For a number of years that I owned ASK Scuba & Snorkeling Center we ran and sponsored dive trips aboard Blackbeard’s Cruises in the Bahamas. The Blackbeard’s boats are 65 foot long sail boats outfitted for diving. The typical itinerary includes some of my favorite dive sites Bimini, Cat Island and Grand Bahama. Although I am a big fan of this part of the Bahamas and have booked dozens of people on board the Blackbeard’s boats I had never actually sailed on one – telling myself that I was past the camping on the water phase of liveaboard diving.
Don’t get me wrong – these boats are well maintained and provide a niche for the budget-minded diver who wants good diving, excellent food and is not bothered by dormitory style accommodations. There are three boats and I have seen and toured all of them. And for the most part the clients we have sent on these boats love the experience. One couple has done, to the best of my recollection, more than 10 dive trips on Blackbeard’s Cruise. Blackbeard’s cruises are presently pricing out at less that $900 per person – about one half to one third of the going rate for some of the other dive charter boats.
Well, Peggy Purdy of Blackbeard’s Cruises kept telling me about their new boat Aqua Cat that they put in the water at Nassau in 2001. And since that time she has been trying to talk me into diving on that boat. And I had always told her that I could not fit it into my schedule. So in April she decided that since I no longer owned a dive store she figured that I would not have that as an excuse – and she was right. Still it took we a few months to clear up the time. And that is why on December 2, 2006 I flew to Nassau and boarded the boat.
It had been several years since I have dove in this part of the world and I was pleasantly surprised both by the diving and by the dive boat. Aqua Cat is a 102 foot catamaran that was built in Perth Australia by the same company that builds the Mike Ball boats so I expected comfortable accommodations but I was really surprised at how nice they truly are. The cabins are large and roomy and because the boat is narrower than the other catamarans that I have been on I was pleased to find that ten of the 11 cabins had full picture window views. That 11 th cabin had a sky light to make up for no window.
I was greeted at the airport by an Aqua Cat representative who parked me outside the airport terminal until he had collected two other customers and a replacement crew member. Then it was off for a drive through Nassau and over the bridge to Paradise Island where the Aqua Cat is berthed. On board we were escorted to our assigned cabins and then given a tour of the dive deck. Dinner was followed by a formal introduction of the crew by Captain Ron McCaslin. Then Captain Ron led us through one of the most through boat and safety briefings I have ever seen. Capt. Ron had his lecture illustrated with slides that showed graphically how everything worked on the boat, where the safety equipment was and then he demonstrated how to use some of it.
Because a lot of the passengers had arrived from long flights that day we were all pretty much ready to call it a night after the dinner and the briefing. The next morning we were awakened at 8 a.m. by Chef Kirk’s melodious invitation to breakfast. I should mention that the captain pulled a little trick that I have not seen on dive boats before but it was great. As we left the harbor in Paradise Island he set the clocks on the boat ahead one hour. This meant that we were actually getting up at 7 a.m. but everybody’s mind was reading 8 a.m. But the more practical reason is that the effective “day light saving time” allowed the boat crew to get in the 5 promised dives a day for the next five days. I personally have always had trouble with being rousted at 6 a.m. for breakfast so we could get in the water by 8 a.m. for the first dive of the day. Somehow I have held to the belief that I do not want to have to get up early when on vacation. So the little time trick really let me feel that I was sleeping in like I wanted.
Our first dive site was Lobster, No Lobster Reef. They were right – no lobster. But lots and lots of other critters. So many in fact that the group elected to make the second dive at the same site. I made two dives at this site the first for 32 feet for 33 minutes and the second for 31 feet for 54 minutes. The temperature on both dives was 78 degrees and I was comfortable in my 3.5 mm Excel super stretch jump suit with 3 mm cap.
Our third dive that day was at Pillar Wall. This was a very nice site with a few morays, a spotted eagle ray and lots of schooling fish. My depth was 112 feet for 37 minutes and for some reason the water was one degree warmer at 79 degrees.
I should mention that after each dive on Aqua Cat you are treated to a warm fresh water rinse of you and your equipment as you climb up the ladder to get back on the boat. There are large beach-size towels for your further comfort and Chef Kirk always had a plate of hot-from-the- oven cookies or muffins plus sliced fresh fruit right there on the dive deck. Lunch is served about 12:30 – or right after the divers have returned from their second dive of the day and it is a banquet really. I have posted some pictures of the lunch crowd along with others on my photo page. Check it out.
After my third dive of the day on Sunday at Pillar Wall I decided to chill out with a glass of red wine (provided as part of the package) and wait for the dinner bell. Others of the group made two more dives that day. In fact one diver, Jim Flagg from Southern California, set the record of making every dive of the week (26 in total) and was awarded an “Iron Man Certificate” at the closing events on Thursday evening. Jim is 72 years old and was a Dacor rep for a number of years. I asked him why he was so intent on making all the dives and his comment was “at my age I might die sometime and regret that there was a dive I did not make.” What a guy!
On Tuesday we did Blacktip Wall in the morning (93 feet for 46 minutes) followed by a shark feed. I am not a big fan of feeding sharks on dive trips, because I think it is wrong to alter a wild animal’s behavior and condition them to associate divers with food, but this feed was pretty awesome. After the divers had entered the water and were in a somewhat semi-circle a hug fish sickle (composed of fish parts that had been frozen around a metal rod) was lowered into the water by the chase boat. The fish sickle attracted not only sharks but large grouper and hundreds of other smaller fish who swam around taking bites off of it until it totally desegregated. The divers were free to watch, take photos or just swim off and do their own thing. It was one of the more interesting shark feeds I have participated in.
That afternoon I did the 4th dive of the day (my third) at Coral Cut Drift which was a fun and spirited drift dive over a very lovely reef. My bottom time was 38 minutes and the maximum depth was 29 feet. I should mention here that all of the coral on all of the dives we did was in excellent condition. We saw huge black coral growth on nearly all the wall dives and on a lot of the shallower dives.
Tuesday I dove Empress Pinnacle in the morning (96 feet for 39 minutes); Pillar Ledge and Cave reef in the afternoon (115 feet for 29 minutes and 39 feet for 42 minutes respectively). The surprise at Cave Reef was Lionfish. Real black and white striped lion fish. At Cave Reef we saw two. Later we would see more and the final dive at Lost Blue Hole I counted 8 of the Pacific Ocean natives. No one knows how they got there but speculation is that they were either dumped from an aquarium or they came through the Panama Canal. Either way they make an exciting addition to the Bahamas reefs.
The dives I did on Wednesday were Jakes Hole (101 feet for 44 minutes) and Cut Through City (90 feet for 37 minutes). Interestingly the water was a bit cooler at these sites – I got 74 degrees on the first and 75 on the second.
Thursday which was the last full day of diving the captain was moving closer to Nassau and our dive sites were Dog Rocks Wall, Austin Smith Wreck and Flat Rock Reef. I did two dives at Dog Rocks Wall – one for 98 feet for 45 minutes and the other for 110 feet for 36 minutes. The water temperature was 78 degree on both dives.
Friday the boat offered only two dives - at Crab Mountain and Lost Blue Hole. Historically I usually do not do the last dive on a liveaboard trip but I am sure glad I did this one. The blue hole itself is “nothing” but the area surrounding it is awesome. It was a relatively shallow dive (53 feet outside the blue hole) but very interesting. As I mentioned earlier I counted 8 lion fish plus two nurse sharks, several skates and a cute black and white spotted moray. The water temperature at The Blue Hole dive was 75 degrees and Crab Mountain was 78 degrees. The dive at Crab Mountain was 93 feet for 44 minutes.
Following the blue hole dive the boat returned to Paradise Island and everyone busied themselves cleaning their gear and making preparation for going home. Two of our group left that afternoon – Sarah Wight, manager of Barefoot Traveller in London England and Giovanni Grant District Sales Manager of the Bahamas Tourist Office, also in London had flights to catch and Helen who was a volunteer crew member flew back to Freeport on Friday evening leaving the rest of us to enjoy a delightful cocktail party hosted by the crew and then go our separate ways for dinner that evening.
During dinner one evening I was talking with Rod Danielson, now of Rod’s Reef in Newberry Fl and we discovered that we had booth been on the same FAM(1) trip to Truk Lagoon about 12 years ago. Diving is a small world and it is really fun to reconnect with the people you meet and reminisce about the places you have dove and the things you have enjoyed over the years.
This trip is billed as a dive and eco-adventure and I should mention some of the eco activities. On one occasion everyone went ashore to visit the Iguanas on one of the islands and on another we had a photo op on a beautiful sandy stretch of beach near the island of Little San Salvador. Almost every afternoon Captain Andy Sutton offered divers and non divers (Rod’s wife Shirley was a non diver on the trip) the opportunity to go bone fishing or sea kayaking.
Other crew members that I have not mentioned were Chris Penner, lead Divemaster and Manny Diaz, Divemaster, Engineers Chuck Herman and Pete Tschannen, chef’s assistant Kelly Crespo and her sister Karina Mateo who kept the cabins and the rest of the boat clean and tidy. All in all they were a very hard working and enthusiastic crew and they made the week a delightful adventure
This link takes you to some of the many photos I took aboard Aqua Cat