Cruising the Bahamas

or how divemasters earn their keep

May 1999

Tropical islands, Abacos Bahamas
Last January, my family chartered a 46' sailboat in the Virgin Islands. We spent most of our time in the BVI and were impressed by the quality of the reefs. We loved having sturdy mooring balls at each dive site and a comprehensive guide book to the region. Plus the sailing was awesome.

This year my family wanted to try a something different, so we chartered a 42' Grand Banks trawler. Our charter started at Marsh Harbour on Grand Abaco. The adventure started with our 9 passenger Cessna from Ft.Lauderdale. We flew on Island Express, next time I'd go with American Eagle which flies a 20-30 passenger prop plane that doesn't have strict luggage restrictions.

After seeing how much fun my brother and I were having diving, my dad decided to become certified. Rather than deal with cold water near Delaware, he choose get a referral and finish his dives in the Bahamas. We had originally made arrangements with Abaco Dive Center for two afternoons of boat diving. My brother and I would go out on the boat to get some diving in. Two days after making the arrangements, Abaco Dive Center called us back and said they couldn't run the afternoon dives. Plus they didn't have a weekly rate for tank rentals. So we made arrangements with Dive Abaco across the harbour.

After arriving we checked in with Dive Abaco. Everything was set for the 1:30 trip. Lunch was dragging, so we hurried back to the marina to get our gear. 1:30 came and went with no sign of the instructor or divemaster. The 1:30 trip ended up being a 2:30 trip, with a pretty full boat. Dive Abaco primarily dives at Fowl Cay preserve, which is about 5-6 miles from Marsh Harbor. Waves were breaking on the outer reef, so we dove two inshore sites. Neither dive was deeper than 20' unless you brought a shovel. Visability wasn't that great either. The entire reef was heavily undercut, so I spent most of the dive praticing buoyancy.

At the first site we had moored the dive boat to one of the 5 established mooring balls. Descending to the bottom I got to checkout the setup. The hawser from the mooring ball was sturdy 3/4" rope, but it was attached to the concrete block by light cord, barely stronger than binding twine. The guide books advise not mooring boats larger than 25' and I think that might be pushing things if the rest are like this.

Our charter didn't really start until the following morning, but we were able to spend the night aboard. Two slips down from us was Abaco Dive Center's boat, which had been at the dock all day and wouldn't leave the dock the next day either. In the morning, we had a brief orientation to the boat, then picked up 6 tanks for the remainder of the week. The price was pretty reasonable, $40/week including three free refills. We could call on the VHF and have them bring a set of replacement tanks out to the reef. Sounded great.

Today's dive was scheduled for 2:30 and we left pretty close to that. A smaller crew today about 8-9 divers. Halfway out of the harbor, I guess they tried the bilge pump and it wasn't working. Neither Nati the DM nor Dan the instructor were very mechanically inclined. Bob, one of the clients, dive into the bilge to attempt to trouble shoot the pump. After a few minutes of trying, we went back to the dock. They were going to attempt to fix the pump, but I guess instead went looking for a boat to rent. Bob and my brother continued to search for wiring faults with no luck. Dan came back with a 26' outboard and we transferred all the gear to the smaller boat. At 4:30 we left the dock.

Again conditions weren't good, with large waves breaking on the outer reef. When we returned to Twin Sisters a site we had dove yesterday afternoon I was a little steamed. Dan joked about returning to the same second site, but I think he realized he'd have a mutiny on his hands if he did that. Again nothing over 20'. Given the late start, we made it back just before dark.

I wasn't too impressed with the Bahamas at this point, but we now had three certified divers in our family (in less than 1 year, all w/ gear too). Business taken care of, we left harbour on our own. The first day out, we went snorkling as a family.

While in Marsh Harbour we had attempted to get dive site information from Abaco Dive Center and Dive Abaco, but it was pretty vague. Charts to this area leave lots to be desired. Eric and I were convinced the good diving was on the outer reef and it took a bit of convincing to get my dad to bring the trawler in close to the reef to drop us off. As we were approaching the reef, we saw two huge loggerhead or green turtles on the surface. It looked like they were kissing! They were quite old, both had barnacle encrusted backs. My brother grabbed his mask and was about to dive in. My dad shut off the engines, which have an alarm that scared off the turtles. Bummer. After fifteen minutes of getting thrown around by the surge, my brother and I bailed out of our first DIY dive.

I was pretty discouraged at this point, so we cruised north to Green Turtle Cay, which the guidebooks listed as having two dive shops. The first was closed, so we went into Brendle's Dive Shop. We got our two tanks topped off, but they were stingy with information.

While my parents were off exploring the harbor, I read through the stack of guidebooks aboard. I finally found one with a dive topo for Fowl Cay. It even mentioned one site, the Towers that was in 60' of water.

While working our way back towards Fowl Cay, we stopped for the afternoon at No Name Cay. While my mom and dad snorkled, my brother and I went for a dive. The highlight of the dive (and the trip too) was seeing four spotted eagle rays flying in formation just like the Blue Angles. It was incredible. Wasn't deep (19'), but we made up for it by staying under for 1:15.

The next day back down at Fowl Cay, I attempted to use the dive topo to find the towers site. I really thought I was in the right place, but when the max depth was only 35' I was suspicious. On this dive with my dad and my brother I saw my first shark, a 6' reef shark. We would spot reef, black tip and nurse sharks frequently while diving and snorkling at Fowl Cay. While snorkling that afternoon, we went over to the Dive Abaco boat. Turns out they were on the Towers site and the depth really was 60'. I was a few hundred years off.

Dive Abaco wasn't running their boat on Sunday, not sure if that is normal or not. So we ran in to get our tanks filled, then back out to try and find the towers again. This time luck was with me, and sure enought a deep dive site! (ok, not that deep by most standards, but for this trip...) The groupers at this site are incredibly tame. After reaching the bottom, two came over and obviously wanted to be feed. Luckily they settled for having their bellies stroked instead. One grouper adopted my dad and swam by his side for the remainder of the dive. Having found a good site, we had lunch then planned on diving the site that afternoon. Unfortunately I couldn't find the site the second time and we end up diving on a 35' reef instead. The towers site wasn't marked with a mooring ball. The closest landmarks were a mooring ball about 200 yards away, and fowl cay about 600 yards away. Made for interesting navigation...

Monday was our last diveable day, so I wanted to dive something good. We hadn't explored much of the Towers so we went back. Took a bit of searching, but I found it. (60', 41m). After lunch and a leisurely surface interval, we went back to the towers. We thought we'd found it, but after we all got in the water, we realized this wasn't the towers. Back into the inflatable, and tried again. This time I had better luck and we had a great final dive (56', 43m).

Overall, I was pretty unimpressed by the Abacos. The reefs were heavily silted, and the small fish life was not as abundant as in the BVI or other places I've dove. The eagle rays and sharks were a plus. Visability was poor for the caribbean (30-60').

As a site for DIY diving, the BVIs are much better. First, nearly every site in the BVIs has a several sturdy mooring balls reguarly used by 40-50' sailboats. Second, AquaQuest has a great guide book that includes lots of snorkling sites (all we did on that trip). Third, the waters are deeper which makes navigation much easier. Four, the winds in the BVIs are awesome, making for great sailing.

But the biggest lesson learned, was that the $50-70 most dive shops charge to dive from their boats covers the accumulated knowledge of the divemasters and boat captains. They place their boats right over the sites, often with minimal landmarks and no electronics. My respect for them has gone up immeasurably.

Photos (click on thumbnail for larger view)

Tropical islands, Abacos Bahamas Grand Banks 42 trawler, Abacos Bahamas My dad zipping around in the inflatable, Abacos Bahamas

The incredible water of the Bahamas, Abacos Bahamas Tropical islands, Abacos Bahamas Marsh Harbor, Abacos Bahamas

Tropical islands, Abacos Bahamas The incredible water of the Bahamas, Abacos Bahamas Towing the inflatable, Abacos Bahamas

Three people Aerial view of the Abacos Bahamas Aerial view of the Abacos Bahamas