Keys, Keys everywhere…gotta dive ’em all!

It’s high time we visited the Conch Republic once again, and this time we’ll be enjoying the entire 120 miles of the chain.  Our week-long journey started early Monday morning  – well early for the Swartley’s that is!  Geeez Louisse, the were up and running at 3:00 a.m., and had their sleepover guest Csaba Lorinczy moving too! As might be expected, I took a more leisurely approach, deciding my original 8:45 flight was cutting into my chance to get some more work done, so I opted for 10:20, then finally decided to fly out on the 11:30 flight….gosh I love Delta and how they let me be, well, me!

I arrived at the airport with well over 20 minutes to spare before baggage check in was cut off, which in itself is pretty amazing for me!  So I parked and got shuttle over to the airport and walked up to the curbside check-in with my five bags, 3 of them at or close to 70 pounds.  Ruh-roh…none of my “regulars” were at the skycap stand!  This might not be good.  Some of these guys go back years with me, with my favorite being my friend Jackson, who actually took my car and drove it off site to a valet lot twice for me when I was running really, really tight on making a flight.  Left the keys there, took the shuttle back to work, and I picked it up at the lot when I returned.  Talk about service plus!

So I saunter up to the counter, make eye contact, tip money clearly viewable folded in my hand, and get the check in process started.   Well our friendly skycap must have been suffering from an acute visual problem today, cause the conversation went something like this: “Mr. Valaika, there is a two bag limit, so these extra bags are going to cost you $25 each”.  Well home boy, I might have been born at night, but it wasn’t LAST night!  How about we just hump these bags inside and I’ll deal with it there.  So I walk into the terminal, and who is there to greet me?  My two favorite girls from the Delta Crown Room, which is currently undergoing renovations, so they are working the ticket counter…talk about fate smiling down on David here!  As you might expect what’s a few extra bags and a few extra pounds between friends? Problem solved, let’s head to the gate!

The flights to Atlanta and then on to Fort Lauderdale were uneventful, and I arrived on time.  Grab the bags, and head over to the Car Rental Center, a pretty nice arrangement where all of the major car rental outfits are located in one central complex right at the airport.  Well, almost all, I realize, as I walk inside and look at the marquee for the company  had chosen, based on a smokin’ price on an SUV for the week.  Hmmmm…seems my guys are located waaaay off the airport site.  What to do, what to do….well a little negotiation later, and I am driving off the lot with a bran spanking new Ford Escape with all the options, for less than what i was going to pay.  Amazing how this deal was not even close to available when I booked my reservation on line, but a little quality face time, and perhaps a dash of schmoozing, helped cement the deal.  Fate smiles again….let’s keep this up!

Well while I was traveling Csaba got in a couple of dives with Jim, Jess & DJ Swartley, while Lynn and Hannah did a little shopping.  This is Hannah’s checkout weekend, so we’ll be getting her in the water on Friday.  I arrived after they returned and picked up Csaba for our ride to Key West.  First stop, IVS-South, also known as Dave Hartman’s house, where we picked up our sets of doubles and stage bottles that we keep there for our more adventurous dives…can’t beat this for convenience!  100 miles later, and we are at the Key West Condo, where Matt & Jen Yaroch have already checked in a little earlier.  The team calls it an early night, and gets some rest  in preparation of tomorrow’s adventure.

Wednesday morning came and it looked like it had the makings of a glorious day.  THe sun was shining, the sky was clear, it was in the 80’s….all great except for how hard those flags were flapping on the shrimp boats in the harbor.  That pesky wind thing!  Makes the ocean so much less friendly!  Oh well, we are here to dive, so dive we must!

Todays diving was with Looe Key Dive Center, located at mile marker 27 on the Overseas Highway.  Check in was at 9:00 with a leisurely departure scheduled for 10 a.m.   We all got up and got prepared for the day.  This is where we learned a little more about Jen, specifically the amount of time she likes in the morning to get ready for the day.  Must be that NAUI thing, I don’t know.  We’ll avoid the details, but let’s just say we’ll be making a few adjustments in our timing for tomorrow a.m.!

In any case, we FINALLY loaded into the cars and motored back up Route 1 to Looe Key.  The folks at Looe Key Dive Center are great, and we got through our paperwork and boat loading in short order.  The boat was a bit crowded with a total of 46 divers and snorkelers on board. In addition to the mass of humanity, there was also the captain’s “kitchen”, basically his own personal concession stand where he’ll be cooking up Sloppy Joe’s and hot dogs, selling an array of snack foods, plus offering drinks, including margaritas and beer!  Now this is the way to run a dive boat – the heck with the crowding issue!

The wind was still a little brisk as we headed out on the 48 ft catamaran, and the seas a wee bit angry.  It was a little wet and a lot bouncy getting out and as we approached the dive site, the water was a hue of green that was strikingly similar to some of the folks on board at this point!  We tied up, geared up, and started the dance of working our way, in full gear, on a bouncing boat deck, from the stern, where the crew had all the divers sitting, through the crowd of snorkelers to the bow, where we were tied in.  Not sure about the planning process here, but we managed.  Splish, splash, we dropped in, and started down the line to the Adolphus Busch, a 210 ft long freighter sunk in 1998 as an artificial reef.  Covered with fish and laying nearly perfectly upright on the bottom at 120 ft, this wreck offers a lot of nice penetration opportunities through its length.  As our team approached the wreck, there was our first Goliath Grouper slipping down into a hole on the rear deck.  Camera on, I slipped right in behind him, and caught some video as he played cat and mouse with me through the myriad of piping, valves, fittings and machinery that was in the compartment.  Concern over entanglement issues?  Not when there is some nice video to shoot! I unwrap few hoses and finally extricate myself from the passageway – all good, still breathing.   Got a few nice shots, good way to start the dive!

While Jen & Matt opted for a topsides tour, while Csaba and I went straight through the belly of this wreck, squeezing through the various holes and cut outs, around the engines, in and out of the cargo holds, just exploring it all.  Unfortunately the viz sucked already, and the slightest errant move of your hand or fin inside just raised a cloud of fine silt up, bringing the already poor viz to near zero.  Sure sucks to be in the “second diver” position behind the guy with the camera – sorry Csaba!  Hmmmmm…..what a concept – might promote a camera sale here!  But we’re diving inside a wreck, so as long as we can see our way to the next turn or hole, we are cool with that.  We reached the bow, and then back tracked through the wreck.  Hitting 38 minutes of bottom time at 120 ft on our 28% EAN, my Cochran was still ready to explore, but my buddy’s Galileo said it was time to head up.  OK, what was the rule…follow the ‘least’ or ‘most’ conservative computer?  Hmmmm…….It was OK, so we began a nice 10 minute ascent, clearing the 3 minutes of deco obligation along the way up on my ‘puter, and then waiting until Csaba’s gave us the green light also. Thank goodness he wasn’t diving a Suunto!

However, no good dive trip is complete without some drama, so here’s today’s: unbeknownst to Csaba and I, the captain had already pulled the ladders, and was ready to release from the mooring, sure that no one was still in the water, let alone down diving the wreck.  As he began to call the roll, Matt shouted out “hey, some of us are still diving”!  Ooops – maybe they should wait for the two of us.  Ladders are dropped back down, and sure enough, 15 minutes later the last two pokey divers pop up onto the surface, and Csaba and I swim over to the boat, ignorant of the fact that we were so close to being abandoned at sea!  Ignorance is bliss, and we’re still smiling when Matt shares the story with us.  No harm, no foul…ready to keep on diving!

Back on board, the captain had the grill going full blast, and lunch was being served.  First class indeed, in spite of the near miss on the abandonment thing,  and if the boat had only been a little less crowded, this would have really been great!  But we managed, and the good news is that a lot of the fish feeders managed to refill their bellies in preparation of providing some more topside entertainment.  Cruel, I know, but so fun to watch!

As the number of fish feeders at the rails had increased, it was time to get some of these folks in the water!  We moved the slight distance over to Looe Key Reef, and the waves were literally breaking over this barely submerged island.  We jumped in for our second dive at the site called ‘The Nursery’ while the snorkelers splashed around us, braving the less than ideal conditions.  As one might suspect, the viz sucked, the surge was strong, and the max depth was about 25 ft, so there was no escaping it for us.  We managed to hang for 45 minutes in hopes of spotting something cool, but that was not meant to be today.

Enough of that, we moved the boat about a hundred yards to a site called ‘Shark Alley’.  Conditions here were, amazingly, the same as they were 300 feet away – what a surprise!  But we still dove, and though the snorkelers numbers were waning, some still managed to get in and play.  Another half hour and we had had enough, and called the dive for the day.

It was back on board now when Csaba pointed out a chilling fact to me – on most IVS trips, some of our hardier divers manage to earn the ADD award….that stands for All Dives with Dave.  Well it seems that on this trip, there is the potential for another level of award, and Csaba is in the lead….MDD, or ‘More Dives than Dave’.  Seems his strategy of heading down early with the Swartleys managed to let him get in two dives before I got in town!  Now I am thinking of strategies, maybe a covert night dive or two, to get my numbers back up on this trip!

Back at the dock there was a nice ending to the Looe Key experience – when you check back in after your trip, they give you a coupon for a free drink at their Tiki Bar next door, plus they offer you the use of their pool to relax and enjoy a few more hours of your day.  Well what marketing genius is this at work here?  Of course we’ll take the free drinks, and of course, once we are seated at the bar, we’ll order a few more.  Had they not baited us with the free drink, we would have simply gotten in our car and headed back to wherever we came from.  These guys get high marks from me for thinking outside the box, and cross promoting their businesses.  Now my wheels are turning….how do we get some free drink or appetizer coupons from some of our local establishments to further enhance the social aspect of our diving community?  Can you picture the folks from IVS actually heading out to a bar or pub after a class or day of diving?  How cool would that be?  What a concept!!  Stay tuned for updates on this one as we begin to conduct our research!

After some generous support of the local establishment, we head on back to casa IVS-Key West, and freshen up for dinner next door at the Hogfish Bar & Grille.  Talk about convenient, great music, good food, cold drinks – and all about thirty steps from our front door!  Dinner was good, the conversation was great, Jen’s color returned – all good stuff.  Great day overall, and looking forward to tomorrow’s diving on the Vandenberg.

Thursday morning came and we had agreed to talk to Captain Chris at 10 in the morning since the weather looked like it would be improving through the day, so an afternoon trip was in order. Csaba, Jen & Matt headed out for breakfast and some tank filling. And we are being treated to some special entertainment, as the Navy’s Blue Angels are here for an air show this weekend, and are practicing all day and coming in and out of the Naval Air Station Key West which is located practically next door to the condo.  These guys are screaming in low right over the harbor and the docks, flying solo, in formations, all sorts of cool stuff.  This is actually the second time that Team IVS has been treated to an impromptu air show, as we enjoyed the Blue Angels in Pensacola last spring while we were there to dive the Oriskany.  I am suspecting maybe these Navy pilots might be secret IVS groupies!  Very cool!

So we had a pre-dive meeting this morning, to go over the planning for the day, especially things like timing of the boat departure, since it was such a contentious subject yesterday.  We spoke, slowly & clearly, and tried to keep it as mono-syllabic as possible, in deference to our NAUI listener.  The boat is picking us up right at the condo so all we have to do is walk out the front door and climb aboard – sweet!  Our mission for today is a 3-tank journey, with the first two stops being on the Vandenberg, followed by a third location to be determined.  Csaba and the crew headed over to get our tanks filled at Sub Tropic Dive Center, our local support shop for things Key West, and while they were out they enjoyed a sumptious breakfast at IHOP.  Csaba enjoyed the strawberry pancakes, Matt had a big fat omellette PLUS pancakes, while Jenn laid down a base layer of pancakes, sausage and home fries, sure to delight our finned friends in a few hours out at sea! I know, so cruel…yet so true!

The face of IVS South has joined us this morning, as Dave Hartman drove down from the upper Keys to dive the V-berg with us. The weather is laying down, the seas are calming, and the afternoon is looking great! Capt. Chris shows up at 1:30, and we load the boat up right in front of the condo.  It’s a small boat, a 26 ft Glacier Bay catamaran, so rather than struggling with limited space on board, we opt to set up our gear on the dock and don our wetsuits too.  Once everything is set up, we motor through the harbor and in less than 5 minutes we are on the ocean.

Well the winds had subsided a bit, but were still going at about 15 knots out of the south, which meant they had plenty of chances to influence the waves on the sea.  Our six mile run to the Vandenberg was one rough ride to say the least.  We enjoyed some nice sightseeing on the way out, as the Blue Angels continued to wow us with precision maneuvers out over the ocean.  There were also many turtles out too, and a fwe major schools of Portugese men-o-war to pass through, glad we saw them on the ride out and not while we were diving!  As we approached the wreck, there was something floating in the water, almost invisible yet there, and we slowly motored up to investigate.  Well my oh my, it was a free diver in camoflouge, hangin out with his speargun.  No marker, no float, nothing to keep us from accidently running right over his butt – what an idiot!

So after a bit of a heated exchange between our captain and the offender, we tied up to the mooring ball and prepared our descent.  The current was, shall we say, ripping at the surface, so we tied off a granny line to the mooring to assist us as we entered the water.  Not the best conditions but we were here to dive, so dive we must!

Let me take a moment and sing some praise for Miss Jenn.  This was a trip of nothing but firsts for this woman, and she took every single one in perfect stride.  Yesterday was her first wreck dive ever, and her first bout of seasickness.  Today was not only her second wreck dive, but her first back roll off a small boat, first experience with strong currents, first dives over 100 feet, first wreck penetration, and unfortunately, her second session of seasickness.  As noted above, our finned friends loved her!

OK, I digress….so we splashed, and fought hand over hand up the granny to the seriously bouncing mooring ball, trying to avoid a face full of that as we swung our arms around it to grab the line down to the wreck.   The first 25 ft or so of descent was a real kick, with each of us hanging on like flags on a windy day, literally straight out from the mooring line.  What a ride, and you could see the thrill in Jenn’s eyes…ok, well maybe I interpreted it as the look of thrill!  Or disbelief…or terror…but it was a cool look!

Amazingly though, as we dropped closer to the wreck the current became less and less forceful, so we were able to really enjoy the dive at deck level. The viz was probably in excess of 100 ft on this dive, and one of the first things that greeted us was a large turtle swimming by, not more than 10 or 12 feet from us, checking us out and not minding us being there at all.  Great start!  From there we swam up to the bridge, enjoyed penetrating that area, dropped out onto the starboard side deck, worked our way under the dish antenna, and slowly returned to our starting point.  The bio-mass on the wreck was tremendous today, with multiple schools of silverside baitballs all around, hungry schools of amberjack on the prowl, oodles of barracuda, humongous parrot fish, crustaceans, shrimp, the list goes on.

Csaba and Dave H had done their own tour of the wreck while I dove with Jenn and Matt, and after I escorted those two back to the mooring line, I did a bit of touring on my own.  After a nice 45 minute run time with a max depth of 120 feet I surfaced, and the rest of the gang was back on the boat.  So much back that Dave and Csaba had already accumulated 25 minutes of surface interval.  I had to ask them if they intended to actually log that as a dive!  I couldn’t be too harsh on them, as Csaba, ever the supportive one, was somewhat green ala Jenn.  What a team player he is!

So by now, 10 minutes of surface interval had passed, and my Cochran was indicating that it was time to dive again!  And Jenn was not doing well so it was time to get dive #2 under way and minimize the agony for her.  So come on boys, let’s get our gear switched over, get dressed, get in the water……geeesh!  We finally splashed for our second dive, and I had taken on the responsibility to bring Matt back as directed by his bride – oh the pressure!  I asked Matt if he wanted to do something  a little scary on this dive, and before he could answer, you can imagine the response I got from Jenn.  OK, Plan B….

So we headed down and this time toured the stern, coming upon a grouper about 6 ft long there, plus more of everything.  We dropped down into a cargo hatch, and entered one of the decks at 125 ft, taking in the galley, kitchen prep areas, and some storage rooms before heading back topsides.  We hit  few more areas along the deck, and then it was time to head back to the mooring.  There was Csaba and Dave already on the line so our timing was good.  Nice slow descent, some 50% EAN to clean up the tissues a bit, and we finally surfaced after a 40 minute run.   Another good dive in the books.

Now here I took the time for another sensitive moment, thinking of poor Jenn sitting this great dive out up top.  As we headed back across the deck to the mooring, I noticed a nice size conch shell sitting there, intact, sans conch.   What a great souvenier this will make, I thought, let me just sneak up on it and make sure no one is living inside.  Looks good, no hermit crab legs hanging out, no damsel fish hovering, looks like a green light for me.  So, I pick up the shell, give it one good look, smile at my good fortune finding it sitting there, and even take the time to rub off the algae on it.  This will look nice in her house, and should be a nice reminder of her second wreck dive!  Now, where to put it, as I am sure I will need both hands to manage the ascent line and my stage bottle in this current. So I pull the top of my wetsuit out at the neck, and drop the shell in on my chest for safe keeping.   Now as I do that, I am thinking, I DID check that no one was living there inside, right?  Yes, yes, of course I did.

So what is that scratching I am feeling as I move up the ascent line?  I am sure it is just he edge of the shell against my skin, so I wiggle the shell a little through my wetsuit, make some adjustments, twist a little, there, I am sure the scratching has stopped.  Nice slow ascent, man is that scratching again?  Nah, just ust be some sand in my wetsuit, cause now it is my stomach that is itchy.  I give it a rub through the suit, there, better now.  Move up to the next stop in my ascent, man is that itching on my side now? Nah, it is psychological I am sure..let me give it a good firm rub through the suit…there, all better.

I surface now, swim up to the boat, quick check for stinging jellyfish, all clear, so let’s get the fins off and work our way to the ladder.  Man the current is strong, so the focus is on that.  Fins off, hand them up to the captain, get the stage bottle off, pass that up, ok, one, two , I am up the ladder and on the boat.  There is poor Jenn looking green, but I have just the thing to make her smile!  I reach into my wetsuit and pull out my shell for her, and hand her the souvenier.  She smiles, then says “oh my god, what is that in there?”.  Well gosh it is a bristle worm, hmmmmmmm.  We shake it out onto the dec, being careful to avoid touching it’s stinging bristles located all along each side of his body.  Now I am thinking, has that itching, burning sensation returned?  Well yes, in fact it has…I gotta get out of this wetsuit!!!    Slip out of the backplate, help me unzip, let’s pull this thing down…..what’s that red welt trail heading down my chest and belly?  Why it’s the track of the second bristle worm that lived in the conch shell, and he was less than impressed with my decision to relocate his home.  Help me get the rest of this suit off, dang that is burning, and man those welts are big!  I am grimacing, hoping Jenn will eventually like her new shell! Making notes to myself to review this decision in greater detail, once the burning has stopped!

Well the seas had not laid down at all, and we opted to blow off the third dive and get back to port with our team.  Once we tied up we enjoyed a few brewskies dockside with our captain, and then loaded the gear into our cars.  Jenn & Matt are spending the weekend (and their anniversary) in Key West, Dave H is heading home, and Csaba and I are driving back up to Key Largo to join the rest of the gang for a weekend of diving, Amoray style.  But before we could get there, we had one last stop, on Big Pine Key – the No Name Pub, highly recommended by Joyce Kichman from her days residing in Key West.  Not easy to find, but great when you do, it was hopping!  The food was great, the drinks cold, and the staff was a lot of fun to be with. Another great place in the Keys on our list!

Friday morning at Amoray, and we are reunited with the Swartley gang, plus Cindy Eisenhauer, Brian Montague, Larry Gilligan and Barb Hill (White) have joined us for the weekend.  Unfortunately there will be a slight delay this morning, as the Amoray Diver had developed some sort of fuel problem yesterday, but the mechanic is here, and soon enough the engines are purring like kittens.  Barb, Hannah and I are heading over to Jules Lagoon for Hannah’s first couple of dives, and the rest of the gang are going to brave the ocean.  There is still a bit of a breeze going but nothing to sweat about – the day should be good!  We’ll be reporting back on that in a few!

Barb, Hannah and I headed over to Jules to get Ms H’s certification process going, while the rest of the gang headed out to the reefs.  We had a great morning, and even though Hannah was a bit anxious over the whole thing, it worked out well.  The conditions at Jules were near perfect.  We were the only folks there, the visibility was the best it has even been – well over 20 feet, and the water was clear!  We had a couple of nice dives, completed a bunch of skills, and I even got quite a few photos since the viz was so good.  Meanwhile the remainder of Team IVS enjoyed visits to South South Ledges and Mike’s Wreck for a great morning.

Hannah, Barb & I enjoyed lunch at Hobo’s to celebrate a good morning, then we headed back to meet up with the group for the afternoon dive.  Our first stop was the Spiegel Grove, followed by the Benwood.  Let’s talk about this Spiegel dive….

We had a couple of groups set up, with Dave Hartman taking Barb W on a wild and wooly interior tour.  Csaba hooked up with DJ & Jim Swartley for a “mild” tour. And finally, since Sue could not make this trip, I was nominated to lead the “Lame-O” tour (yes, spelled by holding your fingers in the shape of an ‘L’ on your forehead).   My group consisted of Jess, Lynn, Cindy, Larry and a Wes (not one of ours!).

First, to add to the excitement, the moorings we desired on the wreck were all taken, so we opted to tie into one of the upcurrent stern balls and I jumped in with a granny line, and swam it back and across to the port crane ball, where the Florida Keys Dive Center boat was hooked in.  My group splashed, and one by one they worked their way across the line, battling the current, and finally all SIX of us were gathered and ready to descend.  We started down, keeping a fairly tight formation on the line, and we reached the crane.  It only took a couple of minutes for the last two guys to finally arrive, while of course we were burning pressure gas.  OK, let’s get this party started!

So we drop to the deck, and begin our way forward, exactly as we briefed.  Jess was my buddy, Lynn & Cindy were coupled, and finally Larry and new guy Wes were bringing up the rear.  We got to the superstructure and I took role, only to find we were now FOUR.  Geez friggi’ Louise, how can you lose two people in a straight swim no more than 50 yards long?  OK, I turn back, and find Larry, who has lost his partner.  I give him the official WTF sign, and he shakes his head, not sure where Wes has gone.  So, I gather the group and we being our way back. Larry re-appears, still alone, but Csaba materializes, so I write on my slate that i have lost two already, and he understands, and knows where they might be found.  I pass responsibility for them to him, and turn to continue the tour with the ladies.  So, now that we are down to approx 2,000 psi, I opt to not penetrate forward, but to cross the wreck to the starboard side.  Well there is a hole there i the deck, about 8 feet square, that you could drive your car through, so I figure, what can go wrong here?  I signal the girls we are going in, it is only a one room penetration, in the roof, out the back – sounds simple, eh?  Jess follows me, then Cindy, finally Lynn.  Remember – this hole is at least 8 feet square!

So, out pops Jess, then Cindy, and Lynn, so we are good to go, and head towards the starboard rail to the crane, where I intend to cross over the port side and to our mooring line.  I turn, there is Jess & Cindy, right where they should be, but now the count is THREE, and where on earth is Lynn?  So, I scan the area, and she is a little above us, and I signal in in uncertain terms to get down here – now!  My signals fall upon deaf ears (eyes?) cause Lynn is just drifting off into the blue…… goodness gracious, what else can go wrong here?

So, like the 7th Cavalry, who appears but Csaba, who has taken my last two lost souls to the line, and I pass Cindy and Jess off to him, so I can head out in search of the Lynn-ster.  I swim all the way forward, and she is nowhere to be found.  I am thinking, how could she have had such good buoyancy control just moments ago and then decided to do an Un-CESA, sailing to the surface without regard to anything we have worked so hard to instill in her!  So, I do a little forensic diving, and sure enough, there is one of her weight pouches laying in the one little room we had gone through. I am thinking, as I look at the hole as big as the opening in roof of the old Dallas Cowboys stadium that we entered, how could you get caught up and lose your weights here?  Oh well, let’s go find Lynn.  So, heading back to our mooring line, it’s a quick ascent up, thank goodness I am packing a 50% Nitrox mix in my stage bottle to help compensate for the lack of appropriate safety stops.  I pass by Csaba and the girls on the line, on my mission.  I am thinking the worst – who is going to cover the store when Bev is diving with us?  And who will head up the Dive In Fest committee?   This woman is irreplaceable – we need to find Lynn!

So I surface and scan about, and who’s bright pink BCD do I see way over there on the Island Ventures boat?  Hmmmmm….can’t be too many of those out here.   I swim over to recover our little lost soul, and thank Ann and the Island Ventures crew for allowing Lynn the chance to to rest and catch her breath on their vessel.  Oh the shame….how will I extract repayment from Lynn for this faux paux?

Finally I have my entire group of SIX back on board and we can move to our next location, the Benwood.  Jess is my bud, along with Barb.  I pass Lynn off to her husband, and inform her that it would be healthy for her to breath down my bottle of EAN50 on her ascent, so I tell her halfway through the dive I will be passing it to her.  The girls and I splash, and it is a great dive.  So much to see, huge trumpet fish, lobsters, lizard fish, scorpion fish, Peterson’ shrimp, black grouper, file fish, fire clams, nassau grouper, sea pearls, Christmas tree worms, crabs, spotted morays…this place is hopping with fish and marine life!

We have a great dive, 50 minutes at 42 feet, and could have enjoyed it longer, but the boat needed to get home.    Once back on shore it was time for blog updates, and then we headed over to casa Hartman for an evening of mixed drinks, good video, and great commeradie.  From there most of us headed to the Paradise Pub for burgers, and Dave H brought the house down with his rendition of Frank Sinatra’s My Way during the karaoke contest.  Job well done!

Saturday now, and what a most beautiful day.  Sky is clear and blue, winds are gone,temperature is perfet – exactly like IVS ordered!  Hannah picked our first location today, Key Largo Dry Rocks, also known as Christ of the Abyss.  Viz was great, no waves, current or surge, just a beautiful dive.   Second location was North North Dry Rocks where the great conditions continued.  Lots of critters, crabs, nudibranchs, lobster, the usual cast of characters.  Clear sky overhead and a very sunny day mad for super natural lighting for underwater photography.

Back for lunch and a quick turnaround, and we headed out for the Spiegel Grove.  Only one boat was on the wreck, so we had our pick of the mooring balls.  My group today was the 60% of the Swartley family that can be classified as adventurous – DJ, Jess & Jim.  Our plan was to keep it shallow and work the upper decks with some penetration and that is exactly what we did, keeping it around 70 ft.  A very large Goliath Grouper was laying on the deck, allowing us to approach quite closely to check him out.  Jess spotted a few large sea cucumbers, some big bristle worms, and a crab.  Great dive, and we hit the mooring line just as Jess dropped below 1,000 psi, so the three of them headed up.  Csaba had just finished his deep adventure dive with Brian, so he hooked up with me and took the lead on a little extended tour for the two of  us.  As we finished our tour and approached the mooring line he was 4 minutes into deco on his Galileo, while I still had 8 minutes of no deco bottom time available on my Cochran.  At that moment who swims by but Hartman, so gosh, let’s go on part three of this dive adventure! Csaba opts out since his computer is already not happy, and Dave and I head back inside, deeper, to play and explore.  I still have 1,500 psi in my 120, so I am good for gas.  We end up with 47 minutes of bottom time at 110 feet, and start up the line to satisfy our mild deco obligations.  I clear at 15 feet and Dave clears three minutes later, so we are good to go – 60 minute run times on the wreck!

From there it’s a short hike to the Benwood, and most splash right away when we get there.  Cindy has to complete her Rescue Diver open water scenarios, so we enlist DJ and Jim to help out while Barb offers to provide in-water observation.  Cindy was wiped from the surface tow and took more than a few minutes to recover, but we managed to get her back in the water for a half hour therapy dive.  Let’s just say that I didn’t have the heart at that moment to share with her that I felt we needed to repeat this exercise again tomorrow!  The dive ws very nice, with a huge green moray for us in the anchor locker, and the usual cast of characters across the wreck.

The wind had been picking up and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees on our ride back in, but we are hopeful that the boat will be running back out for our night dive!  Well as it turns out, NOAA is late in posting the evening weather conditions & forecast, so we decide to throw caution to the winds and sail.  Our choice is a good one, because while the wind is brisk, blowing at maybe 15 knots, it is coming from the northeast, so the seas are more than manageable.  We arrive on site well after dark, as a night dive should be!  My immediate team consists of Jim & DJK Swartley, and we splash on in for our dive.  As soon as we hit the wreck, into the forward anchor locker we go, to see how if our moray is still there.  Well gosh, it’s a little crowded in there as we slip in through the steel, not only with our moray but also with a large turtle who had checked into the room for the night.  Let’s jst say it was a little tight as the turtle was swimming was swimming around us, the moray pondering whether to bite or not, and DJ and I right in the middle of the tight quarters – cool!  Got a few nice pics’s there, and time to explore the rest of the wreck.  All sorts of nice activity about, all the large parrot fish in for the night, crabs eating, lobsters exploring, basket stars out in all their splendor, big puffers hanging under the structure….just a great dive!  Our group manages 64 minutes of sight-filled bottom time and finally it is time to head back up.  We motor back to the resort, and the fatigue must be setting in, as only Csaba, Larry and I manage to make it to the Paradise Pub for the customary post-night dive cheeseburger.

Sunday morning brings up more of the same great stuff, clear skies, balmy temperatures, and no wind – just like we ordered!  Time to head out and Csaba suggested we visit some of the less often visited reefs off Tavernier, namely Pickles Reef and Snapper Ledge – so we did!  We arrived at Pickles first, and had a great dive, very healthy reef structure, lots of life, some nurse sharks, large morays, I even got some nudibranch mating photos – woo hoo!  Second drop was Snapper, and wow were the fish in abundance here.  Utterly amazing how many fish can congregate in such an area, the clouds of snappers, grunts, and goatfish were thick!  This is a really nice reef, and we are thankful to Csaba for the suggestion this morning!  The weather stayed perfect, the sun kept shining, you could not ask for a nicer day on the ocean.

After lunch it was time for our signature double deep trip, visiting the Duane and then the Spiegel Grove again.  Our first drop was the Duane, and the mooring balls were limp in the water as we approached….who knows, might indicate no current below, or might just be a tease to get us into the water!  Hartman led a tour with Barb & Larry, while I took DJ, Jess & Jim with me.  Csaba reached out to another diver who he had befriended, and offered to be his guide & mentor on this site….what was Csaba thinking?  Clearly a  case of “not one of ours”, after various issues gearing up, he jumped in, promptly lost his weight belt and light, got fouled in the granny line, argued with the crew about their desire to have him re-board and get set back up, telling them all he needed to do was shove more weights in his BCD pockets, which, thankfully, they would not allow.  By the time he go back on he was spent, and then accosted the captain regarding the cost for the nitrox which he was now not using.  Whew!!  Good choice Csaba…….NOT.

Meanwhile, the rest of us enjoyed a great tour on this wreck, circumnavigating the entire ship, managing the 3 knot current well, great teamwork and communication skills, just a great dive.  After I sent my crew back up, I drifted off the stern to the sand to see if I could find the lost weight belt, but all I found was two HUGE Goliath Groupers checking me out way behind the ship.  I figured the belt was a lost cause so I took some pictures, shot some video, and worked my way back across the sand at 124 ft to the wreck and up to the mooring line.  Nice 40 minutes of bottom time, minimal deco obligation, thank you Cochran!

Our second location was the Spiegel Grove, for our final dive of the weekend.  Teams remained the same, except Csaba’s new friend sat this one out, so he hung with the Hartman ‘Belly of the Beast” tour.  Our team did great, with DJ leading the descent, and the Swartley family just shining in all departments with communication, navigation and situational awareness throughout this dive.  Made me feel like a proud papa!  I basically followed them along, and once they were ready to go back up I made sure they found the ascent line.  After that I still had a few tissue groups that needed nitrogen, so I dropped down into the well deck, swam it all the way to the stern, dropped down the ramp, swam under past the props, crossed back over and swam the starboard deck back to the superstructure.  Another nice 40 minutes at 134 ft, and again, my Cochran kept me out of trouble, with an 8 minute deco obligation.  I joined Csaba on the line, and he had a little more time to hang as his Galileo is a tad more conservative than my computer.  All good, great hang, great dive, great way to wrap it up.

Once back at the dock we headed over to Rib Daddy’s for dinner.  There were about 14 of us there, including C. Lee from the Amoray front office, and Bob our mate all weekend.  Dinner was great, the conversation greater, lots of laughter and fun all around.  No one left hungry, that is for sure!  Awards were handed out, with Jim Swartley, Larry Gilligan, and Barb White earning the coveted ADD (All Dives with Dave) award.  There was also one other award handed out, one that we hope does not repeat in the near future – the MDD (More Dives than Dave) recognition given to Csaba, who managed to get in 20 this weekend, versus Dave’s piddly 18 dives.  Trust me, this won’t happen again!!!!

Monday and the crew headed home, with a few staying another day to relax after a super weekend of diving and playing in the Keys.  We’ll be back soon!

10 Responses

  1. . . . waits breathlessly for the next chapter . . . .

  2. Just to offer some clarification on yesterday morning…Dave had told us we would be leaving at 10. Well, we had to wake him up at 8:30 cause he was snoring away in the other room. I jumped into the shower and was out and dressed in a half hour…which by the way is record time for me! As soon as I got out he tells us we are leaving in at 9. What happened to 10?

  3. Clarification on that clarification – yes indeed we were leaving at 10…as in , the boat, pulling away from the dock, which was 22 miles away from the shower! Details, details!

  4. So glad you took the time to find the No Name Pub. Even though it is so far back in the sticks on BPK it is one of the best bars in the Keys. It boasts the best pizza in FL and they live up to it. Everyone needs to check it out – it is a great place – if you can find it!

  5. BTW – Did you put an IVS dollar on the WALL? Next time I go I’ll find it…

  6. OMG — Sloppy Joes and hot dogs on the boat! Dave, we *have* to talk Amy Slate into a similar setup!

  7. Wwhat is up with you and bristle worms, first PR and now the Keys. Do you have a special affinity for the cuddly creatures. Ouch!!

  8. It is part of a bigger medical research program, I figure if you repeatedly sting yourself that eventually you might develop a tolerance…..not good results, but in the name of science I will continue to impale myself on spines, barbs and stingers until good results can be posted!

  9. Dave, the Spiegel dive could have been worse — the Z Brothers could have claimed their mooring ball, or a new one, on the ascent, and added to the confusion.

    Have a burger for me at the Paradise — and *NO* breakdancing; you need to avoid injury and keep herding the cats down there.

  10. On Snapper Ledge there’s a large (4-5 feet across)brain coral, with a moray living in the hole in the back of it (reef side).

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