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  • The Thrill of Sharks, the Joy of Dolphins and the Intrigue of Shipwrecks
    UNEXSO and Pelican Bay at Lucaya
    by Stephen Frink
    Thirty years ago, as Freeport, Grand Bahama Island was just beginning to evolve as a tropical vacation getaway, developers building a hotel known as the Oceanus Inn decided its theme should be scuba diving. Although there was no template in those days for what a destination dive resort should be, the investors wisely brought in recreational diving experts to design a state of the art facility adjacent to their property. It would be complete with an 18 foot deep training pool, a dock for the dive boats, classrooms, air compressors, a research library and dive museum. The resulting dive operation was named the Underwater Explorers Society. UNEXSO and the Oceanus Inn set a new standard that dive resorts of the future would seek to emulate.

    Unfortunately, in the intervening decades the Oceanus Inn faded into oblivion. UNEXSO, on the other hand, flourished by constantly increasing its commitment to the needs of the traveling diver. Over the years more and better dive boats have been added, compressors have been improved, retail facilities expanded, a new photo/video center installed, more dive education programs offered and a popular restaurant and bar known as the Brass Helmet built. UNEXSO has also become world renowned for innovative and exciting scuba options such as Theos Wreck, Shark Junction, and the Dolphin Dive. In fact, UNEXSO has become one of the worlds great dive facilities, in demand by both recreational scuba enthusiasts and commercial photographers and filmmakers.

    Yet, even though there are several fine hotels nearby that offer lodging packages with UNEXSO;most notably the Bahamas Princess Resort and Casino, Port Lucaya Resort and Yacht Club and the Lucayan Beach Resort and Casino;the ultimate accessibility of a resort directly adjacent to the dive facility was missing;until now. I recently stayed at the new resort right next to UNEXSO, Pelican Bay at Lucaya, and found it to be exceptionally comfortable, reasonably priced and tremendously convenient. Pelican Bay is right on the waterfront, overlooking the Port Lucaya Marketplace and Marina and sharing the seawall with UNEXSO. Decorated with barrel tile roofs and stuccoed in the gorgeous pastels of the Caribbean, this scenic three story resort consists of 48 air-conditioned rooms, each with tile floors, private balcony, satellite TV, direct dial telephones, mini-refrigerators, in-room coffeemakers and a personal safe. Amenities include a freshwater swimming pool, hottub and pool bar. There is no restaurant on the premises but the property is steps away from the Brass Helmet Restaurant at UNEXSO and a wide variety of restaurants found at the Port Lucaya Marketplace.

    I had occasion to stay at Pelican Bay last October when I was in Freeport to shoot a portion of a dive equipment catalogue. We chose UNEXSO as the host for the catalogue shoot because the client wanted to emphasize the adventure of diving. Here, just a 40 minute flight from Miami, was the opportunity to dive with sharks and dolphins and explore shipwrecks, U/W caverns and coral reefs. Plus, UNEXSO is extremely experienced in catering to the needs of commercial photographers and even Hollywood movie productions. Over the years UNEXSO has worked closely on two different IMAX films, countless TV shows and several feature films, including the soon to be released Zeus and Roxanne. I had no doubt my friends at UNEXSO could make our project happen as well.

    The UNEXSO/Pelican Bay complex is about a 15 minute ride from the airport. A new dive wing at UNEXSO is still under construction but Pelican Bay is finished, landscaped and open for business. Even though we were among the first guests, there were no apparent growing pains one might associate with a brand new property. The staff was gracious and everything was perfectly functional. The elevator was handy when carrying the abundance of dive gear and underwater cameras our project required. After one particularly long day of shooting, we even got a chance to try out the poolside hottub while sipping a Bahamian Kalik beer and watching the stars over Port Lucaya. Magically, the stress of the day evaporated.

    As for the shoot, UNEXSO came through once again! Our first shot was at an inland blue hole known as Bens Cavern. Part of The Bahamas National Trust, Bens Cavern is accessed by a short path through a pine forest and then down a spiral staircase to an open cavern. Clear, fresh water surrounds the submerged stalactites and stalagmites just below the surface. A layer of salt and fresh water (halocline) marks the entrance to a labyrinthine cave system but we werent equipped for a cave penetration. Instead we worked around the entrance of the cavern and got some great shots around a particularly photogenic stalagmite.

    The next day brought an opportunity to dive with dolphins in the open ocean. While I have seen wild dolphins occasionally and have had a few opportunities to get close enough for an effective underwater photo, a catalogue shoot is not the time to leave such things to chance. At UNEXSOs Dolphin Dive, scuba divers get a guaranteed opportunity to interact with a friendly pair of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins along a lovely coral reef in 50 feet of water. Actually, there are three separate modules to the UNEXSO dolphin program: the Dolphin Experience, a research and educational program conducted at ecologically pristine Sanctuary Bay; the open water scuba encounter known as the Dolphin Dive; and the more in-depth Assistant Dolphin Trainer Program. In our Dolphin Dive, our underwater models enjoyed a very close encounter with a pair of dolphins named Bimini and Stripe while zooming along the reef on an underwater scooter. The photo opportunities were outstanding.

    The shark photo-ops are, if anything, even more predictable at UNEXSOs famed Shark Junction. Minutes after we settled on the sand bottom at 45 feet the sharks appeared. Once shark wrangler Ollie Ferguson began the feeding, at least 16 Caribbean Reef Sharks began swarming about seeking a free handout. The action was fast and furious as long as the bait was in the water. Ollie led the sharks to the front of my dome, hoping to fill the frame with dramatic chomp shots. We ran out of film and bait at about the same time. As if to underscore the opportunistic nature of shark feeding, these supposedly fearsome predators totally lost interest in us when we no longer had free goodies to share.

    UNEXSO has another great underwater set in the shipwreck known as Theos Wreck. Sunk intentionally as a dive attraction in 1982, this 230 foot former cement freighter settled on her port side in 100 feet of water near a vertical wall. Another 50 yards to seaward and Theos Wreck would now be sitting in 6,000 feet of water. But, as it is, it presents great opportunities for wide angle photography, particularly along her colorfully encrusted bow anchor chain, propellers and cavernous bridge. A smaller shipwreck, a former tugboat known as the Jose, rests in just 65 feet of water. While it does not offer the massive scale and grandeur of Theos, it is quite photogenic, especially during the seasonal congregation of Glass Minnows.

    The addition of the newest star to the UNEXSO dive/lodging constellation, Pelican Bay at Lucaya, provides unmatched comfort and convenience for divers visiting the wrecks, reefs, blue holes and dolphins of Freeport, Grand Bahama. Whether the objective is a major Hollywood film, a commercial underwater photo session or a unique and exciting dive vacation, UNEXSO can make it happen. For further information or reservations, phone (800) 992-DIVE or (954) 351-9889.