“I taught Sean Connery to scuba dive,” Stuart Cove said with an impish grin. “And I’ve got to be honest: He was petrified.”
Cove is the owner of Stuart Cove’s Nassau Bahamas Aqua Adventures, a dive shop and movie production company on the island of New Providence. I was sitting in his office chugging coffee in preparation for the long and challenging day ahead.
“There I was in shallow water with James Bond, for God’s sake,” he said. “And he was hanging on to me like his life depended on it. Don’t get me wrong. Sean’s a lovely guy — and a great actor — but a total wimp when it comes to diving.”
Sean’s a lovely guy — and a great actor — but a total wimp when it comes to diving.
Stuart Cove, Nassau dive trainer
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This news came as a huge relief to me. After all, if Connery, who was training for the movie Never Say Never Again, was scuba shy, surely I had a right to be.
I had come to the Bahamas to try my hand at wreck diving and, in all honesty, I wasn’t exactly brimming with Bondian confidence. I had been certified as a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver almost 20 years ago, but with the exception of a few refresher dives in Mexico last February, I hadn’t been near a wet suit since.
Fortunately, I was in good hands. Cove has been scuba diving for more than 50 years, having started his business sinking wrecks, building props, and performing underwater stunts for Bond classics like For Your Eyes Only and The World Is Not Enough. I had booked myself on a dive to the Tears of Allah, a 90-foot cargo ship he sank for the filming of Never Say Never Again. Perhaps against my better judgment, I had also signed up for a dive to the Ray of Hope, a 200-foot freighter surrounded by dozens of 8-foot reef sharks.
AN EASY START
In light of all this, I was grateful for Cove’s stellar credentials. I was also glad that my maiden wreck dive, the Tears of Allah, stood at a depth of 40 feet. With the island’s warm, shallow water and excellent visibility — all major draws for Hollywood producers — I felt I stood a good chance of making it back in one piece.
The Bahamas offer divers a host of wrecks at a wide range of depths, from leisurely snorkel tours to more testing deep dives and night dives. The Tears of Allah was a mercifully easy start, but I had some trickier dives to contend with in the days to come.
In any case, there was little time for self-doubt. Within 10 minutes of talking to Cove, I was out on the rolling waves with my English dive master, Rich. Tumbling into the water, and gripping the anchor line, I spied the Tears Of Allah shimmering like a bar of gold in the fine white sand below.
A longtime Ian Fleming fan, I couldn’t help but feel awed by the sight of a genuine Bond relic. The wreck’s silhouette rippled with schools of parrotfish and Bermuda chub; her coral-encrusted bow glistened in the slanting sun.
As a Briton, and a longtime Ian Fleming fan, I couldn’t help but feel awed by the sight of a genuine Bond relic. The wreck’s silhouette rippled with schools of parrotfish and Bermuda chub; her coral-encrusted bow glistened in the slanting sun. Sinking deeper toward the sea floor, I spotted the torpedo holes cut into her hull for the filming of Never Say Never Again. In this bluish netherworld, fact and fiction had begun to blur: I half expected to see the movie’s leading lady, Kim Basinger, emerging from the galley with a spear gun.
As we boarded the dive boat, and prepared for our second dive, Rich filled me in on the Tears of Allah’s checkered past.
“The ship was sold to Hollywood after it was confiscated by the Bahamian government,” he said. “It was smuggling marijuana to South Florida when the Royal Bahamas Defence Force caught up with it, unloaded it and burned up all the cargo.”
He added, pulling on an imaginary joint: “Burned it like this, I reckon.”
He asked if I was ready for our next wreck, the Ray of Hope. I gulped.
“Seriously,” he said, squeezing my shoulder reassuringly. “Shark diving is pretty mundane. You’d be more likely to die in the bus going back to your hotel.”
Statistics notwithstanding, the 60-foot descent to the Ray of Hope was predictably terrifying. But that fear didn’t last. Edging toward the gang of reef sharks circling its prow, I began to feel an eerie sense of calm. Against a soothing blue-green backdrop, their smooth, muscular bodies looked graceful, peaceful — even a little vulnerable — and their large eyes were sad and somewhat vacant. Strange as it may sound, I felt sorry for this pack of lonely hunters, out here in the turquoise void.
As well as multiple sharks (I lost count at 25), I also saw a loggerhead turtle soaring over the stern; a pair of stingrays cowering under the hull; and an enormous green moray eel, perhaps six feet long, rising up from the cargo hold with a chilling Medusa’s stare. The Ray of Hope has served as a filming location for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Like a mini-Titanic, the rusty wreck is broken into halves, each one glimmering in the filtered sunlight. It’s epically creepy. But it’s also strangely beautiful, like distant music in a minor key.
Like a mini-Titanic, the rusty wreck [of Tears of Allah] is broken into halves, each one glimmering in the filtered sunlight. It’s epically creepy.
The next day, I was booked on a morning flight to Bimini, the string of tiny islands made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. As I flew in, it became obvious to me why he had fallen in love with the place when he first visited in spring 1935. “Out across the flats the sun was bone white under the blue sky,” he wrote, “and the small high clouds that were traveling the wind made dark moving patches on the green water.”
After an evening of decompression at the casino bar of the newly opened Hilton Hotel, I was ready to face fresh challenges. The following morning, I found myself at the site of the Bimini Barge, a 120-foot cargo ship about a mile offshore. Sunk in 1987 by a billionaire marine salvage operator, Joe Farrell, the ship sits on the edge of the Tongue of the Ocean, a yawning oceanic trench more than 6,000 feet deep.
Staring into the crystalline water, I recalled Hemingway’s description of the vertiginous drop-off in Islands in the Stream: “The water was so very clear that they could see the bottom clearly in thirty fathoms, see that sea fans bent with the tide currents, still see it, but cloudily at forty fathoms, and then it deepened and was dark, and they were out in the dark water of the stream.”
The Bimini Barge lies at about 100 feet, less than 20 fathoms, in Hemingway’s terms. But as my Mexican dive master, Pablo, and I broke the surface, the current pulling hard at our limbs, the depth of the ship seemed to be, well, unfathomable.
Sticking close to Pablo’s side, Connery-style, I kicked hard and fast until we reached the wreck. Her outline wobbled like a blue hallucination, the forest of sea fans on her hull quivering in the fast-flowing water. Chasing a school of yellowtail snapper over the coral-caked bow, I had the strong sensation that we were astronauts floating above an alien vessel, grappling with zero gravity on a bright, white moon. Was this the effect of nitrogen narcosis? At this depth, it was more than likely.
But if I was tipsy under the water, I quickly sobered up when we reached the surface. The waves were high and round, and for one terrible moment, I saw no sign of the dive boat. Thankfully, it was right behind me, and within a few minutes Pablo and I were back on deck, wide-eyed with adrenaline.
Squinting into the midday sun, I could see the ghostly form of another wreck standing on the horizon like a lone stiletto. The Sapona, a partly submerged concrete barge that ran aground in the hurricane of 1926, is visible for many miles. The ship was used as a storage hold for contraband liquor during Prohibition, and as a target for bombing runs during World War II. In 1945, the Navy’s infamous Flight 19 squadron vanished after a training exercise to the wreck.
The Sapona, a barge that ran aground in the hurricane of 1926, was used as a storage hold for contraband liquor during Prohibition and as a target for bombing runs during World War II.
“There’s a lot of stories about the Sapona,” Pablo said. “I heard that the owner went bankrupt after all the Prohibition money dried up. He ended up in an insane asylum in Nassau.”
As we approached the ship’s skeletal frame, I could see her cargo hold rising out of the sea like a rusty rib cage, a chunk of her stern broken off and upturned in the sand. Dipping under the surface, we rounded the hull to the huge, barnacle-covered propeller. A frowning barracuda lolled in the warm waves, and we stopped to admire his stout silver body for a second, before he high-tailed it into the deep, shadowy water beyond.
The Sapona’s depth, at just over 16 feet, makes it ideal for snorkeling and night diving. As the sun went down, we returned to the spooky site and jumped into the water for one last dive. Shining our torches into the murk, an orange squid careening through the phosphorescence, we swam together into the cargo hold. My heart skipped a beat as a hollow-eyed face appeared from the shadows — only to reveal itself as a loggerhead turtle, two suckerfish trailing from its shell.
Returning to the island under the light of a crescent moon, I watched the Sapona shrink into the distance, stark and melancholic. Admiring her star-framed profile for the final time, I thought of Hemingway’s description of a Bimini shipwreck: “Down along the reef where they went underwater fishing that day, there was an old iron wreck of a steamer that had broken up and at high tide the rusty iron of her boilers still showed above the sea.”
Diving the Bahamas
Stuart Cove Nassau Bahamas Aqua Adventures (www.stuartcove.com) offers diving trips to the Tears of Allah and the Ray of Hope. A two-tank dive is $134.38. Half-day scuba equipment hire is $51.60. Both wrecks are available to PADI Open Water Divers or equivalent.
Bimini Undersea (www.biminiundersea.net) offers diving trips to the Bimini Barge, and both snorkeling and diving trips to the Sapona. A half-day of snorkeling is $95.68; a two-tank dive including scuba gear is $138.68. The Bimini Barge is available to PADI Advanced Open Water Divers or equivalent.