Located in the Sea of Abaco, the Abacos are a group of islands and cays located in the most northeastern part of the Bahamas. Christopher Columbus was credited with their discovery during his many voyages of discovery. The two main islands are Great Abaco and Little Abaco. The islands were originally inhabited by the Lucayan Indians, who, in the years following Columbus' discovery were captured and taken as slaves by the Spaniards. The lucayans were non existent in the Bahamas by the early 1500s. The first permanent settlements in this region were Loyalists who fled the United States of America during the Revolutionary War in the late 1700s from the area of New York. Great Abaco and Little Abaco serve as the "mainland" of this region.
The Sea of Abaco averages about 18 feet (5 meters) in depth and stretches 62 miles (100 kilometers) running northwest to southeast situated between Great Abaco and the and the eastern outer cays. Because of it's shallow depth it is considered a lagoon. The waters here are exceptionally clear partly due to the minimal runoff from the islands and cays that border it and well as the presence of mangroves in the area. For snorkelers theses are ideal conditions.MERMAID REEF
This reef is right off the shore of Great Abaco and is under the protection of the Bahamas National Trust. Snorkelers and boaters need to abide need to abide by the posted rules which include: No standing on the reef. No fishing, No taking of anything from the water and no anchoring on the reef. There are mooring buoys in the area for those snorkeling from boats but the boats have to be less than 25 feet in length in order to use them. This is a popular snorkeling spot. It is located at Marsh Harbour just about 1 mile south east of the main harbor entrance. The area is pretty hard to miss as there is a floating sign and mooring buoys and the reef is about 50 to 60 feet on the shore side of the mooring buoys. The beach area is rocky here so appropriate footwear is advised. Marine life here can include green moray eels, schools of yellowtail, trumpet fish and four eyed butterfly fish. There is usually a resident barracuda keeps it's eyes on the snorkelers who has acquired the nickname of Rambo.SANDY CAY REEF
This area is sheltered by Man-O-War Cay with Sandy Cay itself being privately owned. Access to the snorkeling areas here is by boat. Sandy Cay has the reputation of being home to the largest concentration of elkhorn coral in a single area and is therefore one of the highlights of the snorkelers that visit the Abacos. Beautiful and majestic eagle rays have been known to gracefully patrol this area and well as their cousins, the southern stingray which can often be seen in the sandy areas just off the reef. Green turtles and loggerhead turtles also frequent the area making it excellent for photo opportunities.The reef itself is on the seaward side of the Cay which is part of The Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park. You must abide by the rules of the marine park which includes that nothing either live or dead may be taken from the waters. Spearfishing, shelling and hunting for conch is prohibited as is fishing in general. These rules ensure that the reef and it's inhabitants remain healthy, vibrant and productive for years to come.ELBOW CAY
If you are staying on Great Abaco, Elbow Cay is just a 30 minute ferry ride from Marsh Harbour. This cay is easily identified by the red and white striped lighthouse which has been there since 1863. Almost the entire western side of the cay is white sandy beach which invites the snorkeler in. This is the windward side so let common sense dictate whether conditions are favorable to snorkel from here. Tahiti beach, which is located at the south side of the cay is a bit more sheltered and would allow more favorable conditions should the western shoreline be less cooperative. Getting to the beaches is usually by foot or by golf carts most of the cars here are owned by residents. The waters offshore do have wrecks in them, which is the main reason for the building of the lighthouse. These are where you will find a higher concentration of fish life. Snorkeling the wrecks is best done by taking part in an organized boat snorkeling tour. Brain Coral and elkhorn coral are will be seen in this area as well as a number of other brilliantly hued fish in a variety of species such as rainbow and blue parrotfish, bluehead wrasse and the common yellowtail snapper.MARSH HARBOUR
This city is the third largest in the Bahamas with a population of about 15,000 people which is about half the Abaco population. It is located on Great Abaco and it is considered the gateway all of the islands and cays of the Abacos. It does have water taxis which can take you out to explore the surrounding cays and you do have the unique opportunity to explore two shallow wrecks that are in the area. These consist of the U.S.S. Adirondack and astonishing as it may sound two steam engine train locomotives. The locomotives date back to the Civil War era which were captured by the Confederacy who then sold them to Cuba. They obviously never made it to their destination, instead, ending up in about 20 feet of water providing a home to colorful corals, sea fans and fishes.
The U.S.S. Adirondack was a 207 foot wooden gun boat built and commissioned in 1862 which was also the Civil War era. It had only been on the ocean for a little over 6 months before it ran aground on the Little Bahamas Bank. Everyone was rescued but it ended up breaking apart due to the surf and the scattered remains can be viewed in as little as 10 feet of water. You might catch a glimpse of one or more of the 14 cannons that were on board at the time of the sinking. These two snorkeling areas are only accessible by boat snorkeling charters are available.GREEN TURTLE CAYS
New Plymouth is the town in this cay in the Abacos. Measuring just about 3 miles in length and about a half of a mile wide Green Turtle Cay has a population of about 600 residents. The architecture style here is reminiscent of the New England area of the United states largely due to the influences of the first settlers who arrived in the late 1700s. For the snorkeler, the reefs in this area can be seen in as little as five feet of water. It's name originated from the abundance of green sea turtles that used to inhabit the area surrounding it. Noted for its beaches the better ones for snorkelers are found in the Gillam bay and on the southern and western portions of the cay. These areas are where you will find ranged of both staghorn and elkhorn corals in addition to some enormous sponges. If you go to Ocean Beach, you will find a shallow reef that is accessible from shore anywhere from 50 to 100 yards out. There is also a wreck nearby that can also be snorkeled. It is the U.S.S. Jacinto which ran aground at 2am on New Years Day in 1865. There was no loss of life and the ship ended up breaking apart and now rests on a slope in 40 feet of water. Colorful corals and fish abound in this area but it is a snorkeling site that can only be accessed by boat.GREAT GUANA CAYS
This cay is an 8 mile ferry ride from Marsh Harbour and boasts a beach that is one of the longest in the Bahamas at nearly 6.5 miles in length. Great Guana Cay itself is only about 9 miles long with most of its 150 residents living along the beach areas. Atlantic Beach or Guana Cay Beach are both good areas for shore snorkeling. Eagle rays might be spotted flying gracefully through the reef areas. Parrotfish can be seen feeding on the reef while angelfish just cruise along looking beautiful.
While many visitors to the Abacos snorkel independently by entering the water from the beach or by renting their own boats, professional guides can furnish expeditions planned to the last detail. These businesses not only have an extensive local knowledge of the best snorkeling spots, they also offer a degree of safety to snorkelers for adventures like swimming with sharks. Paddling around the near-shore reefs can be great fun, but the tour operators offer an entirely different experience.
The Abacos Islands are a marvelous vacation experience. Their relaxed upscale atmosphere and the carefully nurtured natural environment as well as their proximity to the US mainland make them a great vacation spot. Snorkeling in the Abacos can be a delightful way to explore the undersea environment.
By Roy Jamason
Updated April 5, 2015