IVS Invades the Land of the Mayans

And so it began…..a simple thought, a small idea…how about a long weekend of diving for a couple of friends say, in Cozumel? Then the word leaked, and the crowd began to grow….our little trip for 12 suddenly became a group of 15, and half of them are our rowdy friends from the DiveNY crowd on ScubaBoard. So much for a quiet weekend on the Riviera Maya!

So there was a certain Mike, who was thinking about joining us on the trip, and he was shopping airfares, and came upon a great fare out of Baltimore……so he relayed that info to a certain Joyce, who wanted in on the savings, and shared the idea of carpooling to Baltimore. So, “git-r-done” sort of guy I am , I bite…and book my ticket out of Baltimore. Well when I pass that up the chain to Mike he says “oh, I found a great fare from Philadelphia so I’m not going out of Baltimore”. What the heck???

None the less, I am committed so Joyce decides to proceed with her purchase, and we’ll be flying out of the city of the Orioles. So Joyce manages to score a room near BWI airport so we won’t have to make an 0h-dark-thirty run in the morning to catch our 7:30 a.m. flight. Obviously this is her first time traveling with me!

Well nice idea, but let’s check how Dave’s personal work calendar is shaping up as we near the date of departure….hmmmmm…not looking good. In fact, that evening, we have a Wednesday night open water class in Boyertown, plus a lifeguard scuba rescue training session, and a Discover Scuba that night. And of course when we teach there, you can’t pass on the delicious steamed clams at the Little Oley Tavern after class! So off to class we go, and our team includes Ray Graff, Joyce and Dave. Class goes well and the lifeguards are thrilled to have real divers to rescue, and then a chance to experience scuba for themselves. Great session! Afterwards it is off to the Little Oley, and a few beers and a couple of dozen clams later, we are back at the shop to unload.

So now it’s 12:30 a.m., and our flight departs at 7:30 from a city that is two hours away….and I have not packed a thing! So Joyce opts for a nap, and I tackle the desk clearing and gear packing that needs to be done. Somehow I again wind up with three huge carry-ons, since we are not only diving, but teaching Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, and Cavern Diver programs this weekend. Finally I am packed and we roll at 3:20 to head to Baltimore. Joyce, nicely rested from her nap, opts to drive so I settle into the passenger seat and close my peepers. OK, well I am just drifting off into serious la la land when crash – crunch – rattle rattle….what the heck is all that, I ask? Well it appeared a deer had attempted, unsuccessfully, to cross the turnpike a short while ago, and his remains were there in our lane. As we plowed through them, a couple of bones managed to penetrate the right front tire, so suddenly it was wop-wop-wop as Joyce pulled over onto the very narrow shoulder to investigate. Yup, sure ‘nuff, that there tire is real flat! So, where’s the jack & tools I ask? Hmmmm…..let’s help Ms J find them for the very first time! We locate and gather the jack, handle, wrench, and spare tire and get to work. Fortunately we have plenty of lighting, since the cavern class requires each diver to have a primary light plus two back-ups, so we are good to go for illumination. Grunt, grunt, the car is jacked, the tire changed, the gear re-loaded, and we are back on our way south, none the worse for the wear, but definitely a little tighter on the clock, and now in serious need of a shower!

So, 5:50 we get to the hotel, check in, and jump into the shower. I make it back downstairs to see the 6:15 shuttle pulling away, so now it’s another 15 minutes of precious time clicking away waiting for the next one. OK, well let’s make use of this time, so we go to the kiosk and I check in for my flight. Joyce tries, but for some reason she can’t get confirmed, so we need to do that at the airport. Finally it arrives, and we board, but we are only the first stop, and we head to two other hotels. 6:48 and we are unloading at the airport, but the shuttles have to unload in the outside lanes, not right in front of the terminal doors. “Joyce, grab a cart”, I say, and I hump my three bags and Joyce’s two more off the van. “Go check in, look at the clock, now it’s 6:54!” She runs inside, and I follow with the cart pile high with bags. “Here, use the First Class line”, I say, and we are only one person away from being taken care of. Make that one long-winded, very chatty person……geeesh!!! So now it is 6:58, and finally it’s our turn, and the agent takes a look at his watch and states the obvious “man, are you cutting it close!”. No kidding! But we manage, and her boarding pass prints out at 6:59, less than one minute from the cut-off. Whew! So we hand over our bags, and head for security – quick, use the express lane, almost there, and a wheelchair pusher excuses herself into the line in front of us. Well this must be lonely person day at the airport, cause she needs to chat, and the very friendly, very chatty older woman in the chair needs to chat with every stinkin’ blue shirted TSA staffer between there and the screening station. Finally on her third attempt through the scanner, I ask if we could possibly pass by, cause our plane has been boarding now for 10 minutes. OK, we get the green light, and grab our bags, and head down the terminal to our gate. One more short line to bypass, and we’re finally on! Atlanta first, then the land of Coz! Time to start relaxing a bit!

Finally we look out and there’s the beautiful emerald–hued sea we knew awaited us.  Our plane came in for a landing and moments after touching down, the skies opened up with a torrential downpour.  Well guess what the Mexicans at the airport don’t have?  You guessed it – raincoats!!  So we had to wait til the rain slowed, and finally the ground crew came back out and we walked down the stairs onto the island.  Bags are unloaded, pass through immigration with no incidents (Csaba is not on this trip!), gather our bags, through customs, and finally we are officially  into the country.  Know how you can tell that? By the throng of salesmen awaiting you as you pass through the doors, peddling everything from time shares to tours to dinner reservations to who knows what.  We run the gauntlet, grab our shuttle passes, and load up for the short ride to Hotel Cozumel, our base of operations for this adventure.  Check in is smooth, and within a few minutes, we are joined by the rest of the crowd, including Brian LaSpino, Deanna Kuik, Mike Parzynski, Tricia Arrington, Grace Crawford, Donna Raleigh, Steve Holak, our Denver connections Joe Benkelman & Ryan Warren, and representing ScubaBoard’s DiveNY group, Sam Aeyung, Lewis Evans, Chris Muller and Pam Schools – a total of 15!

Everyone checked in, dropped their stuff off in the rooms, and boogied across the street where we rented a tank from the on-site dive operator and jumped in on the house “reef” for a warm up dive.  Weighting was checked, and gear too – cause when we start diving tomorrow, it will be all “hot drops” where the boat does not anchor, and we need to be able to get in and get down quickly so as to not disperse the group in the current.  The damage from past hurricanes, most notably Wilma, is evident under the water here, cause there’s the old concrete pier, along with a sunken boat and pieces of the old seawall.  Still, one man’s junk is another creature’s habitat and there was life galore among the debris piles.  Everyone did great , made the necessary weight adjustments for the high salinity of the local water, and we packed our gear in the dockside lockers for the morning dives.  Quick shower and then down to the restaurant for our first Hotel Cozumel meal!

Friday morning and it’s a 6:30 breakfast call for all.  Everyone’s excited about the diving to be had, and we enjoy a nice breakfast buffet then head across the street to the dock.  The gear lockers can’t be more convenient, right alongside the dock, along with huge rinse tile tanks that sorta remind you of the village communal wash tub!  Everyone is getting their gear together, waiting for our boats to come in, when I happen to notice Sam sitting, looking dejected, alongside the dock.  “Sam”, I ask, “what could be the matter?”  With a very sorry face Sam turns to me and says “Remember how I said to you how proud I was that Donna was the organized one?  Well I gave her the gear locker keys last night and she lost them!  We have no gear to dive!”.  My goodness, my reaction was immediate – I was overwhelmed…no, not like you might think, but overwhelmed trying to simultaneously hold back the laughter and try to sort through the hundreds of wry comments that were flying into my head!  Where to start, I thought!  OK..I composed myself, “where did you last see them?”  Donna left them hanging in the locker door”, she said.  Good safe place, I am thinking, yep, she’s the organized one alright!   And to make matters worse, our boats are coming to get us, the local dive shop is not yet open, and except for bathing suits, the girls are gearless.  What a way to start it off!

Our operator for this trip is Dive with Martin, and we meet Miguel and the crew as they bring two boats for our gang.  We make the introductions, I go over the gear situation with them, and we agree to make our first stop at the dive center to gear the girls up in rental goodies for the morning.  We pile on the boats, 28 ft open pangas, with a fly bridge of sorts for the captain.  They are open construction, with no cabin, so as we head out into the very windy ocean it becomes more than a little wet.  In fact, it is more along the lines of having one of the local firemen standing on the bow and hosing everyone down, non-stop, for the entire ride out to the dive site.  The upside is that the air and water are both in the mid 80’s, so while wearing your mask certainly helps you see on the way out, at least we are not cold.

A quick stop on the ride south to pick up the needed rental gear, and we soon arrive at our first dive site – Palancar Bricks. We brief on the plan then drop in on top of the reef, depth around 40 ft, and head west to the edge of the wall.  From there we drop down to 100 ft and begin to swim through a labyrinth of channels, cuts and passageways through this amazing reef structure.  The current is northward, so we are swept along the edge of the wall, where to our left the depths plummet to 6,000 feet or more.  This is very open water, and very cool! Miguel is leading our group of nine, and the other six are on the second boat, so it’s nice and relaxing without too big a group to manage.  Sadly, we reach the 700 psi point, and we begin the slow ascent to the surface.  At 60 ft Miguel deploys his SMB (surface marker buoy) and passes out enough line from his reel to get it to the surface, where our captain spots in and begins to position the boat to intercept us.  We hang for our safety stop, still sailing along, and finally pop up.  The wind is strong and makes the surface current even stronger, so it’s grab the current line and hang on for dear life as we prepare to reboard.  The plan is to remove your BCD in the water, pass it up, then pull your fins off and climb the ladder.  Well removing the BCD in the current is akin to trying to swim in a washing machine, so it makes for a bit of fun, but we manage.  Back on board there are nothing but huge smiles all around – we have arrived in Cozumel for sure!

Dive #2 is an area known as San Clemente, and it’s a nice reef structure with a depth in the mid 40 foot range. Lots of critters, turtles, eels and a healthy population of reef fish.  Even better, lots of seahorses hanging on for dear life in the current, their tails locked onto some vegetation along the sea floor. It’s truly amazing how well they blend in and you really need to have an eye for them to notice them as you sail along.  Thankfully, Miguel & Roberta, our dive guides for this trip, have the ability to spot these and so many other cool critters for us!  An hour in the water sailing along, and we finally get back on board for the ride back for lunch.

Lunch is served in the waterfront restaurant, sitting right on the beach.  The food is plentiful, and while not 4-star, certainly offers enough variety to appease everyone’s taste and satisfy every appetite.  Our boats return at 1:00 for us and we head back out for the afternoon dives, this time hitting the Santa Rosa Wall and Chankanab Reef.  The wall is dramatic, and the currents are strong, so we sail along just reveling in the beauty of the underwater world here.  Another dive nearly an hour long at 100 ft, and we are thankful for our computers (OK, except Tricia, who’s Suunto is definitely not impressed with our diving habits!).  Miguel is great and Dive with Martin is unlike some of the other operators here, as they actually let us dive our computers rather than some rigid dive plan that has been drilled into them from above – hence our reason for the selection of this operator!  So our surface intervals short, usually around 40 minutes, and we are back in the water faster, for longer bottom times – like it should be!

After our dives we head back to the dock where we have enough time to grab something at the poolside snack bar, hang out  bit, and then saunter on back down to the dock for our night dive.  The group has dwindled a little so it’s Sam, Donna, Brian, Deanna, Joyce, Lewis, Joe, Ryan and myself aboard for the darker version of what we have been doing all day.  A side comment here and a compliment to Deanna – seven weeks ago she decided to try scuba diving, took the class, and now within two weeks, has gone from six drysuit dives at Dutch Springs in 45 degree water for her checkouts, to another half dozen dives so far in Cozumel, with this one being her first night dive.  Talk about variety in diving right out of the gate!

The night dive is great, and Dive with Martin is accommodating with our request for it to truly be a “night dive”, as defined by darkness and no sun.  So many of the operators here promote twilight dives, where by the end of your dive it is finally getting dark, but you never get the full impact of nocturnal activity on the reef.  Again, another reason we have chosen this operator!  We drop in on Paradise Reef and enjoy an hour  of bottom time, being entertained by octopus, lobsters and eels out and about, huge crabs feeding, groupers hunting, and the usual cast of characters that play at night on the reef.  Great dive, great group, and we are thrilled with our first full day of diving here!  Once we get back, we gussie up and drop into the hotel restaurant for a pretty decent buffet and some well-earned cerveza’s!

Saturday morning comes and the wind has not died down at all, in fact it is growing stronger and coming from the southeast.  That makes the Palancar area a little rough to dive, so we opt for the C53 wreck, a former Mexican Navy gunboat sitting in 70 feet of water.  Cleaned and prepared for diving, it offers some great swim thru’s and exploration, and serves as a bit of an oasis for a large variety of sea life.  Some great photo op’s, and as we are heading towards the line, I find, in a sad but true growing IVS tradition, one of the ladies’ weight pouches from her BCD.  What have you started, Lynn Swartley?   It’s OK though, cause Tricia manages to make it to the line, and at least ends up on the boat we started from (unlike Ms Lynn!).

Second dive is Tormentos Reef, and here is probably the strongest current we hit all weekend, as we sail, head over heels, along this beautiful reef.  Lots of large fish everywhere, and a really nice dive, but way too fast to really enjoy how much there is to see here.  We probably cover three miles during this dive, and are nowhere near were we started when we finally reboard after an hour plus on the bottom.  We do manage to capture three lionfish on this dive; part of a local effort to keep this menacing predator under control and avoid decimating the reef fish population as we have witnessed in the Bahamas and other places.  Miguel is packing a ziplock plastic bag, and we heard the little buggers, poisonous fins and all, into the bag for one last swim.  They must feel like the little pigs boarding the trucks in the movie Babe…”oh boy, we’re going for a ride!!  Woo hooo!”  Little do they know….Anyhow, enough of that dark talk……it’s time to head back for lunch and prepare for the afternoon’s dives.

Since the sind has not died down, we decide to not head as far south into the wind, so our first drop will be Punta Tunich, a really nice reef ledge interspersed with beautiful white sandy patches.  Now today is a special day as we are celebrating birthdays for both Joe Benkelman and Joyce Kichman, so as we show up for this afternoon’s dives, our birthday-ers are securely bound in handcuffs and wearing pretty feather boas for us.  In proper DIR tradition, the handcuffs are black, the fur is a uniform 3/4″ thick, and the boas are exactly 48″ long, with the feathers evenly spaced left and right along the center cord.  Our celebrants roll backwards over the gunwale in perfect synchronization, descend to depth, and sail along, side-by-side, showing great form and style.  More than a few photos capture the moment of this special dive, with Joe, the junior celebrating his 45th, while Joyce the senior makes her 50th a very special sort of day with her friends under the sea.  Obviously these two are not into solo diving today!  Now you may be wondering, who would have had handcuffs and boas in their baggage on this trip, and while we won’t mention any names, let us just say that Ms Tricia is full of all sorts of surprises ..wink wink!  

Our second location is back at Chankanab, and we manage to find some more toadfish, and Dave snags two more lionfish, barehanded, off the reef.  Miguel is quick with his plastic bag, and the reef fish are breathing a little easier for our efforts.  The current here is almost non-existent, so the dive is really laid back and everyone is smiling and grinning as we surface from our last daytime open water ocean dive for this weekend, and we head back in for a quick snack and then one last night dive.

Back at the hotel we grab a snack and hydrate a bit at the poolside cabana, then head over for our last night dive.  Our team from Dive with Martin has been great, and tonight we are heading out even later, to make sure our night dive is truly “all night” and no twilight.  Love these guys!  It’s a really laid back dive, minimal current, lots of life, and Donna, Sam, Joyce, Steve and I are greeted with some really cool phosphorescent sea stars, slipper and spiny lobsters walking about, loud toadfish grunting, more octopus play, and Steve playing laser tag, lighting up some unsuspecting reef inhabitants for the marauding groupers to nail…nice, Steve!  You’ll be getting plenty  of hate mail from PETA now!  All in all, another super dive, and we finally head back in.  Hugs and high fives all around to our dive guides, and we saunter over to the hotel to gussie up and finish Joyce’s birthday celebration. 

Meanwhile, our birthday boy Joe had decided to sit out our night dive, and he, along with the rest of th crew, had headed over to the Casa Mission restaurant for dinner, drinks, and dancing!  Needless to say, they were a bit ‘lit up’ when we met them in the Hotel Coz bar, and the celebrations and laughter continued into the night.  What a really fun bunch on this trip, like that is a surprise!  Joe ended up behind the bar taking care of us, the staff just took it all in, smiling at the antics of this gringo group.  From there we rolled out to the pool, had a few mas cervezas, and finally called it a night.  Happy Birthday Joe & Joyce!!

Sunday morning came way too early for some, but everyone managed to get up and be in the lobby to catch our 7:30 cab ride down to the ferry station so we could make the 8:00 ferry to the mainland for our day in the cenotes.  We get there, and man, the ferry landing is sure not too busy on a Sunday morning!  We feel like the Gryzwald’s from National Lampoons Vacation,  getting in there early, beating the crowd, and grabbing the first tickets for the 8:00 ferry!  Woo hoo..first in line…this is great….wait, what does sign say?  Next ferry..9:00!!!  My oh my, the crowd starts to get a little ugly as they look at me, wondering why I didn’t allow them one more precious hour of pillowtime this morning.   Let me check and make sure….yep, my confirming email, from earlier this week says “take the 8:00 ferry”.  So I call across the channel to Aquatech Dive Center, our cenote dive operator, and the voice on the other end says “what?  There’s no 8:00 ferry?  When did they change that???”.  Whew….I am vindicated!   So we grab a little nap, and finally board the 9:00 ferry over to Playa del Carmen. 

The ride over is quiet, a little bumpy due to the wind, but as we draw closer we are treated to a school of tuna making dinner out of some baitfish while the sea birds swoop in from above to grab the snacks and leftovers.  Sucks to be them, and sure makes us feel a little better about our position on the food chain!  We tie up , and sure enough, there are our guides there to greet us.  We hump the gear to the waiting vans, and enjoy a half hour ride south to Akumal.  We stop at Aquatech and  get our paperwork squared away, grab some tanks, and head a little further south, to Dos Ojos cenote.  The cenote system runs all through this region, and basically they are solution-formed caves and caverns, which over the past millions of years have been both dry and wet, allowing beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations to form.  Slightly acidic water has cut through the limestone, forming underground rivers & pools.  Where the rock thinned out too much, the roof of the caves collapse, allowing access from the surface to the system.  Diving here is about 180 degrees different from our diving off Cozumel, and a great contrast for the weekend’s adventure.   

Once on site, we get a comprehensive briefing, and our group breaks up into three.  Tommy and Tito will each be leading a small group on cenote tours, while Mike, Joyce, Tricia, Lewis, Sam & Donna will be with me and Lena, as we work to complete the required dives and skills for our Cavern class.  We head in, and enjoy two different excursion dives.  Our first is the Barbie line, aptly named for an early Mayan Barbie doll found in the mouth of an early Mayan plastic alligator about halfway through the tour.  The speleothermic formations are stunning, and you want to just slow down and take it all in, sort of a 3-D visit to a natural art museum.  About 45 minutes later we surface after completing our loop. 

Most of the group heads up for lunch, and our cavern team drops back down for some skill work, working with reels, laying line, making tie-offs, and connecting to the permanent guideline just inside the cave zone.  From there, it’s masks off, and a blind line drill as they make their way back out, with the only reference being the guideline they just ran between their fingers.  Everyone does great, buoyancy is good, stress is managed, and we survive!  Had this been an actual silt-out, loss-of-lights emergency, they would have performed well.    From there we work a little further on buoyancy and air sharing skills, then head up and grab some lunch served up by our guides.

After lunch we head back in for our second tour, this time to the Bat Cave, where halfway along our route, we surface in a pool inside a large cave, and the ceiling is covered with hundreds of bats, hanging around, flying, and just doing bat stuff.  Very cool, and a neat contrast to what lies under the surface.  We dip back in, and finish off another 45 minute tour, surfacing once again at our point of entry.  Very nice.  A few of the group heads back to the hotel early “to pack”  (uh huh!) and the rest take a van back to Aquatech’s beachside bar.  The cavern class stays for a few more skills, and finally I dip down and explore a bit off the side of the main cavern, into a cave area that drops down to about 45 feet and heads back through a series of chambers.  Pretty cool.  Enough of that, let’s pile pack the gear and head back to the Villas DeRosa, the dive center resort.  Joe, Ryan and Grace are already pretty well lubricated by the time we arrive, so what better to do than grab some kayaks and head out into the ocean?  Well at least it made for some great photo ops, and Ryan and Joe made it all the way out past the breakers – nice job men!  Dinner was cooked up right there, and more libations, until finally we were, in true IVS tradition, getting pretty darn close on time to catch the last ferry of the evening back to Cozumel.  Sadly, we said goodbye to our host Tony and his staff, and tooled back up the highway to the ferry landing.  The ride back was pretty quiet and rocky, but we made it, and finally, we had reached the point where everyone’s batteries were dead….off to bed, no time for the poolside bar!  What wimps, eh?  We’ll work on that!

And once again, it’s the Women of IVS who show their stuff and come home with the coveted “A.D.D.” award – All Dives with Dave!  Donna Raleigh, Sam Aeuyung, & Joyce Kichman made all 16 dives over the 3 1/2 days of our adventure – way to go girls!! 

Finally it’s Monday, and for the first time we actually have a chance to go do some shopping and other tourist things!  So a bunch of us jump in a cab, head down to the shopping area, and haggle with the shopkeepers as we score a few bargains on much needed trinkets and chintzy jewelry. More fun, more laughs, more support of the local economy!  What ambassadors we are indeed!  Our shopping needs satiated, we head back to the hotel, pack, check out and head to the airport to catch our respective flights.  Great trip, great group, great destination  – in the words of governor Arnold…. we’ll be back!!

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