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Bahamas - August 2005

This was the dream, clear skies and nothing but deep blue water as I prepared for another dive. All I had to do was stand; another world was a mere stride away. Was this only a dream induced by Dramamine? Or could it be reality, diving and living aboard the extremely stable platform of the Nekton Pilot?  

We had talked about the ease and adventure of spending a week at sea diving the little visited spots and enjoying the company of fellow divers. The few times we had tried to arrange such a trip it always seemed to hit a snag and we ended up at land based resorts. But this time we were wheels up and headed for a rendezvous with Nekton Diving Cruise’s original ship, the Nekton Pilot and a week of diving their Northwestern Bahamas itinerary.

We flew down to Miami to meet up with my brother Mike, and his wife Maria on a Friday night. The four of us would meet the rest of our group from the dive shop on Saturday to begin our voyage.  The plan was to contact Nekton’s representative at Fort Lauderdale’s airport, where they pick up passengers as flights arrive. Everyone is dropped off at Las Olas Riverfront for a little sightseeing and dinner while they stow your luggage on board. Once the week’s guests have assembled, Nekton’s buses transport the entire group to the ship at Port Everglades with a convenient stop for last minute supplies at a local supermarket, pharmacy and package store.  

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 Both of Nekton’s boats are nearly identical. When the Pilot was delivered in 1994, it was the first SWATH vessel built specifically for diving. Measuring approximately 80 feet by 40 feet, it doesn’t appear to be your typical boat. In fact, at first glance it reminds one more of an offshore oil platform than a liveaboard. But the secret of its stability lies in its unorthodox appearance. The SWATH (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull) technology allows the Pilot to ride on its twin-submerged hulls below the choppy water thus minimizing the effects transferred to the boat. Kelli, who is sometimes affected with motion sickness, was concerned about spending a week on a boat. However she reports that she never even felt queasy during our time at sea.   

 The Pilot has three decks. The Mola Mola Deck is the upper sundeck complete with a hot tub and covered area. The pilothouse is also located here. All of the pre-dive briefings are given under the awning. The middle deck is known as the Grouper Deck. The main Salon, dining area and galley are here along with seven guest cabins. The Coral Deck is home to the rest of the guest cabins (9) as well as the crew’s quarters. All of the guest cabins have large picture windows (no stupid little portholes here!) as well as individual AC controls and private heads. They were either setup with two twin beds or a single queen. Given the choice, the cabins on the Grouper Deck are definitely the way to go.  



 Just aft of the dining area on the Grouper Deck is the open-air camera area. There are two large cameras only tables as well as a large ice cooler for everyone’s use. The stairs here lead down to the elevating dive platform. Once you set your gear up at the start of the week it remained here until you finished diving. Whips from the compressor allowed the tanks to be refilled in place. After your dive you simply removed your first stage to alert the crew that the tank had been used. They would quickly refill the cylinder; replace the first stage and you were ready to go. They use steel 100cu ft tanks for the most part on the Pilot, some people like them for their buoyancy characteristics and some (like us) don’t. They do have some Al 80’s, which we opted for.  Bins were located beneath your station for storage of fins, masks, weight belts and any other incidentals. It was all fairly effortless!

 But I’m getting somewhat ahead of myself. The buses dropped us off at Nekton’s pier and we boarded the boat to find our luggage already stowed in our cabin. We had a bit of customs paper work to complete for our entry into the Bahamas the next morning. Then came the safety briefing and a general orientation before our final task, the required life vest drill. After that we settled in to assemble cameras and get to know the other passengers. Travel has a way of wearing you out. Combining that with the gentle swaying of the boat as we headed out over the Gulf Stream and sleep came easily.

 We awoke the next morning to brilliant blue skies and gleaming water. Breakfast was served as we waited for our Purser Jeff to clear us through customs at Grand Bahama Island and on to our first dive site at Indian Caye.


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 We began the typical dive schedule for the week. Just after breakfast, dive briefings were held under the awning where one of the divemasters would draw an elaborate sketch of the site and point out the locations of some of the more noteworthy attractions. Afterwards the dive deck would be opened for business. The boat would usually stay moored at the same site throughout the morning allowing plenty of time for two dives with a break in between for fresh cookies! This plan allowed everyone to go at their own pace and alleviated the need for a mad rush to get to the dive platform. Then as lunch was served the boat would be repositioned for the afternoon dives. Time was scheduled for two dives before a break for dinner.  After the evening feast, one of the crew would then put on a presentation concerning the local reef inhabitants. One night we learned of the secret life of turtles and another was about tunicates. You might think that tunicates wouldn’t hold the average persons interest for very long, but I was surprised at what I Iearned. Before this I had never paid much attention to these innocuous creatures, but after learning of them we delighted in finding their intricate colonies.  

 At the end of the presentation the dive deck was once again open for a night dive. After spending the afternoon on the same reef it was easy to find your way around and see the change in the inhabitants. This is not to say that no navigation skills were needed. On several occasions the boat would swing around on it’s mooring with the tide and a minute to re-orient yourself was needed. A hot shower and a warm towel were always waiting for you upon surfacing along with the evening’s snack. We tended to gather on the sun (moon?) deck after the last dive to compare notes from the day’s activities and enjoy the star filled sky. There’s just something about being out on the open ocean with no city lights to spoil the view of the stars. I don’t know how many shooting stars we counted during the week.  

 The crew was always available for a guided dive, but our group was comprised of the more adventurous (and experienced) divers and never took them up on it (though we did see them in the water with others). Mostly they were always there on the dive platform to lend a helping hand, share a joke, or pass you your camera. 

 We did divert from the “normal” schedule on a couple of occasions, the best being the search for wild dolphins on White Sand Ridge. After moving overnight from our dives at Scoto’s Reef we awoke to find dolphins playing in our bow wake.  Everyone excitedly finished breakfast and met on the dive deck. The crew has found that if they cruise around in circles the dolphins will become curious and come to investigate. It seems they can’t resist the opportunity to play in the bow wake. Once they have the dolphins’ attention, the crew stops the boat and it’s time to hit the water!

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 We tried to slip into the water as the dolphins returned to their hunting routine. Several female dolphins were in the process of teaching their calves to locate and catch fish buried in the sand. Even at the slow pace we had a hard time keeping up. You had to constantly kick just to stay abreast. Once you caught up, diving down to get a closer look and maybe snap a picture or two was about all I could manage! Surfacing sputtering and out of breath it was time to start the chase again. We were told during the briefing the dolphins would quickly become bored unless we were diving down and generally acting crazy to keep their attention. So there was no time to stop and catch your breath as long as there were dolphins around! We kept up as long as we could, until they finally decided it was time to re-board. It was probably just in the nick of time before I slowly sank down to the bottom.

 We all climbed back onto the dive platform exhausted but with smiles pasted from ear to ear. We had done a dolphin dive while on Roatan and had seen wild dolphins pass by while diving in Belize, but this was the first time we had been afforded the opportunity to actually interact with wild dolphins and it was thrilling!

 Most of the diving on the Northwest Bahamas itinerary was fairly shallow (there were some exceptions like Theo’s wreck, and the Thumbnail) and loaded with fish. Some of the wreck dives were the most crowded with our finned friends. You could hardly see the Sugar Wreck because of all the fish. Grunts were packed into every crack and crevice, barracuda patrolled in squadrons, and an octopus prowled around through the debris. The lack of depth at this dive site allowed the sun to play off the pillar coral and made for great photo opportunities. At times the clouds of fish were so thick you could barely see. At one point they completely masked one of the largest pieces of pillar coral we have ever encountered.


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 We were on site to do this dive three times – twice in the afternoon and one night dive. The local residents make a noticeable change with the setting sun. Turtles, stingrays and porcupine fish now dominated the wreck. This is definitely a “can’t miss” dive.  

 Here are a few of our other favorites.  The Wreck of the Hesperus was teeming with fish by day and home to enormous Loggerhead turtles at night.  One of them was so large and bold it literally ran right into our friend Cathy as she shot video.  Each turtle seemed to have at least one and sometimes two or more remora attached to its shell.  But we did find one lonely remora just sitting in the sand waiting to hitch a ride.  The Thumbnail was a fairly deep dive and held many treasures.  An octopus named “Herbie” had a lair just off the descent line with the shells of his dinner lining his front porch. He was obviously well fed because he looked like a 20-pound cephalopod in a 10-pound hole.  We spotted several brilliant colored angels as well.  I even spotted a Blue Angelfish along the miniwall that dropped off the formation (which really did take the shape of the thumbnail).  Later in the week, we discovered Rocky Mountain High and thoroughly enjoyed all the marine life.  The visibility was not very good that morning and it forced us to look more closely at things in short range.  We found several varieties of tunicates and wondered how many of those we’d missed before learning so much during the presentation on board.  At the end of the week we explored Tuna Alley. We only did this dive once, but we saw several small schools of graceful Atlantic Spadefish, a few Sargassum Triggers, and a tuna.  But the highlight of Tuna Alley was a fantastic swim through. It was adorned with multi-colored sponges that were illuminated by overhead “skylights.” It was worth several passes through it to take it all in.


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 If you’re wondering about the food on a boat a fraction of the size of a cruise liner, here’s a brief rundown.  Each morning, breakfast had one major entrée like bacon and eggs, pancakes, sausage gravy and biscuits, or some other very filling main course.  For those who wanted a little less, there was always lots of fresh fruit, bagels, or cereal, too.  Did we mention the cookies?  I think so, but it’s worth repeating you don’t want to miss the warm cookies, fresh from the oven, served every day between the two morning dives.  And leftover cookies were held over for midday dessert.   Lunch ranged from pasta salad, tacos, hamburgers and hotdogs, BLTs, to homemade lasagna.  Arminda was a very good cook!!  Each afternoon, she put out appetizers about 4pm as people started to come in from diving.   They were always hot and fresh, too.  We were usually still to full from lunch to partake, but Cuban meat pastries, nachos, and small spring rolls were a few I remember seeing.   Prime rib with potatoes, fresh tilapia with rice and veggies, a full turkey dinner, pork roast with veggies, shrimp with pasta, and BBQ ribs rounded out our dinner menus. Each evening dinner came with salad and homemade dessert as well.  If you go hungry on the trip, you apparently slept through mealtime.   

 Two shore excursions were offered on our weeklong itinerary, one in Freeport and another in Bimini.  We skipped Port Lucaya (Freeport), but not for any particular reason other than we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see sharks at Shark Junction. This spot is adjacent to UNEXSO’s shark feeding site, and while they don’t do a shark-feeding dive on the Nekton, we understood that sharks might linger in the area looking for a hand out.

 We took a bearing to the feeding spot and jumped in. Right away a reef shark cruised by and our hopes were running high to get some good pictures. The site is a maze of narrow channels winding through the coral up to a large sand patch. This is where they do the actual feeding. We worked our way up to the sand and looked all around before deciding to head back to the coral where the visibility was better.  We encountered three more sharks briefly during the dive, but none ever close enough for a shot. This sort of set the tone for the week’s shark sightings – a couple here and there, but not the bonanza people claimed in the scuba magazines. Oh well, there was still plenty to see.  

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 We did decide to go ashore at Bimini.  We passed several other live-aboards anchored near us on the short ride into Alicetown.  We walked down the main street and toured the little market area looking for trinkets and such. We stopped in one of the small stores for sodas and took some pictures of the islands’ architecture.  It would have been easy to hang around at one of the intriguing little bars here and drink tropical concoctions, but with two dives left, we opted to just head on back when the next group was brought in from the Pilot.  

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 The dive site we were tied up at looked intriguing too. It was a place they called The Strip for a good reason, the coral ran in a long strip parallel to the shore. We donned our gear and went exploring. The small wall of coral was covered in grunts, with several schools of goatfish congregated together. I found three scorpionfish on the first pass! I always thought that for every one I found that there were probably two others that I missed. We also saw a variety of eels – green moray, white spotted, goldentail and a mystery eel living in a hole with another.  We had such a good dive that we did it again a little later and it also made an excellent night dive.  On that outing, we discovered all manner of crustacean.  The channel clinging crabs were having a convention.  The lobsters and eels were out in force as well.  We even saw the same two enormous rainbow parrotfish from the afternoon dive literally tucked up into holes so tight they looked wedged inside.  This was also the site we spotted the two largest  banded coral shrimp we’ve ever seen.  The were each about two to three inches in length and they were at the exact same spot all three times we passed.  This relatively small patch of coral proved to be excellent for creature hunts over and over. 

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 That night (Thursday) we had the weekly photo contest.  With a boat full of avid diving photographers, this proved to be quite entertaining. First all the entries are shown on the flat screen TV. After everyone had a quick look, the voting begins with the boisterous crowd calling out to discard this image or that. Finally when the crowd has whittled the number down to the final four, the winner was judged on applause. Unfortunately, Nekton has discontinued their onboard E6 film processing so entries were limited to digital images – which further whetted our interest in upgrading our primary camera. To our delight, a contestant from our group took top prize!  Way to go Andy!  

 On our last evening, we watched the video put together by Nekton’s staff.  It included scenes from both above and underwater ranging from snorkeling with dolphins, to the crew’s ongoing antics. Since the crew is included in the video, it makes a nice souvenir of the weeks dive sites and the personalities on board.  Later we sat up on the deck and enjoyed the last of the shooting stars and relived the week’s highlights.  As the captain pulled up anchor and fired up the engines for our final crossing, we took advantage of our last opportunities to gaze out over the water and experience the gentle swaying as we traveled back toward Fort Lauderdale.   

 Saturday morning came very early and the realization that cruise ship passengers from the massive ship beside us could see directly into our cabin hurried us along as we dressed and packed the last of our belongings.  We ate our breakfast and awaited the arrival of a customs officer who cleared us through immigration.  As it seems to be a pattern with our trips lately, everyone else had plans to head home immediately after our cruise, but we decided to stay and play for a little while longer. We said goodbye to the staff and the rest of our group and we were on our way back to Mike’s in Miami by 10:00am. Our first trip on a live aboard had been a great experience.  Now we were really looking forward to our stay aboard the Big Blue Explorer in February 2006.

 After taking a day off to dry out we had made plans to meet our friends Mickey and Cathy for a chance to dive the wreck of the Spiegel Grove. This was a particularly intriguing opportunity since hurricane Dennis had completed the original sinking plan. Since 2002 when the Grove was sent on it’s final mission as an artificial reef, she had sat on her starboard side. When hurricane Dennis raked the Keys in July 2005 everyone was surprised when they found the ship sitting upright.   

 The six of us met at the dock in Key Largo at 8:30 to head out with Blue Water Divers for a two tank trip to the newly righted Grove. They are one of the smaller operations in Largo, but they aren’t short on diving freedom. Their 30’ boat, Blue Water Diver was well equipped with radio, oxygen and first aid kit. They also required at least an Advanced Open Water certification to do these dives.

 We embarked with a full compliment of divers (8) for the short ride to the site. The Spiegel Grove is a large wreck, which affords multiple mooring points that are first come first served. One of the stern markers was free so we would start our exploration from there. After a quick check of the current we hit the water and started down the mooring line. The outline of the ship came into view almost immediately. It was so large that it was impossible to see the whole thing, let alone see it all in one dive.  

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 A large landing craft repair bay partially covered by a helicopter landing pad dominates the stern of the ship. Small cranes stand at the ready along both sides offering lots of nooks and crannies for marine life to take hold. I was surprised to see the amount of life still attached to the ship after it’s dramatic flip. We worked our way forward amid schools of swirling silversides until we reached the antiaircraft battery. Unfortunately, the depth of the wreck (134’ to the bottom and 65’ to her highest point) forced us to turn around and work our way back to the mooring line at this point. The immensity of this ship really struck me waiting on the line during the safety stop.  

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 Unlike the other charters who retreated to the shallower sites for the second dive, we simply moved around to another vacate mooring ball and waited through our safety stop for another crack at the Grove.  This time we were tied up to the bow. We dropped over the side and pulled ourselves along the granny line against the surface current to the down line. The eerie shape of the bow materialized as we descended. The deck of the ship is literally covered with clamshells! This seemed fairly strange, but they were everywhere. You had to wonder how they stayed on while the ship was rolling over. Once again I was struck by the amount of sponge growth that has already taken hold (and obviously held on tight!) to the hull of a ship that has only been down three years.

 We swam back and forth through several of the large openings playing follow the leader with a couple parrotfish. And then, all too quickly, our no decompression time slipped away and we were forced to start our ascent. As I turned to head up the ascent line everyone was already perched there waiting out their safety stops. Mike, Maria, Mickey, Cathy, and Kelli looked like birds on a wire.  They must have been far more anxious to rinse their own gear than I was.  I miss the Nekton already!!  

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 It had been a great week (plus a couple extra bonus days tacked onto the end). Our first liveaboard had been a fantastic experience!  The pure ease of diving and the beauty of staying on the water for a week will weigh heavily in our plans for future trips. From now on any destination that is home to a dive vessel will definitely get a lot of consideration in our decision. 

Our Crew 

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Captain Ephey Jeff Arminda

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Geoff "Big Daddy" John

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Jon & Nik Troy Mike