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August 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Aqua Cat, The Bahamas

reefs and the vessel showing their age

from the August, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

The 28-foot Sea Dog pulled alongside one of the mostly uninhabited 365 rocky islands that make up the Exumas archipelago. Wearing my mask, snorkel, and fins, I jumped into the warm, clear water from the jet boat that the Aqua Cat tows for eco-adventures such as this. I snorkeled a few yards to a crack at the end of the small island.

Thunderball Grotto didn't look like much from the outside, but as I swam through the darkness, I entered a beautiful cavern with a huge domed ceiling containing several skylights. Rays of sunlight reflected off the water's surface and danced over the dark stone walls, making the cave unusually bright and inviting. Sunbeams danced across the backs of small tropical fish, mainly sergeant majors. Here, in the James Bond movie of the same name, nuclear warheads were stored. Yes, Sean Connery had once hung out here. The memory of that giant chamber in the middle of a hollow island will forever be in my mind.

My June American Airlines flight had been delayed, so by the time we cleared formalities in Nassau and waited for another couple who had issues because

AquaCat
Aqua Cat
they were bringing a drone to the island, we arrived an hour late at the 102-foot Aqua Cat, moored offshore. Lead Divemaster Diego, a youthful 42-year-old Brazilian with a great sense of humor, showed us five latecomers around and assigned our dive stations. A few of the aluminum tanks -- 63, 80, and 100 -- had screw-in inserts, so I was able to use my DIN regulator without an adapter. I rushed to get my gear assembled and then headed to the salon for a cold hamburger and salad while Captain Ron explained what to do in case of an emergency.

Three of us shared cabin number 10, the largest on the boat, with a queen bed and a single bed. While the craft had recently been in dry dock, other than new carpet, I could see no significant improvements. When I was aboard eight years ago, she was a beautiful boat, but time has not been kind. Paint peeled in the bathroom, and the vinyl was yellowed. There were rust and corrosion around the shower and sink. I was put off by a moldy shower curtain liner and threadbare bath towels. Often, at nights the cabin walls pulsated from an off-balance washing machine running in the nearby laundry room. Everything in the cabin seemed loose and rattled. I could not close the curtains because the rails that held them down were no longer attached to the wall. The air conditioner kept the room cold, but it made awful noises.

Most days the crew offered two morning dives, two after lunch, and a night dive -- as well as daily shore excursions and eco-adventures. The Aqua Cat's 11 cabins were full with 24 certified divers -- ages 17-76 -- and the majority made most of the dives. "Bahama Bob," the oldest aboard, had dived the Exumas in the '80s and hoped he would feel young again by diving here once more.

Bahamas Map
On my first dive, I was disappointed with the murky 40-foot visibility at Dog Rocks reef, covered in brown algae. There were few fish, a stingray being the only exciting creature I encountered during an hour in the 79ºF water. After lunch, a few of us boarded the Sea Dog and took a short ride to Lizard Island. The last time I was there, the iguanas were hungry and aggressive. Even though I used a stick to feed them grapes, I still got my thumb bit. This time, the large brown lizards behaved impeccably.

Weather was beautiful, with mornings calm and clear, leading Captain Ron, who has been with the company for 25 years, to say he'd never seen weather this nice for a week. But that didn't cure my disappointment in the reefs, fish life, and visibility -- the exception being Split Coral Head, where, from under the boat, I could actually see the drop-off. Although I saw no fish, at least the water was clear and the very deep wall, covered with wisps of wire coral, looked healthy. I stopped at 99 feet and was barely over the edge.

After a short swim back across the sandy bottom, I explored a large, high-profile piece of reef starting at 40 feet and rising to within 15 feet of the surface. Though it was not teeming with life, I did see barracudas, fairy basslets, porgies, and a tiny secretary blenny hiding in a hole on a large brain coral. I saw few butterfly or parrotfish and no trunkfish, trumpets or eels -- could this be the future created by lionfish and algae? Back under the boat, I watched six-foot-plus gray reef sharks round up horse-eyed jacks.

It was here that the Aqua Cat held its weekly shark feed, so it was not surprising that sharks hung around, going about their business calmly when humans weren't intervening. All that changed on my next dive -- the shark feed. We 34 divers descended together, swam to the mooring pin, and knelt in a semi-circle as Diego swam in with the chumsicle. A dozen reef sharks and hundreds of jacks attacked the frozen bait ball for nearly 30 minutes until Diego removed what remained of the chum. I moseyed back to the boat, followed by several sharks that hung out with me during my safety stop. The well-fed gray reef sharks had calmed down and just cruised by gracefully.

Diving for Bahama Bob was a bit of a struggle. When he was ready to enter the water, the crew would put his fins on his feet. When he returned after a brief time underwater, they helped him out of his gear at the surface before he climbed the ladder. Bob made only four dives, but he had a great time while befriending all the passengers and crew, quickly learning everyone's names and where they were from. One day, Bahama Bob and his friends skipped a dive to go fishing; they returned with a huge wahoo, which became our dinner. Another day, after kayaking, he was ready to sell everything and move to the Exumas.

Swimming Pigs
Happy pig at Big Major Cay
The day of my fabulous snorkel at Thunderball Grotto, we stopped at Big Major Cay -- known as Pig Beach -- to see the famous swimming pigs. Who knew pigs could swim? The friendly feral pigs ran from the shade of trees to greet us. I waded in waist-deep water to feed them apple wedges. The family of about 20 adorable pigs lives freely on the sandy beach, basking in the sun and swimming in the surf -- although the young ones stay ashore until they learn how to swim. They aren't native, and the island is uninhabited, so no one knows how they came to live on Big Major Cay.

Another fun break was the shore excursion to the Exumas Land and Sea Park. Carlis, the competent first mate, piloted several of us to a small beach where a sperm whale skeleton lay; its autopsy had revealed black plastic bags in its stomach. I walked across Banshee Creek in the mangroves and stopped to play the musical rocks -- large pieces of limestone that had different tones when struck -- then climbed BooBoo Hill, the highest point in the island chain, once a pirate lookout. The near 90-degree heat and high humidity were taxing, so I was happy to return to the Aqua Cat for the next dive. At Danger Reef, I saw a humongous loggerhead turtle with three big remoras riding on its back. Several six-foot gray reef sharks patrolled the site and horse-eye jacks spiraled under the boat during my safety stop. Exiting the water was as easy as climbing stairs. A crew member was waiting on deck to offer assistance and give a quick rinse with warm water.

After lunch, I took a Sea Dog trip to Shroud Cay, where the water was perfectly clear. I attempted stand-up paddle boarding but only made it to my knees. Then I hiked to Camp Driftwood, the highest point of the island, to take in the view before a thunderstorm rolled in.

The 'Washing Machine' was a crazy drift dive. At the countdown, we 17 divers, purposely negative, simultaneously entered the water and sank to the bottom. Following Diego, we drifted in the swift current. I felt like I was stuck on the spin cycle as I passed through converging currents between small islands. I dropped into a hole and got tossed about before getting spit back into the flow. I drifted over a small nurse shark, floated past a school of spadefish, and zoomed by a huge lobster that was hanging onto a small reef for dear life. A turtle greeted me as I was carried along. Indeed, a fun dive.

Aqua Cat ratings
The food was delicious and plentiful, thanks to Chef Mishka from South Africa and her great recipes. Breakfast consisted of fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal, juice, coffee or tea and a dish like pancakes, omelets, or quiche. Buffet lunches had a soup of the day and salad, in addition to hot choices like pizza, tacos, or lasagna, followed by fresh-baked cookies. At the dinner buffet, I had the choice of a vegetarian option, a meat entree, and a fish dish, such as fresh wahoo with avocado sauce. Wine was offered, and there was a bar upstairs at the sundeck. Beer on tap, wine, and rum were available all day, but one drink ended your diving day. I opted out of night dives, preferring to socialize at cocktail hour rather than battle the annoying bloodworms that were attracted to light beams. Those who dived saw a few octopuses out and about.

Besides the captain, first mate, lead divemaster, and chef, seven other crewmembers helped keep the guests safe and comfortable. Among three young divemasters, Adam was from South Africa and told the corniest jokes. Slim, blonde, soft-spoken Erika came from Hungary, and 20-year-old Austin was American. They took turns giving briefings and leading dives. Adam took photos, Austin shot video, and Erika ran the boutique. Karina from Peru helped Mishka in the kitchen, and Lorio, also from South Africa, kept everything clean. Two engineers on board kept everything running smoothly. Thursday night, the crew hosted a cocktail party, as well as a surf and turf dinner, followed by Diego's awards ceremony, a slideshow, the guest photo contest, and Austin's video from the week.

Heading back to port, two opportunities to dive remained. The first, Lost Blue Hole, was a sinkhole in the middle of the ocean, a dark blue circle 100 feet in diameter and surrounded by a ring of white sand. I passed two large stingrays buried in the sand and spotted several reef sharks at the perimeter of the hole. I dipped down into the dark, cold water to 80 feet, about half its depth. As I rose, about 30 silky sharks shot across the sea grass toward the blue hole. A nurse shark swam gracefully away. The last divetook place at a shallow site called Periwinkle Reef. Diego had smeared peanut butter on my tank, and the juvenile princess parrots loved it. I laughed when one swam by with peanut butter stuck to her lips, though I doubt it made her laugh.

It was hard to say good-bye to the friendly, hard-working crew who made my trip with all the fun side excursions enjoyable. While the boat clearly needs work -- and such little but important things as new linens and towels -- my biggest disappointment was the diving. Most reefs looked unhealthy, the visibility generally was poor, and there was a definite lack of marine life. This was my fourth time aboard Aqua Cat, and I can't say that I'll be back, but if you have never dived the Bahamas, it can be a fun trip, though it's a less-than-stellar craft. As far as Bahama Bob, he went in search of his lost youth, hoping that returning to the Bahamas and diving again would restore it. Although he had a great time, his wayward youth was still adrift.

-- L.E.D

Our undercover diver's bio: L.E.D. says, "I earned my openwater certification in Florida in 1998 and received my instructor credentials in 2000. Having made more than 1,000 dives, I've dived in seven mainland U.S. states, 20 Caribbean islands, Canada, Hawaii and Micronesia, enabled to some degree by being my own travel agent. Most recently, I earned my full cave diver certification, and I dive Yucatan's stunning cenotes monthly."

Diver's Compass
Divers Compass: 8 nights/7 days/ 5-1/2 dive days run $2595/person. Port fees are an additional $205. Nitrox: $150 for the week. Gear rental is available. Airport transfers are included. . . . Once onboard, everything, including alcoholic beverages, is included except crew gratuities.

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