I started my research for this trip almost 3 years ago, and after finding out that there were only really 2 operators that frequented the famous Tiger Beach and surrounding sites I decided to choose the Dolphin Dream to be my hotel and dive platform for my ten day charter. This trip was planned to celebrate my 40th birthday and the other divers on the trip were people that I had met from previous diving holidays around the world. One space become available as one of my friends was commissioned back out to Namibia to carry on photographing wildlife which he has spent the previous 3 years doing. The spare place was filled by PRC. The divers were a real mixed bag with the youngest being Louise, my wife at 36 and the eldest being Joan at 62. All divers had a great deal of diving experiences from all over the world and were people that I could trust to be looking over my shoulder whilst I was looking over theirs.
Flights and transport
We flew Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to Miami International which gave a great amount of luggage allowance, but in my opinion the plane was old and in need of replacement. The service is not what I would have expected either. The food was not very good, but the in flight entertainment was better than average. Seat leg room was not very generous either. Value for money 7/10 and that is only because of the luggage allowance. 2 x hold bags @ 23KG plus 1 x 6kg hand luggage which was not weighed, luckily for me as I had 20kg in mine.
I had pre booked a minibus with a covered trailer to take us from MIA to West Palm Beach. The driver was at the airport waiting for us and the minibus was clean and comfortable and all luggage fitted inside of the towed trailer. The minibus was booked through www.buscharter.net and the cost of a round trip from MIA to WBP for a 15 seater was $600 inclusive of taxes and gratuities.
We stayed at the Sea Spray hotel on Singer Island for our night prior to boarding the Dolphin Dream and was ok for somewhere to get your tired head down for a night, but that is all. I would certainly not stay here again though. I found the hotel manager to be rude and not very helpful. The rooms were very dated and in need of modernisation.
The price and the boat
I chartered the whole boat and sold this 10 day trip for $2500 per person and in comparison to the price that the Dolphin Dreams competitor charges for a 7 day trip this was in my opinion very good value for money. I did not make any money from this trip, did not have a place paid for or anything like what some trip organisers do. This was a trip for a collection of friends who were there to have fun. I would not be able to look any of my friends straight in the eye if I knew that I had charged them more than the price I was getting it for. I do not run trips for part of my living I do it for people to get together at a good price.
The Dolphin Dream was originally worked as a shrimp trawler called " Gods Will ". Prior to being called " Gods Will " it was named " Our Mother " by the shipyard that built the vessel. It was repossessed by the bank and purchased by Captain Scott Smith in 2003. Captain Scott had been looking for another vessel to replace the " Dream Too " that he was operating as a dolphin and shark expedition boat out to the Bahamas. The new purchase was sent for a total conversion from a shrimp trawler to a liveaboard. Captain Scott chose to have the conversion carried out by the original builders of the boat Patti Shipyard, from Pensacola, FL.
The Dolphin Dream is 86 feet long and 26 ft wide and rides the sea well. All guest cabins are down below the main deck and has 6 cabins accommodating 12 guests. This isn't a luxurious liveaboard like you would find sailing around the Banda Sea, but then this is reflected by the price. Having said that the Dolphin Dream is not luxurious, it is very spacious, has 2 well equipped heads, loads of sunbathing space on the top deck, there was also plenty of space on the sun deck to dry out all 12 sets of dive kits, 2 good sized tables within the salon for dining, a good sized galley and very importantly a good sized dive deck. Fresh water was never a problem as the Dolphin Dream has a 10,000 gallon fresh water tank. There were plenty of charging areas for strobes and batteries. A good sized flat screen TV and an extensive DVD collection for those that wanted to watch a film. The fridge was very well stocked with every soda imaginable, rehydration drinks and for post diving activities cold beer. All of the drinks were free of charge. There was also a great amount of snacks available at all times, chocolates, muesli bars, fresh fruit, crisps, sweets, cookies the list goes on. I can honestly say that I have never seen such a wide selection of drinks and snacks available on a liveaboard. The food cooked was generally what I would describe as " Home Fayre ". Everything that I ate was cooked properly and I did not hear of anyone having any stomach troubles whilst on board the Dolphin Dream.
The Diving and the Crew
The day began at 730 with a cold breakfast, followed by a hot breakfast at 8am. A dive briefing would be given about 9am and then it was more or less an open deck, or how the guys on board would say " The pools open " I really liked the idea of being able to get in and out of the water as and when I wanted. I had never been on a liveaboard that offered this and after speaking to Wetpixel member Scubysnaps when he returned from his trip a few months ago, he confirmed that this was the way the Dolphin Dream operated and that the crew were very laid back and helpful. On my trip the crew were: Captain Scott Smith, Mike Eliis - Senior deck hand, Connor - deck hand and last but not least Carrie the cook. Mike Ellis is a keen photographer and was always giving out pointers to photographers that needed any help. He was also very good at giving out briefings on how to act with large sharks around. Connor was the rookie and has a lot to learn. If he stays alongside Mike for a few more years then I am sure he will learn quite a bit.
This was a shark trip and to get the best shark photographs, the boat would do 2 things. Firstly they would have a constant fish scent entering the water and they would also have at least 2 bait boxes in the water which would be filled with dead fish. I was well aware that this was the way that the boat operated prior to booking and I was also aware that in general the Dolphin Dream do not feed sharks underwater. The scent trail certainly worked and so did the bait boxes. When you were ready to enter the water, you would get kitted up on the dive deck, giant stride into the water and then either Mike or Connor would carefully hand you your rig. They were very careful with everyones rigs and treated them as if they were their own. When you decided that you had been in the water for long enough, which was usually after about 2 hours for me, it would just be a case of getting in a position under the boat and surfacing making sure to keep your eyes on any tiger sharks that were in the vicinity. All other divers that were in the water would also keep their eyes our for any diver that was making their way back to the ladder. The ladder had an oversized fist step at the bottom of the ladder which made it easy to stand on and pass your rig up to either Mike or Connor who were always on the dive deck whilst there were divers in the water.
For anyone considering going on one of these Bahamas shark trips, I would certainly make sure that you are comfortable with having a very large amount of sharks around you. At the end of the day these are wild animals are you will be entering into their world. Nothing is predictable. I was bumped on a few occasions by Tigers that seemed to have an appetite for my fisheye dome port. You need to have you whits about you at all times and the photos come second. The majority of the photography is shot from the hip. As has been said before, if you go there and spend you time looking through your viewfinder, then you are not looking out for the dangers. I have been lucky enough to have dived at Cocos and galapagos amongst squadrons of Scalloped Hammerheads, but diving with the sharks of the bahamas is much more a powerful adrenalin rush. They are seriously in your face.
The Dive Sites:
Probably the most famous dive site in the Bahamas for sharks. It isn't actually a beach as the name might suggest, but a sand bank that lays in 5 metres of water. The Dolphin Dream would moor up to a large abandoned chain and then diving could begin. Visibility could be amazing and it could also be very bad. Our first days diving was at Tiger Beach and conditions were absolutely perfect, high tide, great sun and plenty of sharks. Sadly the visibility would get worse as the days went on, but the sharks didn't disappoint. The area where the Dolphin Dream dives at Tiger Beach is not the same as where the other operator dives, so if both operators are at Tiger Beach on the same day then they do not get in each others way. We did not see any other divers in the 10 days that we were there. I did see a spear fisherman on Tiger Beach, which was a bit concerning as minutes prior to seeing him I was actually taking photos of a female tiger shark. I wonder whether he knew what the Dolphin Dream was there for. I don't think he did.
Scott a Wall
Not a wall as the name might suggest, but more of a gentle sloping reef. Plenty of Caribbean Reef Sharks here, some lovely colourful sponges and a very friendly nurse shark. Sadly a large percentage of the CR Sharks have been hooked at some point by fishermen and have hooks and lures hanging from their mouths. It was actually quite disturbing to see this. This unfortunately was the same for all of the CR Sharks on all of the sites that they were present. 18 metres in depth
3 separate areas of reefs separated by 2 sandy channels. A great site for the smaller critters for those that had point and shoot cameras. Again another site with a good population of Caribbean Reef Sharks. 26 metres in depth.
An area nearly identical to Scott a Wall. So much so that most of my group actually thought that we were on the same site as Scott a Wall. A quick look on a personal GPS indicated that we were in fact a short distance away. 14 metres in depth
This is a 100 metre, hundred year old wreck laying in just under 6 metres of water. I don't think that I have ever seen so much fish life in 1 small area. There is nothing left of the wreck to penetrate, but the remains have plenty of great photo opportunities. Turtles, Nurse Sharks and a variety of large Angelfish are residents here.
Muriels Garden. Sloping reef with a large number of schooling fish and a large number of barracuda. Reef sharks a plenty. 20 metres in depth
We visited 2 separate areas for swimming with the dolphins. A northern area and also a southern area. Anyone who knows Captain Scott Smith will tell you that he has dedicated his life to the dolphins of the Bahamas. He has a book published about them and has a vast reference library of them with a lot of them being named individually. Dolphins are Captains Scotts passion and it was actually the dolphins that led him to find Tiger Beach all those years ago. Unfortunately I was full of flu ( real man flu ) on these days and was not up for any kind of strenuous activity these days. I did manage to drag myself into the water for 10 minutes to get a couple of snaps at the dolphins. The rest of the guys got in with them at night as well and from what I was told, was one of the highlights of the trip. A very large pod of dolphins arrived to play with the swimmers. Slowing down almost as if to pose for the cameras. Watching them hunt from the back of the boat was all I could manage and it was the worst part of the trip for me not being fit enough to get in the water. Still it gives me an excellent excuse to book another charter with the Dolphin Dream.
The Highlights and lowlights
The whole trip was a great success, people from all walks of life joining in and having fun. Everybody was treated exactly the same and banter played a large part of the trip. Luckily everyone on the trip was able to laugh at themselves as well as laugh at others. For those that have met me, I would hope that you would agree and find me as an easy going, very light hearted guy who doesn't take anything too seriously. I like to have fun and love to make others laugh. This trip was perfect as everyone at some point each day had a great big smile on their faces. The crew played a vital role in the trip as well, and although they didn't really understand a word us Brits said, they joined in very well. I knew that the Skipper had a great sense of humour on day one when I see him climbing up out of the water totally naked. I don't know if this is an old salty sea dog ritual, but it certainly made me laugh.
Seeing 7 different Tiger Sharks was certainly a big bonus, having perfect conditions on day 1 was also top notch.
Sitting under the bait box and having Lemons coming in from all angles was totally wicked.
The low points of the trip for me were seeing the Reefies with hooks and trailing line. Being too ill to play with the dolphins. Coming home.
Heres a couple straight out the camera. I will post some edited photos once I have sorted through the 4500 files that I managed to obtain whilst there.
Edited by stewsmith, 03 April 2011 - 11:00 AM.