The Bahamas and, in particular, the Exuma Sound is the stuff of divers’ wet dreams. The Sound is 150 miles long, 50 miles wide, and ringed almost all sides by small islands and coral reefs. The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park sits in the center of the reef. It’s the oldest land and sea park in the world, surrounded by the sparkling blue and clear Caribbean Sea. No wonder seven different liveaboard boats cruise these waters.
This piece will review our recent experience with All Star Liveaboards on the Aqua Cat, winner of nine 2020 Readers Choice Awards from Scuba Diving magazine, including the prestigious First-Place for the Best Liveaboard in the Caribbean/Atlantic.
Quality of the Aqua Cat Liveaboard
The 102-foot Aqua Cat catamaran offers eleven cabins with private bathrooms and showers. All but cabin 11 provide ocean views, but we’ll go deeper into this in the berths section. What sets the Aqua Cat apart is all the extra room a catamaran provides over a monohull, especially with the three-level design. Not only is the Aqua Cat spacious, it has enough muscle to cruise at 14-knots for the overnight crossing from Nassau or to the next dive site.
The first level has the dive deck and guest cabins. I’ve been on liveaboards that feel like a dive gear flea market exploded on the deck after the first dive. Having a dedicated dive deck with plenty of room for all your gear was fabulous for enjoying the liveaboard part of the adventure. Even if you’re diving all five dives a day, you’re going to spend more time topside than you will underwater.
The second level houses the Al Fresca Deck for dive briefings and the main salon for dining and socializing. These two separate areas allowed guests who wanted to social distance to dine outside at their own private table. Our trip was during a cold snap in February, so we loved staying inside in the main salon and making new friends.
The third level held the sundeck and bridge. Given the weather, there wasn’t a lot of sunning going on, but there were a couple of cocktail parties. Plus, this large deck gave everybody enough space to get their gear completely dry before packing it up for home at the end of the trip.
Quality of the Berths
Let’s be clear; we had private ocean view cabins, not simple berths. We stayed very well hydrated, so having our private toilet was so so nice! With unlimited hot showers on the dive deck, we didn’t need our private shower, but we gladly took it. There was also ample closet and storage space to hold more clothes than we could have possibly packed.
Let’s talk about sleeping on the Aqua Cat. Here’s a little snippet from Sailing Online that we experienced first-hand – ‘The key fact is that catamarans have phenomenal stability: they do not heel underway and do not roll at anchor. This usually makes seasickness a non-event. Incidentally, it makes it somewhat safer for kids running around. Whether at anchor or underway, a catamaran is always much more stable than a monohull. Stability is also a good factor for elderly people and/or first-time sailors. As a matter of fact, a catamaran will give the latter an excellent impression for their first cruise, instead of memories of being seasick!’
The Aqua Cat isn’t a sailboat, so we weren’t going to heel underway, but the wide design still maintained superior roll stability. The mattress and pillow weren’t quite hotel level, but they were excellent for boating. We slept well each night and woke rested each morning.
Quality of the Aqua Cat’s Staff
We’ve seen a lot of customer service professionals in our travels. Jenn has worked in five-star resorts ensuring customer service standards. Believe us when we say the Aqua Cat staff was on point. It all starts with the Captain. In twenty years, the Aqua Cat has only had three captains. That kind of continuity allows them to see the total experience from the guest’s perspective. Whether it’s finding the best dive sites or the smoothest harbor, we could count on Captain Ron. The weather didn’t make it easy on him, but we had a variety of good dives every day and a good sleep every night.
He was very good at his job, but it was the little things that stood out. The ways that the entire staff anticipated the needs and desires of the guests. Captain Ron made sure we had printed copies of our Covid tests for our flight home. The kitchen staff knew our tastes by day two, and the DMs figured out our diving preferences in no time. We can’t say how impressed we were by all the little things the crew did to make our trip exceptional.
Quality of the Dives
Diving in the Exuma Sound depends on the wind and weather. On clear and glassy seas, you’d hope to head down the Exuma Cays, past the Marine Park, to the drift dives and attractions around Staniel Cay. If the winds switch and blow from the east, you might find shelter on the leeward side of Eleuthera, diving deep walls. However, strong shifting winds kept us pinned on the upper Cays for most of our trip. Even so, we still experienced some of the best scuba diving in Nassau Bahamas and the Exuma Sound.
We dove shallow reefs like Lobster / No Lobster loaded with colorful corals. We drifted through tidal canyons like the Washing Machine, floating by turtles bouncing on the currents, and explored wrecks of crashed airplanes and sculled cutters like the Austin Smith. However, what we loved the most were the deep wall sites, like Dog Rocks or Whale Shark Wall.
The dive starts by dropping down to the mooring lines at 50′ down. We explore the top of the coral before entering into a long swim-through. Down and down we went before exiting the tube on top of the deep blue abyss. By the end of the week, we were able to make it into the park to see the lobsters of unusual size before hitting up the spectacular Lost Blue Hole on the way home. Of course, let’s not forget the Aqua Cat’s signature shark feeding experience. It was a diving smorgasbord, and we could only reach half the sites on the Exuma Cays.
Quality of the Dive Gear Aboard The Aqua Cat
The Aqua Cat has a remarkably well-equipped dive shop on board. They were able to replace my dive computer battery, service Jenn’s mask, and replace my busted octo-holder. Perhaps most importantly, they could get me an oversized tank and do our fills with Nitrox. Even though we didn’t dive all 25 dives for the week, we still were bumping into our no-deco limits by the fourth dive of the day.
They ran a Scuba Pro gear rental, which was in excellent repair. We ended up renting a full set of gear for the week to try it out. I hate to say it, but we are not fans of the Scuba Pro computer. We found it hard to read, and the safety stop was not intuitive. We were also on the cold end of the diving temperatures, so they equipped me with a 3-mil farmer john suit and a 3-mil shorty. It was a little extra work to put both layers on instead of a single full 5-mil. Everything would have been superb for 50 months out of the year, assuming you bring your own computer.
Attention to Safety (Diving)
The Aqua Cat dive crew was absolutely exceptional. Captain Ron made it easy on them by picking the right spots with minimal currents and relatively flat water, but they took it from there. Their dive briefings were clear and informative, with easy to follow instructions. Four DMs were roaming the dive deck, observing the buddy checks and checking for anything out of the ordinary. There were never difficulties getting the divers down in a smooth and orderly fashion with four entrances into the water. Even with those four entrances, there was always a DM to help you into the water.
There was also always a DM in the water with us during the dive that we could follow if we wanted to as well. Two more DMs watched from the port and stern from back on the boat, with a fourth available to bring the skiff if needed. Diving on the Aqua Cat was night and day different from Florida or San Diego boat dives where the boat took you out, and you were pretty much on your own once you splashed down.
At the end of the dive, there was always somebody to help you get back on board and to your seat, if needed. Before untying from the buoy, they would double-check the dive markers and count all the tanks to make sure everybody made it back on board safely. In short, the dive crew was simply marvelous.
Attention to Safety (Covid)
As strange as it sounds, being on a boat might be the safest vacation during these times. For starters, every passenger needed to pass a COVID test right before traveling. Plus, with only 11 cabins, they aren’t too many people on board during any trip. Before the passengers arrive, the crew thoroughly disinfects the boat, and they even disinfect the bags before loading them on board.
Underway, there’s no contact between our bubble and the rest of the world. Still, the precautions never cease. The crew wears masks anytime they’re near guests, and there’s enough room for the guests to socially distance themselves if they wish. Instead of the traditional buffet, the galley team serves the guests. Finally, there are one-gallon bottles of hand sanitizers at every door and every food service station. While nothing is entirely safe, we felt very comfortable on the Aqua Cat.
Quality of Shore Excursions From The Aqua Cat
The Aqua Cat cruise features the Sea Dog, a 28-foot skiff for shore excursions. Other ships in the area don’t have small boats to support diving and day trips. On the Aqua Cat, you can do either.
There’s always something to do, from shelling on beautiful deserted beaches to hiking up Boo Boo Hill. We particularly enjoyed feeding the iguanas but wish we could have headed down to Staniel Cay for the swimming pigs and Thunderball Grotto. Our cruise had a non-diver who opted to take a second week with her family because of the excursions’ quality and diversity.
Quality of the Food
If you read the Aqua Cat reviews, you’ll hear guests consistently raving about the food. They were spot on. Every day, the galley prepared a delicious breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Each dish was tasty and went to create not only a complete meal but a full day of themed dishes. Taco Tuesday was solid, but I fell in love with South American Monday with chimichurri steak and savory seafood. However, I will not forget the goodbye filet mignon dinner any time soon. Every dinner came with two choices of mains and dessert. It’s a good thing we stayed so active during the day.
The cooks will cater to any dietary needs as well. We had one passenger with a corn intolerance and one passenger with gluten sensitivity. They even remembered to set aside a bowl of fruit without melons for a guest with an aversion to cantaloupe. They will even cater to a strict vegan diet, like the old customer service motto goes, whatever the guest wants.
Was The Aqua Cat Worth It?
If you’re a die-hard diver, you’ll get your value from the diving alone. There is a possibility of 25 dives in one week, which works out to about $100/dive for remote and pristine dive sites. It doesn’t get any better than this, and you get a comfy bed and great food to boot! With everything they Aqua Cat provides, they are truly a boutique cruising experience. Booking your next dive-cation on All Star Liveaboards Aqua Cat really is a no-brainer 😉
Disclosure: A big thank you to Allstar Liveaboards for hosting us and setting up a fantastic itinerary! For more travel inspiration check out their Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Youtube accounts.
As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.
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