Lobster diving in the Abacos
Spearfishing lobster in the Abacos. (Andrew Umhau)
"What's your favourite place on earth?" asked a friend of mine over a weekly breakfast among six friends that we have shared for years.
Instantly and instinctively, I replied "The Abacos!"
I regaled the guys with tales of the trips I had made since my youth to the beautiful chain of small islands in the northern Bahamas - the crystal clear water, the kaleidoscopic coral, the taste of lobsters broiled on the boat minutes after they come out of the sea.
"We're going," my friend said. "All of us. This August. Guys trip."
Growing up in South Florida, it had become an annual ritual to travel by small boat across nearly 100 miles of open ocean to be in the Abacos at the beginning of August, when the Bahamas opens a "sport season" during which visitors are allowed to hunt the spiny lobster that live in and under the coral reefs and outcroppings in its shallow waters.
The rules are fairly simple. Dive with mask and snorkel only. No scuba or air assist. Fish with hand-held spears or hooks only. No power-cocked spearguns. And no more than six lobsters per person at any given time. If the Bahamian game wardens catch you with more, they may confiscate your boat.
Basically, you take one deep breath, dive to the bottom of the reef and peer under the shelves where the lobster love to hide. If you spot one large enough to take (adults only, and no females with egg sacs attached), you try to spear it with a single thrust before it senses your presence and skitters away. Then bring it to the surface before your lungs burst. If you think this sounds simple, you have never tried it.
The six of us arrived at Washington DC's Reagan National Airport, bleary-eyed, flip-flopped and Panama-hatted, ready to set out on what we had dubbed the "Sun, Sand and Stupidity Tour 2010". We took a flight to Miami, then a puddle-jumper direct to Treasure Cay, one of the largest and most developed of the Abaco Islands.
After checking into the Treasure Cay Resort and Marina (www.treasurecay.com), I headed to the docks for a look at the 26-foot open sport fishing powerboat I rented for the next four days, complete with diving gear and pole spears. You need to be comfortable operating boats like this and I had studied the nautical chart to refresh my memory of the waters, reefs and islands, but for an extra measure of comfort (and in the hope of finding the best lobster "holes") I arranged with the boat rental outfit, JIC Boat Rentals (www.jicboatrentals.com), to have a local guide on board for at least the first day or two.
As I saw to the boat, my buddies hit the on-site liquor store and loaded the suite with Sands beer, Havana Club rum, and Cohiba cigars that seemed just as important as the spears and snorkels.
The next morning, our guide, Sam, was standing by the boat. After quick introductions, cooler-loading, and total-body sunscreen application, we were idling out of the narrow channel from Treasure Cay Marina to the open waters of the Abaco Sea.
I have always savoured the moment when you clear the shallow cut, push the throttles forward, and feel the hull of a fast boast rise up out of the water for the first time. There are few better feelings in the world. We headed South from Treasure in the direction of Marsh Harbor, the largest town and capital of the Abacos, running at about 25 knots in water not much more than ten feet deep.
The bottom is mainly brilliant white sand or greenish grass, but we were searching for the vaguely brown and yellow hues that indicate the rocks and coral where Caribbean spiny lobster (commonly referred to as "bugs" for their insect-like appearance) live.
Sam took us to a particular spot he had in mind, very near the shoreline. My friends and I geared up and clambered over the side, while Sam stayed in the boat. I made sure there were no spears in our hands for our first dive. Although I had talked them through it, the thought of my pals swimming behind me with six-foot sharp-tipped spears was a bit unsettling.