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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.

Posted by conradb212 at 02:24 PM | Comments (0)