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Your Guide to Diving in Exuma Cays

Great Diversity, Magical Scenery... and Pigs

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...Highlights: shark action, turtles, schooling fish & big pelagics, great macro life/ marine diversity, non diving activities...
...Diving environment: wrecks, wall dives, drifts, healthy reefs, beginner divers...

The Exumas archipelago is a chain of more than 350 small islands/cays stretching over 125 miles (200 km) from just south of Nassau to the islands of Great and Little Exuma in the south. The cays in the northern region are renowned for their breathtaking beauty and species biodiversity. They are bound by the aquamarine waters of Exuma Bank to the west and the deeper body of water of the Exuma Sound to the east.

The beautiful Exuma Cays of Bahamas

Since 1958, much of the northern area (from Shroud Cay to Bell Cay) has been successfully protected by The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, the first marine reserve in the wider Caribbean. Here you can explore shallow coral reefs and colorful walls, several blue holes, thriving mangroves and seagrass eco-systems, where turtles, rays and sharks and regularly sighted. The park is also home to pristine beaches, hiking trails to caves and grottos, birds and endemic iguana species, making the entire Exumas region ideal for scuba diving and adventure liveaboard cruises.

Most of the diving in the Exumas is on walls starting in as little as 40 ft (12m) of water, and on shallow reefs with abundant fish life, but there are also several blue holes and underwater cave systems. Like all popular destinations in the Bahamas, locations for shark feeds are present, and a few wrecks have been introduced to the shallows for extra variety. The Exuma Bank offers more protected, calmer waters with shallower dives, whereas the Exuma Sound has more advanced, deeper dives where hammerhead sharks roam. The entire experience is one of exploration of little touched sites as nature intended. It feels as if there is a new surprise awaiting in every cay!

The beauty of the Exuma Cays is not all about the incredible scuba diving, there are many activities to enjoy around the islands. The most famous attraction are the swimming pigs of Big Major Cay. These porkies live as strays on the island and swim enthusiastically out to greet visitors that bring them treats such as vegetables and fruit. You can swim underwater to enter the caves of Rocky Dundas at Fowl Cay, to see stalactites and stalagmites and even fossilized beetles on the cave walls. You can snorkel in to Thunderball Grotto (OF James Bond fame) at Staniel Cay or jump through the blow hole in to the water below. Stroll along deserted powder-white sand beaches, swim with gentle nurse sharks in the shallows at Compass Cay, or visit the native rock iguanas on Allan’s Cay. Kayak around Shroud Cay, or follow the trails on Warderick Wells to the sperm whale skeleton, natural blow holes, and enjoy the view point. Altogether, the Exuma Cays are a diver’s adventure playground!

Dive Site Descriptions

Amberjack Reef

Previously this was a shark feeding site. Thankfully, in accordance with the Land and Sea Park’s request, sharks are no longer fed here (or in principle they should not be), however they still frequent this part of Exuma Cays. Amberjack's drawcard now is the abundance of marine life that frequent the patch reef. Although your descent will merely be to 50 ft (15m), take a moment to control your breathing as you will soon be surrounded by up to 10 Caribbean reef sharks, nurse sharks and a number of black, yellowmouth and yellowfin grouper.

Don’t be so distracted by the big fellows, as this dive spot also has many interesting small critters such as pirate blennies. The sea floor is home to garden eels that pop their heads out of the sand, or can be seen gently swaying in the current. The park is also home to a large number of lobsters as they are protected from fishing here. As you ascend, you will be met by a welcoming safety stop party of over 100 horse-eye jacks. Keep your eyes out on the blue and you may catch sight of passing eagle rays.

Angelfish Blue Hole

Located just outside Elizabeth Harbour at Stocking Island, the tides create an ever-changing current that flows through a vertical tunnel, attracting a huge variety of fish. Descending in to the small entrance hole, scuba divers often encounter hunting eagle rays, but they swiftly depart and allow you to enter. Schools of yellow jacks swim past on the current and circle the entrance, silhouetted by the sunlight above, parrotfish keep their distance as you descend. The sand and rock base of the hole is at 60 ft (18m). Once your eyes have become accustomed to the darker light, you will see several small caverns running off from the base, where angelfish and lobster lurk. Be careful to dive this site on a rising tide only, otherwise the current is potentially dangerous, causing a trap at the bottom of the hole.

Austin Smith Wreck

Not originally designated to be an Exumas dive site, this boat sank in 1995 while being towed to San Salvador. After more than 20 years on the sea floor, the structure is still intact. The vessel was a 90 ft (27m) Bahamian Defence Force cutter that now lies in 60 ft (18m) of water with the bow facing the east. Austin Smith was a Bahamian marine who died during a Cuban attack. To honor his memory, the vessel was deliberately sunk in Exuma Cays to create an artificial reef for scuba divers and to create new marine habitat.

The wreck is an impressive structure that you can explore, however penetration is only suitable for fully qualified divers. The exterior creates an interesting site with many holds and hatches of oil drums and cables that you can look into. Austin Smith’s memory has been honored by the abundance of marine life that live on and around the wreck. Impressive corals, sea fans and sea sponges adorn the structure, however keep a look out for the fire corals. Coming in contact with them is an unpleasant experience. The superb, year-round 100 ft (30m) visibility allows you to easily spot the resident barracuda, angelfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish and grouper. As with all great Bahamian dives, this is another great opportunity to observe reef sharks, this time swimming in and around the wreck.

Barracuda Shoals

This is a great dive site for early in a cruise as the depth is quite shallow (35 ft / 10m) and currents are minimal. However, don’t let that put you off as there is plenty to see here. Large schools of barracuda swirl around here, often underneath the boat as a shade. On the reef you can see large schools of goatfish and snappers, goliath grouper, lionfish, turtles, triggerfish and queen angelfish. Nurse sharks rest on the sandy patches during the day and hunt by the cover of night. Southern stingrays glide over the patch reef and sands in search of food, using their snouts to detect prey. Once detected, they blow water from their mouth and flap their wings to uncover and swallow their victim, be it a small fish, sandworm or crab.

Dog Rocks

Located at Ship’s Channel Cay at the very northern tip of the Exumas, this is one of the top dive sites in the entire region due to the large terrain and proximity to deep water. The top of the reef starts at 35 ft (10m) and then slopes down to 50 ft (15m) before dropping off in to the deep blue of Exuma Sound. A key attraction is The Cathedral, a cavern-like swim-through at 40ft (12m). Here the sunlight filters through, illuminating the passage and the masses of silversides that pack inside. Groupers and jacks often hunt inside to feed on the silversides.

Upon exiting the passage you will be close to the wall which you can explore for huge black coral bushes, tube and orange elephant-ear sponges. This is one of the few dive sites where the current can be quite strong, so watch you depth and stay alert for passing sharks and eagle rays, as well as large schools of Atlantic spadefish (batfish).

Jeep Reef

The site is named after the wreckage of a Jeep that was abandoned in the pretty reef, close to February Point in The Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park. The Jeep is thickly encrusted in corals and sponges now and a favored home to lobsters, sea slugs, porcupinefish, squirrelfish, and Nassau grouper. It is still recognizable due to its rubber tyres that have refused to weather. The reef’s location in a channel between Exuma Bank and Exuma Sound cause frequent current here that feeds the reef and attracts a large number of fish to the reef. You will see many coral heads and sponge species, seafans, barrel, olive and violet vase and yellow tube sponges. Fish species include schools of southern sennet (member of the barracuda family), blueheaded wrasse, trumpet- and needle-fish, French grunts and blue tangs, even the occasional small nurse shark resting under the patches of reef.

The Washing Machine

This unusual dive site always makes a bit of a splash with first timers. The sand and grass entry point is close to Highbourne Cay Marina. If you time it right the tidal he current will sweep you down a boulder shoot into the “washing machine” basin at 40ft (12m) and then lift you back up again to 15ft (4m), tossing and tumbling all the way through the cut. The speed at which you pass through the washing machine depends on how confident you feel. If you are a little cautious you can adopt the “starfish” position to slow your progress. If you prefer a “quick rinse” then curl in to a ball and you will fly through. Keep one hand on your nose so that you can quickly equalize to the ever-changing depth. Either way, once you’ve finished the spin cycle, you can hang out at a beautiful reef garden full of colourful corals. Creatures to be found here include octopus, crustaceans, leaffish, cowfish, filefish, gobies and nudibranchs.

How to Dive the Exumas

The Exumas are an island chain of 365 small and sparsely populated cays stretching for 130 miles (210 km) over the Tropic of Cancer. They are located mostly to the south of Eleuthera, but the northern tip is just 37 miles (60 km) southwest of Nassau and lies to the east of southwest Eleuthera. To explore this vast area of sea, a liveaboard cruise is the only option.

Liveaboard diving routes that include the Exuma Cays in their itinerary are 7-10 nights ‘Nassau, Exumas & Eleuthera’ trips (with longer options visiting Little San Salvador), or spectacular 14 night ‘The Bahamas’ expeditions across all the top scuba regions of the country - Grand Bahama, Bimini, Nassau, Berry Islands, Andros, Cat Island, Abaco, Eleuthera, and the Exumas. All these safaris depart from Nassau on New Providence Island. Nassau has an international airport (code NAS). Exuma International Airport (GGT) is located in George Town on Great Exuma is the southern part of the chain. It has direct flights from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta and Charlotte in the USA, Toronto in Canada, as well as Nassau.

For more information on your options to dive in the Exumas, check out our Bahamas liveaboard section.

The Diving Season

The summer in the Exuma Cays is June through early-October, with the warmest month being August at 88°F / 31°C; the winter is December through March, with the coolest month being January at 79°F / 26°C, The Summer months are also the rainy season with high humidity, with June and November being the wettest. The sea temperature varies from a high of 85°F / 29°C in August/September, to a low of 77°F / 25°C in January/February. Visibility is excellent at 70-100 ft / 20-30m throughout the year. Surface conditions are usually calm except when strong winds are present at the sites in Exuma Sound. This makes the Exuma Cays a year round diving destination.

For more information on the climate of George Town, Great Exuma, visit the Weather SparkOpens in a new window website.

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Where is Exuma and How Do I Get There?

Review our map below illustrating the location of Bahamas in the world. Here, you will find details on how to arrive at Nassau on New Providence Island, to board your liveaboard trip to the Exuma Cays.

Map of the Caribbean Sea, including Bahamas (click to enlarge in a new window) Map of the world (click to enlarge in a new window)

Reef Summary

Depth: 5 - 30m
Visibility: 20 - 30m
Currents: Gentle - moderate
Surface conditions: Usually calm, occasional swells in Exuma Sound
Water temperature: 75 - 85°F (24 - 29°C)
Experience level: Beginner - intermediate
Number of dive sites: >100
Distance: 37 miles / 60 km (3 hr) southeast of Nassau
Access: Liveaboard only
Recommended length of stay: 6 days - 2 weeks

Useful References

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