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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