After the distraction of the friendly hermit crabs on the beach, I wade into the cool, clear water. Even covered by my full wetsuit, I feel the chill of the northern Caribbean. I submerge and float over the rough limestone that covers the coast. In a moment, I am gliding over soft, fine, rippled sand. There are small fish around the rock outcrops. The rocks are also habitat for sea urchins who attach pieces of broken shells to their spines for both camouflage and defense. Bright, red sea stars seem content in this bay.
I snorkel along the cavitated limestone edges that provide for all the needs of various sea life. I glide through schools of thousands of tiny, silvery, glassy sweepers that are simultaneously inches away and untouchable. They part as if a magnetic field surrounds me and immediately return to occupying all of the space behind me. It’s a surreal, tranquil experience.
I rounded the corner into the next bay. A dilapidated wooden dock juts out from the cliffside. This small bay is surrounded by rocky ridges; there is no beach here. Below me, a broad Southern Ray uses his wings to flip sand onto his body until only his eyes are visible. Visible only if you already knew he was there.
The next bay is home to a resort. A wide, sandy beach adorned with wooden chaise chairs and umbrellas sits in front of a white-table-cloth, open-air restaurant. Swim buoys cordon off part of the bay. I wonder what these sunbathers think of a couple of snorkelers seeming to appear from the depths of nowhere. Just past the buoys, parrotfish hide among the rocks and large butterfly fish dart for cover. This bay is full of small jellyfish moving with the tide. I’m a little bit leery of swimming through them, even though I’m covered except for my hands and face. And they part, just like the glassy sweepers did. But still, I tried to avoid them until I saw Rob, clad in only swim shorts and a rashguard t-shirt, swimming through them without care. The wake of my motion pushes them out of my path, and they seem innocuous enough.
Its been an hour and I’m chilled to the bone. (This is why I have the full 3mm wetsuit). I swam up to the resort beach and stood in the sun to warm up before swimming vigorously back to my “home” cove at Oleander Gardens.
The Atlantic Side
The next two days were spent snorkeling on the Atlantic side of Eleuthera Island since the waters were relatively calm after a recent storm. The ocean here is unexpectedly warmer than the west side of the island. What a different experience this is! At Governor’s Harbour, the reefs were stunning. The coral is so healthy with vibrant sea life everywhere; pufferfish, rays, parrotfish, butterflyfish, grunts, wrasse, triggerfish, and more. I want to capture it all, so I borrowed Rob’s GoPro. We were the only two people in the water. In fact, the only other people we see at all are occasional beach walkers. This is indeed a “hidden gem.”
The next day we snorkeled Twin Coves. The sea was getting rough. It took a lot of effort to swim out of the sandy, calm cove over the breaking surf to get to the point. I was thankful for my dry top snorkel today; a one-way valve at the top of it prevents water from pouring into it when the waves break over the top of me.
We found an expansive reef system, but visibility is lower today because of the wind and the waves stirring things up. The power of the surf made me reluctant to swim out further. There were a lot of small fish rocking with the rhythm of the waves. I joined them in this synchronized flow. Then I swam around the outcrop and into the other side of the cove, closer to the safety of the shore.
Exiting the water, a couple hanging out in beach chairs told us we’d just missed a shark on the side of the cove where we’d entered. “I got in as fast as I could, but it got scared away, ” he declared. It’s a different sort of people who see a shark and get into the water. The Bahamas are known for their diversity of shark species, and a lot of people come here to snorkel and dive with sharks. After a bit of conversation, these two gave us a tip about a reef that runs parallel to the coast here, just a little further north. We walked up the beach and got back in the water.
This was my favorite snorkel spot of the week, despite it also being the spot where I lost Rob’s GoPro camera. The diversity of fish and coral was unmatched. The reef was shallow and had a nice ten-foot drop-off to a sand and sea-grass bottom. These edge habitats, where one ecosystem (the reef) meets another (the open ocean), are hotbeds of diversity.
I couldn’t see very far out into the open water, where I suspect turtles, sharks, and larger fish would be if the seas weren’t so rough. In my less experienced snorkeling days, that hazy, deep blue something would’ve scared me because I couldn’t see anything approaching until it was uncomfortably (dangerously?) close. It turns out that only happens in movies, so it doesn’t bother me (much) anymore. With the winds kicking up more every day, this will be our last opportunity to snorkel in the Bahamanian Atlantic. In addition to the undersea life, there were these prehistoric chitons and snails in the tide pools along the beach.
Back to Oleander Gardens
We were able to snorkel out of Oleander Gardens on the Caribbean side again. This time I swam out of the bay to the right. As far as I can see, the rocky cliffs drop straight down into the sea. The rocks create ideal habitat, but the topography also means there’s no way to get out of the water except to swim back to where I got in. Cero Mackerel are hanging around. They are shiny silver, hanging out near the surface and move abruptly like a predator, although they are no danger to me. There are a pair of clownish porcupine fish near the bottom, a speedy grouper, and a sizable barracuda that Rob shooed away. But that barracuda circled right back around, near the surface, eye-balling me. I take solace in the psychological separation that snorkeling affords. I’m up at the surface, and everyone else is down near the bottom. Barracudas routinely don’t respect this spacial distancing. I see them every time I snorkel in saltwater. Every time. A little later on, I saw a school of three barracuda, which I purposely avoided. Rob, of course, swam closer and counted nine! I didn’t know they schooled like that. They are not interested in us, thankfully.
I watched two green sea turtles swimming slowly in the hazy distance. All of a sudden, they both took off in a flash. I surfaced and said to Rob, who had also been watching them, “I’ve never seen turtles move so fast. What could scare turtles like that, except a tiger shark?” “I thought the same thing, but you didn’t have to say it out loud…” he replied.
Brilliant blue tang, a large school of queen angelfish, porgies, a hogfish – they’re all so skittish. In all of my previous snorkeling experiences, the fish have been very accepting of me in their environment. The difference here is fishing. Many people subsist on the sea and spearfish for their dinner. These fish are used to being hunted.
Eleuthera was a hidden gem. In addition to snorkeling, I loved my visit to the Leon Levy Botanic Gardens. Local food and music were outstanding. The abundance and diversity of birds were incredible. And the people were so welcoming and friendly. It has to be the last place in the world where hitch-hiking is a safe and recommended means of travel. Seriously. Hurricane Dorian changed the landscape, but Eleuthera was mostly unscathed. Plan a visit for next winter; you won’t regret it.
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