Trip Report Aqua Cat- May 15-22 2021

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Redfoot

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I had booked myself on the Aqua Cat for a May 2020 trip, which was cancelled, and All Star Liveaboards was great to work with on the reschedule. I just had them put me out one year, they honored the price I paid and kept me posted via email about the travel details, changes and requirements as the year went on. I booked in a double occupancy ocean view room, and was traveling solo, but open to any room mate available.

Flights
I flew Delta from Detroit-Atlanta-Nassau on the 6:00 am May 15 flight. Bought a main cabin ticket, and upgraded to first class with miles. Bahamas has a travel visa program that requires a vaccination card (+14 days) or negative PCR test uploaded to their portal within five days of travel. I did not have a problem, but others did not get approval until a few hours before flight.
Flights were on time, I had my breakfast on the plane (meal box) as well as coffee. Flight from Atlanta to Nassau arrived a few minutes early, and the customs was a breeze. Luggage came out quick, and I was out the door, where the pre-arranged shuttle was waiting.
Return flights were also a breeze, it was great not having to clear customs back in the US. Once you go through the Nassau security, you are free to travel back to the USA without further inconvenience. At the recommendation of a crew member, I took the first shuttle to the airport on 5/22 at 9:30 a.m. I was the only person in line at the Delta counter and also the only person in security. The Atlantis resorts begin shuttling their guests around 11:00 am and it becomes a madhouse. Plenty of restaurants, stores, gifts, etc in the concourse.

Arrival
The boat is about 25 minutes from the airport. The crew greeted us, took our bags, offered water and restrooms, then directed us to the Green Parrot, a bar/grill in the marina. This was a good opportunity to have a bite to eat and meet the other divers. There is also a small pool available to use, as well as lawn chairs, restrooms and showers.

There were several groups on the boat, as well as a few other solo travelers. One group of 16 was from a shop in upstate NY, then there were some couples, and one pair that had been on the Aquacat 8 previous trips!

We boarded at 5:00 pm for dinner, safety briefing, introductions and captains overview of the week. All very thorough, and I went to bed tired.

Diving
We departed Sunday morning around 5:00 am into a strong wind, and the initial crossing to the Exumas was a little rough. We made our first dives in the Exumas, where 2 ladies began their OW certification dives with the shop owner from New York. We stayed in shallow, sheltered areas, where everyone shook out the cobwebs and adjusted gear. Many people had not dove since 2019, and a few people had under 20 dives, so I think the crew was feeling out the skill levels and comfort.

Overall, the reefs in the Exumas and Eleuthera are not in the best shape. Mostly very small juvenile fish when there was fish life, but some sites had more than others. The usual suspects were present (angelfish, grunts, parrotfish, some snapper and grouper) but the numbers were really sad. The corals, especially on shallow sites, were bleached, burnt, broken and covered in algae

We did see sharks, stingrays and barracuda on most dives, and probably 10-15 turtles throughout the week, a mix of loggerhead, green and hawksbill. The smaller turtles seemed extremely skittish and fearful, but a few loggerheads came really close, including one monster that spooked my dive buddy on the surface as we were going to the boat, which was fun. We got one huge eagle ray on the Jeep Reef drift, but only those of us at the front of the pack saw it, as it turned tail quickly as the group came up.

We made the crossing to Eleuthera due to strong winds limiting dive sites in the Exumas, plus competition from the Blackbeards boats and Cat Ppalu, who cannot cross as easily as the Aqua Cat. We lost 2 dives on the travel day, but made one of them up on a dawn dive later in the week. Eleuthera was beautiful, and we got to dive some very nice deep walls, which most of the newer divers struggled with, so it limited our options (trouble equalizing, currents, air consumption, buoyancy, etc). We did a few sites 2-3 times.

The night dives were all good, I especially liked Jake's Hole and Cannonball Reef. Tons of crabs, lobsters, eels and a really cool octopus encounter. I did not bring my GoPro on night dives, I wanted to focus on practicing navigation and being alert in case any new divers struggled.

We did the "simulated carcass feed" dive in Eleuthera, where we all kneel in a semi circle around the mooring line and a crew member brings down a frozen chunk of fish carcasses. It was fun, about 20 reef sharks and tons of fish went to town on the chumsickle. After about 20 minutes, it gets a little old, but I hung out to look for shark teeth after the chum was gone, although I did not find any.

Boat and Food
The rooms are very spacious, I have stayed in Chicago hotels smaller than the double occupancy on the Aquacat. There is plenty of storage, a fridge (totally unnecessary) and large bathroom with shower, sink, toilet and mirror. Bed was very comfortable, and I slept like a rock every night.
The dining area (salon) is also incredibly spacious, with couches, tables and an outdoor deck fore and aft of the salon. The rear deck was also the site of dive briefings, with more tables and chairs, as well as BBQ.
There is always coffee, tea, hot cocoa, soda, juice and water available. During the day, there is also gatorade and iced tea. Soda is from a gun, which is nice, as I like to drink club soda, and it was an endless supply.

On the top sundeck, there is a bar and loungers. I spent most intervals and evenings up there, as it was a nice view and great place to relax. Beer on tap (local Bahamian) as well as bottle wine and rum/vodka open to serve yourself anytime you were ready to stop diving.

On the last night, we returned to port after two morning dives and had a cocktail party, followed by dinner ashore at the Green Parrot again. A few people walked to Atlantis for dinner, and they enjoyed it. I would have gone, but they snuck off without telling anyone! We bought drinks and dinner for a few crew, then went back to the boat and hung out with the crew on duty. They were all great, and I can't say enough good things about every crew member and both captains.

The food all week was awesome, served buffet style, but dished out by staff. I am not picky, and will eat anything, but I have to say the food was incredible. Every meal had a protein, starch, veggie and dessert. Usually soup and or salad offered. Varied meats and seafood, all cooked perfect. Muffins, cookies, fruit and bagged snacks available throughout the day.

Shore Excursions
We went and saw the native iguanas on Staniel Cay, and also did snorkeling at Thunderball Grotto. After snorkeling, a short boat ride away are the swimming pigs, we fed them and got to learn a little about their lives. Both were fun excursions and only had to sacrifice one dive to do them.

Overall
I really enjoyed the trip, even though some of the diving was lackluster. There were 2 non divers on the boat, and they had a blast doing shore excursions- the Sea Dog, the excursion boat, took the non divers out fishing, to Eleuthera Harbor and to a small beach while we dove.

I did all 25 dives offered, as did 6 other divers. Most everyone else did about half-3/4 of the dives.

I would go back, if it was with a group of friends or dive buddies, as this would be a great boat for a group trip. Lots of fun stuff to do, and I think we missed some of the better dives due to circumstance. I think this is also a great trip for newer divers, as it is varied, while also relatively easy and the crew are safety oriented.

Here is video from the trip-

 

drrich2

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Great report! Quick question - is a dive guide routinely in the water for those who might wish to follow him around?

Richard.
 

Redfoot

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Great report! Quick question - is a dive guide routinely in the water for those who might wish to follow him around?

Richard.

Yes- there is a DM in the water on every dive, and during the briefing they ask for a show of hands on who is going to follow the DM. On many dives, there are two DM's, one guiding the dive and another doing photo or video for the trip highlight video.

The drift dives (we did 2- Jeep Reef and Washing Machine) it is required to stay in formation, with a DM in front holding the surface buoy and DM at the rear making sure nobody gets lost.

Due to changing buddy pairs, I followed my buddy's comfort level and either stayed with the DM or went on our own, but never far from the group. Several of the dive sites are in 20-30 feet of water, and the site is literally one large coral patch or head surrounded by sand. There is nowhere you can/want to go that is not within view of the boat and all other divers.
 

Hoag

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I love the Aquacat! I have been on her 5 times (so far). It is always a fun trip.
 

drrich2

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The provision of a dive guide on every dive, and for a number of dive sites to be easily navigable with (relatively; where there's a will, there's a way) little chance of serious separation from the boat, are serious advantages in the AquaCat's favor where many divers are concerned.

On Scuba Board, whether because of the prevalence of more advanced diving ability amongst the membership, or the perception of an unspoken expectation of that in membership culture, the importance of having a dive guide in the water on boat trips (live-aboard or day boats) is sometimes omitted. People fear contempt if they admit they need a guide.

In some places that cater to a lot of tourist divers, guides are so common a feature that relatively new divers may unconsciously assume they're a given everywhere. Not so. California dive op.s, some of the Florida Keys op.s, Blackbeard's and Juliet...not everybody habitually puts a guide in for every dive.

I make a point of this because I believe a large portion of day trip and even live-aboard divers in popular mainstream dive destinations aren't comfortable and/or reliably competent at independent navigation. I imagine there could a lively discussion about what % of the dive trip customer base that entails. Likely with a post or two claiming 'these people shouldn't have been certified if they couldn't function as independent divers!'

For the benefit of newer divers, do staff try to buddy people up, ask if anyone needs one, or just leave the divers to sort it out amongst themselves? Many of us don't like people trying to buddy us up, but some people seem to expect it. Running a dive operation must be loads of fun...:D

Wonder what AquaCat staff think about solo diving? That is an up and coming point of interest these days.

Do they offer a video of the divers' trip for sale at the end of the week?
 

Redfoot

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All very valid points, and I do enjoy following a guide, while also enjoy separating off if I feel like it.

I forgot until reading your post, but the Aqua Cat utilizes a "buddy board" where each diver has a hanging tag, and it is the divers responsibility (and expectation) to move that tag from "on the boat" to "in the water" or "on the Sea Dog" as they participate throughout the week. You are also supposed to link tags with your buddy, but this was not enforced. The board was near the Nitrox log, so it made it easy for me, but others had to be reminded often to move their tag.

No formal information on solo diving, although there were two photographers who did their own thing the whole week, and nobody said boo to them about anything.

Yes, they do offer video and photo packages at the end of the week; I bought the video, and can share on Google Drive if anyone is interested, just PM me your email. It has more footage of the boat and atmosphere, which I usually try to get on my camera, but I forgot this trip.

Another note, I had great cell service and received texts and emails (work phone) via T-Mobile network throughout the week (no charge to our plan). Others said the same thing with different carriers, with charges ranging from $5/day to $20/week. A few times, I got better service off Eleuthera than I can get in my kitchen at home without WiFi turned on!
 

dflaher

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Thanks for the report! Given you went solo, how did your roommate situation work out?
 

Redfoot

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Thanks for the report! Given you went solo, how did your roommate situation work out?

I ended up rooming with the dive shop owner/trip leader from upstate New York. Worked out great, he was a very nice guy and his group kept him busy, so I would shower and change while he was helping people with gear, working with the students or whatever. Then I was out on the sundeck, and he had the room to himself for his shower etc.

Another note, there are two showers and a restroom on the dive deck, which were spacious and always had hot water. I was usually one of the last ones out of the water, so would have those showers available as well and not even need the one in the room.
 

Hoag

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@Redfoot I have a stupid question for you. I know that the Aquacat has a small library. You didn't by any chance happen to notice if they had a copy of a book by Chris Hadfield entitled "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" did you?
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I think I left my copy there the last time I was on board. (If I did, that it fine, I have been looking for it, and I just can't think of any other place it might be.)
Thanks.
 

Redfoot

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@Redfoot I have a stupid question for you. I know that the Aquacat has a small library. You didn't by any chance happen to notice if they had a copy of a book by Chris Hadfield entitled "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" did you?
View attachment 662843

I think I left my copy there the last time I was on board. (If I did, that it fine, I have been looking for it, and I just can't think of any other place it might be.)
Thanks.

Sorry Hoag, I did look through the library, and even exchanged one of my books for one of theirs, but I cannot say for certain whether that book was there or not. There were maybe 40-50 books total.
 
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