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