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Dive Review of Aqua Cat Cruises in
Bahamas/Exumas

Aqua Cat Cruises: "A Tale of Two Reefs", May, 2022,

by Hugh E Aaron, FL, US (Sr. Contributor Sr. Contributor 26 reports with 19 Helpful votes). Report 11929.

Photos Submitted with this Report


Click on an image to see an enlarged version and captions

Ratings and Overall Comments 1 (worst) - 5 (best):

Accommodations 4 stars Food 5 stars
Service and Attitude 5 stars Environmental Sensitivity 5 stars
Dive Operation 5 stars Shore Diving N/A
Snorkeling N/A
Value for $$ 4 stars
Beginners 4 stars
Advanced 4 stars
Comments With three different levels of liveaboard boats (Aqua Cat, Cat Ppalu, and Blackbeards) diving the Exumas for decades, All Star Liveaboards really knows the Exumas. Aqua Cat is the flagship of the All Star Exumas fleet.

Aqua Cat leaves from Nassau before sunrise on Sunday and, cruising at about 10 knots, arrives in the northern Exumas in time for a morning dive. Our week, Captain Sam hopped from dive site to dive site traveling as far south as the Exumas Land Sea Park before turning around and working our way north again. Once we entered the Exumas, it was five dives a day including night dives until Thursday when we had a going away Captain’s Party instead of the night dive. It was quite an event complete with a photo contest, "awards" and a lot of light hearted comedy. On Friday we made our last dive in the Exumas before starting back to Nassau stopping along the way to dive the Lost Blue Hole. Friday night was a laid back evening in the marina.

The crew understandably requests that everyone stay off the boat (or on the dive deck only) on Saturday after breakfast so that they can prep the boat for the next group of guests. However, they hold all luggage on the dive deck until the ground transport van arrives. We walked into town that morning, returning in time to catch our airport shuttle. But the marina pool would have been another option. All of the ground transportation and luggage transfers are coordinated by the crew.

Aqua Cat is a serious dive boat. The boat, crew, systems and itinerary are all finely tuned for getting in as much diving as possible. Each diver is assigned a station on the dive deck with a seat, a storage bin and two tanks. There is also plenty of space to hang wet items. The fill whips reach each diver’s station so the tanks can be filled in place (with either air or nitrox) after each dive without removing the BC. It is evident that a lot of thought was put into making it comfortable to move around the dive deck.

We were the only two people on the boat diving air. We did not find that to be much of a limitation although we kept a close watch on our NDL given how much diving we were doing. We never got close to needing a deco stop (which is against the boat’s rules), however, on some of the deep dives we did not spend as much time at depth as some other divers. We like shallower dives anyway, so it worked for us.

Entry is from either the dive deck with a 6 foot giant stride (neither of us ever did that) or you can simply walk down either the port or starboard stairs (with good handholds) to a water level deck and step in. The crew likes to assist everyone walking down the stairs although no one seemed to really need much assistance. For re-boarding, there are massive dive ladders port and starboard. They are designed so that divers can re-board with their fins either on or off. A crew member is stationed at the top of the ladder to take fins from those people who preferred to remove their fins before re-boarding. The crew member also showers each diver with fresh warm water as the divers come up the ladder. That was luxurious and is typical of the level of service on the Aqua Cat.

There was a comprehensive briefing before each dive. Divers could choose whether to dive on their own, or follow a guide (which meant you could easily locate swim throughs). There was only one occasion where a recommendation on bottom time was made, and that was to make sure that we had adequate time to make it to the next site. None of the dives were rushed and we never felt that we were being asked to cut our dive short (truthfully with five a day, an hour is long enough!)

Neither of us wore wetsuits. But everyone else did. I occasionally wore a thin zip up vest. We were both generally comfortable in the water but never wasted any time getting to the dive deck showers after each dive for a warm shower followed by dry clothes.

There is, as one would expect from an operation of this caliber, a serious focus on safety. However, the rules are all practical and do not detract from the experience. There is always a dinghy in the water, or a chase boat available and plenty of lines to hang on while you wait to get back on board. A hang bar at 15 feet helps you with your safety stop, and extra air is available should you need it.

The diving offers a lot of variety including numerous reef dives, wall dives, drift dives and speciality dives such as the the “Washing Machine” (a wild ride in a very strong and disorganized current), the “Lost Blue Hole” and a shark feeding dive, which seemed unnatural and perhaps not the best way to engage with wild animals. We tried it, but we would skip the shark feeding next time.

All Star has a huge selection of dive sites that they have identified over years. In most cases they have installed moorings on each of those sites. I don’t think we dropped anchor all week. Aqua Cat is equipped with all of the equipment need to install and maintain moorings, including a heavy duty underwater hydraulic drill. We have never seen anything like that on any other dive boat.

Unfortunately, but not surprising, most of reefs in the Exumas appear to be struggling with extensive macroalgae cover and very sparse coral cover (probably less than 10% on most sites). We are seeing this all over the Caribbean, but the Exumas is about the worst we have seen anywhere, other than Florida. However, at least in the Exumas, the reefs that are subject to fast tidal currents (typically where the tidal current is channeled between islands) often have little or no macroalgae and much healthier coral. Discovering that was the highlight of our trip. The problem is that, unlike most of the “regular” dive sites, the sites that are subject to fast tidal currents can only be comfortably dived during slack tide, or perhaps as a potentially uncomfortable and difficult to manage fast drift dive. Captain Sam (who seems to have a deep understanding of the Exumas reefs and currents) put us on healthier tidal reefs every time he could without compromising the dive schedule. I estimate that about a one third of the dives were on the healthier reefs and the rest, well . . . .

I should point out that most people were not as troubled by the struggling reefs because they still offer a lot of interesting marine life and underwater topography such as swim throughs and caves. However, having been first certified in 1978 when most of the Caribbean reefs were spectacular, I find the current state of affairs depressing. I have included with this review photos of both the unhealthy and health reefs. Hence, the title of this review.

Aqua Cat is a steel power cat built by the Aussies, who are well known as the world’s premier power cat builders. She is one stout boat. However, she is a 2001 model and, while well maintained, has a bit of dated look and feel. Due the wide beam typical of cats, Aqua Cat feels massive with three levels, all with either complete or partial cover from the elements. The weather never seemed to affect boat operations or the diving.

Our cabin (#8) was comfortable and mostly quiet, by boat standards. We slept well most nights, especially when moored. However, the large beds are not centerline so one person has to sleep on the inside, which was only a minor annoyance for us. The crew offered to separate the bed into two smaller beds with space in between but we opted to stick with single large bed configuration.

The cabins have ensuite heads with a shower. The heads are functional but have almost no flat work space or storage space other than a somewhat tired medicine cabinet. However, the private, fully enclosed, dive deck showers are luxurious. We got in the habit of showering in the dive deck showers after each dive. Consequently, we converted our ensuite shower to a drying room, which worked well. We like it dark when sleeping and found the window shades (which were also tired) inadequate for keeping out the light. We mostly solved that problem with clothes pins and blue painters tape, which we carry with us for that purpose when traveling.

The boat has two giant generators and multiple watermakers and water heaters. The crew instructed us on the first day not to be concerned about water usage. They assured us that Aqua Cat could easily make and heat more water than we could possibly use. That turned out to be the case.

We thought the food was great. There was a nice variety, even for picky eaters. One guest had a serious gluten allergy and the chef and galley crew seemed to have no problem keeping her happy. Snacks were plentiful (and often fresh-baked). Unlimited alcohol is also included with a selection of draft beer, wine and harder stuff. Heavy drinking was not something that we had much interest in but it seemed to appeal to at least one group on the boat. We did enjoy a pina colada or glass of wine after our last dive on a few days. The boat has the usual rule that your dive day ends with your first drink.

There where 11 crew members and about 22 guests our week. The service was consistently outstanding. The crew was helpful and friendly and seemed genuinely interested in providing an enjoyable safe experience.

The first mate also arranged several excursions as alternatives to dives. We visited a beach and fed iguanas, took a guided hike of the land sea park, and had many opportunities to go fishing for mahi, mackerel, etc. Some divers also went snorkel boarding (yes, that is apparently a thing). There were plenty of options to stay busy.

In summary, Aqua Cat is a first rate operation that provides lots of diving and makes the best of the Exumas’ struggling reefs.
Websites Aqua Cat Cruises   

Reporter and Travel

Dive Experience Over 1000 dives
Where else diving Virginia, North Carolina, California, Hawaii, Florida, Abaco, Bimini, Culebra, USVI, BVI, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Caymans, Dominica, Roatan, Belize, Saba, St, Barths, St Kitts, Nevis, Saint Martin, Bequia, Bonaire, Curacao, Thailand, Australia, Egypt
Closest Airport Lynden Pindling (Paradise Island/Nassau) Getting There Nonstop from Fort Lauderdale in less than 40 minutes

Dive Conditions

Weather sunny, rainy, cloudy, dry Seas calm, choppy, surge, currents, no currents
Water Temp 78-79°F / 26-26°C Wetsuit Thickness
Water Visibility 40-130 Ft/ 12-40 M

Dive Policy

Dive own profile yes
Enforced diving restrictions Recreational dive limits, generally back on the boat is about 50 minutes, but mostly just so we had time to get to the next dive site. With 5 dives a day, 50 minutes per dive was fine for us.
Liveaboard? yes Nitrox Available? yes

What I Saw

Sharks Lots Mantas None
Dolphins None Whale Sharks None
Turtles > 2 Whales None
Corals 3 stars Tropical Fish 3 stars
Small Critters 3 stars Large Fish 4 stars
Large Pelagics 4 stars

Underwater Photography 1 (worst) - 5 (best):

Subject Matter 3 stars Boat Facilities 5 stars
Overall rating for UWP's 4 stars Shore Facilities N/A
UW Photo Comments They are set up for serious photographers with dedicated wet and dry work space on the dive deck. The wet space has a dedicated air hose for drying off camera equipment. The dry work space has plenty of outlets for charging cameras and equipment.
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Note: The information here was reported by the author above, but has NOT been reviewed nor edited by Undercurrent prior to posting on our website. Please report any major problems by writing to us and referencing the report number above.

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