Published in "DIVER" magazine June 2011
I’ve just checked in at the Ocean Spray Hotel on Singer Island, and settled for a Mojito at a good party bar down the road called Jonny Long Boats. Amongst the regulars at the bar are a huge crab and an enormous shark hanging from the ceiling! I’ve had 4 days on South Beach, Miami, and 6 nights on the Dolphin Dream at Tiger Beach, Bahamas. It’s a shame I didn’t have any energy left as I was only a mile away from Blue Heron Bridge, one of USA’s best macro dive sites.
The four days at South Beach was part of a compromise agreement with Lisa, my wife, wasn’t too bad a deal! We hired a Chevy Camaro at the airport for a cracking last minute deal and checked in at the Carlton Hotel, not bad for $100 a night considering we were a block away from Ocean Drive, where the old home of Versace (now a hotel) charge $1200 a night! Ocean Drive has about a dozen or so restaurants with good deals and relatively good food for the price. The Ocean Drive strip attracts all sorts of poseurs, Lamborghinis drive up and down, skateboarders with hockey sticks and whatever else grabs their imagination to the wandering eye. In our 4 days there we visited the Miami Sea Aquarium for some guaranteed killer whale and dolphin action, an alligator trip to the Everglades on an air boat, a three and a half hour drive to Key West, and not forgetting to mention a trip to the largest dive store in the world, Divers Direct.
So then it was time to drop Lisa off at the airport and let go of the Chevy Camaro, such a sad parting, never mind I can always come back and hire her out again, the Camaro not Lisa!
I then headed North on Route 95 to board the Dolphin Dream at Riviera Beach, such a handsome looking boat, it’s an 86ft ocean expedition charter yacht that started out as a shrimp trawler and has been used by Captain Scott Smith since 2005. Once on board I had the rest of the night free before we set sail, so the Tiki Waterfront sea grill bar was the place to go to pass time; a heavy rock band was performing a good mix of covers while I snacked on some great seafood.
Back on board later on, we were given our boat brief and eventually set sail. The bunks are all below the main deck, they are very comfortable with plenty of power sockets to keep your gear well charged. The dive deck has all twelve cylinders lined up ready for you to start your dive. The crew consisted of just four that we saw, Captain Scott, Mike and Connor the dive crew, and Gail the cook. There were eleven other divers joining me on the trip. Wolfgang Leander, in his 70s now, a skin diver with a massive passion for sharks, he joins this trip about 6 times a year and seemed to know a lot of the divers on board, the other divers ranged from a brain surgeon to a Baron, I didn’t feel out of place at all!
We all awoke for breakfast at the Bahamas to check in for Customs, then we had a 2 hour sail to Tiger Beach. On our trip there they had a couple of fishing rods out and caught a Wahoo and Mahi-Mahi. Both were used for our dinners, very nice treat indeed! About 25 miles north of the west end of Great Bahamas, we had arrived at Tiger Beach, its only around 6m deep where Scott moors, he anchors the boat on a big old ships chain on the sea bed. Once settled in it was time to do a bit of wrangling! This is done to try and attract more sharks; especially the tigers prior to our days’ diving. Mike and Conner tied the head of a defrosted grouper onto a boom and dangled it off the dive platform. I took some photos at a comfortable distance on the step with my 300mm zoom lens, some scary moments even from there; the sharks nearly came right out of the water fighting for the head. As the days went by, my confidence grew with the sharks (not really a good thing) I decided to lower my camera and housing into the water off the dive platform, maintaining a firm grip, and the sharks got very curious and head butted my dome port quite a few times, it wasn’t that hard to do, and didn’t think there was a real need for a pole cam.
All diving is done independently, usually from 10am to as late as you wanted; you can jump in and out as often as you please. Quite often I had done one dive and they filled my tank while it was still on my back, 15 minutes later I was back in the water. Mike and Conner look after your camera well, they use two large fresh water buckets to keep them in, they have their own SLR cameras underwater so know how careful to be. Luckily Mike had the same set up as me so proved a great help when I needed a spare part! They have a drift line always out, which did cause more of a problem than an aid as it got in the way of a lot of photos, but it’s not an option!
While we were at Tiger Beach Gail and Scott then fished and usually caught yellow tailed snapper, these were used for dinner too, and also chum now and then. Dinners weren’t just fish; a good variety was cooked with nothing too spicy. They had 2 large tables just the other side of the dive deck, for us to eat and chat over, and also play with our photos. Mike was a great help with post processing for a lot of people. Beer on the trip was free, which some found very welcoming, especially as breakfast wasn’t until 8am!
I would hazard a guess that this is one of the only few places in the world where you can get real close to lemon and tiger sharks, great value for money too. Tiger sharks seemed not to appear as much as the lemon sharks, so caution is given not to get that close to them as they seem pretty shy. We only saw 2 tiger sharks over a week, but we saw them every day, close encounters were not as easy as it was with the lemons. A hammerhead was also seen in our week, but only briefly. I had so much fun with the lemon sharks, as they came towards me they usually swerved to avoid me right at the last second, so eventually I started to lower my camera into their path to get a good portrait which seemed to work very well. Once I got one with her snout on my dome port following me while I did about 2 full rotations, they remind me of my playful dog and tend to play more for snacks. I saw Mike on the surface once having chum thrown in in front of him for a shot, not before too long I was doing it too. Once I had the settings ready on my camera I gave one of the crew the nod and they threw a bit of fish near me, I positioned myself as quick as I could, then the sharks approached, just one at first but once she had a taste of the fish she soon spread the word and her friends then arrived looking for some too. Not before too long I was closely surrounded by about a dozen lemons, they were right on my dome port without even a treat in sight. At one point I didn’t have my camera in front of me and I had three swimming right up to my face, I found it quite comfortable enough (not much choice really!) to push them sideways out of my way. After this had happened, I thought I’d tempted fate enough and headed to the boat ladder. Wolfgang and the crew said they’d rarely seen anyone do what I’d done before, so beware! The sharks were mainly females; Wolfgang told us that the males don’t tend to be so playful. The lemon sharks looked so full of character; if you look closer you will see they have “eyebrows” and crow’s feet, so funny, as they look like they are smiling too! The tiger sharks on the other hand, have this big dark eye, and you can certainly feel their presence when they turn up. One tiger shark had the right hand of her jaw disfigured assumingly from a bite by a fisherman; she even had a small remora over the top of her eye which altogether made her get the name Groucho from me, all she was missed was a fat cigar and a pair of glasses! As the week went by I decided to do a twilight dive on the chain, not a bad dive too, morays, peacock flounder, a shoal of snapper around a coral whip, squirrelfish. The sharks past us now and then, we sort of ignored, quite a surreal thing to ignore a shark! Looking back, all the dives were relatively easy and gave me a good opportunity to dive with a single tank which I rarely do.
The viz went down gradually over the last 2 days, big shame but I had already taken so many photos, so this gave me time to sort out my favourites. I most certainly will be returning on this boat at some time in the future, maybe to skin dive with Dolphins, maybe the sharks as well, as they do combo trips.
I flew with British Airways from Heathrow T5 to Miami, the best way in my opinion if you have a lot of photography equipment; they let you have 23kgs in the hold, and the same again if you want it for only £30. Your hand luggage has a good size restriction with no weight limit; you are also allowed a lap top bag with only size restriction too. They were also one of the cheapest at around £550 return booked online. West Palm Beach is the closest airport at only 20 minutes from the boat, but the flights I found for here were usually a lot dearer and involved a change. Miami was a direct flight but involved either a hire car transfer or an hour and a half train ride which I used for my return, and was easier than first thought at only $5 a ticket plus a $20 taxi ride. All in all a great trip for the dollar!