Underwater Escapades off Cay Sal

Cay Sal Bank is a shallow plateau surrounded by the deepest, bluest water imaginable. It is separated from the rest of The Bahamas by Santaren Channel, from Cuba by Nicholas Channel and from the United States by the Straits of Florida. This unique geography offers the promise of underwater escapades on deep walls, coral reefs and blue holes, all only 120 miles from Nekton Pilot's home port in Ft. Lauderdale. High adventure doesn't get much easier than exploring Cay Sal on this exceptionally stable live-aboard.

High Tech Hull Design: Nekton Pilot takes to the sea with the lush ride of a Cadillac cruising the open road. The unique Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull (SWATH) design works like soft springs and a good set of shock absorbers, making every motion long and slow enough to avoid stressing even sensitive inner ears. Waves that would cause other boats to pitch and roll pass between the twin submerged pontoons and the raised hull with scarcely a quiver. The result is that people are much less prone to sea sickness on Nekton Pilot than on similar sized boats of conventional design.

The size and style of the living space permitted by Nekton Pilot's SWATH design may be equally important for comfort. With more than 6,000 feet of deck space on three levels, there is plenty of room and large cabins with private bathrooms, spacious salon and dining areas and an enormous sundeck. Instead of hatches and ladders, there are doors and stairways.

Three Adventure Cruises: The stable ride and excellent service are not the only reasons people return for second and third trips on Nekton Pilot. In addition to the Cay Sal Bank trip, two other itineraries are available, each providing very different and exciting dive opportunities. The Southern Bahamas trip begins in Great Exuma and explores the rarely visited reefs and spectacular walls of Rum Cay, Conception Island and San Salvador. The Bahamas Adventure heads north from Bimini, sampling the great diving around Grand Bahama Island, the Gingerbread Grounds and the Grand Bahama Bank.

Nekton Pilot Diving: The size of the dive deck and the open pool policy at each site prevent crowding, even considering Nekton Pilot's 30 passenger capacity. Here's the routine: The boat stops at two different sites each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. There is plenty of time for two dives at each site. There is usually ample time for a night dive at the second site as well. Divers set their own schedules, limited only to staying above 130 feet, diving with a buddy and following accepted safe diving practices. Three divemasters are normally on duty to assist guests, two on the dive deck and a safety spotter on the sundeck.

A set of four wide steps, outfitted with a triple handrail, connects the dive deck to the dive platform, where two big ladders provide access from the water. The dive deck can be adjusted up or down at the touch of a button to ensure the dive platform is at water level. A warm, freshwater shower is handily mounted on the dive deck, next to the stack of dry towels.

The blue waters of the Gulf Stream can bring exceptional clarity to Tuna Alley, where the low profile reef rises briefly from about 50 feet to 40 before dropping steeply to around 100. Horizontal visibility was around 120 feet on our dives, with a moderate current running north. The wall bows gradually and is split by a series of chutes and cuts that provide enough protection for Black Corals to grow in colorful puffs of green, pink and rusty orange. A school of 10 or 12 Permit zoomed into one of the cuts, circled briefly and then sped out. Nighttime revealed Spotted Morays, Caribbean Octopus and Giant Basketstars.

A pair of Remoras swam in unison below the boat at Last Chance Reef off Orange Cay. Apparently their behavior was a mating ritual, because they paused now and then to wriggle briefly together. There were numerous cleaning stations on the high profile coral mounds that make up the reef, where Neon Gobies and juvenile Spanish Hogfish busily cleaned striped Tiger and Nassau Groupers.

A long meandering ledge is the main feature at Playground, formed by the lip of a low profile reef in only 20 to 25 feet of water. During the day it is a haven for Squirrelfish, Angelfish and other reef dwellers, at night the ledge harbors sleeping Loggerhead Turtles and Nurse Sharks.

Our first dive at Cay Sal was Big Hole, a very deep blue hole about one-quarter mile in diameter. Formed thousands of years ago when this shallow bank towered several hundred feet above sea level, the Cay Sal blue holes start in about 30 feet and drop straight down. Bahamian legends describe a huge squid-like creature called a Lasca that was believed to inhabit the blue holes. Even though Lascas have proven more elusive than the Loch Ness monster, there is a spookiness about blue holes. Maybe it's the Caribbean Reef Sharks and Blacktips that are frequently seen circling along the wall or the stalactites frozen in time like enormous icicles.

We returned to Big Hole later in the week for the Nekton Pilot shark feeding dive. A weighted tag line laced with whole fish was threaded down another line anchored in front of our group, which had gathered on a large sand ledge inside the hole. Eleven Caribbean Reef Sharks ranging from three to six feet attended the feast.

The rim of Sistine Chapel is only about 25 feet deep and perhaps 300 feet across. The walls drop vertically to 70 feet, then cut sharply outward, forming a broad circular ceiling around the entire circumference. Long white strands of wire coral give the underside of the rim a ghostly, untended appearance. More than 200 feet down the sandy bottom is plainly visible, with sharks cruising the midwater. Twenty-three of them were on hand that day, crossing patiently back and forth, but always staying 20 or 30 feet below us.

One of the interesting features at the blue hole called Silversides is a twisting, turning swim-through just below 100 feet that is always filled with Silversides. At about the same depth but slightly farther around the circumference of the hole, a mysterious looking perpetually white soft coral sprouts from the limestone like a gnarly beard.

The Elbow Cay drift dives are exhilarating flights through sparkling blue water along Cay Sal's deep wall. The Florida Current provides both the propulsion, pulling us effortlessly along the top of the abyss at warp speed, and the 150 foot visibility. The wall has the same look as a perpetually windswept ridge, with Deep Water Seafans and Barrel Sponges leaning in permanent surrender to the current. This was an exciting dive with big scenery, from the sudden drop-off with large tufts of Black Coral to hulking Jewfish and Nassau Groupers. After two Elbow Cay dives, Nekton Pilot stops at Water Cay for an afternoon of watersports. This isolated playground is open for kayaking, waterskiing, snorkeling, diving or beachcombing.

A steady current was flowing north along Victory Reef on Friday morning, so we were treated to a long, relaxing drift dive that covered about a mile. Our route paralleled the edge of a mini-wall formed by the reef, so we could choose a profile as deep as 90 feet or as shallow as 35. The visibility was 100 feet or more, which was great for sightseeing. Atlantic Spadefish, Queen Angelfish, Green Morays, Nurse Sharks and Horse-eye Jacks were among the most frequently seen fish.

The Crew Members: The crew of the Nekton Pilot is responsible for the fun passengers have on these Bahamas explorations. There isn't room here to list them by name and position, but they definitely showed they are a talented and enthusiastic group with a knack for entertainment. Of course they made all the vital chores, such as handling the boat, navigating and cooking, seem easy.

For more information, contact Nekton Cruises in the U.S. and Canada at (800) UW WORLD, (800) 899-7653. From other locations, call (954) 463-9324 or fax (954) 463-8938. Be sure to ask about the January booking special that gets you $100 off any 1998 cruise that starts after April 1. The Nekton Cruises postal address is 520 SE 32nd Street, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33316 and the e-mail address is info@nektoncruises.com. Additional information is also available on the Nekton Pilot Web site at www.nektoncruises.com.