August 02, 2016
Diving the North Carolina coast
The waters off the coast of North Carolina are known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. That's because when the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador currents, things can get quite rough. That primarily goes for North Carolina's Outer Banks, that thin strip of sandy dunes that can be as far as 30 miles away from the mainland. South of that, starting at Cape Lookout, is a less rugged and mostly south-facing 85-mile stretch known as the Crystal Coast where, according to tourist brochures, the waters can be as warm and clear as in the Caribbean.
Having fond memories of summer vacations spent on the Outer Banks decades ago, we made the 530 mile trek from East Tennessee to Morehead City for a couple of days of diving with the folks of the Olympus Dive Center, which is located on the peninsula facing Bogue Sound. The company began as a boat charter business over 40 years ago, the dive shop itself was built a few years later, and their primary dive boat, the 65-foot Olympus, has been serving divers for 30 years.
Like most well-established dive shops, Olympus is an interesting place. There's an eclectic mix of ScubaPro and other dive gear, useful accessories, spare and repair parts, bags, cameras, lights, clothing and also numerous fascinating mementos from decades of exploration under the seas. The shop's founder, the late Captain George Purifoy, is credited with having discovered and identified several major wrecks, most notably the USS Schurz, a 295 foot World War I cruiser that sank in 1918, and the German submarine U-352 that went down in 1942 after mistakenly taking on a US Coast Guard cutter and getting the short end of the deal (read Coast Guard sinking of U-352).
Needless to say we wanted to dive the U-352 as, given the notoriety of the Nazi wreck, we assume most divers new to the area probably would. We put our gear on the spacious dive deck of the Olympus, set up what could be done ahead of time, and then retired to our home for this trip, the Island Inn across the Atlantic Beach Bridge over Bogue Sound. Alarms were set for 5AM as divers were expected at the dock by 6AM sharp.
We had brought our own tanks and they were still filled with 33% Nitrox from a prior trip, too "hot" for the 120 to 130 feet of the deeper wrecks we planned to dive. We had that toned down to 30%, good for a maximum depth of 124 feet when observing a PPO (partial pressure oxygen) of 1.4 atmospheres.
The Olympus left port around 7:30AM, after every diver had collected a numbered "boarding pass" and given it to 1st Mate Bud Daniels so he could do his roll calls after every dive — a clever solution of keeping track of divers and making sure they're all present and accounted for after a dive.
This is when we began learning the realities of North Carolina diving. Unlike in most parts of the world where there's a set schedule of dive sites every day, or where divers can request a site, off the coast of North Carolina it all depends on the conditions. No matter what the weather forecast says or what the skies look like, the situation out on the open sea may be different, and it can change at the drop of a hat. So the Captain, in constant communication with other boats and various services, decides when and where to go.
How can it be so difficult to figure out what conditions to expect? That's because the Eastern continental shelf is relatively shallow and one has to travel pretty far out on the open sea to reach depths of 120 to 130 feet where most of the interesting historic wrecks lie. That means 30 to 40 mile boat trips right to the border of the gulf stream where currents and ever-changing temperatures mean anything can happen.
For us, the initial word was that it was 50/50 on whether we could make it to the deep sites. Once past Beaufort Inlet, where the incoming swells mean it's always rocky, the seas were not too bad and after half an hour or so the Captain announced we'd be headed for the wreck of the Aeolus, a 410-foot tanker sunk in 1988 as part of the state's artificial reef program. The Aeolus now rests in about 110 feet of water, maybe 30 miles out. That was good news to us because the U-352 sits in the same direction, just another five miles farther out to sea. So we hoped to see the submarine on the second dive.
It was not to be. A bit later, with the seas getting rougher, the Olympus made a hard turn to the right and word came from the bridge that the deep dive program had to be aborted due to unsafe conditions. Instead, we were now heading for shallower waters closer to shore.
We ended up diving the "inshore" wreck of the 330-foot freighter Indra, also sunk under the artificial reef program in 1992. Depth here was 65 feet, which made for a short descent and much longer dive time. Visibility at the wreck was maybe 45 feet, not tremendous and definitely not the 80-100 feet listed for the month of July and 100+ feet for August.
It was a pleasant dive in 81 degree water and also my first opportunity to experience the "Carolina Rig," which consists of weighted hanglines dropped off the middle and rear of the boat with a horizontal line at 15 feet between them, and a rope down to the anchor line in the front. That makes it easy to find the line down to the wreck, and also helps the 15-foot safety stop at the end of the dive and then heading to the back of the boat and to the ladder.
The second dive was to two tug boats — the James J. Francesconi and the smaller Tramp — that had recently (May 2016) been sunk near the Indra. Visibility was less, but still good enough to enjoy the dive and going to both tugs. What made this dive special were massive schools of small fish literally enveloping the wreck in ever-changing speed and formations. What made them stop and start was never obvious as they didn't seem to be afraid of divers. It was totally fascinating to watch them.
The weather forecast didn't look bad for the next day and so we had high hopes to make it to the U-352 after all. Our hearts sank when we saw divers who had arrived at the dock before us take a wait-and-see approach rather than preparing their gear on the boat. And sure enough, the Captain called us together and announced that conditions were rough again, and the most we could hope for was a trip to the shallower inshore sites.
After some more deliberations, the Olympus did indeed take off. The swells at the inlet were quite large and rocked the sizable boat. Once out on the open ocean it calmed down some, but we still saw whitecaps and hit the occasional large swell. The presence of whitecaps is usually our own indicator that it's too rough to dive. Not so much underwater, but getting back on the boat with the ladder slamming up and down. Half an hour into the trip the Captain called it off. Too dangerous. And that was that for us. On the way back through Beaufort Inlet, we saw a large sport fishing yacht almost flip over backward, so big were the swells.
Our experience pretty much summarized the predicament of North Carolina diving. Trips to the deeper wrecks are long, which makes them quite expensive. The water is warmer farther out and the visibility likely better, but you truly never know if you can actually make it out there. On a good day it may be two great days of diving to where you wanted to go. On bad days you don't get to leave the dock at all. In between it's a maybe, and you don't know what to expect.
That makes planning dives difficult. Nitrox fills cost twice as much as air, and it's really wasted on shallow sites. Planning what gear to take with is difficult as well. We're usually testing cameras on every dive, and depth determines filters, lights and the type of camera we want to take with. Hotel accommodations are expensive, and staying without being able to dive quickly drives up the cost per dive.
While cancelled or aborted trips are frustrating for divers, it's much worse for charter operators who have to deal with disappointed customers. And they never know whether a fully booked boat will result in actual pay or not. The double whammy of environmental conditions and — in the absence of reefs or walls or many other interesting sites — being limited to the relatively small number of suitable ship wrecks makes diving the coastal waters of North Carolina an uncertain proposition.
I certainly don't regret the trip. I love long drives, we had great company in our friends Tom and Donna, the boat rides themselves were wonderful even without diving, the Olympus dive operation was great, and we got to experience not only the ever-changing and often dramatic North Carolina coastal weather and skies, but also managed some beach combing and sight-seeing. Fort Macon alone is worth a trip.
May 20, 2016
Diving South Florida May 2016
Sunday, May 8, 2016 — It's been almost two years since we went diving. The culprit was a combination of taking a breather after all those many dive trips that led to the publication of my book (Becoming a Scuba Diver), an increase in workload, and then preparation and execution of our move from California to Tennessee. We had postponed diving again and again. But that was about to change.
Our friends Tom and Donna own a timeshare in Pompano Beach, Florida and invited us to come along for a week. Pompano Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale, is within driving distance of our home in East Tennessee, and so we gladly accepted. We were to drive down, convoy style. Our friends in their mighty Diesel-powered Ford F350, we in the Prius.
Prior to departure we spent days going through our dive gear, some of which we first had to find in various parts of our new home where still not everything is where it should be after the move. We found things that didn't work. The battery in my Uwatec Galileo Sol dive computer needed to be replaced, and the battery of the wireless transmitter screwed onto my regulator was dead, too. The transmitter takes one of those button batteries, not the popular CR2062, but the less common CR2045. Fortunately, the local Walgreen's had one of those, and replacing it was easy.
I always suffer from logistics anxiety before a dive trip. Do I have everything? How do we get to the boat? What will the dive operation do and what do I need to do? What do I need to bring? Where can I stow my gear? Can I leave things at the dive shop, or do I have to take it back to where we stay? What temperatures can we expect, and which wet suit should I bring? And so on. These questions are always on my mind before a trip.
We got up at 3AM on Saturday, left at 4:30, and the 820 mile trip from East Tennessee to South Florida, though long, was pleasant. I had forgotten just how green and hilly northern Georgia is, and how much I enjoy long rides in a car where one can talk, relax, stop wherever one wants, and always has enough legroom.
I hate toll roads and mercifully Tennessee and Georgia don't have any. Florida does, though, but there's SunPass, an RFID-based electronic payment system. Interestingly, one can get the RFID sticker in a vending machine next to candy bars and salted snacks, and then easily activate it on a smartphone or tablet.
Once in Florida and all checked in and settled in our home for the week, the dive shop, Pompano Dive Center, turned out to be right next to a marina with their dive boats. I got answers to all my logistics worries, as I almost always do.
The marina was at an intracoastal waterway parallel to the beach. That meant motoring past gorgeous waterfront homes for a mile or so, under bridges and past boat yards before the captain could take the boat, the Sea Siren, out onto the open water.
The first dive of the week was to the wreck of the Captain Dan, a 175-foot tender that was sunk as an artificial reef a quarter of a century ago. Opposite me sat five divers with rebreathers, which seemed incredibly complex to me. The idea of a rebreather is so simple: instead of wasting all this air by just breathing it out into the water as one does with open circuit scuba, rebreather divers are on closed circuit, where exhaled air is scrubbed of carbon dioxide, the inert nitrogen reused, and only as much oxygen added as is needed. But that's a complex mechanism, with sensors and systems and checks and balances.
We had brought our own tanks, but I had never actually dived with the particular combination of suit and tank (5-mil wetsuit, 100 cubic foot steel tank) and so didn't know exactly how much weight I needed in the pockets of my BC. I probably didn't need any but decided on 8 pounds. We arrived at the wreck site, the boat tied off, and it was time to jump in. At 80 degrees, the water was warm enough to feel nice and pleasant.
After having stored my dive gear for two years and then moved it across the continent in a hot POD container before having it sit in a hot garage for another few months, I first had to shake an uneasiness about everything still working as it should. After all, scuba gear is life support equipment where failure is not an option.
I've never liked anchor line descents, which is how it's usually done when you go visit a deep wreck. If you don't use a line and just float down you may actually miss the wreck, especially in current and poor visibility. But hanging on to a line that disappears in the distance is disconcerting to me.
This time I was glad that there was a line, because my completely dry wetsuit was too buoyant to let me descend easily even with eight pounds of weight in my pockets. Once down to 20 feet or so descending became easier.
There was no current and the visibility was reasonable. The wreck came into view, sitting on a sandy bottom. It was encrusted with all sorts of marine growth, and though it was pretty deep, the feel of this dive was considerably less intimidating than diving the wreck of the Yukon in San Diego at roughly the same depth. That's because the Yukon is usually in near dark, and the Pacific water is cold. The gloom of the Yukon prohibits even the thought of entering the wreck, whereas the warmer water and greater light almost invited exploring the insides of the Captain Dan.
The wreck sat in sand at a depth of 110 feet. We touched bottom, then swam around the ship, and I quickly became more comfortable with my gear and being underwater again. Exploring was cut short, though, because even with 32% Nitrox in our tanks, bottom time at that depth is limited. Even with a slow ascent and the mandatory deco stop at 15 feet, it was a fairly brief 40 minute dive.
The second dive was at a similar nearby wreck, the 160 foot tender RSB-1. Normally diving starts with the deepest dive of the day and then proceeds to shallower ones, but the RSB-1 sat at 120 feet, so we had two fairly challenging dives right off the bat. Visibility at the bottom was quite good on this dive, probably 60 feet or even more, which meant we were in for a treat.
Seeing a coral-encrusted wreck that has been down for decades in good light and clear water is quite an experience. The difference between seeing a lot of a wreck and groping around in the near dark is vast. Unfortunately, even with Nitrox, exploring at 100+ feet meant that remaining bottom time quickly reached the single digits on our dive computers. and so this dive was over far too soon as well.
Speaking of dive computers, I nearly lost mine on this dive. At a depth over over 100 feet its wristband broke apart and it was only by coincidence that I happened to look at it just as it let go. It would not have tumbled into unrecoverable depth as I was hovering close to the sandy bottom when it happened, but I probably still would not have found it had it fallen off unnoticed. I always wear a backup computer, and so I could have safely completed the dive with the backup, but losing an expensive dive computer definitely is no fun. And the wristbands of expensive dive computers should not simply break.
Back on the boat it felt great to have reacquainted ourselves with diving again. And having ready access to a good dive shop came in handy, too, for the broken wristband of the computer. They didn't have a replacement in stock, but took one from a new computer and put it on mine.
Monday, May 9, 2016: Current — Normally dive boats go out on two tank routes, but sometimes it's three. And that's what we were going to have on our second day of diving off Pomano Beach, a three tank dive with an onboard barbecue. That meant having a grill and a lot of tanks on the boat, but there were only eight divers and so we could spread out.
The sea was rougher than the day before and it was windy, so we were in for a bumpy ride, and a long one, too. All in all, between intracoastal and open water travel, it took a good hour until the Sea Siren slowed down for its first destination of the day. The MV Castor is a 258-feet ship that was sunk in 2001 after she had been seized by the US Coast Guard for transporting illegal drugs. Apparently, a good number of the scuttled ships off the coast of South Florida are former drug runners.
Once a dive boat arrives at a wreck location, which thanks to GPS coordinates and depth sounders is far easier than it used to be, the first thing is to tie off the line that goes from a permanent buoy to the wreck. If there is a permanent buoy, which isn't always the case. Then dive masters first must go down to the wreck to attach a line. The other reason for dive masters to go in first is to report on the conditions. Everyone hopes to hear that the visibility is good and there is no current.
Alas, no such luck on that dive. The current was very strong, abating just a bit down by the wreck. That meant jumping in the water and instantly grabbing the line, or else one might get washed away. We did that, Carol and I, and began the ascent down the anchor line. The current was so strong that we had to hold on with both hands, pulling ourselves down hand over hand. Between the current, holding on to cameras, and clearing ears (which can be more difficult in strong current) it was slow going.
After what seemed like an eternity, the big wreck came into view and visibility turned quick good. The current lessened a bit, but not enough to make letting go of the line seem like a good idea. I chanced it anyway, dropping down to the sandy bottom at 115 feet in the hope of finding calmer waters there. That didn't happen and what one then does in such situations is hunting for spots with less current in and around the wreck. I found some places but still had to fight current, which makes diving that much harder.
It would have been great to explore this whole very interesting wreck, the midsection of which had mostly collapsed. There was lots of life and much to explore. A big attraction here were the goliath groupers that had taken up residence in and around the wreck. They hung around, fearlessly eyeing us divers and being quite inquisitive. One seemed particularly interested in my bright orange ScubaPro Seawing Nova fins.
And then there are the colors that no one expects and which only reveal themselves in the beam of a dive light or a flash.
Since this again was a deep wreck, we had very limited bottom time before heading back to the anchor line for our way up. Finding the anchor line again is always a bit of a harrowing experience for me. Without the line ascent is difficult and disorienting in waters, and one might surface well away from the boat. I did locate the line and the current up was even stronger than on the way down. I was exhausted by the time I surfaced.
The buoy was now in front of the bucking Sea Siren and not in the back where the ladder is. I couldn't see a line around the boat and didn't want to let go of the buoy, but knew I couldn't stay where I was. The catch line, of course, was behind the boat with the current and I should have known that. By the time I climbed up the ladder I was panting and exhausted and felt quite sick.
I ended up passing on the second and third dive, feeling too queasy to get up. I even missed the barbecue. I don't know if I was seasick, but I felt miserable enough to wish I were in our room in bed without all the rocking. It was an unpleasant two or three hours until the feeling finally passed. During that time I felt like I never wanted to dive again. I also wondered what had happened to me, as everyone else seemed unaffected.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016: Rough Waters — We expected our week in Pompano Beach to be nice, easy diving, the sort of a tune-up we needed to reacquaint ourselves with diving. So far that hadn't been the case. Anchor line dives to deepwater wrecks, long rocky boat rides and strong current didn't qualify as easy. And so on the morning of our third day my stomach still felt a bit queasy. But there was another gorgeous sunrise and on the agenda was the Tracey a comparatively shallow (70 feet) wreck not too far away from our location.
But Neptune didn't cooperate. As soon as we exited the intracoastal waterway and hit the open ocean the water was rough. The boat bounced and plowed through increasingly tall swells, with spray flying all over and things coming loose all over the boat. The usual 2-foot waves became four, five and probably even six footers, with whitecaps all over. Our fairly substantial 46-foot dive boat rocked enough to make getting off for diving seem hazardous, and getting back on the boat even more so.
The conditions hadn't improved when we arrived at our destination, and Carol and I decided to skip the dive. In dive certification class, instructors are fond pointing out that there are old divers and there are bold divers, but there aren't any old, bold divers. The risk of getting hurt in such rough conditions seemed more than we were willing to accept. With the back and front of the boat rising and then dropping six feet or more, the chance of getting hit by the boat or the loose ladder felt simply too large.
The rest of the guests on board did do the dive, I felt a bit like a wuss, and we breathed a sigh of relief when everyone was safely back on board.
Conditions didn't improve and we didn't do the second dive either. This was a drift dive with each group of divers taking along a dive flag and reel. Thirty minutes or so after the first divers had jumped in, people began popping up here and there in the ocean, with the crew looking out for them and motoring over to pick them up. I thought each diver should probably deploy a safety sausage.
I did feel quite bad over skipping two more dives, making it four in a row, more than I had ever missed before in one stretch. But it simply seemed the right thing to do.
Later in the day we drove down to Hollywood where we visited the largest dive shop I had ever seen in my life. Then it was dinner and drinks at Margaritaville. The drinks were good, but the whole Margaritaville experience didn't quite live up to expectations.
Wednesday, May 11, 2016: Back in the drink! — If you get thrown off a horse, they say, get right back up in the saddle. That sounded like good advice after having missed those dives. I did not want to get in the habit of bowing out of dives for minor reasons.
So I hoped that all would go well the next time out. And it did. The water looked much calmer from the balcony of our place, and once in the boat and on open water, the waves were indeed much smaller. The day's dives started with the 170-foot Sea Emperor, which despite its impressive name is really a hopper barge. She was sunk with 1,600 tons of concrete drainage culverts on board, a good part of which ended up laying next to the barge because she flipped over as she went down.
There wasn't much current going down and the visibility was quite good. The spilled culverts made for a great habitat for all sorts of life and exploring it was interesting. And the wreck's depth at 75 feet meant a longer dive.
Despite the barge being upside down, it was easy to get inside and dive in and between the compartments, many of them teeming with fish. Every chamber had access to the open water, so there was plenty of light and no chance to get lost.
While current is a challenge when visiting wrecks it's also what makes drift dives possible. There the idea is to have the current take you along for a ride. It's a great way to relax and just watch the scenery go by. We had been told that the South Florida reefs were modest and nothing worth writing home about, but that turned out to be quite wrong.
The reef area at about 60 feet that we drifted over for an hour was interesting and quite impressive. We saw hundreds of barrel sponges and all sorts of life in an endless variety of slopes and ridges with the occasional overhang. There weren't walls or the kind of massive coral heads like you see, for example, in Roatan, but it was better and larger than the reefs in many other dive areas with a much greater reputation for good reef diving than Pompano Beach.
The barrel sponges weren't quite as large as we've seen elsewhere, but what they lacked in size they made up in numbers. Spiny lobsters found holes to live in and defend, as did a good number of moray eels. We didn't see too many lion fish, which is a good thing for the native critter population. A green turtle didn't mind our visit and let us get close for some pictures and video.
Even after a good many dives in my life, I am still amazed how conditions affect everything. Rough sea can be nauseating and even keep you from diving. The sun adds light underwater and makes you feel warmer, whereas an overcast day can make dives feel cold and gloomy. Current can be a total pain as getting down to and back up from an anchor line dive becomes all about getting there and back again instead of enjoying the actual dive. Waves can make getting back on the boat stressful and even dangerous. Being able to spread out on a boat is so much more comfortable than a sold-out trip. Then there are the ears and sinuses that may or may not cooperate no matter how much experience you have equalizing the pressure in your ears. And masks that may or may not fog up. Being cold can ruin even a great dive because it becomes all about the cold and somehow staying as warm as possible.
A few words about the importance of the right tanks. One of the benefits of driving is that we could bring along our own tanks, two steel 100s for me and two steel 80s for Carol. That's different from the ubiquitous aluminum 80 tanks used by almost all resorts, liveaboards, and dive operations. Steel is less buoyant than aluminum and therefore requires carrying less weight. I also liked having the 100 cubic foot steel tank because, despite being the same external size as an aluminum 80, the extra 25% of air means one is hardly ever low on standard dives.
Thursday, May 12, 2016: Wrecks aplenty — While San Diego's "Wreck Alley" is famous for its ship wreck diving, in terms of the sheer numbers it is dwarfed by what's available off Pompano Beach and neighboring communities in Florida. There are literally dozens of wrecks laying off the coast here. They range in length between under 100 feet all the way to over 400 (the Lowrance), and sit in waters as shallow as a few dozen feet all the way to 250+ feet for technical diving. Most, but not all, were sunk as artificial reefs, and at that they succeeded admirably.
And while the waters off San Diego are perennially cold, the South Florida seas are warm and pleasant. We saw 78-82 degrees in early May. Current can be an issue, as can be visibility, but overall, if there's a wreck alley, South Florida certainly has a strong claim.
While few divers will list Pompano Beach as one of their preferred diving locations, that's just because the diving here is comparatively little known. We had expected some easy, shallow diving to brush up skills. Instead, our first two dives were to 110+ foot wrecks, one right after the other. The next day another big, deep wreck with current so strong that it ranked among the top ten most challenging dives in my 350 grand total. So this is serious, interesting diving here.
But to get back to our adventures, this day started off with a dive down to the wreck of the 215-foot Dutch freighter Rodeo-25, sunk in 1990 and sitting in 130 feet of water on a sandy bottom. There was no current going down or back up, and 100-foot visibility made for an awesome dive. It's always great to see large parts of a wreck and not just what's right before your nose. Light and visibility help to convey a sense of the true size of a wreck.
Here, again, we ran smack into the limitation of allowable bottom time. The dive shop had thoughtfully filled our tanks with just 29% Nitrox instead of 32%, thus increasing maximum depth from 111 feet to 126 feet, just enough for me to touch the sand next to the wreck. Swimming around the wreck still meant to be at a depth of 100 feet, quickly munching up remaining bottom time. The rear part of the wreck with the bridge and masts was much taller and made for a shallower dive level, but since the anchor line was attached to the lower bow all divers had to return there. I stayed fairly high on my return from the masts to the bow and anchor line, and still got down to just one minute of no-decompression time on my computer. Most others had certainly gone into deco time.
Given the depth of this first dive, we made the second dive a nice, pleasant drift over the reef, with lobsters, lion fish, morays, a scorpion fish and tons of other colorful life.
The rest of the day was quite eventful. We had dinner with old acquaintances, a couple that we had met a few years ago on a liveaboard trip around Turks and Caicos. And our friends found, much to their dismay, that the battery of their truck was dead. That normally just requires a jump, but if the keys to the truck are inside the vehicle and its keypad lock has no power, it's a different matter altogether. Especially when it's a 7-liter diesel in a parking garage. The cause was obvious: an ice chest had remained connected and drained both batteries of the big vehicle. All attempts to get into the vehicle to at least pop the hood failed. But googling revealed a way to restore power and thus open the truck. And AllState roadside assistance arrived in the form of a dude with a Rastaman do in a Volkswagen. He got the job of jumping the big diesel done with two booster batteries helping the Volkswagen.
Friday, May 13, 2016: Four on the floor, and a hammer — Generally it takes a few days to become familiar with a dive operation. That's what happened to us on this South Florida adventure with the great folks at the Pompano Dive Center. Once we had become friends with all of them and knew how it all worked, who does what, and what goes where, it was already the last day of diving for the trip. But what a last day it turned out to be.
Our friends had left that morning to spend a day with family on their way back home, and we were the only divers on board. Just us, the captain, and two divemasters. So the crew outnumbered us. That can't be very profitable for a charter operation, and it showed again that apparently few divers know how great the diving in the Pompano Beach area is.
The water was all but flat, the sun was out, and we started the day with a return to the Captain Dan. Going back to a wreck for a more leisurely examination is always a treat. The conditions weren't the greatest but we got to do some of the penetrations we had skipped on the earlier dive. After a quarter of a century down there, the Dan is still almost completely intact, but covered with all sorts of small growth and it looks a bit muddy. If there's enough light or one uses a flash, though, colors pop up and the old wreck beautifully comes to life.
When the Pompano Beach dive boats don't go out with divers, they are engaged in a shark tagging project. Apparently that's a government funded attempt at learning more about the types, presence, and migration paths of sharks in the area. Personally I had a hard time imagining how the same dive boats we used also served as platforms to hook sharks, get them onboard, examine and tag them, and then let them go again.
After the deep Captain Dan, we decided on a leisurely drift dive to cap the morning. The current almost always runs south to north off the Florida coast, and since the wreck was south of the inlet the dive boat uses to get home to its port, the drift dive was on the way. They called this particular one "Razzle Dazzle," and it certainly lived up to its name. On that dive especially.
That's because just minutes into the dive along the 60 foot deep reef I looked to my left and found myself right next to a Hammerhead shark. That is definitely not a common occurrence, and certainly not on a drift dive near Pompano Beach, South Florida. Hammers usually swim in schools and they are shy, hardly ever getting close to divers. This one was alone and was no more than a few feet away from me.
The whole encounter lasted no more than a few seconds from when I first saw the sizable Hammer (it was larger than it looks in the picture below, due to perspective) and when it disappeared again behind me. Had I been surprised this way by a barking dog or a larger wild animal on land, I'd have experienced the familiar rush of adrenaline that instantly puts the human body on alert and in code orange condition. Yet, I felt none of that other than a "wow, this is so cool!" sensation.
Carol was right next to me and when I alerted her to the shark had the presence of mind to quickly raise her GoPro and takes pictures. Amazingly, she managed to capture a great shot. That served as proof that it had actually happened. She later said she was surprised about my calm reaction, as Hammerheads apparently can be pretty nasty.
In a way, however, it was no different from dives off West Caicos in the Caribbean where we'd been surrounded by reef sharks: a sense of wonder and excitement of seeing those magnificent creatures. Somehow fear never entered the mind. Maybe it's because unlike on land where you can instantly plan defensive or evasive action, in the water what you can do is so very limited that all a human diver can do is watch.
This was supposed to be our last dive of the trip, but Carol talked me into signing up for the afternoon dives as well. Only three had signed up for that and the boat needed a minimum of four to go, so it seemed the right thing to do, especially since we had missed those dives earlier in the week.
Of our fellow divers on that last trip out to sea were a father/daughter team with the girl being in her teens and on her very first dive after certification in a lake. Thinking back of my own first actual dive, going out on a dive boat for a 45 minute ride on the open ocean and then dive a 80-foot wreck down an anchor line seemed quite a challenge.
The wreck of the Tracey sat on sand at 70-80 feet in mediocre visibility, but it certainly was a treat. Under a large metal canopy were many thousands of fish. They love that kind of setting. There was also ample penetration and we explored some of that.
The sand around the Tracey was also favored by stingrays. We spotted one who let us get quite close before he took off, whirling up sand in the process.
Then I discovered markers away from the wreck and decided to follow those, as there were two other wrecks nearby. It was perhaps a 200 foot swim until another wreck suddenly loomed before us, likely the 95 foot long Jay Scutti, and so we got two wrecks in one. And an encounter with a giant grouper to boot.
There was not enough time to explore the wreck of the Jay Scutti as the third diver that had come along on my exploration was on a smaller tank and his air was getting low. So we returned to the Tracey and went up the line.
And, oh, before we departed for the second wreck, we saw the young lady diver happily swimming around the wreck! Good for her! She did just fine, too, on the drift dive that followed, having decent air consumption and apparently no fear. Her arms and legs were busy, as is almost always the case with new divers, but that'll change. She did not notice that a nurse shark made an appearance behind her. We told her later and she regretted not having seen it.
Saturday, May 14, 2016: Drive home: No lines, no hassles, no TSA — All dive trips begin and end with, well, the trip. This time that meant packing the car and then a long 830 mile drive each way. That took 13 hours from door to door. Which was actually more than most of the international dive trips we've done.
But I was reminded again how driving has so many advantages. While cramming gear and necessities into whatever the airlines allow is always a huge hassle,you simply put into the car whatever you think you may need. On this trip back home we had four big scuba tanks, two large scuba gear bags, clothing and toiletries, towels, food, camera bags, and assorted odds and ends. Far, far more than one could ever take on a plane.
And it's economical. The Prius needed just one fuel stop for the 830 miles to get from home to our destination. It used a grand total of 17 gallons of gasoline, which at an average of just over $2/gallon cost just $34 one way. Plus a great lunch at Joe's barbecue somewhere in the southern part of Georgia.
There is also no ridiculously expensive airport parking, no standing in long lines, no TSA hassles, no waiting for the plane, no boarding, no tiny rock-hard seats, no endless delays, no rush to the baggage claim, no long line at immigration, no hassles at customs, no hustlers, no surly gate agents, no cab or bus to the final destination. And when you're there, you have a car to go places, anytime, anywhere.
Right now I don't feel I ever want to set foot in an airplane again. Or have my luggage and my body searched one more time.
July 15, 2014
Saba and St. Kitts, May 30 to June 7, 2014
It was a deal we couldn't resist, and after the unfavorable weather condition we had encountered on the same itinerary in 2010, we had intended to go back and do this trip over anyway. Saba and St. Kitts in the Leeward islands of the outer Caribbean, onboard Explorer Ventures' Caribbean Explorer II. Only this time we'd do the trip in reverse order, start in Saint Maarten and leave from St. Kitts.
Getting there means a long trip from California. This time we took a shuttle flight to Los Angeles, a red-eye to Newark, and then it was another four-plus hour stretch to St. Maarten. Packing for a liveaboard dive trip is always a challenge because it's hard to anticipate what you'll need and what should be left behind. Having been on the same boat before made it somewhat easier. One doesn't need much clothing on a liveaboard. There is no dressing up for dinners or nights on the town. But if you forget something, there's little shopping to cover omissions.
I wasn't sure what wetsuit to bring. Last time we did this trip was in late summer, with water temperatures a steady 86 degrees. That meant even a 3mil wetsuit was too much and we did many dives in just bathing suits. This time the boat company predicted around 80 degrees, and divers know the big difference just six degrees can make. So I brought along my 5mil wetsuit. It's bulkier and I might get hot, but that's better than feeling cold and clammy on dives.
Saturday, June 1, 2014 Saint Maarten — We arrived at the modern St. Maarten airport shortly before noon on Saturday. The customs official determined that, contrary to the way we had filled out the forms, we weren’t actually going to stay in St. Maarten and it was a transfer. Still, immigration was quick, we got our luggage, and found a cab driver with a Caribbean Explorer sign waiting for us outside the airport. The taxi ride to the marina was longer than expected, winding through little towns and up and down the mountainous island which is half Dutch Saint Maarten and half French St. Martin. For that we were charged ten dollars per person and I gave the friendly cabby another five.
The Caribbean Explorer II was moored in Bobby's Marina and we were greeted by some of the crew. We couldn't board yet because the rooms weren’t quite ready, and so we decided to explore St. Maarten for an hour or two, until the 3pm boarding time. It was cloudy, hot, and stiflingly humid. We meandered around the boardwalk with its palm trees, made our way through the narrow little alleys with their endless souvenir shops and stands with insistingly peddling locals. That was in stark contrast to tourists perusing Cartier fashions and Rolex watches in luxurious designer stores. St. Maarten felt a bit seedier than we remembered, but maybe it was the lack of sleep and the heat and humidity. We should have had a drink and some local fare in one of the many tropical looking bars. But, unable to make a decision, we went with Subway sandwiches instead and ate them outdoors in the heat.
We were back at the boat around three, set up our dive gear, and got acquainted with the staff. This time we had stateroom #3 on the main deck, which was far more convenient than the downstairs cabin in the front of the boat we had had on our first trip on the CEX II. Our new accommodations had a queen bed at the bottom and a twin bunk on top of it. There was large storage under the bed and we could also use the upper bunk to store more of our stuff. The room was a bit smaller than the cabin we'd had on the lower deck, but it was nice enough. There was a sink in the cabin, and we had a separate shower with a toilet. There was only one power outlet, though, and so I was glad we had brought a 7-port USB charger and an outlet multiplier. Unlike on our prior trip, the A/C definitely wasn't a problem this time and the cabin was, and stayed, almost icy cold. Last time it had been humid and too warm.
It is always interesting to meet the crew. This time it consisted of just five. There was the charming and very personable purser/divemaster Maria who had worked on the Honduran island of Utila and also on liveaboards; divemaster Martin, a young man from Belgium; engineer Charles, a friendly and helpful ex-Navy man; cook Jane and captain Ian, both of whom had been on the boat last time. A crew of five is marginal and apparently a couple of staffers had canceled or were unaccounted for. As it turned out, the skeleton crew worked hard and never missed a beat. Purser Maria also was divemaster and waitstaff, Ian helped with serving, while engineer Charles helped on the dive deck, and Martin was divemaster and managed the dive deck. It can be done with five staff for 17 guests, but it cannot be easy.
We’d barely finished settling in (and received an explanation of the room emergency and safety systems by engineer Charles) when it was already time for dinner. Cook Jane prepared deliciously tasty steaks on the barbecue on the upper deck, accompanied by asparagus, cauliflower, potatoes and salad. For dessert there was vanilla ice cream with rum cake and fruit. You never go hungry on a liveaboard, and the food is good and plenty. You never go thirsty either. The CEX II has a well stocked bar with all sorts of liquor, red and white wine, plenty of beer, and also a soda dispenser system. In addition, of course, to juices, numerous teas, milk and water.
After dinner, Captain Ian introduced the crew and did an overview of the ship and its operation. At 8pm the boat left St. Maarten for the island of Saba. The captain had warned of a rough crossing, but it wasn't all that bad. Carol and I went to bed at 8:30 and slept great all through the night.
Sunday, June 2, 2014 Saba — I woke up around six o'clock on Sunday morning, and saw the boat was anchored close to the almost vertical rock wall of Saba. There was a slight breeze, the temperature was pleasant, and actually welcome after the rather cold cabin. I went upstair, got coffee from the boat’s new machine that upon pushing a button dispenses excellent coffee and even espresso. Breakfast began at 7, with eggs and sausage to order, and there were also bagels, rolls, cereals, yogurts, juices, and more.
At 7:45 the captain did a general briefing on the rules of diving on the CEX II. 130 feet maximum depth for those on air, 110 feet for those on nitrox (which was the majority of the guests). Maximum dive time 70 minutes, no gloves, no touching, always diving with a buddy. No need to change tanks after every dive; the crew fills them with the air whips installed on the dive deck. There is a dive briefing before every dive, and we’d be alerted to it by the blowing of the conch (which sounds like a fog horn).
Then divemaster Martin blew the conch and did the first dive briefing of the trip. The first dive was at Ladder Labyrinth a brief distance off the rocky slope of the island. The water seemed rather clear — a huge difference from our last trip where we had to descend the anchor line through 30 feet of murk. We jumped in the water and clearly saw the bottom from the surface.
The water temperature was a nice 81 degrees. I was the only one on the boat who wore a 5mil wetsuit and wondered if perhaps that was too much, but at least on this first dive it felt just about right. I had started with 14 pounds of weight, and that did not seem quite enough, especially towards the end of the dive. For some reason I always need more weight than one would expect. Right underneath the boat there were a few large tarpon that seemed totally undisturbed by us divers.
The dive itself was very nice. We saw an attractive mix of coral heads, coral islands, and coral fingers through which we meandered at depths ranging from 40 to 80 feet. I had a brand-new mask and, despite extensive cleaning beforehand, it remained fogged up during the entire dive, impairing vision. I should have known better. We saw a pair of goofy-looking and very tame large puffers, a few tiny juvenile spotted drums, and the usual assembly of Caribbean aquatic life, though nothing exceptional. It turned out to be an 80-foot one-hour dive.
The Caribbean Explorer II has two weights hanging off its stern at 15 feet. These can be used to hold on during the mandatory three-minute safety stops. I did that, and was treated to a nice ride as the boat drifted around its mooring line.
Getting back on the boat means grabbing one of the two very sturdy ladders onto the lower dive deck, handing the waiting divemaster fins and camera, negotiating the few steps first onto the dive platform and then the dive deck, giving the captain your maximum depth and remaining air pressure, then taking off the gear. Particularly nice are the two warm shower heads on the dive deck. There's nothing like a hot shower after a dive, to get the salt off and warm up. And since you work up an appetite when diving, Jane had baked banana bread which made for a tasty snack between dives.
I noticed that, while last time we hadn't seen another boat the whole trip, this time there were several smaller sail boats anchored along the coast of Saba.
The second dive was again at the Ladder Labyrinth dive site. In her briefing, divemaster Maria told us of the presence of hot sand underwater, thanks to Saba’s volcanic origin.
Once in the water, she set a nice slow pace, there was plenty of sun, great visibility, and a balmy 82 degrees. We mostly stayed shallow, leisurely diving around all those gorgeous coral heads. Maria showed us the strips of warm sand that you could tell by their orange color. The sand isn’t really hot, but nice and warm. It’s a very nice dive site, and so close to the shore that I wished we could have approached the rock face of the island.
At home, breakfast and snacks would leave me plenty filled up till dinner, but when diving you’re always really looking forward to lunch. Steak meatballs, salad, a tasty curry soup, and tortellini and other pasta really hit the spot.
For the third dive the captain moved the boat a short distance to the “tent” sites, so named after a tent-like formation on top of the rocks on the surface. For this dive, the mooring line was anchored on top of an underwater wall, but the CEX II was floating over deep water, and so we had to descend along the mooring line.
Despite having added two pounds of weight, I still had a hard time getting down, and once I was, my Canon G15 camera acted up. That aggravated me to an extent where I missed enjoying part of the dive. The wall reminded of the Roatan walls, with beautiful barrel sponges and lots of the bright yellow sponges that are my favorites. We even saw a reef shark in the distance. At the end of the Tent Wall site the wall gives way to the Tent Reef site, and so we turned around and swam back on top of the wall. Unfortunately now against a rather strong current that necessitated ascending along the mooring line again. My ears acted up a bit, too, probably going back to the problem descending.
On the boat, a bowl full of warm chicken taquito flutes awaited us and made me forget the hassle with the camera.
Then it was time for the fourth dive of the day. Torrens Point had been a bust on our last visit. Visibility had been virtually nil and we hadn’t see anything and quickly came back up. This time the site was gorgeous. The area is 30-45 feet of mixed sand, coral heads, coral fingers, with lots of life of all sorts. We did see a number of conch and other shells that some irresponsible divers had harvested and discarded, quite illegally as we were diving in Saba’s marine park. We took pictures of the heinous crime, both stills and video. Other than that, it was a pleasant leisurely dive with nice light, though it was getting darkish towards the end of the dive. I had taken along a GoPro 3 with dual LiquidImage lights and BackScatter filters, and experimented with the 30 to 50 feet filter.
For dinner, Jane served spinach-filled chicken breasts, sweet potatos, broccoli and salad, and then topped it off with a date-cake and vanilla ice cream.
We skipped the night dive, though it probably would have been wonderful in clear water at Torrens Point. A school of very large tarpons were circling the ship, attracted by the light.
Gazing at the scenery from the upper deck and marveling at the good fortune of being on that wonderful boat in that wonderful place of the world, I mentally contemplated a few observations:
Last time we'd been hot all week and never wore any long shirt or shammy or anything warm. This time, with somewhat cooler weather and the strong A/C in the rooms, there was almost a rush to the ship's store where they sold hoodies and chammyz. So always be prepared. You simply never know beforehand what you’ll encounter temperaturewise
Second, while the much smaller cameras we use today aren't anywhere near as bulky as older gear, they come with so many cables, batteries, chargers, filters and other add-ons and gizmos that it quickly becomes overwhelming. With one camera it's okay, but with multiple ones it can become a nightmare to find and organize everything. What seems like manageable neatly spread out on the living room floor becomes a flood of things to keep track of on a boat.
Third, things that you'd never think would break will. Like my toothbrush. It snapped straight in half. That never happened to me before. Then again, I also had a pair of reader glasses fall apart during a major presentation I gave a few years ago in Stockholm. Another thing that unexpectedly broke was the band of my Uwatec SOL dive computer. I didn't expect that either.
And, of course, I did forget something -- the charger for my Nikon AW110 camera.
I also learned a new trick. To get the wetsuit on more easily, wet your arms and then put some soap or shampoo on them. That way they slither right in, well almost. Fortunately, the CEX II had a soap dispenser right on the dive deck.
Mooring lines often have all sorts of growth on them, especially if they've been in the water for a long time. Touching them is never a good idea, but it cannot be avoided in poor diving conditions. So even if gloves are not allowed, I'd insist on wearing a thin pair to keep fingers and hands from getting stung and infected. Just take them off once you've reached bottom.
Monday, June 3, 2014 Saba — I woke up Monday morning at 6am (which was just 3AM California time!), seeing the island of Saba through our cabin window. I had slept great, as always on a boat. I had some coffee, perused the massive rock face of Saba, and took pictures of the old custom house and the stairs leading up to it. There’d been a time when this was the only way to enter Saba, and anything that was brought ashore had to go up those steps and needed clearing at the custom house. We’d learn more about that later.
Our two morning dives at Tedran Wall, a site we hadn’t been before. Tedran stands for Ted and Randy, the divers who had discovered the site. It was a fairly deep drop to the top of the wall at 70 feet and so most of us went down the mooring line the first time. The wall itself was spectacular, with dramatic scenery in very clear water. We saw very little damage, large sponges and tons of other vegetation, including a great deal of that spindly black growth that was very pretty. I thought it was coral, but probably not. Above the wall were steeply sloping chutes that in some areas extended into the wall. There were large, beautiful sand dollars, Carol saw rays, and the only bad thing was that the dive was so deep that we ran a bit short on air (not Carol, of course, she surfaced with half her tank), and so started ascend the line at 35 minutes or so.
The second dive at Tedran was not quite as clear and current began to build. So instead of cruising along the wall we stayed on top of the reef and explored all the sand chutes and coral heads.
Between dives, Jane surprised us with delicious fluffy meringue coconut cookies. There was enough time to enjoy them as there are fairly long intervals between the dives on the CEX II, long enough to take off the suit, dry off and recover.
Two things happened that morning. One of the divers had a pony bottle since he dove solo, and the bottle and regulator attached to it apparently came loose and fell off into the abyss when he jumped in. The pony bottle was the ship's and neither Maria who made a recovery attempt, nor anyone else on the second dive at the site found it.
Another diver, 73-year-old Maurice who dove air, disregarded his computer's deco order and so the computer locked up on him. He was not allowed to dive for 24 hours, until the computer said it was okay.
For lunch we had chicken Fajitas with giant tortillas (and yes, I am reporting on all meals to present a picture of what the culinary experience is on a diveboat like the CEX II). The captain informed us that he'd take the boat up to Diamond Rock to see what the conditions were for diving. He also told the story of the Saba Custom House perched high up in the rocks, with 300 steps steeply leading up to it, with most of the steps still there and visible from the boat. Until the 1950s, Ian said, this was the only way to get on Saba (which seems almost unlikely) and whatever goods and materials were brought to Saba had to go up those stairs for examination, registration and duty. I'd love to get on land and hike up those steps.
The first afternoon dive was indeed at Diamond Rock as the conditions turned out to be good. Diamond Rock, one of Saba's signature dives, is a twin volcanic spire emerging from flat sand at 75 feet, and rises above the surface by maybe another 75 feet. The boat moored close by the rock and the water was clear enough to just jump in and slowly descend towards the base of the spire. Once there, we began a one-turn clockwise rotation, encountering strong current in some spots and almost nothing in others. The view was spectacular, with gorgeous, large growth everywhere, myriad of aquarium fish doing their thing, and wonderfully clear water. We should have stayed in one of the calm spots as there was enough to see for hours.
During the dive I kept hearing an unusual noise. It turned out that my tank valve was bubbling pretty badly, so much so that Carol was concerned about my air (and when I later looked at it on video it looked quite scary). It didn't go down alarmingly fast, though, and so I just kept a close eye on it. Unfortunately, the current was very strong right at the spot where we were supposed to head back for the boat, and so there was no staying and taking in the wondrous sights. The swim back through essentially blue water was hard, with current strong enough to make me pant.
Since, for us, all dives were work dives where we evaluated underwater camera gear and equipment, Carol had taken along a LiquidImage EGO and I a GoPro Hero3 mounted on an orange stick with Backscatter’s “deep” filter.
Carol and I skipped the second Diamond Rock dive and napped instead. I uploaded video and we examined the rather disappointing results. Underwater video and photography are never trivial.
Dinner was barbecue night with ribs!
One of the great things about liveaboards is that there aren't any bugs. These can thoroughly spoil any land-based vacation as we found out repeatedly in Roatan, Cozumel, Florida and other places. This time, however, Captain Ian warned of a “bug hour” where tiny non-biting but very pesky insects descend upon the ship — sometimes in great quantities — then die off an hour or two later. We didn't experience this last time we were on the CEX II, but as is the lights were dimmed and the plastic windows of the upper deck closed. The bugs arrived indeed, but it was no big deal.
I decided to finally do another night dive. I didn't really want to, but I felt I'd probably regret it later if I didn't do at least one night dive. I rarely feel comfortable on night dives and so didn't know what to expect. I took along three lights, the two Liquid Image torches on a base and pistol grip, and a backup light. Since Carol didn't come with, I followed dive master Maria closely.
It turned out to be a very nice experience. Slowly floating around the shallow (30-45 feet) coral reef with our lights was kind of a magical experience. I was nice and warm, thanks to the 5mil wetsuit at 82 degrees, and we saw all sorts of creatures that usually hide during the day. That included two nurse sharks and numerous spiny lobsters that were out of their daytime hiding holes. We had been warned that there was a chance there'd be sea wasps upon our return. If the boat spotted any, they'd lower a red light for us as a warning. We'd then have to use the octopus to blow up some air to make them go away for our ascent. Fortunately, there weren't any. And by the time I got back up on the boat, the bugs had all died off.
Another wonderful boat thing: hot chocolate, Baileys and Kahlua awaited us. After drying off and changing into regular clothes, Carol and I resorted upstairs for some popcorn and conversation with Jane. Jane’s from England, has always been a world traveler, and took up the nomadic Caribbean life a decade or so ago.
Tuesday, June 4, 2014 Saba — Woke up at 6AM again on Tuesday morning, to the same balmy temperatures and somewhat hazy ski — not cloudy, not overcast, just somewhat hazy. It was not as bad as that sounds because the relative lack of light in the morning was because the sun hides behind the massive bulk of Saba.
As I enjoyed a cup of coffee upstairs, the boat moved away from its mooring close to the island to a dive site about a mile away from shore. That's where Third Encounter is, a ledge at 90 feet or so, and beyond that the abyss. A shortish swim away from that is the Eye of the Needle, a skinny spire that rises up to within 90 feet of the surface, but which isn't visible from the ledge even under the best conditions. This is a Saba signature dive, but one that I ended up not making. I like deep dives, but on nitrox and having to swim to and from a peak that tops out at 90 feet below the surface means very little bottom time and lots of descending and ascending in the blue, neither of which appeals to me.
I did feel a bit like a wuss as everyone else, except Maurice whose dive computer was still locked, did go. A brave group we had, and that was not surprising as on this trip, there really weren't any inexperienced or marginal divers. So I concentrated on taking pictures of the boat and divers entering the water. Carol, as always, was the only one doing a forward roll.
As it turned out, the divers reported excellent visibility and no current, so that the dive had been terrific. Carol went down to 110 feet and still brought back 1,600 psi on a 43 minute dive. She said you could almost see the spire from the ledge and that it had been marvelous. Oh well. Next time.
We then did two dives at Tent Reef. The site is a large area that includes everything from gorgeous shallow reeftops, to endless meandering swims between all the coralheads, to wall-like structures, to large expanses of garden eel sand. Part is luscious, colorful and undisturbed. Other parts are covered with silt. I wondered why the large difference between the silted and the clear areas. My air consumption was considerably better after the crew replaced the bubbling valve stem insert on my tank. No more bubbles.
For lunch, cook Jane had prepared chicken and shrimp patties, burger style, with chips, salads, and condiments.
We cut the second Tent Reef dive a bit short in order to board the dinghy that brought us to shore for a tour of the island of Saba. That required two trips. All nine of us then piled into the same old microbus taxi driven by the same cab driver, Garvin, we’d had last time.
The road-that-could-not-be-built (according to a Dutch engineer back in the 1950s or so, supposedly) was fun, we saw the church again where a proper Dutch school marm prepared children for a religious ceremony.
We visited the embroidery shop and bought a little piece of embroidery and some local liquor. Saba, supposedly, was once known as the Island of Women as the men were always away fishing. To pass the time they took up embroidery and developed it into an art form that lives on today.
The van then took us up higher into the hills from where we could look down onto one of the small towns nestled into the valley. When viewed from the sea, it looks like Saba isn't inhabited at all. Wild goats are seemingly everywhere.
We then visited a glass shop with some wonderful artwork, then on to a place where we could overlook the airport with its impossibly short runway that stops at the cliff.
The cab then dropped most of us off to descend the old step trail down to the small town of Windwardside where we got drinks and shopped some more. The trail was steep, made of cement and stone and a bit on the slippery slide. It ran through lush tropical forest, thankfully devoid of insects. Good thing I had put on my sneakers. In town Carol shopped for some items, I bought some Pineapple Fantas in the little supermarket, and the others had beers at a bar.
Overall, it felt like Saba had gone downhill a bit since we’d been there in 2010. I had expected the opposite as Saba was now no longer part of the Netherland Antilles but a direct part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but the island seems severely cash starved. The famed red roofs of Saba are as eye-catching as ever (though they're really just corrugated metal), but a lot of construction is unfinished or in need of maintenance. It often looks as if there had been an economic boom once the roads were completed in the 1950s and 1960s, but that not much has happened since. Which, of course, may be a good thing.
Upon return to the boat, which gave me a chance to shoot some pictures of the CEX II from the water as we approached, dinner was served, and it was another meal one would simply not expect on a relatively small dive boat: tender, tasty sirloin or fillet with mushroom sauce, rice, peas, carrots, and salad. For dessert there were hot brownies with ice cream. Then it was time for the three-hour passage to the island of St. Kitts, and taking assessment of our work so far
Our camera testing, we had to realize, had been dismal. We forgot the charger for one of them (the Nikon AW110), the Canon G15 had weird controls and white balance and is way off as often as on target, the two GoPro 3s produced very disappointing video even with filters, way, way worse than what one of the guests (Penny) managed with her Hero3+. I wondered if the newer GoPro Hero 3+ had a fundamentally better white balance than the older Hero 3.
Wednesday, June 4, 2014 St. Kitts — The crossing on Tuesday evening from Saba to St. Kitts took the expected three hours and went very smoothly. We went to sleep early, like 8:30 or so, and woke up Wednesday morning at St. Kitts, to a somewhat hazy sky (Garvin the cabbie had said the haziness was dust from the Sahara). Still, the island of St. Kitts looked lush and, unlike what one sees of Saba from the sea, St. Kitts shows quite a bevy of development, with lots of housing, many churches, roads, etc.
Our first dive was at “Paradise Reef” which — even this time — perhaps doesn't quite deserve its name. The site starts at a sandy slight slope at perhaps 40 feet with many small coral islands, then drops via large coral fingers down to another sandy area at 85 to 100 feet. The coral is often overgrown with some green leafy, meshy stuff that’s not very attractive. We saw a large lion fish, many fish traps (since St. Kitts is not a marine park), a couple of anchors and old timbers and ropes from St. Kitts vast maritime history, a few small southern stingrays, and plenty of little reef fish, plus a couple of large barracudas.
Carol's thumb had become all swollen from contact with fire coral from the mooring line at Tent Wall in Saba. My fingers ached a bit, too, from contact with those lines. It’s best to bring gloves whenever using those lines!
For lunch we had three different kinds of pizza, mango and melon, salad, and assorted beans.
I asked Maria why the good ship CEX II appeared to be listing to the right by perhaps four degrees and she said there were many theories about that. Four years ago I did not note any list. Carol said the captain had attributed it to a ballast distribution issue that needed fine-tuning.
The afternoon dives were close-by, at “Anchors Away.” Captain Ian said that was because when the English and French were battling it out, whoever was in the boats (the English and the French battled often) would yell "anchors away" when they saw the other party getting the cannons ready at Brimstone Fort. I am not sure if that was indeed the case, or if it was another of the captain’s straight-faced stories.
As is, the drop to “Anchors Away” was fairly large to the top of the reef, and from there it goes down to 75 or 80 through coral fingers until another large sand area. We didn't have much sun, so the site wasn't as attractive as it could be, but it also seemed a bit beaten up and covered with the mesh algae. There was considerable surge back and forth, and it seemed like most of the dive we were fighting against current, which became frustrating.
I did see two large lionfish, a reef shark, and perhaps the largest lobster I had ever seen, right on the reef top under the boat.
Back on the CEX II we found cheese and crackers as a snack, and, as usual, there was ample time to change batteries and upload video and pictures. Carol skipped the forth dive of the day, but I decided to go. On this second dive to Anchors Away we had much less current and surge and it turned out to be a nice, leisurely dive. I really like dive master Maria's pace.
Highlight of this dive was a standoff between a large lobster almost all the way out of its hole and three large lionfish facing the lobster. The lobster batted at them with his long antennae, and it wasn't quite sure what was going on. One does not usually see multiple lionfish in the open. But the lobster looked like much too large a prey for the lionfish.
Once back on the boat, we were treated to a gorgeous scenery with dramatic clouds on the horizon and you could see not only the northern end of St. Kitts but also the island of Statia, and even Saba, in the distance.
This evening those who ate seafood (which was everyone except Carol and myself) were treated to freshly caught fish that a fisherman from St. Kitts brought to the boat and cooked on the grill. I still often wonder how divers can eat fish (or catch lobsters) because watching those fish brings us so much pleasure and it seems inconceivable to eat them.
After dinner I went to the front of the boat where there were no lights and it was peaceful and dark. I wasn’t alone, though; there was Mike, who is 38, used to work for Lehman Brothers, and went to Japan for a long weekend last New Year's. He told me all about it. From the island we heard very loud preaching and music that went on for hours.
Thursday, June 5, 2014 St. Kitts — On Thursday morning there were dramatic clouds over the island of St. Kitts, and also over neighboring Statia in the distance. It rained a bit on and off, and the effect of it all was just wonderful.
For diving, the captain moved the boat halfway up St. Kitts to an area called Old Road Bay where supposedly the first Europeans landed and settled. It received its name from one of the first roads built along the coastline. In more recent history the area had had quite a bit of fishing activity and there were many fish traps at the bottom, making diving inadvisable. There captain said there are far fewer traps now as the locals apparently moved them elsewhere.
To dive this site, we dropped to a sandy area at about 50 or 55 feet, from where we meandered through and above coral islands and sandy areas. The reefs were pristine, with just a bit of the green mesh algae. We saw a surprising number of morays, many of them free-swimming. There were also very tame large puffers that just sat there when we photographed them, and if we came too close they just slowly swam away. We had hoped to see some frogfish, but didn't find any.
The boat needed to drop the anchor at Old Road Bay as there were no mooring lines. That means it swings around its anchor, making it difficult to locate its presence in low visibility. On the first dive we had clear water at the bottom and the boat was easy to find. We did the second dive at the same spot, but in much murkier conditions. We saw a giant turtle and, at the end — finally — a frog fish, and the boat was much harder to find in the reduced visibility. I had no idea where it was, but divemaster Maria listened for the sound of its engines and located it right away.
By and large, though, conditions play a far larger part in how much one enjoys a dive site than anything else. An unexceptional site in perfect conditions can be far more fulfilling to dive than a great site in bad conditions. You could also argue that ocean dive sites tend to be much the same in different parts of the world. The local fauna and sea life may change and vary a bit, but overall it's hard to differentiate between, say, a nice reef in Roatan from one off Providenciales, from one off St. Kitts or Saba. Same for walls. What sets them apart is the condition, variety, and the visibility and weather. Walls are different from the flat top of coral heads, of course, but what matters almost more is the depth. Closer to the surface there is more light, more sun, more color than down deeper. It's nice to occasionally go deep, but much of the attractive scenery is in shallower water. For that reason I prefer shallow reefs.
For lunch there was — surprise — another excellent meal: chicken kebabs, hummus, pita bread, feta cheese salad, peanut sauce, asparagus salad, and wild rice.
In the afternoon we dove the wreck of the Corinthian. We had visited it twice in 2010 and those had been enjoyable dives with very good visibility. I love wrecks and had looked forward to seeing the Corinthian again. Unfortunately, once we jumped in it was immediately clear that the conditions were nowhere near as good this time. The water was murky and we had to go down the mooring line. Once the wreck came into view it cleared up some, but the water still looked like we were in a snow storm. I began shooting video of the wreck, or so I thought, as the GoPro had somehow set itself to photography instead of video and I had wasted half a pass around the wreck. I tried again but by now the divemaster was already heading away from the wreck and disappearing in the snow storm. That's when I noticed that the LCD screen of the camera had gone out, with just a faint red light showing. I tried to turn it off but it did not respond at all and just kept recording.
We negotiated the spread-out dive site, with swims through meadows of seagrass and somewhat silty slopes. We saw part of a sunken barge located a ways away from the Corinthian, then a sunken crane and, up on top of a sand chute a big bulldozer or crane, then made our way back through seagrass to the wreck, and then back up to the surface.
Given the water conditions we skipped the 4th dive. It would have been nice to return to the wreck of the River Taw where four years ago, in very poor visibility, I had lost the group and then had waited for them on what turned out the wrong mooring line. I had looked forward to the chance of seeing that wreck again in good visibility, but sometimes conditions just don't cooperate.
So I used the time to go over all of our cameras, changing batteries, uploading pictures, testing settings, and so on. Overall, none of the cameras had performed very well for us at all on this trip and I was reminded once again just how tricky underwater imaging can be.
For dinner we had truly exceptional pork loin, potatoes au gratin, corn, brussels sprouts, salad, and — as a big surprise — both a birthday cake for Carol and an anniversary cake for us! That was sweet and totally unexpected. I also received a congratulatory certificate for my 300th dive!
Captain Ian then informed us of what was going to happen for the rest of the week. Like us, the captain seemed to have a much better time than on the 2010 trip with its challenging weather and water conditions. He was relaxed, funny, and his dry wit and genuine concern for passengers having a great time was obvious. I can only imagine the load that must rest on a captain's shoulders.
For this night the boat was moored in what the crew called the “bedroom bay” where, for the first time on the trip, we didn't have any rocking at all.
Friday, June 6, 2014 St. Kitts — Friday morning we woke up after a mediocre night’s sleep. One of the passengers had mistaken the toilet bordering our state room for a phone booth in the night and proceeded to have a long, loud argument with some unfortunate party. I wish people would leave their cellphones behind on trips like this.
I wasn't sure if I wanted to do another dive because drying dive gear takes so long and with today’s pesky airline luggage regulations you can’t risk packing any extra water weight. But the weather was nice, the water looked clear, and I had good memories of the Monkey Shoals site between the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis where we were now moored. So I dove without the wetsuit, wearing just a t-shirt and a bathing suit. To compensate for the now missing buoyancy of the wetsuit I had dropped eight of the 16 pounds of weight I usually carried, and it turned out to be a delightful dive. Despite the lack of insulation I wasn't cold at all in the 80 degree water. The sun was shining brightly through the clear water onto the nice coral gardens and we saw a large southern stingray and also a flying guinard.
Should we go on the second morning dive as well, given that our plane left early the next day? Though our Uwatec dive computers showed just nine hours of no-fly time we decided to skip the last dive, with heavy hearts, to be closer to the generally recommended 24 hour no-fly rule. That also gave us extra time to take our dive gears on the upper deck for drying.
Jane's final lunch of the trip included cold cuts, cheese quiches, breaded fried shrimp, several cheeses, boiled eggs, and a variety of salads. During our meal, the Captain moved the boat from Monkey Shoals to the port at Basseterre where a giant cruise ship was also docked. I watched the challenge of properly approaching a crowded dock on a 110-foot liveaboard, slow down and turn, then align the boat with the dock and get close enough for having it fastened with three ropes. I can only imagine how difficult this is with a cruise ship.
In the afternoon we went on a ($30/person) tour of St. Kitts in Percy's blue Mitsubishi minivan. We knew Percy from our last trip. The man knows seemingly everyone on the island and always had a friendly question, an inquiry, or a kind word for everyone wherever we slowed down or stopped.
The tour took us through the center of Basseterre to its outskirts and the small settlements outside of town, past the St. Kitts Veterinary University, and some impressive churches from the era where the island had been divided into parishes.
Cane sugar had been big business on St. Kitts, bringing fortune and riches to the island, but it was a cyclical business in the best of time, and one requiring high investment and reliance on a large labor force that at times consisted of indentured labor from Europe, other times on slave labor, and then, once slavery was abolished, on the work of those who had been freed.
We visited a former sugar plantation that now houses, besides the partially rebuilt remnants of the sugar processing plant, also a famous Batik shop that we had not been able to visit last time because it was closed. This time it wasn't and they had nice things indeed. We bought several items, then had drinks at the attached outdoor bar and perused the most impressive rain forest surrounding and engulfing the property.
The forest, supposedly, had not been there during the sugar plantation era and had all sprung up in the last 100 years after the sugar plantation had long since closed down. I thought the massive lusciousness of the forest was interesting as I had read that the forest had been cut down to make room for sugar cane and had never properly grown back.
Then it was on to Brimstone fortress where, on the way up, we encountered herds of the little Velvet monkeys St. Kitts is famous for. They are small and very cute, and also quite shy. According to Percy, there are more monkeys on the island than people, though I am not quite sure how they ever counted the monkeys.
The fort itself was as impressive as I remembered (albeit perhaps in somewhat worse repair than it was four years ago) and an incredible architectural feat, given its location and engineering resources available at the time it was built. There were also a good number of exhibits explaining history, as well as customs and conditions at the time. I wish we'd had more time to take it all in.
Overall, the entire island of St. Kitts is a fascinating place with as much history or more than any other island in the Caribbeans. The island has awesome natural beauty and seems near paradise, a fact perhaps a bit lost on some of today's population.
Driving back to the ship through the crowded streets of Basseterre was tiring, and once we arrived I no longer had any desire to go out and have dinner at a local restaurant. So Carol went and I stayed behind, first having a nice conversation with Jane the cook, then taking a hot shower and packing up the remainder of our gear and belongings.
Saturday, June 6, 2014 St. Kitts to Sacramento — The wakeup call came early at 5AM for our 7:40AM flight at the airport right outside of Basseterre. The trip was over much too soon and I missed the Caribbean Explorer II and our new friends onboard as soon as we stepped into Percy’s cab. It’d been great to experience this itinerary under weather conditions vastly better than we’d had four years prior. And I can't even begin to describe how impressed we were with the crew, which was not only supremely competent, but made us feel welcome, appreciated, and well cared for.
One bad thing about even the most wonderful dive trip is the travel involved. Getting there and getting back used to be half the fun, but not anymore. Not with airlines seemingly determined to make flying as uncomfortable and inconvenient as possible, and piling on ever more fees and extra charges. We flew back from St. Kitts to Miami where we had two hours between flights and needed every minute of it to make it through cumbersome immigrations, then on to Charlotte, way out of the way, and then a long final leg to Sacramento. By the time we were home we’d been up 22 hours, cranky, exhausted, and swearing we’d never, ever fly again.
But, of course, we will. And the airlines know it and will be ready with even more fees, even harder seats, and even less service and more inconvenience. And we’ll grin and bear it. Because we know that once we’re there we’ll have a great time.
May 29, 2014
After the book
It's been forever since my last entry, and it seems like forever since my last dive.
After several years of averaging 40 to 50 dives a year, last year was dismal. It began well enough with a nice week in Florida where we visited all of our old haunts and favorite places. A week in Cancun in early summer proved a bust as it rained almost constantly and I only got four dives in. We did go up to Lake Tahoe in the Fall for a nice dive, and then had plans to spend a week on Roatan in December. That never happened, mostly because airline booking and pricing has reached new levels of insanity.
But mostly it has to do with finishing my book on scuba. Working on "Becoming a Scuba Diver -- From Pool to Sharks: Journey and Reflections of the First 250 Dives" had been a constant presence in my life and I was always eager to add another experience, reflect on another aspect of diving, and report on the latest dive trip.
Learning how to convert all those blog entries and notes into a cohesive book via Amazon's CreateSpace was an experience in itself. Proof-reading was just as tricky as I remember from the years when my job was publishing magazines. Then there was doing the cover, finding the right font, picking a physical size for the book, and laying it all out. Good thing I remembered how to use Quark XPress. At the end it was 365 pages, a pretty sizable book. Getting the first actual, printed proof copy of the book in the mail felt great. Then there was another proofing and editing pass, and it was done.
One of the wonderful things about modern self-publishing is that you don't have to shop your manuscript around to publishers, competing with numerous other authors for their interest. And you don't need to commit to printing so and so many books that may or may not sell. That was always a problem with publishing magazines. We never knew how many of the thousands and thousands of magazines we had printed would actually sell in bookstore and on newsstands.
So the book was done and though I knew better I thought now I could just sit back and wait for sales to roll in. People interested in scuba would find it on Amazon and buy it. Sadly, not so. A few books sold, but really just a token few. That was disappointing. But without marketing a products, that's the way it is. I had planned on notifying as many dive shops as I could in the hope that they would stock and sell the book, as most dive shops do. And I needed to do a proper press release, send out review copies, try to get media coverage and book reviews.
But somehow I didn't do any of that. It was as if I had expended all the creative energy in writing the book and bringing it to print. I had nothing left after that, not even taking the easy extra couple of steps of making it available in Kindle format. Months went by, and it's easy to forget how the CreateSpace process works if you're not at it every day, and so on and so on.
The other weird thing was that after the book was done and I had received a box of copies to give to friends and family, there was this odd sense of being done with the project. I still wanted to go dive, but the urgency seemed lessened as writing about places, dives, and gear was lessened. The book was done.
If you're really into something it tends to take over your life. Knowing all the ins and outs of a hobby, sport, passion comes natural. It's only afterwards that you realize how complex and involved it all was, and how easily one forgets, and how difficult it is to get back in.
So that's why there haven't been any new entries in this blog. We haven't gone diving. I'm frustrated over having let the finished book sit so long without publicizing it properly. And I am also frustrated ver not having gone diving in over eight months.
But the wait is over now. In a couple of days Carol and I will be leaving for the island of St. Maarten, where we'll board the Caribbean Explorer Explorer II for a week of diving off Saba and St. Kitts. We did that almost four years ago, albeit the other way around, starting in St. Kitts and ending up in St. Maarten. It'd been in the aftermath of a big storm and the water had been stirred up and not very pleasant. This time, I hope, conditions will be much better.
August 10, 2013
Is Lake Tahoe still clear?
On August 6th, the 7th anniversary of my PADI Open Water Certification, Carol and I finally went up to Lake Tahoe for a dive again. Over the years I have reported on the ins and outs of high altitude diving in great detail, and so I won't go into that again.
One thought did come up, though, as we prepared for the always lovely trek up on Highway 50 into the Sierra Nevada mountains. Since high altitude diving is all about pressure ratios, and the problem is that those ratios are larger at higher altitude than they would be at any given equivalent depth when diving at sea level, why acclimate to the altitude before diving? Would it not make more sense to get into the water as quickly as possible so that one's tissues hadn't had a chance to fully off-gas yet, thus keeping the pressure ratios lower? That one goes into the same general category of mental play as the question whether diving right after flying doesn't really constitute a high altitude dive, since air planes are pressurized to the equivalent of about 7,000 feet of altitude, and after a long flight the body will have off-gassed to that pressure.
Anyway, up at Tahoe it was surprisingly busy for a Tuesday mid-morning. The parking lots and side of the road around Emerald Bay and other lookouts were jam-packed, D.L.Bliss State Park was full, and we were concerned Meeks Bay might be full as well. We got lucky, though. It wasn't. Not quite anyway. So we paid seven bucks to the Ranger at the park's entry, then even found a parking spot close to the beach area.
Whereas we're usually pretty much alone there during a weekday, the wonderful beach at Meeks Bay was quite crowded, with plenty of families, kayaks, colorful umbrellas and picnics. A woman had apparently just returned from a dive and so we asked her about the conditions. Pleasant, she said, 63 degrees at shallow depths, more on the surface. Turns out she had her two young kids diving with her. They weren't even ten, and happily prepared for the family's upcoming three-week vacation in Australia, with diving the Great Barrier Reef on the agenda.
Carol and I geared up, expecting the water to be quite cold at depth. We both donned our 7mil wet suits, once again bemoaning the fact that we still hadn't ordered our DUI dry suits (cost!), and I put on my 5-mil shorty with integrated hood on top of that. That's a lot of neoprene. We both used Nitrox; I had one of our big high-pressure Steel-100s, Carol her favorite Steel-80.
Using the right amount of weight is always an issue. I keep detailed records in my dive log book about the type of gear and amount of weight for every dive, and apparently I had used a full 22 pounds last time I dove fresh water with a steel tank with the 7+5-mil wetsuit combo. I figured I was more experienced now, and decided to go with 18. Carol, who did not have an additional shorty, used 12.
As we stepped into the water I marveled, as I do every time I step into Lake Tahoe, how very clean and clear the water is. There's simply none of the gunk, debris, trash, algae that's almost everywhere else.
The simple logistics of putting on fins, gloves, and mask while standing in a lake are amazingly complicated when wearing all that gear. It's definitely good to have a buddy to steady yourself on, and who holds your stuff while you get ready. And why there does not appear to be a single pair of dive gloves on the planet that goes on easy is beyond me.
Finally we were all done. I felt like a submarine with all the gear, the double layer of neoprene, and the built-in hood. Now it was time to see if I had enough weight to go down. I did.
Once under, the water did look the Tahoe trademark blue rather than the green you encounter in most freshwater lakes and venues, but the visibility was disappointingly low. From many earlier Tahoe dives I remembered being able to see far into the distance. Not this time. There also weren't nearly as many crawdads as we had seen a couple of years ago.
An annoying part of diving with lots of neoprene is that you need a lot of weight to initially go down. But then the neoprene gets compressed, and especially so when you wear two layers, and you start sinking like a stone and need to compensate with bursts of air into your BC. So while the 18 pounds of weight had seemed barely enough to go down, at a depth of just 15 or 20 feet, I needed plenty of air in my BC to get more or less neutral buoyancy. That syndrome, by the way, is exaggerated at Tahoe's high altitude where the neoprene starts out more expanded than it'd be at sea level.
Meeks stays fairly flat for a good while, and so we had a chance to acclimate underwater (our last dives were a coupe of months past) at 20 feet. Then the big rocks begin and there's a fairly steep slop down. At the drop-off we encountered the schools of silvery fish that had thrilled me seven years ago on my first dive at Tahoe. Then we went down along the slope. The water temperature, which had been 68 at the surface and about 63 in the shallow part, stayed in the low 60s down to about 45 feet, then it rapidly dropped. At 77 feet it was in the mid-50s and we leveled off there. It was still quite bright, but the visibility just wasn't good enough to get that wonderful sense of flying and being able to see into the distance. I thought the visibility was no more than 35 feet or so, though after the dive, Carol said she'd been able to clearly see the surface even at 75. A clarity chart recently published by the local Sacramento newspaper seemed to back her up:
According to the chart, clarity this year is up to 75.3 feet, measured by how far down a white plate can be seen from the surface. 75 feet would be better than any prior time I dove Tahoe, but it simply didn't feel that way. Also, and I may be wrong there, but the big rocks and boulders seemed slimier and more covered in silt than before. That may or may not be so.
The dive, though, was still great. A full 64 minutes during which we sort of drifted off south a bit and then had to work our way back along the shallower shoreline to the beach. I had started with about 3,400 psi, and still had 1,550 at the end of the dive. Carol ended up with roughly the same in her smaller 80-cuft tank.
Recovering after a dive is one of my favorite things. You bask in the afterglow of another wonderful underwater experience, enjoy a soda and a snack, putz with the gear, and talk about the dive. Then we packed up all the wet stuff, dried off and changed (a bit of a challenge even in a fairly large SUV), and drove into South Lake Tahoe for a lunch at a place that Carol had loved on a prior visit, but that this time misfired on most cylinders.
On the way back we made a detour to the absolutely gorgeous Echo Lake nestled in the Sierras.
June 12, 2013
When it rains on a dive trip...
Dive trips are expensive and you want to get in as much precious diving as possible. You can't wait to get the next 10 or 20 dives under your belt. But when you get there.... it rains.
Getting rained out is one of the worst things that can happen to divers. There they are, all equipped to spend hours underwater, and then they can't go because of rain. The rain obviously doesn't bother divers, but the stormy weather that is responsible for the rain often makes the water too rough for dive boats to go out, or it churns up the seas so much that visibility goes down the drain. Or there's thunder and lightning.
Overall I've been fairly lucky with rain in my diving career, but there have been times where the weather curtailed diving for us. When we went on a liveaboard to dive the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Saba, we missed a hurricane that had gone through, but the waters had been so churned up as to destroy the wonderful visibility those islands are famous for. Other times we dodged tropical storms by a few miles or a couple of days and still got our diving in.
Then came the trip to Cancun where we met good friends for a week of diving and swimming with whale sharks off Isla Mujeres. The signs had been ominous from the start. The airlines' infuriating scheduling and pricing made it impossible to get a simple flight from Northern California to Cancun without staying over somewhere or paying half a fortune for the privilege of paying extra for bags, getting nickeled and dimed with fees, hassled by the TSA, and then squeezed into ever tinier, harder seats on the plane. Then our favorite resort had no rooms. But after spending several more hours online and on the phone it finally all fell into place. Remember when travel agents did all that for people?
We arrived in Cancun in the midst of a tropical downpour. Looking out the window of the plane when landing, the marker light posts along the runways were all half underwater. Our luggage was totally soaked when it finally appeared on the baggage carousel. What hadn't been soaked yet became so while waiting for the transfer van to the hotel. Cars were stuck in the water on and off the Kukulkan Boulevard that connects the airport with the hotel zone, and half the hotel zone seemed flooded. The Cancun PD’s Dodge Charger patrol cars were few and far between and unable to help traffic move along. After a fairly anxious hour we finally arrived at the wonderful Riu Palace Las Americas, and they had even held our room. Our friends from Tennessee had also just gotten to the hotel, after having spent a full four hours getting to the hotel from the airport.
It did not look good for diving. I managed to get my iPad connected via the hotel's (superior) WiFi and hooked up with Jorge from Scorpio Divers through which we had arranged all of our diving and whale shark boat trips. Jorge was cheerful on iMessage, but not optimistic. Tuesday would probably be the earliest for diving. The waters were all churned up, the port closed, and no one would be able to go out. He'd be in touch Sunday by 6PM.
Sunday morning the rain seemed to have subsided, but it was overcast and windy. We all met for breakfast and caught up with old friends. Some then went shopping, others hit the pool or hot tub or the bars. Not the worst way of spending a day waiting for the weather to turn. We could have been stuck in a small motel room and not the lavish resort we had splurged for. And unlike in places where you pay for diving whether you went or not, here we only paid for actual dives.
Later, we had a wonderful dinner in the Italian specialty restaurant at the resort. It was one of those rare occasions where everything falls into place just right. It also made me realize again what a great deal these all-inclusive resorts are. If you take advantage of everything they offer, they are a downright bargain compared to paying for a hotel and then paying again for every drink, every meal, and every snack.
But when Jorge messaged back as promised, things didn't look any better. There would likely be no diving until midweek. He brought up the possibility of diving cenotes though. Cenotes are the famous underwater cavern caves of the Yucatan. We had not planned for that because not all in our group were divers comfortable enough to dive cenotes, and we didn't bring the gear for caverns either. While the water temperature in Cancun is normally 80 to 82 degrees this time of the year, the cenotes are more like 75 and require a full wetsuit and dive lights. And while you can dive the land-based cenotes when it's raining and rough out on the sea, the water is too cold for the thin wetsuits we had brought, and having the sun illuminate the cenotes through holes from above is a big part of their attraction. In addition, the cenotes are a good distance south of Cancun, and the roads there might have been flooded, and they require a professional guide for every four divers. That makes it quite expensive, even more so than the whale shark boat trips. I polled our group and they were not up for it.
Monday morning we woke to pouring rain. It didn't keep some hearty souls from hitting the bar built right into one of the large pools, but other than that we were pretty much confined to the hotel. After having breakfast together, the women of our group embarked on a stretching exercise hour. I went upstairs to our room to read and answer email, catch up on the news, and everything else one ought not to do while on a relaxing trip (I often regret that even the remotest resorts now have WiFi everywhere; no one goes to the lobbies and clubhouses anymore now that people can browse in their rooms).
We found that some of the specialty restaurants of the resorts were actually open for lunch as well, without reservations, and so we had one of the best lunch meals ever. Another experience we'd have missed had we gone on our usual diving daytrips. There's always a bright side to everything. In the afternoon the rain lessened to a light drizzle and that meant we could use the pool and hot tub. But soon the sky looked very ominous again and a massive rain front rolled in. Fortunately, getting soaked while still in the pool isn't so bad.
We congregated for dinner in the resort's steakhouse, which was actually outdoors. For twenty minutes or so the sky cleared up enough to take pictures of some great dusk imagery with dramatic clouds and light effects.
Tuesday morning was dark and gray again, with pouring rain. The updated forecast was for a full three inches. Out of the windows we saw flooding everywhere. Walking down the hallways for breakfast, we saw drips and wet spots where the water was finding ways in. Staff was busy drying things and putting towels on the floor, but you had to be careful not to slip on all that marble. Much joking went on during breakfast, about liking pina coladas and walking in the rain and such. But it was very clear that there'd be no diving or whale shark excursions. We heard that they had even closed part of the hotel zone to traffic.
So we donned bathing suits and dive booths and cameras, and ventured out to see the extent of the flooding. It was kind of depressing. The storm drains of the small shopping area right opposite the hotel was unable to handle the water and a whole row of little stores got flooded. There was plenty of dirt and slush to clean up, and it didn’t smell very good. Whoever designed that shopping area had probably envisioned a vibrant, lively commercial community certain to prosper right across the street from the hotels. It didn't. The shops facing the street hang in there, just barely. The ones on the backside, in what was meant to be a casual little shopping alley, didn't. It’s largely abandoned, and a shocking contrast to all the glitz and luxury across the street.
We took pictures, walked down the street for a block or two, then returned along the beach that showed considerable damage from this and prior storms. It was not a very pretty sight.
After another rather pleasant afternoon of hot-tubbing, drinks, and swimming both on the beach and in the pool, came Jorge’s daily status update. Yes, we'd be all set for the next day!
Carol and I had dinner at the resort's Japanese restaurant, got the dive gear ready, took in a show, and went to sleep, ready for diving.
But it wasn't meant to be. I spent half the night in the bathroom with an upset stomach and knew that I was not going to dive Wednesday morning, no matter what. I needn't have agonized. More rain, angry clouds, steel-gray sky, and an early call from Dennis saying that diving was off, again.
I took some meds, felt much better after a while, and it became another nice day at the resort. I had breakfast, took pictures, lounged in a comfy chair, read amidst the lush tropical setting, did a bit of work, then swam in the ocean, sunbathed on the beach, chatted with friends, had a couple of drinks, and messaged back and forth with Jorge who by now had lost four day’s worth of income from our group. In the afternoon I saw a dive boat go out. When it returned I asked the divemaster about visibility and where they'd been. Chitales, a dive site about a third of the way to Isla Mujeres, and the viz had been 20 feet, maybe.
Jorge wondered how the boat had gotten out, said viz would be much better at other sites, and that it was a definite go on Thursday. I asked if we could do four dives. We definitely could, he said.
Dennis, in the meantime, grew more depressed. Not so much about the lost diving opportunities, but about the whale sharks. He really, really wanted to see them. So they went to Senior Frog for some drinks to ease the pain.
Thursday morning the weather looked pretty good, then it closed up and began raining, then it looked better again. I messaged Jorge who, as always, responded almost instantly. Diving was on, go, go go. That was good news, but then it began raining so hard that I messaged back to see if diving was indeed on. It was. Jorge even sent a picture from their dock, where the sky did look noticeably brighter.
The morning dives were supposed to be to a fairly deep wreck quite a ways off the beach, and not all of our group were up for that. So despite all the days of waiting for dive weather, it was just six determined souls that got picked up at 8:30 in front of the hotel. Flooding was still evident everywhere, but it was going to be just a short ride to our virtual dive operation.
Or so I thought. But the van passed the dive shop and continued on and on, way past the hotel zone and even past where we usually board for the whale shark tours north of Cancun. Apparently the virtual dive operation had changed venues.
When we finally arrived, it was a nice enough place right on the beach, and I finally met Jorge, the man behind the operation. He was younger than I had thought (and I probably much older than he had thought). It wasn't raining now, but the water looked pretty rough. There would be no wreck dive, Jorge said, it was too far out and too dangerous. Instead we'd dive the shallow reefs off Isla Mujeres. I wondered why he hadn't said so earlier as we'd then have brought more people. The dive boat’s name was “Taurus.” It had twin Yamaha outboards and was large enough to offer ample room for divers and their gear. It was also covered, providing shelter from sun and spray.
Even with this fast boat, the four or file mile ride over to Islas Mujeres took a good while and the water was rough. There was no rain, but it was clear the seas hadn't settled down just yet. Our diving finally started at a shallow reef in 30 foot water. At 79 degrees, it was a bit colder than you’d normally get here this time of the year. The sun peeked out between the clouds every now and then, lighting up the shallow reefs in gorgeous color. But for the most part, it was fairly dark and the visibility was no more than perhaps 30 feet.
Arnulfo, our personable and friendly dive master, located a scorpion fish and actually had it sitting on his hands before he gingerly released the colorful but rather poisonous critter.
When we came up it wasn’t easy for some in the group to get back on the boat on a small ladder with all the waves. Two of our sextet fell victim to various degrees of sea sickness, so just four of us did the second dive on the same small reefs and coral heads, often with large, colorful schools of fish.
Back on top, the water hadn’t calmed down, and by the time we were back at the dock, several on board looked quite green. Some had had enough and returned to the hotel, replaced by two others from our group who joined us for the afternoon dives.
Jorge provided tasty sandwiches from a place next door, then it was back across the bay to Isla Mujeres where we were to see the famous MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte) with its underwater statues. The water was rough again, and a couple of brand-new divers who had joined our group for the ride with their own dive master first got sick, then one of them freaked out on the anchor line.
Dive master Arnulfo did a great job locating the statues which are placed fairly far apart, but the visibility was still marginal and the water fairly cold, and so our two newcomers passed on the second dive, the one with all the majority of the statues, and really the one most wanted to see. One of the new divers was still seasick and so the remaining two of us promised to return as soon as we had seen all the statues so those on board the rocking boat didn't have to suffer all that much longer. The dive was nice, the DM guided us to all the statues, patiently waited until we were done with each, and the sole problem was that the cheap replacement battery in my camera lasted all of ten minutes. The same had happened with the backup battery in another camera I had taken on the previous dive, so no more cheap batteries from China for me!
Back onboard there were was complaint about the choppy water. And, truth be told, after the ride back across the bay it felt good to be on solid ground after four long, rocky boat rides and four hours underwater.
But would we get to see the whale sharks on Friday? Jorge texted that we were on, and early Friday morning messaged again on the affirmative. The weather looked halfway decent, and so eight of us boarded the pickup bus at 7:20 and made it to the whale shark marina where we met our old friend Marta who organizes the whale shark tours. We had enough people to have our own boat, almost, and not wanting to waste space, another couple joined us.
It was partly sunny and quite choppy even before we reached the northern tip of Isla Mujeres. Once past that, the big swells rolled in and it got worse. The girl who had joined us on the boat quickly got seasick and stayed that way pretty much for the rest of the trip.
Normally it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to reach the whale shark feeding grounds out on the open ocean to the north-east of Isla Mujeres. You know you’re close to where the sharks are when you see an accumulation of boats in the distance, and as soon as you are there it's into the water and seeing the sharks. Not this time. The boat kept looking, everyone was looking, but to no avail. There were some false alarms where boats congregated, and one time we even saw a number of giant mantas. Unfortunately, the sick couple got to go in the water first, with the girl forgetting to take her snorkel into her mouth. By the time those two had been returned to the boat, the mantas were gone.
We looked for hours, getting farther and farther away from land, which meant a long way back. A very long one, and a rocky one. We made a pit stop at the northern tip of Islas Mujeres with its wonderful beach, but no one was in the mood for snorkeling.
Back at the whale shark marina, a bunch of boorish Austrian tourists loudly complained to Marta. The sea was too rough, the ride not comfortable enough, the weather not good enough, the boat unsafe, the captain rude, and they wanted their money back. I gave Marta a hug. It was not her fault that for once no one found the sharks, not even the planes that circled above. The sharks are wild animals and unpredictable. Yes, it was disappointing that we did not see them, but it still had been a thrilling ride on the high seas. You win some, you lose some. No need to become abusive and unreasonable. Those people work very hard, and if the weather is bad, they get nothing.
Back at the hotel we washed the salt and grime off, and then gathered for a farewell party with wine and cheese and crackers, party decoration and a few games with prizes. The girls all posed around the pool in groups, and then we moved on to dinner in the Fusion French restaurant for another haute cuisine dining event.
All in all, I got in just four dives, and that was two or three more than most in our group. And we didn't see the whale sharks we had been raving about to our friends for years. And the weather had been bad all week, with flooding and leaks and slippery floors and broken plans. But it could have been much worse. We could have been stranded in a roadside motel with nothing to do and nowhere to go. So staying at that great all-inclusive resort certainly paid off and saved the day and the week. This time we got our money's worth. And being with good friends made it that much easier, and much better.
April 04, 2013
A few days of diving in Florida, and logistics
At long last we went back to Florida for a week the end of January 2013. Three years ago we did "a dive trip for less" and wrote about how you can fly to and dive in Northern Florida in all sorts of great places while spending less than half as much as you would for a week in the Caribbean.
This time, I had watched airfares from Sacramento to Orlando for months and finally scored tickets just over $200 plus the usual fees and taxes via Delta and a brief stop at Minneapolis. We left at 6:45 AM and got to Florida midafternoon.
One thing that's different about a week of meandering from dive spot to dive spot is logistics. When you fly somewhere and stay at a resort or liveaboard, you get to park your gear and be done with it. Not so when you move from place to place.
We always bring our own dive gear, and that means a big bag with all the dive stuff: fins, boots, mask, BC, wetsuit, snorkel, meshbag, and assorted stuff like compass, bandanna, socks, and whatever clothes we take with. Then there's a carry-on with all the photo gear, the computers, batteries and accessories. That's already a lot of stuff.
Then you need a car. I usually book a compact or economy car and hope we'll get something appropriate as the car rental companies often let you trade up at no extra cost or for just a little. So this time, looking at all the gear we had taken with, I realized that a small compact probably wouldn't do, even for just two people. That's because in addition to all the gear, we also usually pick up a big plastic bucket to put the wet stuff in after diving. Fortunately, Budget had a Ford Escape for just a few dollars more (like 8 a day). An unplanned expense, but definitely worth it! It's essential to keep this in mind, or else a trip can become a big frustration.
We took a small car GPS along and found it to be worthless. Even relatively new GPS systems will whine about their maps being outdated, and would we please update them by going on their website? Well, we can't while on the road, and the updates usually cost almost as much as a new GPS. Fortunately, as long as there's a signal, the iPad is far superior to most dedicated GPS systems anyway.
We stopped at a Walmart and bought the plastic bucket for the gear and a couple of bargain towels. And some snacks. Then checked in and nested at the very nice Crystal River Best Western.
On Thursday morning we first had our free breakfast at the Best Western where we saw our friend and Hotel Manager Frances who apparently had been at DEMA and seen me. It was nice catching up with her. Then we headed over to Manatee Tours USA, which is owned by our friends Charlie Slider and Terry Devich.
Charlie took us and three others to the Three Sisters area where a good number of manatees hung out in the roped-off sanctuary at the entrance to Three Sisters. The water was reasonably clear, though whirled up by too many people and too many manatee boats. The water level was also much lower than I had ever seen it, and when I tried to go up the channel to the Three Sisters basin, the current from it was so strong as to make swimming upstream impossible.
So I walked (without fins), but this time, Three Sisters was a let-down. The water level was so low that even swimming was barely possible. And whereas the area had looked like this wondrous archaic place when I saw it for the first time over six years ago, now it looked all different. Fish and Wildlife, which now apparently owns the land, had removed a large number of trees and only left a thin veneer around the basin standing. Then they put in a wooden walkway around the basin that looks intrusive and seems totally unnecessary. I didn't see a single person on it. I was later told that Fish and Wildlife, without consulting with any of the locals, had removed all vegetation that they consider "not native" and had also removed a lot of the rocks from the channel, with the result that the water now rushes in and out much too quickly. What a shame.
I was disappointed enough to consider passing on an invitation to go see the manatees again in the afternoon. Fortunately, I didn't as by now the tide had come in, making everything look better, though the beauty of Three Sisters is definitely and permanently marred. With the higher water level, lots of manatees were now in the The Sisters basin, hanging out, and eager to play. Lots of fun. But it's definitely a good idea to research the tide situation before booking.
After that we got tanks and weights at nearby Birds Underwater, with much thanks to the ever-helpful Bill Ostreich, owner of Birds. By that time it was almost dark and we headed up to Cedar Key where we'd booked a couple of nights at the charming historic Island Hotel. It's supposedly haunted, with different ghosts favoring different rooms. Ms. Bessie, a former owner and mayor of Cedar Key, was supposed to have on occasion haunted our truly wonderful room #129 with a big wide King size bed with corner posts, but she must have had the night off. After a good dinner at the Hotel's acclaimed restaurant, we quickly fell asleep. No hair drier, and the shower needed getting acquainted with. Perhaps it was haunted.
A visit to Manatee Springs State Park near Chiefland was scheduled for Friday. That's where the Catfish Hotel sink is, and the adjacent basin that empties into the Suwannee River. It was a leisurely one hour drive guided by Apple's much maligned mapping program that has always worked great for me. At the park you need to check in at the Ranger's station, pay $6 per car, fill out a form, and deposit your scuba certification card. Six bucks! What a great bargain.
We started with a quick tour through this really wonderful park. The sink's water level was fairly low, perhaps three or four feet lower than at our prior visits, and it was covered in a green layer of duckweed, as always.
But before diving we walked down the raised wooden path along the river and to its mouth and saw a group of eight manatees. Then it was time to suit up and brave the descent into the murky looking green pond which, under a thin layer of duckweed, was the magical, wondrous underwater world I remembered it to be. The sun shone through some clear areas on the surface and illuminated the green cover like a giant lens. The effect was fantastic.
At the bottom of the sink under massive rock overhangs it was darker and I wish I could have brought along a light, but open water divers aren't allowed to take one with so they aren't tempted to go exploring the caves without proper training. At some point a group of three cave divers emerged from the dark, worked on their gear, dropped a tank each at the bottom of the sink at the cave entrance, then disappeared into the dark cave section that connects the sink with the basin a few hundred feet away. Carol and I surfaced, totally covered in duckweed. I couldn't stop laughing as we slung duck weed at each other. The stuff gets everywhere.
After a surface interval we walked over to the basin and did some more photography and testing with the GoPro cameras and filters we had brought along. I hung close by the cave exit where the spring blasted at me full force. I saw a flashlight and then some debris came flying out of the cave. But no diver emerged for a good ten more minutes. I began getting worried that he might have gotten stuck. But then the light appeared again, more debris, and then the caver. He was okay.
Here I need to relate a frustrating matter of diving logistics. Our 2013 Ford Escape rental had one of those giant FOBs that is, of course, not waterproof. The car did have keyless entry, but we did not have a code for it. The card with the code was supposed to be in the glove compartment, but it wasn't. So how do you go diving with a non-waterproof FOB?
Above: Once upon a time, all you needed to unlock and start a car was a metal key (left: 1969 Mercedes Benz), then came "fobs" (word origin unknown) to make it impossible to start or even "hot-wire" the car even with a key (2nd from left: 2004 Acura). Then increasingly expensive (and not waterproof) fobs replaced keys entirely (3rd from left: 2012 Prius), or became bulky contraptions with both key and electronics (right: 2011 Audi).
Carol suggested we stick it in one of those waterproof plastic boxes you hang around your neck when on boats and such, so that you have your room key and some money with you. Well, I did not trust those cheap plastic boxes with the FOB. Car rental companies charge a fortune if a FOB is lost or damaged. We also had one of those diver plastic drybags with multiple sealing lips. That looked like it might work, but I quickly saw that the water pressure would push in all the FOB's buttons, possibly crushing them or damaging the FOB with the keys remaining depressed for the duration of the dive. What if we put the drybag into the plastic box? Didn't fit.
I posed the question to other divers there. Some had older vehicles that still had real keys. One suggested to just put the key under the fender or hide it in some other place. I considered that, but then dismissed it because it didn't feel safe. I wondered whether the people who design cars ever consider that car owners might want to go swim, dive, kajak or go other places where a fragile, expensive electronic FOB will break.
We eventually found a solution. We put the FOB into a camera housing and took it with. The camera housing won't break or leak. But this also meant taking a housing on the dive, without the benefit of having the camera for which there was now no more room. And a housing designed to be more or less neutrally buoyant with a camera inside becomes an underwater helium balloon with just a key FOB inside. We tried other methods on this trip, too. Twice we asked the office at a dive site if they'd keep the key for us, and once we rented a locker.
Saturday was reserved for returns to Blue Grotto and Devil's Den near Williston, a leisurely one hour ride mostly on a totally straight road from Cedar Key. The last time we had been to Blue Grotto in June of 2009 we had the dive site all to ourselves. Not this time. When we arrived at 10:15 or so, there already were a good number of divers there, mostly classes. We caught up with owner Ed Paradiso, who is a great guy. He said he'd fill our tanks in two minutes. Two minutes. And that is exactly what he did. They weren't even warm. And there I thought filing tanks is always a lengthy affair.
Despite the number of divers in the water, visibility was quite good. Not like it was when we had the grotto for ourselves, but more than good enough. There wasn't as much sun, and so the cavern itself looked quite dark at first. Carol and I soon left the brightly lit cavern part behind and descended down the slope into the cavelike darkness, all the way to the bottom at about 100 feet. The way back up had a totally different feel to it as now we saw the glimmer of blue high above us. That is how Blue Grotto got its name.
We then cruised around in the main chamber of the cavern, enjoying the clear water and watching all the divers do their thing. At times someone whirled up a big cloud of silt and it was easy to see how the visibility could go from great to bad in an instant. In the end it'd been a very enjoyable 55 minute dive. On the way out, Ed again provided superior service with another 2-minute tank fill.
Devil's Den is practically across the street from Blue Grotto. A short stretch on the highway, then a ways down a dirt road and there it is. Devil's Den. It looked exactly as I remembered it, and it wasn't even crowded. Manager Rowena was still there, as helpful and witty as ever.
Carol and I got back into our wet and clammy gear, though the wonderfully sunny and pleasant weather made it easier, and it was hard to believe that this was the end of January. Amazingly, we didn't encounter any bugs either. Mosquitos and other insect pests are virtually a given in Florida, but not this time. Not in Crystal River, not in Cedar Key, not at Manatee Springs, and not at Blue Grotto and Devil's Den either.
Descending the narrow stairs through the rock down into the cavern and then diving it reminded me again just what an incredible place Devil's Den is. It's also one of the greatest optical illusions ever; from above, the truly crystal clear water looks about five feet deep, if that, and it seems unlikely that this would be a satisfying place for diving. But delve underneath the surface and it's a totally different view. It's much deeper than it looks, and it feels much deeper than it actually is. That's because the wonderfully contoured limestone rock has so many nooks and crannies and swim-throughs that it absolutely feels like you're cavediving. And since Devil's Den is round and multi-layered, you can dive for a long time without ever seeing anything twice.
It's hard to believe that a cavern that is really only between 45 and 50 feet deep can feel this vast, mysterious and at times intimidating, but it does. In Blue Grotto, at 45 feet you're still in the bright, friendly main area full of light. In Devil's Den, descending between rocks to that depth feels like you're deep in a cave system, and the several closed-off areas that disappear into darkness only add to that feeling. The official word is always that those areas quickly peter out and don't go far, but it certainly feels different and I wouldn't be surprised if cave extended from Devil's Den for significant distances. As is, it's not clear where the cavern's clear spring water comes from and where it goes to. There is no discernible flow.
We also found a little red devil perched on top of a limestone outcropping. Perfect. We had not seen him before.
Two other things make Devil's Den special. One is the sunlight that streams down through the narrow, round opening of the cavern and illuminates the limestone in a wondrous dance of rays of light, also lighting up the wooden structure in the center. The other is the total absence of algae and almost total absence of silt. Instead, there's a bit of sand and if that gets whirled up by a careless fin, it quickly settles down again. This means Devil's Den is almost guaranteed to have fantastic visibility.
As usual, we had along a bunch of underwater camera equipment for testing. We're pretty good at it, but even after all these years of testing gear underwater, problems continue to catch us unawares. A camera ran out of space on its storage card and it turns out that it had quietly set itself to record at a much higher resolution than it had been set to. Batteries kept dying well before they should have. Housings fogged up without any physical reason, sometimes even with moisture munchers. Menus and operation turned out to be more cryptic than expected once underwater. Devices that are said to be waterproof weren't. Tools needed to assemble, adjust or take apart gear were missing. Scheduled shots and scenes either weren't possible or were forgotten.The list of what can go wrong is endless.
Sunday we went back to Rainbow River. We stayed at the Dinner Bell Motel (which doesn't actually have a restaurant) in Dunnellen, which was just fine. Grabbed a burger at a restaurant next door, prepped batteries and cameras, and woke up to .... a lot of fog. So much that we didn't leave the motel til 10:30 AM or so, then had breakfast at McDonald's, got a couple of things at the local Walmart, and only headed for K.P. Hole park when the sun finally burned through the fog almost noon.
It cost US$5 per person to enter the meticulously maintained park, which is well worth it. We asked for Bret, the captain who was going to take us upriver in bis boat. Bret charged $10 per person for the service, also well worth it. We geared up and boarded the riverboat where we also found Bill, the prior owner. He'd ferried us upriver before. Soon we were up a few twists and bends and it was time to hit the water.
The Rainbow River originates not far from where we were dropped off in a spring. The water is about as clear as it gets in rivers. Depth varies from just three or four feet down to perhaps 25 feet. There is lush seagrass and all sorts of vegetation. The bottom is either sand or lime rock. The current varies, too, from almost none to quite a rush. The dive is mostly a drift dive, and one where you never know what's past the next river grass meadow. While the current generally shows the way, it's hard to figure out where you are in the river, but since it's so shallow you can just pop up and take a look around. Since there are boats on the river, divers need a dive flag. Carol used the Liquid Image HD324 video mask to tape the dive and so the task of handling the flag fell to me. With all the up and down there was a lot of paying our line and reeling it back in.
We ended up being underwater for over two hours, and the tanks still had plenty of air. You don't use a lot when your dive is this shallow. After the dive we enjoyed ice cream, sodas, and taking in the gorgeous vista of the river, all quiet and serene and beautiful, with Spanish Moss hanging off the trees. Another wonderful day. Then it was time to pack up the dive gear in our rental car and head back to the Best Western in Crystal River.
Om Monday morning, very bright and early we headed for Bird's for another Manatee tour, this time with the very personable Rhonda. It was still dark when we arrived at Bird's at 6:15 AM, and still quite dark when we left the dock after filling out releases, watching the mandatory Fish and Wildlife video and picked out wetsuits at 7. By the time we reached Three Sisters it was light, the water was clear and there were no other boats, so arriving early was a good thing.
There was some flow out the channel to Three Sisters, but the water was still deep and swimming upstream was possible. Once in the Three Sisters basin, there were a lot of manatees to the right side of the basin. One, named Chester, was very playful and a real ham. The water was a pleasant 73 degrees Fahrenheit or so, and the 3-mil wetsuit I got at Bird's worked just fine. I didn't use fins and didn't need any.
Back on the boat I felt cold enough to change back into my dry clothes, and didn't go back into the water at Jurassic Spring, which emanates from a 25-foot sink in front of a canal wall. Overall another pleasant experience with manatees, more good pics and video footage, and a chance to catch up with Bird, Chris and the rest of the gang.
And that was that. A few days away from the office grind, reacquainting ourselves with some of our favorite haunts, some glorious diving, and a good bunch of work with the cameras.
December 29, 2012
The Treasure Hunter, and how one thing leads to another
This isn't totally scuba-related, but it's close enough. And it's another interesting example how one thing can lead to another and then to another. Like when I went to the local One Dollar store to pick up a couple of things and there found this interesting looking book that turned out to be about underwater archaeology. Which then led me to search for several more books on underwater archaeology that I ended up buying on Amazon from who turned out to be the first woman to visit the Titanic. And which also led me to go on eBay to buy a piece of antique Vietnamese porcelain that had rested at the bottom of the ocean for 600 years and was the subject of the story of the book from the One Dollar store.
I am not quite sure yet where a more recent experience may lead, but so far it's been an interesting chain of events also. So I am in Roatan at CoCo View resort, listening to resident expert Doc Radawski's most interesting lecture on Roatan's history, politics and general dynamics. That included a chapter on treasure hunting, which is always a fascinating subject. It wasn't quite clear to what extent Doc had been involved in such endeavors, but he did mention a book on a real life treasure hunter by the name of Howard Jennings. Jennings, with fellow adventurer Robin Moore, had looked for treasure on Roatan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Doc had apparently met the man and described him as one of the most obnoxious characters ever.
Well, thanks to the miracles of modern technology I managed to locate a used copy of the book ("The Treasure Hunter") on my iPad on Amazon while still listening to Doc's lecture, and ordered it on the spot. It cost me ten cents plus US$3.99 shipping. The book was waiting for me when I got back to the States and our home in California and it turned out to be interesting reading.
"The Treasure Hunter" isn't about diving (though Jennings does some of that in one of his adventures) and it's also not exclusively about Roatan, though several chapters deal with Roatan and Jennings apparently even lived at Port Royal for a couple or three years, together with a female companion (of which Jennings was quite fond). The book turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining read with the writing alternating between author Robin Moore and Jennings himself, a Texan, World War II bomber pilot, German POW. The events described took place during the 1960s and it all reads like a mix between Indiana Jones (Jennings claimed to be a geologist) and early James Bond (there are quite a few fights). The style is 60-ish, too, with lots of drinking, womanizing and the kind of worldly colonial gentleman style that now looks quaint and very much politically incorrect.
Jennings' adventures include searching for treasure and gold not only on Roatan, but the Honduran mainland, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. Use of metal detector technology, plenty of research and preparation, a cocky, winning can-do attitude, wide-ranging contacts, world-class persuasion skills, and often a good dose of luck enabled Jennings to retrieve and take across borders a good deal of loot in an era where no one could have dreamed of the search and scanner technologies used in airports today.
The book was so entertaining that I went back on Amazon to see if there were other writings by or about the intrepid Howard Jennings. Nada. But there was something else that caught my eye: "Roatan Odyssey" by Anne Jennings Brown. Huh? Well, Jennings Brown apparently was Howard's wife who built a house with him on Roatan, at Port Royal. And it was published in 2007, 35 years after "The Treasure Hunter." "But plans so neatly made in the UK begin to fall apart as soon as they land and it becomes clear that Anne's funds are tied up by Howard, whose intentions are not what they first seemed," it says on the roatanodyssey.com website.
Interesting, and I had to read it. Unfortunately, the book is out of print, and while "The Treasure Hunter" cost me just ten cents, the cheapest used copy of Jennings Brown's book was US$44.52. Fortunately, a much more reasonably priced Kindle version was available, and that is now sitting on my iPad.
And I read Anne's book. It painted, predictably, a very different story, one that while following the same general path, presented facts rather differently. Yes, the treasure hunter was charming, endearing, winning and fascinating, but he had a dark side, a very dark one. And I had not known that he died in a fiery plane crash only a few years after his book had been published.
Anne's book details many of the trials and tribulations she'd had with the suave but flawed treasure hunter, but that was only half the book. The other half was of her life in the house they had built at Fort Fredrick in Port Royal. She had returned there after Howard had been deported from Roatan, all by herself, and reading what it'd been like for her, in the early and mid-1970s, was a total treat. Both an informative one and also one that was a bit different as it involved a good deal of supernatural matters. Overall, a ton of wonderful historic information of how Roatan used to be some 40 years ago.
I just had to let Anne, now 80, know how much I appreciated her book, and I did through her website. Surprisingly, she quickly responded with a brief note, though sadly not to a note with a couple of follow-up questions.
But books lead to books and so that wasn't the end. Howard Jennings had closed "The Treasure Hunter" with a number of very practical recommendations on exploring, and also a discussion of other treasures out there. The biggest of them all, he said, was the mystery of Oak Island off Nova Scotia, and so I had to buy "The Secret Treasure of Oak Island" by D'Arcy O'Connor. Very interesting reading of a 200+ year quest to figure out what lies at the bottom of a possibly huge, yet vexingly booby-trapped supposed treasure.
And, of course, I also had to get "Historical Geography of the Bay Islands, Honduras" by William V. Davidson. That one was published back in 1973, and Anne Jennings Brown had mentioned it in her book as a great source of dwellings and locales on Roatan. While the title of the 1973-published work is a bit dry, that's because it was really based on the author's doctoral dissertation and turned out to be a great and broadly informative account of the Bay Island's history and status, with an emphasis on Roatan as the chain's largest island.
While reading those books I googled for maps and other sources, of which I eventually found quite a few (Google ain't what it used to be as a serious search tool). Davidson's book alone contains hundreds of references, and it all brought back memories of my distant academic past where even seemingly well-defined areas of study quickly mushroomed into massive projects. That won't happen here, and I am not interested in treasure, but it it's a nice example of how one thing enjoyingly leads to another and another.
September 18, 2012
Virtual dive operations
What is a virtual dive operation? Essentially an entity that doesn't really have a dive shop, doesn't have a dive boat, doesn't fill its own tanks, and may even "rent" some of its staff. Such an operation usually has at its center a talented organizer who has what it takes to arrange for all the necessary resources, make all the required connections, and just pull it all together.
The are different degrees of virtualism. Some virtual dive operations do have their own physical locale where they have dive gear, store tanks, and even sell some dive related items. But they may still "rent" dive masters, have their tanks filled elsewhere, and rely on arrangements for dive boats or space on dive boats.
I thought about all this after our (positive) experiences with a virtual dive shop in Cancun, Mexico. Scorpio Divers is a primary example of a virtual dive operation. When I first read about them at Scuba Board, there was much praise for them, but also much discussion about whether they were an actual shop. Some said yes, they did have their own boat and dive shop, others said not.
It's quite possible that virtual dive shops change, morph and evolve over time, with resources being added or subtracted. An operation may decide to actually go to have its own boat or rent actual office space. It's all quite fluid, depends on opportunity, dreams, individual drive, and the fabric of those who all participate. In a way, virtual dive operations are social networks.
How does a virtual dive operation work? It depends, of course, on having all the pieces in place. Without having everything required to create the appearance, and offer the services, of a real dive operations, there can be no business. But even the best organization cannot exist without customers, and that is where clever marketing comes in. The reason why we ever chose Scorpio Divers was because they were seemingly everywhere. They have a website, an actual email address, they are on Twitter, on Facebook, have an Apple iMessage number, a BlackBerry number and, of course, phone numbers. So they can be reached in a number of ways.
But even that is not enough for success. All to often, emails go unanswered, phone calls are difficult to make, and so on. Scorpio stood out by being ultra-responsive. When I sent them an email, within a very short time I get one back, with answers to everything I asked.
So what are the pros and cons of virtual dive operations for divers?
The pros are that virtual operations can be quicker, more flexible, and less expensive than conventional brick and mortar operations. We paid 20% less with a virtual operation than with the dive shop located at the resort (which really was a semi-virtual shop as well as they did not have their own boats, air or piers), and that included pick-up and drop-off at the hotel.
The cons are that instead of just walking over to your local shop, you have to wait to be picked up and brought back, the boat rides to dive sites can be considerably longer, and virtual operations live and die by how well the organization is run.
August 25, 2012
I've often read about bad air, but had never experienced it myself. What does bad air mean? Simply that the air in your tank is somehow contaminated. At worst, it contains carbon monoxide from the exhaust of a compressor. That can be deadly and you can't even taste carbon monoxide. Jacques Cousteau described one such incident at a dive at the Fontaine des Vaucluses that nearly turned fatal. Most of the time, bad air isn't as serious, but it can still affect your dive majorly.
We were on a dive boat in fairly calm weather, did a nice shallow dive where we saw rays, morays, large schools of grunts, thousands of them, a couple of lion fish, very large sponges, and even a reef shark. But on the way back up I began feeling nauseous, which very rarely happens to me. The nausea continued on the boat, and the diesel fumes there and rocking in fairly choppy water didn't help. I also felt cold in my 3-mil wetsuit, though the water had been a nice 82 degrees and the air was warm as well. I wondered if I should do the second dive, still having a funny taste in my mouth and feeling nauseous. We had already paid for the two dives, though, and it seemed a waste not to go.
So I went. It was another nice, shallow dive with plenty to see. Coral heads, lots of color, the swarms of grunts, some nice swim-throughs, very pleasant all, and still 82 degree water. Problem was, I couldn't enjoy anything because of increasing nausea. Instead of looking, enjoying the scenery, exploring and using my camera, the dive became an exercise in not getting more nauseous and keeping things under control. I did not panic, but the thought occurred to me that throwing up would be unpleasant under water and I had never done it. They say to do it right through the regulator and you'd be fine, but I didn't want to find out. So it was all quite frustrating. I had looked forward to diving so much, to the wonderful weightless experience of floating through clear, warm water, and now this.
Eventually I got back up, and up onto the boat without losing it, but it'd been miserable. Then I found out that everyone else also complained of the funny taste of the air, the after taste it left in the mouth, and feeling off. It apparently affected me most, but even the dive master agreed it felt off. The boat captain said he'd relate it to the dive boat operator. I have no idea if he was actually going to, but I would not want another dive like that.
What caused the bad air? I don't know. Most likely some oil or other substance getting into the compressor.
Unfortunately, the next day the air wasn't any better. Three breaths out of a regulator and we felt like inhaling oil-laden fumes from some old garage. Even the dive master agreed that this wasn't good. But the boat was already underway and we had paid for the dives, so it was grin and bar it.
Which sort of worked out for me insofar as I didn't get sick, just slightly nauseated. Carol, however, looked grim and out of it throughout the dive, went up early and was in a truly foul mood when I got back to the boat. She's had almost 3,000 dives and swore she'd never encountered air this bad. She seemed ready to stop diving during that trip altogether, and she felt sick for hours. And the next day.
I took it up again with the dive master who very much agreed but said that, regretfully, it was out of his hands and he could only do so much, but could we please take it up with his boss. Which we did. The boss was a nice and very friendly man who also very much agreed that this was unacceptable, but could we please submit something in writing so that he could take it up with the shop which actually did the air fills. Which I did. And we said that, regretfully, we could not come back until this was resolved. To my way of thinking, to have or have not two well-paying customers ought to be somewhat of an incentive.
But what could they really do? If the compressor system was this fouled up, even changing whatever part caused it would still not solve the problem because by now all their tanks would be coated with the noxious stuff inside. So short of cleaning all of them, which we didn't think they would (or could) do overnight, nothing will fix the bad air.
Not a good situation.
We never did hear back from the dive operator, and so we didn't go back. As coincidence would have it, though, a couple of days later we attended a presentation of a photographer friend of ours at the local convention center. And, low and behold, he introduced us to the owner of the dive operation that actually filled the tanks. He was friendly and forthcoming, acknowledged that they probably had a problem with a filter, that they needed to clean all the tanks, and he thanked us for bringing this to his attention. And it would be fixed soon. Good, but that didn't help us gain enough confidence to go back to them.
And we never heard back for him or our dive operator either, though they knew how to reach us. So perhaps they fixed the bad air, and perhaps they didn’t. We took our business elsewhere.
If you're ever on a dive trip and you're questioning the quality of the air while already underwater, one way of testing is clearing your mask and you'll sense the odor through your nose. Also note that the filter in the first stage of your regulator is designed to capture contaminants. Check for discoloration or smells after the dive.
July 16, 2012
Exploring the Sea of Cortez onboard the Rocio Del Mar
From July 7 to 14, 2012, we were onboard the live-aboard vessel Rocio Del Mar for a week of diving the Midriff islands of the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California. These islands are about 40% down the gulf to the southern tip of Baja California. The Rocio is a rather new ship, only a few years old, 110 feet long, and especially built for dive trips.
We arrived in Phoenix via USAir to sweltering heat, called the shuttle company that was going to bring us to the Mexican port town of Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point), grabbed a sandwich at Starbucks, and then boarded the shuttle, a spacious air-conditioned 10 passenger van. The ride from Phoenix to Rocky Point is about 2/3 in the US and 1/3 in Mexico. It is actually a rather scenic drive through desertlike terrain with millions of cacti. There are several border patrol checkpoints on the US side of the border, but with only cars headed for Phoenix being checked. We stopped at a refueling plaza for a Subway sandwich.
Passing the border into Mexico was a non-event. We didn't even have to show our passports. The ride to Rocky Point took about four hours all in all, and we arrived about 5:30pm. There is great access to the port area where we saw the Rocio Del Mar right away.
It's an impressive ship and leaves a good first impression. Whereas the Solmar V is sleek and has a pub-like elegance, the Rocio Del Mar looks and feels almost more like a building than a ship. Boarding is always a hectic affair, what with figuring out what is where, and then getting the dive gear set up. On most live-aboard and dive boats I have been on, there is bench seating where divers can prep and don their gear. The Rocio, on the other hand, has stand-up dive stations. That struck me as unusual at first, but I’d quickly learn that getting into your gear from a standing position is actually a lot easier.
The rooms are, for live-aboard standards, very large. Our upper deck room had a double bed, a bunch bed on top of it (with very ample headroom), a chest of drawers, large windows, and superb air conditioning (that can, however, only be regulated via adjusting the vents). It measured perhaps 8 x 8 feet and at least seven feet high. Our bathroom had a decent shower, a nice sink, a window, a mirror, and a toilet. The were dispensers for soap and shampoo. As on many boats, you're supposed to put toilet paper in a waste paper basket next to the toilet, and not into the toilet itself. That sounds a bit gross, but works much better than I expected.
The mattresses were on the thin side, sort of like sofa cushions, but not uncomfortable. According to management, they will be replaced with thicker memory foam mattresses. We had two foam pillows for our double bed. We also found more than adequate power outlets. That's always a big plus if you bring along a lot of cameras and electronics.
The dining room was downstairs in the hull; a relatively compact room with three large tables and bench seating that tended to get loud during meals.
The top deck of the Rocio provided an absolutely panoramic view. The was no roof to provide shade, but the feeling to be on top of everything, in the middle of the ocean, was amazing. We found lounging chairs, a barbecue grill, one of the two inflatables, a crane, and all sorts of gear, without it being cluttered.
After our first dinner, one of the dive masters, Mayo, did a briefing on the ship, safety measures, schedules, and he also introduced the crew. He first explained everything in Spanish and English, but it turned out that the Hispanic guests spoke and understand English much better than the Anglos understood Spanish, and so it was mostly English the whole trip.
Given that the two ships mostly do the same itineraries, it is interesting how different the Rocio Del Mar is from the Solmar V. If the Solmar had a nationality, it'd be British, with all of its stained glass and mahogany and brass. The Rocio is all Mexican; comfy and colorful and with much larger rooms. Some of the corridors and passages were narrow, as were some of the stairs, but that’s the case on most ships. The decor used a good deal of wood.
The guests, by and large, were an older crowd, and almost all very experienced world-traveling divers. Among them were a free diver with her son, a travel videographer, a couple who owns a dive shop in upstate New York, two retired university professors, a French woman with a Ph.D. in Astronomy who now teaches math on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, three Mexicans into photography, a mathematician, a Microsoft techie, etc. Most had many hundreds to several thousands of dives. My 250 ranked third or fourth from the bottom.
Sunday, July 8....
I woke up around 6:30am after a rather restful night where I only occasionally became aware of the motion of the boat. I went outside and found that we were not moving, and no land was in sight. I took the opportunity to do some photography, and then had breakfast where our hostess and co-owner of the Rocio Del Mar, Dora, informed us that at 3:00am there had been some rather intense vibration underneath the boat. Initially they suspected that one of the props had gotten entangled in a fishing net. That didn't turn out to be the case. Instead, one oft the drive shafts had gotten out of balance and then broke. The prop wasn’t lost and there was no danger, but the boat's top speed was now seven knots instead of ten, and the shaft could not be fixed other than in dry dock.
Our options were to return to Puerto Penasco, or to continue on one propeller, have a modified itinerary, and then conclude the trip somewhere on Baja, from where we'd be transported back to Phoenix via bus, a seven hour trip or so. Since everyone was already here and the trip underway, it made more sense to continue and then put the boat on dry dock for the necessary repairs.
So we went on at a leisurely pace that gave us ample opportunity to relax, organize, familiarize ourselves with the layout of the Rocio, and for us also do some of the product photography there usually never seems enough time for.
At 11am was a briefing on the dive operations in the salon where we learned about the general diving conditions in the Sea of Cortez. Tides can make a large difference here in current, water temperature, and visibility. Temperatures can be as low as the high 60s, then be in the low 80s on the next dive. There can also be large thermoclines. All the diving on this itinerary would be off the two inflatables. There would be no drift diving, and everyone must stay with the group as drifting off and doing safety stops in current can get you far away. Diver put on their gear before entering the inflatable and enter the water via back roll. For every dive there is a record sheet where everyone lists starting and ending pressure, and Nitrox users also their percentage and MOD. Depth limit for air users was 130 feet.
Each diver would be issued a walkie talkie GPS device that clips onto the BC. It has a green button for talk with the inflatable captains, an orange one for talk with any other boat in the area, and a coved red one to reach the coast guard in case of true emergency. The devices have a coordinate readout that is broadcast in emergencies. The LCD readout is quite small and I could not read it without my reading glasses. It struck me as a design that could use some improvements.
Due to the slower pace, we had a chance to talk with Dora Sandoval about the boat. She and her husband, who is the captain of the Rocio, did start from scratch, building the boat practically themselves, with the help of a small crew of workmen. They started in 2006, did the first trips in 2008, and Dora related a number of interesting stories and anecdotes about the whole process. I mean, how many people built a live-aboard from scratch?
At long last we arrived at Angel Island about five o'clock on Sunday. The vistas there are just breathtaking, with different color rock in dramatic shapes, spires and cones peeking out of the water, interesting beach and tide pool areas where you can see the impact of the tides in the Sea of Cortez, and no signs of civilization at all. Beautiful.
The first dive site was La Muela, a craggly spire poking out of the water near the Island. It actually looked a bit like a smaller version of Roca Partida in the Socorro Islands. Divers were split into two groups for the inflatable rides. We geared up and realized the advantage of having the tanks and BCs parked higher up, so that we could just walk up to the gear and put it on, without then having to get up from a sitting position. Getting onto the inflatable with all the gear on was surprisingly easy. The ride to the site was just a couple of minutes, and then we were off to our first dive, entering backwards.
The water wasn't particularly clear, but fairly warm. We tested buoyancy, waited until everyone was in the water, then descended and made for the base of the rock. There wasn't any current, but we couldn't really see enough to stay together as a group. What was unique here was the billions of krill in the water that made it just like swimming through a living soup. This was primarily a macro site and dive master Mayo pointed out a number of interesting critters, including seahorses and numerous nudibranchs. I also saw a small ray. There was quite a bit of life, but the krill made things hard to see. It still became a 63 minute dive with a max depth of 60 feet.
We emerged almost right next to the inflatable, took off fins, then weight pockets, then handed up the BC. The ride back to the Rocio was picturesque, and the subsequent easy stroll between Angel Island's coast and rocks in the dusk almost achingly beautiful. Just gorgeous and almost worth the trip alone.
A few hardy souls made the night dive. The boat was surrounded by thousands of needle fish that at times jumped out of the water and even on the dive deck. Carol and I went on the front deck to watch the stars for a while. It's just amazing how well you can see the Milky Way when there is no light from civilization.
Monday, July 9...
The next morning we woke up to a spectacular view through our cabin window. There was the triangular La Vela ("The Sail") formation, a sugar cone like rock perhaps 100 feet tall. There are thousands of birds on it and it is white from guano. That doesn't sound very appetizing, but it looks dazzling and very attractive. At the bottom sat dozens of sea lions.
It was just a very short inflatable drive close to the rock. We went in backwards again, then dropped almost to the bottom of the rock, which slopes down underwater at perhaps a 45 degree angle in a series of walls. The visibility wasn't great, but cleared up as we got deeper. At 90 feet it was quite good if you stayed close to the rock. I shot video using my home-made GoPro rig with its pistol grip and two Liquid Image lights. It worked great.
We saw hundreds of Spanish Shawls and other nudibranchs and also a few small rays. As we got higher, the sea lions began buzzing us, showing off and doing their thing. It wasn't clear enough to really see them play, they just came and went. Nice dive overall, and certainly a very picturesque setting. There was lush vegetation and it was sort of a mix between what you see in the Pacific (urchins, sea stars, nudibranchs, kelpish plants) and in the Caribbean (sea fans, sponges, angel and damsel fish, etc.).
After breakfast we got ready for the second morning dive, this one again at the La Vela site. The sun was out, it was hot, the water almost flat, and the sea lions were barking up a storm. This time the inflatable took us behind the rock so that we had a better chance to go with the current, or stay out of it. For photography I took my trusty Canon G10 and Carol had the GoPro 3D setup with its two big Bonica lights. I initially had a problem going down due to sinus pains. After acclimating a bit and staying above the group, things cleared up and I could descend.
Visibility was passable this time and the group stayed close to dive master Mayo. There was lots to see, mostly on the macro side, but also many rays. We heard sea lions barking throughout the dive, but didn't see them until we had ascended from 80 to perhaps 30 feet or so. Seems like the sea lions like the shallower waters. After that, a good number darted in and out.
This dive lasted an hour. After the inflatable picked us all up, we circled around the La Vela rock and watched a big make sea lion asserting his authority, barking at pups, reining in females who had climbed up too high on the rocks (they are amazingly adept at climbing rock!), and chasing one away. Back at the Rocio Del Mar, a big pelican leisurely sat on one of the pangas and couldn't be shooed away.
After lunch, the inflatable took those who wanted to explore the island over to the beach. There are not many places as pristine as this that you can set foot on.
The first afternoon dive was still at Angel Island at a site named LoLo's Cove. It's in front of a rocky cliff that then drops down to 70 feet and more, but also has an attractive shallow reef with large boulders, tunnel swim-throughs, lots of vegetation, and veritable storms of krill, so much that you can hardly see through it. I again had a hard time going down due to sinus pain above my right eye. It took almost ten minutes to go below 20 feet. Then it was okay. Unfortunately, the first half hour of what would be a very nice dive was in near pea soup. A shallow reef towards the end was more pleasant, with more sun and a bit more visibility.
After the dive, the Rocio’s crew served fruit and chicken wings in the upstairs lounge. We had already come to greatly appreciated the unique layout of the Rocio Del Mar where divers can lounge either outside in a comfy porch/terrace style settings or inside where it is cool and there's a fridge always filled with soft drinks, water and beer.
For another treat, photographer Javier Sandoval organized a boat ride for his students to a sea lion colony and some sunset shooting. Those who went spoke of a wonderful experience.
As far as water temperature went, the first four dives mid June at Angel Island saw from 74 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit at the bottom. We had drastic thermoclines and temperature changes where one spot felt warm like bath water, the next downright chilly. Air temperatures were quite high, in the 90s, and putting on a wetsuit instantly made you work up a good sweat in the heat and humidity. But in the water I was glad I brought my 5-mil wetsuit.
Tuesday, July 10....
This was whale shark day! During the night, the Rocio had moved to a new location in Bahia de los Angeles, a large cove at Baja California. When we woke up, it looked like we were totally surrounded by land, but that was an optical illusion. After breakfast we left the Rocio in snorkel gear on one of our inflatables and a panga run by a local operator who specializes on whale sharks. It was a cloudy, which cut down on the heat, and the water was absolutely flat. We searched for whale sharks for perhaps 15 minutes, then found four or five, including a young one.
Most of us wore a wetsuit or skin and were ready to jump in whenever a whale shark was near. It was an incredible experience to be face to face with whale sharks, and being able to swim with them for minutes at a time. The boat operators adeptly put us in good positions and told us where to go. We had several cameras in the water and and also shot 3D video. The water was warm and calm enough to just hang and wait for either the boat to pick us up or for a whale shark to arrive. We did not want to leave after the allotted three hours were up and convinced the captains to let us go back into the water a few extra times.
No sooner did we get in dry clothes back on the Rocio than a veritable stampede of hundreds of small bottlenose dolphins swam alongside and in front of the Rocio, jumping and pouncing and playing. What a stunning sight!
The afternoon dive was at a bay along Baja at a dive site named El Pescador, one of Dora's favorites. The water looked a bit green, but there was enough sun to light up the very nice reef top and then broad sand chutes with little rays, goofy puffers and then impressive rock formations and valleys full of life. It got quite dark at around 70 feet and the current was strong around some of the cliffs, but this was a very nice dive. Again, I was surprised at the mix between Caribbean and Pacific features. The water was about 77 degrees.
Later in the afternoon we saw a number of large pilot whales and some one of the inflatables went out to see them up close (they disappeared). We were also on the lookout for the sperm whales that often make an appearance in this part of the Sea of Cortez, but saw none. We again skipped the night dive; for me there just isn't that much appeal diving a place I don't know where it is murky to boot.
Wednesday, July 11...
The next morning we woke up as the Rocio Del Mar arrived at the small island of Salsipuedes. The name, I am told, translates into "leave if you can!” and Salsipuedes is indeed a low, barren place nowhere near as attractive as Angel Island and the others we had seen.
Our first before-breakfast dive was at a site called Los Cuervos near a virtually submerged pinnacle that peeks out of the water by a mere foot or so. There's a second, larger one close-by, and the idea is to seek places where there is little or none of the current that usually whips around such peaks in the water. We all dropped off the inflatable together so that if there was drift, the usual two groups would not drift apart. We descended into what turned out to be rather murky water with visibility of no more than five or ten feet. Once we reached the pinnacle we dropped down alongside it to about 90 feet where it was almost totally dark. My GoPro setup's two video lights sure came in handy.
The scenery down there was surprisingly lush, again with that unique mix of Caribbean and Pacific features. We slowly worked our way up the rock which turned out to have numerous cuts and walls and little canyons to swim to, around, through and into. As we got higher, we encountered schools of large and colorful angel fish. With good light and visibility, this would be a terrific dive site. The temperature at Salsipuedes was a decent 77 degrees, just about right for the 5mils.
The surface intervals on the Rocio were always long, long enough to take your wetsuit off and relax. That's because of their unique schedule of having continental breakfast items at 6am, then the first dive at 7:30, then real breakfast, then the second morning dive at 11:00 or so, lunch at noon, the first afternoon dive at 2:30, the second at 5:30pm or so.
Not being much of a fan of murky water, I sat out the second morning dive to another emerged pinnacle dive site named El Caballo, still part of the Salsipuedes island. Carol said the viz was not good, there was much current and choppiness, but she greatly enjoyed the dive nonetheless.
After lunch we were treated to a fascinating lecture on free-diving by Marie Terese Solomons, a free diving instructor in La Paz.
Afternoon dive was a dive site called "El Lavadero," still at Salsipuedes. This one was again near a rock face, but offered shallow diving, which came in handy because we needed to test the waterproof cameras on real dives. Also along came 14-year-old Zef, MT's son. Mayo was teaching him adventures in diving and so he got to enjoy his fourth ever scuba dive in a challenging site off an island in the Sea of Cortez. Quite a bit more dramatic than my fourth dive in Folsom Lake.
Thursday, July 12.....
During the night the Rocio had moved to the tiny, but rather impressive guano island of San Pedro Martir. The weather was nice, the sea fairly flat with a bit of wind, and there were hundreds of those goofy booby birds with their duck feet. They sat on the boat, bopped each other off, and clumsily flew around the Rocio again and again. On the rock face of the island, which is still mostly guano despite a history of mining it for fertilizer, you can still see terraces of stone used by the guano miners.
Diving bright and early at the El Arroyo site, it was immediately clear that we had warmer water and much better visibility here. The site was close to the island and we could almost see the bottom from the boat. We descended first to a shallow area, then moved down towards and over a wall. The drop was fantastic, vertical, full of life and colors, and seemed to drop into the abyss. We went down to 80, 90, 100, 110 and I leveled off at 114 since I used Nitrox. Some of the air divers went down to what looked like well past the 130s and stayed well below us for a while. All of a sudden one guy shot upward, with the dive master in pursuit, finally stopping him. Apparently, the guy has experienced some narcosis and kept pushing the inflator button instead of dropping air as he came up.
We saw a moray, the first on this trip, and some cute blennies emerging from their holes in the sand. We also saw Marie Terese free diving to impressive depths, and a large male sea lion defending his turf. The water was a nice 82 degrees and I wished all dives were like that.
The second dive was again at El Arroyo, but closer to the sea lion colony. The water was not quite as clear as in the morning and we stayed on a rocky slope at 30 to 50 feet, which made the site suitable for testing some of our waterproof cameras. Dive master Mayo encircled an area with his line, indicating to look there for sea horses. We did, but found none. Instead we got many visits from sea lions, generally one at a time, doing underwater acrobatics. Towards the end of the dive we encountered a large male sea lion who elegantly cruised by like a submarine, blowing bubbles and draw a line we must not cross. We didn't.
Lunch was a very tasty chicken soup with hominy (which I loved and Carol hated), and Tostitas with beef. I would have loved to go back diving one more time at San Pedro Martis, but the ship then went looking for sperm whales. Several hours looking for them proved futile and so the Rocio Del Mar returned to San Pedro Martir for a dusk dive.
That one, Ravijunco, started at 6:30, close to a rock and a sea lion colony and quickly became a dusk dive. Carol and I both had dual lights and GoPros. A big male sea lion cruised by somewhat menacingly, and dive master Mayo decided to move on. We wound our way through a reef-like seascape, encountering substantial surge. There were the dense clouds of krill, schools of small fish, moray eels in their holes, and a good number of octopus. By the end of the one hour dive it was nearly dark, so I got to do a night dive after all.
For dinner, the crew had fired up the grill on the top deck, ran mariachi music, and so we ate excellent Beef Fajitas in the warm breeze.
Friday, July 13...
We woke up to choppy seas and an overcast sky off San Pedro Martir. Got started with coffee, changed batteries in cameras, and got ready for the 7:30 dive. A small Mexican fisher boat with some half dozen fishermen came by and asked if they could have some water and tortillas. The boat gave them what they needed. Must be a hard existence to be out here for some marginal fish and absolutely no amenities. Apparently fishing is still allowed in this part of the Sea of Cortez.
The dive site was called Chayo's Cove, named after a tall, impressive cavern in the rock at about 30 feet. Inside the cavern was a cave like extension that then exited back into the cavern at another point. Marie Terese used her mermaid monofin this time and we got some good footage of her free-diving with it. She even went into the cavern and through the cave passages. Sea Lions came down and swam around us and also in and through the cave. One time, as I went around a bend, a sea lion came in from the other direction, startling bot of us. He stopped cold in his tracks, turned around and dashed off. On a second dive at Chayo's Cove, we gradually dropped to almost 110 feet along an interesting slope with lots of rock, sea fans, and little critters. Seals came and visited even at depth, as did free-diver MT at 85 feet. On the way down and then up we encountered a massive 10 degree thermocline with shimmering water separating the layers. At the bottom it was 76 or 77, on top as much as 86.
I skipped the final afternoon dive and instead collected my dive gear and laid it out on the top deck to dry (wouldn't want to get docked by the airlines for being 1.5 pounds overweight!). Time flew and soon it was time for the final dinner of the trip, and then settling our accounts with Dora. After that, some of the photographers onboard showed the week's best shots in the lounge. They did some incredible work. Then we packed, set the alarm to 4am, and were out like lights.
Saturday, July 14...
The knocks on the door coincided with the iPhone's wake-up tune. Getting up at 4am was brutal, with the sky still dark. Somehow we made it to the dining room, had some coffee and a bit of breakfast, then took one last pass through our belongings to see if everything was accounted for. We were quite a ways from shore, and so the luggage went on one inflatable, us folks on another. The pier at Kino was tall and so we had to grab an iron ladder to get off the inflatable in a bit of rough water. We made it. Then we separated into different groups, some going back to Puerto Penasco, some to Phoenix, and some to some other place. The van service was waiting, we took one last look at the Rocio Del Mar floating far in the distance on the water, said our goodbyes, then boarded the vehicles and settled for a long seven hour ride through the Mexican countryside back into the US and Phoenix.
It was a nice ride with interesting sights, a couple of checkpoints, including one in a storm where we had to take all the bags out of the trailer and through an x-ray machine. Along the way we encountered some rather impatient Mexican drivers, colorfully decorated shops and businesses, numerous of those deadly speed bumps Latin American nations love to put on their roads, and finally the US border where re-entry was no big deal.
Time had flown by and we couldn’t believe our wondrous adventure onboard the Rocio Del Mar was over. We’re ready to go back!
June 29, 2012
It's been much too long
A few days ago I filled out the required forms for an upcoming live aboard trip and came to the question of how many dives I've had in the past three months. Ummm... none. And none this year either. My last dives go back to last December, half a year ago, when we went back to Roatan. Sure, in February we meant to dive the Georgia Aquarium again, and in May we wanted to dive Folsom Lake. And perhaps a weekend trip on one of the Channel Islands boats. And participate in the annual cleanup dive at Natomas. But I didn't. There always was something that kept me. Not good.
I did, however, spend an inordinate amount of time editing and revising and polishing my upcoming book on scuba. I've written and published about 2,000 articles, but never a book. So that's new to me and I want to make sure I got it right.
But now I can finally look forward to more diving. Next week I'll be on the good ship Rocia Del Mar for a week exploring the Sea of Cortez Midriff Islands. I've heard a lot of good things about the Rocia Del Mar, and now will have a chance to see for myself. I don't really know what to expect from the Sea of Cortez. It's not quite the Pacific Ocean, though it's really part of it, separated just by the massive peninsula of Baja California. So between being more sheltered than the open ocean and being a good bit farther south than the waters off California, will it be a lot warmer, clearer and more colorful? I'll find out.
In the meantime, I can't wait to blow bubbles again!