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

Sport Diver - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by MARK EVANS

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

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