This article was taken from our archives. It originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did in print originally.
Sunlight glanced off the waves as I adjusted my mask and prepared to sever my connection with the world of light and air. My buddy and I exchanged signals, and leaving the boat bobbing a mile off Bermuda’s South Shore, sank beneath the surface. The water felt cold as it closed over my head but the sensation quickly disappeared as I cleared my ears and relaxed into my descent.
It was my first deep dive, one that would take me to 120 feet. I went over the instructions of my more experienced buddy: “Don’t exceed the target depth…watch the time…watch me!”…and on and on. With a tight grip on the anchor line we were following. I began to look around. At first the water was clear, green, dappled with dancing light and punctuated by the rising bubbles of divers below us- like silvery expanding Christmas balls. Suddenly it seemed we had arrived. We were weightless and suspended in a deep blue world, with only the thin grey anchor line our connection to the distant surface and the invisible seafloor below. It was exhilarating and impossibly beautiful, I was suspended inside a sapphire, like an insect inside amber. It was my first experience of the sensation divers call being “in the blue” and I wanted the moment to last forever.
We divers are inclined to get carried away when describing the appeal of diving and its”other wordly” quality. Even the first scientist to dive Bermuda’s waters, William Beebe, couldn’t resist the temptation to rave. In 1943, he wrote in Half Mile Down: “In my present existence, there is only one experience left which can transcend that of living for a time under the sea-and that is a trip to Mars”. After only a few dives, Beebe had become hooked, in spite of being hampered by weighted helmet and boots, air hoses, and awkwardly dangling from a 40-foot ladder towed behind a launch.
Beebe was Bermuda’s first ambassador of diving and he wrote effusively about our reefs: “In this Kingdom, most of the plants are animals, the fish are friends, colours are unearthly in their shift and delicacy; here miracles become marvels and marvels recurring wonders. There may be a host of terrible dangers but in hundreds of dives, we have never encountered them.” Successive enthusiastic ambassadors were not hard to find.
Ask a Bermuda diver today to share his or her most memorable diving experience, and the stories will pour out like water under Flatts Bridge at change of tide. One will reply: “Last April, when I jumped overboard right into a pod of humpback whales- my fear the mother with the calf would attack me and my wonder when they let me stay among them,” or “the incredibly beautiful scene when I descended through 75 feet of black water on to the Hermes at night when I saw nothing below but the flickering light of divers’ torches highlighting the wreck.” Another will eagerly offer: “The time I saw a medusa jellyfish four feet across!”
Clearly, some wonderful experiences await the diver here. But why choose Bermuda from among the hundreds of diving destinations around the world? The answer is that diving here offers some real advantages to local and visitors alike. You can dive year round in Bermuda, though the season normally runs from mid-March to mid- November. The diving is safe; there are few dangerous currents and hazardous marine creatures are rarely encountered. It is an ideal place to learn scuba diving and gain certification. For overseas visitors who have trained in quarries and swimming pools, here is a welcome opportunity to gain open-water experience in warm, clear water. On the more than 300 square miles of shallow coral reef, you can mingle with marine life or explore haunting wrecks. Apart from these practical advantages, Bermuda has a few special features of interest to divers, some of them unique.
Few people realise the very existence of Bermuda’s coral reef system is remarkable. At 32° 29°’ North, Bermuda has the world’s northernmost coral reef system, rivalled only by some small patch reefs in the Sea of Japan. Cold waters at this latitude usually discourage coral reef building, but thanks to the Gulf Stream, waters warmed in the Caribbean flow from Florida past Bermuda and make coral growth viable. Water temperatures range from the mid- 80s Fahrenheit in summer to the low-60s F in winter, keeping both corals and divers happy.
For million of years, the nutrient-rich Gulf Stream has been delivering a host of marine plants and animals to the shores of Bermuda’s extinct volcano: coral larvae, fish, juvenile turtles on their way to feed in the Sargasso Sea, and the larvae of most of our crustaceans. However, many tropical species of coral and fish fail to thrive in our low winter temperatures, or simply can’t survive the long journey. As a result, the diversity of life form is limited; and Bermuda’s reefs have only about one third of the hardier tropical coral and fish species found in the Caribbean.
The appearance of Bermuda’s reef is slightly different. You will not find the tall branching elkhorn and staghorn hard corals which are the structural mainstay of Caribbean reefs. Instead, the low stony mounds of brain, star and mustard coral provide reef structure and surfaces upon which new coral colonies can grow and create the honey-combed environment that millions of plants and animals call home.
Arguably, the finest feature of Bermuda’s reefs is the abundance of soft corals in the form of sea fans, rods and plumes, vertically dominating the underwater landscape and waving hypnotically as they catch food in the current, painting the scene in hues of purple, soft browns and gold. Sponges and algae in red, browns and yellows and purple-tipped anemones fill the available gaps between the corals.
While Bermuda’s coral diversity pales in comparison to that of reefs in the Caribbean and Indonesia, where as local marine scientist Dr. Wolfgang Sterrer puts it, “one can be utterly bamboozled by the sheer diversity of shapes and colours,” the limitation of our reef diversity should not be seen as a shortcoming, but rather as something of an advantage. It provides the amateur biologist with more than enough for a lifetime of study in a setting he can master.
Another remarkable feature of Bermuda is its second reef- building community. These reefs are called algal-vermetid cup reefs or “boilers.” Boilers are found only here and in Israel. They are cup-shaped structures made not of coral, but of a unique combination of encrusting algae, vermetids called worm snails and ginger or fire coral. Located along the platform rim at Northeast Breaker, North Rock and particularly along the South Shore, they connect to Bermuda’s ancient shoreline, having kept pace with the rising sea level. Most reach to the surface but “drowned” ones can be seen underwater. Divers can sit at the base of boilers, like gnomes under a toadstool, and see grazing parrotfish, streaming schools of grunts and hovering groupers, or peer over the edge and see the sponges, worms and crustaceans inside the cup when the water is calm.
Bermuda’s extensive reef platform has depths in the central lagoon and fringing reefs to 70 feet, falling to about 200 feet on the outer banks and to 13,000 feet away from the seamount. The plat-form has three main reef types: ledge flat reefs, lagoonal reefs and inshore reefs, all of which are ecosystems supporting a variety of plant and animal life.
Reefs at the edge of the plat-form, or “breakers” as they are called, offer some spectacular diving sites with canyons, tunnels and sand channels. North Rock, 11 miles offshore, is unsurpassed for the clarity of its water and for its variety of reef and schooling fish. You may glimpse the occasional large visitor from the deep, such as a dusky shark (only a threat if there’s blood in the water), or witness barracuda picking off stragglers from a school of yellowtail snapper. To the east, NASA Point is visited by schools of seven-foot tarpon every April, before they mysteriously disappear for another year. Southwest Breaker, with a cavern Ali Baba would covet, is home to brightly-coloured living treasures and is popular with photographers. Scuba enthusiasts can also dive the reef off Watch Hill Park from the shore, where the reef edge comes closest to the Island, and cruising the canyons, enjoy the beautiful, healthy corals and Bermuda’s carnival of parrotfish.
The ledge flats on the lagoon reefs are more sheltered and support the widest variety of corals, smaller fish and invertebrates. The encircling shallow reef at lovely Eastern Blue Cut is like a cradle, protecting everything from spiny lobster and queen angelfish to Spanish hogfish and tiny polka-dot flamingo tongue snails clinging to purple sea fans. Commonly seen on the reefs are trumpet fish, hanging upside down pretending to be sea rods, and one of Bermuda’s very few endemic, marine creatures-the anemone shrimp feeding unharmed among the stinging tentacles of the purple-tipped sea anemone. The quiet inshore waters of Church Bay, Whalebone and Bailey’s Bay can offer snorkelers and divers lots to see by day, and really come alive at night when the corals reach out their tentacles to feed, and creatures unseen by day emerge to pursue their destinies in the dark.
Harrington Sound, almost completely encircled by land, is yet another ecosystem. Its waters used to abound in Bermuda mussels, scallops and calico clams, which under protection, arc trying to make a comeback. Found here are red encrusting sponges, upside-down jellyfish, the graceful spotted eagle ray, tunicates and large school of fry.
A very special feature of Bermuda is its underwater cave system which runs for miles and is world-renowned for its biological diversity. Over 50 new species have evolved among shrimp, algae, corals and fish, as a result of being isolated for cons in the cool darkness of the caves. Some creatures are so unusual as to be completely new to science. This is dangerous diving and is only for the specially trained and equipped. It should be left to experts and scientists.
Exciting dives for the advanced and adventurous await at Argus Tower, 21 miles offshore. The base of a defunct oil platform, it has become home to many fish, which attract large, pelagic predators. This was the scene of a diving experience yet to be topped locally, where Dr.Sterrer, now curator of the Natural History Museum, was photographed riding on the back of a whale shark the size of a bus!
Apart from its beautiful and varied reefs, Bermuda is best known as a premier site for wreck diving. In many parts of the world, shipwrecks lie in deep and dangerous waters, but Bermudas lie in relatively shallow water and are safe and accessible. Upwards of 350 wrecks have already been found and many believe there are perhaps 200 more waiting to be uncovered by a storm or an observant diver.
They date from the 1500s to the present and include schooners, tugs, paddle wheel steamers and ocean liners. Some 16th- century galleons yielded treasure to local diving legend Teddy Tucker in the 1950s, but today artefacts are protected by law, and cannot be collected.
A popular wreck is the Constellation made famous in the novel and movie The Deep, by Peter Benchley. Carrying glassware, cement bags and medical ampoules, she sank in 1943 in 30 feet of water. Right next to her lies the Nola (Montana), an 1893 paddle wheel steamer. You can still see the paddlewheels, boilers and stern section. Many fish dart in and out of these wrecks and the visibility is excellent.
Others, like the Christobal Colon, a Spanish liner sunk in 1936, lies offshore in deeper water. Five hundred feet long, she lies between 30 and 55 feet. Boilers, huge propellers and stacks sometimes hide big fish, such a moray eel and groupers. The intact bathroom even has a tub in which many a diver has been photographed!
The ghostly North Carolina, a barque sunk in 1880 has a coral-encrusted bowsprit and deadeyes. ln 40 feet of water, she rests proudly upright on the bottom, as she must have sailed upon the waves. At the same depth, the 183 frigate L’Hermine, still sports 25 of her cannons, now forever silent. The Hermes, was scuttled in 75 feet of water off South Shore. You can visit the hold, pilot house and the galley under hovering schools of barracuda. Dozens of less well-known wrecks are interesting too, such as Shark’ Tooth Wreck, sprinkled with unusual fossilised sharks’ teeth and eerie Drydock, festooned with sea squirts. Day or night, winter or summer, wreck visits will always reveal something new.
We are lucky in Bermuda. Apart from having a superb collection of wrecks and safe waters, our reefs are still healthy, unlike many in the Caribbean, which have been overfished and polluted, upsetting their fragile balance and leaving them vulnerable to disease. The Bermuda government’s establishment of protected marine species and areas, and the banning of fishpots in recent years are necessary precautions to prevent a tragedy similar to Jamaica’s, where 94 percent of the coral reef is dead and may never recover. With luck and proper management, the good diving in Bermuda should endure.
In my deep blue “other world”, holding on to the anchor line, I suddenly saw a chain of free-floating tunicates, much like oval jellyfish. With their insides etched in phosphorescent “fairy lights,” they made an enchanting sight. Later, on the boat, as I raved about the experience, my buddy said, “That’s the thing I love about diving near the Gulf Stream-you never know what’s going to come floating by.”
I couldn’t agree more. But don’t let us have all the surpries-take a peek into Bermuda’s “other world” for yourself.