Tied off to the mooring line, I hit the deck and scanned the horizon. The ocean was dead flat, mirror-like. As far as the eye could see there was not a speck of land nor other boats—just sky, clouds and ocean.
Even before submerging, this place seemed otherworldly. The name Gingerbread Grounds seemed to be a sinister attempt at appearing innocent as if some witch were luring us into the dark wilderness with a cottage made of cookie and decorated with colorful candy and icing. Even some of the dive site names were creepy—Dark Star and Rozwell. We were, after all, in the Bermuda Triangle. Was I unknowingly caught up in an episode of the X-Files, Twilight Zone or Outer Limits?
Actually we were at the “outer limits”—of Great Bahama Bank, that is. Great Bahama Bank is a huge shallow area, over 1,000 square miles of ocean floor less than 60 feet deep. Most of that, however, is sand desert. The vast majority of coral reefs are near the handful of islands on the outer edges— Bimini, Andros, Berry Islands, New Providence (Nassau) to name just a few. One of the very few exceptions is the Gingerbread Grounds on the northern section of the bank. We were, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.
Diving the first site, my fear vanished. This place was indeed otherworldly but in a delightful way. The reef did appear like a cookie cottage decorated with colorful candy, but there was no witch, just huge schools of colorful fish. Like any cottage, this one had doors, windows, and hallways. The tunnels, swim-throughs and caverns were incredible! Some led to rooms filled with huge schools of silversides looking like a cross between fluid mercury and shattered glass. There hypnotic motions obeyed the waves of my hands and light. Other passages had sky lights with shafts of light stabbing at the rock floor. Our favorite dive site was the appropriately named Swiss Cheese.
The dive sites here are not much more than huge patch reefs. Most are just an acre or two in size and can be circumnavigated in one dive. The reefs rise from the sand bottom 50 feet down to within 15 feet of the surface. There are numerous mini-walls, several rising straight up 30 feet. Canyons and ledges are also common features. Rarely visited and only by long-range live-aboard dive boats, these reefs are as healthy as any I have seen in the Bahamas or Caribbean. The variety of corals is excellent with beautiful and large formations of shelf, star, and brain corals. Sponges are big and colorful as well. But hands down, the main event of these reefs are the incredible stands of soft corals—gorgonians, sea fans, and sea whips. Some stands are six feet tall and just as wide. Their arms form intricate lace patterns across the reef.
Fish life is about what you would expect on a typical Caribbean or Bahamian reef. My favorite was the schools of grunts and snappers that undulated across the reef. There were not huge amounts of fish but the variety and color were excellent. I also especially delighted in venturing out across the sand. Jawfish are quite common, interspersed with sting rays, peacock flounders, garden eels, and scorpionfish.
Dark Star (also known as Ally’s Reef) was nearly as good as Swiss Cheese. This reef is a bit more spread out but has nearly as many swim-throughs. Soft coral growth is absolutely stellar.
Night dives are special on these coral structures. Crabs and shrimp come out of the crevices in large numbers. Basket stars expand from the tight daytime balls to reach their arms out several feet. Colorful lobster creep atop the reef and octopus forage.
Although the Gingerbread Grounds are remote, logistically for American divers they are quite easy to reach. Several live-aboard dive boats depart from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Bimini, a mere 48 miles off the Florida mainland coast, is the westernmost of the Bahamian islands—only a few hours boat ride with many of the faster live-aboards. Bimini has excellent diving in its own right and the Gingerbread Grounds are just a couple hours beyond.
The advantage to taking a live-aboard out of Miami or Fort Lauderdale is obvious—cheap air fares. A flight from LAX to Miami can be had for less than $300, even less to Fort Lauderdale.
We rode with the Sea Fever on our trip, an excellent operation out of Miami. Contact them by calling 800-443-3837 or visiting their web site at www.seafever.com. Out of Fort Lauderdale is Nekton Cruises. Their web site is www.nektoncruises.com.