Andros: deepest blue

Largest of the Bahamas islands, Andros is known to intrepid adventure travellers for its spectacular natural attractions. Here you’ll find the world’s highest concentration of mysterious blue holes, writes Noelle Nicolls, plus the breathtaking Tongue of the Ocean, an enormous barrier reef, and the placid flats of Great Bahama Bank

Captain Bill’s Blue Hole, in the Blue Holes National Park, Andros. Photograph by courtesy Small Hope Bay LodgeFishing on the Great Bahama Bank. Photograph by Brian O’KeefePhotograph by David ReesSeen from space, the dramatic deep blue Tongue of the Ocean separates Andros (lower left) from New Providence Island. Photograph by www.chelys.euSnorkelling over one of the 110 ocean holes around Andros. Photograph by Brian O’Keefe

Except for the briny taste of the water and the striking absence of mountains along the horizon — no matter the direction — any visitor to the Bahamas, in particular the island of Andros, would find it difficult to believe there are no rivers. Creeks, inlets, and tidal swamps snake through the rugged landscape, slicing up the landmass, challenging the logic of what is known: the Bahamas has no rivers.

But at ground level these water systems are astonishingly deceptive. In fact, so are many of Andros’s natural wonders. Like the island’s mangrove forests — among the largest in the world — which are towering bird sanctuaries above the water and crowded fish nurseries below the surface.

Flying over Andros, particularly from a southern approach, the variegated shallows make it difficult to discern where the inhabitable island actually begins. And over 164 inland blue holes and 110 ocean holes polka-dot Andros with their pronounced blue or black circular mouths. The Blue Holes National Park hides a labyrinth of submarine caves in the underbelly of the island. Above ground, these time capsules of geological intelligence appear like naturally formed swimming-pools: deep blue and mysterious.

“The first experience of a blue hole is spiritual, and then you come to appreciate they are natural wonders of the world.” So says Peter Douglas, manager of sustainable tourism at the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, based in Andros. “Imagine walking onto a big circular ocean of water in the middle of the forest,” he continues, “that is deep blue and mysterious in nature. They are portals back to an alien world under the ocean, fountains of youth, with magical healing powers.”

Despite its relative obscurity, Andros is an ecological giant with global significance. It has the third-largest barrier reef in the world, behind those in Australia and Belize. Travelling 140 miles down the island’s eastern coast, the Andros Barrier Reef forms the rim of the Tongue of the Ocean, a twenty-mile-wide ocean trench. Bordered on all sides by starkly contrasting turquoise shallows, the deep blue canyon walls of the Tongue of the Ocean are taller than any on land. A flamboyant garden of sea whips and sea fans, sponge formations and coral spires runs along what looks like an infinite vertical descent. The tongue-shaped channel has only one major opening, making it a perfect basin for plucking big-game fish: marlin, tarpon, tuna, snappers, and jacks.

As the largest island in the archipelago, Andros has a land area greater than the combined total of the Bahamas’s seven hundred other islands. It is larger than Trinidad, larger than all of the OECS countries combined, and larger than the US state of Delaware. But for all of its grandness, it has the lowest population density of all the inhabited Bahamian islands.

So why is this sleeping giant so unknown, when it possesses some of the world’s best preserved natural wonders? The answer lies somewhere in the realm of tourism development policy and the culture of mass tourism, neither of which is of any concern to the average traveller.

Andros’s hidden charm, on the other hand, is very relevant. Its wild frontier is perfectly suited to a genuinely offtrack travel experience. Most visitors come to the island for its vast fishing flats — they sprawl across the Great Bahama Bank on the west coast, attracting a steady supply of high-net-worth fly fisherman. From around the world they come to play catch and release with the bonefish beasts of the Bahamas.

But Andros’s blue holes are sufficient reason to visit. Nature resorts such as Small Hope Bay Lodge offer a full range of activities, including fishing, diving, and swimming, centred on these breathtaking flooded sinkholes. Rugged conditions can be avoided by using the cut trails and cleared roads that lead to the most popular blue holes. But there are opportunities to get dirty. Hallmarks of my last journey to Hub Cap Blue Hole in central Andros: getting lost in the bush, stumbling on the footprints of a wild hog, sinking into a boggy marsh, shin deep.

With the highest concentration of blue holes in the world, there is spiritual, mythical, and geological power in Andros’s pores. The spiritual associations go deeper than the physical depth of these portals. According to Yoruba elders, blue holes are representative of an ancient African water spirit known as Oshun Ololodi. Oshun is popularly associated with rivers and bodies of fresh water, but she is also the spirit of the dam or the water reservoir, and in this way she manifests through blue holes in the Bahamas. While Oshun is not part of Bahamian cosmology, her spirit makes itself known. Those who are aware can see this in the way that blue holes are seductive and intimidating at the same time. Swimming inside them is both invigorating and terrifying. Within their seeming infiniteness your sense of self is eerily small.

The challenge is to get a handle on your emotions, so a sense of peace and wonder can take over, allowing you to swim to the middle of the blue hole and float on top of the abyss, or dive down below as far as your breath allows, to share space with the fresh-water goddess spirit.

The upper layers of most blue holes contain fresh or brackish water, while the underbelly is salty. It is the border between the salt and fresh water that is most alive. The dissolution of limestone in this mixed zone forms a secret lair of underground canyons and interconnected caves.

Most people will never know blue holes as intimately as the microorganisms thriving in the deep. Those who do, stand in the exclusive ranks of highly skilled underwater cave divers with the specialised training and equipment required. An interdisciplinary team of biologists, climatologists, and anthropologists exploring one blue hole recently found well-preserved fossils of land-roaming crocodiles and tortoises, birds, lizards, snakes, and bats from four thousand years ago, as well as human bones, perhaps from the Bahamas’s original Amerindian inhabitants.

“They are biological transport windows,” says Dr Stephanie Schwabe, founder and director of the Rob Palmer Blue Holes Foundation. “They are some of the most dangerous places in the world, but in that process it protects them, so they can be some of the most beautiful places in the world. They are like an artery to the island; if you close off those systems, you shut those arteries off and kill life on the island.”

Fortunately for the rest of the amateur world — those who prefer the surface of the water, or even the shoreline — the blue holes of Andros are very much accessible from above. In fact, they are unavoidable. Many of them are located inside the main settlements.

My first visit to Robinson Crusoe Blue Hole, located inside the national park, was during a Bahamian cold front. In other words, no matter my love of adventure, I had no intention of getting wet. But with not even a towel packed, I went against my better judgment, completely enchanted by the stillness of the water and its peaceful charm. Once I jumped in, dual instincts pulled me: to get out quickly and to relax and stay awhile.

Robinson Crusoe is the type of blue hole that beckons you to go beyond its shores. It boasts a wooden gazebo and platform that serves as the perfect springboard for a swim. Some Bahamians would never dare: they have a subliminal fear of blue holes because of local folklore. Lusca, a giant octopus with an oversize shark’s head, makes his home inside blue holes, say the elders. The exact message: do not go in, or Lusca will get you.

“Think about a huge octopus just sucking you in. Imagine, no matter where you are in the blue hole, its tentacles could reach you and drag you under,” says south Andros resident Sharon Henfield, describing the fear instilled in her as a child. The tale of Lusca is not universal across the Bahamas: its story has not penetrated popular culture, and its memory appears to have limited geographies. Nonetheless, the fear represented by Lusca persists, especially among adults. “I have friends who are divers, who dive in the ocean and refuse to swim in the blue hole,” says Henfield.

Children are less fearful than adults. They still sneak out to swim in the blue holes and socialise around their perimeters. In north Andros, Captain Bill’s Blue Hole and Uncle Charlie’s Blue Hole are popular for swimming. Rainbow Blue Hole in central Andros sits at the end of a twenty-five-minute hike through a forest of red cedar and black ebony trees, and other native plant species. And Stargate Blue Hole in south Andros is a celebrity among researchers and divers.

In Bowen’s Town, there is a blue hole known as Gobbler’s Hole. It is an off-the-beaten-track blue hole that sits on a fracture line wiggling its way through Andros, 150 kilometres from the north to the south, honeycombed with ocean tunnels. Tavares Thompson, a local tour guide, has ventured into many blue holes, but never Gobbler’s. Not because of a lack of opportunity: he simply has no intention of breaching the surface. There is something about the inky blackness of this blue hole that is intimidating, no matter the level of intrigue.

Bahamian resident and California native Brian Kakuk is a dive master with a special love for blue holes and underwater caves. He has been to the bottom of Gobbler’s, and he knows the less romantic side. This blue hole was once used by Bahamians to dump garbage. Although it has been cleared of its resident TV sets and refrigerators, it still has a monster pickup truck fossilised on its watery floor.

The fastest way to have your own Andros blue hole experience is a fifteen-minute connecting flight from the international airport in Nassau to Fresh Creek in central Andros. From there, the nearest blue holes are only a bumpy car ride and a short hike away. Put your thoughts of Lusca aside, and give in to the temptation: the thrilling mysteries of your blue hole await.

 

Caribbean Airlines operates direct flights to Lynden Pindling International Airport in New Providence Island from Jamaica, with connections to other destinations