TOP-SHELF DIVING IN BA­HAMAS’ EXUMA CAYS

Aqua Cat and the Ex­u­mas will re­de­fine your idea of what it means to dive into the blue

Scuba Diving - - Front Page - BY MARY FRANCES EM­MONS

On most live­aboards, the first thing the crew does is line up divers to check C cards and in­surance. But on Aqua Cat, there’s some­thing more go­ing on.

One af­ter an­other, 15 divers sit down for a long têteà-tête with a dive in­struc­tor. I si­dle up closer, eaves­drop­ping as crewmem­bers in­ter­view each one on what they hope to see and do this week in the Ba­hamas’ Exuma Cays. Sharks, tur­tles, rays, macro, walls, pin­na­cles, drifts, reefs, lob­ster­ing, snor­kel­ing, fish­ing, is­land hop­ping, kayak­ing, beach time, rum time, igua­nas, swim­ming pigs — it’s a water­man’s fan­tasy of ev­ery fun thing these is­lands can of­fer. Wow, I think. We’re gonna need a big­ger boat. Turns out, we don’t. On our very first dive, at a sunny, shal­low north Ex­u­mas site called Bar­racuda Shoals, we come on the health­i­est patch reef I’ve seen in the Ba­hamas — or maybe the en­tire Caribbean and At­lantic — in years. We drop in on three or four sharks in a to­tally nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment: no bait, no scent. They’re cu­ri­ous but wary, and don’t come close. Big south­ern stingrays hide half-buried in sand, where they seem to think we can’t see them — we qui­etly fin by and let them pre­serve their il­lu­sions. Even cooler are the hunt­ing yel­low rays do­ing vig­or­ous, full-body shakes when­ever they find an un­lucky mol­lusk. They’re obliv­i­ous to us, even when divers get right down on the sand, a space also full of adorable yel­low­head jaw­fish pop­ping in and

guests to places where they can free­d­ive for lob­ster, tour a man­grove, or go bird­ing, tub­ing, snor­kel­ing or fish­ing, or just laze on a de­serted beach, with or with­out an adult bev­er­age in hand.

While Aqua Cat typ­i­cally of­fers four to five dives a day, “Sea Dog caters to those who aren’t so hard­core,” says Aqua Cat’s South African cap­tain, Des Greyling, 39, who’s been with the com­pany since he started as a dive in­struc­tor in 2005. “If you’re out for ad­ven­ture or just a rum punch and a towel, it’s all-en­com­pass­ing.”

Sea Dog is dwarfed by 102-foot Aqua Cat, a spa­cious, sta­ble cata­ma­ran with a 35-foot beam that boasts two gen­er­a­tors and three re­verseosmo­sis machines. “We’re like a lit­tle city,” Greyling says, or a cruise ship for divers, right down to the in­ter­com that keeps us up to date on dives, meals and an ever-un­fold­ing range of amuse­ments. Aqua Cat’s top deck might be the fa­vorite, based on how many divers are there day and night, catch­ing rays be­tween dives, en­joy­ing a sun­set cock­tail at the open bar, or gap­ing at the Milky Way and count­ing shoot­ing stars af­ter dark. Hearty meals are served buf­fet style in the cata­ma­ran’s sunny, roomy salon; cab­ins also are un­usu­ally large for a live­aboard and fea­ture mostly king or twin beds and pic­ture win­dows — the only bunks are pull-downs to add an ex­tra diver to a cabin.

Greyling of­fers other rea­sons for Aqua Cat’s en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity. For one, its home port, Nas­sau, is easy to reach from any­where “be­cause of the prox­im­ity to the U.S. eastern se­aboard,” he says. More than that, it’s the lure of the Ex­u­mas them­selves. “The va­ri­ety of diving is fan­tas­tic,” he says of ter­rain that al­lows Aqua Cat to cater to new­bies and ad­vanced divers, from deep walls to shal­low co­ral, sandy bot­toms, drift dives or a shark feed.

And it’s warm. “Skinny-dip diving,” Bret Sleight, 53, calls it. The new diver from Asheville, North Carolina, is do­ing his AOW cert on the boat,

mostly in board­shorts and a rash guard. “I was never cold all week,” he mar­vels, re­call­ing his open wa­ter cert in an icy South Carolina reser­voir.

Love of get­ting wet is a pas­sion the crew shares. “I’m ex­cited for a beau­ti­ful day and to have this as my dive!” says Gus­tavo Bu­ratto, our ex­u­ber­ant Brazil­ian in­struc­tor, brief­ing us on a site called Dog Rocks. Greyling and all of

Aqua Cat’s in­struc­tors have pegged this as a fa­vorite.

With that in­tro­duc­tion, it shouldn’t sur­prise that Dog Rocks ri­vals any­thing I’ve dived in Cozumel or Lit­tle Cay­man, each renowned for

spec­tac­u­lar walls. Right away we see sharks, Nas­sau grouper, stingrays and queen trig­ger, and we haven’t even left the moor­ing.

At the wall, about a minute away, we drop through an arched chute called the Church, for the way it fil­ters the light “like stained glass,” Greyling says — it’s at once glo­ri­ous and qui­etly mov­ing. Emerg­ing into the blue at 85 feet, I turn back to see black co­ral in ebony and green drap­ing the exit like lacy cur­tains; a big Caribbean reef shark cruises past in lim­it­less viz. Dan­gling from one clifftop is a rope sponge 60 feet long, with ev­ery other kind of sponge and ma­rine life hang­ing off it, like a cathe­dral bell pull dec­o­rated for a royal wed­ding.

That af­ter­noon, the mood changes when we do our first drift, through Wax Cut, a com­mon type of Ex­u­mas diving that’s un­com­monly fun.

The tidally de­pen­dent ride can be “re­ally slow to re­ally fast,” from 2 to 5 knots, in­struc­tor Jill Blanchette says. “Since we have a full moon, this might be pretty quick.”

That’s an un­der­state­ment. We plop off Aqua Cat en masse in a neg­a­tive en­try and — whee! — we’re off, rip­ping back­ward, for­ward and ev­ery which way over a shal­low val­ley dot­ted with co­ral tableaux, each one its own lit­tle Busy­town. Swept along­side you are nurse sharks, tur­tles, trig­gers, an­gels and cow-fish in colors from char­treuse to laven­der. It’s one of those dives where you’ll be grin­ning from ear to ear the whole time, like a 5-year-old on a kid­die coaster. “Again! Again!” we de­mand as we wait to clam­ber back aboard.

NOW AND FOR­EVER

“Any­body get bit?” we hear again as Sea Dog pulls along­side the moth­er­ship. It’s Rus­sell-smith, laugh­ing, but this time it’s not igua­nas — it’s the fa­mous swim­ming pigs of Big Ma­jor Cay. They aren’t re­ally nippy, just a lit­tle pushy when it comes to the ap­ple slices we’ve brought. But to­day all are as docile as piglets.

Dur­ing the week, we’ve passed nearly 100 miles from Nas­sau down through the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park to Staniel Cay, home to Thun­der­ball Grotto, a beau­ti­ful snorkel site made fa­mous in what might be the worst Bond movie ever. The grotto pales a bit com­pared with Rocky Dun­das, cav­erns we dive in­side the park where an an­cient elkhorn co­ral is sur­rounded by newly sprouted baby elkhorns, a rare and hope­ful sight, and ev­i­dence of the long arm of pro­tec­tion.

Founded in 1959, the 176-square-mile park was the world’s first ma­rine pro­tected area, and is one of few no­take zones in the hemi­sphere. On an is­land walk at Ward­er­ick Wells, the park’s head­quar­ters, Greyling re­gales us with tall tales of pi­rates who shel­tered here. Whether there’s any truth in them is hard to say; not in doubt is the liv­ing tes­ta­ment of the beauty and health of sites within and near the park, com­pelling ev­i­dence of the power of con­ser­va­tion ap­plied over nearly 60 years.

At one of those pro­tected sites — Jeep Reef, “a lit­tle gem,” Greyling says — pic­turesque is­lands of co­ral are ar­ranged on sugar-white sand scooped by the tides into hills and val­leys so bright that on a sunny day, the en­crust­ing, vase and rope sponges all ap­pear lit from within, com­ple­mented by col­or­ful fish life from an­gels to but­ters, por­gies and par­rots. Early on, a mel­low, manta-size ea­gle ray — pos­si­bly preg­nant — wings in, fol­lowed by two smaller ones, and a su­per-friendly green tur­tle that doesn’t scurry off. Words fail, ex­cept two: Again! Again!

Clock­wise from left: a hawks­bill tur­tle; Caribbean reef sharks; the fa­mous swim­ming pigs of Big Ma­jor Cay.

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