So for the third year in a row, we begin to plan our annual guys spearfishing trip to the Bahamas in April via What's App. The group is put together and the messages start to fly with talk about the great trip we had last year and how everyone can't wait for this one. There's talk about new gear and new training tools and regimes, but the one thing that we knew wasn't going to be different was the destination. It was an immediate and unanimous decision to re-visit Grand Cay near Walker's Cay once again. Although we all like the idea of new adventures, we were all looking forward to taking advantage of last year's experiences for this year's adventure. With the usual issues coming and going of who's in, who's out, which weekend, would we go Thursday through Sunday or Friday through Monday, there were actually a couple of times when the entire trip was in question.
Knowing how difficult it was to get in touch with Rosie's Place for reservations, but also knowing their friendly cancellation policies, we had one group member address that immediately and booked a couple of dates to cover our bases. With one issue addressed, we only had a myriad of remaining questions to address so we tried to quickly gather ourselves and distribute responsbilities for the trip preparation. We even discussed a couple of shakedown dives to get those of us that haven't been able to get in the water regularly into better mental and physical shape for the trip, but the weather only cooperated for one weekend. As the date neared, we finalized plans for the trip to run from Friday to Monday due to more uncooperative weather and finalized the count at 4 divers. We were all getting antsy for the trip and truth be told, it was upon us before we knew it and we were meeting up to load up the gear and supplies on the boat the Thursday night before leaving Friday morning.
June 9th - The Departure
As usual, I get my less than 2 hours of sleep the night before the trip due to my nervous energy and before I know it, my alarm is going off to wake me up (even though I had already been up for a while). We meet up at Carlos' by 4a, load up the final pieces of gear so we can get underway as planned by 5:30a. We drop the boat in the water and start to make way passing Virginia Key by 5:45a. The adventure has now officially started!
The extra day's wait works to our advantage in the way of slightly calmer seas than the day before, but by the time we pass the Gulfstream on our Northeasterly track, the swells start to stack up a little and the ride gets a little bumpy. We were seeing lots of bait for most of the trip, mostly flying fish skirting the surface of the seas but as we would soon find out, that wasn't all that was jumping up out of the surf. As we cruised along, suddenly a couple of visitors lept from the water and landed inside the boat. At first, we thought it was simply more of the same flying fish that we had been spotting along the way. However, when I take a second look at what had landed in the boat, to my surprise, it was a squid. Another first for me on a crossing. I hadn't even realized that squid resided in our waters until now and by the look of surprise on my shipmates' faces, I wasn't the only one.
Soon enough, and right on time, we make our entry to West End for gas and clearing customs. For this trip I downloaded the pdf version of the Bahamian customs forms for pleasure craft and turned them into electronically fillable forms. By preparing and printing them in advance on my computer, we saved a fair amount of time with Bahamian Customs and our captain was back at the dock telling me how great it was to have the prefilled forms before we could finish topping off the fuel. With the increasing number of times I hope to be visiting the Bahamas in the coming years, I thought it a wise investment of my time.
We head out of West End and set our heading NE towards Grand Cay with the thought of looking for good bottom along the way to stop and jump in. With a relatively mild 10-15 SW tailwind, we were expecting make good time with a nice ride. About 30 miles out of West End Carlos spots some decent bottom in about 25-30' and we decide this will be the spot. After gearing up, we jump in on a pretty nice patch reef that dropped from as shallow as 10' at the top down to about 30' in the sand. The viz wasn't great but just barely enough to make out shapes on the sand. As I'm swimming about on this patch, keeping my eye on the edge down at the sand, I spot a beautiful Black or Yellowfin grouper (the viz just wasn't good enough for me to distinguish) that I was guessing was just about 25-30 lbs. Unfortunately, as soon as I make my drop, the fish darts off into open water and I'm unable to keep up. Discouraged by my first missed opportunity but not disheartened, I make my way back to the patch reef in the same general area that I spotted the grouper from to continue my search.
As I get closer to the patch from the sand, I spot a Nassau Grouper in the 15-16 lb class sitting on top of the patch reef. Spotting my second chance at a nice fish, I try to make a quiet drop. As I drew closer though, the fish ducks into a hole in the reef that she was sitting directly on top of. Nassau's do like to hole up, so this was no surprise. I was just hoping that she hadn't gone too deep into the maze that usually exists in large patch reefs like this one. I continue my descent and proceed to insert my head into the hole as far as my body would allow (not much past my shoulders) to see if I could spot her. Almost immediately, I could hear her thumping but I couldn't spot her. I made 1 or 2 more dives on the hole hearing her the entire time, but not being able to spot her.
On my last effort, as I'm drawing my body out of the hole, I spot a large fantail rounding a rock that jutted out from the patch reef. I knew exactly what this was, a big Hogfish. Based on my glimpse of the tail fin, I knew it was a big one and I didn't want to miss my third opportunity on a nice fish so I immediately give chase using that same rock as cover from the fish while coming up from behind it. Luckily for me, I was able to conceal my approach and as I came around that rock, I spot what would become my personal best Hogfish if I can land it. I pull myself along the rocks to avoid making any waves in the water that might alarm the fish, cock the polespear, extend my arm, take aim and let it fly. My polespear strikes home right behind the right gill plate and toggles perfectly on the other side of the fish. By now, I'm at the end of my breathhold and I immediately make for the surface but not before the fish tries to lodge itself under a ledge. Luckily for me the shot placement gave me great control of the fish's head and I was able to keep her from doing so and make it to the surface. I was stoked! I had missed a couple of opportunities, but capitalized on my third and it was a beauty, my PB Hogfish. Thankfully, there would be Hogfish for dinner and we were looking forward to it back at Rosie's. Unfortunately, we didn't have our favorite baked mac n cheese that evening, but they promised to have it for us at our next dinner.
June 10th - A Matched Set
The next morning, the weather wasn't looking as good as the day before but we can't shoot fish from the dock, so off we went. We headed Northwest today thinking we would circumnavigate the bad weather and as time would tell, we almost would. Since pretty much every trip out here is a foray into the unknown, every day is an adventure in new terrain. We found an area in about 50' of water that had some nice finger ledges so we jumped in and got to work. Carlos and I were working together and the first fish I see is a nice Mutton but I'm unable to close the gap when I give chase and much to my chagrin, it eludes me. Luckily a little while later Carlos and I are still working together when he spots a nice Nassau and as usual, he's able to make the shot on the fish. As I'm watching him pursue his wounded fish, I spot another big Nassau Grouper just behind him sitting in the sand between two ledges and this time, I'm able to make the drop and make the shot on the fish. Soon after, we're calling the boat over to put our two nice fish in the cooler.
By now, the weather had started to degrade and not only had the rain moved in, but we were getting lightning strikes within a mile or two of us and as many of you may know, lightning when you're on the water and specifically on a boat, can be an unnerving experience. As time would tell, more unnerving for some than others. The storm had moved in between us and Grand Cay, so heading back wasn't a direct option. Instead, we decided to try to circumnavigate the storm on our way back home. This seemed like a good idea, and as in many cases, it even started to go the way we hoped... but that would change. As we continued on our path to get around the storm, we actually drew very close to the storm and this was a pretty nasty one. In spite of the fact that the day had started with relatively calm conditions of 10-15 mph SSW winds, we quickly started experiencing winds that were gusting over 25 mph and seas getting close to 5-6'. This all made for a bit of bumpy time, but it was the lightning. The lightning was coming close and often. So much so, that our friend Tico (our native guide) was starting to get pretty nervous, and this nervousness got the better of him. Tico was now lying on the deck in efforts to avoid the lightning. This of course, led to a lot of good natured jabs by the rest of us on the boat.
We started exclaiming "We're going to die! We're going to die!". This of course did nothing to settle Tico down, but it was serving to distract the rest of us. While this was all in good fun, there's no doubt that the rest of us were nervous too. We were just to old, obstinate, ignorant... whatever, to let it show. Besides, making fun of one of the guys for being afraid of the same thing you are is not much more than a coping mechanism in our book. So of course, the jabs continued until we were able to safely bypass the storm. Thankfully, we were not required to make good for our disrespect of Mother Nature (she must have been focused on some other more disrespectful fishermen). Either way, soon enough we were making our way back to Grand Cay but not before we decided to make a stop in the abandoned Walker's Cay marina.
I had heard about the famous Walker's Cay resort and marina before ever making one of these trips and was always interested in seeing the island for myself. As we pulled in to the marina, the delapidated conditions were strong evidence of the damage that had occurred so many years ago when the resort was pretty much wiped out by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004. It was hard to believe that a location that had been such a destination for so many decades (since the 1930's) had been allowed to decay into it's current condition. It's still mind boggling to me that no one else has thought the island worth rebuilding. As of this writing (2017), the island is currently for sale for $14,000,000.00 (a bargain in my mind). If only I had the connections to do so, I would be all over it. While we all discussed what we would do with the island (notwithstanding our total lack of the ability to do anything about it) we proceeded to walk around the marina and the surrounding area and take a break with some guava, cream cheese and crackers (an old Cuban favorite snack). Afterward, we made our way out of the marina and back to Grand Cay to our much awaited baked mac n cheese side dish with the usual but exceptional fresh fried fish for dinner.
June 11th - The Spawning Ground
The next morning finds us in search of a new area to hunt. As we've done before, on the last day of hunting we try to set the objective to only land large fish or prize fish. A feat easier said than done when you consider that most of the fish we see in Grand Cay are typically larger than the same species back home and every next big fish of a species we can't hunt at home (like Nassau Grouper) becomes a prize fish (ok, maybe just for me). As usual, we depend on Captain Carlos to use his expertise to find us that next big hunting ground and once again he comes through. Our first drift over the relief in the first area of the day had us spotting multiple nice Nassau Grouper darting all over the reef. It definitely had my head spinning.
The viz on this spot was generally better than we'd had on the prior days (close to 40-50') so we were able to spot everything from the surface which was a welcome change for me. On these trips, i would say we have varying degrees of breathhold abilities. Although we can all hunt in 50' on a good day (for me on some of my best days), our individual bottom times can vary from excellent to shall we say, less than excellent (with myself in that latter group). In my opinion, this sort of forces a difference in hunting styles, with some of us having to implement more sight hunting as opposed to the aspetto approach which typically provides better results with your more skittish species (Cuberas, Muttons, etc). So when I say that the viz was a welcome change for me, its mostly because for me at the depths we were working, I have to work in much more of a sight hunting mode, so having the viz from the surface was definitely an advantage.
As I mentioned, we were spotting numerous sizable Nassau Grouper on this reef (more than we have ever seen in one place) and we were all getting itchy trigger fingers (merely a figure of speech, no triggers in the Bahamas). We could only assume that this was some sort of spawning ground for Nassaus. My first sighting was of a nice Nassau right at the top of the relief, so I immediately drop on my target looking to land the first fish of the spot. As I close the gap, I'm trying to stay focused on making a good holding shot becuase the grouper was sitting right over her escape hole. Unfortunately, it would seem that I focused for just a little too long because I ended up waiting a hair longer than I should have and my shot hit the fish high and it tore off just as it made good it's ecsape into the hole. We hate injuring any fish without landing it, so I did spend the next 20 minutes searching through any crevice I could fit my head to see if I could locate the fish, but the fish was nowhere to be found. As we always say, they don't get large by being dumb...
With as many fish as we had spotted, I was disappointed as I ended up missing most of my shots including an opportunity on what would have been my first Scamp. It was another example of how fish inhabit these types of reefs because it provides such excellent shelter with so many crevices for them to hide in. I did end up with a nice 15lb'er to show for my efforts, but considering what we had witnessed upon our arrival, I really felt like I should've done better.
The most impressive fish we saw was the largest Nassau Grouper any of had ever seen, hovering off the end of the reef. This beast of a Nassau was every bit of 40 lbs in all our estimates. Looking at this behemoth, the first thought that crossed our minds was "How do we keep it out of the reef?". If this monster gets hit and runs into this maze of a reef, there would most likely be no chance of retrieving it. In the end, Carlos took his shot with the sling and landed a beautiful shot on the fish, but it immediately disappeared in the reef never to be seen again after ripping off the hawaiian sling shaft that was now only good for shooting around corners.
After a while, all the fish apparently got word that we were there and got very scarce, so we decided to move on. It's not like there isn't another fertile fishing ground at just about every turn around here anyway. By now, my ear had started to bother me and I decided to stay out of of the water to give my ear a break. While I was fulfilling my cooler duties (both fish and beer duties), the guys did land 2 beautiful Yellowfin Grouper, each weighing in that 20-25lb range. Of course, I couldn't stay in the boat forever (no matter how much I know I should) and did get in the water while Carlos and Tiko were working another Yellowfin out of a hole. Spotting from the surface, I was watching them coordinate their efforts when I noticed a Tiger Grouper about 15 feet away from them. They were so preoccupied with their larger holed up fish, that they hadn't even noticed it getting closer, trying to satisfy it's curiosity with what was going on.
In spite of knowing better, I dove on the Tiger. Tigers don't get very large, but this was a good size specimen for the species and I had never landed one, so down I went. As I descended, my ear reminded me why I had stayed out of the water earlier. As I dropped closer, the pain started to build, but I couldn't risk equalizing too much due to my reverse block. For those that may not kow, reverse block is when the pressure you use to equalize your ears during your descent gets trapped in your eustachian tube and you end up with pain in your ear as you surface. The issue with reverse block vs equalization issues is that if you're having trouble equalizing, you can always choose not to descend further. With reverse block while freediving, you can't exactly choose not to surface, so when it happens, the pain is relatively unavoidable. So as I mentioned, I'm dropping but trying to equalize as little as possible but determined to get my first Tiger. Luckily for me, the fish didn't move and I was able to take my shot without having to descend all the way to the bottom. A few seconds later, I'm surfacing with my first Tiger Grouper and without having that excruciating pain from reverse block. Needless to say, that was my last dive of the trip.
Soon enough, everyone was back on the boat (along with that last Yellowin Carlos and Tiko were working so hard) and enjoying celebratory beers as we headed back for Rosie's. That trip back to Rosie's with a cooler full of fish and heads full of stories, never gets old. As usual, we immediately clean enough fish to send to the restaurant for dinner while Carlos and I finish cleaning the day's catch. By the time we complete the dirty work and take 5 minutes to show, we're back at the restaurant waiting the our next great meal. Tonight we asked the kitchen to mix it up a litlte and they came through once again with a mix of blackened and fried grouper that was incredible.
The conversations around the table inevitably turn to relegations of the day's events, with everyone taking shots at each other about missed opportunities as well as attaboy's around the table for every diver's best fish. As the stories go around the table, the question of "how would you describe this trip to someone?" came up. Words like "epic" and "awesome" of course were shared, but the best description came when someone said, "There's only one way to describe these trips, they're PIRATE TRIPS!" A group of guys head off on an adventure over the sea with fish, food and work only to end up exhausted and drunk by the end of each day. If that's not a pirate trip, I don't know what is! By the time dinner is finished, we can barely keep our eyes open (not sure if it was the exhaustion or the booze) and everyone reluctantly heads back to their rooms knowing that today was the end of yet another incredible pirate trip.
June 12th - The Trip home, epic!
As is the usual plan, we get up early to pack and load up the boat for the trek home. After shoving all the bags in the console, calculating the remaining fuel and deciding whether we would be stopping in West End or not to fuel up, we share some goodbye's and push off the dock. Every time we've done this trip, we've planned to dive our way home. The trip to Andros, we stopped near Chub and landed one of the nicest fish of the trip. Last year, after leaving Grand Cay, we not only had enough fish but three long days of diving had taken their toll on us and we decided to forego the diving on the way home. In planning this year's trip, the trip home was of course discussed and once again the plan was to dive our way home. In spite of our carefully made plans, it would come to be that this year's Grand Cay trip would end just as last year's with us only getting wet from the sneeze mist coming over the bow of Carlos' 27 foot Amerakat thanks to the 15kt winds from the ESE that were giving us a bumpy ride thanks to waves on the quarter.
As we made way on our crossing after picking up multiple mylar balloons, the conversation turned to things that we've see on crossings. Everyone was mentioning how they had seen dolphins and other types of mammals as well as a number of other interesting sights. With my having the least experience in making these crossings, I could only speak of what I would like to see and I mentioned pilot whales because I have never seen them in the wild. I have had friends see them while offshore fishing off of Miami and the Keys, but I have never seen them. As luck would have it, a short while later, we spot some spouts off the starboard bow and it turned out to be a pod of pilot whales. We immediately headed in their direction and I immediately submerged my GoPro to get some awesome footage of the pilot whales following the boat. I unfortunately lost most of the footage due to a mistake made while copying the video files to my computer, but I was able to salvage enough to make the ending of the video below. For me, an epic ending to an awesome trip! We spent the rest of the trip singing old rock n roll songs and finishing off the beer and lunch meats in the cooler. There is no bad way to end trips like these.
Until next year... AARGH! Matey!