Travel: Diving - Cocktails and coral reefs

While the guests at one Bahamian hideaway came for yoga classes, but got distracted by the scuba diving, says Rachel Henry

Ah'm a 62-year-old grandmother," said Sue Weant, in her Scarlett O'Hara accent, as she flapped across the deck in wetsuit, flippers and air tank. "Ah cain't believe ah'm doin' this." Standing at a gap in the boat railings, she stepped over the side and vanished into the Caribbean.

Being a natural wimp, I couldn't believe it either as I stood in the sun, knees buckling under the weight of the tank, ready to follow Sue in a free-fall to the water's surface.

"Fix your eyes on the horizon," said Garvin, our Bahamian divemaster. "OK, now step forward." My brain tried to tell my leg to move but the leg wasn't keen. "Go on," said Garvin. "You'll be fine." So I stepped, and after a moment's confusion and noise, the turquoise world below became a place of deep calm and quiet. Except for the sound of breathing. In... out... in... out. We had been warned: if you hold your breath while swimming upwards, the pressure change expands the air; your lungs explode and you die.

I'd had no intention of diving when I arrived three days earlier at Small Hope Bay Lodge on Andros island, in the Bahamas. I'd booked in for a winter getaway - a week's yoga course - but everyone, including Dolly, the yoga instructor's mother-in-law, who is in her seventies, was snorkelling or diving between classes. It seemed a shame to miss out.

Sue and I did our safety training one afternoon. Garvin took us out to Goat Cay, a tiny island with a shelving white-sand beach. He was thorough, repeating the procedures until we had them right - how to breathe underwater, how to hold our noses and blow to equalise ear pressure, and how to replace mask and mouthpiece should they get knocked off. Knocked off by what, I wanted to know - barracuda? shark? whale?

On a morning dive, one member of our party, Carol, a paramedic, came across a 30ft (harmless) whale shark. She was shaking when she climbed back on board. Mark, a race-horse trainer from Kentucky, had a nose-to- nose encounter with a curious barracuda. "Man, I held my knees to my chin and just kept that fish in front of me," he said. "No way was I letting that sucker get round my back."

Diving was a revelation. Like flying over a glorious garden with jewel- coloured fish-butterflies. But as I swam towards the coral floor, a piercing pain shot through my head. I tried holding my nose and blowing, but the only relief came by swimming upwards. I looked for my "buddy" (no one dives alone) and couldn't see him. Suddenly the ocean seemed a vast and lonely place to be. Panicking, I struck out for the underside of the boat, pitching in the waves some 40ft away. But the harder I swam, the further away it seemed. Finally, I reached the boat's ladder and clung on; safe, but feeling rather silly. My buddy said he had been below me all the time.

Back at the lodge it was almost time for cocktails. I wanted a nice lie- down first, so I wandered through the palm trees to the row of wooden cabins. One of the truly wonderful things about Small Hope Bay Lodge is the beds. They are huge, laden with pillows, and have perfectly placed reading lamps. Clean, fluffy towels are delivered daily and rooms are spotless, with doors opening on to the beach. All this more than makes up for the dodgy plumbing. Power-showers are more power-dribble, and the loo lurched alarmingly. One night it was home to a sweet little frog who had swum up round the U-bend. An exception to the eccentric pipework is the hot pool, a Jacuzzi set in a sun-deck and sheltered by mangroves. Bliss.

In the lounge, guests can help themselves to drinks, but at 6.30pm the staff get behind the old cut-in-half boat that serves as the bar, and hand out cocktails. Garvin's creations taste like rum-flavoured fruit juice; Skeebo - another divemaster, with an Eddie Murphy grin - pours pure rocket fuel. Platters of melt-in-the-mouth conch fritters are passed round and half-an-hour or so later everyone files into the dining room. Meals are sociably buffet-based and delicious: pasta Bahamian-style, baked with lashings of butter and cheese, lobster, curries, local fish, salads - and chocolate fudge cake with everything. This is not a place to diet.

Jeff Birch owns and runs Small Hope Bay on lines set down by his late father, Dick, who founded the lodge in 1960. Dick Birch also pioneered the resort diving course. "Anybody can dive," Jeff says. "It's just a matter of sharing information in a safe, uncomplicated way."

An hour's flight from Fort Lauderdale or Miami, Small Hope Bay lies off the world's third-largest barrier reef, and is popular with experienced divers. Americans pop down for the weekend, even for just 24 hours. Some novice divers, such as Mike - a decorator from Columbus, Ohio, and a fellow yoga trainee - find water to be their natural element. Mike trained on Sunday and by Friday was 185ft down; a depth which brought a sharp intake of breath from diving instructors I spoke to in Britain. There's a risk of nitrogen narcosis at these levels, where inexperienced divers can become dangerously over-confident. But the divemasters are vigilant, and in its 39 years, the lodge has never lost anyone through a diving accident.

Mike's dives included wrecks, caverns and one called "Over the Wall", where the sea floor drops 6,000ft. I stuck to the pretty coral gardens, forced by blocked sinuses to stay near the surface. Another beginner, Rolly Miller, 12, quickly lost any nervousness. "He saw sharks, so he was happy," said his mother, Marcia.

Sue swam down to 50ft, but developed ear problems. A week after we left, she sent me an e-mail from Kentucky. I could almost hear her, saying: "It was wonderful. But ah still have half that ocean in mah head."

Rachel Henry paid pounds 367.40 for a flight from Heathrow to Nassau via Miami with Virgin (01293 747747) and Bahamasair, plus $84 (pounds 52) return via Bahamasair to Andros Town. BA (0345 222111) flies direct to Nassau for pounds 399 if you book this month and travel before 30 June.

A week at Small Hope Bay Lodge (001 242 368 2013/4; e-mail:; website: www., costs $1,120 (pounds 700), full board; dive training is free, and each dive costs $45/$55. Diving packages are $1,510 per week for adults; daily rates available.

Jeff Birch will be on the Small Hope Bay Lodge stand (306E) at the London International Dive Show, at Olympia, today and tomorrow.

Dive Diary

THE LONDON International Dive Show takes place today and tomorrow at Olympia, Hammersmith Road, London W14 (0171-385 1200 for details). Tickets cost pounds 5 per adult and pounds 2 for children under 14 and are available by credit card from Dive Show Ltd (0181-977 9878).

TO LEARN to scuba-dive in the UK, or for a list of dive centres, contact: British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) on 0151-350 6200 (fax 0151-350 6215, website:, or the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (Padi) - on 0117 300 7234 or 01179 710 400, or visit the Padi website (

THE MINIMUM diving age is 12, but Padi has recently introduced a swimming- pool diving course called "Bubblemakers" for children aged 8 upwards.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own