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Conception Island

Posted by on February 27, 2012

Monday 20th – Hatchet Bay Departure

We left Hatchet Bay Monday morning about 7:00, a west wind was still blowing, but it looked like a good morning for a sail. (For those of you unfamiliar with frontal weather passages in the Bahamas, essentially the wind blows lightly from the SE/S before the front hits, then as the front is passing the wind goes to the SW, then the W and intensifies, then N and really picks up, and after the front it switches to the NE and moderates, and that’s normally when you get the good sailing, so we left during the mild front that was passing.) We shot the narrow Hatchet Bay entrance when the light was good enough to see, made a little way under engine off the cliffs of Eleuthera and set the sails for a flying broad reach at 7 knots down the Eleuthera coast.  We were making excellent time, but unfortunately that’s when we noticed the rain clouds behind us.  Around 9:30 the boat and the full sails got a nice freshwater rinse and I took a shower in the cockpit to start the day. I then learned that it’s really tough to roll in the genoa with shampoo in your eyes, so make sure that the rain doesn’t come with any wind gusts….

After the mild front passed us, we were only doing around 5 knots in the light north winds behind the front.  We sailed down towards Rock Sound on the southeast tip of Eleuthera and in the mid-afternoon we decided to keep moving.  The winds for the next week were supposed to be light, and we needed to get as far south as we could under wind power to save diesel.  We thought our next stop would be Cape Santa Maria on Long Island.  With the light winds and easy sailing we should hit there about dawn on Tuesday.

As we crossed off the Eleutherian bank I let out the fishing lines and we began to troll.  Two mahis were nice enough to hook-up around 5:30 that evening.  We had just enough light to pull them in, clean them, clean the cockpit, and reel in the fishing lines before dark. These mahis were much easier to handle than that monster fish, and it made the whole process from fighting them to filleting them to freezing them easier.

The wind was clocking around even more from the northeast, so I reefed both sails before dark and we sailed along on a balanced beam reach past Little San Salvador and Cat Island.  Our only company was a huge cruise ship that was nice enough to alter course for us as he proceeded to Ocho Rios.  I forgot to mention in the last post that on Friday when we left Gregory Town to head back to the boat that it seemed like the whole dinghy was glowing. The phosphorescence made it look like I had installed light green LED’s under the dinghy, and the whole boat took on an eerie glow as we headed back to JV.  When we got back we took turns swiping the boat pole the the water to watch the glow and seeing the many small fish that looked larger as they swished their tails and glowed.  Unfortunately the phosphorescence wasn’t as pronounced in the open ocean. We only had a few sparkles in our wake, but it was still cool to see the path we’d sailed behind us in the very dark night.

Tuesday 21st – Landfall

We were taking turns sleeping in the cockpit when the wind and the seas picked up.  After we cleared Cat Island there was no protection to the north, and the forecast of 15 knots of winds quickly climbed much closer to 20 knots.  We sailed on towards Long Island, but I realized we would actually hit there before dawn, and to find protection we would need to proceed another 3 hours south. We had planned on visiting Conception Island, and the harbor there is larger and easier to get into, but we still couldn’t arrive before the light was up to navigate the coral heads.  We reefed the boat further to steady her and slow her down and continued sailing to Conception Island.  We took turns sleeping in the rolling conditions, and going down below to get snacks.

We had notified Nermal earlier in the evening that we wouldn’t be visiting Cat Island, and he seemed disappointed. Later that night, during one of our trips below to the cabin, Nermal escaped into the cockpit.  Normally when we’re under sail he gets scared and either stays in the cockpit or jumps back below.  Unfortunately, the rolling seas and howling wind apparently held no fear for him this evening.  He jumped out of the cockpit, and ran forward along the deck, into pitch darkness.  I yelled to Sabrina to hit the deck lights, and I could see him sitting by the mast, I hooked in my harness to the starboard jack line while Sabrina hooked in to port, and I ventured forward to try to scoop him up before he was washed overboard.  To my horror, he decided to come running back and jump straight up onto the dodger!  He normally falls off the dodger in good conditions, so luckily Sabrina was right there to snatch him off and whisk him below, he spent the rest of the night locked in the forward cabin.

When dawn came I saw hundreds of skipjack tuna hitting the surface, I quickly dropped our lines and caught a nice looking one.  I cleaned him to apologize to Nermal for locking him in the forward cabin all night and for skipping Cat Island.  I think all is forgiven since the bloody, fishy-tasting tuna is now Nermal’s favorite fish, more than mahi or wahoo.

We arrived at Conception Island about 9:00 am and found a nice place to anchor.  We had a huge breakfast and laid down for naps about 10:30.  When we awoke we noticed that the crashing swells hadn’t decreased even though the wind had let up.  We spent the rest of the day cleaning up the boat and waiting for the swells to decrease.

Wednesday 22nd – Conception Island

The swells never abated, in fact, they built overnight.  We took turns sleeping in the cockpit and making sure the boat didn’t wash up on the beach.  In the morning we moved further out to deeper water where the swells were less steep.  We couldn’t launch the dinghy, which didn’t matter because the swells were crashing too largely on the beach to take the dinghy to shore.  So, we did boat chores, cleaned stuff up, and waited for the swells to decrease.

Thursday 23rd – Conception Island

When we pulled into Conception, a boat from the Bahamas National Trust dropped us off a chart of the island with the regulations printed on the back.  Conception Island is a land and sea park and therefore it is a no-take area to 100 fathoms.  There are sea-bird nesting areas that have restricted visitation times, but other than that the island is open to be explored.  The largest montastrea reef in the Caribbean extends about 4 miles north of the island, and the snorkeling opportunities abound.  I asked the BNT volunteers where to scuba dive, and they recommended the moorings on the southwest side of the island near the ‘wall.’

That was all the encouragement we needed, and once the swells dissipated on Thursday we launched the dinghy and began readying the scuba equipment.  When going to a dive mooring, unless you’ve talked to a diver that’s been there, you have no idea what you will find underwater.  All you know is that this place was considered ‘cool enough’ that somebody would put in a mooring to use it over and over.  So he headed out for the mooring, anticipating that there would be a ‘wall’ somewhere nearby.

The seas were rough that day my friend, we pounded against them in the dinghy, loaded down with two sets of dive gear, tanks and weights. As we motored south along the island, I remarked that we’d never be able to see a mooring in the whitecaps around us, but it should be nearby.  At that point, Sabrina pointed and yelled that she saw the mooring, she had good eyes because the ‘mooring’ was only two bleach bottles hanging on a 1.5” nylon rode.  Only one of the bleach bottles was sound, the other was cracked and full of water.

We tied off, made sure the dinghy wasn’t going to swamp, deployed our dive flags, and rolled backwards off the dink.  The mooring line itself was worthy of a full tank dive, the line was teeming with life, tiny little fish that darted around the line as we descended to welcome us to the dive site.  Visibility was great and we could see the large coral head below us where the mooring line was secured. There were huge blue parrotfish with pronounced beaks and thousands of brightly colored reef fish with many squirrelfish hiding in the crevices.  From the mooring coral head we swam up current to another cluster of coral in about 40 feet of water, and on our way I noticed a strange deep blue glow from the east…

When we reached the second coral head, we motioned to each other that we should explore this blue glow. We followed the barren sand down to about 60 feet of depth, the blues got deeper and we approached what can truly best be described as a wall.  From barren sand there was a lip of rock that dropped to a secondary lip of rock at about 90’ and after that dropped to the ocean floor. I couldn’t see the bottom, but the chart has the ocean floor in this area somewhere around 3,000 feet.

We’ve been scuba diving before on walls, both in Hawaii and Jamaica, so we knew to watch our depth and keep close to the wall.  We only peered over the second ledge, and explored the area between the first lip and the second lip before heading back.  What had been good visibility on the coral heads had turned into a murky blue abyss that swallowed light and had a rather ominous feeling.  (The ocean walls are typically a very popular hangout for all types of fish life.  There are reef fish on the walls, and larger ocean going fish stopping by to pick up a snack. This is why when fishing I like to troll near walls to pick up larger ocean fish that have stopped by for a snack.  But it’s also why you keep your head on a swivel and hug the wall so something very large doesn’t sneak up on you.) We retraced our steps, stopping to snap some more photos and do a casual deep decompression stop on the coral heads before going back to the boat.  I was snapping photos of those friendly parrotfish when I turned to my left.

And that’s when I first saw the shark….

Lest you think I’m scared of nature’s most misunderstood predator, allow me to explain.  In various places in the past, such as Hawaii, Florida, the BVI, I’ve actually swam towards sharks to get better photos. Sabrina still seeks them out because she thinks they’re cool.  But in the Bahamas…. there’s too many unknowns. Everyone that dives and wants to see sharks knows that the Bahamas is the best place to go.  There are sharks everywhere here, and the dive companies embrace that.  There are numerous places that will take you on feeding expeditions, or have “pet” sharks that come around and they feed while on a normal dive.  There are places that caution you when you pull in not to jump in the water off the back of your boat when you arrive. The local fishing boats empty their fish carcasses in those harbors and the sharks have learned to expect that and now come near any boat when it pulls in. In addition these aren’t small sharks.  All the nearby deep water (see info about the wall above) the warm tropical waters, the Gulf Stream, the mangroves and reefs that ensure large amounts of juvenile fish, etc. ensure that the Bahamas has not only reef sharks, but large ocean going predators stopping by on for dinner on their way north or south for the season.

So when a six foot shark (there’s a debate on the species, I say that it’s fat body and round nose meant it was a bull shark , Sabrina just thinks it was cuddly) suddenly appears about 100 feet away, I don’t think, “Behold nature’s majestic beauty!” I think, “%&*@#$, are we now part of some dive operator’s shark rodeo, and this shark associates scuba tanks with free chumsicles?!?”  Before I get a bunch of angry comments, I know that most dive operators take many precautions to ensure that they don’t disturb the sharks’ natural feeding habitats or cause a danger to divers.  But I also don’t know if this particular mooring ball I picked up has earned the nickname “Shark Alley” or “Feeding Point.”

Friday 25th – Conception Island

On Friday I packed up the scuba tanks and sold them for scrap.  Just kidding, sharks aren’t going to keep us out of the water. The wind was picking up, so we did two shallow reef dives on various parts of the island.  The coral on the north side is amazing, but the visibility was horrible from the rough water colliding after coming around both sides of the island.  There were nice rocky ledges on the west side of the island with friendly groupers and a large variety of fish.

Saturday 26th – Conception Island to Long Island

We were up early Saturday morning and headed into the island to take a hike before the sun got too hot.  There is a nature trail that rounds the entire east side of the island and takes you along the cliffs on the Atlantic side to the bay on the east.  We saw long-tailed tropicbirds flying around the island, no doubt early arrivers for the upcoming nesting season.  The interior of the island is primarily mangrove swamp and we decided that we need to explore that by dinghy in the future. Unfortunately we forgot to take a camera with us on the hike, so we’ll have to go back to take pictures.

After our hike we jumped in the crystal clear water of West Bay to cool off and then headed back to the boat to get underway to Long Island.  It’s only about a three hour trip from Conception Island back to Long Island, and I can’t understand why more people don’t spend entire winters jumping back and forth to this beautiful, protected wilderness. One boat remarked on the VHF that they had spent five years trying to get to Conception Island! The good news is that now that they arrived they were going to spend a couple of weeks.

It was a long motor in calm seas to Long Island, but we needed to get a good charge on the batteries after our long week of sailing and anchoring.  Saturday afternoon we headed into the small settlement of Simms to get our first taste of Long Island. It was a long walk and we couldn’t find a nice place to tie the dinghy, but the people are friendly and we can’t wait to see more of the island.

9 Responses to Conception Island

  1. Candy

    and my friends wonder why I am a bit concerned for your safety. Happy to hear that the shark apparently didn’t want you for dinner…love reading your stories!

  2. Jeannine

    Sounds fabulous and exciting. Always love hearing of your adventures; sharks scare me though, misunderstood or not. Nermal – just had to get a little blog time.! ..Love you. Mom

  3. Kraft

    So, I take it you didn’t swim with the cuddly shark on Thursday? You need to start practicing soon if you want the National Geographic Channel to pick up your new pitch for the “Shark Whisperer!”

  4. Tanya

    “Sabrina just thinks it was cuddly”


  5. Brett

    I want to hear more details about the shark encounter. You left us hanging.

    • Brad

      Not much happened, he showed up on the edge of the visibility (about 100′) I turned around, he circled at that 100′ distance, I watched him, we returned to the boat. He hung out in the area for about 3 minutes while we did our safety stop on the mooring line and we jumped in the dink.

  6. Shannon

    So… where’s the picture of the shark? Or were you afraid to flash bright lights at him?

    • Brad

      To get a good picture I would have had to get closer, and we all know that wouldn’t happen.

  7. Chris

    Not to worry. Latest issue of Sport Diver reports that more people are taken out by pigs and falling coconuts than sharks each year. Might want to wear your hardhat while walking on the beach!

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