An underwater visit to the barge cargo ship sunk in “Never Say Never Again,” and other watery Bahamas destinations.
“I taught Sean Connery to scuba dive,” Stuart Cove said with an impish grin. “And I’ve got to be honest: He was petrified.”
Cove is the owner of Stuart Cove’s Nassau Bahamas Aqua Adventures, a dive shop and movie production company on the island of New Providence. I was sitting in his office chugging coffee in preparation for the long and challenging day ahead.
“There I was in shallow water with James Bond, for God’s sake,” he said. “And he was hanging on to me like his life depended on it. Don’t get me wrong. Sean’s a lovely guy — and a great actor — but a total wimp when it comes to diving.”
This news came as a huge relief to me. After all, if Connery, who was training for the movie “Never Say Never Again,” was scuba shy, surely I had a right to be. I had come to the Bahamas to try my hand at wreck diving and, in all honesty, I wasn’t exactly brimming with Bondian confidence. I had been certified as a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver almost 20 years ago, but with the exception of a few refresher dives in Mexico last February, I hadn’t been near a wet suit since.
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Fortunately, I was in good hands. Cove has been scuba diving for more than 50 years, having started his business sinking wrecks, building props, and performing underwater stunts for Bond classics like “For Your Eyes Only” and “The World Is Not Enough.” I had booked myself on a dive to the Tears of Allah, a 90-foot cargo ship he sank for the filming of “Never Say Never Again.” Perhaps against my better judgment, I had also signed up for a dive to the Ray of Hope, a 200-foot freighter surrounded by dozens of 8-foot reef sharks.
In light of all this, I was grateful for Cove’s stellar credentials. I was also glad that my maiden wreck dive, the Tears of Allah, stood at a depth of 40 feet. With the island’s warm, shallow water and excellent visibility — all major draws for Hollywood producers — I felt I stood a good chance of making it back in one piece.
The Bahamas offer divers a host of wrecks at a wide range of depths, from leisurely snorkel tours to more testing deep dives and night dives. The Tears of Allah was a mercifully easy start, but I had some trickier dives to contend with in the days to come.
In any case, there was little time for self-doubt. Within 10 minutes of talking to Cove, I was out on the rolling waves with my English dive master, Rich. Tumbling into the water, and gripping the anchor line, I spied the Tears Of Allah shimmering like a bar of gold in the fine white sand below.
As a Briton, and a longtime Ian Fleming fan, I couldn’t help but feel awed by the sight of a genuine Bond relic. The wreck’s silhouette rippled with schools of parrotfish and Bermuda chub; her coral-encrusted bow glistened in the slanting sun. Sinking deeper toward the sea floor, I spotted the torpedo holes cut into her hull for the filming of “Never Say Never Again.” In this bluish netherworld, fact and fiction had begun to blur: I half expected to see the movie’s leading lady, Kim Basinger, emerging from the galley with a spear gun.
The next day, I was booked on a morning flight to Bimini, the string of tiny islands made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s “Islands in the Stream.” As I flew in, it became obvious to me why he had fallen in love with the place when he first visited in spring 1935. “Out across the flats the sun was bone white under the blue sky,” he wrote, “and the small high clouds that were traveling the wind made dark moving patches on the green water.”
After an evening of decompression at the casino bar of the newly opened Hilton Hotel, I was ready to face fresh challenges. The following morning, I found myself at the site of the Bimini Barge, a 120-foot cargo ship about a mile offshore. Sunk in 1987 by a billionaire marine salvage operator, Joe Farrell, the ship sits on the edge of the Tongue of the Ocean, a yawning oceanic trench more than 6,000 feet deep.
Staring into the crystalline water, I recalled Hemingway’s description of the vertiginous drop-off in “Islands in the Stream”: “The water was so very clear that they could see the bottom clearly in thirty fathoms, see that sea fans bent with the tide currents, still see it, but cloudily at forty fathoms, and then it deepened and was dark, and they were out in the dark water of the stream.”
The Bimini Barge lies at about 100 feet, less than 20 fathoms, in Hemingway’s terms. But as my Mexican dive master, Pablo, and I broke the surface, the current pulling hard at our limbs, the depth of the ship seemed to be, well, unfathomable.
Sticking close to Pablo’s side, Connery-style, I kicked hard and fast until we reached the wreck. Her outline wobbled like a blue hallucination, the forest of sea fans on her hull quivering in the fast-flowing water. Chasing a school of yellowtail snapper over the coral-caked bow, I had the strong sensation that we were astronauts floating above an alien vessel, grappling with zero gravity on a bright, white moon. Was this the effect of nitrogen narcosis? At this depth, it was more than likely.
But if I was tipsy under the water, I quickly sobered up when we reached the surface. The waves were high and round, and for one terrible moment, I saw no sign of the dive boat. Thankfully, it was right behind me, and within a few minutes Pablo and I were back on deck, wide-eyed with adrenaline.