IVS Invades the Keys – again!

If it’s December it must be time for Indian Valley Scuba to invade the Florida Keys one more time.

Twenty four of us headed down Thursday to one of our favorite dive destinations, Key Largo, for a long weekend of diving, fun and laughter.  Some of the gang headed down a day early, and by tonights night dive we had 5 divers and 3 riders on the boat.  We headed out at 6 o’clock for a very nice dark night dive and tied up to the Benwood wreck.  Meredith Bernardo and I enjoyed a nice hour-long dive on this wreck, running right into a turtle to kick it off, then a big southern stingray, lots of lobsters, crabs, basket stars, spiny urchins, shrimp, sleeping parrot fish, spotted drums, feeding tube anemones, puffer fish and more.  At the same time, Pam Schools, Chris Muller, and Andy McConaghie, representing Dive NY, enjoyed a nice dive on the reef adjacent to the wreck…tell me again, what was that part in the briefing about going down the mooring line to make sure you find the wreck?  Hmmmm….looks like we’ll be helping them out  with a few navigation pointers over the weekend.  None the less, everyone had a great time, and the trip is off to a good start!  We followed that up with a nice snack at the Paradise Pub, joined by Katie Chin, Steph Skelton, and Jesica & Sheril Tyre.  Dave Hartman joined us along with his friend Seth, an independent film maker in town to work with our friend Ken Nedimyer and the Coral Restoration Foundation – amazing small world!  Even cooler, our group represented the far and wide reaches of the IVS family, with Ohio, California, Florida, New Jersey & New York divers in attendance on this trip. 

Ruh-Roh!  Friday morning came and so did the rain!  It was absolutely pouring this morning – so unlike the weather we had ordered!  Oh well, we’re here to dive, so dive we must!  The rest of the gang had showed up during the night, including Brian, Mary & Dan Young, Kim Luisi, Dave McLaughlin, Alex Cajkovich, Nikolina Cejvan, Luke Miller, Rick Jurewicz, David & Katie Manninen, and Felix Gryn.  Most of us had managed to arrive uneventfully, but Luke & Rick had the pleasure of meeting one of the locals on the way down from the airport, as she nailed the back of their rental car, ripping the whole rear bumer off!  That’ll make for some ‘splaining to do at the Rental Return counter!  After introductions and hugs, the boat headed out with most of the gang, while Sue and her students, accompanied by Meredith and I, headed over to Jules Undersea Lodge.  Our dives there were great, all skills completed with panache, and we were greeted with lobster everywhere, and even a sleeping nurse shark, right there in the lagoon.  This team is ready to take on the ocean!  Meanwhile, the guys on the boat were hammered by the rain, but still managed to get two decent dives in.  

Friday afternoon we headed back out, with the Speigel and Benwood our wrecks of choice and in spite of the snotty seas, the dives were quite nice.  Decent viz and no current on the Spiegel, so the trip was definately worth it – and most of us were graced with a visit from one of the huge Goliath Groupers that call the Speigel Grove home.  Our second drop was the Benwood, and although the vis was down a little, still a really nice dive to wrap up our first full day of diving in Key Largo. 

Time for a short dinner and we head out for a Friday night dive, moved up a night because the boat parade is Saturday night.  As we load the boat the trees are sorta whistling overhead, so it is not a good sign.   Not ones to give up easily, we head out to sea, hoping for the best.  The whitecaps in the bay might be a bad sign, but we soldier on, eternal optomists that we be!  We pass thru Adam’s Cut, and head out into the open sea.  The whitecaps grow a little but it’s still OK, we keep a positive attitude!  The waves are sorta breaking over the front of the boat…OK….maybe this is getting worse…..OK…we have to slow down even further…..OK…..finally prudence overcomes the desire to dive, and we decide to turn around and call it a (diveless) night. Funny thing was that somehow Katie lost her underwear on this non-dive, and there were reports that Andy had some ‘splaining to do with his laundry the next morning……

Saturday morning came upon us and so did the rain.  The winds have been blowing all night at 25 knots plus, so the conditions on the reefs and the sea reflect all that energy that nature has been throwing at us all night long.  Early reports indicate that it sucks out there, so we decide to hold off on the morning trip.  Finally the winds are down to about 18 knots, so we decide to head out at noon for a three tank trip.  We are diving in standard IVS reverse profile mode, doing two reef dives followed by a deep one to the Speigel Grove.  We head out to French Reef, the deepest of the local reefs,  and hope for the best.  As it turns out the vis is under 20 ft, so keeping the group intact is quite the challenge.  We manage none the less, and our open water candidates truly shine in the less-than-optimal conditions.  Two nice reef dives, and then a Nitrox-enhanced dip onto the Speigel Grove, with conditions approaching perfect – what a pleasant surprise indeed!  It is truly amazing what a difference of a mile or two can make with regards to the conditions on and under the water.

Finally it is time for the big holiday celebration, and our token house mother Stephanie has been busy all day shopping and prepping for tonights bayside feast.  Seth steps up to the role of grillmaster, and he does a splendid job preparing the meats to everyone’s liking.  Burgers, dogs, fixin’s, sides, salads – Steph has outdone herself making this a special holiday treat!  And no holiday celebration would be complete with a visit from the big man himself, and we were not disappointed at all, as Santa (aka yours truly), assisted by his lovely elf Meredith, joined the party and helped spread the holiday cheer.  And we were joined by DiveNY’s own Chris Muller, who was fully dressed in his holiday pixie (or was that elf?) smock.  Amy Slate joined our party with a group of her friends, so it was a great evening for all.  We were even joined by former astronaut Scott Carpenter, who is a fellow member of the Explorers Club and shared some of his amazing stories with us.  And in keeping with the international flavor that IVS embraces, we had cerveza’s from many nations oveflowing from our coolers to celebrate the holiday event.  Some of those libations might be behind the rumored theft (or as they call it in New York, a ‘relocation’) of one of the Amoray golf carts – we’re not naming names here, but how it ended parked in front of Katie’s door that night might be a good place for CSI-Key Largo to start the investigation. 

Finally Sunday morning dawned, and so did that fantastic weather we had ordered.  Clear skies, beautiful sun, and flat seas were the order of the day!  We headed out to two nice dives on the Elbow, starting with the City of Washington, where we got to crash another Creature Feature feed being conducted by our friends at Slates Atlantis Dive Center.  Huge grouper interaction, but alas, no sharks today.  We also ran a little Fish ID class on this great wreck, but it’t tough to focus when the 300 lb grouper keeps bumping into you.  We then motored over to the Train Wheel Wreck, where conditions were a little snottier and the surge a little stronger.  Still a good dive, viz was great, and we all enjoyed another 60 minute dive in Key Largo.

After a brief lunch and a quick turnaround at the dock, we sailed out for our final afternoon of diving, which was a double deep adventure to the Duane and the Speigel Grove.  Conditions on the Duane were fantastic, with the exception of the current, which was absolutely ripping!   Talk about a baptism of fire for our newest divers – what a ride it was indeed!  A good briefing prepared everyone for the worse, and without exception the group had a fantastic dive, even enjoying some precautionary air sharing to ensure that ample gas supplies were available for the ascent and return to the Amoray Diver.  The viz was forever, and the fish life abundant, so all in all a great dive – but the descent and ascent were a rush!   The best part was the ‘spider man crawl’ down the front of the Duane’s wheelhouse.  Of course, after Dave jumped over the rail and headed down, Katie Chin was trying to figure out how to follow, with her significantly shorter arms not quite reaching like Dave’s did – but the rest of the group enjoyed watching her crawl over the rail, one leg at a time, and finally make it down to the main deck where Dave was patiently waiting.  All good, everyone ascended without incident, while experiencing diving in some real serious current conditions, and another great dive under our belts.

Our second location was the Speigel Grove, and again, what an amazing difference a couple of miles can make.  Nearly no current, great viz, a huge turtle putting on a show at the surface for us, and another fantastic dive.  Again, our newest divers performed fantastically, with lots of nice comfortable planned penetrations into the wreck – welcome to the world of IVS!  And, never to overlook a break-thru moment, Sheril Tyre was finally comfortable enough in her diving on this second visit to the Speigel to relax and pee in her wetsuit – amazing how the little things come together!  Thank goodness it was an Amoray rental!     

We wrapped up the trip with dinner at the Conch House, and our guest of honor was Sue who was celebrating her birthday today in perfect style – underwater and surrounded by friends!  And talk about making it an even more perfect birthday party, we had the Eagles on the big screen and watched as they kicked NY butt (sorry Dive NY’ers!) and cemented undisputed first place in the NFC East conference!  On top of that San Diego put the Cowboys in their place, and the Browns even embarrassed the Steelers with a win – great day for the IVS football fans in attendance (again, sorry Dive NY!).  And of course it was time for the graduation ceremony, as we congratulated our newest PADI National Geographic Open Water Divers Jesica & Sheril Tyre, and Luke Miller, our newest PADI Deep Divers Dave & Katie Manninen, and our newest PADI Enriched Air Diver Alex Cajkovich.  Finally, we announced the winners of the coveted ADD (All Dives with Dave) Award – Meredith Bernardo &  Andy McConaghie – way to go guys! 

Monday saw most of the group head home, while Felix, Pam, Chris, Andy, Dave Hartman and Dave V took a scenic ride to Key West, with the destination being the wreck of the Vandenberg.  We met up with Chris Norwood, owner of Florida Straits Diving, and one of the significant players in the actual sinking of the Vandenberg.  Our first stop was our newest Keys lodging choice, a waterfront condo on Stock Island, from where we’ll be basing our Key West op’s for 2010.  The condo is first class, and located right next to the Hogfish Bar & Grille, a great local hangout.  We settle in and then head downtown to get this diving started!

As it turns out the wind has been kicking pretty strong all morning, so rather than beat ourselves up on Chris’s boat, we all jump onto the Lost Reef Adventures boat for the double dip on the Vandie.  I had arranged for our good friend and Vandenberg project manager Joe Weatherby to be our tour guide for some deep and dark journeys through the wreck and he was ready to show off his baby.  We dropped in as two groups, with Andy, Felix, Chris M and Pam enjoying a self-guided tour, and Joe, Chris N, Dave H and myself set for some serious ‘learning the lay of the land’ touring.  Down we went, with 80 ft or better visibility, 80 degree water, and zero current for our first dive.  We dropped in the forward cargo hatch shaftway, dropping down to the 4th deck at 134 ft, then beginning our tour towards the stern.  We passed through room after room, zigging left and right, around equipment, shelving, and furniture, finally exiting at the beginning of the engine rooms.  We move up to the main deck, and Joe and Chris head for the ascent.  Dave H and I are fine with our gas and deco obligations, so we head aft, circling the stern, and then work our way forward, circling the bow also – that 540 ft of wreck – you can tell there is no current when you can do that on a dive!  We work our way back towards the moring line, and finally surface after a 50 minute, 134 ft deep dive – first class!  And my personal thanks to Mike Cochran and his team for developing the algorithm that makes dives like this possible!

We enjoy a brief surface interval, which was not brief enough, if you ask Chris Muller  – cause the entire time we got to enjoy local divemaster-candidate (and Speedo wearing) Tom ogling Chris’s manly physique.  Hey, we’re in Key West, and if this thing with Pam doesn’t work out, at least Chris knows he has options!  Finally, enough of that, we descend again, this time dropping right down onto the wreck, and touring the weather balloon storage garage, complete with basketball backboard, then down into the hydraulic steering room, out and under the rudder, hitting the sand at 144 ft, popping into the engine room and winding our way through the myriad of catwalks, piping and ductwork there, through the tank room, and finally out the side, then up into the berthing area.  Another great dive, 40 minutes of bottom time, and back on the boat with nearly 1500 psi left in my 120 – almost sacriligous, if not for that deco obligation part!   As we head back to port we enjoy a beautiful sunset, two cruise ships leaving port, lobster boats heading out to check their traps, sail boats all over the harbor – almost a Norman Rockwell scene, with an IVS twist of course! 

Back to the condo, we gussie up a bit, and head over to the Hogfish for a bite to eat, then some of the crew head back into town for dessert while Felix and I decide to crash at the condo for the evening and enjoy some Monday night football, another great surprise as the Niner’s kick butt in Arizona.

Tuesday morning Pam, Andy, and “Tom-bait” Chris head back up to Miami to catch their flights home, and Felix and I have one more day of diving.  Our mission today is to visit the USS Curb, a WWII naval salvage tug that sits in 220 feet of water off Key West.  This is another exploratory dive for our IVS tech trip schedule for next year, and we’re excited about getting our first chance to dive this intact and upright wreck.  Our second destination will be back at the Vandenberg to wrap up a great weekend of diving.  The winds have dropped down to 10 knots, and the seas are relatively flat, helping to ensure a great afternoon of diving.

It’s going to be a late start as our dive buddy and local celebrity Joe Weatherby is being honored by the local chamber of commerce this morning for his work in the Vandenberg project.  Finally we head over to fil tanks, choosing mixes of 24% and 32% nitrox for our two dives.  Load the boat, prepare the rigging with 300 ft of down line, a heavy grapple hook, and a big poly ball float, and we’re ready to head out.  It’s about a  40 minute run to the Curb, and we run right over the wreck, watching it pop up from the bottom on the sonar.  We make three passes over it before our hook finally grabs the wreck, and we gear up and head down.  Conditions are great, but the sun is quickly setting, so it’s a bit dark as we approach the wreck.  The deck sits at 170 ft, so by the time we have dropped in, explored the engine rooms and lower chambers we are pushing 180 ft on this dive.  There are scores of big black groupers on this wreck, huge horse eye jacks, and a school of really large bar jacks working a silverside bait ball at the bow.  The wreck is covered with monofilament and fishing nets, so it’s an entanglement nightmare, but we’re careful and avoid snagging ourselves.  With the depth, our planned run time is 20 minutes, and it passes all too quickly.  Felix has already started to head up, and Joe is accumulating major deco obligations, so it’s up to me to run down and untangle the grapple hook from the lines it is caught in.  Joe motions to just cut the line, but I can’t do that, heck, I love a challenge at depth!  So I drop down to the grapple, and carefully untangle the lines, netting, and ropes it is fouled in, finally achieving success and tieing the hook back on itself to avoid snagging something else.  I start up the line, with a 13 minute deco obligation, and my first stop at 50 ft.  Felix is well ahead of me, but Joe is using his “pink” computer today, and so I get to spend an additional 27 minutes of run time hanging with Joe and waiting for his computer to clear. By the time I surface it has been a total of 60 minutes since my descent – thank goodness for efficient breathing!

Back on board, we motor over to the Vandenberg, and the sun has long set now.  Fifty minutes of surface interval is more than enough, and we drop down on the great wreck again.  Our mission this time is to visit one of the more dangerous areas of the wreck, the laundry room.  Access is limited to a shaftway from above and one set of winding stairs within the room.  We enter the weather balloon hanger, and drop straight down the shaftway, into 125 feet of darkness, in a space that is barely one diver wide – talk about a cool rush!  Finally I am in the room, and Joe & Felix follow me, being super careful not to silt ourselves out.  We tour the space, and then locate the stairs and work our way up to the 3rd deck, where we make a long 350 ft run through the crew berthing areas, ending up right under the bridge.  One last narrow passage and it is total siltout, as Felix loses sight of me.  Through the cloud I can see him turn, looking up one passageway, then another, not seeing me straight ahead due to the silt.  He turns around, and I follow, signaling to Joe that our plan has just been modified.  I chase Felix back out through the silt until I finally catch him, and we head out to exit the ship and begin our ascent.  It’s so easy to get fouled up in a wreck, and the Vandenberg has more than it’s share of tight passageways and lots of Key West silt throughout the interior.  We end up with a 43 minute total run time on the wreck, and I manage to score a brass light fixture complete with an intact frosted lens!  Finally we reboard, and enjoy a pitch black ride back to port to wrap up a fantastic weekend of diving and adventure.

Now a quick rinse of the gear, and Felix and I make the 4 hour drive to Miami where we’ll spend the night and catch our flights home in the a.m.  We can’t wait to get back here and explore these wrecks again – February seems so far away!

 

 

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Puerto Rico Liveaboard Adventure with Nekton Cruises

 

11/28 Friday

Travel day to the Enchanted Isle, as Puerto Rico is known, for a liveaboard dive adventure on the Nekton Rorqual.  Team IVS, consisting of Bob Stitzinger, John Glodowski, Bill Zyzskowski, Tom Rebbie, Bob Adami, our soul female adventurer Joyce Kichman, and yours truly, were set for a week of fun, laughter, adventure and maybe even a little diving, while living large on one of the most stable boats in the Caribbean liveaboard fleet.  Packing carefully, I found myself with seven bags, 4 of them pushing the scales at 70 pounds.  There’s a certain reward in my loyalty to Delta, and one of those is a checked bag limit of 3 bags @ 70# each.  Unfortunately, on this trip I have one more than the three I am allowed, so I’m dinged $125 for my gear.  Tom offered to take my video camera case, so that left me checking four and carrying two.  I am sure glad I got this rebreather cause it really lightens my load when travelling – NOT.  One machine, eight cartridges of CO2 absorbent, six 19 CF bottles for oxygen, another for diluent, and finally an eighth bottle for a bailout bottle.  Not to mention eight valves, bailout regulator, dive gear, backplate, wing & regulator (just in case rebreather didn’t want to play nice), a couple of t-shirts and changes of underwear, plus four Pelican cases, and I am checking 300# of bags and humping two more that weigh another 60# each.  Oh yeah, that rebreather is the cat’s meow for lightening up that diving load!  

So Stitz, Tom & I flew Philadelphia to San Juan, and from there we grabbed a rental car and enjoyed a nice ride across the top of the island to Aguadilla, home of Tony & Brenda Cerezo’s Puerto Rico Technical Dive Center.   Once there, we caught a late dinner and got first dibs on our beds at Casa Brenda, the three bedroom upper half of their home. Joyce, John, Bob & Bill took a more direct flight from Newark right to Aguadilla, and they caught a taxi from the airport to the house.  As we unloaded their gear in the front yard, Brenda’s Yorkshire Terriers were inspecting everything to make sure it passed muster, and like the TSA, they needed to single something out for a closer look.  It turned out to be Stitz’s dive bag, and they gave it a thorough once over, and once it passed, they marked it for him, taking turns peeing on the corner of his bag.  Welcome to PR Bob!  After that, everyone was too tired to get too much else done, so we hosed down Bob’s bag and settled in for the night.

11/29 Saturday

Everyone got up from our overnight at Casa Brenda, stretching and yawning and starting the whole bonding process for the week.  Our plan today was to get our gear organized, and then head over to Puerto Rico Technical Dive Center, where we would get in a shore dive or two.  With Tom’s rented Explorer, it took two trips to shuttle the team from the house to the dive center, but eventually we all got there.  J-Glo and I went with the first group, as we needed to re-assemble 8 tanks each for our rebreathers and bailout bottles, then began the slow process of getting all our oxygen fills that we’d need on board for the week, as the boat had no capability to refill O2.

Everyone grabbed a couple of tanks and we borrowed Tony’s pick-em-up truck and headed over to Naturals, a nice shore entry on the western shore of PR.  One of the highlights of the site is an abandoned boat, left by refugees (or illegal aliens, depending on your point of view) from the  Dominican Republic, which lies about 60 miles west of PR.  Everyone geared up and I attempted to fire up my Poseidon rebreather, only to be greeted with error code after error code, finally consistently settling on error code 55, which translated into “It is time for your two year mandatory service on your machine”.  That’s cool except my machine had a “born on” date of March of this year, so it was only at most 7 months old.  After going round and round, and collaborating with a local Poseidon expert …………………., it was determined that this was another quirk in the Swedish software, where the 104 week countdown timer suddenly resets itself to zero, meaning you have no weeks left before service is required – friggin’ amazing, but true.   I need to check my notes, but I think if my Poseidon was a Yatzee game, I have filled in just about every single possible combination of error codes, start-up failures, and in-water abort dive alarms.  So while I wave goodbye to the rest of the team as they slip beneath the waves, I head back up to the dive center to see what we can manage to do for my week of planned rebreather diving.

Once there, we decide that the error code is in the battery portion of the processor, so we switch batteries with one of Tony’s.  OK, that was a nice try, except that Tony is running version 41 of the software and I am running version 42, so the battery and machine are incompatible.  OK, so now we swap out my head with Tony’s head, and use his battery, and of course will it start?  No, cause Tony’s battery is only charged up about 40% and that is below the minimum value allowed to start the machine and dive.  Jiminy friggin’ Crickets, this is a challenge!

So I just throw everything in the bag to load on the boat and wish for the best.  Enough time lost, and the missed dive this afternoon almost voided the “ADD – All Dives with Dave” award for this trip – but we’ll make up for it!!

The rest of the crew finishes their dive and we head back to the dive shop and turn in our tanks.  Looking at the clock, and realizing what we still needed to get done, we opt to blow off the second dive, and head out to grab some lunch.  We hit Brenda up for some choices, and she offers us our choice of cold beer/decent food/great view/terrible service, or, cold beer/good food/great service/no view.  Since we’re on some sort of vacation, we opt for the former, choosing great view over great service, and head over to Happy Belly’s on the beach.  Our table is on the porch and hangs right over the beach with a great view of the local surf community and breaking waves over the rocks. Our waitress, a natural Puerto Rican redhead (you figure that out) saunters over, and within two or three verbal exchanges we are convinced we can fix that poor service issue with her.  The cervezas start to flow, and the laughter grows progressively louder as the team really starts to gel.  This is going to be a great week with a great team of IVS divers!  Sure enough, service is great, food is good (except J-Glo, who’s burger “smelled bad” and he had to return it!) and we bonded well with the locals.  We even ended up buying hand-woven palm frond beer coozies from a beach vendor, with him tossing them up from the beach to our table. 

So back to the house, no time for showers now, so we load up the remaining gear and head back to the shop to get what we left there and I put on my best ‘puppy dog eyes’ to get Brenda to drive half of us down to Mayaguez in her pick up – and hey, it worked!

Gear loaded, we head down, stopping at Sam’s Club to stock up on provisions and drinks as the boat offers no canned or bottled beverages, only juices.  Three massive shopping carts later, we are ready to roll, and the amount of food, drinks and snacks we have has us looking like we are in training for the next Biggest Loser show!

Once in the Port of Mayaguez, you would think finding a 100 ft long, 4 story high white boat would be a cinch, but no, it is not. A couple of cell calls later and we finally pull up alongside this very different looking boat.  It is almost a cube on the water, length=width=height, not exactly boat-like in it’s appearance but this is what the SWATH technology is all about.  The boat is designed to minimize sway and eliminate side-to-side rolling, so we’ll see if it works!  We board, pack our goods away, and get our pre-trip briefing out of the way.  We meet the crew, including Captain Jonathan, and his team: Kendal, Kris, Bobby, Dave, Neil, Scarlett, Ryan, Mercedes, Melissa, and the queen of the galley, Beth.  And joining us for the trip were fellow divers Jeff McKee of Macungie, Jake Galioto of South Amboy, Chris Bain of Somerset, and Joe & Nancy Shook of Fort Lauderdale rounded out the guest list, making a total of 12 divers and 11 crew to take care of us – not a bad ratio at all!

Our first on-board dinner is served up in the salon.  Nothing fancy, but it gives everyone a chance to talk, break the ice and get to know each other a bit.  We settle in to our bunks and the engines fire up as we begin to head to our first location, Desecho Island.  Each night the boat selects an anchorage that provides a relative assurity of calmness in case of winds or bad weather during the night, and to make for a short hop to the first dive site of the day.

 

11/30 Sunday

Our first morning aboard and the day started off with a nice breakfast and a glorious panaramic view of uninhabited Desecheo Island.  While we were eating the boat headed from our overnight anchoring site to our first dive site, Bomb Anchor Alley.  This was a nice site with scattered coral formations and good vertical relief.  The chosen site has purpose as it a great place for checkout dives, making sure everyone (and their gear) is up to the task of a week of great diving.  There is some scattered practice armament around, dummy rounds and bombs, as we dive, but nothing live or dangerous.  Still, adds a neat and somewhat surreal sense to the site.  Colorful and lively reefs with healthy fish populations set the tone for a good week!

Before diving today we had two briefings, the first a general “how we do things on the Nekton Rorqual talk” by the captain, which was well done and informative.  Then it was time for our first dive site briefing.

Well one of the instructors, Melissa, had made a nice drawing of the dive site on the white board, complete with the various coral structures and sand channels, and the point where the boat was moored.  But it turns out that there are actually two mooring pins at this site, located about 60 feet apart.  She had drawn the boat tied to one of the pins, and just as she started her briefing, one of the crew pointed out that we were actually tied to the other pin.  Well it was an Emmy winning meltdown on her part, and she was so challenged by the boat being 60 feet from where it should have been, that she could not finish the briefing and left us to study the site map on our own.  Great start!

The plan was to make two dives here this morning, and viola, the rebreather starts up nearly flawlessly, and I am treated to a few hours of silent bubble-free diving with our group.  How cool when the hardware is in sync with the operator! 

After the second dive lunch is served, and Beth is starting to show her skills and talent in the tiny kitchen.  Following lunch, the boat moves a few miles and anchors at a site called Hobbitts House, basically a field of tall individual coral pillars separated by sand.  The site briefing was a slight improvement over the first, and we are lowering our expectations in that regard.  This site was really different but offered some great diving as the huge coral covered rock structures rose from the sea bed about 30 to 50 ft, making some really dramatic walls and swim thru’s.  We had some monster lobsters in one of the swim throughs that probably tipped the scales at 8 to 10 pounds minimum.  So big I really had to think about how on earth I would grab and hold get one of these buggers – not to mention getting it into the lobster hotel!

We did two dives here, and a night dive, and I saw four octo on that dive, making it pretty darn cool.  Great site selection so far!  Back on board they untied from the mooring, and we headed to our sleeping spot.

11/31 Monday

We awoke this morning at anchor in a sheltered cove along the southwest shore of Mona Island, and enjoyed a great breakfast served up by the crew – we are eating well here for sure.  The boat fired up and we enjoyed a nice one hour cruise to our first dive site, “Yuletide”.  This was a nice site with the mooring in about 60 feet of water along a ridge of coral, with some dramatic erosion cuts in the coral that led down to a really nice sloping dropoff.  Lots of healthy reef structure and good fish populations of all sorts.  Couple of nice morays of various flavors, more nudibranchs, and channel crabs.  We did two dives at this site, and I got a third one in, finally starting to realize a little return on investment on the Poseidon rebreather, which has proven to be such a challenge so far.

After lunch we sailed to our second dive site, “Bubbles & Blossoms”, named that for no particular reason that we could tell. Along the way Tom Rebbie pointed out some rock structures that to him (and him alone) looked like dead cats skulls, and yeah, if you squinted really hard, and turned your head, and closed one eye, and let your imagination run wild, maybe, just maybe, it was a cat skull- maybe.  But supportive group that we are, everyone could agree that they could “see” that, and from there we began to embellish on what else we could see in the rock structures, until it sounded like a Rorschach ink blot designers convention.  Tom quickly learned that some things are best not shared with this group!  If he ever forgets, all he needs to do is ask Randy Rudd, our favorite former ice dancer, about sharing some of life’s secrets with us!

This dive site was great, with a series of coral fingers with sand channels in between, that started about 40 ft and sloped gradually to about 60 ft where they abruptly dropped off straight down to about 200 ft – very dramatic, very cool.  We did three dives here (OK I did four), ending with a really nice night dive full of playful octopus and other denizens of the deep and dark.  On that dive I was able to figure out exactly when the rebreather would run out of oxygen, and also exactly how long you can breath off that 19 CF diluent bottle and 12 CF pony – ask me if you want to know!  Let’s just say I approached the boat like a carp on a warm summer evening, my mouth open and skimming the surface for breaths, cause there wasn’t a whole lot left to breathe in the three tanks I was wearing – all part of a good science experiment!

It was also later this afternoon that someone querried about the overall route of the boat, and the captain brought out his charts, and showed us how we started at Myagquez, on the west cost of PR, sailed westward 18 miles to Desecheo, then another 30 miles or so to Mona, and then how we’d head back, dive off the southwest corner of PR, and finally sail on and disembark in Fajarta, on the east coast.  WHOA NELLIE!  We have a car in Mayaguez, and airplane tickets home from Aguadilla Airport, no where near the east coast of PR.  “‘Sup with that, dog?” I inquire, and the captain says they have a charter in St. Croix next week and need to position themselves on the east coast of PR in order to make the crossing in time to pick up the passengers.  Well shiver me timbers, that was hardly the plan in our charter!!  So, one thing leads to another, and it all gets worked out, with the boat dropping us ashore in Guanico on the way east, and shuttling us back to our car in Mayaguez.  Thank goodness for little discussions like this!

12/1 Tuesday

Another spectacular sunrise as we awoke to the sound of the boat motoring over to Monita Island, a small pillar of rock about two miles off the northwest corner of Mona Island.  Strikingly similar to Wolf Island in the Galapagos, it hinted of spectacular diving along deep sheer walls.  The captain’s briefing teased us with 400+ feet of vertical descent along the shoreline and we were pumped.  Breakfast was served in the galley, and we looked forward to the first dive of the day.

The pre-dive briefing covered the procedures for exit and re-entry to the Rorqual, along with the dive plan.  Splitting into two groups, we were to enter with the DM, gather on the surface, descend together, and swim as a group enjoying a leisurely drift dive.  OK on the first three points……..

We dropped down and DM Neil takes off in the lead, never once missing a kick stroke on this dive.  So much for the leisure part – it was huff & puff as we fought our way into the current for much of the dive.  There was so much to see, and we swam right by every bit of it – swim thru’s, sleeping turtles, resting sharks, fish, coral, sponges, never stopping to see any of it – it was like a drive-by dive experience, and the sad part is we were the ones that were driving, led by our DM.  On top of that, there was no checking of gas or tank pressures, leading one of our group to exit prematurely and surface with under 200 psi in his tank – not cool.  Finally it was time to end the madness and deploy the safety sausage.  Out came the DM’s sausage, a 3 inch x 48 inch model that IVS sells practically as a novelty, hardly as an open water surface signaling device.  On top of that, the reel that he carried was full of ½” rope, perfect for anchoring a small to mid size boat, but hardly appropriate for a small sausage.

We finally surfaced, and I swam over to Neil and made it clear we needed to have a good surface interval chat to work out some of the bugs and make it a good dive for our divers.  Thankfully he welcomed that suggestion and we agreed to talk once back on board.

The boat sailed over to pick us up, backwards, and then through the tag line, backwards.   Hmmmm ….. it seems to have made more sense to drive the boat say, forward, where it could move faster and more efficiently, then toss the tag line as it went by, so it naturally unfurled behind the boat, rather than us having to catch it and then swim away from the boat to stretch it out – but who am I to make such silly suggestions?

Finally back on board, Neil and I got together and shared some ideas for the next dive – let’s see how they play out.

Well lo and behold, the next dive, on the very same site, turned out just fantastic.  Neil, along with Captain Jonathan, led a great dive, and we commend them on their willingness to listen to the guests and work to ensure a great experience for all.  Nice work guys!

Lunch and a motor back to the coast of Mona for our next dive site, ‘X Marks the Spot’.  Well this morning’s dive conditions would be a tough act to follow, and this site didn’t even try at all.  Murky, surgy, sandy, thirty minutes into it and I called my dive for the afternoon.  Gotta have some positive feedback from your diving experience and it wasn’t quite happening here!

Well the general sense of “this site sucks” felt by the divers made it through the ranks of the crew, and Captain Jonathan gathered us for a meeting and discussed options.  We selected a new site for the second afternoon and evening dive, and with no further ado, he agreed to move the boat and make for a better dive experience for us – twice in one day, I really need to complimate the captain, the crew and the folks at Nekton for running a first class operation.

So we headed off to the dive site known as Southern Pride, in hopes of finding visibility and nice conditions.  We scored on both counts!  Viz was good, conditions were great, and it was a nice site indeed. A good late afternoon dive, followed by dinner, then one more night dive, with the group getting smaller as the week goes by – tonight was J-Glo, Bill Z, Joyce, Bob A and me.  Going in on the night dive was a challenge as the current and wind had picked up substantially.  Coming back out was even more exciting, but we all managed to make it aboard with no loss.  Great job team!

12/2 Wednesday

How many ways can you describe waking up to perfect conditions and unbelievable views?  This trip certainly has been batting 100% in that department for sure.  This morning finds us off the northwest coast of Mona Island, where sheer cliffs head straight down into the sea.  Very dramatic dive site, with the vertical walls heading down to almost 100 ft, and a collection of collosal rocks and boulders that tumbled down over the ages, all covered in colorful algaes, hard corals, and some sponges.  Landscape here would be easily confused with some of the dive sites off southern California, where similar conditions abound.  We started the day off with a nice drift dive, led by DM Dave, 80 ft for 40 minutes, lots of life, great photo opportunities – great way to start the day!

So it’s surface interval time and the second dive will be in essentially the same location, so what do we do?  Fire up the diesels and take a 3 mile run offshore, only to turn around and return to the dive site.  Madness you ask?  No, U.S. Maritime Laws, that say we can’t empty the holding tanks within three miles of the coast!  That accomplished, we are free to use the facilities to our hearts content.

We splash again for dive #2, and it’s a repeat of the first dive – superb, easy and spectacular.  Three years of traveling to Puerto Rico to dive Mona on local charters and three years of not having it happen due to every local excuse you can imagine, and finally, we are here – this was definitely worth the effort.

So as they are analyzing the Nitrox tanks, I notice one of the crew members test one Nitrox tank, then go to a cylinder of air, recalibrate the analyzer, then go to another Nitrox tank, back to the air cylinder, etc.  I ask what’s up with that, and Melissa (the Instructor doing the testing) tells me that “they have to calibrate the Analox tester after every tank”.  They know this cause if they don’t they will get readings that don’t match another sensor that some guest brought on board recently.  Well, with that scientific explanation shared, I ask if they considered the fact that the sensor operates via a galvanic cell, and it should be inherantly stable all day long, and should only require periodic verification, and not necessarily calibration, against a known gas, such as air.  Well “this is how you need to do it” I am told in no uncertain terms.  Well riddle me this, Batman – if that sensor is so dang unstable from one test to the next, that you can’t trust it to test two Nitrox cylinders in a row, then what is to suggest that it is still stable from the time it goes from the air cylinder to the first Nitrox cylinder?  “Why don’t you stick with the diving and let us do our work”, is the response from Bobby, who, coincidently, happens to be married to our gas analysis expert Melissa – go figure.  Hey, silly me, it’s only life support equipment, and the testing of the cylinder gas is only to ensure that we don’t, say, die, but you’re right, the crew definitely knows science and they know what they are doing – NOT.  The blind leading the blind is more like it.

After that it’s lunch again, and then we motor back over to Monito for another set of drift dives here along the rocky shore.  More beauty, more great critter sightings, more good diving – we are loving it!  Two great dives along these rocky shores, averaging 100 ft depth, about 40 minute runs.  Amazing amount of life, both in variety and abundance, on every dive site we have visited this week

Finally we head back over to Mona Island to moor for the night in a location known as ‘One Particular Harbor’.   After dinner we do our night dive here, and see more octopus, a couple of slipper lobsters, more nudi’s, sharks, sleeping groupers, a big pufferfish (that of course I couldn’t resist giving a little loving to, and got a nice big inflation in return – excellent photo op!) and the rest of the usual cast of characters.  Excellent dive, and after John & Dave managed to get involved in a serious underwater macrame’ project with John’s reel, Joyce got to practice some real air sharing as she nearly managed to suck her tank dry as we headed back to the boat!  Cross that off the list of things to do while diving, Joyce! [Note: no actual divers were hurt during this experience, the conditions were near perfect, and there was plenty of support in the water]

12/3 Thursday

Another morning in paradise as we have collectively decided to repeat yesterdays dive plans, and do drift diving all day.  Of course no morning is complete without starting up the Poseidon rebreathers, and today we are one for two, as my machine comes up nicely and John’s continually fails on start up.  That sucks, and John is sad, so we give him a little (very little) hug and tell him to suck it up, put on a tank and let’s go diving!   After yesterdays somewhat short dives (ok, well at least short for us) we have asked that our group gets to stay down on the drift a little longer, as the diving is so spectacular.  So we head up to the Northwest corner of Mona, and drop in for our first dive.  Thirty minutes into an awesome drift dive, our DM Neil signals to start the ascent out and away from the island.  I signal back that we’d prefer to put the kabosh on that idea for the moment and enjoy some more of this great dive.  He signals OK and we resume our drift.  A little while later he begins his ascent, taking Bill and J-Glo with him, but somehow failing to pass that message along to Joyce, Bob A and myself, who are truly enjoying all this great site has to offer.  So we motor along for another ten minutes, and finally decide it is time to ascend, only to realize we are alone.  Hmmmmmm…..so we start our swim up and away from the island, and look up and see the skiff overhead, so the crew certainly knows where we are.  Then we look over and there are the other three on the surface, so we complete our safety stop, swim over to them and surface.  It’s pretty snotty up here now, with choppy waves everywhere, and the boat is close by to pick us up.  Once we’re aboard, then they head over to get the other group, who evidently had been bobbing on the surface for the last 15 minutes while we finished our dive.  Now you may ask, why didn’t you just get them first, but of course the answer is long and confusing, so the bottom line is that we didn’t make a good impression on our five new friends on board.  Sorry!

So, before dive two, I pow-wow with the captain and we get our plans straight.  We are planning to dive a long dive, so please, pick the other group up first!  To his credit he points out that some of the Team IVS divers have been coming back to the boat with extremely low readings on their pressure gauges, so we need to address that.  I convene the team and we go over the plans- first, pony bottles will be used to extend bottom time, and leave sufficient gas in our main tanks to re-board the boat with 500 psi or better.  Second, we are planning a one hour run time on this dive, so please choose your depth appropriately to budget your gas consumption and not be the one that drives us to the surface early.  Finally, we’ll ascend as a team.  OK, agreed.  Now let’s dive.

So we drop in for dive #2, and descend to almost 100 ft.  The drift starts, the diving is fantastic, and the team switches over to pony bottles like a well oiled machine – almost made me cry seeing it!  So as the auxiliary tanks were exhausted, everyone switched back to the mains, and we ended up with a great sixty minute dive, and no gas management issues at all.  Nice work team!  And even better, the boat had picked up the other group already so no one was waiting on us.  Perfect.

Lunch is served as we sail across to Monito Island for our drift dives there.  As we gear up the captain announces that some of the folks had requested some moored diving on the reefs, so we are saddened, but it’s ok, we’re team players.  I change my CO2 absorbent canister in my machine, and attempt to restart, but again, it’s one failure after another, this time for bad solenoids, or an audible alarm that is calling for too much current – the bottom line is that there is nothing really wrong, but this fershluggin software is just so damn sensitive that it defaults to various failures.  So now we are down two rebreathers!  Thank goodness neither of us had enough faith in our machines to count on them 100%, and we had packed regulators and backplates to go with open circuit in case of this finding ourselves in this exact situation.  Sad, but a fact of life so far for the Poseidons.

In we splash for one last great drift dive.  The boat is within 100 ft of the cliffs as we giant stride off the deck to the sound of ‘Dive! Dive! Dive!” over the loudspeaker.  As we drop down the viz is forever, and the walls and rocks are covered with life large and small.  The dive is nothing short of spectacular, and we enjoy it to no end (OK to 45 minutes at least).  Finally, sadly, it is time to surface so we head away from the island and being a gradual ascent to our safety stop.  The surface marker is deployed, and we hang out for our three minute stop and then rise to the surface.  The boat is heading towards us, yes it is, backing right towards us, yeppers, right towards us….Holy Shit…….this boat is about to be the worlds biggest Veg-o-matic as we get sucked into the props!!!   Finally as we are about to become chum, the pilot throws it into forward and we are tumbled ass over teacups backwards, driven by the propwash.  Then they toss us the tag line, and once we are all hanging on, as if to further the madness, they hit forward again, dragging us through the ocean as the boat gets a little further away from the island.  OK…..enough of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, it is time to get back on board, and we do so without further ado.  Again, the other team is already on board, so all is well.  We tie the gear down and sail back to Mona Island to moor up for the second afternoon dive.

Our mooring site is back at One Particular Harbor, and as we tie up it is obvious the current is ripping and the viz is poor.  Let me sum it up…..I logged a twelve minute dive here – enough said!  We get back on board, and the captain wisely decides to relocate for our night dive, back to Bubbles & Blossoms, a decent site.  We’ll make our night dive here and moor until we begin the trek back to the island of Puerto Rico.

The night dive is uneventful, nothing new or spectacular but still a few nice Southern Stingrays milling about and the usual critters, conditions are far better than they were at the previous site, so all is good.

During the night they fire up the diesels and we race (OK, at 6 knots more of a jog than a race) back across the open ocean to Puerto Rico.  Our trip is slowed by some rough weather and high seas, so we end up missing our pre-breakfast dive that we had carefully arranged.  Oh well.

Once moored, we splash in for dives # 29 & 30 for the week, at a site known as the Isthmus.  Nothing spectacular but the conditions are perfect so who are we to complain.  After all, our job is to “pay attention to the diving and let the crew do their work”.  So we dive!

Finally it’s the last lunch and a chance to settle up the bill with the boat, buy your commemorative T-shirts, and pack up for the disembarking.  We tip the crew well as they took good care of us, and Nitrox analysis aside, they are a pretty good bunch.  Captain Jonathan is first class and an asset to the Nekton Corp. and I’d recommend a Nekton cruise to anyone.   

As mentioned earlier, the plan is to discharge the IVS crew in Guanico so we don’t have to sail to the east coast of PR with the boat.  So we head in to the sleepy harbor, and upon realizing there is no dock large enough to tie the Rorqual up to, we begin the task of transfering to shore via the ships tenders.  Our first group of four heads over on the first tender, and as the rest of us watch, we can see the flashing lights of the police approaching the dock.  The tender driver comes back and says the authorities need to speak to the captain and see the ships documentation, so Jonathan grabs the paperwork and heads over in that direction.  It is like something out of the B-movies, with our English-only speaking captain and three Spanish-only speaking authorities, one being the harbor master and the other two cops complete with all the necessary SWAT team hardware, as they flip through the paperwork and wave arms and use whatever means of communication to try to get our point across that “hey, it’s OK, we’re Americans too!”.  Geeesh…..you’d think we were heading in Canada or something!  So without anything really understood or documented, it’s finally determined that we’re OK, and the cops leave, and the harbor master’s day is complete as he has shown us he is truly the king of this little acre of land.  So much to do over nothing.

Once on shore we meet our shuttle driver, a lovely woman who was raised in Jersey City, NJ, by Puerto Rican parents, and who spoke perfect English – cool to find here!  We load the van, and I mean load, with gear and provisions under every seat and stacked to the ceiling, and the seven of us, along with our driver, her husband and her assistant who was there to help load the van, and begin our journey to Mayaguez.  Bob S, John G and Tom R, having had a week of rocking and rolling at sea, opt for a hotel room for the last two nights, so we drop them off at the Myaguez Holiday Inn.  The rest of us have an appointment to dive tonight, so we continue north to Aguadilla, where Brenda has brought home a stack of tanks for us to use this evening.  Once there, we quickly unload, and then jump back in our car and head down to Crashboat Beach, which got it’s name from it’s original use as a base for the rescue boats that would be docked there in anticipation of one of our stratgeic bombers crashing into the ocean on takeoff from the Aguadilla Air Force base (now the airport). We drop in at 9:00 and head out to the bases of some of the old landing light structures, and are greeted with some fantastic finds – three seahorses, eels, the largest barrel sponges we have seen all week, squid, crabs, feather dusters, scores of carpet anenomes, and more.  What a fantastic dive and a great way to get back ashore.  And no shore diving would be complete without topside adventure, as Bob A and one of our females ( I promised not to mention Joyce’s name in the blog) learned how difficult it is to discretely change your clothes in a somewhat busy parking lot at night after diving.  After that it was dinner at a local establishment and back to Casa Brenda for the night.

12/5 Saturday

Bill and Joyce headed over to the airport and secured a second rental car and we headed out for breakfast and a quick run down to Mayaguez to give the second car to the other guys for the day.  We have some diving to do, and that is our plan for the day!

Our first dive was back at Crashboat Beach, where we planned to take it a little deeper than usual.  We surface swam out to one of the old navigation light pillars, and dropped down, OK, after I actually turned my air on we dropped down (Oooops!), and we picked up the trail, going from our pillar to a second submerged one, then following some lines to some submerged items including a nice large steel pot-like structure, that served as the home for a very large green moray, as well as a school of glassy sweepers.  We continued down, and realized what a mess the lines were, with every sort of combination of lines, strings and ropes crossing and knotted and mixed together.  Someone should take the initiative and clean this up, but hey, that would take initiative, and that is not in abundance here.  Oh well, we suffered through, and managed to make it to our planned depth of 150 ft.  At that point we compared computers for depth, and amazing, with two Cochrans, one Aeris, and a Suunto, they were all within a foot of the depth.  Cool to see.  At that point it was prudent not to descend any further as we were diving with single 80’s, so we turned and headed back up.  The Cochrans, which had picked up some deco beginning at 20 ft, managed to clear themselves on the way up; however at the 15 ft stop the Suunto still had five minutes of deco obligation to satisfy – does that unit come in pink?  Cause it sure is a sissy computer!

So here we are, in a bit of a pickle – we had planned this dive based on our air consumption rates for the time and depth we went.  We had plenty of gas when we returned to our safety stop, and as we were diving in near perfect conditions 100 yards off the beach, there was no safety issue with minimum gas reserves in our tanks – we could see our car from where we descended.  However, due to the ultra-conservative algorithm of the Suunto computer, one of our group is required to complete an excessive pseudo-deco stop at 10 ft to avoid a computer violation.  So I share air with Bob as we hang, and hang, and hang, and by now I am wrestling with my own gas management issues, so I realize the prudent thing to do is to tap into Joyce’s excessive surplus air supplies (what a great breather she is!) in order to avoid Bob A surfacing in violation of his computer.  So, as I grab the one of the tower’s legs to pass Joyce’s octo to Bob, I manage to star in yet another DAN medical diving experiment, as I impale myself on a bristle worm, wrapping it around my wrist and the back of my hand. It looked like I worked in a cotton candy factory as the fuzzy white barbs were sticking out of my skin from one side of my wrist to the other.   Since children often read this blog, I will refrain from sharing my true comments, but let it suffice to know I pulled no verbal punches in expressing myself through my regulator at this member of the segmented worm family.  I carefully plucked the barbs from my skin, wincing at the pain, and then wincing again at the pain in my fingers that were doing the plucking!   OK…..Bob is set, Joyce is good, I am low on air, and so I can now quietly go to the surface and sob in my mask as I examine my wounds.  Finally Joyce and Bob surface to join Bill Z and me and we swim in to the beach.

It is family day at Crashboat, and the food and drink vendors are everywhere, and I can’t resist taking a few photos.  My favorite is a half a cow on a spit, being rotated slowly over hot coals by  a small electric motor hooked up via a v-belt to a bicycle rim that is chained to a couple of smaller sprockets to achieve the desired speed of rotation – Gilligan and the Professor would be proud!

For our second dive of the day and the last dive of the week, we head over to Naturales, and get in one last dive along the reef.  Lots of eels, crabs, a cooperative puffer fish, sea pens, a snake eel, flying gunards, peacock flounders, basket stars all curled up for the day, and the usual cast of characters rounded out a great farewell dive to Puerto Rico, truly the Enchanted Isle.

After that it was goodbyes and hugs to Brenda & Tony, along with our friend Carlos from NJ, and then dinner on the waterfront at Rompeolas Bar & Grill.  Now some final packing and organizing, and the crew hits the sack for the last time here before we all head to the airports in the morning.  

 

12/6 Sunday

Joyce, Bob A, John and Bill head back to the Aguadilla airport, and Tom, Bob Stitz and I take a nice leisurely ride back across the island to San Juan.  We check in to our respective airlines, and then re-convene in Terminal H as Tom has a membership in the Admirals Club, American Airline’s airport club.  Nice, nice, way to end the trip, sitting back, sipping and munching, downloading pictures, and chilling out.  Finally it’s time for me to leave and catch the first leg of my flight to Atlanta.  No issues, no travel-drama stories, but my what a pleasant surprise – my plane has about a hundred Eagles fans going home celebrating the Bird’s win over Atlanta that afternoon – icing on the cake for sure!  Sure, many of them are still half-baked from the game, but we’re bonded by (green) blood.  Very cool.

 

Post-trip news:  While six out of the seven of us returned to our normal lives, families and work today, it turns out that the International Man of Leisure, Tom Rebbie, needed a whole additional 24 hours to recover from the weeks activites, spending the night at the Airport Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia, and didn’t rise until 1:00 this afternoon to finally head for home – what a life!