Part I – Driving & Diving our way south, aka John & Ray & Dave’s Excellent Scuba Adventure
Today marked the start of Indian Valley Scuba’s Annual Memorial Day Key Largo diving trip, and this year’s event is the most special yet! Expected to run ten days, it includes Cave Diving in northern Florida, drift diving and spearfishing off Boynton Beach, working with the Coral Reef Foundation to restore live corals to damaged areas of the Key Largo reef system, a typical IVS dive-dive-dive four day 14-dive wreck & reef weekend, and finally some shark tooth collection dives in the muddy Cooper River of South Carolina on the way home! Add some rebreather training, open water checkouts, a ton of specialty and advanced training, and you have a typical relaxing week in water for Team IVS.
Sunday John Glodowski, Ray Graff and Dave loaded up and headed out, driving the first 980 miles to High Springs, Fl, to get ready for our first cave dive tomorrow. Long, long drive, 15 hours with rotating drivers and lots of caffeine to get the team on location on time and not miss a dive! Clear sailing through Washington, but raining from there to Florida made it an even longer night of driving. Thank goodness for Diet Mountain Dew and Red Bull!
Our first morning found us knocking on the doors at Ginnie Springs as they opened up at 8:00 a.m. As usual, perfect customer service greeted us in this most organized operation, as the three of us signed in and registered for a morning of cavern and cave diving experience. The river has dropped substantially since our last visit here a month ago, and the springs were running clear once again. We set up and dropped into the Devils Spring system, first getting comfortable and our buoyancy adjusted in the shallow water above the Little Devils spring, basically a fissure down into the rock, measuring about 6 feet across, 40 feet long, and dropping almost 40 feet down. The spring that feeds this enters through a small hole in one corner, and is clearly a “no-mount” entrance, meaning that in order to pass through the very tight restriction you would have to be holding your tank and regulator in your hands; as you would not fit if it were on your slung along your sides – yes, it’s that tight! So we passed on that entrance, and made our way down to Devils Eye, and dropped down into the entrance. Basically a shaft about 12 ft in diameter and 20 ft deep, it provides access to the entrance to the cave system. We made our tie-off at the entrance, and our secondary just inside, and away we went, spooling out line and exploring the various nooks, crannies and passages through the cave system, finally reaching the main line and tieing off the reel. From there we exited through the Devils Ear entrance, stopping for a safety stop while being washed by the significant outflow from this subterranean spring system. From there we surfaced, and had an opportunity to debrief the dive, discussing the experience, and talking about our re-entry. After a little surface interval, we dropped back in, re-tracing our steps, picking up the reel and slowly working away back to our original entry point.
Very cool dives, and now we were ready to enjoy a bit of a drift dive down the Santa Fe River. The entrance to the next spring system was about a 1/4 mile downriver, so we kicked out a bit, and dropped down into the tannic-stained water for a brisk ride downstream. Lots of freshwater mullet, bass, and a couple of large turtles were encountered on our way. Popping up a few times to make sure we didn’t miss the next turn, we finally saw the small clearing in the trees that indicated the entrance to the Ginnie Ballroom spring. We kicked up that waterway, finally crawling, and eventually walking, as the water got shallower and shallower as we approached the cavern entrance. Suddenly the bottom dropped down to about 20 ft, and we swam down to the cavern entrance. A narrow slit in the wall, and we slid in, as the cavern opened up into a massive underground area, hence the name, Ginnie’s Ballroom. We explored the space, dropping down to 65 ft inside, and visiting the inlet spring, barred off for safety, that flowed so strongly that you could not swim and hold yourself in place near the entrance – an amazing amount of water passes through this cavern!
With only three dives under our belts for the day, we knew we needed a little more nitrogen racing through our veins, so it was off to Paradise Springs. Located just an hour down the road in Ocala, this private spring & cave system is located on a horse farm, well off the beaten path. Find the little sign along the side of the road, take the one lane path through the woods for a half a mile, cross the railroad tracks, a right, a left, past two homes, through the gate, and to the house to check in! Pay your fee, watch an orientation video, and it’s time to head down to the spring entrance. Located about 40 ft below grade, it’s a bit of a hike to get down, especially wearing double 100’s. But the trip is worth it, as we slipped into the small pool that was the entrance to this underground system. Another buoyancy check, bubble check and a safety drill, and we began the exploration, dropping down into the cave system to a depth of about 140 ft before finally encountering some serious silting deep down in the narrowing passages. Good spot to turn the dive, and we headed back up, stopping to examine the great variety of fossils and bones trapped in the side walls and ceiling of the cave. From whale vertebra to lizard bones to sand dollars the sizes of dinner plates, this is a pretty cool spot for some underground education. Finally it was time to head to the surface, and we climbed back out to the truck, loaded our gear, and got ready for the next leg of our journey – a five hour ride to Boynton Beach, FL. We’ve got some photos to share from this portion of this trip – click here!
We arrived late at night in the still-pouring rain (three days in a row now) and got a few hours of well deserved and much needed shuteye in at the Holiday Inn Express. Tuesday morning we finally saw some sunlight and hints of blue in an otherwise gray sky, so we took that as a good sign! We found our way down to the marina and met Captain Shane of Deeper Dive Charters, our host for today’s activities. We boarded, got squared away, and headed out in some good seas for a 3-tank trip, sightseeing and spearfishing the offshore reefs.
First location was Briny Breezes, a barrier reef at 80 feet. All the diving here was of the drift variety, and everyone had a job to do – John was hunting, Dave was shooting too, both of the video and speargun varieties, so we appointed Ray as the flag-master for the day, and he was assigned to tow a navigational-aid size surface float and marker flag for us while we dove. We motored over to the spot, and it was “dive-dive-dive” as the command came from the bridge to drop in! A very nice drift at 80 feet for almost 70 minutes – it’s great when you drive down and can haul your own doubles! We followed that with a long 20 minute or so surface interval, then headed to our second location, Gulfstream, another nice offshore reef line. Lots of color, good coral formations, but nothing worth firing at so we enjoyed the scenary, including a huge 6 ft long turtle with a locator beacon attached to his shell – pretty cool to see such a mature animal. Our final drop was at Delray Ledge, another nice 70 footer with some nice profile and vertical relief, and here John managed to give one nice rooster hogfish a headache I’m sure he’ll remember for a long time! Gotta watch that angle on the shot!! Finally we headed back in, disembarked, stopped for a nice curbside dinner at a Boynton Beach cafe, and headed down the road for a 3 hour jaunt to Key Largo. And of course the rain continued to pummel us non-stop!
Part II – Coral Reef Restoration & Key Largo Diving
Confusion was the order of the day on Wednesday morning, as we woke to a nearly unrecognizable sight – the SUN!! Woo hoo – the first time in our trip so far! Once again, the scuba gods were smiling on Team IVS as they graced us with spectacular weather to kick off our coral reef restoration portion of this adventure. This is one of the highlights of this year’s trip, and what a tremendously educational session we kicked it off with. Ken Nedimyer, founder of the Coral Restoration Foundation, spent the morning sharing all the in’s & out’s of the coral reef system and what his foundation is doing to help restore it to a healthier more vibrant state with our restoration team, including Bob Stitzinger, Larry Gould, Butch Loggins, Sue Douglass, and Ray Graff, J-Glo and Dave Valaika. The foundation currently specializes in Staghorn corals, and has over 3,500 live corals growing in their nursery, located about 6 miles offshore near Molasses Reef. His presentation was thorough and his passion was obvious for his cause, and he quickly converted the attendees into coral advocates of the highest nature! We broke for a brief lunch, and then headed out to the nursery.
Once on site, we began the task of cleaning and preparing the corals that we were to relocate on Thursday. Scraping off the algae and other growths, we cleaned each live coral specimen with care. Standing 3 to 4 inches high, these corals were the results of successful clippings of three different genealogical strains of staghorn coral. The corals grow at a rate of about 1 millimeter a day, resulting in an inch or more of growth each month – wow! So the corals we were about to plant had just been clipped off of healthy specimens earlier this year, and were already ready to go forth and help restore the reef! We prepared 50 corals, and spent the remainder of the dive doing some routine maintenance work on the underwater ‘farm’. Our second dive was at the site of the 1983 grounding of the Wellwood freighter, which drove into and onto Molasses Reef, causing a huge swath of damage, not once, but twice, as the salvage tugs dragged it back off the reef. This site has been the scene of intensive study of reef restoration projects and techniques, and it was interesting to see the progress or lack thereof of some of the methods utilized over the last 25 years. The most outstanding success by far was the restoration of the Staghorn coral population, and this was completetely the result of the Coral Restoration Foundation’s efforts. We toured the site, and surveyed the locations for our restoration work scheduled for tomorrow. Finally, we wrapped the evening up with part II of our coral education program, and got into the details of what would be expected of us tomorrow as we actually worked on the coral relocations.
Thursday morning we headed right out to the nursery, and spent two hours underwater, working to prepare fresh clippings onto bases and clean more growth off the nursery stock. It is imperative that the corals are as clean as possible as the water warms or significant die-offs and incidents of White Band Disease show up in July & August. So clean we did, scrubbing, scraping, and chiseling the various plants, sponges, and critters that had taken up domicile on the nursery plantings. It is a very interesting shift in one’s mindset to go from our normal all-eco-inclusive “don’t touch, take nothing, leave only bubbles” mentality to working on behalf of the Staghorn coral and removing / destroying other species that pose a threat to them, in the nursery environment. As we wrapped up our nursery duties we loaded the clippings we had prepared yesterday into tubs and hoisted them up onto the boat for a short ride to their new home.
After a short break for lunch, we motored out to the Wellwood site once again, and brought out little coral friends down with us The lovely Miss Amy Slate was on board for the afternoon’s activities, and Carlie & Leslie Adams had also joined us for this afternoon in the roles of video and photo documenters, so we were set to get a lot of great footage of the activities. Each restoration site was actually a grouping of three corals representing the differnt genotypes that Ken has nurtured at the nursery. We chiseled and hammered and scraped the hardpan to prepare a suitable attachment point, mixed our two-part epoxy, and bedded the mounting disk that each coral was attached to into the reef. Once set, we worked more epoxy in and around the base, smoothing the structure out and providing a more ideal platform for the coral polyps to grown and expand downward as well as upward. Finally, we measured and documented the size and development of each coral and affixed a permanent ID tag into epoxy with a unique identifier number so that the growth and progress of the program could be monitored for years to come. Our mission for the day accomplished, we headed back in.
After a round of hugs and kisses and T-shirt & email exchanges at the dock, it was time to turn to the next matter at hand – a night dive! John Zyskowski, as well as Glen & Drew Hotte, had arrived and were itching to get wet, so we grabbed a quick bite and headed back out to the wreck of the Benwood, our favorite nightime dive site. We arrived well after sundown, as we prefer, and slipped into the blackened waters to explore the nocturnal scene below. Our efforts were well rewarded with some great up close turtle encounters, inquisitive squid visits, and the usual cast of characters out and about. A perfect first night dive experience for Drew and a great Adventure Dive towards his Advanced Open Water certification!
Meanwhile, as we played under the sea, more of our group had arrived, including Stephanie Skelton, Meredith Bernardo, Kris Kritchell, and Tom & Debbie Brennan. Also arriving tonight were our open water students, including Luanne & Jeff Stauffer, Katie & David Manninen, Joe Brown, and Katie Chin. The weather continued to be perfect, save for an occassional downpour, but the sun keeps coming out, the wind stays away, and the seas are calm.
Friday we had half our group heading out on the Amoray Diver for some reef visits, and the rest of us headed over to Jules Undersea Lodge for our first two checkout dive. With Instructors Butch Loggins, Ray G & Dave V, assisted by DM candidates John G, John Z, Carlie & Leslie, the group did great, progressing through the skill sessions with no problems at all! While we were diving, a huge thunderstorm blew through, with lots of lightning striking all around and thunderclaps that made you jump, while the rain poured down on us – pretty cool! Two great easy dives under our belt, we headed back to the resort to grab some lunch and get ready for the afternoon boat. Our first location was the Spiegel Grove, and of course our newest divers had to sit this one out, but it was a beautiful day topsides to kick back and enjoy being out on the sea. The rest of us jumped in, and were greeted with great visibility and ripping currents, not a bad combo! Some of us did this dive with double 100’s and ended up with a 60 minute run time on this massive wreck, very cool to have that much time down there to really do some exploring! Of course, IVS-South instructor Dave Hartman was on board to lead some of his famous deep & dark tours through the innards of the Spiegel Grove. Our second location was Sandbottom Caves on French Reef, always a popular site, with some really cool easy swim thru’s and lots of large marine life to entertain and amaze us. Visibility continued to be great and there was no current on this site to speak of so a great dive was had by all. The dives were so cool, in fact, that Katie & Dave Manninen made the decision to not miss the “coolest dives” and opted to stay and dive Sunday, rather than head down to Key West – smart move! Friday night more of our party arrived, including Tricia Arrington, Mike Parzynski, and Jack Sandler.
Saturday morning again the fantastic weather continued, with Bill Zyskowski joining us as we boarded early to head out to Fire Coral Cave, another superb site on America’s most popular living reef system. After a 60 minute dive there, we motored over about 5 mooring balls to dive site #2, Eagle Ray Alley. The site lived up to it’s name with some eagle rays spotted cruising through, a very photogenic turtle, and even a shark visited some of our divers!
Back for a quick bite to eat, and it was showtime for our new divers as we headed out to visit the Spiegel Grove once again, and give everyone a chance to experience some deep wreck diving. Greag Roll had joined the group at this point, and nearly everyone was accounted for! Current was once again….shall we say…ripping? Great experience though, and while this type of diving didn’t impress everyone right away (Luanne!) it was a good chance to expand our diving horizons and see a little bit of what else we can enjoy on our trips. Stop # 2 was on the Benwood Wreck, perhaps the fishiest dive in the Keys, and the wreck was jammed with tropicals of all sizes and flavors.
One more run back to the dock and most of us loaded back up for the night dive. Heading out late, thanks to the great relationship we enjoy with Amoray and Capt. Joe, we entered the water well after sunset, so we were sure of much more nocturnal activity than most of the other Keys operators treat their clients to. Got some great video of a couple of turtles and Meredith spotted not one but two octopus – way to go girl!! Back to the ranch, some quick showers, and then we headed over to the Paradise Pub for burgers, wings and brews.
Sunday morning again the weather gods smiled on us, and Wendy & Alex Lepore joined us for some great dives. Our first location was the City of Washington, where we got a chance to oversee the fish feed that Atlantis was conducting that morning. About a half dozen nurse sharks showed up, some nice groupers (but no Bruiser!) and of course Psycho, the Great Barracuda. We conducted some REEF Fish ID classes on the wreck and it was great for our divers to have a chance to actually participate in the REEF fish counts we do year round in the Keys. For more info on REEF click here! Site #2 was Mile’s Wreck, again, more turtles, sharks, and critters large and small, and another FISH ID dive survey completed.
After lunch it was time for our trademark double-deep dip on the Duane and Spiegel wrecks, sowe loaded up the Nitrox, and headed back out. Conditions on the Duane were great, with some strong currents on the line, but nothing within the confines of this 327 ft long wreck, and the visibility was along the lines of 100+ feet. A huge goliath grouper hung with us on the wreck as well as a large turtle and a stingray, so another memorable dive on one of the earliest members of the Florida Keys artificial reef system. After that we visited the Spiegel, enjoying even more string current but great viz. On this dive we were conducting some penetration training with reels, and Jack & Mike did well, most importantly learning how multi-tasking at depth with reel, light, buoyancy control and leading a dive is a major challenge! And even more important, both Jack and Joe Brown geting a first hand lesson in why it is important to use the wreck to shield yourself from the current, especially when you are heading up for the ascent line!
Part III – Conch Republic & Cooper River Shark Tooth Diving
A lot of the gang headed for home port Monday, but a bunch of us drove down to Tavernier and boarded the Conch Republic Divers boat for a day of diving on some new locations. Stop one was the wreck of the Eagle, and you could not have asked for better conditions. Viz forever, and minimal current, as we enjoyed this 120 ft deep wreck, torn in two pieces a few years back by Hurricane George. Click on the link for more information and some history on this wreck. Our second site was Patches Reef (also known as the Aquarium) and we once again took the spear guns for a swim, with nothing presenting itself for us to bring home to the dinner table.
Our afternoon plans were to dive the Bibb, sister ship of the Duane, but the current was absolutely ripping on this site, so we opted to head up once again to the Spiegel. The good news is that this ship is so large that you can enjoy many, many dives on it and each one will find you exploring new territory and areas of the ship. After a nice dive there, we headed to our final Keys location, Conch Wall, located just outside the Aquarius habitat. This wall, sloping from about 40 ft to over 100 ft, is a majestic site, with lots of high corals, good fish populations, and something for divers of every ability. Once again, we brought the guns out for a swim, but this time I managed to sneak up on a nice black grouper and put a shot right behind the gills. Finally one for the cooler, I thought, as the fish shot out, but no, he ran right under a coral head, and as fast as I could swim there, it wasn’t fast enough, as he managed to wriggle off the spear -darn! OK, I thought, now we play the game as John G and I slowly stalked our soon-to-be grilled fillets through the reef. He was good, but we figured we had him outgunned, and it was only a matter of time before he popped out enough for us to put the finishing shot in him. But suddenly, our group of two hunters became three, as a large shark joined in, aggressively running up and down throught the reef, clearing picking up on the trail of our dinner! Now the question was, who was going to get to the grouper first? Well, the fact of the matter is, the shark won, chasing our grouper off a bit out of our range, and I’m sure ultimately enjoying our efforts. Darn!
Well gosh, you’re thinking, this is like the children’s tune, ‘The Song that Never Ends’, but we’re getting close! (ha ha…I have you hearing that jingle in your heads now, don’t I? ). Well John, Ray & I packed up the truck and headed north, driving all night to make our next appointment with Alex Blalock of Deep South Rivers, our host for Tuesday’s diving on the Cooper River in South Carolina. What a beautiful river area, with remains of former rice paddies, indigo fields, and life from days gone by, not to mention lots and lots of big alligators swimming in the river or sunning themselves on shore! We managed to get three good dives in, with water temps around 72 degrees, and visibility in the 18 to 24 inch range! Serious black-water diving was the order of the day, and our efforts paid off with some really nice findings of Megladon shark teeth, fossils and some fragments of early Native American pottery.
Diving the Cooper River is unlike any other diving that IVS does the rest of the year. Picture this: head over to your local volunteer fire department, say around midnight, when it’s good and dark. Then have the crew turn on a 4-inch hose and direct it right at your face and chest. Now, have a couple of bus boys from the local restaurant continuously throw handfuls of tossed salad at your head – get the picture? Between the unbelievable water movement, the amount of vegetation that flows in the river (and wraps around your face, head, regulator and every other part), and the fact that you can’t see more than 18″, this is some adrenalin-pumping diving, and worth every moment in the water!! And if that’s not enough, remember that no good IVS dive trip is complete without an engine breakdown, and this trip was no exception, as we experienced some serious knocking & banging on our way back in. One long, long ride at 5 mph but we managed to make it back, adding a few more photos of dive boat captains bent over a broken engine to our collection!
Finally, all great things must come to an end, and after 9 days, 34 dives and nearly 3,000 miles driven, it was time to jump back into the truckster and drive the last twelve hours home, through the night, of course, arriving back to reality at 6:30 a.m. Just in time to head to unload the truck and head to work! Well OK, John & I headed to work, our more senior amigo Ray has passed that point in his life, and he headed home for a leisurely siesta!
Filed under: Dive Trips, Florida Keys, Indian Valley Scuba, IVS South, Key Largo | Tagged: Amoray Dive Resort, Boynton Beach, Conch Republic Divers, Cooper River, Coral Reef Foundation, Deeper Dive Charters, Florida Keys, Ginnie Springs, Key Largo, Paradise Springs | 5 Comments »