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January 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sea Dragon, Exuma Cays, Bahamas

a good-value charter for dog-loving divers

from the January, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Do you find it odd that I spent more time with the Sea Dragon crews dogs than I did with other guests? Well, I had little choice. The four Australian shepherds go everywhere on and off the boat, constantly climbing the ladders onto the dive platform to return Frisbees and balls tossed into the water. If you cringe at the thought of being slobbered on when you return from a dive, you wont be a happy diver here. But these dogs are as welcoming as any liveaboards crew. They, their owners, Sea Dragon co-owners Dan Doyle and Sue Ford, and excellent divemaster Linda, have turned this eight-passenger boat into a floating home.

Despite the dog hair and the basic conditions -- the heavy, industrial-looking boat lacks the sleek, modern feel of Peter Hughes or Aggressor fleets the 10- to 12-day Sea Dragon trips are the same price many liveaboards charge for one week. The boat visits Bahamas sites that only a few sailing yachts and conch fisherman reach, where abundant reefs and deep drop-offs make for good Caribbean diving. The 10-day itinerary runs from Nassau through the Exuma Cays; the 12-day trip, which I took in September, travels from Great Exuma Island to Long Island, Conception Island, Rum Key and San Salvador. The distant islands, the limited guest list, delicious food, temperatures in the 80s, experienced owners whove been sailing here for 36 years and, of course, the dogs made it a unique adventure.

Three hours after leaving the hubbub of Georgetowns harbor, we reached Long Island. Dan stopped for us to dive coral heads that sit close to the continental shelf and the nutrient-rich Atlantic current. After a giant stride off the dive platform into 82-degree water, I was among hundreds of schooling yellow striped snapper, grunts and jacks. The rocks hosted colorful fans, gorgonians, and several clusters of juvenile drum fish. At the sandy bottom at 60 feet were garden eels, jaw fish sprouting from holes, goat fish and hog fish. A pair of curious barracuda hung under the boat.

Linda, the boats long-time divemaster and a Michigan gal in her thirties, dives with a magnifying glass to peer at the smallest critters, and uses mirrors to lure combative creatures from their lairs. She is also a pelagic magnet. If I hear her rattle, I rush over and usually see something big, like a hammerhead or a southern stingray. Dan and Sue, in their late fifties and also Michiganders, keep the Sea Dragon a family affair -- the two other crew were young relatives of Sue and Linda who were good at helping me out of the water, picking up gear and serving as buddies if needed. Sea Dragon, Exuma Cays, BahamasThe dogs were always there to greet me when I climbed up one of the two ladders on the platform after a dive.. They are kept extremely clean but if you think dogs should stick to dog chow, you may find their literal spoon-feeding at lunch difficult to accept. They are wellbehaved but more pampered than the guests.

We spent six days at uninhabited Conception Island. The leeward side had a bay with a pristine white-sand beach, the only one on this trip without no-see-ums. Only a few other boats anchored here, albeit one with a helicopter. To the south of the bay was a wall with several excellent dive sites; it had a sandy slope, good for muck diving, and shallow coral heads closer to shore. To the north was South Hampton reef, an extensive barrier system with nearly 150 wrecks. Linda drew great maps, gave excellent briefings and pointed out plenty of interesting critters. Wall dives went down to 130 feet, reef dives were 30 to 60 feet.

I first dove South Hampton reef in 2001; the maze of tall coral columns, sitting at 50 feet and touching the surface, were completely dead and covered in green algae due to sea urchins dying off and lack of fish. On this trip, sea urchins were back, algae was retreating and sections of the columns were covered with hard encrusting coral. Closer to the surface where the columns split into fingers, I peered into cracks to see various worms, anemones, nudibranchs, crabs and little golden tail eels. Aside from the occasional shark, there werent many schooling fish but the wreck of the South Hampton was a draw. The twelve-foot bronze cannons and giant anchor were guarded by some mean damsel fish. I used my compass to return to the boat through the maze of reef.

Conception had some excellent snorkeling and a great ride. Dan took me in the dingy up a salty creek that flows through the islands interior. As the tide went out, I could ride a fast mile to the ocean, past sea turtles and a pair of nurse sharks getting romantic. At a beach at the south end, schools of snappers and grunts nestled among the rocks in the shallows.

The dingy ferried divers to various sites, but the Sea Dragon was usually anchored over something worth diving for those wanting to squeeze in a fifth or sixth dive. Visibility ranged from 80 to 120 feet. I could dive as much as I wanted, with no restrictions on time or depth. If I chose to go solo, it was up to me to monitor depth, time and surface interval. I used an aluminum 80, though smaller tanks were available; they were stored on the back of a bench for easy donning and removal. I had a section to hang gear and store in a box, and I was responsible for rinsing and packing it. The boat doesnt rent gear but Dan offers some gear and makes simple repairs. With no dedicated area for cameras, photographers fiddled with cameras on the dining table.

At the wall on Conceptions southern end, sites featured swim troughs, tunnels, overhangs, and sheer walls encrusted with gorgonians, whips, fans, wire corals and Volkswagen-sized sponges. On the first dive at Chain Wall, I swam down 70 feet to the top of the wall where a five-inch chain, encrusted with various soft corals, led to an anchor at 200 feet. At 150 feet, the chain spanned two ledges where fan coral, swinging on the chain, fed in the current. I peered under a ledge to see a lobster fanning her eggs, but heard Lindas rattle and hurried over to see a pair of hammerheads 40 feet below.

Sea Dragon, Exuma Cays, BahamasWhen the dives or the dogs tired me out, I slipped away for a nap. Each of the boats four small cabins had two bunks and air-conditioning, and were tucked away from the boats machinery. There was adequate storage with hooks, two shelves and an 18- inch closet pole. Two heads, one with a shower on the same level as the cabins, were kept clean.

In the morning, while deckhands hosed down the dogs, Sue served breakfast -- pancakes or French toast, homemade muffins, fruit, hot or cold cereal, and eggs with bacon, sausage or ham. Lunch was a sandwich buffet with several breads, cold cuts and cheeses, fresh tomatoes and lettuce, and a soup. Dinner was heaps of lasagna, steaks, pizza, barbequed ribs, hamburgers and fish, while side dishes included fresh green salad, mashed potatoes, rice and steamed veggies. Every trip offered a Thanksgiving-style turkey dinner with all the trimmings, and leftovers for later meals (a common occurrence on the 12-day charters). I had to save room for desserts like cherry cobbler with vanilla ice cream and Lindas key lime pie. The food was irresistible, and I gained nearly 10 pounds by trips end, proof that easy diving does not burn calories.

Meals were served in the main salon, dominated by the 10-seat dining table. The extensive reference library on Bahamian fish, flora, fauna and birds was stored on shelves underneath. One deck up were lounge chairs, clotheslines, and stored kayaks the crew took down upon request. There was also an underwater scooter to inspect wrecks but it scared the fish. A cooler was stocked with free beer (the only liquor served) and soft drinks, and water was served both hot and cold. In the evenings, when not stargazing, I curled up with a dog to watch a movie or marine documentary. Fellow divers were a group of retired civil servants and college professors who had been on the boat every year for at least a decade, some for more than 20.

Our final anchorage was at Rum Cay -- long ago the home of a first-rate dedicated dive resort, but no longer - where I saw nearly every type of blenny in Paul Humanns ID book. Drum Fish Gulch was filled with drum fish but instead of coral heads or walls, the sea floor resembled rolling hills of exposed rock. The shallowest spot was 30 feet, with the hills gradually falling into the abyss. Gorgonians and fans grew sparsely at evenly spaced intervals. Sharp cuts up to 70 feet deep, and rocky, jutting overhangs were everywhere. One stony arch spanned a 20-foot chasm and made a great swimthrough. Visibility was at least 120 feet. Cuts were inhabited by small schools of jacks, snappers and grunts, with an occasional eel poking up between rocks. At 30 feet, the overhangs were home to dancing juvenile drum fish with threadlike fins. This was one of the few sites I saw no Pacific lionfish, which have proliferated in these waters since they were inadvertently introduced 15 years ago.

On every trip with the Sea Dragon. Ive always spotted something Ive never seen before, so trying to stump Linda and Sue was my goal. On one dive, I saw white tubular objects that looked like vacuum-cleaner hoses attached to coral branches. What the heck? The two women immediately knew -- containers for a type of snail egg. Between dives, I swam and played fetch with the pups, or sometimes just rode with them in the dingy to shore for the guided nature walk or to slip in a snorkel before meals. The dogs got long walks in early morning and late afternoon, which gave me lots of opportunities for birdwatching, flora identifying and beachcombing. It was good exercise for all of us.

The Sea Dragon has a short season, typically between May and September, although Dan says he may extend it through October this year. Because its usually chartered and only takes eight divers, it fills up fast. Call Dan during off-season to book the boat, and he will put solos or small groups in touch with dive clubs needing to fill their list. The diving is less dramatic than the Caymans, but the Sea Dragons northern Nassau route features lots of sharks and turtles. I preferred the southern route with its longer itineraries and sandy beaches, and hammerheads are a common sight. This is a good pick for divers who appreciate bird-watching and hiking and dont require private bathrooms. But you must love dogs.

-- S.V.M.

Sea Dragon, Exuma Cays, BahamasDivers Compass: Sea Dragons full-boat charter rates are for a group of eight and range from $11,000 ($1,375 per person) for five days diving to $14,800 for seven days ($1,850 per person); additional time is $1,600 per day . . . As a single diver, I paid $1,800 for my share of an 10-day dive charter . . . No Nitrox available . . . Fly to Nassau for a northern-itinerary trip, and Georgetown for the southern itinerary; March flights recently averaged $350 for Nassau, and $700 for Georgetown . . . Give Dan your itinerary and he will send a taxi, costing $20-$25 . . . The nearest recompression chamber is in Nassau . . . Sea Dragons Web site: www.seadragonbahamas.com, e-mail is seadragonbahamas@hotmail.com, and phone is (954) 522-0161.

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