Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#526: Blackbeard's: A Pirate's Life for Me, Part 2

Two weeks ago I wrote a column about my trip to the Bahamas to dive with Blackbeard's and said it would be continued. I do keep my promises, so here it is! Blackbeard's advertises a budget trip which is like camping at sea, and that was just perfect for me. As a legitimate dive bum, I prefer to get maximum dive enjoyment from a small investment rather than being pampered on a fancy five star live aboard at three or four times the cost. Besides, the people you meet on these trips are often much more interesting and fun to be with.

My fellow divers hailed from several different countries. There were a number of Canadians on board to escape the harsh winters experienced by our neighbors to the north. Anabel was from France, Bojanna from Serbia and Od from Denmark. The crew hailed from many places including South Africa, a potential future dive destination for yours truly. Given the cosmopolitan nature of the group, I was surprised there was relatively little discussion of politics. The most common topics were probably diving, diving, diving, the warm sun and drinking (at appropriate times after the day's dives were completed... no DUI here).

During the week we were on board, we dove several areas in the southern Bahamas including the Exumas, Eleuthera and New Providence Island where Nassau is located. In centuries past, the islands of the Bahamas were frequented by pirates and many legendary buccaneeers roamed the dirt streets of Nassau back when it was declared a "pirate republic." I thought of visiting the Pirate Museum located close to my hotel, but my cash was running low after we returned to port. Blackbeard's dive operation is named after the notorious pirate, Edward Teach... but fortunately there was no plank on board nor were we keel-hauled..

Historically the Bahamas are considered to be the first land Christopher Columbus "discovered" in 1492, although the Taino "Indians" were already well settled there. The Native population was reduced by half due to smallpox and other diseases introduced by Columbus' crew, and the incredible number of sea turtles Columbus observed on arrival were reduced by hungry sailors. In 1718 the British regained control of the islands and the governor clamped down on the pirates. The Spanish attempted to retake Nassau in 1720 but failed. Then in 1776, at the start of our Revolutionary War, Americans occupied it for two days, capturing ships and military supplies. The Spanish recaptured Nassau in 1782 but surrendered to American loyalist Andrew Deveaux a year later who took it without firing a shot.

Following that it became part of the British Empire again until the 3,000+ islands of the Bahamas became largely self-governing in 1964 although Queen Elizabeth of England is also Queen of the Bahamas today. Baby boomers like myself may have first been exposed to the Bahamas through the early James Bond movies such as "Thunderball" and the Beatles' "Help" which were both filmed in part there. And, of course, the legendary Dr. Bill has now joined the ranks of those who have filmed in these waters.

Although there are some very deep (6,000 ft) oceanic trenches in the waters between the islands the nearshore waters we dove were quite shallow at times and I was surprised to find us in less than 15 ft as Blackbeard's "Morning Star" traveled far offshore. Most of the Bahamian islands are quite low, rising to less than 70 ft with the highest point in the Commonwealth (Mount Alvernia, also known as Como Hill) a mere 207 ft in elevation. Quite a change from "mountainous" Catalina where the maximum elevation on Mt. Orizaba and Black Jack is ten times that.

The sites we dove had names like Lobster/No Lobster, Knucklehead, Hole in the Wall, Barracuda Shoals and Washing Machine. At most of them my maximum depth was less than 60 ft and many were less than 30 ft. There was deeper water nearby at places like Monolith Wall, but my preference (and that of the other divers) was to maximize our bottom time. When diving exotic locations, I prefer to do this to increase the amount of video footage I can bring back to share with you!

I've mentioned my past experience in the Caribbean and SW Atlantic has been limited to Belize, Honduras and the Florida coast. I found diving in the Bahamas to be quite different from these other destinations. Although they all had many species in common, there were marked differences in the extent to which each species was present. As a marine biologist, I try to understand why such differences occur and attributed it to several different factors. Whether I am correct in my hypotheses remains to be tested scientifically, but here they are.

First, the Bahamas are within the region frequently affected by hurricanes from June to December. During such storms, the very shallow nearshore waters would be seriously impacted by intense wave energy compared to Belize and Honduras which are largely outside the Hurricane Belt. This may explain the degraded coral reefs I observed on my dives compared to the generally healthier ones in the far western Caribbean. It may also explain why I saw relatively few large sponges compared to the ones in Belize.

Second, the shallow waters in the sites we dove may have been more impacted by warm temperatures especially during summer. While the minimum temperature I experienced during my dives was 75 F (and that was at depth in the Blue Hole), they generally ranged from 76-78 F and this was during the depths of winter. Heck, our summer surface temperatures very rarely reach that at their peak here in southern California. Temperatures are significantly higher (80-85 F) in summer there and may contribute to coral bleaching especially as our oceans warm due to global climate change.

Third, many are familiar with the invasion of the red lionfish (Pterois volitans), a Pacific Ocean species that appeared in the Caribbean and SW Atlantic in the early 1990s. Like the invasive Asian seaweed here in our waters, these non-native species substantially altered the ecology of the affected region.. These highly voracious predators have no natural predators here, possess a highly venomous defense and have multiplied tremendously. Their impact on the native reef fishes, including the young of larger species, has significantly altered the reef ecosystems. I noticed far fewer damselfish (relatives of our local garibaldi) and other reef residents in the Bahamas than I have elsewhere.

Now that I've given you a general introduction to the Blackbeard operation I dove with, and the Bahamas itself, future columns will focus on some of the specific species, observations and dive sites I enjoyed there. I could probably write about them for the rest of the year, but eventually our own waters will warm up and my camera won't shake as much as I descend here to bring you more about the critters of the kelp forest. Until then, I'm also planning my next trip... to the Philippines. Ah, I guess I'm just a warm water wussie these days.

© 2013 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Location of the Bahamas relative to the U.S. and the main islands of the Bahamas;
the pirate Blackbeard capturing a ship and hurricane centered near the Bahamas.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2013 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia