At a depth of 25 feet, the visibility is so clear that I can see my daughter, Sam, several feet away. She grabs the underwater housing of her camera, pointing the lens at a massive propeller blade – just one of the fragments of Bermuda’s largest wreck.
As I walk towards her, I am struck by the necessary chain of events that placed this piece of steel in our path: Spanish workers building the Cristobal Colon some 100 years ago; a captain in 1936 mistaking a communications tower for a lighthouse and crashing the 499ft luxury cruise liner into a reef; and the American and British armies bombarding the looted ship as part of target practice during World War II, scattering its remains across 100,000 square feet of ocean floor.
Maritime disaster is in Bermuda’s DNA. Located about 1,400 kilometers north of the Caribbean and about 1,000 kilometers off the coast of North Carolina, this subtropical island is shaped like a hook and is lined with pink sand beaches. It was first settled by the British shortly after 1609, when the Sea Venture, a ship carrying emigrants and supplies from Plymouth, England, bound for Virginia, was swept away by a hurricane, and all at aboard were stranded on its uninhabited shores. Today, the wreck and about 300 others collectively form a kind of fascinating and accidental underwater museum that attracts divers from all over the world.
We explore the Cristobal Colon, one such exhibit, in the good hands of Dive Bermuda, a local dive shop independent of Grotto Bay Beach Resort & Spa. Among his various courses and tours is today’s excursion: a wreck dive followed by a dive at North Rock, the largest coral reef reserve on the island.
Although Sam and I are both PADI certified divers, we never fit in and explored the underwater world together. But the wreck and reef opportunities offered here drew us to this British Overseas Territory. Sam is more proficient in diving than I am, and neither of us are experts, but the beauty of the Bermuda wrecks is that they lie at different depths, some being so shallow that even snorkelers can go there to access. HMS Vixen, sunk in 1896, rests 15 feet, with part of the bow above the water; the Xing Da, sunk in 1997, lies at 110 feet.
Every wreck has a story, and since this is Bermuda Triangle territory, tales of the unexplained abound. What happened to the USS Cyclops, a battleship that disappeared in 1918 with 306 passengers and crew on board? Or the Star Tiger, a plane that fell from the sky in 1948, leaving no trace of wreckage or of the 31 souls it was carrying?
Perhaps spooked by the grisly stories I had read on the Bermuda 100 Challenge, a website documenting one hundred historic shipwrecks, at some point during our underwater adventure, I lost sight of Sam and I started to panic. It turned out that she was right below me – I had inadvertently floated up.
Whether you’re exploring a wreck or a reef, expect gems, sergeant majors, rock beauties and angelfish to accompany you. Although the sea animals are not to be harmed, don’t be surprised if your dive guide suddenly launches a passing creature, like ours does. No doubt Quarry is a dreaded lionfish, an invasive species in these waters. Only specially authorized divers can destroy them, but fortunately lionfish are very tasty, so they do not die in vain.
A public ferry system gets people out on the water and around the islands, and some beachfront hotels offer a free water taxi, but there are also delightful ways to spend days ashore.
One morning, Sam and I venture across the harbor to the capital, Hamilton, where we poke our heads around the shops – clothiers, jewelers, gift shops – that line Front Street. Our favorite is the Island Shop, owned by artist Barbara Finsness, which offers a line of pottery she designed as well as her paintings and prints, as well as other international and local products.
Later, we board a city bus for Horseshoe Bay Beach, where we stroll along beaches interspersed with hidden coves, the soft sand drawing its color from crushed coral and tiny foraminifera shells. After scaling limestone rocks and walking the hilly coastal path, we tucked in and hailed a taxi at Warwick Long Bay.
One evening, Sam and I meet two locals and discuss the benefits of diving. Taylor Barit, a record-breaking spear fisherman, speaks passionately about Kids on the Reef, a charity program that teaches Bermudian children to snorkel. She believes that sport helps children understand the importance of protecting the oceans. Rachel Sawden, model and real estate agent, describes the impact of diving on her childhood. “I grew up on this little island,” she says, “and diving has made my world a little bigger.”
But what makes diving wrecks so magical? Sam and I have a theory: in a traditional museum, artifacts are carefully selected and displayed, often behind ropes or glass. However, at a wreck site, the remnants of history were placed, in some cases centuries ago, by the hand of fate.
Slipping on them evokes questions about one’s own fate. How did we get here, my daughter and I wondered, some nine nautical miles off an island discovered by chance, taking pictures while miraculously breathing under the sea?
If you are going to
How to get there: Air Canada offers direct summer flights (2 hours and 40 minutes) from Toronto to St. George’s starting in May. Depending on where you are staying, a taxi ride from the airport takes 10 to 45 minutes.
Where to stay: Newstead Belmont Hills is centrally located with harbor views, an infinity pool and the upscale Aurora Restaurant. The Loren, a luxury oceanfront boutique hotel, offers its own beach and wellness spa to pamper its guests. Grotto Bay Beach Resort & Spa is all-inclusive and family-friendly.
Where to dine: The upscale Blu Bar and Grill and Harbourfront (next to the Institute of Underwater Exploration) expertly whip up all kinds of surf and turf as well as sushi. Offering a beautiful oceanfront ambience, Pink Beach Club at Loren features a wooden board showing where your dish was fished or harvested that day. Cozy cafes include Hamilton’s Brew and Devil’s Isle. Try Wahoo’s in St. George’s for a casual lunch on their patio.
What else to do: The original capital of Bermuda, St. George’s, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town includes five of the island’s African Diaspora Heritage Trail sites, several 17th and 18th century landmarks including St. Peter’s Church and St. Catherine’s Fort, and intriguing shops such as Long Story Short , a bookstore owned by Bermudian tour guide and writer Kristin White.
Writer Rebecca Field Jager traveled as a guest of the Bermuda Tourism Authoritywho neither reviewed nor approved this article.
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