BIMINI -- Permit, jacks, sea turtles and mutton snapper swimming around a sunken wreck ... wild dolphins that mingle freely with snorkelers ... lush coral reefs with swim-through caverns ... mysterious U-shaped stone formations dotted with colorful tropical fish.
Divers can sample all these experiences in just a few days in Bimini a group of small Bahamian islands only about 50 miles east of South Florida.
I like Bimini. Ive seen a lot of cool things, said Devito Bullard, who runs Neal Watsons Dive Bimini at the Bimini Big Game Club resort.
Bullard, 34, a Nassau-born dive instructor and boat captain, took over day-to-day operations at the dive center in March 2011. He rents equipment, leads dives aboard the 60-foot Bimini Blue, and teaches introductory and advanced scuba courses. The center is named for Fort Lauderdale diving pioneer Neal Watson, who books dive packages.
Perched in the Gulf Stream, the Bimini chain takes advantage of the fast-moving northerly current that flows from the Dry Tortugas up the U.S. East Coast, its clear, salty waters serving as a conveyor belt for fish. At the same time, the islands provide a lee from all but the worst northwesterly blows. Divers and snorkelers can indulge in their favorite pastime all year long, with a variety of sites to explore.
With the blessing of the Bahamian government and to the delight of scuba divers, Joe Farrell, president/CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Resolve Marine Group, has sunk four ships as artificial reefs in and around Bimini over the past 25 years in what he calls Project: Galilee. They include a 230-foot World War II-era landing ship for tanks; a 75-foot barge; a former dredge used to lengthen the runway at nearby Cat Cay; and a 45-foot fiberglass yacht. Future plans call for deploying one of Resolves tugs, now tied up in South Bimini where it is being cleaned of contaminants.
Our project is simply to provide habitat in which fish can multiply, Farrell wrote in an email. Its a nice attraction to bring people over there.
For snorkelers, theres the wreck of the Sapona, a 1911 ferro-cement ship that grounded in the 1920s and sits half-exposed in 20 feet of water. Another treat for those not scuba-certified is the chance to swim with wild, Atlantic spotted dolphin. The Bimini Blue travels to the north end of the islands and waits for the animals to arrive. Most of the time, the dolphins oblige but sometimes they just dont show up.
For divers who prefer natural reefs, theres Tuna Alley, a sloping wall that once served as a migratory route for bluefin tuna; Victory Reef, with caverns and swim-throughs that drops from 45 feet to about 90 feet deep; Bull Run, a reef frequented by Caribbean reef sharks that extends south of the island chain, and numerous others. When currents are strong, the Bimini Blue conducts drift dives, where divers coast along with the current, followed by the dive boat.
We do a lot of drift diving. Its like flying, Bullard said.
Except for early fall, Bimini serves as a gathering place for several species of sharks, and Bullard conducts his braver clients on shark-feeding dives. He emphasized he does not feed the sharks by hand.
We drop a bait box in the water and we observe the sharks, he said, adding that most are the Caribbean reef and Atlantic sharp-nose species.
One of Biminis most popular shallow sites is called Bimini Road a mysterious U-shaped path of block-like stones less than 20 feet deep off North Bimini. Teeming with colorful tropical fish, Bimini Road looks from the air like a pathway and, according to legend, serves as the road to the lost city of Atlantis. Whether mystical gateway or just an odd, natural rock formation, the road is a fun dive.
Ten of the Bimini dive sites have mooring balls, which allow boats to tie up to a line instead of dropping anchor and harming coral or sea grass. Plans call for installing about a half-dozen more.
Like most of the Caribbean and South Atlantic, Biminis coral reefs and wrecks hold plenty of lionfish venomous predators from the Indo-Pacific with candy-striped manes of fins. Derby hunts and frequent culling help to control their spread, and Bullard says he tries to do his part by donating them to the restaurant at the Big Game Club. And lionfish nuggets fried, broiled or blackened make a great post-dive treat.