StarGate, made famous by cave-diver Rob Palmer when it was a site for the 1989 International Blue Holes Project.
If this all sound too rufty-tufty, and you want pampering, go to the Abacos and Green Turtle Cay. Here youll find the Bluff House hotel, with its hot tubs, heated pools, adventurous dining and a tiny island with white sand beaches, where the main form of transport is the rented golf-cart.
Brendal runs the diving here, though hed much rather take you out sailing in his sloop or take you over to a nearby uninhabited cay for a beach barbecue, where you can hand-feed the sting rays in the shallows.
Green Turtle Cay is rather bijou, and so is Brendals favourite dive site, Coral Caverns. Its a very pretty part of the reef, with masses of fish and sponges and soft corals, all in very shallow water.
Brendal hand-feeds Nassau grouper that have become tamed here. You might see a solitary reef shark, and a group of big, mean-mouthed silvery tarpon habitually loiter under overhangs in the rock.
Its a particularly easy dive but with plenty to see. And then its a matter of getting down with a few glasses of Goombay-Smash and on with the partying - the main activity on Green Turtle Cay.
On the other hand, if, like me, you are a diving bore who probably travels alone and just wants to dive all day, every day, you cant beat the liveaboard life.
Aqua Cat takes on passengers at Paradise Island to tour the remoter areas such as the Exuma marine park and Exuma Cays. They will do a chumsicle shark feed during the week, but youll also get a chance to dive around ocean blue holes, wall-dive and reef-dive, and inbetween visit cays where the only inhabitants are hungry iguanas.
AquaCat is a big, luxurious catamaran with a spacious dive deck and 11 double cabins with en-suite facilities and good food. If you prefer something a bit more intimate, the same company runs a smaller sailing catamaran, with the accent less on diving and more on visits to remote cays.
If you like variety and just want to dive, dive, dive, a liveaboard such as AquaCat is the best option. If youre on your honeymoon, Id recommend Green Turtle Cay, with some diving thrown in.
If youre a budding petrologist, or interested in geomorphology, its Andros for you. If you want razzmatazz in the evening and intense diving in the day, New Providence can provide it.
IT SEEMS SUCH A LONG TIME AGO that I first went to Nassau to dive with the sharks. Although I had seen plenty of sharks while diving, it was the first time I had found myself jumping into the water from the boat as the guys in the grey suits swirled around menacingly just below the surface, doing their impression of shark-infested waters. Sometimes their dorsal fins even broke the surface, just as they do in the movies!
I admit that my adrenaline ran high. The dive just seemed to be asking for trouble. We were doing the sort of thing that the villain Jaws in the James Bond movie made people do before they were never seen again.
Once I had grown used to the idea that I was going to survive the experience, another sort of adrenaline rush took over. I was in and out of the water reloading my cameras as if the whole thing was a freak experience never to be repeated.
I paid the price. I flooded two cameras on the same day, such was my anxiety to get more shots. I put it down to my panic to get back in with the sharks before they departed. I couldnt believe that they were a fixture of diving around that part of New Providence.
I went back soon afterwards with a girl I wanted to impress. I wanted to show her that sharks might be dangerous, but that I was man enough to take them on! Young Stuart Cove and his new wife Michelle quickly got the idea and, ever-eager to help divers achieve their personal goals, my girlfriend was soon feeding the sharks herself. When I later asked her to marry me, how could she refuse
Since then, Ive been back many times. Its the reliability of the experience that impresses me now. The sharks always turn up, always look menacing, and I get better photographs every time.
And although they may be called Caribbean reef sharks, some of the females do get really big. It doesnt matter that Stuart Cove has seen thousands of divers enjoy a shark-feeding experience, because when I get home my pictures of these dangerous denizens of the deep never fail to impress the neighbours.
What would you do if a shark attacked you they always ask. I know Id be either dead or desperately injured but I also know that they just dont go around attacking any unknown creature. Sharks are quite circumspect about what they feed on. They intend to live a long time, and dont jeopardise their chances with noisy air-bubbling animals clad in rubber.
So I lie. I tell them I can handle it!
Actually, there have been times when I wiped myself down with the severed head of a dead grouper before entering the water, just to be sure that the sharks would come close enough for the wide-angle shot. Well, thats what I tell people. Actually, its to see the gob-smacked expressions on the other first-time shark-divers faces!
The sharks have become the lynch-pin of the Stuart Cove business. They even take snorkellers on shark-feeds now, drawing the sharks up towards the surface, where the snorkellers bob helplessly in their flotation aids. There are far more people who can simply float than there are who are certified to dive.
Am I tired of the idea of diving close to sharks Im not talking about the odd shark cruising over there. Im talking about sharks here, within touching distance, them touching you - not you touching them. These are sharks that bump and bash you with their tails as they turn and manoeuvre to get in line for a free hand-out of dead fish.
You can say youve seen a shark when one has walloped into you in passing.So no, I never tire of this experience. The sharks are kings of their environment, and we are there only by special invitation. I love it.