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January 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Bahamas Aggressor, The Bahamas

sharks and swimming pigs

from the January, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

The fall of 2017 was a brutal hurricane season. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria devastated many Caribbean and Atlantic islands, so in October I was both anxious and eager to see how things fared in the Bahamas. Amazingly, the reefs looked great on this Bahamas Aggressor itinerary, and the weather deities offered a fine week with only a few hours of rain.

Bahamas AggressorUnder the able leadership of Captain David Patterson, the crew of six took great care of the 13 divers on board, keeping things clean, making sure we got the food and drinks we preferred, teaching courses (two divers took Nitrox training and two took other courses), and of course, keeping to the dive schedule. We began with the captain's briefing on safety; the nearest hyperbaric chamber was in Nassau, which made it either nearby or many hours away, depending on the itinerary.

The boat (formerly the Carib Dancer) is 100 feet long, has a salon that doubles as the dining area, a spacious sun and shade deck, but some of the tiniest cabins I've seen on a liveaboard (under 7x7 feet/2x2m.) Five identical two-person cabins have a double bed and a single-sized bunk above, and there's one quad cabin in the bow, all with ensuite baths. Because cabins were minuscule, I had little inducement to hole up, so I socialized or relaxed on the sundeck or in the salon between dives. Because I was in the quad, I showered on the dive deck instead of the cabin shower, one of those shower/toilet combinations that leaves you wet but not feeling clean.

Our first dive set the tone for the trip. The high-profile topography of Jewfish Wall near Allen's Cay in the northern Exumas was typical of the many dramatic walls we dived. Staff briefings included dive site drawings with compass headings and noted significant landmarks and what we might see. The compass headings were worth noting, since, between complex underwater topography, currents, and some low visibility, a few divers had difficulty finding their way back to the boat. One experienced group had to be picked up in the inflatable half-a-mile from a site with brisk current; they returned rather shame-faced. So, a safety sausage or SMB is essential. Most divers dove with their buddies, though one crew member was always in the water. We made all the dives from the mothership by giant stride off the transom.

Bahamas MapI saw sharks on almost every dive, a treat for Caribbean diving. At Jewfish Wall, small gray reef sharks moseyed around, while horse-eye jacks teemed beneath the hull. Fish abounded around the reef, including tiger and Nassau groupers, gray and queen angels, lots of snappers and grunts, and yellow-headed jawfish that popped in and out of the sand patches. No jewfish (or Goliath groupers), however. Indeed, site names seemed ironic -- no whale sharks at Whale Shark Wall, Danger Reef was low profile and mellow, and no black tip sharks showed up at Black Tip Wall.

But, I did see nurse sharks and gray reef sharks frequently, and big barracuda and Nassau grouper on most dives. Many sites, like Dog Rocks (near Bluff and Beacon Cays) and Black Tip Wall (near Long Cay), offered swim-thrus amidst the dramatic craggy topography, a photographer's delight. Silversides sparkled in the openings that framed views into the blue. The walls dropped into infinity. I saw turtles almost every day, mostly hawksbills, but also a couple of monster loggerheads, one (at the Blue Hole near Nassau) accompanied by a retinue of large remoras and blue tangs, which presumably enjoyed the algae buffet on its carapace. I spent little time searching for critters, maybe because the Bahamas are less rich in them than areas like Bonaire, or maybe because I preferred to keep my eye out for the sharks, rays, 'cudas, ceros, and groupers.

Eleven divers -- men and women ranging from their 20s to 70s -- on this trip were Americans, as well as a woman from Holland and another from Switzerland. The socialization forced by cabin sizes meant we got to know one another well. Since this trip I was without my spouse/buddy, I made a point of sitting with everyone at meals. The one topic never broached at the table was American politics, perhaps a sign of these polarized times.

Most made it back to the liveaboardI dove with the European women for the first eight dives, but one of them tended to suck gas fast and needed to surface at 45 minutes. I'm a cheap date on gas, as was buddy #2, so I asked our air-sucking buddy if it were OK to watch her do her safety stop from below, see her climb on board, then continue our dive. She was unequivocal and said "no," which seemed rude to me. Since she insisted on buddies staying glued together, I jumped ship and buddied with a loose group from New York City. I felt awkward extricating myself, but there was no way I was doing a week of short dives.

At the Austin Smith wreck (officially the Cape Current wreck, beat up and scattered about), near Highbourne Cay, the crew set up a pyramidal metal box containing dead fish 50 feet down. At least a dozen gray reef sharks showed up, unsuccessfully trying to bite open the box. The active sharks were a blast -- not behaving in the crazed way typical of a chum dive -- and the photographers went nuts. I spent most of the dive floating between sharks.

Our group elected to forgo two dives to visit the swimming pigs of Big Major Cay, a several hours' steam south to the Exumas. We arrived around 8 A.M., and as the inflatable chugged toward the shore, the swine emerged. Stories abound about how the pigs arrived here, from descendants of pigs stashed there by pirates to pigs brought in by a fellow convinced that Y2K would result in disaster, and a pig farm would provide a sustainable food source after civilization ended. The latter is more likely, since the uninhabited cay has only been a tourist attraction since the 1990s.

At least a dozen swam out, especially when they saw our bags of food scraps provided by Chef Marco! It's essential to feed them only in the water (sand will clog their digestive tracts), and never to give them alcohol, which some idiot day-trippers have done. Seven pigs died a few years ago from sand ingestion, according to necropsies.

Swimming pig at Big Major CaySome of the animals were enormous and aggressive (one diver was bitten on the butt by an over-eager pig lusting after a scrap); you might say they behaved like pigs. Piglets cavorted on the shore while Mama begged for food. Unlike the big swine, the piglets were as frisky as puppies. It was a diversion well worth skipping a couple of dives!

My concerns about reef and infrastructure damage proved unfounded in the northern Bahamas -- Undercurrent would love to hear from divers in the Keys, Puerto Rico, Dominica, and the Virgins -- and though a few sites had more algal growth than I like to see, almost all sites boasted healthy stony and soft corals and sponges. A few, such as Shroud Wall, were home to lionfish the size of groupers. Unlike places where divers regularly collect lionfish, the Bahamas islands lack enough divers to keep the population under control, which may also account for what seemed like fewer than usual small fishes.

Between dives, most folks napped in the sun or bunk. The two divers taking courses did homework like heroes, and rather than nap, I preferred to read, complete my log, and chat. I was impressed at how quiet the boat was for sleeping despite the plethora of mechanicals. Of course, when the anchor was let out or winched up, you really heard it (particularly in the quad cabin in the bow). Earplugs are a good idea.

Bahamas Aggressor RatingThe food was quite good. Chef Marco, originally from Milan, offered hot breakfasts (eggs to order, bacon, pancakes, French toast; he even complied with one diver's preference for an egg white omelet), and after the first dive, muffins, banana bread, or cookies. Lunch began with a homemade soup like squash or lentil, followed by veggies and meat. I enjoyed roast pork loin, Thai chicken legs, cheeseburgers and hot dogs, short ribs, and shrimp tacos. Afternoon snacks were turkey sandwiches, mini pizzas, and hot wings. Dinner was plated, not a buffet, served and cleared by Gabi, Josh, Dave, and A.Q. with time to spare before the night dive. Our selections included tenderloin with roast potatoes, salmon with a citrus sauce, chicken breast with sweet potatoes, pork tenderloin with Roquefort sauce, and roast turkey with bacon Brussel sprouts. Marco excelled in baking bread, and the irresistible carbs contributed five pounds -- for which I am now paying with extra gym visits. We enjoyed two sunset dinners on the top deck, thanks to good weather. Glad I brought a jacket for those evenings. Wine and beer were included, although your first drink signaled the end of your dive day.

We finished with a pre-dawn dive at Flat Rock in the northern Exumas, within striking distance of Nassau. Though the dive didn't liven up until the dawn began (the nocturnal fishes were already tucked in, while the diurnals were just shaking off sleep), a flock of warblers with yellow breasts, confused by the lights on the boat, chittered and sang amongst our wetsuits and tanks, leaving after first light. Our final dive near Nassau was Blue Hole, a small underwater sinkhole that I found dull inside (more like a Black Hole) but loved watching sharks, rays, and turtles in the grasses and coral at its edge. The low vis and sandy bottom made the sharks looming out of the gloaming more exciting.

Water temperatures ranged from 80-83F (26-28C); most divers were fine in 3mm shorties, though I'm a WIMP (Warm Intelligent Marine Professional) happiest in a 7mm. I did wear my 3mm on a few dives. Currents were sometimes strong, and vis could be on the low side, so make sure your compass navigation is up to snuff, and your SMB works. Most days offered five dives, although I found the night dives so-so. Instructor Gabi Ruben was thorough and charismatic, and all the staff was fantastic. Indeed, fine trip.

-- A.E.L.

Our Undercover Diver's Bio: I've logged more than 3100 dives since 1989, divided neatly between the Caribbean and the Indo-Pacific. My spouse and I live part of the year in Bonaire, and my last piece for Undercurrent was on Villa Markisa and the east coast of Bali in the August 2017 issue. This was my 53rd liveaboard trip. And yes, I am a wimp.

Divers CompassDiver's Compass: the Exumas itinerary departs from Nassau, easily reached from Europe on British Airways, or the U.S. on American, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest ... My quad share cabin was $2395. One needs to take a taxi from the airport to the boat dock (about $50) ... U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere ... Dinner ashore in Nassau on the last night is on your dime ... Most of the trip we had cellular service, not enough to use the internet and read the paper, but enough to call home and touch base with my spouse most days, though I noticed a hefty fee on my cellular bill the next month. The boat has a few steel 100s for divers needing extra gas; nitrox is an extra charge.

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