Swimming with Sharks in the Bahamas
Every few years, a rare condition occurs in Australia where the Easter holidays and Anzac Day line up. This means that you can take 10 days of leave (vacation) and get a whopping 19 day holiday. The last time this happened was 2014, when we visited New Zealand (though we were amateurs back then and thought a 10 day vacation was LONG). In 2019 we headed for the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas for some shark diving.
The trip started with a 13 hour Qantas flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. We didn’t have any luck getting upgraded, but the bulk row in the rear section of the upper deck was bearable. We decided to stay a few days in California to visit with my mom, before flying to Miami. Quick shout-out to the crew at the LAX Enterprise – the shuttles ran frequently, there location was full of smiling staff, and they got us on our way quickly.
After a few days in San Clemente, we returned to LAX for the five hour flight to Miami. We actually paid for business class seats for this one (though they were cheaper than an economy ticket from Sydney to Perth !), and snagged the flight that has Flagship First (lay flat seats !). There were a few comfort animals in the cabin, but they all behaved making for a decent cross-country flight.
Once in Miami, we grabbed a cab to the Holiday Inn Port of Miami, selected for its proximity to the port, cost, and IHG points. We wound up with a corner suite, which had plenty of space for our ridiculous amount of luggage. For dinner we walked across the street to the Bayside Marketplace. I was looking forward to some southwestern eggrolls from Chilis, but it was loud, understaffed, and not that clean so we wound up at Five Guys.
The next morning we were up super early due to the jet lag (14 hour difference from home) so we decided to head over to the ferry terminal to beat the crowds. We checked the departure terminal online to avoid any confusion, but the Uber driver still tried to drop us off at a cruise ship. Luckily we didn’t trust his advice as it would have been a LONG walk to where we needed to go.
We had to wait in a short line to check our luggage, which was weighed and tagged for Business Class. When we booked the tickets, Business Class was only $20 more per person, and it gets you a smaller, quieter cabin and you get to disembark before the rest of the passengers. The cabin didn’t impress me too much (crowded, and people drinking at 7:30am…), but it was better than upstairs for sure, so $20 well spent. We were charged $25 per bag for luggage, but it all made it there in tact so all good.
The ferry left an hour late, right about when my dramamine kicked in so I wound up sleeping most of the two hour crossing on the floor. Bimini is only about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Miami.
Arrival in Bimini was a bit of chaos. Day trip passengers disembark first, but they are scattered throughout the boat so it takes some time. Business class disembarks next. The first step is to find your bags (our four were neatly grouped together), then you walk down a sandy path (which was fun with wheeled luggage) to get to immigration (a pre-fab mobile office). Once through there, you go around the corner to Customs, and then down another sandy path to get to the shuttles (basically a line of open air people-movers).
The shuttle only takes you out of the port area, literally about a two-minute drive. We were dropped off at the first stop, and instructed to get a cab. The cab turned out to be shared, so we drove around for a bit picking up and dropping off other passengers before finally arriving at Bimini Big Game Club.
Bimini Big Game Club
We chose to stay at Bimini Big Game Club because of its proximity to Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center. It was fine for basic accommodations, but the main issue that we had was that we were there during “Homecoming” – which I can only describe as a mashup of Bahamian Culture and Daytona Spring Break insanity. We didn’t sleep a lot on this part of the trip.
There are a few dining options at the hotel (though the main restaurant overlooking the marina was closed for renovations).
- Sharkys – BBQ hut near the dive shop. We had lunch there one day and it was $70 for two beers and two styrofoam takeaway lunches
- Hemingways – Sit-down restaurant neat the pool. The spicy shrimp was really good, as was breakfast.
- Outfitter Shop – There were a few times when nothing was open, so we wound up with a picnic of Gatorade and Doritos.
We ventured down the street to Big John’s for a few meals. This was definitely our favourite – lovely staff, great view, sharks swimming in the marina, and very good food.
Bimini Scuba Center
We did three hammerhead dives with Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center.
The boat holds 14 divers, and the hammerhead dive site is a short 15 minute ride from the marina. The dive profile is always the same.
- Arrive at the dive site
- Wait for the hammerheads to arrive
- Feeder enters the water with the bait box and reports back on the conditions
- Divers put on their gear (including a minimum of 24 pounds / 11 kilos of weight)
- One by one, divers descend the down line to the sandy bottom (around 30 feet / 9 meters)
- Kneel in a line behind the feeder and watch the show until you are low on air
- Return to the boat (no safety stop needed at such shallow depths)
The experience can last up to two hours. Some people came up after a bit to swap tanks, and some stayed down for the whole time on one tank. We stayed down for about an hour and fifteen, but it gets cold (despite the water temperature being 80f / 27c).
The white poles that you see in the photos are pvc pipe, which marks the spot where divers should kneel and can also be used to redirect the sharks if they got too close. My camera served this purpose.
I’m usually hoping for zero current, but what I learned on these dives is that you actually want a little bit of current to produce a more streamlined scent trail. When there is no current, the sharks come from all angles, which kicks up sand makes for more backscatter in photos.
Getting from Bimini to Grand Bahama
Our next stop was West End, Grand Bahama. The ferries to Miami only run certain days a week, so we needed to fly from Bimini to Freeport (and surprise, it isn’t a direct route).
Bimini is actually two islands (North and South). Bimini Big Game Club is on the North Island, so we had to take a ferry to the South Island to get to the airport.
The ferry picked us up right in the marina, and they arranged a taxi to the airport once we got to South Island. There was a lot of confusion around price and payment. The captain said we underpaid him (showing us a $10 when I’d given him three $5’s and a $1 – he eventually said he made a mistake) and then the taxi driver said he needed to be paid separately (even though the hotel said the taxi was included in the ferry price). The Bimini airport has a small snack stand and very powerful air conditioning.
Hint: Bring your own food and a fleece.
There aren’t too many options when flying out of Bimini, which is why we wound up on Silver Airways connecting via Fort Lauderdale. We had over an hour to make the connection, but when the first delay was announced I started to explore other options.
Hint: Always make a list (or take a screen shot from Expert Flyer) of alternate flight options before heading to the airport.
Our flight ended up being delayed three hours, so there was no chance we would have made the connection. Silver Air didn’t have any available flights for a few days, so they booked us on American Airlines out of Miami, gave us a voucher for a taxi transfer from Fort Lauderdale to Miami, and made a reservation for us at an airport hotel in Miami.
When we landed in Fort Lauderdale, we cleared immigration, collected our bags, and then cleared customs. From there, we grabbed a taxi for the 45 minute transfer to Miami. The driver refused to accept the voucher from the airline, so we had to pay $80 (which we are still trying to recover from the airline). Next time: Flamingo Air direct from Bimini to Freeport.
We stayed at the Element Hotel at the Miami airport. While we were grateful for the complimentary happy hour on arrival, the ability to drink water straight from the tap, plenty of fluffy clean towels, fast internet etc., the people in the room above us were tap dancing all night so we literally got no sleep.
The next morning we boarded the hotel’s airport shuttle, which dropped us off at the checkin for a flight to Cuba. In our sleep deprived state, we didn’t realise this and unsuccessfully tried to use the check-in kiosk repeatedly until an agent came over to assist. She pointed us to the first class check-in at the other end of the terminal (there’s only economy on the little propeller plane, but I’d added our Qantas frequent flyer numbers to the booking the night before). Once we found the correct area, our bags were tagged for Freeport, we were escorted to the front of the security line, and then directed to the flagship lounge. After a rough 24-hours, the lounge was a welcome sight (even though we were those people wearing flip flops and clothing from yesterday). The flight to Freeport was a short 45 minutes, though it took 30 minutes to get through Customs because they were convinced we were up to no good with the cameras.
Blue Marlin Cove
Our package with Epic Diving included accommodation at Blue Marlin Cove which is located in West End. As the area is fairly remote (45 minutes from the airport), we stopped at a grocery store to pick up some snacks and water along the way.
The resort is a collection of condos, and ours had two bedrooms, a full kitchen, and even a washer/dryer. There’s a pool and a marina, though I was getting eaten alive by flying insects that were immune to deet so I couldn’t sit outside much. There’s a restaurant on site, and wi-fi in the common areas (but not in the room).
Tiger Beach with Epic Diving
Tiger Beach is a small shallow sand flat about an hour or two (depending on weather) from West End. The boat holds 14 divers, and has a compressor on board for tank refills. The dives are fairly similar to Bimini, however we split into two groups and rotated after an hour rather than having everyone in the water at the same time. Then after the tanks were refilled, everyone re-entered the water together for the 2nd dive. The only other difference is that gloves are mandatory.
It was quite literally, Epic.
Getting Back to Australia
We’d planned to fly from Freeport to Nassau to Dallas to Sydney in one very long trip home, however with all of the travel delays (and because we’d been upgraded on the Dallas to Sydney flight so there was NO WAY we were missing that connection) we changed our flights and spent two days in Nassau. The flight from Freeport to Nassau was on Bahamas Air, and was… drumroll… delayed EIGHT hours. There was only one earlier flight, which was also delayed, but they were only letting people with connections move to that flight. After a few boring hours in the airport, and once the other flight was boarding, I decided we had a connecting flight (showed them our Nassau to Dallas confirmation and luckily they didn’t pay close attention to the date). I have no idea how, but our luggage made the flight as well.
We stayed two days at The Cove, which is one of the newer towers at Atlantis. After two weeks of little sleep and exhausting days of diving, this little “vacation from our vacation” was definitely needed.
Atlantis has changed a bit since we were married there when it opened in 1999, but the Cloisters (where we had the ceremony) is exactly the same.
The diving on this trip was some of the best we’ve encountered. The combination of the crystal clear water and the almost sure-thing shark encounters will be difficult to beat.