Outside magazine, April 1997
the Bad Blue Hole, then it was likely we would never be heard from again. "On this island, man," Rohl said, "no one goes about the Bad Blue Hole. Not even on a boat. You wise, you be doing the same."
Pat Rohl is known as the unofficial mayor of Arthur's Town, the principal city on Cat Island. This is probably because the little one-room restaurant he runs, The Cookie House, is the unofficial town hall for all public meetings. A stocky man with a wide smile, he serves up burgers, conch rolls, and local lore, speaking always in the pretty singsong dialect of the outer Bahamas. Which is why his warning came to my ears as, "Un dis iluns, mon, no un go 'bout de Bad Blue 'ole. Yah wise, yah be doin' dah some."
We did in fact plan on free-diving the mangrove lake called the Bad Blue Hole, which is why we had driven up from Fernandez Bay to the north end of the island in search of information. The Cookie House seemed like a good place to start.
"Man," Rohl said, "the only way I'd go into that lake is in a diving bell, with a steel cable as thick as this." He touched his very broad forearm to illustrate. "That way, when the creature come to eat me, he couldn't bite through the cable. Them holes we got, they go deep into the earth. Who knows what lives down there? You never heard the stories about that lake?"
We'd heard the stories, all right. Indeed, for the past several days, my friends and I had been traveling around the island, seeking out the dozen or so blue holes and collecting information about them. With me were Mark Keasler and his adopted brother, Andy Fox, both guides at the Fernandez Bay Village hotel, both Florida expatriates in their forties, and both hell-bent on discovering new ecotourism opportunities for their clientele. With his thick mustache and ponytail, Mark looked like a pirate--appropriate, since he had spent much of his life sailing around the Caribbean. Andy could still pass for the corporate manager he'd been until two years earlier, but the kicked-back rhythms of island living were beginning to show: He wore expensive slacks, for example, but nearly always went barefoot. Together Mark and Andy had decided that sure, the fishing and reef diving on Cat Island were great, but why not expand the options?
The island's blue holes--geologic anomalies that are essentially deep limestone craters filled with clear azure water that connects to the ocean--seemed to have potential, largely because of the weird legends attached to nearly all of them. Cat Island, not to be confused with Cat Cay, a popular tourist destination near Bimini, has no flashy resorts, so it is among the least visited of the Bahamas and is still pristine in terms of scenery and culture. It's a big, brambled island with a population of only 2,000 souls. Most of them are the descendants of slaves or British loyalists, and they take their traditions very seriously. Up until 1926 Cat Island was known, both locally and officially, as San Salvador. Residents have always insisted, and most scholars today generally agree, that the island was the same San Salvador where Christopher Columbus first made landfall in 1492. But in 1926, the island's name was changed after the Bahamian parliament in Nassau voted to transfer the designation "San Salvador" to nearby Wattling's Island. Apparently, several influential members of parliament had received a gift of land on Wattling's Island and then brazenly hatched a scheme to drum up a tourist industry on the inaccurate impression that it was indeed Columbus's first anchorage. (They even went so far as to call their hotel The Columbus.) The name "Cat Island," on the other hand, was an old sobriquet for San Salvador going back to the 1500s, when Spanish settlers imported large numbers of cats to control the island's teeming rat population.
Rohl wasn't kidding when he said that no one on the island would go anywhere near the Bad Blue Hole. As local writer Eris Moncur wrote in his 1996 book Mystical Cat Island, "Cat Island fishermen will readily launch a skiff or bateaux and travel many miles offshore, but these same men cannot be coaxed with any amount of inducement to travel even 50 feet on one of the [island's] many lakes."
Not that my buddies and I believed the legends. We had proof that the blue holes could be safely dived. In our possession was a British Cave Research Association article that described a 1985 expedition whose members spent three weeks diving, measuring, and describing nearly all of the island's many holes. From our reading, we were confident that one of the underwater caves dived by the Brits was none other than the Bad Blue Hole. We carried a reprint of the article as we bounced along the dirt roads in Mark's dented Chevy pickup, interviewing people. We kept referring to the article, taking comfort from its clinical descriptions as we listened to the tales of horror--used it as a sort of psychological anchor that held us in the linear reality of the twentieth century.
Earlier in the day, we'd spoken to Gaitor Ishmel, an 81-year-old authority on Cat Island lore. We found him walking home from his little truck farm in the bush. He wore a woven straw hat and mismatched shoes. He carried a burlap sack filled with cabbages and tomatoes over his shoulder. His skin seemed darker for the rock-and-cement cottages in the background, squat buildings painted bright yellow or blue. Even though he was stooped, Ishmel was a tall man, a man of great dignity. "You want to talk," he said, "I tell you about this place."
We asked him about the Bad Blue Hole. "You meaning the lake what's up by the bat cave?" he replied. "Yes, that a bad place. A very bad place. One time, long back--this about the Christmas holiday--a lady go to that lake to soak the sisal. The sisal plant what I still make my ropes from. This lady, she there by the lake, when she notice this big ridge in the water. Like a long wave I be talking about, and she notice this ridge coming in, and she run off screaming. Never actually seen nothing, understand, but we all knowed what it was.
"Not so long after that," Ishmel continued, "one of my father's horses died. So he dragged it down to the shore of that lake. A big animal die on this island, we always burn them or put them in the water. Me, I was a young man at the time, and I remember how it was. It was on a Sunday, and we pushed this horse into that lake, and in not so very long we see a big ridge in the water coming toward us, like a big ripple, understand. And this thing come from under the water and take that horse away. It drag the whole horse beneath the water. It vanish down there in the depths! That when I know a dangerous creature live in that lake, because a horse, it not a small thing, man. My grandmother, she told me the creature was a mermaid. What I know is, this whole island used to lie beneath the sea, and when it pleased God to raise some of it up to be dry land, it could be that huge creatures were left in them holes beneath the water. Giant octopuses, maybe--I don't know. But there something in that lake, man. That much I know, for I seen it my own self."
When Mark told him that we had plans to dive the lake, Gaitor Ishmel was silent for a time, distancing himself from us. Finally he said, "I would advise you gentlemen not to do that. It's a very dangerous thing to attack these blue holes. But if you do get in the water, what I say you should do is swim across it very quick, man, very quick and quiet. That way the creature, maybe he won't hear you. That what I advise."
Ishmel and Pat Rohl were not the only ones who offered warnings about the Bad Blue Hole. Nearly every person we spoke with around the north end of Cat Island was related to someone who had pushed a dead horse to the edge of the lake, only to have the horse dragged from shore. Not only that, but an island man and his dog had both disappeared on the lake while duck hunting, never to be seen again. We heard stories about the island's other blue holes, too: They were giant flush drains to the sea, one man told us, that would suck us down if we happened to catch the tides at the wrong time. Some contained a manatee-like creature. A local girl had disappeared in one of the holes for more than a month, only to return pregnant, claiming that a merman had kidnapped her and was the father of her child.
Mark, Andy, and I listened politely to these stories and then chuckled among ourselves. If the Bad Blue Hole contained an animal big enough to eat a horse or a man, the Brits surely would have encountered it. But they had already dived the lake without incident, and we had their expeditionary account to prove it: Cave Science, volume 13, number two, August 1986.
The Bad Blue Hole is an inland lake of 40 acres hedged entirely by mangrove thickets so dense that even on a bright Bahamian day the light seems to have been leached away by shadows and stillness. The lake lies off a sand trail called Dickies Road at the north end of the island and below a network of caves from which, each day at dusk, emerge thousands of fruit bats. En masse, the bats create smoky contrails over the mangroves, ascending charcoal strokes above a tree canopy of waxy green.
We drove to the lake, found a tiny cut in the mangroves--the only access point--and then waded single file through the bushes. We did it very quietly, just as Gaitor Ishmel had recommended, and looked out across the water.
"This doesn't look like any blue hole I've ever seen," Mark said. He was right about that. For one thing, the water was a turbid black, not blue at all. I had seen, fished, and snorkeled blue holes all over Central America and the Bahamas, and they were almost always small, abrupt bowls in the shallow ocean floor where the water was crystalline and the sea life abundant. This was true of the other holes on Cat Island as well. We had already canoed to one near Fernandez Bay, a place called the Boiling Hole, where big gray snappers peered at us from the gloom of caves. And we had driven to a couple of freshwater holes that were eerie in their own way but magnificent for swimming.
"This isn't a blue hole," Fox said. "It's a big damn mangrove lake."
Exactly. If there was a cave somewhere down in the lake, how had the Brits found it? The water was too black to see a crater even from a plane, let alone from shore. Puzzled, we returned to the truck and put on our masks, fins, and snorkels. We swam along the mangrove roots, spotting sergeant major tropicals and two large shad. We snorkeled 40 yards from shore and found one spot that was 25 feet deep. I kept lifting my face from the water, searching the surface for the wake line that Ishmel had described: some large, dark presence vectoring toward me.
I wasn't afraid of monsters, really; my worries were more reasonable and therefore more diabolical. I'd been to Lake Nicaragua, where landlocked bull sharks had devoured more than a few locals. Maybe, centuries ago, that same aggressive species of shark had somehow become trapped in the lake and survived by eating the occasional horse and God only knew what else. Or maybe the sharks could come and go freely through some hidden labyrinth of caves. I'd seen the giant saltwater crocodiles of northern Australia, where anyone foolish enough to go too near the shore is fair game. Maybe a giant American crocodile lived somewhere on the lake. There was certainly enough cover in the mangroves. As the British cavers themselves had stated in their report, "Until recently, certain marine and intertidal blue holes may have been frequented by seals, manatees, and crocodiles, [and] blue holes do...have the habit of producing peculiar species previously unknown to science."
We hauled out a little inflatable raft from the truck, and for the next two hours we paddled around the lake using the anchor line to sound for the underwater cave that the English explorers had described in their report, an enormous dark rift chamber they'd called the Well at the Edge of the World. Mark was in the bow, doing the sounding. Over and over, he would drop the anchor and rough-guess the depth by the amount of line that played out. We tried one section of lake, then another. Rarely did we find more than 25 feet of water.
But then, at a place several hundred yards from the shoreline, Mark tossed the anchor and the line peeled out crazily, as if some monster fish were running with it. "Sixty feet!" he shouted when the anchor touched bottom. It abruptly grabbed and set, which seemed to indicate a rock bottom.
On my first dive, I followed the anchor line through the darkening gloom until I lost my nerve and surfaced. "Too murky," I told my buddies. "Too deep."
Andy didn't take my word for it. He went down and came up not so quickly, saying, "Hey--I think I got far enough to see some rock!"
I waited anxiously on the surface, eager to climb into the inflatable and get back to shore. Who were we to thumb our noses at a century of Cat Island legend? The creature--whatever it was--might be down there in its hole right now, seriously ticked off at having been awakened by the rude thunk of our anchor.
Then it was Mark's turn to dive, and we waited and waited for what seemed to be way too long for a man without tanks to be down there in all that blackness. Suddenly he came shooting to the surface, wide-eyed and gasping, yelling, "Our anchor landed right in the mouth of the cave! It's clear, man! You get down close to the bottom, the water turns crystal clear!"
I swam down through 30 feet of murk only to pass into a lucent world of bright greens and yellows, all of it domed in a huge bubble of clear saltwater. And there was our anchor, sitting smack in the horse-size mouth of the cave. Not far away there was yet another, larger cavern.
We didn't venture into the caves. Such an exploration would require serious gear and a lot more diving expertise than we possessed. But we had found the damn things. And the more we puzzled over the report in Cave Science, the more we realized that nothing in its description meshed with the size, the location, or the appearance of the lake. It seems idiotic now that we didn't immediately realize that there was an easy explanation for this: We'd simply misread the Brits' report. This was definitely not the Well at the Edge of the World. They'd never dived here.
Upon realizing this, we exercised the discoverer's right to name what we had found: One cave is now called Horse-Eating-Hole, in honor of the Cat Island legend. The second is Big John Cave, after Mark and Andy's late father. Back in Arthur's Town, Pat Rohl and everyone else we met were incredulous when we told them what we'd done and what we'd found. "That must mean the creature's gone!" Rohl said.
But 81-year old Gaitor Ishmel was not so easily convinced. "What it must mean," he said, "is that creature was down there sleepin'."