''Sharks!'' A dorsal fin breaks the surface just behind the boat; two more appear under the dive platform. Twelve-year-old Francis Mingo hesitates briefly, then strides overboard into the circling school of predators. This will be his first open-water dive. Curious reef sharks are just the first of many adventures that await Francis and his fellow scuba divers at the postcard-perfect site known as Amberjack Reef. Here, in 45 feet of clear water, haystack- to house-sized coral heads rise from a white sand bottom and snappers, jacks, grunts and a host of colorful reef fish thread their way through waving sea fans and plumes. The drone of the dive boat's engines draws an aquatic crowd. The sharks maintain a wary distance from descending divers, but a gaggle of large grouper shoulder like crazed shoppers at an after-Christmas sale. Yellowtail snapper gather in anticipation of a free meal, then a school of horse-eye jacks sweeps in to investigate the commotion. This day, there will be no feeding, but the grouper remain hopeful. Long after the sharks have faded into the blue, they continue to hawk the bubble-blowing visitors from above. King of the reef is a 100-pound black grouper nicknamed Fat Albert by local dive guides. He fins from diver to diver, giving each the once-over, checking for smuggled fish parts. Amberjack Reef is just one of many memorable dive sites that can be found throughout the Exumas. This idyllic chain of small islands, uninhabited cays and reefs extends for more than 100 miles through the central Bahamas, out of range of any existing land-based resorts, but well within the reach of a live-aboard dive vessel. In June of this year, a new luxury charter boat began plying these waters. The Aqua Cat is a 102-foot, three-deck power catamaran built specifically for the dive charter trade. The company behind this upscale vessel has more than two decades of experience in the Bahamas dive market. Since 1979, Blackbeard's cruises has brought thousands of divers to the waters of Bimini and the western Bahamas aboard a fleet of 65-foot sailing craft. These Miami-based vessels emphasize good diving and good times rather than luxury accommodations, and have earned a reputation as one of the best values on the live-aboard market. In the early '90s, the Cat Palau was added to the fleet. Based in Nassau, Bahamas, this motorsailing catamaran cruises the northern Exumas, offering a higher level of creature comforts and a greater range of non-diving activities. Its weekly itinerary includes dramatic wall dives, shark feeds, and mid-depth sites such as Amberjack Reef, plus beach safaris and snorkel trips. The growing popularity of the Exumas itinerary prompted company owners to commission a brand-new dive vessel, one with sufficient range and speed to cover a broad section of the central Bahamas, plus an extra helping of creature comforts and luxury touches. With its fast cruise speed and big-boat comfort, the Aqua Cat will be able to cover a wide area of the Exumas during the course of a week, and the cruise schedule may also include visits to new sites on Little San Salvador and south Eleuthera islands as well. This new boat boasts 11 air-conditioned cabins, each equipped with private bathrooms and large windows. Its stable twin-hull design allows for a 30-foot-wide dining room and salon on the second deck, along with a shaded lounge aft and an additional sun lounge and wet bar on the top deck. Meals and service are on par with the finest live-aboards in the industry. Equally impressive is the 900-square-foot dive deck, which includes individual gear storage bins and roomy benches for gear assembly and adjustment, along with an on-deck bathroom and a pair of enclosed showers. Additional hot-and-cold showers are located adjacent to the twin dive ladders, and there is always a crewmember waiting to assist with entries and exits. Nitrox and onboard E-6 film processing are available, and the Aqua Cat tows a collection of kayaks and a 28-foot launch that can be used for extended dive excursions or beach excursions. Passengers have the option of making up to four or five dives a day, including wall dives, shark feedings and night dives. And while it's perfectly acceptable to follow a more relaxed profile, with longer surface intervals spent in a hammock or on the beach, the quality of the diving certainly warrants as much bottom time as prudence and the tables will allow.
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