Horse-eye jacks and spadefish swirl in small, tight schools below the Aqua Cat at the dive site Split Coral Head off Eleuthera, but as we make our way to the wall at 80 feet, it’s burly Caribbean reef sharks that have caught our eye. We fin hard in their direction, but they quickly rocket into the blue as we get closer. This is one of the sites where the Aqua Cat crew offers a shark-feeding dive, so there’s always a good chance you’ll encounter a handful of sharks on nonfeeding dives as well, especially on the lip of the wall. Most of the action on this site, though, can be found on the coral heads that punctuate the sand bottom, including the huge one fractured by a sizable swim-through — hence the site’s name. The animals may be smaller, but there’s plenty to see, including Nassau groupers, goldentail and moray eels, stingrays, and garden eels wriggling in the sand flats.
“This is a very beautiful place to work and live,” says Capt. Mark Bailey. “You never know what you might see on any given day — turtles, sharks, whales and dolphins.” Lest you think he’s exaggerating, Aqua Cat guests once encountered a whale shark and a hammerhead in the same week.
The Bahamas is known for being laidback, but like the rest of the chain’s Out Islands, the Exuma Cays and Eleuthera are steeped in the Caribbean of yesteryear, which means uncrowded, pristine dive sites. On the southern end of the Exumas is the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a strictly protected no-take zone even the islands and cays that do not fall within the park’s boundaries boast healthy habitats. Eleuthera stretches for more than 100 miles and is fronted on its sound side by fringing coral gardens that lead to deeper walls.
Our shark-feeding dive is also at Split Coral Head, but Aqua Cat offers these encounters in a few places off Eleuthera and in the Exumas, depending on conditions. The sharks — anywhere from a handful to about a dozen — hit the block of frozen fish parts attached to the mooring line. Yellowtail snapper and groupers join the buffet; we watch as the sharks tear off chunks of chum faster than you can eat the freshly baked cookies the chef bakes daily.
In fact, everything about the 102-foot luxury catamaran Aqua Cat is pretty sweet. The crew is famed for its fun-filled and attentive service. The cabins are spacious and cleaned every morning while you’re diving. A typical breakfast: eggs Benedict with sausage, bacon and orange muffins. Lunch: crème fraîche noodles with grilled chicken, and white chocolate-chip cookies. Dinner: fish with a spicy roasted-tomato remoulade and a berry angel-food cake. You’ll need the extra calories for all the diving — two tanks in the morning, two in the afternoon and an after-dinner night dive.
The Bahamas offers a number of well- known drift dives, but before my trip, every Aqua Cat alum I know told me about the Exumas’ Washing Machine dive site. From the boat, the site looks tame — just a bit of water churning. But once you get in, a very strong tide causes you to swirl in the water like a load of laundry, even tossing some divers head over heels. You can avoid all the tumbling by hugging the right side, and you’ll still enjoy a nifty drift through the cut in the reef here. Don’t miss it — you’ll feel like a kid again, and there’s a nice reef to explore at the end.
We all leave this site wishing we could do it again. Back on board, the cookies are still warm, left for us on a plate on the dive deck. If only this could be my routine every day of the year.