Monster ten-page spread on the Bahama Bash reader trip, which took place in November/december last year and saw eight keen divers accompany Editor Mark Evans and photojournalist Stuart Philpott to the Exumas and Eleuthera.
MARK EVANS reports on the Sport Diver reader trip from November/december last year, which took in the best of the Bahamas on board the Aqua Cat and with Stuart Cove’s
The Bahamas is one of the world’s top diving locations, especially if you want dramatic walls and virtually guaranteed pelagic encounters, especially various species of shark. Over the years, this tropical paradise of sun-soaked islands boasting endless sandy beaches, lush palm trees and turquoise waters has featured many times in the pages of Sport Diver, so it seemed the ideal location for the latest reader trip.
The first decision that needed to be made was where to go! The Bahamas offers countless opportunities through its chain of islands, but as the mainstay of the trip we opted to charter the luxurious Aqua Cat liveaboard. Operating from Paradise Island on Nassau (where the direct flight from London arrives and departs), this monster catamaran heads south into the Exuma Marine Park and the waters off Eleuthera, delivering a heady blend of abyssal walls, colourful coral gardens, screaming drift dives, critter-filled night dives and more sharks than you can wave a fin at.
So far so good, but the flight schedule meant we arrived the day before the liveaboard itinerary departed, and departed the day after it returned. What to do with a couple of spare days? More diving, of course! A few phone calls to the legendary Stuart Cove and we had the perfect start and finish to the Bahama Bash sorted - a full day of wreck diving exploring some of the artificial reefs off the south of Nassau to begin with, followed at the end of the trip by a morning shark feed with Caribbean reef sharks.
That meant a total of 32 dives up for the taking if you were feeling particularly hardcore, and we did have a few on board who went the whole hog (yes Brad, I am talking about you!).
To make the whole trip unique, we built up a series of photographic workshops through the week onboard the Aqua Cat in which Stuart and I imparted some of our knowledge about taking underwater photographs specifically for the magazine, focusing on dramatic wide-angle images, striking compositions, vivid colours, creating space for mast- heads and cover lines, and even hints and advice on modelling.
We had a vast array of photographers onboard with a selection of equipment, ranging from total newbies with Gopros and compacts to very experienced with housed DSLRS, and to his credit, Stuart managed to get his head around this mixed bag and ensure that his presentations offered something for all levels of underwater snapper.
The trip got off to a belting start with the full day of wreck diving, courtesy of Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas. Stuart and his team have been responsible for sinking countless wrecks off the coast of Nassau, either for artificial reefs or are movie props (which then have become diver attractions in many instances), and as a spot of sunken metal was the one thing lacking on the Aqua Cat itinerary, this was the perfect way to appease anyone’s lust for rust.
Dive guide Richard, who hailed from the UK, took us to some of the best shipwreck sites on offer, including the Ray of Hope, the James Bond wrecks and Steel Forest. The former delivered our merry band’s first encounter with Caribbean reef sharks – often used for shark feeds, the Ray of Hope is a magnet for these magnificent animals, and some 15-16 of these sleek predators were cruising around the shipwreck as we descended. It doesn’t get any better than this - a fabulous wreck with penetration opportunities surrounded by sharks. What’s not to like!
The James Bond wrecks - the Tears of Allah from Never Say Never Again, and the ‘Vulcan bomber’ from Thunderball - are not in the best shape after the last hurricane, but because of their history being sunk for and appearing in the Bond flicks, they should still be on your ‘mustdive’ list. Most of our party had never dived them, and they relished the opportunity to ‘dive into the movies’. On the Tears of Allah shipwreck, you can emulate Connery and swim through a ‘torpedo hole’ in the hull, but your buddy will have to pretend to be the tiger shark that chases Bond in the film! The Vulcan bomber was actually a framework of steel poles shaped like the aircraft that was covered in material, but it is now just a twisted mass of metal smothered in coral and sponge growth.
With wide grins plastered all over their faces, a happy group of divers made the 40-minute transfer from Stuart Cove’s on the south of the island to Paradise Island in the northeast, where the Aqua Cat was awaiting us. This gigantic liveaboard has three spacious decks and makes for an imposing sight at the dockside, and the smiling continued as our illustrious band set up their dive kit on the monster dive deck, were shown to their sprawling cabins and settled in the enormous saloon with an ice-cold beverage while Captain Ron Mccaslin and his crew took us through the boat briefings.
The basic schedule on the Aqua Cat runs something like this: eat, dive, relax, dive, eat, dive, relax, dive, eat, dive, sleep - and then repeat! With up to five dives a day on offer from the Sunday to Thursday, it is up to the individual diver as to how many of the dives they opt to take part in, but most of our group were logging at least four a day, with some hardy souls going for the night dive as well.
A storm front moving in meant we split our time between the Exumas and Eleuthera, but that is the beauty of this itinerary – if conditions do deteriorate, the captain can ‘dodge’ the bad weather and head for sheltered dive sites to the east or west. I actually quite liked hitting two separate islands, as they both offered great diving, but had a slightly different character.
Generally we hit deeper walls for the morning dives, then shallower walls or coral gardens in the afternoon, with the fourth dive of the day also being the location of the night dive, so you could get acquainted with the site before it got dark. Mixing it up between walls and reefs, we also hit the Austin Smith wreck, a small vessel now quite broken up, which was patrolled by several Caribbean reef sharks and made for a fine photo prop; the Lost Blue Hole, a 30-metre-wide hole in the seabed that drops to well below recreational depths and is home to reef sharks, stingrays, nurse sharks and the odd eagle ray; and the Cobia Cage, the bizarre remnants of a failed attempt to ‘farm’ the cobia species that looked like a crash-landed spaceship! Other highlights included the infamous Washing Machine, a rip-roaring drift dive where you literally feel like you are on a whirling spin cycle in the first five minutes before it calms down somewhat into a medium-fast drift over a pretty reef bed. Definitely one to take your Gopro on! All you can hear are whoops and hollers from the excited divers, and dive computers bleeping like mad! Wax Cay Cut was another fast drift dive, not quite in the same chaotic vein as the Washing Machine, which delivered some monster remora lying on the seabed, several large stingrays, and a couple of inquisitive turtles which joined us in the water flow for a while.
It wasn’t all dive, dive, dive, though. There was also plenty of time for relaxing with a book, chilling in the sun, or settling in the salon to watch a DVD. And I am warning you now, do not expect to lose any weight
while on this boat. You might be diving your heart out, but the food is to die for, and there is plenty of it. Steak, prime rib, burgers, pizza, seafood, chicken, curries, pasta, the list is endless. And the freshly made chocolate chip cookies and muffins… I swear they had addictive qualities, and the plate was never empty!
If you didn’t want to dive, relax or eat, then First Mate Chris Penner scheduled regular excursions in the Sea Dog tender. These included sea fishing, snorkelling expeditions, visits to quiet beaches, and a trip to see the iguanas on Allen’s Cay. These indigenous reptiles hurtle out of the undergrowth as soon as you set foot on the beach - it is reminiscent of Jurassic Park, though on a much-smaller scale! - and they are not shy, coming up to take small morsels of fruit from your hands.
Enough of that, let’s get back to the diving. While the vibrantly coloured walls and reefs, replete with all the usual suspects, including butterflyfish, angelfish, grouper, snapper and the sadly ubiquitous lionfish, were enough to capture your attention, it was the larger stuff that most people sought out, including stingrays, eagle rays and turtles, as these
“Our merry band of readers included divers of all levels, from relatively inexperienced Advanced Open Water Divers to very experienced technical divers, yet the entire group bonded well through the course of the trip”
are particular photo-friendly. However, the undoubted stars of the trip were the Caribbean reef sharks. We saw these sleek, muscular predators on virtually every dive, and in most cases it wasn’t a fleeting glimpse, they cruised around the area and gave the whole group repeated sightings. And of course, we had extremely close encounters during the chumsickle shark feed on the Aqua Cat at Split Coral Head, where a dozen or more sharks jostled one another and a couple of hefty grouper for frozen chunks of fish suspended mid-water.
It got all truly up close and personal, though, on our final dive of the week. Coming off the Aqua Cat, we were transferred over to Stuart Cove’s and headed to the Ray of Hope for a shark feed that would make for a suitably epic finale to the trip. Dive instructor Richard was again assigned to us, and he donned a chainmail suit and a helmet for protection from any over-zealous sharks. The group arranged themselves around the bow of the shipwreck, and Richard took up station in the middle, effortlessly wrangling the sharks and feeding them titbits from a bait box using a metal spear. With sharks buffeting the divers as they came and went from the feeding zone, and swimming literally centimetres in front of them, the excitement was almost palpable. I think I am safe in saying that Amanda is now well and truly over her fear of sharks! (See page 76 for Stuart’s insider report on the shark feed photoshoots).
Our merry band of readers included divers of all levels, from relatively inexperienced Advanced Open Water Divers to very experienced technical divers, yet the entire group bonded well through the course of the trip, and we were having so much fun, we ended up absorbing a couple of other groups of divers on board the Aqua Cat, who began sitting in on the workshop presentations and hanging out with us on an evening. They even expressed an interest in joining future reader trips!
Caron Warner feeding iguanas
Mobina returns from a night dive
Penney explores a crashed plane off Eleuthera
The Aqua Cat in all its glory
Chris Brown looks for critters in the coral
Mobina Salahuddin admires the reef
Amanda Rayner beneath the Aqua Cat
The team with Stuart Cove