We did our first week long, warm water, group live-aboard trip this summer. We went back to the Bahamas and took a little cruise on the Aqua Cat. The Aqua Cat is owned by Blackbeard's Cruises, a company that runs 5 different live-aboards in the Bahamas. The boat docks in a marina on Paradise Island next to Nassau and does most of it's diving in the Exuma Islands about 30 miles to the southeast of Nassau.
We do a ton of California live-aboards on boats like the Horizon but have not been too hip on trying to put together a week long trip. Partially I had inherited a bias against them from Jim (he gets seasick) and partially I didn't know if Tee would want to be on a boat for a whole week. We decided to try out a week by ourselves a few months ahead of our group trip to see how we liked it.
The First Trip
Since we had two lay-overs (the second with less then an hour) and we were leaving on a boat, we didn’t want to run into problems with any lost luggage so we took a lot of gear in carry-ons. This is the first time we have done this. Knock on wood, we have never had any problems with lost bags. I know lots of you take regs in a carry on so we did the same. I was surprised at just how much junk we fit in there.
Originally, we wanted to take regs, mask and a bathing suit but were able to fit in wetsuits and most of our clothes as well. Turned out it didn’t matter since the airlines did their part and got us to Nassau in time. Transfers to and from the airport are included. They allow you to drop off your bags any time during the day but you need to wait until 6pm before they allow you to board. We arrived at 8pm and the other customers were already enjoying dinner. They have a little meet and greet/cocktail hour at 6 then dinner at 7. A boat orientation followed and then you were free to enjoy the joys of Nassau or turn in early. Tee and I went out to the dive deck to start getting our gear together.
The boat was built from the ground up as a dive boat (as opposed as being converted from another occupation) and so everything is exactly where it should be. The Aqua Cat is a 102’ catamaran with 3 floors. The first floor has 11 cabins that can fit between 2 and 4 people. Each one has its own private bath and large windows to the outside (except Cabin 11-more on the Bat Cave later). I was surprised at how much room the cabins had. We actually had plenty of room with 2 people. We didn't feel cramped at all. On our later trip we would have a little less room with 3. I think 4 might get a bit crowded. The stern area of the first floor is the dive area. It is covered, has 2 rows for tanks and gear with storage rooms under your seat for extra, rinse tanks, camera dry bar and wetsuit hanging areas. The second floor has the salon area where meals were served and where you could relax on couches and watch a movie. The rear of the second floor is open but covered. There are some chairs and tables for relaxing the shade and a large dry erase board is mounted on a wall for dive briefings. The third floor is mostly open with lounge chairs for you to enjoy the sun with a covered bar area for your evening entertainment.
We turned in early since we had been on the go since 4am Utah time. The boat leaves at about 6am for the 2 hour ride over to the Exumas. We experienced the roughest seas of the trip here, about 2 feet! At 7am promptly, Chef Kirk came over the intercom to announce breakfast. Don't worry, you can turn your speaker if you choose to sleep in. From this point the rest of the week became a blur. Basically, it was eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, sleep for the rest of the week with exception of a few naps thrown in during the day for good measure. It was fun meeting other people from all over the world. With crew from the US, Britain, South Africa, Brazil, Ireland and even exotic Canada, it was interesting to see how well they mixed. It gave me a unique view into a world that was almost mine. Many of you know that I got into diving with a girlfriend who had the idea of us becoming instructors and touring the world. There is a whole sub-culture of 20-something's (for the most part college grads) who move around the world diving in world class locations. When asked if they would be there when we came back, they answered that 6 months was way too far in the future to know what they would be doing. The passenger list was international as well with English, French, Chilean and more Canadians. So fast forward a few months and now we are getting ready for our group trip.
The Second Trip
The Aqua Cat can hold up to 24 passengers with about 9 crew members. We had originally booked 8 of the 11 cabins. The fun part of group travel is the stress of making sure you fill all the spots you book. On a trip like the Aqua Cat, you are on the hook whether you fill the spots or not. With about 1 ½ months left, we lost 2 people. I called Beth at the reservations office to see if she could fill it from her end. Sometimes they get calls from people looking for last minute deals. We agreed to keep in touch and see what we could do. What are the odds that we would fill it the same day? I had been talking with a few ex-students and on the same day they came down to deposit, Beth got it filed as well. This was on a Friday afternoon. Most of our trips include airfare but this one didn't. That meant each group, my twosome and Beth's twosome booked non-refundable airfare over the weekend. So on Monday when we spoke, we realized that we had 2 extra people and no place to put them. Some of the cabins can hold up to 4 people so we made arrangements to share with one of our instructors and his wife. We weren't really looking too forward to that since it would be a bit cramped and since he snores like a bear but what else could we do? As luck would have it, the week before the trip, we lost one more person to appendix surgery so we only had to triple up and our new roommate didn't even snore at all. John and Michelle took Cabin 11, got some money back from taking the smaller room and every one was happy. John nicknamed the room the Bat Cave until I started all sorts of Batman and Batgirl comments. In spite of the cancellation, we still had a very full boat. The dive deck got a little crowded but other then that you really didn't notice.
We all arrived at various times on Saturday. They let us on the boat at 6pm and had a bit of a cocktail/rum punch hour as we we met and mingled. One of the other passengers not from our group was from Ohio and had been on the boat earlier on a REEF Fish Study Trip. Lion Fish are from the Indo-Pacific area and not endemic to the Caribbean. However they are popping up more and more throughout the Bahamas and Florida. Someone released a few into the wild and they are taking off since they have no natural predator. He was on a charter that collected lion fish to find out more about what they have been eating and other fun facts. I had read about that trip in one of the dive magazines.
The next morning we headed out to the Exumas. The game plan was very similar to the last trip and we hit many of the same sites. The first afternoon we got to visit Allan's Caye, home to some very friendly lizards. These lizards are only found on 2 cays and these ones were the civilized ones. When you visit you bring grapes as a peace offering, put them on the end of small sticks and feed them to the locals. On the earlier trip we placed some higher up on a stick planted into the ground and watched the lizards climb up. Someone called it the lizard version of a pole dance and the name stuck. Unfortunately the lizards wouldn't pole dance for us a second time.
There are a few drift dives that we do during the week. Many of the islands are divided by small cuts that get some big tidal flows that we can jump into and enjoy the ride. The most well known is the Washing Machine. As you drift along through the main current, it is joined by a second one forming a spinning vortex that gives you a fun ride. Actually you don't really now what is happening, you spin around a few times and it's over. The best part is as you approach it and watch the divers in front of you as they hit it and spin. I'll be honest, I was surprised we did this dive on the first day. It is not a deep dive or that difficult but with newer divers on the first day of the trip it wasn't that surprising that the group got separated in the current and everyone got scattered. It was still a fun dive. One of the funniest parts is the way they get us off the boat. There are 6' drops you can giant stride off of or you can walk down some steps to the waters edge and do the 6" drop. With a drift dive and a large group, it is important to get people in the water as fast as you can. Once you hit the water you are drifting at a different rate then the boat and you can get spread out fast. Add to that the fact that the visibility is churned up by the current so you need to keep people together. With a full boat, it is almost like a military jump. There are people lined up at the big drops on either side of the boat plus a third one in the middle and then on either of the smaller drops. They start a countdown as the Aqua Cat is going up through the current. You can't stop the boat or people risk being run over as the boat drifts by. They get to 1 minute. They get to 30 seconds then 20 then a final countdown from 10 to DIVE!!DIVE!!DIVE!! At this point they have slowed the boat just enough that it is barely moving forward and you can jump just as soon as the person before you goes since the current will take them as soon as they hit. This was partially why we got separated. Since it was only our 3rd dive, some people were still nervous or didn't keep an eye on the person in front of them and we wound up in 3 groups. Regardless, it was a fun dive.
Some of the best dives we do are the walls. They remind me of Cozumel with swim-throughs and caverns. Dog Rocks Wall and Blacktip Wall were both dives that we hung out on and did 2 dives each. They were great dives with tons of big sponges and black coral bushes. We did one wreck dive, the Austin Smith. A small Bahamas Defense Force Cutter, it is one of 3 sunk in memory of 3 men who were killed in a little fracas with Cuba a few years ago. There was a lot of life on the wreck but parts of it were already collapsing so you can't penetrate any areas.
The shark dive was great. They freeze a bucket of fish guts and suspend it with a buoy from the surface and tie it off to the bottom. We kneel in the sand at about 30 feet and buddy team at a time, they bring up next to the "chumsickle" to get your picture taken. We were last but then we got to hang around and take pictures. There are so many sharks you don't know which one to take a picture of!!
Tee looked around the sand and coral underneath the chum and found some shark teeth for the kids. We were very proud of Lorenza for making the shark dive. Her husband and 2 kids were going to do it and it took some serious convincing to get her there but she loved it in the end.
One of the best things about the Aqua Cat is being able to explore some incredible beaches and have them all to yourself. The second day we went to a sandbar that is only exposed at low tide off of Saddleback Key. I think it was the best beach I have ever been to. Tee and I learned from our first trip and brought some inflatable rafts so we could lie about in the water. It was heaven. Another field trip was to Warderick Wells, the island that is the headquarters of the Exumas Land and Sea Park. One of the crew of the boat gives you the pirate tour and you get to learn about mangroves and the history of the island. We finished our little hike right as some rain came in. It is great to watch weather in the Caribbean. You could see the storm approaching and watch the lightening as it got closer. Then the rain hit. Caribbean rain falls in sheets and buckets. Luckily it didn't last that long and we were back on the boat and ready to dive again.
When we had been there earlier, we missed out on going lobstering. It was no longer the season so they took us fishing instead. Three of us went out on the Sea Dog (chase boat) and trolled around for about 2 hours. We each caught a fish, 2 barracudas and 1 mackerel.
On the final day you head back to Nassau and make 2 dives along the way. The first is Blue Hole. Belize has the most famous blue hole but this one wasn't too bad. Blue Holes are basically collasped caves. For whatever reason, there were tons of silky sharks swimming around inside the hole. They didn't let you get too close but it was neat to look up and see them silhouetted against the surface. The very last dive took place right off Nassau at a site called Periwinkle Reef. We had skipped this dive last trip but really enjoyed it this time. It is a shallow site, maybe 30 feet deep so we didn't even wear wetsuits. Other then the Crater and the pool, I can't remember the last time I made a real dive without a suit. It felt so free and unconfined. They gave us some small boxes of cereal to feed the fish here so since they are used to it, they were not bashful. With tons of life, it made for a really nice ending to a great trip.
The big excitement of the week didn't even involve diving or sightseeing. A bunch of us were sitting on the top deck sunning between dives when a boat passes by. A few seconds later I hear a thud. We turn and look at the other boat and it has stopped. Curious, we think. We wondered what was going on. Sure enough, about 5 minutes later, the Sea Dog goes racing off toward the other boat. Here is what happened. They were headed to a private island and had problems getting the boat to plane so they were going fast, trying to bring the bow down. That caused the stern to be a little deeper and they struck a coral head. It ripped a hole in the bottom and screwed up dang near everything in the boat. The crew from the Aqua Cat was great. First they towed the boat into shallow water so if it did sink, it wouldn't be that deep. Next they brought the Aqua Cat right up next to it so they could have power. By this time you could see the boat was starting to get lower in the water. They fastened a plate to the bottom on the boat and starting pumping the water out. Amazingly, it worked and the boat came back up. After the boat had hit the coral head, they had called pretty much anyone for help. Vessel assist from Nassau sent out a helicopter and a guy (I'm assuming their version of MacGiver) jumped into the water and swam over to the boat. Of course our MacGivers had already done everything. Pretty exciting stuff. A bigger boat came out from Nassau and in the morning, towed them back. We knew our guys were good, but we had new found respect for just they could do.
So having done 2 week long live-aboards in 7 months, I can tell you, they don't get old. The Aqua Cat gives you enough extras and the boat has so much space that you don't ever feel stir crazy. Plus the boat is so stable that no one on either trip was ever sea sick. We have already talked about bringing our daughter out here in 2 years once she has turned 10 and gets certified. Set your calendars for July 2010!!
Let's go diving!