Diving the Cay Sal Banks
on the Sea Fever
(or, The Trip that Ended Very Very Badly)
August 16-21/22, 2003

The Sea Fever from Elbow Cay

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The trip was really pretty good for most of the people involved (and for us in the beginning) and the Sea Fever itself and the crew were great.  For me, it simply ended on a rather poor note.  But we'll get to that in time.  If you've read my other Bahamas trip report, you'll know that the genesis for the Cay Sal trip was a spontaneous and fortunate week of diving on the Sea Fever in March of 2002.  Shortly after we returned to Juneau, we chartered the Sea Fever and began a long, stressful 18 months of gathering passengers.  We filled the last seat less than a week before departing.

Summer 2003 was rather a stressful time for me.  On top of my ordinary job, I spent all my free time preparing business documents, fighting for permits, building outhouses, buying cabins, digging holes, (diving), etc. etc.  I very much needed and deserved a vacation.  My mother and a number of friends joined us; we bought a bottle of Great White Shark rum in Miami--it was going to be great.  When the trip was done, I felt cheated out of my vacation but greatful to be alive.

Drift Dives: The diving was phenomenal, (I can say that now that my memory has returned).  We did our first official drift dives--wow!  It was a rush being swept through the blue with 150 foot visibility at the edge of a wall that dropped out of sight a few thousand feet down.  Swimthroughs passed beneath us, soft corals bent to the current, and I saw my first goliath grouper.  At one point I turned against the current to let Larry catch up and was barely able to maintain my position by kicking with all my might.  On one deep wall drift dive I was at about 70 feet looking down at the top of the reef.  A nurse shark was leisurely swimming with the current, so I dropped down to check her out; pushed by the current at the same rate, I was able to maneuver gracefully just behind her and keep up with no effort.  She was HUGE for a nurse shark and absolutely gorgeous.  She must have neen a good seven feet at least and not the least bit perturbed by my presence.  I didn't even touch her, although I was certainly close enough.  I needed to reduce my depth, so I left her swimming over the reef, but she matched our pace for the last 10-15 minutes of the dive and stayed just beneath us.

In addition to the wall drift dives, we also drifted over a reef at 70 feet (Elephant Rock Reef). The topograpy wasn't too interesting, (sandy patches with scattered rocks), but I did have my best dive moment of the trip there.  I was cruising along just a few feet in front of Larry and turned around to check on him as we reached a sandy spot out of the current.  From behind him came two lovely greater amberjacks.  They swam between the two of us just a few feet away and then turned to face the current in order to swim close to the other side of Larry's head, (who captured them brilliantly on film).  They made eye contact the whole time, exhibiting curiosity and never showing the least bit of fear.  It's the number one reason that I dive--animal encounters initiated by the animals.

Shallow/Night Dives:  The Cay Sal itinerary had a perfect mix of dives.  At Cay Sal itself we did several shallow sand/reef dives at 20 feet which, while making some of the other divers grumble a little, were fantastic sites and great for photography.  We saw a number of peacock flounders and a paddle wheel wreck near the shore of one of the islands was a perfect little fish nursery.  A number of seargant majors guarded their purple circles of eggs stuck against the sides of the wreck.  I scared away one frazzled father and immediately a bunch of juvenile blueheads swam in and started eating eggs!  I took a quick picture and then let dad chase them off again.  Fascinating.

I managed to get in two night dives on this trip--both at Cay Sal in shallow rocky areas at the edge of an island.  They were great dives.  The shores of the islands have numerous natural caves and I swam into one in the dark and watched my air pool up in mercury against the ceiling before I got spooked and headed for open water.  On the first dive we saw ray eyes glowing in the dark wherever we looked and each time I turned my light off bioluminesence shone in spots all around, but there was never anything there when I turned the light back on.  We terrorized an aqua Caribbean reef octopus who tried to be nonchalant as he deperately crept into a hole.  On the swim back to the boat the surface of the water flashed brilliant orange several times with lightening.  I turned off my light one last time and saw something glowing off to the right.  I shone my light on three reef squid!!!  I got Larry's attention and we watched them swim calmly by a few feet away.  One more diving goal achieved!  Just few seconds later an ENORMOUS turtle emerged.  It must have been five feet long with flippers the size of paddles!  A chunk of its shell was gone over its left rear flipper.  It disappeared, only to reappear sitting on the bottom a minute later.  This time I tried to sneak a look at its shell to identify the species; as I was slowly creeping over the top of its shell, I inadvertantly spooked it and, in its haste to get away, it scrambled over the bottom and knocked into Larry!  She was a monster.

The other night dive was no less exciting.  Larry sat out the dive so I went with Sean, one of our friends from the Socorro Islands dive trip.  I came across some blue tang (?) swimming among brilliant red coral, a photographic opportunity I couldn't miss.  In the dark, I inadvertantly leaned into a rock as I set up the shot and felt the spines of a black sea urchin penetrate my wet suit just as I snatched a picture.  Feeling like a foolish diver, I quickly headed off and the spines never caused more than a minor irritation.  We also explored a cave where a dark barracuda looked to be sleeping.  He let us approach quite close before rousing himself and setting off into the night.  We ran into him again a few minutes later hovering outside the cave entrance.  On our way back to the boat we came across a large reef octopus in the open, pulsing in turquoise and brown.  As he retreated I put out my hand in his path and felt him suck onto me as he drew himself away.

Blue Holes:  One of the reasons we chose to dive Cay Sal was the presence of blue holes (underwater limestone caverns with collapsed ceilings).  After two days diving around the islands, we ventured to query when we might see the holes.  Captain Red told us that they were on a different part of the Bank and that we'd get there for two dives the next day before heading back toward Bimini.  If we wanted, we could get in an extra dive before breakfast.  The next morning, Larry, Dave Mitchell (our friend from our local dive shop), and I scrambled into our wet suits and plunged in at the edge of Black Hole, (aka Shark Hole).  There was supposed to be a hole in the rim where the sharks come in and out.  The visibility left something to be desired (it looked like a decent day in Juneau), and I don't think we ever found the hole.  But we did find sharks.  We swam along the inside edge of the rim and every minute of so a Caribbean reef shark swam past nonchalantly...such a thrill to see "wild" reef sharks!  (As opposed to the more domesticated sharks that hang around feeding sites).  Thrillingly, they seemed just as comfortable and interested in us as the shark feeding regulars.  We also had a nice look and a swim with a medium sized turtle.

We came up from that dive telling everyone about the many sharks they'd see.  Most were excited and jumped in eagerly after breakfast with great expectations.   After a modest surface interval, Larry and I headed back in as well.  The visibility had diminished to about 15-20 feet and there were no sharks to be seen.  We cut the dive short and I spent the last five minutes cavorting with a lonely sharksucker near the boat, (he almost attached to me)!  Just as we swam for the swim ladder, the last ones to surface, a lone shark made a close pass.  We turned out to be the only divers to see sharks at that site!

Damas Blue Hole produced better shark activity for everyone.  This cavern is small enough to circumnavigate in one dive, although we dallied too much to make it.  The visibility was slightly better and, although we couldn't see across the hole, we could clearly see the curve of the rim in front of us.  The limestone was covered with bright encrusting sponges, spindly corals and long white whips curling out over the abyss.  A patrolling reef shark circling the hole approached and swam between several of us and the wall.  At about 70 feet, the vertical wall of the rim that we'd been following curved out from the center and we peeked under the overhang at the hanging coral.

Suddenly, Carleen indicated that there were sharks about and we looked down to see nine sharks swimming in formation like birds over the black depths.  We plunged down after them, watching them mill around, breaking up and regrouping.  They were probably at 150 feet (we didn't join them at that depth) and well away from the walls.  Sharks in formation....

Somewhere between Bimini and Cay Sal: After satisfying everyone's shark fancies at Damas Blue Hole, we steamed back toward Bimini to catch a few dives offshore before dark.  Our first dive after lunch was Space Mountain, probably my favorite site of the trip.  The hill rises from a sandy bottom at about 100 feet, a lovely, rich sea mount covered in life and amply lit by sunshine descending through good visilbility.  In addition to an absolute flowering of corals and sponges, reef fish abounded and schools of tiny shimmering fish darted this way and that.  The groups of mating creole wrasse made Larry suggest the name "Sex on the Reef" for the site.  Male wrasse pursued the females, shadowing their every move with relentless effort.  Carleen found a big clinging crab near some giant barrel sponges that were growing from the slopes of the hill.  Nassau grouper swam leisurely around their haven.  It was a thoroughly pleasant dive.

From there we moved to Antler, known for its groves of staghorn coral.  Just as we began to gear up, a shout was heard: "Dolphins!" Without persuasion, a group of five bottlenose dolphins were approaching our boat, at anchor.  Confused and in paniced haste, I managed to pull myself together enough to shed two pounds of weight and leap into the water with my fins and mask.  Of course, nothing was about when I peered beneath the surface, mirroring my first attempt to swim with dolphins.  By this time in the trip, my impending illness made my mind unclear, my body weak and my ears unwilling to cooperate.  I tried to free dive to entice them closer, but my efforts yielded little and there was even a part of me that didn't care, (which should have alerted me right then that I was unwell).  One of the crew enticed the dolphins in with the skiff and I had several looks at them.  On one pass, Larry and I dove together and they made a swing within 30 feet of us, squeaking and chirping.  It was breif, but great, and Larry captured it on video.

Antler was a mellow dive.  The staghorn coral looked a little sad and broken in places and didn't yield a quantity of fish, though it made interesting enough topography.  We wandered about leisurely until someone spotted a turtle.  My last dive of the trip was capped by a loggerhead sitting in a gap between lumps of coral, his head raised high and gazing at us with truly ancient eyes.

Meningitis:  I have few memories of the rest of the trip.  We had a little party on board that night with karaoke and rum and cokes.  I don't think it lasted long.  When I awoke the next morning, I was greeted with a head ache, neck ache and general weariness.  Though I suited up for the shark feeding dive at Bull Run, we were delayed due to competition at the site and a nearby thunderstorm, and it soon became apparent that I wouldn't be diving that day.  The head ache was debilitating.  Some time in the afternoon I descended to my cabin and eventually passed out.  I may include the whole story on this site in the future, but for now only the short version: Red took us to Bimini that night when it became evident that my condition was serious.  I was at the Bimini clinic for a few hours before a Coast Guard helicopter medevaced Larry and I to Miami and an ambulance took us to the hospital.  I was diagnosed with a severe case of bacterial meningitis and came very close to death.  After five days unconscious in the ICU I woke up and spent another seven days in the hospital before I was able to return to Juneau.  Three more weeks of utter weakness passed before I was able to return to work.  So, while the diving was phenomenal, our Cay Sal trip ended rather badly and put a general pall over memories of the trip.  When I first woke up, I had no memories of being on a dive trip at all; though I've since recovered all of my underwater memories, (thanks in part, I suspect, to a complete dive log, photos and video), much of the above water times on the trip remain obsured.  I should point out, however, that we were similarly pleased with the boat and its crew as the last time.  The crew and the office staff outdid themselves to help out during the course of the trip and through the highly unusual events that followed.


click images for enlargements and captions

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