Published: Sunday, February 5, 2006
FEATURES - TRAVEL 01F
By Dan Armitage
For The Columbus Dispatch
ANDROS ISLAND, Bahamas -- The rapid flow of bubbles streaming from the other divers' regulators alerted me that the guests of honor had arrived.
I followed the divers' wide-eyed stares to see a distinctive silhouette pass slowly overhead, cutting the dappled sunlight between the surface and the dozen of us kneeling on the sandy ocean floor.
The 8-foot-long reef shark was soon joined by two others, and the toothsome trio circled a sphere of frozen fish floating 20 feet above us.
I felt as if I were in an IMAX movie, with a floor-to-surface screen before me, as more sharks arrived and started competing for the thawing, bloody treats.
After one particularly aggressive charge at the shredded target, a shark turned and swam straight at me before veering off at the last moment, a sobering reminder that I was witnessing no screen show but the real deal.
I had signed on for the in-your-face shark encounter, one of the most popular dive trips offered to guests at Small Hope Bay Lodge on the Bahamas' Andros Island. The shark-feeding was the most exciting of a half-dozen dives I experienced during my weeklong stay at the laid-back resort, located on the beach of its namesake bay.
Serious divers have ventured to the largest Bahamian island for decades to explore the underwater scenery.
Bonefish anglers prowl the island's shallow-water flats to stalk one of the gamest of fishes.
What is not as well-known are the opportunities on Andros to explore tidal creeks in a kayak, cruise the coast in a sailboat or head inland by bicycle to examine the tropical landscape. Remote "blue holes" beckon swimmers with rope swings and bottomless azure depths, and the flora along the way can be as fragrant as it is colorful.
Most of the sports activities available on Andros are offered by a dozen resorts that cater to divers and anglers, from no-frills fishing lodges to comfortable if not luxurious destinations that specialize in underwater adventures.
One of the most popular, Small Hope Bay Lodge, is famous for its dive program and has a full-time fishing guide on the staff and boats for both offshore and flats fishing.
The resort offers a fleet of sailboats and kayaks but also maintains a stable of bicycles for guests who want to sample sights on land.
Canadian expatriate Dick Birch built the resort -- a collection of low-profile cottages and a coral-rock lodge -- 45 years ago. After discovering the resort's namesake bay while visiting the island on a scuba-diving trip, he left a successful business career in Toronto to start one of the first dive-oriented resorts in the Caribbean and the first in his beloved Bahamas.
Birch chose the remote Small Hope Bay for its proximity to Andros Island's famous scuba-diving destinations such as the Tongue of the Ocean, a deep underwater canyon just offshore, where divers can see fish species usually found only far offshore in the depths of the Atlantic.
Within a half-mile of the resort is the Andros Barrier Reef, the third-largest living coral reef in the world and a huge draw to divers and anglers alike. Inland of Small Hope Bay are several of the island's mysterious freshwater "blue holes," small lakes fed by underground sources that were explored by Jacques Cousteau and other diving pioneers.
By serving meals family style and offering self-service bars in the lodge and on the waterfront tiki deck, the all-inclusive-yet-casual property quickly caught on with visitors. Dick's son, Jeff, now runs the resort.
While divers, fishermen and their families still account for the bulk of the guests at Small Hope Bay Lodge, Jeff Birch has noticed an increasing number of bird-watchers, especially during spring and fall migrations.
Couples, too, have made Small Hope Bay a popular all-inclusive getaway. Wedding packages that include sand-between-your-toes nuptials are becoming regular events.
Small Hope Bay remains a kind of a cult destination for serious scuba enthusiasts, however, who take advantage of the diverse dive opportunities close at hand.
Snorkeling is popular, as well, either from shore or on boat excursions.
Several dive boats are available, custom-built and outfitted for different types of dives. Most scuba and snorkeling trips require a boat ride of less than 10 minutes.
The day I made my shark dive, the seas were up a bit and the slower-than-usual ride was only a half-hour to the feeding area.
Anglers at Small Hope Bay don't have far to go to find fish, either. Bonefish prowl the shallows right off the lodge and frequent a tidal creek at one end of the property, where guests can wade in and cast to the famous "ghost of the flats."
Two fishing boats are among the small flotilla maintained by the resort, used on guided trips for game fishing as well as for reef- and flats-fishing excursions.
No matter how passionate a visitor is about diving or fishing, however, even the most eager guests soon slow to the rhythm of the place and forgo a trip or two just to relax.
"That's when I know we've done our job," Birch said. "When I see a guest who arrived as a gung-ho diver or angler taking an afternoon off just to walk on the beach, read a book in a hammock or simply relax, I know they'll be coming back."
SMALL HOPE BAY LODGE, BAHAMAS
The resort is on Andros Island, noted for its scuba diving and bonefishing.
Continental Connection, oper- ated by Gulfstream, offers flights four times a week (Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) from Fort Lauderdale International Airport in Florida to Andros Town Airport in the Bahamas. Recent round-trip rates ranged from about $280 to $350 a person. For current fares and flight information, visit www.continental.com.
Small Hope Bay Lodge also offers private charter flights between Fort Lauderdale and Andros Island.
Rates range from $189 to $209 a day for adults, depending on the season. Parents pay $75 a day for children ages 2 to 9 and $120 a day for children 10 to 18. Included are all meals and beverages (including alcohol), and use of sailboats, kayaks and bikes. There is an additional charge for diving, snorkeling and fishing trips. For more information, call 1-800-223-6961 or visit www.smallhope.com.
Cottages at Small Hope Bay were built of native wood and stone. Other than air conditioning being added to a few, they have not changed in four decades.
For Bahamas travel information, call the Islands of the Bahamas Tourism at 1-800-224-2627 or visit www.bahamas.com or www.bahama-out-islands.com.
Illustration: Photo, MAP appeared in newspaper, not in the archive.
Photo caption: (1) MACDUFF EVERTON CORBIS
Even without a boat, snorkelers will find interesting wonders in the water off Andros Island in the Bahamas.
(4) DAN ARMITAGE FOR THE DISPATCH