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July 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 25, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Aqua Cat, The Bahamas

algae-free dive sites far from the crowds

from the July, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

During decades of diving, I have traveled on some of the “scows” of the liveaboard world. There was cockroach-ridden Lady of the Sea, a Philippines liveaboard which, I am happy to say, did not sink until after my trip. I have other memories of double- and triple-stack bunk beds with a head on an upper deck, and a Cocos boat with steering problems that caused it to zigzag for the 48-hour plus voyage. When its air-conditioning broke, we all slept on the top deck.

I was taken aback by the spiffy Aqua Cat. A real window, plenty of storage, no engine noise. Speedy at 14 knots, the 102-foot catamaran is about as good as a liveaboard gets. And no matter where in the lower 48 you reside, you can most likely arrive at her Bahamas homeport of Nassau the same day you leave home. She cruises the mostly uninhabited, remote Exumas Land and Sea Park, 30 miles from Nassau. (Fodor’s Travel Guide says, “Strict laws prohibit fishing and removing coral, plants or even shells as souvenirs. The area has essentially never been fished, and shows what the ocean looked like before humanity.”) If sea conditions and weather permit, she’ll cruise to Eleuthera and Little San Salvador (Half Moon Caye).

The Aqua Cat

The Aqua Cat

However, our checkout dive at Flat Rock, a descriptive name indeed, was a bust. With a depth of 20 feet and rubble, its only purpose was a buoyancy check. Without distinguishing landmarks, our divemaster, Mr. Experience here, had to surface to locate the boat. Aqua Cat, The BahamasOn our first real dive, an eagle ray swam gracefully along Exuma’s Pillar Wall, which, with many caves and crevices, starts at 30 feet and slopes to 50 feet before dropping to 5,000 feet. A good omen, I hoped, for a great diving week.

Eleuthera’s walls are stunning. Corals and sponges are healthy. There are numerous swim-throughs, an occasional reef shark, turtle and Southern stingray but I missed the lone hammerhead other divers filmed. We made several drift dives: “10-9 . . .jump, jump.” Into the water we went for a drift in a four-knot current, passing coral gardens surrounded by white sand. All in preparation for the big drift: the highly touted “Washing Machine.” In a channel running between two cayes, a five-knot current somersaults divers into and spits them out of an underwater sinkhole. I made a wide pass to avoid being tumbled in the current but realized later it wasn’t as bad as the macho divemasters had described. Next time, I’d take the tumble. The exit from the water was hairy. Those at the end of the hang line (yes, I was one of them) were swept between the twin bows of the catamaran’s hull. Two new divers in front of me froze, while the divemaster behind me yelled, “Oh, no!” I took the regulator from my mouth and shouted at the two, “Move!” In the strong current, it took all my strength to pull myself along the sinking rope up the hull, make my way to the side of the boat and then inch to the stern ladder. There was no backup plan. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

The Aqua Cat visits remote sites where they have established moorings, which means they avoid the algae-plagued reefs found throughout the Bahamas. At one stop, several dozen Caribbean reef sharks have been Pavlov-conditioned to greet the boat. Once down, we kneeled in the sand around a pinnacle as the crew lowered a “chumsicle” and the frenzy began, with amberjacks, grouper and snapper joining in. Shark baiting doesn’t jibe with my ecological philosophy; I prefer to have them come and go naturally. This may mean I won’t see as many but those I do see are in the ocean’s real world, not one altered by humans giving handouts. That said, having never been on an orchestrated shark dive, I joined in and put another tick on my bucket list. As for other dives, one could dive alone, or hook up with two divemasters.

While the specific reefs we dived were healthy, schools of tropicals were generally missing. The typical Caribbean sightings of snapper, grunts and amberjack remain, along with a few turtles, Southern stingrays, and a mind-boggling proliferation of lionfish. The Bahamian government is trying to establish a commercial fishery but the lionfish’s small filets and bland taste have not encouraged sales.

Aqua Cat, The BahamasThe Aqua Cat offers 11 spacious twin-bed cabins (some twins can be configured into double beds) with ocean-view windows and individually controlled air-conditioners. Each ensuite bathroom has a full shower, mirrored vanity and hair dryer. There is a tiny fridge for storing snacks you bring. All faucets have potable water. Carina, the “house mouse,” did an excellent housekeeping job, providing fresh towels on request.

On the first-rate dive deck, 21 of us (the boat can hold a maximum of 26) set up our dive gear. Four benches are lined with a variety of tanks (50, 80, 100’s) and beneath each is a plastic storage bin. There was a camera table with air hose, Nitrox analyzer, rinse tanks, mask defogger holders, a flushing head with sink, and two hot water showers. From each side of the catamaran, steps lead to a small dive platform where Christmas tree ladders extended into the water. (You can also stride off one of the two side gates, a six-foot-plus jump.) Under the stern at 15 feet hangs a deco bar with an emergency regulator. The large camera table includes an air hose. For head counting, each of us had a board nametag to move back and forth to an in- or out-of-the-water position. Our only other responsibility was to remove or attach our first stage to a green (Nitrox) or pink-topped (air) tank. It was one snazzy setup. Not so perfect was the March water temperature. It ranged between a chilly 68 to 72 degrees. I wore a lycra suit, fleece hood and gloves, and rented a 3mm wetsuit, the warmest suit Aqua Cat had available. I envied the diver smart enough to bring and wear a dry suit. Most divers wore every garment they brought.

Captain Mark Bailey, who is both personable and charming, has been at the helm since 2001. Dave Valencia, the head instructor, had two assistants, Hila Shimon and Alex Bartnicka, who spent much of their time underwater capturing divers on film. In terms of his dive briefings (which are presented on the deck, where divers sit at three tables), leading and pointing out critters, Dave is one of the best. Rather than saying the “reef is to your right or left,” he uses compass headings. Being one of the few divers without a compass, I had to ask for explicit left/right directions. Sites were nicely drawn and well explained. (Dives were scheduled at 8:30 a.m, 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., with three 7:30 p.m. night dives; only two dives on Friday.)

Announcements of briefings, meals and land activities were made over a loudspeaker that broadcast inside the cabins. If you are willing to give up a dive, there is beachcombing, hiking pirate trails, snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, even exploring the haunts of bootleggers. Most activities are guided by First Mate Jeremy Hill in the 28-foot launch Sea Dog. I took one excursion to Allen’s Cay, where I fed red grapes to indigenous Bahamian rock iguanas.

The dining and salon area seats several dozen at two large tables surrounded by cushioned cane-style chairs. Soft drinks and water, an icemaker and on-tap beer are readily available, as is hot water for tea or hot chocolate. Three comfortable lounge areas surround a television (VCRs and DVDs), a video editing area and two photo light tables. On a bookshelf are T-shirts, caps and oversized mugs for sale. The top sundeck has 10 loungers and even an iPod docking station. After diving is done, the crew mixed complimentary rum drinks and poured Bahamian microbrews for those who chose to skip the night dive.

The Aqua Cat claims to offer gourmet meals, and while I enjoyed the meals, a better tag is “hearty.” Served buffet-style, lunches and dinners were plentiful, typically meat, vegetarian and casserole choices. Breakfast was eggs, cereal and juice. Presentation was lacking, just plates or casseroles. Chef Kirk Bell honored special requests. There was always fruit, muffins, cookies and snacks. The table was set for dinner with a tablecloth and silverware. Wine was offered along with the tap beer. Each night, a lionfish appetizer was offered with a brie cheese pie. At the Thursday night Captain’s party, it was a bland lionfish sushi appetizer. Dinner was more formal and included Captain Mark’s freshly speared lobster and tenderloin.

While most of the passengers were Yankees, two divers from Ontario were on board, along with two others from Italy and Belgium who had Googled to find this trip. Most were experienced, a few were beginners, and none was a serious photographer. Those who did shoot could anonymously submit one image, and by popular vote, the winner was entered into a free trip drawing. A slide and video show followed.

In the middle of our last night at sea, our mooring line broke in rough seas. Captain Mark decided to forgo dives at Nassau’s Lost Blue Hole and Periwinkle Reef to return to Nassau. So two pretty lousy dives concluded the trip, but that’s the way of the sea.

The Aqua Cat is one of the nicest dive boats I’ve experienced. Yes, it is Caribbean diving, and the beginning and ending dives were disappointing, but as experienced as many of the divers were, only two, besides me, had dived internationally. So if you want to get your liveaboard feet wet close to home, you can’t beat the Aqua Cat.

-- M.S.

Aqua Cat, The BahamasDiver’s Compass: The eight-day, seven-night trip (with five-and-one-half dive days) is $2,295 per person, double occupancy; third and fourth person in a cabin with fold-down berths are $1,395 per person . . . The price includes beverages (soda, rum drinks, beer and wine) and Saturday transfers to and from the Nassau airport; additional fees include port and fuel surcharges at $90 per person and a $10 park fee . . . Board after 6 p.m. on Saturday; early arrivals may drop off bags at the boat . . . Aqua Cat returns to Nassau Friday afternoon, and divers are responsible for that evening’s dinner ashore; disembark at 9 a.m. on Saturday but luggage can be left onboard if you have a late flight . . . The airport shuttle departs three hours prior to a flight; Nassau’s airport requires hours of waiting for immigration and multiple security checks . . . Nitrox (and certification) is $150 per week, openwater checkout dives are available by prior arrangement for $125 and night dives require a dive light and cyalume stick (or substitute); arrange rental gear before you arrive . . . Website: www.aquacatcruises.com

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