The Benefits of the PADI National Geo Open Water Course

The standard PADI Open Water class is 4 open water dives over two days after successful completion of classroom and pool work.  Recently, PADI partnered with National Geographic to offer an Open Water Course that focused more time and attention on both a new divers underwater skills and the surrounding eco-system in which the dives take place.  The PADI National Geo Open Water course includes updated course book, classroom content and a stronger emphasis on buoyancy and navigational skills in both the pool and open water dives.  There are 6 open water dives over two days required to complete the PADI National Geo course.  Indian Valley SCUBA is a PADI 5 Star Training Center and offers the PADI National Geo course as a standard part of the introductory curriculum for new divers.  Most of IVS’s new open water students conduct the open water certification dives in the friendly confines of the “Quaribbean of the North” at Dutch Springs in Bethlehem, PA.  Most of IVS’s warm water enthusiasts venture to IVS South in Key Largo, Florida either with an organized IVS trip at Amoray Dive Resort or on their own vacation schedule.

Lora Sigler Feeding Hungry Tarpon at Robbies

Lora Sigler Feeding Hungry Tarpon at Robbies

Wayne and Lora Sigler of Quakertown, PA arrived in Key Largo over a beautiful holiday Easter weekend to complete their open water check out dives for the PADI National Geo Open Water course.  The Siglers are a very nice and active young couple looking to put SCUBA diving in their growing list of adventure activities.  The couple started their Keys adventure on Thursday with an early arrive and a half day of tourist activities in the Upper Keys including a stop at Robbies in Islamorada to feed the school of hungry Tarpon that lurk of the dock of the marina.

Good Friday morning started off with the obligatory stop at Key Largo Undersea Park (KLUP) or more affectionately known to us locals as Jules Undersea Lodge Lagoon.  Jules is in a reality a salty little “pond” created by a vinyl wall blocking off a large elbow of a saltwater canal with a retired underwater lab that now represents the only underwater hotel.  The viz at Jules could be anywhere from 5- 30 feet and the max depth is 25 feet.  Jules is first and foremost a phenomenal shore based training facility for introductory SCUBA diving classes.  There are a couple different platforms at 4 and 6 feet for confined water work and right off the platforms is the depths of Jules lagoon perfect for introductory open water dives complete with multiple down lines and guide ropes for low viz conditions.  What Jules lacks in underwater brilliance is totally offset by convenience and flexibility.  Instructors bring divers to Jules on Friday morning, conducts a refresher of skills and comfort on the shallow platforms and a student’s first open water dive and all flexible surface skills in the calm controlled environment of the lagoon.  After a visit to Jules, open water students are ready to dive the reefs of the National Marine Sanctuary from one of the numerous dive charter boats based in Key Largo.

Training Platform at Jules Lodge Lagoon at Key Largo Undersea Park

Lora and Wayne completed their first dive and flexible surface skills at Jules flawlessly although Lora attempted to circumnavigate the mangrove habitat on her first attempt on surface navigation.  With Jules in the logbooks, the couple and I headed to Florida Keys Dive Center on off Tavernier Creek just south of Key Largo.  The weather was gorgeous, the water temp was a balmy 81 degrees (above average for late April) and winds were a bit brisk which made for some bumpy surface conditions on the shallow reefs of the Sanctuary.  Our first dive off the Big Dipper dive boat was the northeast end of Molasses reef off Key Largo.   MO is an awesome large reef system full of bright orange sponges, purple sea fans and tons of colorful reef fish.  Plus, with depths of 25-35 feet and tons of large sand patches, Mo is perfect for open water certification dives.  The conditions underwater at Mo on Friday afternoon were excellent with 80 feet of blue water viz and no current.   Dive two of the PADI open waters courses is what I call the “working dive” because numerous skills are completed on this dive to allow a student to focus more on comfort underwater on forthcoming dives.  Wayne and Lora completed all skills on dive two which left plenty of time to explore the reef surrounding the boats mooring ball.  Kudos to Lora for keeping her cool after a momentary thought of “why I am doing this” during her first mask clear.  After a few calming breaths while standing up, Lora was back to completing the rest of her skills flawlessly.

Mortar Once held in Giant Pickle Barrels from Pickle Barrel Wreck

Mortar Once held in Giant Pickle Barrels from Pickle Barrel Wreck

The Big Dipper traveled south to Pickles Reef to dive Pickle Barrel Wreck which at 13 feet is not my preferred shallow water reef dive on a windy day.  Surge is no fun underwater especially for new students and the shallower the reef the stronger the surge. Thankfully, there is a sand channel near Pickle Barrel Wreck that goes down to 20 feet which was hidden from the surge and had plenty of open space to complete a few skill on open water cert dive number three.  The rest of the dive was spent admiring the large brain corals in the area and checking out a minnow cave I discovered when team IVS was in town 2 weeks prior.  The highlight of the dive was a school of 100 plus blue tangs munching on the reef like piranha.  We did swim over the spread out remains of the 100 year old Pickle Barrel wreck towards the end of the dive which made it all the more challenging to stay low in the surge with a half empty air tank (almost empty for Wayne!!!).  After two successful reef dives off the Big Dipper, it was back to the dock to sign log books and rest up for a full day of dives on Saturday.

Orion: Sister Dive Boat of the Big Dipper at Florida Keys Dive Center

Orion: Sister Dive Boat of the Big Dipper at Florida Keys Dive Center

Saturday morning started with more beautiful spring weather but still a bit windy.  Due the anticipated bumpy surface conditions, the Capt recommended that the Big Dipper dive boat travel to the deeper reefs of Tavernier.  (Deeper meaning 50 feet versus the traditional 25-35 feet depth on the reefs off Key Largo).    Shallower reefs are always preferred during any open water class but I had faith in Lora and Wayne to handle the deeper reefs and I also preferred to avoid the surge of the shallower reefs.  Our first stop was Crocker which was more like 60 feet to the bottom of the mooring ball instead of 50 feet but who is counting.  While Lora and Wayne processed through their obligatory ear clearing rituals, I checked out the landscape and immediately saw the largest school of Blue Parrotfish that I ever witnessed anywhere in the world.  There had to be 200 plus of these bright turquoise blue fish in a group together swarming over the reef under the dive boat.  Blue Parrotfish are normally seen in groups of two or three and only Midnight Parrotfish regularly travel in large schools when feeding on the reef. Mixed in with the school of Blue Parrotfish were hundreds of Sergeant Majors and Yellowtail Snapper.  I have been diving all over the Caribbean and you just do not see such congregations of reef fish than we have here in the Keys.  To add the excitement at the start of the dive, a 6 foot nurse shark was sitting in a patch of sand on the bottom of the mooring.  What a cool way to start your fourth dive in open water.  After paying our homage to the nurse shark, Lora, Wayne and become one with the school of Blue Parrotfish, Sergeant Majors and Yellowtail Snapper as we headed to a large patch of sand in a bit of shallower water (min depth 50 feet) right under the stern of the Big Dipper dive boat.

After mask removal and hovering skills, the dive was almost over for Wayne who was still breathing like he was running a 50 mile off road race (which he has done before!)  The deeper depths did not work well with Wayne’s breathing patterns but I assured him that he will improve once he convinces his body that SCUBA is not an aerobic activity. It’s all about conditioning the body to breath slow and deep. Lora mastered hovering no problem but decided to take here underwater genie imitation to shallower depths so as Lora was rising slowly and Wayne was signaling for low air (proper hand signal with the fist to the chest) it was time to catch up with levitating Lora and end the dive.  Lora taught me a lesson about instructing because she appeared a bit light on Saturday when her weighting and buoyancy were perfect on Friday.  Lora said she put all her weights into her BCD pockets and she was fine once she was below 10 feet of water.  On the surface, I demonstrated to Lora a proper snorkeler free dive entry which works well for divers in rough surface conditions to quickly get down to a manageable depth.  Lora’s buoyancy was excellent at depth and I am a big believer of using only the optimum weight to maintain neutral buoyancy.  The last thing I wanted to do was put more weight on Lora when she was fine yesterday and totally neutral underwater.  Well, it turns out that Lora probably lost one of her weight pockets on entry before the dive and Lora discovered her missing gear as we were preparing for the afternoon dives.

Adult Spotted Drum on Newfound Reef off Islamorda

Adult Spotted Drum on Newfound Reef off Islamorda

The next dive of the morning was at a special choice of Capt Greg called Newfound because I believe he discovered and named the dive himself.   No mooring ball at this site so divemaster Zach had to set the boat’s anchor.  Really cool dive site with endless reef and large coral heads and plenty of sand for the buoyancy skills of the National Geo section of the open water course.   Lora and Wayne were hovering machines and the extra skill work on buoyancy really paid off in their comfort underwater.  The second part of the dive was surveying the reef and marine life in the area. Plenty to see on this reef including fields of barrel sponges and small group of ballonfish spotted by Wayne (great job Wayne).  The deeper reefs of Tavernier are quite different in topography and corals than the shallow reefs of Key Largo so I always enjoy traveling south on the reef line for a bit of diversity.  Great choices Capt Greg!!

Lora Sigler Demonstrating Level Buoyancy on Spanish Lady Reef

Lora Sigler Demonstrating Level Buoyancy on Spanish Lady Reef

The afternoon dives on Saturday were on shallower reefs of Spanish Lady and Pete’s Reef.  Spanish Lady is two distinct dive sites in one with a shallow shelf near the boat’s anchor covered in soft corals and Sea Fans and a well defined ledge off the stern of the boat that is more alive with fish and not corals.  The ledge of Pete’s makes a well defined right angle right near where you start your dive but the preferred direction to make the dive is go to the corner and stay to your left and take in all the schools of reef fish and critters.  The first part of the dive for Wayne and Lora was at the bottom of the anchor of the dive boat to conduct the advanced underwater navigation portion of the PADI National Geo course.  Anyone can learn compass skills, but the mark of a good diver underwater is one who uses numerous visual cues to aid in navigation.  For the natural navigation portion of their skills, I taught Wayne and Lora how to use “breadcrumbs,” distinct parts of the reef topography to find their way back to a starting point.  The key element of using “breadcrumbs” underwater is to look back every so often in the direction of your return route to get a feel of the reef landscape looking in the opposite direction from which you started.  Other prominent cues underwater, is the location of the boat, other mooring balls and the direction of sun.  Lora and Wayne both executed a flawless return to the boats anchor after I led each diver on different routes away from the dive boat.  Wayne had a tough route over a flat plateau lacking distinct topography but he smartly used the shadow of the boat to guide us back to the anchor.

Lora had distinct coral heads as “breadcrumbs” on her navigation route and she used these markers to the letter to bring us back to where we started.  After navigation skills, our group headed to the ledge behind the boat for the fun part of the dive and to check out some cool marine life.  I immediately noticed and illustrated to Wayne and Lora that the main reef line followed the direction the boat was sitting.  You could literally do you dive on the ledge, turn around and follow the ledge to the corner and surface and be close to the stern of the boat (if the wind did not shift 180 degrees!!).  Easy navigation tip and the rest of the dive was quite interesting.  The ledge on Spanish lady is very dead but the fish are hanging in bunches of schools all over the reef.  The second part of the dive was the reef survey portion of the PADI course where our team focused on the symbiotic relationship of the fish and critters on Spanish lady.

Growing Staghorn Coral on Pete's Reef off Tavernier

Growing Staghorn Coral on Pete's Reef off Tavernier

The last dive of the day was on Pete’s Reef which I believe I was last on in December 2004.  Pete’s is an elliptical patch reef teaming with pristine brain and star coral which give the reef amazing profile.  The dive is fairly easy because you pick a starting point and just circle the reef and then cross over the middle portions of the reef once you re-mark your starting point. The key here is remembering your starting point.  The dive boat sat over a bed of sea grass and a 50 yard wide sand channel separated the boat from the reef.  The sand channel was wide and expansive so with no visual references besides the sun, I set a compass heading back to the boat once our team was heading in the right direction. (Tip: Turn your body back to the boat to mark any visual clues for your return route and then set your compass heading clearly at the direction of the boat).  I pointed out to Lora and Wayne how I was navigating the reef and my reef marker (big brain coral with unique features) but all this was bonus because they were already certified divers.  The dive on Pete’s Reef was all about fun with underwater photography as we broke out the cameras and housings and had some fun underwater. Wayne and Lora took some fantastic pictures for newbies and are off to fast start on their underwater diving adventures.

Lora and Wayne Celebrating their SCUBA Cert at Snappers Sunday Brunch

A big thank you goes out to Florida Keys Dive Center, Capt Greg and divemaster Zach for taking good care of the IVS training team in difficult surface conditions.  The Siglers completed their PADI National Geopraphic Open Water course and really enjoyed the extra education on buoyancy, navigation and the underwater environment in the Keys.  I could see a definite improvement in dives number 5 and 6 of the course because on skills the students struggled with on early dives they now excelled with just a bit of coaching, adjustments and more time underwater to gain comfort with the surroundings.  Congratulations to Wayne and Lora and please use your cert cards well and come back to the Keys soon.

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