Concealed Bermuda
Divernet
Bermuda may have its strengths as a diving destination, but theyre not the ones put forward in its brochures, says Brendan OBrien. He reckons the island is keeping its real treasures too well hidden

OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE FOLLOWED BERMUDAS PROMOTIONAL CAMPAIGNS and been fascinated by references to over 450 wrecks in our coastal waters and tempted by the boast that as far as wrecks are concerned the island has the highest concentration in the world in crystal clear waters.
     When Diver was invited there recently on a press trip, I was chosen to represent the magazine not just because of my interest in the island but because I used to live there and have carried out hundreds of dives in its waters. This was an opportunity to see the difference between the tourism spin and reality. Of course, we didnt tell the Bermuda Department of Tourism this.

buying sweatshirts
The trip was essentially a long weekend, four days with diving planned for three of them. It was a whistlestop tour of the islands diving and other attractions that may interest a visiting diver. The group was made up of four journalists and a representative of Bermuda Tourism, a diver but with limited experience of the islands diving. The time of year was March, which surprised me as it can be an unpredictable month, windy, cold and with fierce seas that can prevent diving altogether.
     Before setting off, some of the group had already made the first tourist error - they had believed the temperature spin. The press pack described the island as having a year round mild semi-tropical climate, with a temperature range of 20-28.
     What we experienced was a cold northerly wind, with temperatures nothing like semi-tropical. Even the tourism representative commented on the cold, as other members of the group went to buy sweatshirts. They had not come prepared for cool winds and a water temperature of only 18C.
     Our base was the Grotto Bay Hotel, home of newly established Triangle Divers. For owners Graham Maddocks and Deron Long it was the first weekend of the season and, with three local divers, we set off to explore what Bermuda had to offer.
     On the boat I chatted to Judy, a keen diver and volunteer at the local aquarium. In the harbour she pointed out cormorants perched on buoys, drying their feathers in the sun. They reminded her of a special diving moment, when a shoal of juvenile parrotfish had sped past her, chased by a cormorant.
     You dont often see things like that, but what I have seen over the years on every dive is an increase in the fish numbers. Judy told me how in the 80s local fishermen had slashed the numbers of reef fish until the government took control.
     I remembered how the government had taken the bold step of banning use of fish pots, a method of fishing that does not discriminate between adults and juveniles, or fish that are inedible but still a vital part of the reef eco-system.
     Since then areas have been marked off as reef preserves or protected areas, and many of the dive sites have been buoyed. I wondered if these measures had made any difference.

variety show
Over the next few days I listened to what the rest of the group had to say. They werent over-impressed with the number of fish at the dive sites, and although these were divers who had sampled some of the worlds best diving and set high standards, I had to agree. Bermudas waters do not boast the sort of populations you might find in other more tropical locations.
     What it can provide, however, is something that does not seem to be strongly marketed - variety. Certain marine creatures are endemic or unusual to Bermuda: some are seen only at certain times of the year (like the Bermuda fireworm) or found in large numbers outside the usual dive sites (cleaner shrimps in North Shore, anemones, purple and green hermit crabs in the shallows and brightly coloured tubeworms in the saltwater pond by Tom Moores Tavern).
     No one mentioned these or other unusual marine creatures during our visit - perhaps because theyre found outside the usual sites, or else the dive operators dont believe sufficient numbers of divers will be interested.
     The Bermuda Department of Tourism recently sparked controversy in the islands own media and in the USA when it published in its brochures photographs of marine creatures from other parts of the world. The Minister of Tourism even branded it as great free publicity. A brochure I found at one tourist attraction still had pictures of a dolphin not taken in Bermuda.
     One of the controversial photographs depicted barracuda shoaling and forming a cylindrical shape. Bermudas barracuda do not shoal in that way, though barracuda do exist. I had fond memories of being followed by a large and very inquisitive one at a dive site called the Cathedral.
     We visited this site first on our tour. There were no barracuda this time, though we did see a large group of horse-eye jacks in the distance and, as usual, light streaming into the cavern from the well-placed natural holes that give the chamber its name.

below the boilers
Next day we dived the wreck of the Hermes, an artificial reef placed in about 25m outside the South Shore reef. Small shoals of barracuda were regular inhabitants of this site, but these too failed to appear. This doesnt mean they have gone, just that nature had not provided for our short visit.
     When they encircle the mast, the barracuda here can be incredibly picturesque. I can think of no better representative for Bermudas waters. We also experienced other photogenic moments, as on a second dive at the arches off Watch Hill Park.
     Bermudas reefs are unusual in that they form flat and round tops at the surface. As the waves crash over them, they create a cloud of frothing water, which is why they are called boilers. The arches under the boilers are quite spectacular and form another excellent backdrop for a picture.
     Clear blue seas and 45m-plus visibility as in the brochures may occur on some days, but for most dive sites the winter weather will dampen any hope of a clear weeks diving. You might get a couple of days, but even then, the dive operators tend to close down for the season. I know of only one that opens year-round.
     June or July are the best months to come, the seas are flat-calm, the waters warm - the conditions are perfect, said Deron from Triangle. Id agree, and would add that from October to April strong seas can sometimes make the reefs impossible to dive.

diving in the 70s
Even if you visit in summer, however, you may find those 450 wrecks whittled down to 10 or so. And theres a further summer downside. As one dive-store employee told me: Once the cruise ships are here, all we do is operate as a cattle-boat. We go to the same places, as we have a tight schedule to keep to.
     My memories of the cruise-ship season were of dive boats visiting the sites closest to their base so that they could get a two-tank dive in and get back for the try-dive courses. An afternoon dive would follow in conditions suitable for a first-time diver.
     Had things changed Diving here is still in the 70s, said Deron. Theres no nitrox yet, theres just no change. Were still doing the same thing, servicing the cruise ships.
     When I used those cattle-boats, I would mischievously ask if we could visit the sites a bit further away, the spectacular wreck of the Cristobal Colon off the northern reefs, or the fairly intact Aristo outside the eastern approaches.
     The common reply was that surface conditions were poor on the outer reefs, but the very accurate marine forecasts normally told a different story. The real issue was of time and expense.
     I asked some of the dive operators on the press trip why we couldnt get out to these reefs. Weather conditions was a reasonable reply, but they also stated that fuel costs and two- or three-hour trips made them non-starters.
     To guarantee variety in a weeks diving, you could try operators from different ends of the island. I asked Mike Burke, owner of Blue Water Divers, about the wreck of the Xing Da - an artificial reef outside the protection of the outer reefs in 30m: There are only 30 or so days of the year we can visit because of the weather. You also need a good group of divers, as its deep.
     So, there may be 450 wrecks around Bermuda, but your chances of seeing more than 5% of them are slim.
     Deron and Graham believe that Bermuda has far more diving to offer, if only the government would let them expand. The problem is getting licences from Marine and Ports to allow us to take divers to the more challenging destinations, said Graham.
     Offshore pinnacles the Argos Tower and Challenger Banks can, he says, be reached by boat in a few hours. They are diveable if you have experienced and highly qualified divers but are rarely visited, as you would have to go on a private boat.
     I have never visited these sites, but those who have all describe intense activity of sharks, whales and large pelagic fish.

is it a blue hole
After one dive, Deron and I examined the Admiralty chart of Bermuda and its waters. He pointed out areas that could be new dive sites. Outside the reef were drop-offs starting in about 30m. Several miles offshore I spotted a circular area about 400m wide, with depths of 28-30m on the outside and 387m inside.
     A blue hole Ive not noticed it before, replied Deron. Could be. We wont know unless we get out there and explore it.
     Graham and Deron also hope to add cave-diving to their portfolio. We havent even scratched the surface of the 200-plus cave systems yet, said Deron, but he had set up an introduction into cave diving website.
     We cancelled our last days sightseeing in favour of diving a cave. It was my first experience of cave-diving, the depth was no more than 18m and I felt safe under Derons tutelage. We had plenty of time to admire the water clarity, the stalactites and stalagmites and the view of trees framed by the entrance.
     I left convinced that Bermuda is still trying to be something it isnt. Its not a year-round diving destination and has too little variety for a diving holiday. Only 10-15 wreck sites are visited regularly, theyre all fairly shallow and, except for Hermes, are mostly scattered across the reef on which they sank. Viz varies - we experienced 25m on the Hermes and 7m on the Rita Zovetta.
     What Bermuda does have is beauty. The pink-hued beaches are some of the best Ive seen, the meandering roads surrounded by pastel-coloured cottages are straight from a postcard and the people are as polite and friendly as you could meet.
     If the cruise-ship trade is its market, it should focus on that. But I hope my next visit will be to undergo cave-diver training, explore a blue hole, see into the depths from the 30m drop-off and maybe experience the thrill of Argos Tower.

Bermuda
Bermuda enjoys beautiful beaches - this is Grotto Bay, where the tour party stayed
on
on the cave dive
barracuda
barracuda hang out on the wreck of the Hermes
hermit
hermit crabs are found in large numbers in shallow water



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