2016 Scholar, Felix Butschek, heads to Grand Ba­hama for cave div­ing and shark ac­tion.

Sport Diver - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Felix Butschek

To top off my tour of grand North Amer­i­can fresh­wa­ter div­ing that I wrote about last month, I headed from North­ern Flor­ida caves to Freeport, Grand Ba­hama Is­land. There, ocean con­ser­va­tion­ist, cave ex­plorer and shark-div­ing ex­pert Cristina Ze­nato wel­comed me to UNEXSO Dive Cen­tre. In the week that fol­lowed, I learned so much from some­one who has shaped the pub­lic im­age of sharks and the oceans pro­foundly.

The mo­ment I ar­rived, I re­alised that I hadn’t landed in quite the trop­i­cal par­adise I imag­ined Freeport to be. The dev­as­ta­tion of Hur­ri­cane Matthew, which turned in its course early Oc­to­ber to strike the is­land by sur­prise, was ev­i­dent at al­most ev­ery cor­ner. Fallen trees, tele­phone posts that snapped like match­sticks and reroofed build­ings bore tes­ti­mony to the nat­u­ral de­struc­tion only two months be­fore my visit. How­ever, I sa­lute the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion for their ef­forts to re­store the is­land. The ren­o­va­tion of most badly hit houses was al­ready com­plet- ed, the power and tele­com in­fra­struc­ture were up and run­ning with­out is­sues. The clean-up of phys­i­cal dam­age, fallen trees, branches and fences, was well un­der way and the spir­its were high. The rainy and windy weather didn’t help this first im­pres­sion of the is­land, but when the sun shone down the fol­low­ing morn­ing, the nat­u­ral beauty of the Ba­hamas came through.

Af­ter a quick shake­down dive in Ben’s Cav­ern, Cristina took me to Maiden’s Lair. I found my­self car­ry­ing cylin­ders and gear over rarely trod­den paths through the jun­gle. In­deed, it had the real feel of an ad­ven­ture, go­ing to a place where few have been be­fore. In fact, I had al­ways hoped to make div­ing and my Schol­ar­ship year about such ex­pe­ri­ences. How­ever, when the lit­tle sink­hole at the end of the path looked like lit­tle more than a swampy pond, and I had to put on my dry­suit un­der the blaz­ing sun, I won­dered about my de­ci­sion. Yet, Cristina’s caves did not dis­ap­point me in the least. What started as a muddy pool turned into a spec­tac­u­lar cave and left me in com­plete awe with beau­ti­ful speleo- therms. Speleotherms are rock for­ma­tions that crys­tallised out over thou­sands of years dur­ing which these caves were dry and wa­ter only slowly dropped through the lime­stone.

On a dive to Owl’s Hole, a re­mark­able, thin layer of dark sed­i­ment on the lime­stone dumb­founded me. This layer is unique to rarely fre­quented and largely undis­turbed cave sys­tems, and drove home how lucky I was to be there. When we dived from deeper salt­wa­ter to fresh­wa­ter in the back of the cave, the halo­cline in be­tween was so strong that it looked like we were head­ing into an air pocket. As we passed through this layer, the tran­si­tion might as well have been from wa­ter to air. The dark layer of sed­i­ment was gone, leav­ing the walls and sta­lag­mites shin­ing bright. The view left me open-mouthed and I had to watch my reg­u­la­tor wouldn’t fall out.

Cristina Ze­nato and UNEXSO Dive Cen­tre are known around the world for their shark dives. Hav­ing only seen sharks oc­ca­sion­ally on dives, I was ea­ger to learn more about these an­i­mals and en­counter them un­der­wa­ter. Watch­ing Cristina dive and feed these apex preda­tors is as­ton­ish­ing. Her ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge of sharks show through as she in­ter­acts with them at com­plete ease. Be­ing up close with Caribbean reef sharks high­lighted how ex­tra­or­di­nary these an­i­mals are.

Cristina’s work with sharks, show­cas­ing their beauty and the ocean they life in, is a con­stant source of in­spi­ra­tion to me. Her hope­ful at­ti­tude and en­thu­si­as­tic way of shar­ing her pas­sion for the ocean makes her an in­cred­i­bly pos­i­tive force for change. When I ar­rived on the Ba­hamas, it was easy to see what jumped right out at me - the dam­age of Hur­ri­cane Matthew. But only in the space of a week, I found hid­den gems and beauty on Grand Ba­hama. When I left, I saw hope ev­ery­where: in the ocean around, above and be­low the is­land.

Caribbean reef sharks off Grand Ba­hama

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