As the plane descended into cloud-checkered Nassau, pine trees waved from the runway. “Is this normal weather for February?” I asked the taxi driver as I watched the Bahamian sky darken. “Eh…the seas aren’t usually this rough. No boats went out today.” I shrugged, “Well, I’m here, so…” It was hard for me not to imagine that my arrival unleashed an impending doom on New Providence Island. After all, my prior two dive trips involved cyclones, stormy seas, and multiple visits to the emergency room.
“Are you from here?” I asked, as the taxi zipped along the surprisingly smooth, wide highway. “Yes, but it’s too expensive to live here. I live in Atlanta now and just work here for a few months out of the year.” I frowned, “Oh…well, I love Atlanta.” He elaborated, “It’s cheaper to buy everything there and bring it here. We aren’t even allowed to gamble in the casinos.” The taxi turned at the sign for the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, which touts itself as housing the largest casino in the Caribbean. I protested, “The House always wins. Why would they say ‘no’ to free money?” He searched for an answer, “Ehh…they want to keep the locals out. They think we are bad for business.” I sighed, “That’s unfair.” The taxi stopped at the lobby entrance and he unloaded my dive bag.
The marbled lobby and adjoining casino oozed Bond-Vegas-cool. Endless crystal chandeliers dripped from the ceilings. A pride of poisonous lion fish fanned their fins out wide from the massive aquarium behind the lobby counter. There was even a sign that advertised the Bond Nightclub. Directly outside the lobby was an enormous sculpture of a pig crafted entirely of red carnations. Then, I spotted a whole family of gold pig and piglet statues beneath a tree that dangled red paper Chinese symbols. After a quick Google search, I discovered that 2019 is the Chinese Year of the Pig. I thought it was quite fortuitous considering I had booked a tour to swim with the pigs. There was even a bar called “The Swimming Pig.”
Since my room wasn’t ready yet, I left my bag in search of the ocean. Laughter and dance music boomed from a pool bar filled with flirty millennials. Families dined on restaurant patios, and children awed at unfazed pink flamingoes. Past the food trucks, pools on top of pools, and more bars, past tourists of all sizes and ages, I arrived at a curiously empty Cable Beach. My toes merged with the chilly sea as the sandy wind whipped my skin. I dragged a lounge chair to the water and a server appeared above me, “Would you like something to drink?” She smiled. In an effort to avoid a James Bond martini cliche, I answered, “A margarita, please – on the rocks.”
As if on cue, the dark clouds burst open and rain chased after the shrieking pool-goers. I found shelter at the bar, and my particularly strong margarita found its way to me. Still stuck in my travel sweater and jeans, I wandered through the maze-like grounds back to the lobby. Luckily, my room was ready, so I rode the elevator up to the 19th floor and marveled at the view – I even spotted the Atlantis Hotel, which seemed dwarfed by my behemoth hotel. Too excited to dive the next morning, I decided to go to bed early.
The next morning, a fluorescent pink bus pulled up to the lobby where I planted myself, and I began bouncing in place like a child. “I can’t believe this is happening,” I grinned to the bus driver. I was going shark diving with the infamous Stuart Cove’s. On the bus, I thought about all of the times I watched James Bond’s numerous scuba fights and shark scenes choreographed by the Stuart Cove. Once the bus stopped and the doors opened, I wheeled my dive bag to the dock. The pink-shirted crew loaded by bag on the boat as I stopped by the wet suit rental stand. I already owned my wetsuit, but I wanted to wear the pink and purple rentals with “Stuart Coves” scrawled across the arms and chest.
As I prepared my dive gear, I glanced over at the neighboring boat slip and awed at the enormous “Shaq Cage” from Shark Week 2018. The other divers didn’t seem to notice it. In fact, they were unusually quiet, so I double checked with a dive master that I was on the correct boat for the shark feed dive. “Yes, this is it,” she smiled. Another diver asked her what it was like diving with sharks. I asked him, “This is your first time diving with sharks?” He laughed nervously, “This is my first certified dive.” Other divers nodded, and they added this was also their first time diving with sharks. I was unable to contain the look of shock on my face. “Wow. Aren’t you all lucky?” I thought about how I had dived with sharks naturally for years before graduating to baited dives. I never dived with a Caribbean reef shark, and I wanted to add it to my Sharket List, which already included 14 shark species.
When we arrived to the dive site, we jumped in and descended to the bottom. As I reached the sand arena where the feeding was supposed to occur, I immediately noticed the presence of the beefy Caribbean reef sharks. I wanted to remain in the arena to watch them, but I reluctantly followed the dive master to the reef. The reef was…not Cozumel or Fiji, but it was okay. My problem was that it was impossible to pay attention to anything other than the sharks. Even without chum in the water, the sharks grew close…at least, what I thought was close. I couldn’t help but stop in a sand patch between the reef and observe them. The sharks tended to ride low and camouflage against the reef as they slowly approached me. As I locked eyes with one shark, I could see in the periphery another approaching. Sometimes, two would approach together and then split off in opposite directions. The sharks remained with us the entire dive, and I didn’t think it could get any better.
On the second dive, we were instructed not to move our bodies once we kneeled in a line in the sand arena. I wasn’t allowed to bring my GoPro pole, so I held my camera against my chest with both hands. Since I was so accustomed to reaching my arms out to film, I had to keep reminding myself to glue my hands and camera to my chest. The shark feeder finally appeared dressed in head-to-toe chain mail, topped with a white helmet.
I suddenly recalled the time I was in Fiji and the shark feeder there only wore a wetsuit as he hand fed a tiger shark; I wasn’t sure if the chain mail was just for show. At that moment, the feeder stuck a metal rod in his bait box, and he revealed a dead fish. Instantly, the sharks swarmed him as though a ref blew a whistle to signal GAME ON. I could no longer see the feeder because 15 Caribbean reef sharks blocked him from my view. It was a real Sharknado– pure chaos!
The feeder then moved from diver to diver down the line, so each one of us could experience the intimacy of being in the eye of the Sharknado. I was actually nervous as I waited for my turn. When the feeder moved in front of me, I also became engulfed by sharks. Despite the sharks sliding their bellies along the top of my head and bumping my shoulders with their fins, I somehow managed to stay frozen. They were gently graceful despite their speed. The sharks’ faces were so close to my mask that I admired their bright green eyes and large nose pores. I watched as they snagged each fish offered to them (and, their teeth looked BIG up close and personal).
As I surfaced, my adrenaline was at an all-time high. I was hooked. I not only wanted to chum for sharks again, but I also wanted to feed them myself. Being surrounded by sharks was somehow both exhilarating and meditative. Unfortunately, I had a date with the infamous swimming pigs of Exuma the next day. The seas were too rough to take a speed boat, so I booked a last minute hopper flight. I was sad to leave Stuart Cove’s, but I was excited to dive with them again in Bimini. The hot pink bus dropped me back off at my hotel, and I slugged my way through the casino. With the appearance of a drowned rat, I definitely stood out amongst the mini dresses, sky high heels, and tuxes.
After I dropped off my gear and cleaned up, I headed down to the lobby to find food. The only restaurant that was available on such short notice was Costa. After analyzing the digital map, I thought it was near the pool area. When I couldn’t find the restaurant anywhere outside, I climbed a flight of stairs and ended up wandering through a large private party. After I sailed through those doors, I wound up inside a hotel that looked completely different. Thoroughly lost, I found a worker who admitted she had no idea where Costa was. I exited another door and wound up in an empty outdoor mall, where all of the stores were closed. By this point, I didn’t even know how to get back to my room, and I felt a bit panicked. How could a hotel be THIS large? With a fresh determination, I set off again, through a lobby I didn’t recognize, up escalators, into the main casino, past an Italian restaurant, out a door to a wedding, back peddling through the same door, past a Chinese restaurant, into another lobby I didn’t recognize, out that door and down the stairs to a British restaurant, back out of those doors down to another pool, where finally, I somehow ran into the koi ponds surrounding Costa.
The next morning, I was ready to leave Nassau. It was all too curated and boozy-boisterous. Every which way I turned, staff asked me if I wanted to drink or gamble; yet, I struggled to get a reservation to eat at any of the 20 or so restaurants. I also got into trouble for dangling my legs from the hotel’s dock, but later, a Russian gentleman damn near got arrested just for jumping into the ocean. As security guards approached him, I whispered, “I hope you don’t get kicked out. I just got yelled at too.” He laughed, “HA! They can try. I’m Russian.” I wish I had that kind of confidence, that rebellious surety.
It was hard for me to imagine that pirates used to control Nassau. As I boarded the plane filled with local commuters, I hoped for wildness in the outer islands of Exuma.