Diving Bimini
and the Western Bahamas
on the Sea Fever
Swimming with Manatees
at Crystal River

A small island in the Bahamas

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Trip report:

"Sharks, turtles, rays, and more!" came the familiar call as our cheerful divemaster Becky finished another briefing.  We were standing on the deck of the Sea Fever in our 3 mil. wetsuits, anxious to plunge back into the turquoise water and the wonders of the Bahamas coral reefs.  Having returned from our first liveaboard trip to the Islas de Revillagigedo, (Socorro Islands), on the Solmar V in December 2001, I was immediately inspired to plan another liveaboard trip to a different part of the world.  One of our fellow divers on the Mexico trip had raved about the Bahamas, so we did some research and discovered that it had several features we'd come to look for in a dive vacation, (like big animals, (more sharks for me!), and good visibility).  We were facing the rest of winter in Juneau and began to convince ourselves that we had a serious vacation deficit; therefore, when we found an outrageous special aboard the Sea Fever in March, ($850 for a week of diving), we just couldn't resist.

Dive site overview: Coral reefs had never held any fascination for me, so I was astonished at how intricate and beautiful they are, and what diversity of life they support.  I didn't expect the vast variety of fish living in and around the coral, gorgonions, and sponges, (there were at least as many sponges as corals, which were often much more striking in color and elegance).  Each coral head, (mound), appeared to be a whole community in itself, sometimes surrounded or bordered by sandy areas harboring a whole different ecosystem of gobies, goatfish, filefish, and rays which was often as exciting for me as the coral system, if not as flashy.  We dove a few shallow, sandy areas with rocky ledges and gorgonians, but most dives were over coral reef areas.  Some featured isolated coral heads with networks of sand separating them, while other sites were extensive reef systems teeming with life and cut by gorgeous swimthroughs.  (Apparently the currents bore out tunnels or canyons into the coral which, when wide enough, provide lovely opportunities for divers to swim through and allow for some great photos, too, like this one).  In one I found a dense school of two inch silver fish hovering in a column below a narrow opening in the coral ten feet above us, maybe the same skittish fish who filled the water column and darted around us during night dives.

Wildlife: The fish alone were magnificent.  The reefs harbored many species of colorful, tropical fish in a variety of developmental phases, (lots of parrotfish, triggerfish, wrasses, grunts, etc.), as well as slightly less flamboyant schools of crimson bigeyes, creole wrasses, and various sea basses.  Great barracuda followed us around the reefs, watching from about fifteen feet away, and hovered under the boat to entertain us during many safety stops. Some of my favorite fish were the spotted and yellow goatfish which both sport two long barbels on their chins with which they scour the sand for small prey.  But, of course, the highlights were usually the big animals.  We were fortunate to meet three turtles on this trip, all at close quarters.  The first two were loggerheads that were sleeping on the wreck of the "Rita" and the third was a lovely hawksbill that swam out of the deep and over the reef at Tuna Alley.  This lucky encounter took place on the last five minutes of the last dive.  We saw a number of southern stingrays resting on the sand or free swimming over the reef and several yellow stingrays, both feeding at night and resting during the day.  On the first day, we watched a large spotted eagle ray for a few moments just at the edge of visibility.  Morays were abundant, mostly of the spotted variety, but we also saw several exquisite goldentails and a HUGE green moray.  Click here for a species list!

Then, of course, there were the numerous sharks, tales of which had drawn me to the Bahamas in the first place.  Nurse sharks were abundant and we saw them hiding or free swimming on numerous dives; on two regular dives we also saw Caribbean reef sharks swimming about the coral.  Then there were the two dives at Shark Alley where shark feeding takes place.  On the first dive we used bait, which the crew and a few passengers had caught the day before, (mostly yellowtail snappers).  The divers first went down and kneeled in a semi-circle on the sand at 55 ft. with our backs to coral; once we were all settled, Red, (one of the more experienced crew on the boat), pulled a long line to the bottom which had bait attached some 50 feet behind him.  We watched the sharks swim at Red's heels until they found the bait ball at the other end of the rope and proceeded to strike it repeatedly until the last fish was gone.  It was very impressive, though I enjoyed actually swimming with the sharks more than I enjoyed watching them eat.  They are long accustomed to being fed there and, if they aren't around already, quickly gather in the area when a boat moors up.  As we sat in the semicircle reef sharks passed overhead so close that I could have reached up and stroked their bellies as they swam over me and nurse sharks make nuisances of themselves laying on diver's fins or trying to hid beneath them; when the feeding was over we swam around in the company of about 20 roaming sharks and their remoras.  It was delightful.

Miscellaneous: The visibility was fairly good while we were there, possibly reaching 100 feet on a few dives, though it dropped to 25 feet on a few as well.  The water was warm, (73-76 degrees F), and we were both comfortable in our 3 mil. wetsuits.  It was my first time diving in a wetsuit, so it felt fantastically free and quite a treat to carry around six pounds of weight rather than the 28 or so I use at home.  The dive deck was split into two sides--nitrox tanks to starboard and air tanks to port.  We had contemplated getting nitrox certified on the trip, but a number of other passengers decided to take the class so we opted to stay out of the way.  Our side of the boat was somewhat less crowded that way.  The Sea Fever traveled from dive site to dive site throughout the day so we usually dove four different places and then had the option of a night dive at the last place.  Most dive sites had mooring buoys so we did no harm to the reef.  After the 24 hour crossing on the Solmar V, it was quite a treat to leave port and dive in the same day.  We squeezed in three dives the first day, (including a night dive), five the next day, then four, (skipping the night dive), then five again.  On the fifth day, the winds were blowing too strong to permit moorage at any dive site so we anchored for the day in the shelter of Gun Cay, a small island with a lighthouse.  Despite missing a day of diving, it was nice to relax, and many of the other passengers voted against attempting a night dive if the winds died down, (they didn't).  Kayaks were available and the crew made trips back and forth to the island for those who wanted to stroll around.  I spent an hour on Gun Cay watching the waves crash up against the windward side and looking for shells.  The ground was littered with shells of all kinds, including conchs, (lots of live ones in the water, too), lovely snails, and sand dollars.  Back at the boat, Becky was free diving for sea biscuits, (they're like big, 3 dimensional sand dollars or sea urchins with a sand dollar pattern), and she was kind enough to give us two.  On the last day, we managed another three dives before we had to head back to Miami.

Crew: While the diving was great, the crew did a large part in making our trip thoroughly enjoyable.  Nate and Becky were particularly sweet and helpful, always being on hand to assist us divers into the water.  Our tanks were perpetually bungied to the side of the boat and we often attempted to stand up only to find ourselves still attached; they always sprang over to release us and, with no prompting, made sure our air was on, asked us if we were taking our cameras, and so on.  The entry was a giant stride off the side of the boat and the crew used a line with a clip attached to lower our cameras to us.  If we needed anything extra, they didn't hesitate to do what they could.  I left my extra lenses on the camera table once and Becky ran them to the swim step for me in the midst of helping all the other divers get in the water.  Tanks were refilling almost as soon as we got back aboard.  Allen Cromer, (part owner), captained on this trip and we were very happy to have his good humored company, (if not all of his jokes); his counterpart, Red, is the ex-cook turned captain, whose company we both very much enjoyed.  (He was kind enough to give me two shark teeth he found in the sand around Shark Alley).  Ellen the cook pleased everybody, cooking meals to meet all our restrictions, (including vegetarian entrees for me at every meal).  There was one night when we had to plea for her to release the key lime pie, but we didn't hold that against her.  I think the highlight of the dining experience was the hot apple pie and ice cream that was waiting for us after our first night dive.  What a life!

Boat: The Sea Fever itself was quite comfortable.  Above the main cabin is a pleasant sun deck with chairs and mats, perfect for sunny surface intervals.  The main deck consists of three tables and booths on one side with the galley, TV/VCR, and captain's quarters on the other side, (an ample and tasteful collection of videos was available).  Forward is a spacious wheel house in which passengers are always welcome.  The one thing that impressed me most about the crew was their perfect willingness to do without any private space whatsoever, (except for their cabins).  There really was no escape for them, and they cheerfully engaged us in conversation whenever we happened to be around.  Ladders in the main cabin and the wheel house descended to the individual cabins and the heads/showers.  The cabins were typical for a liveaboard, having little floor space, bunks, and one small closet that contained a little storage area and a sink.  It was rather cozy sleeping on the bottom bunk, as the top bunk wasn't very far over our heads, but neither of us banged into it and we kept the narrower upper bunk for our bags.  On a trip like this, the cabins were for sleeping only and we spent almost no waking time in them.  Each section of the lower deck had one toilet and shower in the same room and this, surprisingly, did not form any great inconveniences.  There were a few lines for showers after night dives, but most of the time they were free when I wanted them.  The back deck has rows of tanks, rinse buckets for cameras and gear, a camera table, a toilet, and a constant supply of icy cold water, gatorade, sodas, and beer.  A box of clothes pins were available for clipping wet items to the boat's rails, a handy way to dry them out.

Highlights: All the diving was wonderful, but there were a few moments that stand out in my memory when the wildlife astonished me.  On our second dive at Shark Alley, the resident 3-4 foot black grouper showed up, swimming leisurely through all the sharks and the divers with equal ease.  Most of the time he was very pale with striking black tipped fins and tail.  Surprising as it sounds, this goliath fish was more exciting to me than the sharks!  He periodically engaged the services of cleaner fish over a lump of coral next to the feeding area, a behavior we'd watched with fascination in documentaries.  Predator fish apparently hover over certain areas of the reef where small gobies, shrimp, or other critters live that feed on parasites clinging to other fish.  The little ones are often the prey of the larger fish so to signal their promise of good intentions, the predators change color dramatically.  This grouper, ghostly pale, periodically swam over to the cleaning station, hovered, and in a matter of seconds changed his coloration until his body had an intricate pattern  of rich, deep brown markings, (see photo), his mouth gaping open and gills extended to allow the cleaners access.  After a minute or two, he would swim off and turn pale again.  Once, as I floated motionless over the sand, he swam straight over to me and stopped with his mouth just inches from my mask, as though I might be a cleaning station too.  I gently ran my fingers all the way down his side before he slowly swam away.

There were also the turtle encounters, each one of which was a thrill.  During our day dive on the "Rita," I peered into a cave formed by part of the wreck, entranced by the vibrant sponges and the little school of fish hovering inside.  When Larry came over to have a look, I started to swim off until I heard him yell my name through his regulator.  Turning around, a lovely green loggerhead turtle came crawling out from under the wreck, between us, and almost within touching distance!  After a pause, he slowly swam off over the wreck until we lost him in the distance, appearing completely at ease the entire time.  During our night dive at the same site, I was swimming over a large section of the wreck and out onto the sand when I saw Larry's light waving madly, (a signal that I'd better turn around).  Looking back, I saw that I had swum right over the top of another loggerhead resting at the edge of the wreck!  I kneeled down on the sand about ten feet away, watching and taking pictures.  This turtle raised itself up onto the tips of its fins and, instead of swimming off, walked sideways right over to me and stopped!  I reached out and very, very gently touched its shell before it started to swim away and disappeared into the dark, (see photo).

I was also tickled to see a lot of fierce little sergeant majors guarding their eggs.  Sergeant majors are ubiquitous where we dove in the Sea of Cortez and we saw loads of them, but never any of the breeding males that flush deep purple/blue when they're on a nest.  On several dives in the Bahamas, however, there were patches of purple eggs on the sand, (sometimes whole groups of them in one area), each guarded by a bold male who tirelessly chased off intruders of all kinds.  We watched them harass other fish that approached and, of course, they harassed us, too, when we were bold enough to take a look at their eggs (see photo).  Once, unaware that I was dangerously near a sergeant major nest, I felt a hard peck on my leg.  Assuming it was a diver or a piece of coral, I turned around and saw nothing suspicious but a sergeant major circling his nest some fifteen feet behind me!

All in all, our trip was phenomenal and we would commend the Sea Fever to any diver.  We were so taken that we chartered the boat for a week of diving in August of 2003!  Trip report coming soon.

Everglades: When I began making serious plans to take the Sea Fever trip, it occurred to me that it might be a shame to visit Florida without trying to swim with manatees.  Having lived under the guidance of the Marine Mammals Protection Act's anti-harrassment legislation on whale-watching boats, the idea of intentionally, legally swimming with marine mammals in the United States was difficult to believe and more difficult to pass up.  Searching the internet, we discovered a dive shop/tour operator in Crystal River that takes people out to snorkel with manatees.  Though Crystal River is on the other side of Florida and half way up the coast and the manatees were not guaranteed to be there when we arrived, we made reservations.  The morning we disembarked from the Sea Fever, we rented a car and drove the distance in about five or six hours.  Our first stop was not far outside of Miami at the Everglades Holiday Park.  Since we were near the Everglades, we thought we might take a little detour to check it out.  The park came highly recommended on the internet, but turned out to be one of the worst tours I have ever encountered.  It was an hour long and I envisioned cruising through relatively undisturbed lowlands watching for alligators, egrets, and herons and looking at the vegetation.  Instead, the twenty-five of us on the tour boarded the air boat and were driven to Indian Island for the first half of the tour.  Advertised as an educational area to familiarize us with the Native people of the Everglades, (which didn't sound so bad), it turned out to be a pathetic attempt to sell "authentic" Indian souvenirs and overpriced pieces of spicy alligator meat.  We were greeted by an abrupt, jaded, (and, apparently, "Indian" man), whose only reference to Native culture was a cynical joke about not needing to live traditionally anymore because of casinos.  We were invited to hold a baby alligator, (the same one from the lotion commercials, he claimed), and sit in a horrific throne with a fake backdrop to have a polaroid picture taken for a whopping $10.  For a polaroid!  Needless to say, we declined.  The "introduction to Everglades Native culture" consisted of several thatched huts full of "Indian" items not from the Everglades, but from all over North America.  There were Mexican blankets, silver jewelry, dream catchers, fake bone ornaments, an Indian mannequin wearing a buckskin outfit and a full eagle feather headdress, and even a totem pole.  Except for the alligator head, there was NOTHING that appeared to originate in the Everglades and absolutely no information provided.  No one even mentioned, and nowhere did I see it written, what tribe inhabited the area!  The only redeeming part was, surprisingly, the alligator show.  A pleasant and unassuming fellow caught a young alligator from a concrete pool and proceeded to demonstrate how local Natives used to catch live alligators to bring them back to camp; alligator meat, apparently, begins to spoil in the Florida heat within an hour of death, so it was necessary to capture them alive.  This was the ONLY information we got about the indigenous population--I can't imagine what notions foreigners might conceive about Native Americans from that exhibit.

So I was a little irked by wasting half of my tour on "Indian Island."  The remainder of the trip was better.  We sped through sloughs bordered by tall grass and trees with different waterlines clearly marked on them.  Shortly after we left the island we veered into a wide, open part of the slough and stopped for an alligator. As soon as the boat slowed down, I was excited to see that the alligator was actually swimming toward us, but a bit puzzled by the sudden arrival of several dozen birds circling and landing on the boat.  Then the wonder bread came out.  All in all, we stopped to see three alligators, all long-term residents, and all fed with bits of white bread just inches from the passengers.  We stopped at one place to see a beautiful multicolor bird, (I'm embarrassed to say I can't remember its name), and while I was squirming and craning my neck to get a look at this marvelous bird, it jumped onto the lap of our driver for a snack.  Hardly the wild Everglades.  Worse than that, the guide made absolutely no effort to make it seem otherwise.  No wonder people are so impressed with the tours we put on in Alaska.

Manatees: Our drive across Florida on "Alligator Alley" was far more pleasant, however, as we passed the "real" Everglades stretching away for miles to either side.  The closer we got to the gulf coast, the more cypress groves we saw, spotted with red flowers and white egrets.  With the exception of getting lost around Tampa, the drive up the coast was nice, too, while we listened to retro radio stations and looked at all the land sales aimed at retirees.  We arrived at Crystal River in time for a Cuban meal and a movie, (not to mention a real shower), before bed.

The next morning, at 6:15, we drove over to Birdsunderwater for our manatee adventure.  March happens to be the worst time of year for manatee viewing, so we weren't sure they'd be around.  So far the organization had been lucky, but manatees were moving out into the gulf as the weather warmed.  We drove around to all the best places with no luck as my hopes sank, watching little fish go by and the occasional turtle.  Finally our captain spotted a nose midchannel in a very murky area, dropped the anchor, and jumped in to see what mood he or she was in.  After several minutes, she said that the manatee had been eating but was staying around her momentarily for the special armpit pats she was giving him and that we could come in if we wanted to.  Larry and I slid into the four foot water first and snorkeled over.  The visibility was about three feet--if that--so when I finally came upon the manatee, it emerged as a pale blob in the green-brown water before I could make out his whiskered nose.  Delighted, I tickled his armpit, ran my fingers down his back, and snapped a picture of his tail before he disappeared.  Few others on the boat saw him.  We all climbed back aboard and continued on.  Just when we'd given up seeing another manatee, another boat called to let us know that about eight were gathered close to shore in an area of the river where they normally don't congregate.   We idled over there and climbed in the water with a cow and calf and only slightly less murky water.  The pair stayed close to the group despite the rampant splashing and kicking that took place all around them; we weren't supposed to surround the manatees, but they always seemed to be right in the middle of a confused crowd of people.  They were facing into a bit of a current, so as we patted and watched them, we were soon swept down current and another pair of people took over giving them their attention.  Supposedly they would have left had we stopped giving them their tickles; the calf particularly seemed to enjoy it, sometimes nudging his way under my hand when I was petting his mother and scratching himself with his own elephant-like fingernails.  The thirty minutes or so that we spent with them was delightful; the highlight, (for me), was the eye contact with the calf, who watched when I approached with his tiny, recessed eyes.  We also had the opportunity to swim in the Three Sisters springs where the water was, by contrast, crystal clear, (until the flailing humans muddied it all up), and where we say gray snappers, (I think), and large jack crevalles.  Water rose at a constant 72 degrees F. from funnel shaped springs in the mud.  We were back at the dock at around 11:00 for a leisurely drive to Tampa and our last night in Florida.

All photos were taken with an MX-10 Sea&Sea underwater camera with YS40-A strobe where appropriate.

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Bahamas Species List

Diving in Juneau, Alaska
Diving in the Islas de Revillagigedos (Socorros) 2001
Diving in the Sea of Cortez (2001)
Diving in the Sea of Cortez (2004)
Diving in Cay Sal, Bahamas
Diving in Bonaire
Diving in the Islas de Revillagigedos (Socorros) 2006