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September 1997 Vol. 12, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diving into the Known

A week with UNEXSO in the Bahamas

from the September, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

When a friend heard I was going to dive with UNEXSO, the Underwater Explorers Society on Grand Bahama Island, his first question was "Why?" Admittedly, I had my own doubts. For three decades UNEXSO has been a mass-market operator, the largest dive operation in the Bahamas, with six boats. What could they offer a jaded old salt who, after taking up the sport back when Mike Nelson was stateof- the-art, has traveled just about everywhere?

Our first dive, at Pygmy Caves, lived up to my worst expectations. The "caves" were actually sandy surge channels between colorless coral heads. Silt covered everything. Broken bits of coral littered the sand. Our divemaster, Tamora, micromanaged us to frustration, starting with an interminable orientation that turned out to be a canned presentation we would hear before every dive (even the jokes!). Although divers with computers were free to plan their own dives and profiles, my buddy and I stayed with the group for this first time (and, we quickly decided, the last).

Under water, Tamora was constantly in everyone's face, doing gear checks, pointing out things to see, asking if we were okay. Some divers were sent to the surface with 800 psi, although UNEXSO's policy is to return to the ascent line with 700. From then on, my buddy and I chose to go in first so we could follow the dive plan on our own.

Had I not prepaid my week's trip, I might have packed up for the Bahamas out islands after this first dive. But I took a deep breath and recalled that I'd been attracted by UNEXSO's specialty dives -- a shark feed, an open-ocean dolphin interaction, a 100-foot wreck dive, and the opportunity to get a cavern diving certification -- and the good price, about half the cost of a comparable stay on Grand Cayman.

 

Bahamas

Bahamas

Heck of a Wreck

Things improved on the next dive, a recently sunk tugboat near an older wreck called Papa Doc's. It was alive with blue tang, big gray angels, sergeant majors, and yellowtail. Water clarity was so good (vis ran 70-100 feet during the week) that my buddy got some terrific wide-angle ambientlight shots with a Nikonos V at 47 feet.

I did another wreck dive that night, on the Pretender, an upside-down tug 50 feet down. After rushing a cup of soup to make a 7 p.m. departure (which didn't pull out until 7:45), we sat around at the mooring buoy telling jokes while waiting for sunset. Tamora redeemed herself with the best joke of the night: "What's the difference between a G-spot and a golf ball? A man will spend 20 minutes looking for a golf ball." The highlight of this dive was a long swim with lights off, navigating by moonlight and the bioluminescence in the water.

But the primo wreck dive was Theo's, a 230-foot cement hauler lying on its port side at the edge of a 2,000-foot ledge. Ten divers were split into two groups, and an Italian divemaster named Christina led four of us on a slow, easy penetration of the hold at 87 feet, then down into the engine room at 99 feet. She pointed out a stone crab the size of an Alaska king crab and a small spotted eel glaring out of a ruptured bulkhead. Since this is the deepest dive UNEXSO offers, everyone must complete at least one shallower dive before tackling Theo's. Christina offered to conduct a night dive on the wreck for just four experienced divers, but she was unable to put it together during my stay.

The Dive Operation

I found UNEXSO's service personable, helpful, and honest. Three times, I mistakenly left gear aboard after a dive, and each time, it was returned to lost and found! Staff loaded aluminum 80s on the boat (filled to 2,600 psi max), and all I had to do was lug my personal gear and set it up. For a small deposit, I secured a dockside locker to store wet gear. Each boat had a skipper, a divemaster, and usually a deck hand to help divers doff and don gear and negotiate the open-step swim ladders, which bounced around quite a bit in the surface chop. (Afterwards, I put tips in envelopes for a few especially helpful people, but there was no request from anyone or in any literature for tips. Good for them!)

Everything is geared for high volume. The reservations counter for boat dives is equipped with three computers and four or five staff bookers. You can choose between two departures each at 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and 2:00 p.m., plus one night dive. Most sites are scheduled in advance. Writeups of each site are available at the reservations counter to help you decide which boat to take. Because of its location, UNEXSO offers no shore diving. Even snorkeling was discouraged in the channel, due to heavy boat traffic.

Diving for Real

Now, though the bad sites are indeed bad (and hard to avoid in a week), we dived several good sites around Blair House, a sprawling reef with a profusion of healthy, colorful corals, sponges, yellowhead wrasse, goatfish, foureye butterflies, and spotted drums (and a few bigger fish than, say, Roatan). I went to 87 feet, but the best diving was at 55 feet. At Ann's Paradise, a coral pillar has been made into a monument to a local diver who led the successful campaign to get mooring buoys installed at designated dive sites. The pillar is also a cleaning station, patronized by a tiger grouper. At nearby Arrow Point, an eightfoot manta checked us out for five minutes before leisurely winging off. These experiences more than made up for Pygmy Caves and another ho-hummer, an abandoned subsea living experiment called SPID City (SPID stands for Submersible Portable Inflatable Dwelling). And once some of us learned our way around, we could influence the captain's selection, so we never wound up diving inferior sites twice.

While the better reefs are on a par with most Caribbean locations, the real action is in the shark and dolphin dives. Having sat through a video and an onboard dive orientation (and been given several chances to back out), I knew what was expected as I strapped on extra weight and descended to a sandy bottom for the shark feed. Safety divers swathed in head-to-toe chain mail arranged us kneeling shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a sunken hyperbaric chamber (left over from a Hydrolab experiment). Almost immediately, I saw a couple of sixfoot Caribbean reef sharks lurking in the distance.

The feeder, also resplendent in chain mail, began doling out frozen mackerel, slowly drawing a dozen sharks to within eight feet of us. Jockeying for the next handout, the sharks swooped over him. Some even tried to get their snouts inside the plastic food container. Accompanying the sharks was a lone stingray, which rubbed against the feeder like an impolite dog. A brown nurse shark got so pushy that the feeder stepped on its head to shoo it away. Dozens of jacks and yellowtails ("Bahamas piranhas") buzzed like flies around roadkill.

Strobes popped like firecrackers as sharks grabbed morsels, then darted over our heads -- or, occasionally, between us. Some females bore gaping wounds (it was mating season). I could have plucked remoras off their bellies as they zoomed by, but UNEXSO enforces a strict no-touch policy. Occasionally the feeder gently held a shark by its jaws or snout and put it into a trance by stroking in front of its gills. I could see the nictitating membranes closing over their eyes as the sharks accepted the only affectionate gestures they'd probably ever known.

Patrick, a staff videographer, shot the encounter, occasionally intruding between us and the subjects at hand. Back on the dock, he had his video ready to show in five minutes, complete with soundtrack. They tape every shark and dolphin dive (price $35) and will tape other dives on request (inspect your copy before leaving; the duplicating process can produce uneven copies). Each time I've watched my video, the sheer voracity of the sharks starts my adrenalin pumping again. Sure, the experience was contrived, choreographed -- you could even say rehearsed. But when a 150-pound predator hurtles directly toward you, still chomping on its prey, it's as close to the real thing as most of us want to get. (I was told that the operation on Walker's Cay offers a slightly different experience, with the divers swimming in open water as up to 30 sharks dart among them to hit at a frozen chumball.)

As exciting as the shark feed had been, it was topped by the dolphin encounter. Twelve divers were ferried to a nearby sanctuary, where two 15-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and their trainers met us for a trip to Dolphin Flats, less than a mile offshore. Again overweighted, we descended 50 feet to the flat, sandy bottom and formed a large circle. The trainers gave us signals to relay to the dolphins, cuing various behaviors. With each cue, a dolphin would approach a diver, perform, then scoot back to the trainer for a frozen herring. I petted their humanlike skin, placed rings on their rostrums, and kissed them. But the real charge came when I rose off the sand, extending one arm stiffly to the side. A dolphin pressed her rostrum gently into my palm, then spun me in circles.

When we were done, our new dive buddies willingly accompanied us back to the sanctuary. Wild dolphins are occasionally attracted to these open-ocean encounters, and a few tame animals have taken off for short periods with wild pods. But, having been raised by humans, they always return. (I rented a Sea & See MX-10 with 100 ASA slide film and strobe for the occasion -- $55, plus processing -- and after a brief orientation got some creditable shots. Of course, I also bought the video of this incredible experience.)

Where to Lodge

UNEXSO, an independent dive operation, is near several hotels in Port Lucaya, a seven-minute cab ride from Freeport. I selected the Pelican Bay, relatively new and right next to UNEXSO. Twin beds, air conditioning, phones, TVs, patios or balconies, coffee service, modern showers and electrical outlets, and views of Bell Channel ran $480/week double, including breakfast at the Brass Helmet above UNEXSO. The restaurant features a fascinating display of old diving artwork, photos, and gear. Food was basic but hearty, the service cheerful, if a bit haphazard. Unfortunately, it didn't open until 7:30 a.m., and some briefings began as early as 8:00. Closing time is 10:00 p.m., just when boats are returning from the night dives.

But there were other bars and restaurants within walking distance throughout Port Lucaya, a K mart version of Kona or Cayman. Dinner ran from $8 for ribs at the Cowboy BBQ to $26 for stone crab and a yacht-harbor view at La Dolce Vita, and $5.75 for a glass of California chardonnay. A local microbrew, Hammerhead Ale, was available most places at $5 for two during happy hour. UNEXSO in the BahamasThe Bahamians I met were extraordinarily cordial and outgoing. Waitresses will pause in their rounds to tell you their life stories, and no one seems tired of the stream of tourists free-flowing throughout the island.

UNEXSO is a busy place, especially from January through Easter and during the summer. For the most part, it ran like a well-oiled machine, geared to the lowest common denominator. However, one two-tank morning trip was canceled due to "unavailability of staff," although plenty of blue-shirted divemasters were hanging around; dives were scrubbed twice due to high winds; occasionally the folks at the reservations desk gave wrong times for boat departures or orientations. Boats for 20 divers were running less than 50 percent full just before hurricane season, and I was happy not to be competing with a full complement of divers for space above or below the surface.

Book the speciality dives well in advance. I nearly got shut out of the dolphin dive despite booking a month ahead for late May, which is a slow season. And the cavern diving I looked forward to? It was scratched because bats were breeding in the caverns. For the most part, I got what I expected: an inexpensive week of easy diving in warm water (80 F), mostly decent reefs, a few thrills, a large, mass-market operation with few surprises, on foreign soil as developed and ordinary as an American suburb.

D. L.

Diver's Compass: The reservations people (1-800-992-DIVE) answered my questions, organized the package with flights from Miami to Freeport, and guaranteed reservations for the shark and dolphin dives. . . . The nine-divep ackage was $199, or just over $22 per dive, surcharges for specialty dives ($80 per dolphin encounter, $40 per shark feed, $15 for each night dive). UNEXSO provides a handy shuttle service that you can arrange for the next day's dives. Snorkeling and passenger rates are available for nondivers. . . . You can practice your skills in UNEXSO's 18- foot-deep practice tank if you need to. . . . At Pelican Bay, book an upstairs room with a private balcony for drying gear; a coin-operated laundry and a concierge for booking local activities are also available. On checkout, $12/person/night is added to your bill for resort levy, room toll, and gratuities for maid and bellman. . . . Departure tax ($18 per person) is collected at the airport. . . . Grand Bahama Island offers the usual topside diversions: parasailing, jet skis, kayak trips, deep-sea fishing, golf, tennis, nature walks, and tours of local settlements, plus duty-free shopping for perfume, jewelry, and liquor (no camera gear) and gambling at two casinos (one in Lucayan Beach Hotel, across the street from UNEXSO; if it were in Las Vegas, it would be a candidate for blowing up). . . . Greenbacks are widely accepted. Some shops don't take credit cards, or demand a minimum purchase; others charge a fee (usually 25) for purchases made with traveler's checks. . . . Expect rain at least every other day from June through October. Summer is particularly windy, so bring a parka for the boat rides. . . . Bugs appeared only at night and then were no big deal.

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