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The barmy Bahamas

Swimming with sharks and eating pickled lamb's tongue are just two of the more unusual highlights Mark Porter finds in this glorious tropical archipelago

Against my better judgment, I roll backwards off the boat into the warm ocean and tread water until Brendal, my snorkel tutor, swims over and leads me by the hand to the reef.

No teacher has held my hand since Miss Hinks did, before whacking it with a ruler. I was nine. Now I am 62 and very pleased to have my hand held, but that's because I'm scared of sharks and want to live to be 63.

I am in the Bahamas to mark the 50th anniversary of independence from the UK, exploring two of the 16 inhabited islands — Green Turtle Cay and Abaco — that make up this 100,000-square-mile Atlantic archipelago.

Abaco Beach Resort boasts its own marina

First, Green Turtle Cay, where Brendal's boat is moored near a coral reef off a tiny cay, or islet — and it's a long way from the nearest hospital.

Furthermore, we have seen a lot of sharks in the last hour. But, for now, there is no sign of them, and I am soon swimming, enchanted by impossibly colourful shoals of fish.

After 40 minutes, I am heading back to the boat when I catch sight of a dark presence, 30 yards away. It is watching me. Then, with a twitch of its muscular body, it hurtles closer.

Fortunately, Brendal processes it faster than me and swims between us, waving hands and legs like a demented harlequin. The predator turns on a sixpence and skedaddles. Back on deck, I shakily pour myself a fruit and rum cocktail. 'He just wanted to say hello,' says Brendal, 75, who has been diving for 60 years. It was a 6ft black tip shark, he says. 'Man, you could trust them to babysit. Ain't never gonna hurt you.'

Back at base a roll-of-honour board lists previous clients of Brendal's Dive Center: Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Jacques Cousteau, Alfred Hitchcock, Chris Boardman and a Wonderbra model.

The Tranquil Turtle Beach Bar at Bluff House

I am staying at the Bluff House, one of two hotels on Green Turtle Cay, in a spacious room with a balcony overlooking the sea. Green Turtle is an Out Isle, which you sail to from the mother island of Great Abaco. This is off-grid Bahamas, though Abaco does have a tiny airport.

Green Turtle is three miles long and half a mile wide, and far removed from the five-star glitz often associated with the Bahamas. Most of the island's 450 inhabitants live in the 'capital' — the fishing village of New Plymouth.

On September 1, 2019 Hurricane Dorian hit the Out Islands, and the damage is still being repaired. With winds of 225mph, it was on a par with the worst ever Atlantic storm to make landfall, the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.

The brightly painted older homes in New Plymouth are unique in the Bahamas, with their tidy, steep-pitched roofs. This is because it was first settled by British 'loyalists' from New England in the 1780s, during the American Revolution.

A Union Jack flutters in New Plymouth's Loyalist Memorial Sculpture Garden; a Bahamian National Monument featuring 24 busts of prominent islanders arranged around a central pair of life-sized bronze figures of both black and white loyalist women, sculpted by James Mastin.

Feeding the friendly local wildlife

The name Green Turtle Cay originates from the turtle population which was hunted to virtual extinction for the production of turtle soup. Now the turtles are protected and thriving in the coves, inlets and mangrove marshes.

My ferry back to Abaco stops at Elbow Cay, where I visit the last functioning kerosene-powered lighthouse in the world. There used to be 18,000 of them, many British built, like Elbow Reef. Its arrival in 1863 marked the end of a thriving local industry: shipwrecking.

I take another short-hop ferry across South Abaco Sound and stop at Marsh Harbour, the main town on Abaco, the second biggest island in the Bahamas. Here I check into the Abaco Beach Resort, set in 40 acres, boasting its own marina. I go to Trissies, a local hangout, for breakfast, where I try pickled lamb's tongue and soused pig's foot — surprisingly tasty.

Deans, one of many blue holes in the Blue Holes National Park

I head off for 'Da Bush N Da Beach' nature tour with wildlife expert Marcus Davis in the 33,000-acre Blue Holes National Park. We are soon at Dan's Cave, one of three renowned cave-diving venues on Great Abaco. There are miles of labyrinthine chambers to discover leading out to the Marls, the shallow bay where folk pay a fortune to hunt bonefish.

This is a world away from the bling of Nassau and the opulence of Exuma. Perfectly preserved, if a little storm-battered, Great Abaco and its Out Islands are offgrid, unspoilt and deeply romantic. But watch out for sharks — stick close to Brendal if you go snorkelling off the reef.

First published in the Daily Mail -  November 2023

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