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  • The same feeling of carefree adventure that existed in Blackbeard’s day permeates the modern deck of the Bahamas-bound Morning Star.

    Once thick with notorious buccaneers like Blackbeard and Anne Bonney, the pale waters and passages of the Bahamas now attract divers from around the world in search of a treasure trove of underwater adventure.

    The eerie ribs of the Sapona below the surface.
    Minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit...
    including the wind factor!” exclaimed Ginette and Manon. Now in their bikinis, only yesterday they were bundled in thermal clothing. In fact, all seven of the French Canadian group didn’t waste any time getting into their bathing suits. Lotions and sunglasses were spread out on the deck. Stephane and Caroline were preparing their dive gear, David was steering the yacht, keeping his eyes on the compass, while Jo and Mark were dancing around the Morning Star’s deck to the sounds of Credence Clear Water Revival. The temperature was 78°F, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

    We anchored the yacht to the Sapona by throwing a thick rope onto part of the large wreck. Much of the wreck is above water and in most places rises almost 10 feet higher than our yacht.

    We started our dive on the large propeller, which was once to be placed in a museum in Bimini. However, a last minute decision kept it attached to the wreck for divers and photographers to enjoy.

    Diversity is the essence of the Bahamas—divers can witness high-intensity shark feeds, cruise the colorful reefs and explore mysterious shipwrecks.
    A large school of yellow grunts lives under the stern; the fish kept disappearing and reappearing through a large opening. As I watched this back and forth parade, a group of seven French Canadian divers suddenly appeared instead of the grunts, making their way out joyfully. For most of them this was the first time they were able to dive in 3mm wetsuits, and they were having a glorious time.

    We left the propeller and continued to the wreck’s starboard side, heading slowly in the direction of the bow. We skipped the part where the stern broke away from the rest of the boat, passed by the display of corals and sponges decorating the walls of the ship, creating a bright mixture of colors, and then penetrated the first opening into a compartment full of old rusted machinery. This compartment had four doors and plenty of light. We entered through the first door and took a quick glance through two others, guessing that the fourth door would lead us to the bowels of the ship. Our instinct was correct; this magnificent room must have been the lower deck cargo area. It was only about 20 feet deep, and the ceiling was far above water. The concrete has disintegrated over the years, leaving only the metal skeleton. The port side of the wreck is still intact but the starboard side has lost its flesh. The result is a wonderful combination of gothic shapes, light and shadows.

    For the surface interval, the boat anchored in turquoise waters in front of a deserted sandy beach. Once on the beach, guests scattered in all directions. The Canadian group decided to take it easy, spreading their towels on the sand and soaking up the sun. When David was sure no one was watching, he made the fateful mistake of going for a swim—leaving his bathing suit behind. Needless to say, it was a while before he got it back!

    On our way to the next dive site, the sea was calm, and the water was so clean that we could clearly see the curves on the sandy bottom, which was at least 90 feet deep. When a reef suddenly appeared, Jay, the yacht’s captain, rushed to his GPS and marked the spot. It was the first time he had seen it, and later we would try to dive there and see if it had the makings of a new dive site.

    Steven, the yacht’s engineer, was the first to spot the dolphins. As the yacht’s bow turned toward them the excitement rose. Jay first let them surf the bow’s wake for a few minutes, and then we jumped in.

    There were six dolphins, but only four came for a close look, the mother and baby chose to stay away. This was a quick encounter but we were all thrilled, especially when the “men in grey” showed up.

    The Sapona’s Sordid Past

    The Sapona was built in 1911 as a cargo ship by the Henry Ford company. During WWI it was one of 12 liberty ships, but soon after it was decommissioned. Later it was brought to the Bahamas to be used as a casino during Prohibition. It has been said that Al Capone once owned it.

    During a hurricane in 1926, the Sapona broke loose and ran aground on a sandbank in South Bimini, which is where it lies today. The Sapona’s position in the middle of the Bermuda triangle led to some mysterious happenings during WWII. The wreck was used as target practice for the United States Air Force and, in 1945, five F4s vanished and were never seen again. The F4 Avengers last radio contact was, “We have the Sapona in sight.”

    In the 1980s the Sapona was used as a hiding place for a drug baron’s stashed loot, and in 1992, a hurricane broke and twisted the stern. Today the wreck’s fine lines still make a strong visual impression. It is often chosen by filmmakers to play a part in their movies and by photographers to be the background of fashion shoots, above and below water.

    It remains a world-class diving and snorkeling site.

    Joanne noticed them first. “Shark!” she shouted to the boat, her voice slightly concerned. When there was no response she tried again, “I see a shark.... two sh..., there are two sharks here!” Mark, her husband, got his mask on and joined the group. “Three sharks!” she announced.

    Later, a shark feed was conducted on a dive site called Bull Run, which is named after the Bull Sharks that were seen there frequently until someone decided to kill them all. Though there were no Bulls, there were plenty of Caribbean Reef Sharks and a few Nurse Sharks.

    About 30 sharks met us on the bottom, while Tracy tapped two pieces of metal together to announce meal time to the sharks that hadn’t yet arrived. The sharks were visibly excited—swimming fast, above and between us.

    We were seated in a half circle around a large metal ring secured to the ground with a rope running through it. A signal was given, and someone lowered a large metal pole with bloody chunks of barracuda skewered shish kebab–style. Tracy had to pull that rope as fast as she could to bring the bait into the middle of the circle in time. The shark’s incredible sense of smell stirred them into a frenzy, and some were already attacking the approaching bait.

    Once on the bottom there was absolute chaos. At one point, I got a real fright when four sharks headed straight toward my husband, and all four of them bumped their heads into his camera at the same time (mouths closed). Unfortunately, their eyesight was poor, and in the confusion, they seemed to have no idea where they were going.

    The next two dives, one of which was a night dive, were conducted on the new reef Jay marked with his GPS. The site was magnificent, with a thick forest of healthy gorgonians, plenty of angelfish, different species of groupers, a turtle and a large stingray.

    As we emerged from the night dive onto the top deck, the music had already begun playing. There was a plate of sashimi waiting for us, and the juice in the container had been replaced with rum punch. The stars were out in the clear night sky, and the temperature was still perfect.

    Dive briefing

    There are three to four dives every day including night dives. They typically cover about 20 dive sites spread over Bimini and Orange Key. Accessibility depends on the season and weather conditions. All dive sites have moorings to ensure minimal damage to the reef.

    Each yacht has a crew of six: captain, first mate, cook, engineer, deck-hand and diving instructor. On the Morning Star, five out of the six are diving instructors (PADI, NAUI, SSI). The entire staff speaks English and some speak Spanish. All Blackbeard’s yachts are fully air-conditioned and can accommodate 22 passengers. The length is 65 feet and beam is 19 feet.

    Scuba rental equipment is available, and for safety, the boats carry oxygen bottles, trauma kits, first-aid kits, life rafts, life jackets, Epirb 406, extensive communications equipment and more. Blackbeards Cruises is SOLAS certified. The nearest decompression chambers are in the Grand Bahamas or Miami, which is 44 miles from Bimini.

    A Pirate's Holiday | Full-Blown Cayman
    Little Shop of Colors: Discovering St. Vincent and the Grenadines
    In the Shadow of the Pitons: Diving St. Lucia | Easing into Bonaire
    The Wild Side of Eden: Dominica | Getting There | Index