Manatee Madness in Crystal River!

Manatee Trip January 2013

Trip Report by Mairead Twohig

Instead of taking the easy way out and flying, my dad (JJ) and I decided to make heading to Crystal River, Fl a family vacation. We made quite a few stops along the way, mainly for gas, but one of the “learning experience” stops was at South of the Border. Which as we found out is not as exciting as all the billboards claim it to be, so a few pictures later we are on the road again. Hours later we find ourselves at our first stop, Orlando. We stayed there for two days roaming around Disney and the various resorts.

ManateeAfter a few days of rest and Mickey Mouse we headed west to Crystal River, with a pit stop at Daytona Speedway for a tour. Friday morning we made our way to the dive shop, not knowing what to expect. They tell me to get my gear a group is heading out on a manatee tour and I can dive into a small cave at King’s Bay. Captain Nick and I dove about 25-30 ft and explored a smaller cave, although I was having ear problems so it didn’t last long. On our way out we met a playful manatee which got lots of attention from both of us.

The next morning we headed to Rainbow River so that I could get a relaxing drift dive in. my dad got a few pictures of me before the boat left me to fend for myself. Besides running into a group that liked stirring up the sand, the dive was long and relaxing. Besides all the random pockets of non-vegetation I got to see a turtle. Since the day was still young my dad and I headed back to the dive shop just in time for another manatee tour. This time I got to just enjoy playing with manatees and I got loads of attention from a baby manatee. The baby sure did love my fins and camera. Captain Nick eventually yelled at me to head back into the spring which I grudgingly did. Just my luck there was only one manatee and the second it saw me it decided to plop its nose in the ground and fall asleep. So I headed back which the rest of the group also had worn out and back to shore we headed. Just in time to catch the end of the Manatee Festival. To much surprise there was only one table the sold manatee trinkets, the rest was homemade, business stuff or food.

Sunday morning we switched it up and instead of going to Blue Grotto or Devils Den, we met up with one of the dive shops instructors at a park about an hour away from Crystal River. Although I am already certified it was fun watching others take their certification test. The park is open to the public and the “watering hole” has a small cave in it. The two dives here were relaxing and fun getting to play with fish and dive into the small cave. Sadly the next day we headed home. Instead of making the long weekend just about manatees and scuba diving, my dad and I made it a week of fun.

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Frank, where are your fins? And more adventures from the Keys!

Heather & Sue with IVS Diver Extraordinaire, ‘Finless’ Frank Gabriel

Aaah, the Florida Keys…we can never get enough of them!  And the last week in July each year is even more special, as Team Indian Valley Scuba enjoys a full week of diving, fun, and food in America’s Caribbean!  This annual adventure is centered around the annual Florida lobster mini-season, a two-day event held each year on the last contiguous Wednesday and Thursday in July.  This is a special spiny lobster hunting season, open only to recreational sports divers and snorkelers, and it’s a great opportunity to catch some of the delicious crustaceans before the commercial season opens in another week or two.

Our “pre-adventure” actually begins on Saturday, when the first of our divers begin to converge on Key Largo.  Hosted by Dave Hartman, one of the faces of IVS-South, the first arrivals included last year’s reigning ‘Lobster Queen’, Bill Zyskowski, Scott Bruce and his dad, Steve Holak, Heather Hiester, ……..and  “Finless” Frank Gabriel (more on that later!).

The Lobster Queen Bill Z and trip leader Steve H

After an overnight stay at Casa Hartman, they headed out in the eye of an impending storm Sunday morning to dive the Spiegel Grove with Chrissie and the gang from Blue Water Divers.  Two great dives exploring this massive wreck from the inside out, and as they motored back to port, the clouds were closing in.  The weather radar was predicting some big storm activity was brewing, so with the afternoon boat cancelled, and the crew enjoyed a nice early dinner at Shipwreck’s Bar & Grille before heading the 110 miles south to Key West for the night.  As it turns out, the storms never materialized, but it made for a nice relaxing start to a marathon week of diving we had planned. Two and a half hours of beautifully scenic driving later, they arrived in Key West, where they were met with the rest of our advance group, quasi-locals Carlie & Leslie Adams, and representing the western side of the IVS family, Jesica Tyre and Berry Smith from Los Angeles.

Monday started off with the group meeting at Sea-Duction, the rebirth of the former SubTropic dive center, now owned by my friend Mike Ange.  Based in North Carolina, Mike has teaching tec classes in the Keys for years, and has experienced much of the same frustration as we have, with a general lack of support and very few dive centers that take technical diving seriously, or can provide the gasses, tank set-ups, and even rebreather support materials that we need to effectively conduct classes and execute tec dives there.  Til now, only Silent World in Key Largo could be counted on for supporting tec programs, and the owner, Chris Brown, is absolutely first class.

So the gang analyzes their nitrox fills and head out for the day, with the plan being two dips on the Vandenburg, and the third on the Cayman Salvor or Joe’s Tug.  Now on IVS trips we have a tradition, and that is, that the boats we use break down at some point.  Just about every trip photo gallery has a shot or two of a captain or mechanic on his knees, head buried somewhere down the engine hatch.  I’m not sure what this black cloud is that sometimes follows us, and it always makes for good stories, but it is, truly, a tradition.  And today was not going to be any different! 

Dave Hartman taking a turn at steering Seaduction’s boat to the Vandenberg

As Sea-Duction’s boat approached the mooring balls on the ‘Vandie’, the crew prepared the boat hook and their lines to tie in.  Approx 100 yards from teh wreck, the captain shouted out “Sh*t..we have a problem here!”  One of the mates jumped down and pulled the engine hatches off, and, true to tradition, buried his head in the engine compartment.  Seems that the steering failed, and the rudder is not responding to the helm.  Hmmmm……not a a good thing!  

So out come the tools, and now all three of them are in the hatch, and lots of colorful language is coming from the crew.  Our guys are enjoying it, and heck, there doesn;t appear to be a lot of surface current, so maybe we can jump in and swim to the wreck!  Well the crew finally figures it out, and via some big-ass wrenches, a lot of sweating, colorful metaphors, and shouting from the helm to the hatch, they are able to man-handle the rudder and guide the boat to the mooring ball.   The crew ties in, and the diving begins! 

Conditions are perfect, and our group enjoys this fantastic 500+ ft. long wreck and all the penetration and exploration it has to offer.  While the plan was to make only twoi dives here, the challenge with the steering makes the decision to stay for a third an easy one, and everyone is happy with that.  Back to port, with the modified steering system in effect, and while the docking proved to be a bit of a challenge, finally all the lines were tied, and it was time to clean up and head down to Duval Street for an evening of good dinner, a variety of hydrating drinks, people watching and sightseeing.

Tuesday morning and time for a leisurely drive back up the Keys to Tavernier, where we have chartered Conch Republic’s boat for a couple of dives this afternoon.  Gary & Brenda, owners of Conch, are there to greet the group and they get off on time, with the first dive on the wreck of the Eagle.  After that our second visit is to Pickles Reef, a nice location that we rarely visit out of Key Largo due  to the distance.   Another good dive in the logbook, and back to the dock they head.  From there it’s a short hop another ten miles up the road to check in at Amoray Dive Resort, our base of operations for the next six days of this adventure! 

Cathy, Maribel, Reinel & Emanuel on the Amoray Diver

Joining the team there are more of the IVS gang, including Steve Zingale, Shaquanasia Morris, Paul, Quinton & Esther Gehman, Ray Graff, Nick Chiarolanza, Jeff Herber, plus joining us from the Tampa Bay area are Marabel Grajales, Reinel Correia, Cathy Levesque, and Emanuel Martinez, and finally the O’Donnell gang, Rob, Jen, Ryan, Alyson & Kristen .  A great team with one focus for tonight – get some rest and be ready to kick butt in the lobster hunting department tomorrow!

The 4 o’clock alarm comes early on Wednesday morning, and the crew slowly shuffles down to load the boat for the first lobster trip.  We’re shoving off at 5:00 a.m., to be in position and geared up to splash at 5:45, the legal start of mini-season in Monroe County. Another member of the team shows up for the boat, Craig Lloyd, who brought his family down for some vacation time while dad gets in some diving & hunting.  His lovely wife and two beautiful daughters are not divers…..yet…but we’ll work on that! 

The hunting starts off a little slow, and the morning boat only produces 13 keeper bugs over three hour-long dives.  Ruh-roh…might be a lot of salad and bread served up at Friday nights lobster dinner!  The team needs to improve on this for sure!!  We’ve got quite a few rookies on board, and a few ringers, like Lobster Queen Bill Z, but we’re missing some of our best, like Bill’s brother John.  And as part of our “rebuilding year”, we also traded a few of last years players down to the minors, but all in all, our team is having a great time!

Ray, Frank & Bill – lobster clearning crew!

After a short siesta it’s time to get serious and get back out on the hunt!  Tanks are loaded, and the 4 o’clock departure heads out, and with a little extra coaching and mentoring, the team more than doubles the morning take.  Way to go..dinner is looking better already!

Wednesday 4:00 a.m. and the activity begins dockside with some new faces showing up, including Sue Douglass, Judy Mullen, and yours truly.  It’s time to kick this lobster hunting into a higher gear!  Out we head for our morning trip and we put another 40 or so in the cooler…now we’re talking!  Back to the dock, and there’s no rest for the weary, as Steve Holak and I head over to Jules Undersea Lodge for a couple of Open Water checkout dives with newcomer Fred Shue, Nick C,Paul & Quinton G, and the O’Donnell tribe – Ryan, Alyson & Kristen.  Conditions are very nice there, and somewhat surreal as there is a whitish cloud hovering a couple of feet off the dark bottom; really makes for a cool visual effect!  Skills completed, the crew heads back to Amoray and we load up for another three-tank final trip out to secure the main course for Friday night’s dinner. By the end of the night the count is 101 bugs in the cooler, so we’re looking good for dinner with our triple-digit production!  After 14 dives over the past to days, the bed feels really good tonight for some reason!   Friday morning dawns as another absolutely beautiful day in Key Largo – blue skies, no wind, flat seas…this trip has truly been gifted as far as conditions go.  Let’s hope we get three more days of it!  John Reider has arrived during the night, so the team is finally complete.  We head out to the reefs for two shallow dives this morning, and our open water students complete all their required skills with flying colors!  I can’t say how proud it makes me to be part of this positive energy and karma that comes from motivated students and a great instructional staff – these guys really rock my world! 

Heather, Judy, Jen, “Finless” Frank, Berry, Jesica & Dave V hamming it up for the camera!

Esther & Paul Gehman on the Amoray Diver

Nick & Scott on the Amoray Diver

And now, with their official recognition as PADI Open Water Divers, our newly minted graduates enjoy their first deep / wreck / adventure dive on the wreck of the Spiegel Grove.  The conditions remain stellar, and it is a perfect way to launch thier next levels of training…gosh..is there a strategy at work here?  Meanwhile, the rest of the crew enjoyed some great dives, and of course Dave Hartman led his signature tour  – “The Belly of the Beast” – through the lowest levels of this massive wreck.  Another great day under and on the sea!

This evening is another one of our celebrated annual events – Lobster Dinner at the Key Largo Conch House restaurant.  We have been doing this for five years now, and the owners of the Conch House spend all day preparing our tails, making various dishes of lobster fritters, lobster bisque, broiled tails, and more.  A great dinner with about forty attendees, including the Lloyd family girls, Michelle from Amoray, and a couple of our local Key Largo friends also.  Great night, great food, great company – Life is Good!

Hartman and Michelle at Conch House

Ray and his ladies at the Conch House, while the rest of us scramble to replace the batteries in our AED….just in case!! With Heather, Sue, Judy & Jesica

The O’Donnell family enjoying a great lobster dinner with Team IVS at the Conch House

Jesica & Judy sharing some ocean-inspired body art with us!

I know we’re sounding like a broken record, but again, we are greeted with perfect conditions on Saturday – truly a picture perfect day as we headed out to Molasses Reef for two nice shallow dives.  And what could make the morning even better?  How about Steve Holak celebrating his 500th dive with Indian Valley Scuba this morning!  OK, or even better?  How about Judy & Jesica modeling full body tatt’s for a boatload of admiring eyes!

The afternoon our plans are to re-visit the Spiegel Grove, then go on to the Benwood in preparation for tonight’s night dive.  The teams prepare and brief for their individual group goals and plans for the dive, and final equipment checks are conducted.  Stage bottles are checked, reels and lift bags verified, computers set.  Each team of divers approaches the bow of the Amoray Diver as a group, so they can enter the water one right after the other, and minimize descent and waiting time, (i.e. burning through precious gas reserves), while waiting for the entire team assemble.   Some groups with more experienced divers have planned some slightly more aggressive tours, while some of the others follow Sue D’s “Lame-Oh” tour agenda, staying outside the wreck and taking in the beauty without the risks of penetration.  Sooo, as the Hartman group heads up for a deep, dark tour, one by one they splash, Dave H going in first, followed by Bill Z, and then Frank G.  Funny, but Frank seems to drop a little deeper under the surface than the others on his entry, as if he had less drag to his body. Hmmmm….as he finally surfaces and begins to kick over to the line to join the others, he does not seem to be making much headway….perhaps because he has NO FINS ON!  Yikes…..perhaps he took that part of Dave’s briefing, about using your hands inside the wreck and not kicking with your fins to stir up silt, a little too literally!    Not to worry Frank, this little faux paus will be a secret just between us…and the entire internet!!  Yes, you know it when the group shouts out almost in unison, “That’ll make the blog!” 

After “Finless Frank’s” entry, the rest of the dive goes well, and everyone else enters the water with ALL their gear on.  Rob O’Donnell completes his ‘very’ Advanced Open Water training with stage bottle drills, running wreck reels and wreck penetration, and even helping Dave V nail a big lionfish.  A great dive, nearly an hour of bottom time with the big tanks most of us are wearing, and finally we head over to the Benwood.  Frank is checked closely by the crew prior to his giant stride, just in case, you know.  The dive here is absolutely magical, from a giant baitball of silverside minnows, to the hungry teams of groupers coordinating feeding attacks, to the huge snook hanging out there, to the cruising nurse sharks over the wreck, just absolutely magical.

The evening  found us back at the site of the Benwood for a true night dive.  The sun had set, and the sea was black; no “twilight” dive for this crew!  Into the ocean we splashed, and down the line we went.  Magical moment #1 – a turtle swims over to us at the bottom of the line and checks us out…you just know this is going to be a great dive!  The best part is that ten year old Kristen O’Donnell is leading us, with no fear or apprehension at all!  And the turtle visits us again during the dive, just cruising with us and allowing the divers to gently touch and stroke its shell, making no attempt to avoid or move away….really cool cooperative animal interaction!

Most of the troops head over to the one of our favorite haunts, the Paradise Pub, for some Cheeseburgers in Paradise, a few pitchers of beer, and a boatload of laughter and story telling that is part of every great IVS trip. Including, of course, the tale of Finless Frank!  And of course, the thing that warms my heart the most……folks planning their next IVS dive trip!!  The stamina and energy of our divers never ceases to amaze me, and half the group stays and closes the bar.  And….they all make it out on the morning boat!

Our last full day of diving is Sunday, and we are not disappointed with the conditions.  More blue skies, more flat seas, and two great reef dives to kick off the morning.  We head back in, grab a bit of lunch, and head out for our ‘graduation dives’, a visit to the Duane and a final tour of the Spiegel Grove.  As we motor south to the site of the Duane, we pass the balls marking her sister ship, the USS Bibb, which is laying on it’s side about 1/4 mile from the Duane.  The balls are absolutely lifeless in the water, with no indication of current at all.  We can’t pass on the chance to dive this wreck, as we rarely get conditions like this when we vsiit it. So, scratch the Duane…. we’re diving the Bibb today!   Of course, no good change in plans goes without some whining, but I step up and help everyone who just listened intently to Dave Hartman’s Duane briefing…. “take everything you just heard, and turn it sideways!”  OK.. briefing done..let’s dive!   

Soooo, I am diving solo on this one, as is Bill Z, as both of us are carrying Lionfish spears and looking to score.  So let’s just set the stage here…this is a 300 ft long wreck, intact, laying on it’s side.  It’s a former Coast Guard cutter, so it has (1) pointy end (the bow), and (1) not-so-pointy end, with a couple of huge 20 ft diameter propellers and rudders (the stern).  It has exactly two mooring balls on it, one at each end of the wreck.  Just saying…..more on this in a few minutes!  So, as we  drop down to the wreck, the visibility is forever, and I tap Bill and point out how cool the props and rudders look as we approach them.  He sees them, or at least I think he does, and we continue down, hit the side of the wreck and separate to hunt for our quarry.  Nice dive, cool wreck to see and for those of us who have dove the  Duane numerous times, it is very interesting to see the difference between the two identical wrecks in terms of growth, marine life, fish populations, especially that the two are just a little over 1,000 ft from each other.  So….fast forward…..I nail another lionfish, and actually show it to Bill as we pass each other, and finally my 35 minutes at 130 ft max is up….time to ascend and rid the body of a little excess nitrogen.  I’m alone now, so I swim over the props, and grab the morning line, and as I turn towards the surface, I can enjoy the view of all our other divers on the line doing nice deep stops and safety stops.  Well OK, most of our other divers. 

Capt. Rob & Mate Alysa getting ready to toss the coin and figure out which one is going to swim the rescue float out to wayward Bill Z

It seems that when Bill decided to come up, he also headed to the mooring line, and began his ascent.  He was diving with a larger tank than most of the others, so his first clue something was amiss was the fact that no one was already on the line, as he expected to find.  Hmmmm.. well at this point he was committed, too far away from the “proper” end of this wreck , so he completed his ascent, and surfaced 300 ft behind the Amoray Diver…about exactly the length of the Bibb!  So, much to Bill’s chagrine, Capt Rob and the crew unroll the 300 ft. rescue line on the boat and they swim it out to Bill.  You know what is going on inside his head……”Darn it…this is going to make the blog!”  And here it is, proving him right.  It should be noted, that Bill gave it a lot of thought, and has an official story – and he’s sticking to it!  It seems that he set a personal goal of having a mooring ball named in his honor on every wreck that IVS visits!  Move over “Z-Ball” (named after Bill and his brother John on the Spiegel), and the “C-Ball”, named in honor of Csaba Lorinczy on another two-ball wreck on the St. Lawrence Seaway.   

After the laughter finally dies down, we motor over to the Spiegel for one last fantastic tour through the wreck.  Berry Smith wants a little adrenalin rush, so he joins me and we drop right down five decks through hatchways, and spend nearly 30 minutes on a long penetration with nary a bit of outside light (or escape path) until we finally emerge near the stern of the wreck.  Everyone else comes up smiling too, enjoying the fantastic conditions on our favorite underwater funhouse.  Very cool way to wrap up a great week of diving!  Time to rinse gear, get one last night of rest, and head for home to get ready for our next IVS trip!

The end…..for now…we’ll be back!!

A Very Special Indian Valley Divers Club Meeting

A Record Turnout at the Indian Valley Divers August Club Meeting

A Record Turnout at the Indian Valley Divers August Club Meeting

Over 70 people turned out for a very special Indian Valley Divers Club Meeting under the Tiki torches on August 9th at Indian Valley SCUBA. The Club meeting included special Guest IVS founding member Sue Douglass who flew in from California to enjoy the company of the IVS family of divers.  IVS co-founder David Valaika announced that Indian Valley SCUBA was this week recognized by PADI of the Americas as one of the first PADI TecRec Diving Centers in the United States. The IVS PADI TecRec Center is offering numerous new courses of different levels just released by PADI for technical and rebreather training including training on the new Poseidon rebreather units.  Read PADI’s Announcement

Introduction of the new full time staff members Avery and Casey Chipka

As if that wasn’t enough great news already, Valaika also announced the formation of Indian Valley Travel, a full-service travel company, located in Harleysville, PA. Indian Valley Travel will serve the complete travel needs of the IVS local and extended community well beyond the extensive list of the dive trips offered by the IVS Travel program. IVS South’s own David Hartman, a certified and seasoned travel agent from Key Largo, will head up the new travel company and plans to split his time between Key Largo and Harleysville, staffing the new Indian Valley Travel desk located on the main campus of Indian Valley SCUBA. Beyond offering traditional travel options in adventure, cruise and dive travel, Indian Valley Travel will focus its core program offering on Sustainable and Accessible Travel. Indian Valley Travel will leverage existing and new partnerships to create value based programs that allow people to travel with a purpose and give back during the vacation. The Indian Valley Travel brand and unique travel programs will be rolled out over the next few months with a soft launch at the Global Abilities Conference in Philadelphia and an official launch at the diving trade show DEMA 2011 in Orlando, Florida where IVT will be exhibiting in the IAHD-Americans booth. While the official launch is being planned, David Hartman and Indian Valley Travel are available now for specific individual group travel requests.

David Hartman explains the creation of Indian Valley Travel..a full service travel company

David Hartman explains the creation of Indian Valley Travel..a full service travel company

Indian Valley SCUBA is working with Indian Valley to offer lengthy long term dive travel schedule from 2012-2014 to both familiar annual locations like Key Largo and North Carolina to first time exotic destinations like Egypt, South Africa, Rotan, Sea of Cortez, Belize, Vanuatu, Fiji and Raja Ampat to name a few. David Hartman and Sue Douglass briefly reviewed some of the highlights of the new comprehensive dive travel schedule and built up excitement among attendees regarding some favorite diving destinations. Handouts of the new Indian Valley SCUBA long term travel schedule were given to attendees and can be downloaded here.

Barbara Beck talks about her work in Key Largo with the Marine Mammal Conservancy to help rescued Pilot Whales

Barbara Beck talks about her volunteer work in Key Largo with the Marine Mammal Conservancy to help rescued Pilot Whales

Sue Douglas took over the speaker’s podium to review the details of Indian Valley SCUBA’s Nov 2012 return trip to the Republic of Palau in Micronesia. The upcoming Palau trip offers three different options for live-aboard and land based diving to fit all travel schedules and budgets. The live-aboard will be 7 nights on a brand new boat on the world famous Siren Fleet of sailing vessels and departs on November 30, 2012. IVS will be the second group to sail and dive Palau on the newest boat in the Siren Fleet-the SY Palau Siren. The second half of the Palau will be spent 7 nights at the Sea Passion resort with 5 days of two tank diving with Sam Tours who IVS used during our Nov 2010 to Palau. Travelers can join David Valaika and Sue Douglass for both weeks in Palau or just dive liveaboard or resort only. Palau Trip Flyer
Bev Loggins wrapped up the meeting with some local announcements on an upcoming Sky Diving trip plus the usual 50/50 and bonus gift raffles. Bill Zyskowski was the big winner of the “to serve prize” for the September Club Meeting

Bill Zyskowski wins the "To Serve" honor for the next Club meeting

Bill Zyskowski wins the “To Serve” honor for the next Club meeting

Breaking News: Bonaire Invaded by IVS!

What else can you call a blog when 61 IVS’ers come to a quiet island for a week of fun, laughter and great diving?  This is IVS’s biggest trip to date, and what a great one it has turned out to be!  So lets begin…

Team IVS Invades Bonaire

For starters let’s just say I had a feeling that this would be a very different start to one of our trips…I begin my day with an on time departure from Harleysville to allow me to arrive in Bonaire a full two days ahead of the group.  Plenty of time to set up appointments, make dinner reservations, get the dive center squared away, and be ready to greet our arriving IVS’ers when they start coming in at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday.  The only possible hiccup in my plans is the fact that Delta only flies directly to Bonaire on Saturdays, so I’m traveling to Miami today on my favorite airline, then for a third world sort of travel experience, I am switching over to Insel Air to complete my journey, flying first to Curacao, then on to Bonaire.  Sounds simple enough, eh?

To help ensure that all these connections happen, I’ve decided to start off with a 6:45 flight this morning out of Philadelphia.  So, after a busy night of organizing, locating missing gear, shuffling paperwork, washing clothes, and finally packing, I find myself heading down to the airport in what should be plenty of time to park, shuttle to the airport, and make my flight in a leisurely fashion.  Is this to be? Let’s see how the morning unfolds…

Bad sign #1 – traffic is completely stopped on I-476 on my way south.  Should be OK, how long can this last?   Tick, tick, tick…..after a half hour of sitting, finally we start crawling south.  At this point, my safety margin has evaporated, and it is a more customary mad rush to the airport.  In fact, I don’t have time to park now or I will miss the FAA-mandated 45 minute baggage cut-off time before my flight!  Geeez…how did this happen already??

So I throw caution to the winds, and race directly to the curbside check-in to get my bags in.  But oh no, the line outside is too long, and I need to run my bags inside.  Of course there is no parking and certainly no abandoned vehicles without drivers allowed to stop in front of the terminal, but does this deter this man on his mission?  Noooooo!  So I park the truck, turn on the flashers, and drag my bags out and into the terminal.  I leave the tailgate down for that “still unloading” look, just in case I need to fool the parking police.

Well it seems there was quite a bit of bad weather along the east coast last night, causing flight cancellations all over the place, and certainly fouling this mornings travel up a bit.  So my first flight is delayed, but a second flight is available, so the helpful Delta gate agent gets right on the task of moving my reservation around.  Meanwhile, I need to keep running back outside to ensure my truck is still there and not being towed away or blown up like an abandoned bag!

OK, new flight confirmed finally, now time to check the bags.  I have six bags in total, two big Pelican cases that weigh in at 74 and 78 pounds each, plus a big roller duffle, pushing 68 pounds.  Add to that my small Pelican case full of cameras, my backpack, and another bag full of paperwork that somehow keeps following me around on my trips.  The “master plan” is to check them through all the way to Bonaire via Delta as there is no doubt that Insel Air will be bringing out the big cash register for my excess baggage fees.   If Delta tags them all the way to my final destination, then I am home free and Insel Air gets nothing!  I like that!  In between the agent working the computer and asking questions, I keep running back to the front door to check on the truck – it’s still there, flashers going, and no tow truck in front!

But alas, we have a problem here Houston.  It seems that Delta and Insel Air don’t have a ‘cooperative baggage agreement” so the folks at Delta cannot check my bags past Miami.  Man, this sucks, I am thinking, I am going to take a hurting in Miami when I have to check these bags onto the Insel Air flight.

So…now the wheels are turning.  I need a new plan here, and I only have a few hours to hatch a good one.  OK, so I agree to have my bags accompany me to Miami, and head out to park the truck.  Amazing, it has been sitting here for 45 minutes now, and I didn’t even get a ticket, let alone have to fight off a nasty Philadelphia Parking Authority tow truck operator.  Fate is funny today, giving me good signs, bad signs, mixed signs…..the jury is still out on how today will turn out!

So back down the road I go, and just in case I catch some grief about my three carry-ons, I am thinking a roll of duct tape would be a good idea to be able to tape my paperwork bag onto my camera case, which, according to airline standards, converts the two of them into “one” carry-on.  So gosh, at 6:45 in the morning, you would think that it would be no problem to pick up a roll somewhere near the airport.  But, do you think there’s a hardware store near the airport?  No…not at all.  I drive all the way to Glenolden, stop for a soda at a local Wawa, and there’s a local cop so I ask him for help.  Sure enough, there’s 24-hour Wal-Mart a couple of blocks away, so I head in that direction.  Wait, there’s a 24-hour Walhgreen’s there, so I pull in.  Sure enough, they have duct tape, so my mission is accomplished.  Back in the truck, I head back to park and get to the airport.

My shuttle drops me off at the airport and boy, things have picked up here in terms of human traffic.  Seems that there was quite a bit of bad weather in the region and that caused a lot of flight cancellations, and now the excess strain is showing.  Not cool, I am thinking, as I tip the shuttle driver and jog on up to security.  Holy smokes Batman, the security lines are extending completely out of the enclosed area, even the frequent flyer line.  Not cool, I think, now time is starting to get a wee bit tight here.  I wait patiently, slowly moving forward, watching my watch.  I am thinking, how can a day that started out so relaxed be causing me to have such anxiety now??

Finally I get to the front of the line, and have my ID checked.  Cool, I am thinking, it’s tight, but still very do-able with regards to boarding, which has, by my watch, just started.  It’s not too far to the gate, so I just need to get past this one last hurdle here with the baggage screeners and I am golden.  So, the way the baggage screening machines are laid out, you need to walk almost up to the machine to push your bags in, and then you have to turn and walk about 10 feet over to pass through the metal detector.  Could have been a more efficient layout, I think every time I pass through, but who would listen?  So I have my shoes off, laptop and phone in one bin, backpack, other briefcase, and my camera case on the table.  I push them forward, but the guy in front of me gets real testy when my stuff touches his, and he literally pushes my first bin back towards me.  OK, I am thinking, what is his issue?  Single child?  Mother refused to nurse him?  Never picked for the team in grade school?  Who knows, but there is something for sure, and I don’t need to work on a cure for him today. So, I leave some extra space in front of me, so his items are untouched by mine.

As his bags start onto the belt, I slide mine forward, almost to the belt, not touching his, but clearly onto the roller conveyor. There’s a guy behind me with that ‘frequent traveler’ air about him, and he and I were kibitzing and sharing comments on the state of affairs in TSA Central this morning.  So I glance at him, he acknowledges that he’ll push his things along to ensure mine get through, and I head over to pass through the metal detector.  As I pass through, the belt starts on the conveyor, and suddenly there is a curly-haired female TSA agent standing next to it, and asks, loudly, “Who’s bags are these?”  Well it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out, and I look over, and she says “Sir, you have to push your own bags through the machine”.  “Cut me a friggin’ break”, I am thinking, I am already through the metal detector, so I wave to my friend who was behind me and say out loud, “can you give them a little shove?”

Well that little bit of insolence didn’t sit well with Ms. TSA and she storms along the back of the machine, watching over the monitor screen as my bags pass through.  I am quietly shaking my head, thinking what can she have up her little blue sleeve?  “Sir, is this your bag?” she asks, knowing full well the answer.  I nod, and she says “I have to examine this bag sir”.  “Whatever floats your boat”, I think I said, and with that she picks up my camera case and says “follow me please” as she heads over to the screening table.  I gather my other bags, put my shoes back on, and begin to head over, as I catch her glaring at my, her look expressing her inner rage that I didn’t just race right over there as directed by Her Little Blue Highness.

So I stroll over, and stand alongside the table where she has my bag.  She asks for another agent to help her lift my bag onto the table, and I am wondering, what sort of lackadaisical fitness requirements do they have in place that she couldn’t flip that bag up there?  She’d really be great if called upon to wrestle down a gun-wielding terrorist, that’s for sure.  I suppose she would ask for help with that too.

“Stand over here in front of me sir”, she says, and I respond “I am fine here, thanks.”  “No sir, I need you over here”, she says, more emphatically this time.  “Is this a TSA rule?”, I ask, and she says “Yes it is, you have to stand here”.  I ask what the definition of “here” is, since there are no feet painted on the floor or box to define the area known as “here”.  I move and ask her  “how’s this” and she says that it’s fine.  So I am looking around, watching the other activities going on, and she says “Sir, you need to watch me while I check your bag”.  “ I NEED to watch you?”, I asked incredulously.  “Why?  You can pilfer whatever you want, it’s OK”, I say to her.  Hmmmm, definitely not what she was seeking this morning, and she says in a stern voice, “We don’t pilfer sir”.  I say “Oh yes, I’m sorry, you’re right, although they did just convict those three Philadelphia TSA agents for stealing things out of passengers bags, eh?  I think that pretty much puts the TSA and pilfering on the same page”. “ She rebutts with “that happens at every job”, and I am shocked at that cavalier response to which I say “maybe that happens at every one of the jobs you’ve worked at, but it certainly does not happen at every job”.

Well you can imagine this discourse is not helping expedite the checking of my bag, and after she has wiped it many, many times, she slides the sample pad into the machine and announces “Sir, we have a positive reading on your bag.”  Man, what a surprise that was, I am thinking.  So now my other bags need to be re-scanned, and I need to be thoroughly patted down.   The “patter” then samples his gloves, and lo and behold, another positive reading, or so he claims.  This is getting less pretty all the time here!  Off with the shoes, off with the belt, more wipe downs, more bag searching (and just possibly pilfering?) and finally they have had enough of me, and I am free to go.  So I skidaddle down to the gate, and as I approach I can see out the window the jetway to my plane being pulled away.  Those bastards, I am thinking, they have won this round, but the fight is far from over!!

So now we’re back on the phone with Delta, and they move me to an afternoon flight out of Philadelphia which will cause me to miss my Insel connection in Miami. Might be a bad thing, might be a good thing…we’ll see. The helpful Delta agent then books me on an American Airlines flight from Miami Curacao, and all I need to do is grab a short island hopper to Bonaire tonight.  I grab lunch, get a little work done, and finally board my first flight of the day!

But wait, there’s more!  The bad weather has come back in, and we are delayed getting out, and delayed further in Atlanta.  At this point we’ll miss the American flight, so Delta puts me up overnight in Miami and rebooks me for the next day.  I still need to think about those overweight bags though, and checking with American, they plan to hit me with excess bag fees and they will not check them to Bonaire, meaning I will have Dutch Antilles Airlines fees too.  Man, back to square one here!

So now the wheels are really turning here…I abandon my bags in Miami, leaving them under the watchful eyes of Delta’s baggage office there.  When they call me Friday morning to say they have my bags, I inform them that I’ve been placed on another flight and I need my bags to be sent to my original final destination.  And guess what?  The answer is YES!  So much for that ‘bags have to travel with the passenger’ nonsense!

But here I am, thinking man this 3-plus-hour flight in coach is going to be painful, so let’s see about an upgrade.  I’m a member of the  American Airlines frequent flyer program with quite a few miles in my account, so I call the airline and go about getting my upgrade to first class in place.  “No problem”, the agent assures me, that will only require the redemption of 15,000 miles from my account for the upgrade.  “No sweat”,  I am thinking, let’s do it.  “OK sir, that will be 15,000 miles plus a $50 fee for the redemption”, he says.  “Hmmm”, I am thinking, “Delta never charges me”.  OK, so I give him the credit card info, and then he says “Alrighty sir, that is done, but because we are redeeming these miles less than seven days before your flight, there is a $100 expediting fee for the redemption”.  “Clearly, we are not flying on Delta here”,  I share with him, as I give him the nod to go ahead and bang this customer one more time.  So, 15,000 miles, plus $50, plus $100 and I am sitting in a big comfortable seat, which my butt needs now from the screwing I just received from America Airlines.  Yep, only 15,000 miles for that upgrade……

Mission accomplished (assuming bags actually make it) and I jet off to Curacao with only my carry-on’s.  Small world story here…as I am boarding the plane in Curacao I notice a guy looking at my IVS polo shirt.  The one I have chosen for today’s adventure is a fitting one, as it says IVS-St. Louis, a poignant reminder that not all decisions that look good on paper end up as good ones!  He catches my eye and says “Wowe, we’ve got an Indian Valley Scuba in Pennsylvania too!  I chuckle, realize he had been reading the shirt, and find out he is none other than Jeff Linowski,  an IVS customer and fellow PADI instructor, from Chester.  He’s here with one student for the week too, and plans on doing some diving with our gang while he’s here.  Cool.  Amazing small world it always proves to be!

So finally I am making my way to the lovely island of Bonaire at 8:45 Friday evening.  Still ahead of schedule, sort of, but at least I am here!  Tom Brennan has flown in this evening too, as has Mark & Natasha Souder, so we commiserate with dinner and drinks at the resort, re-uniting with our favorite waiter Andrew who remembers us all from last year.  Andrew informs us we are the biggest group that Plaza Resort has hosted this year, and I smile and tell him “wait til next year!”  We finally call it a night, getting a few hours of sleep before greeting the gang in the morning.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the gang on the Continental flight from Newark has chartered a bus to haul them up from the shop to the airport.  Great plan, or so it seems, until the bus is loaded, and the rear bumper is literally dragging the ground with the pile of dive gear that was all loaded in the back few rows of seats.  Too little time to get another bus, so a few of the group get off, fill two vans with luggage, and the merry caravan gets on it’s way to north Jersey. Nothing like a little supplemental drama to help add character to an already great trip!

Well four-thirty comes way too early, and we get up to meet the first wave, including Mike & Cathy Parzynski, Donna Raleigh, Roy & Laurie Scherrer, Ray Graff with his daughter Caitlin and her boyfriend Nick Tingly, Lynn & James Swartley along with their recent high school graduate daughter Jess, Jody Bryan & John Alcott, Rob & Jen O’Donnell, Drew & Vanessa Myers, Mike & Teresa Swartley, Brad Creveling,  Brian LaSpino & Deanna Kuik, Diane DeFeo & Albert Cugno, Misty Pileggi, Catherine Stevenson, Scott Bruce, Herb & Sheldon DuBois, Amir Stark, Morris Kligger and his daughter Rachel, Tom Rebbie & Penny Kospiah, Keith and Craig Beaver, and the Bennett’s – Phil, Becky, Steve & Mike.

On the 5:30 a.m. flight we get to greet some of our longer distance travelers, Jesica & Sheril Tyre, and Berry Smith from California, along with Stephanie Skelton and Meredith Bernardo from Ohio.  Steph and Mere are traveling light like me, although not by plan, as their baggage has been lost, so their clothes and bags will hopefully be delivered tomorrow!  Mere is not a happy girl at all!!

Orientations at Toucan Diving begin in shifts since our group is significantly larger than the briefing room.  First group at 8, second at 9, another at 11, then 2, and finally the last one will be at 4 for those arriving on this afternoon’s Delta flight.  Dive shop manager Alexander, along with staffers George, Sherman & Erika, do their typical great job with getting everyone signed up and set up for the weeks diving.  It is truly a pleasure to work with such professionals as these folks and the rest of the staff at Toucan Diving.

The first briefing is barely over and the ‘clank, clank’ of tanks being loaded in our rentals SUV’s can be heard as our divers get ready to log their first dives.  First car in line is Jim, Lynn, Jody & John, piling in two tanks each for a ride to the southern sites.  Amir & Brad are waiting patiently in their car for the first one to move so they can start loading tanks too.  Man, these guys love to dive!!

I head down to the airport to hopefully pick up my bags, along with the last of our arrivals on the Delta flight.  But first, small world story #2…I am early to the airport (go figure) so I head into the lounge to grab a brew and wait for the plane to arrive.  As I order my beer, I hear “Hey, Dave Valaika” from across the room and I turn to see James, the DM from Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, standing there with his dad.  The two of them were here on vacation last week, and as fate would have it, they were flying home on the Delta plane that was about to land.  We’ll be diving with James at Amoray in less than four weeks from now.  Small, small, world. OK, back to picking up the rest of the crew, which includes our official group leader Sue Douglass, Rachel McGril (another long distance traveler, coming in from Cuba), Joe Cox, Michele Highley and her sons Palmer & Ranier, photo-pro Bob Hahn, Tony Smith, Neil Spaulding from Colorado, Kevin Carre, and Morris, Niki and Rachel Kligger.  Amazingly my bags have survived their ordeal and were the first ones off the plane, so we are, in the words of 70’s sensations Peaches and Herb, re-united and it feels so good!

Back to the resort and we get through our fifth and final orientation of the day, and I can just about narrate that video by heart!  Everyone is excited, and in fact some of our earliest arrivals already have 3 and 4 dives under their belts!  Busy boy that I have been, I finally get my first dive of the dive of the day in, a night dive off the beach at the resort, and nail my first lionfish of the week here.  By nighttime of day one the dive count is up to five already for our most intrepid divers, including Steve, Amir, Joe, and Brad. Wow!

Sunday begins another beautiful sunny day in the land known as ‘Diver’s Paradise’ and some of our guys are in the water at 6:00 a.m. already!  It won’t be surprising to see some with over 40 logged dives on this trip – we’ll update that count later this week!  Breakfast at the Banana Tree Restaurant is delicious and more than ample, so we get a good filling there before we start our day.  Our open water checkout dives begin this morning and we’ve got Morris, Palmer, Berry & Cathy P ready for their briefing and first dives.  Rachel is joining us also for some DSD dives with Steve H.  Sue administers the pre-dive briefing, and we gear up and head into the water.  Weighting is checked, some adjustments made, and our group gets under and enjoys two good initial skills dives on the house reef, known as 18 Palm.  Lots of life here, and beautiful healthy corals and sponges of all sorts too.  I find myself thinking about the home team who are at Dutch Springs this weekend with another big group of check out dives scheduled, and hoping they are experiencing equally great conditions, albeit with slightly less coral, and water temps a little lower than the 85 degrees we are enjoying here.

Bob Hahn is starting his two-day underwater digital photography program today also, so his group is in the classroom and getting their cameras ready. They will end up getting in three dives and shooting a few hundred photos today before returning to the class and learning how to optimize those images using Adobe Photoshop. Bob’s class is truly the way to go to really improve your skills in capturing some fantastic images of what we see and enjoy so much under the sea.

The first of our boat dives begin this afternoon, and with the size of our group, Toucan Diving has dedicated four boats to handle us.  We head over to Klein Bonaire, and the first thing on our list is Seahorses, so we drop in at Rockpile and do a nice, long one-way dive towards westward along the island.  Sure enough, there is a huge seahorse there, and Sherman our guide points it out to us.  It must be 7 or 8 inches long, a really nice one, and he’s not shy at all about us taking pictures – very cool.  And Ranier gets a treat as Erika snorkels with him while we are diving, so everyone gets wet on this trip!

Toucan Diving is great to work with, and we have arranged for all our boat dives to be done in “drift fashion”, rather than the typical local way of the boat anchoring and you dive away from the boat then turn and cover the same reef as you swim back to the boat.  In our case, we don’t moor, and we don’t turn around, as the boat follows our bubbles and meets us further along the reef for our pickup.  Much more fun and we get to see so much more of the reef this way too.

Today we have a couple of folks who are not feeling so well on the boat, so rather than staying out for our second dive and having them feeling any worse, we opt to head back to the main island and enjoy a “hot drop” north of the resort, and we dive our way along the reef, ending up surfacing in front of the resort itself.  Meanwhile the boat heads in to get the ‘greener’ ones unloaded and feeling better with a non-moving surface under their feet.

Sunday night and most of us enjoy yet another night dive, with a bunch of us heading down to the Salt Pier to sneak in (without required guide or permit) and we have a great dive, with Eagle Rays swooping around us, lots of turtles, octopus, squid, plenty of fish life and more.  Another lionfish meets his maker tonight too.  Great night dive and just the perfect way to work up a good thirst for a visit to the Coconut Crash Beach Bar for a little late night round of snacks, hydrating beverages, and laughter.

Monday and our divers again are off and running all over the island, starting at the crack of dawn.  The earliest enjoyed a sunrise dive on the Hilma Hooker wreck, followed by a second dive before breakfast – you have to love this passion that so many of us have for diving!  Our open water students are back at it, and we complete all our skills off the beach with a couple of great dives there.  Diane DeFeo, our IAHD-Americas certified diver on this trip, also enjoys her longest and deepest dive to date, and it’s wonderful to work with her and share our love of diving.

Afternoon and it’s boat time again, and we’re ready to head out to see some more turtles over at Klein Bonaire.  We first drop in at ‘Just a Nice Dive’ and sure enough, there are turtles all around.  We do another nice drift dive, and see about 8 turtles during the course of the journey, along with squid, big puffers, and plenty of other great critters.  We surface, swap tanks, motor along for about a 30 minute surface interval, and we’re back under water, repeating the fun.  From there we head back towards the main island, and the boat drops us off in front of Richard’s Restaurant for our third boat dive, where again we swim along the reef and end up at the resort.  I manage to nail 4 more lionfish on this jaunt, doing my part to keep the population in check!  And the spotted eels well fed, as they love to take the lionfish off my spear.  Very cool.

Tonight we have a boat night dive, and a lot of first time night-divers aboard, so that is always cool to see folks enjoying their first black-water experience.  It’s a good dive, lots to see, another lionfish goes to the great big reef in the sky, and everyone comes back just gushing with all the cool things they saw.  Great dive!

Tuesday and it’s more great diving all over the island. Some of the group made the drive up to the northwest coast and experienced some of the more challenging entries & exits there. The reef right in front of the resort, called 18 Palms, is always popular and is visited daily. We’ve got two really nice seahorses hanging out there, one black and one orange, and they are a delight to photograph and observe. The boats run out and we get three more dives in on them today, checking out some frogfish at one site, and finally doing our signature drift dive back to the resort with our third tank off the boat. We love the way Toucan Diving treats us and allows us to get three dives in on every boat trip – thank you Alexander! For tonight’s entertainment we have a beach BBQ complete with the Silver Bullet band, a local troop with lots of drums, steel drums, and rhythm to entertain us non-stop while we enjoy a sumptious feast right on the beach under a most beautiful night sky. Life doesn’t get much better than this!

Mike Parzynski also chimed in on the Hilma Hooker:

It seems I cannot stay away from the Hilma Hooker when on Bonaire. The first dive was with Herb and Sheldon. It was prefaced with Jody and John just getting out of the water. Jody proudly announces “Alcott got 99 feet, but I got 100.” So, to honor the Valaika tradition of taking a challenge, I dug a hole under the bow and hit 101. Take that!

The second trip to the Hilma Hooker was a double dip with Donna. It was her first time, so I was gentle with her. We swam out towards the in-shore buoy and then dropped down and slid down the reef. Take a route around the bow we were greeted by nice bit tarpon hanging out in the holds. Into hold one, through one of the doors into hold two and come out by the rear of the ship. A quick look at gauges, turned on our lights and into the engine room we go. Of course, with camera in one hand, light in the other, I felt like a bull in a china shop. We did bounce around a little, but had a great dive. Easy penetration and not too tight. Back up the beautiful reef and surface right at the entry point.

So I ask Donna if she wants to hit a different spot and with a gleam in her eye, she says, “I want to do that one again!” So, off gas a bit, change out the tanks and back in the water to the Hilma Hooker. This time we head straight to the stern, do a nice swim through a passageway and then into the rear cargo hold. There is a door….. let’s take a look. Okay, it is the engine room, there is a set of stairs, there is ambient light…. No problem, into the ship once again. Of course, it gets a little tight for me considering I have a slung 40, but a little wiggling and we have a great trip though with some awesome pictures on the way. Then it is up to the superstructure where Donna drops in and looks into a few of the rooms, doing recon for her second week on this lovely island with the DiveNY crowd.

Wednesday and we have no boat dives scheduled, so the SUV’s are busy running up and down the coast, loaded with IVS divers and tanks, ready to splash at a moment’s notice. There are so many wonderful sites here to choose from that it is difficult trying to decide which ones to go to next! We have some Advanced Open Water training to do today, so Sue takes her group over to the Hilma Hooker, a wreck sunk in 100 ft of water off the edge of the reef. Here they complete a Deep Adventure Dive, followed by a Wreck Adventure Dive, and everyone does great. The huge tarpon that hang under this 300 ft long wreck are amazing and not in the least intimidated by the presence of divers, so you can really observe these big fish just chillin’ and watching you as you swim along. Pretty cool!

Wednesday afternoon and while some are diving, it’s ‘back to school’ time for Jesica, Berry & Sheril, as they take their Enriched Air Nitrox exams and pass with flying colors – way to go team! Now they are officially qualified to breath the gas they’ve been breathing since Sunday – whew!  And great news from the airport on Stephanie & Meredith’s bags, which have still not shown up.  Turns out they have arrived today!  The girls are smiling big time at the thought of at least having everything they packed for the second half of the week.  They head over to the airport but can’t get their bags because no one is on duty at the Continental Airlines office until 11 this evening.  Geeesh!!  So back they go at 11, and lo and behold, there are some bags there for Ms Skelton!  That would be Ms Rosemary Skelton, from San Antonio, Texas…..not Stephanie Skelton from Cleveland, Ohio.  How can they screw up something as simple as this?  And is Rosemary wondering why her bags are on vacation in Bonaire and not home with her?  And more so, where are Steph and Mere’s bags??

Well the disappointment was short-lived, cause there was another call from the airline in the morning – the bags have arrived in Bonaire!!  Woo-hoo!  So back to the airport go Stephanie & Meredith, and guess what?  They are looking at the same wrong bags they saw last night!!  Seems no one talks to anyone else at the airport here, and the morning crew was not aware these were the wrong bags, so essentially another day is lost in the baggage search.  And people wonder why I fly Delta…

More Thursday stories here…including the second Salt Pier night dive…18 lionfish..

Mike Parzynski also added:

The last dive of the trip I got to spend with newly certified diver Cathy Parzynski. I couldn’t be happier. We go to “The Rock”, an awesome unmarked sight just south of The Invisibles. After we get to depth, and turn north, Cathy takes my hand. At first I think to myself “Is this a Bev and Butch dive?” but she explains after that through the week of getting certified she’s been so focused on her instructor she hasn’t really seen the amazing underwater beauty. It was such a great feeling watching the wonder in her eyes as she pointed out things that were new and exciting It is also amazing when I point to a large French Angel, she gives back the eel sign and points to a small Chain Moray swimming through the coral She’s already spotting things I’m missing. That is the greatest memory I could possibly take home from this awesome trip!

It was a great experience diving with my wife for the first time. Already I’m trying to find a quick trip opportunity to get her back in the water.

More to come here….

Friday and a few of us are scrambling to get a few last dives in before the obligatory off-gassing before flying time begins.  Seems Amir is leading the pack with 29 this morning, and he gets two more in for an even 31.  Will there be a MDTD Award tonight, for completing “More Dives Than Dave”?  I am thinking not, as I get two more in the morning on the ‘wild side’ with Bonaire East Coast Diving, and head back to the resort for three final dives off the beach to get my count up to 31 also!  Whew!! And Stephanie, our Cadiallac-winning veteran of “The Price Is Right” fame, hears that call again…”Stephanie Skelton, come on down”…to the airport that is.  Seems their bags have again arrived…we’ll see!  So the girls drive over, and again, there is no one from Continental to open the baggage office for them to get their bags, but they manage to convince the airport security guard to go into the back room and take photographs of the bags with Meredith’s phone, and they are able to verify that they are indeed their bags.  They make plans to come back at 11 that night, just in time to be in physical possession of their missing bags for about 5 hours before they leave again on the 6 a.m. flight!  While the mystery of how can bags be lost for an entire week will never be solved, at least they have them.  And care to know the most insulting part of this circus?  Stephanie is a Continental employee, and Meredith’s father is a Continental pilot.  This airline really knows how to take care of their own people….NOT!

More to come…Maiky’s Snack, last morning, departures…!

A Memorable Memorial Day Weekend in Key Largo

The IVS Memorial Day Weekend trip started off early this year with a return visit to Key West by David Valaika and David Hartman.  Following on the heels of the past weekend’s Wreck Racing League event, Dave V has been invited to speak on Monday and give a presentation on Dive Propulsion Vehicles (DPV’s) to a class at the Florida Keys Community College (FKCC). The students were enrolled in the class “Emerging Technologies for Crime Scene Investigation”, and consisted of a combination of State Police, Coast Guard, Public Safety Divers, and some other military enrollees, who were learning to use the latest and greatest tools and equipment to assist them in solving underwater criminal mysteries.  Working alongside FKCC professor Robert Smith, Dave Valaika presented both an in-classroom presentation and poolside demostration about DPV’s before allowing the students to enter the FKCC pool and try different types of Scooters. The 15 students of the Crime Scenes Investigation Class had a great time and took turns on a variety of scooters made by Hollis, Dive Xtra, Torpedo and Sea Doo.

David Valaika Gives a DPV Presentation at FKCC in Key West

David Valaika gives a DPV Presentation at FKCC in Key West

After concluding the class assignment, it was time to go diving!   We had been invited to come out today with Mike Ange, technical instructor and owner of SeaDuction, an on-line publishing company which bills itself as “A Fun Site for Serious Divers”.  Gosh, that sounds like Indian Valley Scuba!  Well in any case, Mike had a class of Advanced Wreck Divers and Technical Wreck Divers heading out on the Lost Reef Adventures boat, and he had a couple of open spots that he offered to Dave Hartman, Joe Weatherby, and I.  So who are we to deny an opportunity to dive, so we piled the gear, and a scooter, on board for a visit to the Vandenberg.  Also on board are the three Canadians who participated in the Wreck Racing with us too,  so it’s like a mini family reunion!

Seems I had a personal mission to accomplish on today’s dive – yesterday, while diving with John Glo, he inadvertently dropped one of my lion fish kill sticks as he removed his fins to climb up the dive boat ladder.  We were moored off the stern ball, and the current was mild, so I knew the hardware should be laying somewhere aft of the ship in the sand.  It seems that Natalie Weatherby had a case of the ‘droppsies’ too, and had lost the entire mesh bag of start and finish flags for the Wreck Racing League, along with some other gear.  So like Roseanna Rosanna-danna from the early Saturday Night Live episodes, “I clean up, OK” was my mantra for today’s dive plans.

In we dropped, with Joe & Dave buddied up for a little interior touring, and me heading off alone with the scooter to see what I could find out in the sand.  Down I dropped, and dropped, off the stern, and I began my search pattern in the sand.  Now, I had not really given this aspect of my dive plan much thought when I said, “Sure, I’ll take Nitrox” when we loaded the boat.  So my 32% mix was just a tad on the ‘hot’ side as my computer showed me approaching 150 ft of depth.  Guidelines, guidelines, yes I know, but hey, was that a twitch I just felt??? My ppO2 hits 1.8 ATA and is edging towards 1.9 as I settled on the bottom, so the key for this portion of the dive was relax, don’t work hard, breath deeply and slowly, and keep an eye out for any of those nasty Ox-Tox VENTID signs!!   I started at the rudder and slowly scootered out into the gloomy viz, carefully dragging one hand in the sand to create a furrow that I would use as the baseline for my search pattern, as well as to serve as my ‘breadcrumb trail’ to find my way back to the wreck.  I headed out about 200 ft, moved over 20 ft, and returned to the wreck, with nothing to report.  OK, shift twenty feet to the other side of the baseline and repeat.  I did this again and on the fourth run out, sure enough, there was the glint of shiny stainless in the sand!  I found my lionfish tamer!  OK, I am thinking, one more pass to look for Natalie’s bag, and as I turn at the end, there it is!  Woo hoo!  Two for two!  I pick her mesh bag up now, balance it in my arms with the lionfish kill stick, remind myself, ” No Exertion!”  and begin heading back to the wreck.  Wait…there’s something else….and I stop to investigate a piece of wreckage.  Alrighty, and guess what is living here…a lionfish!   So I put down the scooter, and the bag full of flags, and slowly (remember – no exertion!!) swim over to the unsuspecting lionfish, draw back on my tamer, and ‘Slam!” I bury the shaft squarely through his bony skull!  One less reef raider in the ocean today!!  OK…..get that breathing back under control….check for twitching..all good, swim back to the scooter, pick up the bag, re-orientate, and finally begin to head back to the wreck and some shallower water.

I cruise the length of the deck and manage to dispatch three more lion fish before I run into Joe & Dave, and we end up completing our ascent together.  A little surface interval to de-gas and drink some all all-important water and Divers D\Lyte for hydration, and we are back in for dive #2.  This time Joe wants to explore some interior spaces he has not visited since the ship was above water, so heck that sounds like an adventure for sure!  Down the line we go, into the #2 cargo hatchway, and down to about 120 ft.  Zip, in we go, and Joe begins leading us down a narrow hallway that judging from the substantial depth of the fine silt, has not been home to many if any divers in a long, long time.  We squeeze along, around a corner, over some fallen equipment, more squeezing, pulling, and twisting, and this is pretty cool – these areas are well off the beaten path, and I would not have considered exploring them with any divers that I trust less than Joe and Dave.  We didn’t run a line, relying more on faith and the hope that there is an outlet at the end of one of these halls.  Well silly us!  We end up in a series of dead-end rooms, and there is no choice now but to head back out the way we came in, the primary difference being that we have now managed to silt those hallways out pretty darn good with all our twisting, squeezing and breathing.  Hmmmmm…..a little line would be a good idea now, eh  Oh well, no horror story drama in the making here, three cool heads work their way back out, high-five’s all around upon exiting, and we can check off that the adrenalin glands are working well today!!  We wrap up the dive with a leisurely tour down a more well-known path through the ship, and finally head back topsides to call it a day.  Another great dive on the Vandenberg with great friends!

Back at the dock we grab something to eat with Joe and the Canadians, and as the conversation unfolds, it turns out these are no ordinary “Great White Northern neighbors”, but in fact, are officers in the Canadian Artificial Reef Foundation.  They’ve been sinking ships since the 70’s in British Columbia, and turn out to be a wealth of stories, knowledge and information about so many of the wrecks we know of and dive on.  We end up spending nearly four hours at dinner, learning, sharing, and really setting to like our new friends from the North!  Better yet, they’ve got a great new wreck they are working on and invite us up to participate in the preparation and sinking of the vessel…watch for an IVS adventure trip in the near future to jump on that!!

The rest of the week was spent at IVS South as David Valaika and Sue Douglass took care of addressing some expanded responsibilities for Team IVS in the staghorn coral restoration business with Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Reef Restoration Foundation on Tuesday & Wednesday, followed by Dave V conducting some Poseidon rebreather training on Thursday at Halls Diving Center in Marathon. The real excitement of the weekend started Thursday night when the IVS group arrived in Key Largo.  The rest of the group for adventure includes Tom Brennan, Mike Parzynski, Jack Sandler, Seth Greenspan, Judy Mullen, Diane Widmaier, and Harry & Denise Naylor .  In the training department, Michael Stellato and Shannon Jefferson will be earning their Advanced Open Water this weekend, while Brian Hubler is here to complete his TDI Trimix course with Dave later this week, and finally, rounding out the team, Barbara & Gary Millar, along with Bruce Augusteuson, are here to complete their PADI National Geographic Open Water certifications.

As fate would have it, Team IVS was in the right place at the right time this weekend, as three rescued Pilot Whales, survivors from a mass beaching on nearby Cudjoe Key on May 5th, are in a state of critical rehabilition at the Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC) in Key Largo.  The IVS team was fortunate enough to hear an early Friday morning presentation by Robert Lingenfelser, the Director of Standing Operations for the MMC. A number of the IVS Team members volunteered for four-hour shifts over the course of the weekend to be in-water helpers during the Pilot Whale’s 24 hour rehab program.  Others stepped right in and began in impromptu fundraising program to help provide needed supplies to the MMC, ending up raising a total of over $500 during the weekend!  Way to go team!!

The IVS Team Listens to Presentation at Pilot Whale Rescue Pen

The IVS Team Listens to Presentation at Pilot Whale Rescue Pen

As soon as our presentation was completed, Dave H started his first  4 hour volunteer shift and right away was assigned in water husbandry to Pilot Whale #300 who he opted to call Fudgy!! The 3 Pilot Whales left in the Key Largo based rehabilitation facility are too weak to swim on their own and will drown if not held with their blow holes out of the water. During his shift, Fudgy had blood and vitals taken, received her morning feeding and conducted a few therapy drills to learn how to swim again. Our team of volunteers on Fudgy also moved the Pilot Whale close to a viewing platform so a team of physical therapy students from Univ. of Miami could view the whale’s muscle damaged tail.  Dave was back at the Pilot Whale Rescue Pen on Saturday morning, and again at 4 am Sunday morning to lend more help for ground operations and to support Sue Douglass who went in the water to care of Pilot Whale #301. Sue finished just in time for her morning dive with the IVS Team at Amoray Dive Resort – talk about stamina!

Sue Douglass Tends to Pilot Whale #301 at the Rescue Pen in Key Largo

Sue Douglass tends to Pilot Whale #301 at the Rescue Pen in Key Largo

After the MMC presentation, most of the IVS crew headed to the Amoray Dive to start the weekend dive program. Sue and David Valaika headed to Jules Lodge Lagoon with the new students of the group to conduct the first Open Water check out dive. The group on the Amoray Diver enjoyed fantastic conditions on Molasses Reef with 100 foot blue water viz and calm seas as they played on Molasses Reef to start what had all the ingredients of a great weekend in the making!

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The USS Speigel Grove was on the schedule for Friday afternoon as the entire IVS team reunited at the Amoray Diver for the 45 minute ride to the Grove.  The divers were divided into groups based on level of activity and comfort with wreck penetration. Most of the IVS team went with Sue Douglass for her famous “Lame-O Tour” while Mike P and Judy Mullen went with David Hartman for his “Ultimate Behind the Scenes Spiegel Experience” or the “Nooks and Crannies” Tour.  There are new places to go and new routes to dive on the Spiegel every time an IVS group is in town in part thanks to a recent unauthorized alteration to the well deck of the Spiegel discussed in the April Blog trip entry.  The Spiegel had comfortable diving conditions, 60 feet of viz and NO current plus the Amoray Diver was moored to the favorable #6 mooring ball on the port side superstructure of the ‘Grove’.  All the divers had a great Spiegel experience thanks to the combination of conditions and group leadership of the IVS instructors. Most divers witnessed a HUGE school of Tarpon near the #6 mooring ball towards the end of the dive.

The "New" Entrance to the Well Deck of the Spiegel Grove

The "New" Entrance to the Well Deck of the Spiegel Grove

The second dive of the afternoon was at Christmas Tree Cave on French Reef.  Conditions on French Reef were spectacular: 90 feet of blue water viz, no current, calm seas and lots of swim-throughs to explore.  The group of divers (Tom Brennan, Shannon, Michael, Mike P., Jack Sandler) led by David Hartman nailed most of the major swim-throughs within 100 yards of the Amoray Diver including Hourglass, Five Caves, Donut Hole, Sand Bottom Cave, Christmas Tree Cave and the Branch of Christmas Tree Cave (Personal favorite of David Hartman named the swim through).

Mike and Mike by the Large Star Coral Above Xmas Tree Cave

Mike and Mike by the Large Star Coral Above Xmas Tree Cave

The group of divers thinned in numbers throughout the dive until only Mike P. was left for the last “Branch” swim-through but our entire group had an amazing dive. The rest of the group had self-proclaimed leadership issues and explored a variety coral ledges and outcroppings and decided involuntarily to forego all the famous swim-throughs in the area. After a wonderful dive on French Reef, the Amoray Diver headed back to Amoray Dive Resort so the IVS team could prepare for an evening of food, spirits and festivities at IVS South HQ- David Hartman’s house or affectionately know as Club Dave!!  The party at IVS South worked out great with Sue and Barbara handling the shopping, Seth Greenspan taking on grill duty and David Hartman focusing efforts on entertaining and making his world famous Pina Coladas. A big thank you to all those who helped out with the barbecue party!

Michael Navigates Hourglass Cave on French Reef

Michael Stellatto navigates Hourglass Cave on French Reef

Saturday morning it was back on the reefs for two more dives in near-perfect conditions, with flat seas, great viz and the usual laughter and fun on the boat.

On a sensitive note, Dave V actually passed on this morning’s diving, as well as this afternoon, as he was one sick puppy with all sorts of things going on with his sinuses, glands, eyes….just a mess for sure!  And a guarantee to be handing out the coveted “More Dives than Dave” awards later this weekend!

Shannon Hovers over the Wreck of the City of Washington

Shannon Hovers over the Wreck of the City of Washington

Saturday afternoon called for a return to the USS Spiegel Grove and it was time for the first time Key Largo divers to take a deeper look at the Grove.  Sue Douglass took the group newly certified divers on another rendition of the “Lame-O tour” and Mike Parzynski honed his soon-to-be-divemaster skills with a group of veteran Spiegel divers.  PADI Advanced Open Water students Shannon and Michael went with David Hartman to complete their Deep Adventure dive and to see some of the famous interior rooms of the naval ship.  After a few deepwater skills, Shannon, Michael and David H explored upper superstructure of the Spiegel and then ventured through the wheelhouse and radar room.  Air consumption was excellent by the students so the tour was extended to view the machine shop, prep and tool rooms near the aft section of the superstructure.  Shannon, who was reluctant on French Reef on Friday to partake in most swimthroughs, now appeared to be a wreck diving expert on Saturday eagerly taking in each turn inside the hallways of the massive wreck. I believe it is safe to say that Shannon is now hooked on wreck diving! Kudos to the entire IVS team for a fantastic Spiegel dive.

Spotted Spiny Lobster on the Wreck of the Benwood

Spotted Spiny Lobster on the Wreck of the Benwood

Both the second dive on Saturday afternoon and night dive Saturday night were on the Wreck of the Benwood.  The shallow shipwreck which grounded after a collision with the USS Tuttle during World War II is perfect venue for night dive because the all that remains is the hull of the ship which attracts all kinds of sea creatures and a variety of coral growth. On the afternoon dive, Shannon and Michael completed their PADI Underwater Navigation adventure dive in the sand patch off the starboard of the Benwood while the other divers in the group circumnavigated the shipwreck to check out all the marine life.  Shannon and Michael executed their Underwater NAV skills admirably although the “navigate a square” skill appeared more like “navigate the letter P.”  Both managed to redeem themselves on their “natural navigation” skills later in the dive.  The viz on the Benwood was below average in the afternoon with no current but water clarity was improving throughout the dive which was a good omen for the night dive.

A Midnight Parrotfish Finds a Sleeping Spot at Night on the Benwood
A Midnight Parrotfish Finds a Sleeping Spot at Night on the Benwood

After a brief dinner break at Amoray Dive Resort, the IVS crew as back board the Amoray Diver promptly at 7:15pm to return to the Benwood for Saturday night dive.  The viz on the Benwood was much improved versus the afternoon dive as IVS divers took to the water at twilight.  Shannon, Michael, Gary and Bruce completed their PADI Night adventure dive towards their Advanced Open Water course. Part of the dive included a lights out drill which was a bit of a challenge since the dive started at twilight. David Hartman waited until latter part of the night dive for the drill to ensure the divers could experience complete darkness.  The divers descended upon the sand patch off the starboard bow again for skill work but only to be followed by the rest of the IVS group shining their lights on the students looking to see what was so interesting on the sand patch.  Finally, the rest of the IVS team caught on about the lights out drill and the students were able to experience some cool bioluminesence. During the dive, the team saw tons of lobsters (good news for lobster season) and at one point left David Hartman to chase after a Huge Porcupinefish who hid under a large torn off piece of the hull of Benwood to escape from the peeping eyes of the IVS group. Great night dive and it was off to Amoray Dive Resort for a quick shower and then to Paradise Pub for traditional late night Cheeseburgers in Paradise and to listen to some karaoke or open mic….oh wait that is actually a paid performer hurting my ears……..WOW ………Not good!!

Sue Douglass and Judy Mullen Relax on the Amoray Diver after Morning Reef Dives

Sue and Judy Relax on the Amoray Diver after Morning Reef Dives

Sunday morning and Dave V called in sick again..this is not good!  But the rest of the team dove in his honor and enjoyed two more wonderful reef experiences.  When they returned, I had rallied enough to determine that I was not about to miss out on any more dives, so I enjoyed lunch with the gang and we loaded up for the PM trip.

IVS Divers Enter the Wheelhouse of the Duane
IVS Divers Enter the Wheelhouse of the Duane

 Sunday afternoon called for famous double deep wreck dive of the US Coast Guard Cutter Duane and the USS Spiegel Grove. The Duane is the recommended first due to the average depth of the wreck-the dive starts at 75 feet or deeper depending on the mooring ball.  The winds had kicked up in the afternoon which created white caps everywhere. Other boats were already at the Duane so Capt Dan of the Amoray Diver was left to tie up to the bow mooring ball.  The chopping waters made it hard to determine the strength of the surface current but judging by the fact other boats were sitting sideways to the seas we knew that some current was expected. Some meaning……..RIPPING CURRENT!!  The Duane didn’t let us down, quickly becoming one of those adrenaline-filled dives that you hear about from the IVS crew.  Horizontal bubbles and a face full of salt water was on tap on the Duane but the current brought in some 70-80 feet of viz and a variety of large marine life including Barracuda, Permit and a school of HUGE Tarpon- I mean like 8 feet long and shiny silver. David Hartman took Gary on his PADI Adventure Deep dive and hit the water first for the IVS team. At 75 feet, David Hartman decided that fighting current to get to the bow at 100 feet was no fun and decided to turn the Duane into a speedy drift. As part of their dive plan, Gary and David H. let go of the bow mooring line and sped past the wheelhouse and stack until reaching the shelter and calm waters of the aft superstructure under the Crow’s Nest.  Gary and David were near the stern of the ship before some IVS divers even hit the water!!.  Gary was doing well on air consumption for a new diver so David led him on complete tour of the Duane including entering the wheelhouse, CO’s cabin and galley.  Gary and David had a solid tour of the Duane and headed back to the bow mooring line from the top of the wheelhouse down the forward superstructure to get some shelter from the blasting current. The return to the bow went okay but Gary managed to suck down around 1000 psi in the short run into the current – so much for a great air consumption dive on the Duane for a newly certified diver.  The rest of the IVS team was just reaching the bottom of the Duane when Gary and David started to ascend. Nearly all the IVS divers performed well considering the challenging conditions on the Duane; however, there is a story worth sharing that hopefully will benefit other divers who may find themselves in less-than-stellar conditions on a deeper dive.

It turns out one of the divers on board, who, coincidently or not, had NOT been trained by the staff of IVS, had managed to suffer through a good variety of problems and issues all weekend long.  This diver, who we’ll refer to as “Diver X”, had worn out the welcome mat of helpful Good Samaritan IVS’ers who are always looking to work with someone who needs a little refresher or some tips on improving their  skills and becoming a better diver.  I had already been spoken to by the ships captain and mate regarding this diver, along with some of our own divers, so there was clearly a trend and some serious issues here.  So now we find ourselves moored up to the USCG Duane, a 300 plus foot long wreck sitting in 120 plus feet of water with significant currents present. Hmmm…I look around for volunteers to raise their hands, it seems that everyone is suddenly busy adjusting gear, defogging masks, etc…you get the picture.  Well it matters not, this is my job, so I break out from the group I was part of and inform Diver X that I will be their  buddy.  I brief on the wreck, strongly emphasizing the need for good communication between buddies, following the leader (me), paying attention, being the best diver you can be, ’cause there is far less room for error here than on the shallow reefs.  Have I gotten through?  Let’s find out, I am thinking, as I finish gearing up and prepare to enter the water.

I enter the water and wait for Diver X….finally they are in water.  I get an OK sign, and we pull ourselves forward to the mooring, sampling a strong surface current which only hints at what might lie below.  One final OK is exchanged, and down I go.  Diver X follows, slowly….terribly slowly….I wave encouragement, get the “ears not clearing” sign…but don’t see any ear clearing actions….just hanging there, burning up gas in this current…”come on” I wave… I get another 2 or 3 feet of descent…more of the same….”please….come on”.. and this repeats all the way down to the deck at 105 ft.  I am wearing sidemount 40’s, normally more than ample gas reserves for me and a rescue or two, but I had not factored in over 10 minutes to make this descent.   Finally, on the deck, another exchange of OK’s…we start aft.  “Follow me”, I motion, careful to reinforce what I briefed on the deck, that I would be following the easiest paths and using the ship to shield our bodies from the current.  I am along the deck and I turn only to see Diver X 10 ft above the deck, struggling…..OK…what part of the briefing was that in??  I swim up, pull Diver X down to deck level, and try to reinforce the “follow me” part.  I pass through one cut out, turn, and find myself alone, again…..Jeeeez!  Finally here comes Diver X, and I motion, to please move it along…gas reserves are critical.  We move along the deck, with the current, finally looking like a pair of divers in sync..for a bit.  We get to the back of the superstructure and I tap Diver X to stop…no response…tap again…nothing….finally grab the leg firmly and get a shocked look back.  “We’re turning here”, I motion, and I start across the back of the structure and turn towards the bow.  I make it about 30 ft up against the significant current and turn back to find myself…you guessed it…alone again.  “My gosh”, I am thinking, or something like that, and I turn back, burning up more gas, and find Diver X exactly where I said to turn.  “How does turn here” translate into “wait here forever?”.  None the less, I motion “let’s go” with some urgency, and around the structure I go, into the current again, and I turn back, only to see Diver X imitating a kite, sailing with the current in the wrong direction, well off the deck.  “Holy smokes”, I am thinking, this might end up as something more than educational experience, and I swim back again, grab Diver X, pull them down once again to the deck, firmly grab their hands and place them, one by one, onto things to hold on to and pull themselves forward, as kicking is futile in this current.   I place the hands 4 or 5 times, and I see the hands move on their own a 5th and 6th time…I think we have a breakthrough moment.  Forward we go, but I am careful to look back about every 3 seconds to make sure I am not fooling myself here.  We make it up alongside the bridge, and have to slip out through a cutout into the force of the current.  I check gas again for the umpteenth time, getting low but not yet critical, and I stop before we slip out the opening. emphasizing as best I can the use of the hands to firmly grip and pull forward…bottom line…”FOLLOW ME!!”  Out I go, making sure I demonstrate good hand holds and how easy it is when you grip firmly, I move forward and get out of the way, making room for Diver X to come out, and sure enough, here they come, kicking with their fins and using no hands at all.  Yes, you can predict this, off like a kite they go, and yes, I respond even more quickly, flying after them, grabbing onto whatever I can on the wreck to now pull both of us back into the full blown current.  I am about exhausted and thankful for the healthy adrenalin glands I possess cause I need every sweet ounce of that.  I pull Diver X down to the deck once again, breathing hard through my regulator, and check their gas again.  OK, this is not funny, and now it is getting critical, very critical, and we are alone, as everyone else has managed to make it to the line and began their ascents.  With every last bit of strength I take Diver X’s hands and use them to pull the two of us across the bow, the current flooding my mask, my breathing losing efficiency as I go.  I switch over to my nearly empty first tank to keep as much reserve for Diver X as possible, and continue to claw ourselves along to the mooring line.  We get to the line and Diver X is out of gas, so I pass my regulator over.  It is meat with a blank stare and continued slashing signs across the throat…talk about a classic case of sensory shutdown under stress.  I am screaming into the water column to “take this reg” as I hold it right in front.  Finally, after more prescious time has passed, the regulator is taken, and I get my hands on the line, and begin to pull ourselves up.  Diver X looks like a steam train blowing out volumes of precious gas with each inefficient breath, and we are still 105 feet down and in a lot of current.  Up we start, I am fighting both current and a “flight instinct” on the part of Diver X who wants to race to the surface.  We NEED a slow ascent, Lord knows what is going on inside our tissues with all this stress.  We are working our way up and approaching some of the other divers who are hanging on the line, like sheets in the wind, when Diver X gives me the sign I dreaded most – MY tank was empty now!   Without hesitation, I pulled the last regulator out of my mouth and passed it over, and amazing, had to repeat the same “Take this freakin’ regulator” screaming match in the water for Diver X to snap to and accept my gift of life.  OK, they are breathing now, but I am not – I have nothing.  I quickly look up the line and there I see it….a stage bottle hanging on Brian H’s kit .  He sees me coming, dragging Diver X with me, and deploys the stage, which I take with a huge smile of gratitude.  The rest of the ride up the line, and safety stops are completed without issue, and we finally reboard the boat.  Time for a serious chat now, after we have caught our breath.

I assure our readers that there was no exaggeration in this section, and I hope it serves as a useful tool to take into consideration when diving with someone with lesser-developed skills.  Here is a case where, in retrospect, I should have just said “No” to Diver X about making this dive, but I gave the benefit of the doubt, which proved to nearly be my undoing.  Needless to say, there was no dive #2 for Diver X today, and there will be no hesitation on my part going forward of the need for a return to the basics before being allowed to recklessly endanger the lives of others again.

Machine Shop of the Spiegel Grove LSD-32
Machine Shop of the Spiegel Grove LSD-32

The next stop on the double wreck afternoon was a return trip to the Spiegel Grove.  The second deep dive of the afternoon called for a more conservative dive profile as the IVS team divided itself into different groups based on dive route preferences.  The Amoray Diver was all alone on the wreck and decided to tie up to the port crane (#4) mooring ball after two straight days on the shallower #6 mooring ball.  David Valaika and Brian took to the Spiegel with Hollis DPV’s and Sue Douglass and Judy Mullen strapped on a Pegasus Thrusters to their tanks for some extra power when touring touring Grove.  Some IVS divers were happy to skip the second dive after an exhausting current filled Duane adventure. So that left Mike P. and Michael S. assigned to David Hartman for an advanced follow the leader Spiegel tour. David H took the two Mikes on a fast tour of the Spiegel’s laundry room, comprehensive tour of Level 01 including machine shop, Snoopy, main galley and mess halls and even had time to visit select rooms in level 02 including the CO’s cabin, officers galley, rec hall, main head and ship’s offices quarter.  While David H and the Mikes were playing on the inside, the other divers were whirling around the outside of the Spiegel taking full advantage of their DPV’s and the ability to see so much more of the
bigger picture” with the scooters.

Congratulations are in order for our newest Indian Valley Scuba divers, Gary Millar, Barb Millar and Bruce Augusteuson, who all completed their PADI National Geographic Open Water Diver certifications, Peak Performance Buoyancy specialty, Coral Reef Conservation specialty, and Boat Diver, Michael Stellato and Shannon Jefferson who earned their Advanced Open Water, along with Boat Diver this weekend, Gary Millar (again) who completed his Adventure Diver, Jack Sandler on his coveted Boat Diver cert, and finally Brian Hubler who came to complete his TDI Trimix course with Dave (more on that in the next blog!) later this week.

And a most special round of IVS applause to the “Most Improved Diver’ of the week, Barbara Millar, who went from the ‘deer in the headlights’ look at Jules on Friday to the cool, calm, ‘no wreck too tough for me ‘ persona just three days later – way to go Barb!

IVS Key Largo Weekend Summary

Dive sites: (All boat dives with Amoray Dive Resort)

Friday May 27, 2011: Day 1: Morning-Jules Lodge Lagoon Spa & Resort; Afternoon: Spiegel Grove (#6 ball) and Xmas Tree Cave on French Reef

Saturday May 28, 2011: Day 2: Morning-Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Dry Rocks and North Dry Rocks; Afternoon: USS Spiegel Grove (#6 ball); Wreck of the Benwood (starboard bow)

Night Dive: Wreck of the Benwood (starboard bow)

Sunday May 29, 2011: Day 3: Molasses Reef: Permit Ledges and North Star; -Afternoon USCG Duane (Bow Mooring Ball) USS Spiegel Grove (#4 ball-Port Crane)

The IVS Crew Wraps Up the Trip with a Pizza Party at Upper Crust

The IVS Crew Wraps Up the Trip with a Pizza Party at Upper Crust

IVS Invades the Keys – again!

This blog report brought to you by Butch Loggins and Dave Hartman!

April showers bring May flowers….well not quite the saying we use in Key Largo. It’s more like April sunshine brings more divers. No wait for the weary as a group of eager divers from Indian Valley SCUBA in Harlyesville, PA invaded Key Largo for another weekend of serious diving just 30 days after the last IVS group was in town. A few changes from the normal IVS schedule were on the menu for the April 1-4th weekend trip. First, the entire group including the advanced divers went to Jules Lodge Lagoon (known as Key Largo Undersea Park or KLUP) on Friday morning. Second, all shallow reef dives on Saturday to give the newbie divers some more casual dives. Third, Amoray Dive Resort had a wedding on Sunday afternoon so the double wreck dive of Duane Spiegel (and his other brother Duane) was moved to Conch Republic Divers 10 plus miles south on Tavernier Creek. Fourth, NO David Valaika who was off chasing fish in the Maldives. Let’s count-this is David V’s third IVS Key Largo weekend in a row without Big Dave. The Keys will never be the same!! I love the usual IVS weekend routine but a little change is the spice of life.

Barb, Scott and Cindy at Jules Lodge Lagoon Spa & Resort

Barb, Scott and Cindy at Jules Lodge Lagoon Spa & Resort

I was the host and lead for the Dec 2010 and Feb 2011 but was glad to pass over the reigns of the IVS group to Butch Loggins, IVS Senior Instructor and recent student of the”how to dive after heart surgery” PADI Distinctive Speciality. Butch wrote course so we expected him to pass with flying colors. Butch was joined by some very familar faces of Mike Gusenko, Cindy Montague Eisenhauer, Barbara Hill, Robert Scott Bruce and Larry Gilligan along with divers in training Robert’s son Frank and Cindy’s boyfriend Jim Gullo. After a productive visit to Jules Lodge Lagoon Spa & Resort, the IVS group boarded the Amoray Diver to check out the what was happening on the wreck of the naval ship LSD-32 Spiegel Grove.

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The conditions on Friday afternoon were a bit windy but the wind was blowing from the West (which is quite rare in the Keys) which meant only slight chop on the open ocean. There was a slight trend of murky water rolling throughout the Keys thanks to extreme low tides and the Gulf Stream flowing 5 miles off the reef line. 70-100 foot viz with turquoise blue water is quite common when diving the wrecks and reefs of the Keys but NOT today. The group experienced some excellent dives despite the “Dutch” like conditions on the Spiegel and French Reef although some divers had more of an experience than others on French Reef (more later). First, the Spiegel was a murky 10-15 feet of viz which is close to the worst I ever experienced on the Grove in my 300+ dives over 7 years of living in Key Largo. But who needs viz when you have 4 floors of a superstruture to explore of a 510 foot naval ship. Butch’s group followed the commerative Sue Douglass candy ass tour and all had a good time checking out the detail of the top decks of the superstructure. I took the experienced divers on a brand new version of my infamous Ultimate Spiegel Tour with a hint of my exclusive “Nooks and Crannies” Tour. The dive included stops in the Anchor Winch Room, Main Galley, Snoopy and his closet and the Machine Shop. Mike G. stuck around for EMTH (Extra Magic Time with Hartman) to see the White Board in the Ship’s Power Monitoring Room (complete with names of sailors who served on the Spiegel’s last mission) and electrical supply closets on the navigation level. EMTH means let’s freestyle in the wreck and find new stuff by checking out deadend closets and rooms.

Anchor Winch Room of the Spiegel Grove LSD-32

Anchor Winch Room of the Spiegel Grove LSD-32

There is so much detail on the Spiegel that I find something new on almost every dive. The unique part about my Spiegel tour on this dive was the route. The ship felt brand new to the divers even though all have been on numerous of my Spiegel tours. A recent IVS assisted “alternation” to the Spiegel last July (thanks for the help Frank Gabriel and John Z.) created an opening to forward section of the well deck which allows divers to go from the bow section of the Spiegel and enter the well deck without having to go all the way around to the aft section of the superstructure. Now the once forgotton Anchor Winch Room below the main deck of the bow is now a major part of all my standard “Ultimate Spiegel Tours.”

French Reef was quite an interesting dive on Friday afternoon. Very rarely do I get in the water and not see the bottom on a reef in Key Largo. I descended to the reef with my camera ready to take pictures for the IVS blog and Facebook posts but was alarmed to see about 15-20 feet of viz on the reef bottom. Butch was taking 10 year old Frank on his first 0pen ocean dive so I thought it wise to recommend to Butch to take the mooring line to the bottom of the reef and then stay close. Butch decided on a free descent and to swim toward the mooring line. Instead I found Butch, Scott and Frank swimming toward Cuba along the reef line. After some nifty navigation, I marked the mooring ball and pointed Butch and Co and the right direction. Once Butch’s team found the bottom of the mooring ball (which does not move…..navigation tip here folks!!) I then pulled out my camera and motioned to Butch that he was back under his own leadership and my duty was back to taking underwater pictures. I must say, for murky dive, we witnessed some awesome marine life: Southern Stingray, Spiny Lobster and very aggressive Green Moray Eel (see below).

A Green Moral Eel Stands His Ground on French Reef

A Green Moral Eel Stands His Ground on French Reef

I explored a very enjoyable reef ledge while Team Butch did their best impression of a low viz circular search to remain with contact with the mooring ball. Our dive on French was without incident but the other divers in our group had a different experience. There was a moderate current on French Reef and combined with low viz led to a bit of disorienation by a group of IVS experienced divemasters and instructors (who shall remain nameless!!). Let’s just say the Amoray Diver rescue reel with all 150 feet of line was in active use behind the boat throughout most of our time on French Reef. Nice job by Capt John and Divemasters Madision and Joe. Sometimes diving is all about the experience!

World Famous Pina Coladas Served Up at Club Dave

World Famous Pina Coladas Served Up at Club Dave

First day of diving was a bit bumpy and murky but fun was had by all and better conditions were in the forecast for Saturday and Sunday. Friday ended with Pina Coladas and an IVS Barbacue at Club Dave (my house). Team Butch was on their own time schedule in honor of the missing David Valaika but Cindy and Jim arrived early with a tasty flank steak and Larry followed a big bag of fresh shrimp. Barb and Butch then walked in the door with chicken and a whole bunch of sides for round two of eating for the early birds. Thanks to all IVS folks for helping out and bringing serious eats (shrimp, chicken, steak!!!). We all ate lke Kings! Special thanks to Mike G for being the one man clean up crew.

Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Dry Rocks

Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Dry Rocks

The IVS Group returned to the Amoray Diver on Saturday morning for trip to Key Largo Dry Rocks and the famous statute of Christ of the Abyss. Sunk in the 1960’s to honor the creation of John Pennekamp State Park, the striking statute of Jesus Christ with arms stretched to the air draws both divers and snorkelers to the ledge reef of Key Largo Dry Rocks in the waters off Northern Key Largo. After some fond moments of being “touched by Christ,” (the statute is covered in fire coral), the Amoray Diver moved to North Dry Rocks for another round of shallow reef dives. Improved conditions from Friday with calmer seas and clearer viz made for a pleasurable morning of diving. The Amoray Diver headed back to the dock for quick tank change and a bit to eat for the IVS crew before heading out Saturday afternoon for another set of shallow reef dives.

Large Brain Coral Hangs Over a Ledge near Pickle Barrel Wreck

Large Brain Coral Hangs Over a Ledge near Pickle Barrel Wreck

The IVS gang boarded the Amoray Diver Saturday afternoon for a trip to Pickels Reef off Southern Key Largo to dive the sites of Snapper Ledge and Pickle Barrel Wreck. The first stop was Pickel Barrel Wreck, a 100+ year old coral covered shallow spread out wreck in 15 feet of water with deeper reef ledges both north and south of the wreck. The northern reef ledge is covered in thousands of purple sea fans. The southern reef ledge is very pronouced with a sand channel at 20 feet and colorful reef walls on both sides. One wall has large brain coral head hanging over ledge and which may confuse divers by being similar in size and topography to the HUGE brain coral on Snapper Ledge. One joy of diving Key Largo is finding hidden gems tucked away in the area’s nebulous reef system. I found a mutiple chamber shallow cave filled with glass eye minnows between a break in a reef ledge about 50 years from Pickle Barrel Wreck. The cave was so cool-to tight to swimthrough but still a great opportunity for a quick video clip

The next dive was on Snapper Ledge which is one of the fishiest dives anyone in the world. Snapper Ledge never disappoints. A bad day on Snapper Ledge will still have more schools of fish than most reefs anywhere. Grunts, goatfish, snappers frequent this famous ledge and on this day the IVS gang also witnessed a large school Atlantic Spadefish flowing through the water column.

Mike Gusenko Navigates Through French Grunts on Snapper Ledge
Mike Gusenko Navigates Through French Grunts on Snapper Ledge

At one point our group was surrounded by French Grunts while about 100 Atlantic Spadefish blocked our view of other divers. The massive schools of fish were only the beginning as the highlight of the dive came a few minutes later when an 8 foot Green Moray Eel was cruising the reef looking to pick a fight with some fish or somebody. This eel was cruising everywhere and at one point swam up to my camera during a video and only turned back because of his reflection in the lens. An hour on the second dive flew by because the group was chasing and being chased by eels and surrounded by huge schools of reef fish. Overall, an impressive afternoon of diving on the reefs of Key Largo.

The Amoray Diver headed back to dock for another quick turnaround for the traditional Saturday night dive. The Wreck of the Benwood was the “planned” dive site for the night divers but the IVS gang decided to take explore the flat reef and pieces of metal off in the distance from the wreck. A bit of current and low evening viz had the group a bit confused (I am writing this second hand since I was at home watching my alma mater UCONN beat Ketucky in the Men’s Final Four). Another example of conditions where descending down the mooring ball is recommended to miminize errors in navigation. I guess the group did not learn from their dive experience on French Reef on Friday. The April weekend night dive will not go down in the annals of IVS trip history but another learning experience.

Beautiful Elephant Ear Orange Sponges Cover Molasses Reef

Beautiful Elephant Ear Orange Sponges Cover Molasses Reef

Sunday morning came quickly and the Amoray Diver headed to Molasses Reef for two shallow dives. Molasses is a spur and groove reef system with very pronounced spur coral ledges covered with Orange Elephant Ear Sponges and Purple Sea Fans. There are over 30 named mooring balls on Molasses Reef and all are occupied in a busy weekend in Key Largo. Capt John chose Permit Ledges on the southwest edge of the reef for the first dive and North Star in center of Molasses for the second dive. Permit Ledges aquired its name due to the frequent sighting of schools of big round silver Permits who often drift in from deeper water to check out the edge of Molosses. The two dive sites are quite distinct in coral formations and fish sightings despite the mooring balls being only 25-30 yards apart. The IVS gang enjoyed both dives on Molasses Reef and headed back to dock for change in dive shops for the eagerly anticipated after double wreck dives on the Speigel Grove and USCG Duane.

IVS Boards the Conch Republic Diver for an Afternoon Wreck Trek

IVS Boards the Conch Republic Diver for an Afternoon Wreck Trek

The IVS crew took a quick lunch on the road to travel South to Tavernier and Conch Republic Divers for the ever popular Sunday afternoon IVS Wreck Trek-double deep dives on the Spiegel Grove LSD-32 and USCG Duane off Key Largo. Both wrecks had below average viz but NO current which made for spectular relaxing dives. Butch Loggins, Barb Hill, Mike Gustenko and Larry were the “last divers standing” to make the afternoon trip of the group and all did a great job on both wrecks. The IVS crew stayed in one group for both dives including a unique “David Hartman Ulimate Spiegel tour” starting from the starboard crane and traveling through the entire well deck right out the “new forward hatch” to the bow and a circular tour of the Anchor Winch Room. We continued on to tour the ship’s Main Galley, a swipe of Snoopy’s nose, and circular tour around all 5 devices left behind in the Spiegel’s machine shop. The dive ended with a quick in-out tour of the ship’s Radar Room behind the bridge and an easy slow return on top of the superstructure back to the mooring. Viz was again murky around the ship but much clearer inside the Grove. With the Spiegel in the books, the Conch Republic Diver headed southwest to wreck of the USCG Duane: a 327 foot US Coast Guard Cutter that serverd from 1939-1980 and was sunk intentionally of the coast of Key Largo in 1987.

The IVS Crew on the Lookout Post of the Wreck of the USCG Duane
The IVS Crew on the Lookout Post of the Wreck of the USCG Duane

The Duane was the second deep dive of the day which called for a relaxing shallower than normal profile to maximize no deco time. What makes the Duane impressive underwater is that the entire ship is covered in orange cup coral and yellow sponges. Our on the Duane dive included encounters with a local Green Turtle and a HUGE Jewish…all 300 pounds of him hanging out in the base of the ship’s Crows Nest. Congrats to Butch Loggins for completing double deep wreck dives with no symptoms after his heart surgery last year and for completing his PADI Distintive Speciality. Go Butch!

Barb Hill and Mike Gusenko Descend to the Deck of the Duane

Barb Hill and Mike Gusenko Descend to the Deck of the Duane

IVS Weekend Summary

Dive sites: (All boat dives except Sunday afternoon with Amoray Dive Resort)

Friday April 1, 2011: Day 1: Morning-Jules Lodge Lagoon Spa & Resort; Afternoon: Spiegel Grove (#6 ball) and Outer Ledge on French Reef

Saturday April 2, 2011: Day 2: Morning-Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Dry Rocks and North Dry Rocks; Afternoon: Pickle Barrel Wreck and Snapper Ledge

Night Dive: A Plot of Sand Nowhere near the Wreck of the Benwood

Sunday April 3, 2011: Day 3: Molasses Reef: Permit Ledges and North Star; Afternoon-Spiegel Grove LSD-32 (#5 ball) and USCG Duane (Conch Republic Divers)

Divers: Butch Loggins, IVS Group Leader/Instructor, Jim Gullo, Barbara Hill, Cindy Eisenhower, Larry Gilligan, Mike Gusenko, Scott and Frank Bruce and your host David Hartman

The IVS Crew on the Amoray Diver.....What's up with that signpost?

The IVS Crew on the Amoray Diver.....What's up with that signpost?

On to the Maldives!

Years ago I pondered whether a career in the scuba industry was right for me or not.  So much travel, so much hard work sweating under the hot sun, so much sand between my toes……OK, OK…I’ll take the job!

Here we are today and I can’t be any happier with my decision.  As part of my “job” (or living vacation, as some view it) I have the responsibility of going and checking our places we may want to run group trips to.  This week, my assignment is the liveaboard charter Ark Royal, and our destination is the Maldives.

This trip is starting less than 24 hours after the Beneath the Sea show ended, so as you might imagine, I am a bit disorganized this morning.  But I’ll manage, and have a high degree of confidence that I’ll make my flight this afternoon. Of course I have nothing packed, and my scuba gear actually just arrived on Friday after Air France lost it and then sent it to Genoa, Italy.  But like Peaches and Herb said, “we’re reunited and it feels so good!’  So I get some clothes together, and review the gear list, take out the cold-water stuff and re-pack for the 85 degrees that awaits me, and toss it all in the van.  Whew…glad I travel light!

In addition to my primary assignment of researching Maldives as a destination, and the Ark Royal as a viable liveaboard for a future Indian Valley Scuba trip, I’ll also be conducting a bit of a medical experiment on this trip, especially in light of the extended travel and flight times, and the stress on one’s system that can cause.  I’ll be traveling with a supply of Divers D\Lyte, the performance drink developed by John Dooley specifically to provide a combination of energy and hydration for divers and any other athlete for that matter.  Loaded with vitamins and electrolytes, this sugar-free, caffeine-free drink should help me  “Get my gills on!”   I look forward to reporting more on this later.

Recognizing that the adventure the next two weeks hold is far more than a mere mortal like myself can handle alone, and still smarting from losing Dave Hartman halfway through last week’s Egyptian extravaganza, I decide to put out the word and see if I can get a volunteer to step up and help me absorb all this culture and information to bring back for the IVS family of divers.  Fortunately, Michele Highley is available to assist in this work, and she signs on as my sidekick for the trip.  This should certainly help get a second person’s perspective on a trip of this magnitude and all the travel and other considerations that go along with it.

Our departing flight is not until 5:45 p.m. so I’ve got plenty of time to get a little caught up from the busy weekend.  A few hundred emails answered or deleted, some unpacking of the trailers from the show, a load of laundry, and I good to go and start packing for this week.  It’s time for the airport run, so I got started right on time at 3:30 (OK, original plan was to leave at 2:00, but who’s keeping score?).  Still, there’s no rush, the bags are checked in a good 20 minutes before the cutoff, no last minute heroics or special dispensation on the part of airline employees to comment on, nothing!  What a difference this trip is, deviating from my normal last minute rushing – I feel like I am suffering from a lack of adrenalin already!

Emirates Air makes the trip from New York’s JFK airport to the Maldives in two hops, stopping only in Dubai.  So that makes sense, doesn’t it?  No, not when you are working on maintaining your Diamond Medallion status with Delta Airlines!  So my route is Philadelphia / Atlanta / Dubai, then switching to Sri Lankan Airlines for Dubai / Colombo, Sri Lanka / Male, Maldives.  Yep, makes sense….not!  But hey, it’s me!  At the check-in counter in Philadelphia the Delta gate agent is a slug – you know sometimes you can read a person in a nanosecond, and that’s the case here.  She is not the helpful Ms Monika that saved the day when I missed my Cairo flight two weeks ago, that’s for sure!  When I started to say about checking the bags all the way to the Maldives, the look on her face said it all – let’s just check the bags to the end of Delta’s route, Dubai, and call it a day.  I’ll take care of things from there.

Sorry, but no “Blue Shirt” stories to tell; they were too busy arguing over breaks and time off to notice Michele’s two bottles of Vitamin Water in her bag as it passed through the x-ray machine  – America’s front line of security was absent today!   We boarded, and enjoyed an uneventful flight to Atlanta.  A little complimentary ‘hydration’ in the Crown Room, and we boarded our flight to Dubai.

Fourteen hours in a coach seat is a long, long time, let me tell you!  The good news is that they were exit row seats with no seats in front, so plenty of room to stretch my legs out and attempt to snooze a little between feedings.  And there were plenty of them, starting with late dinner, midnight snack, breakfast, and lunch, all accompanied by unlimited drinks and excellent cabin service by the flight attendants – so refreshingly un-Air France like, the experience was more akin to that you would enjoy on a cruise ship with the unending buffet line.

Finally, we land in Dubai, and sure enough, I manage to get our bags collected by the great gate agents at Sri Lankan Air, and they get loaded for our last two flights.  First we’ll enjoy 4½ hours of more great service and even more food and drinks are forwarded, served up with great smiles by the sarong-wearing flight attendants, and eventually we touch down in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Funny thing but it’s 5:00 a.m. locally (that’s 7:30 p.m. east coast time – seems they are a half hour out of sync here) making our journey 26 hours so far, with one more flight and a few more hours to go.  Sitting in the terminal, it is interesting to note how many westerners are passing through here, including a number gathered around us at the gate for the flight to Male.  My mind wonders how many of these folks will be our shipmates for this coming ocean adventure!

Finally, it’s time for flight #4, to Male, the only airport in the Maldives, and thankfully it’s a short 1½ hour trip.  The Maldives immigration form has the customary ‘fill in the blank’ format, but it is interesting to note that the space for your name has room for 51 characters – I feel like my parents shortchanged me!  Customs is a breeze and our bags arrive  – what a pleasant surprise!  We walk outside and are met by a couple of representatives from the boat, and we gather with some of our fellow shipmates, a group from Spain, who had arrived on an earlier Qatar Airlines flight.  They walk us across the street to the dock where our dive tender awaits to whisk us to the Ark Royal.  Of course, just to keep the heart pumping, as our tender begins to untie to pull away, a local police boat feels a need to come alongside and chat with the crew – I was afraid the Canadians had sent some intel down here!  But no, just a formality, and we are on our way in a few.

It’s a pretty twenty-minute ride out to where the Ark Royal is moored and being fueled by the local delivery barge.  We tie up and board, and our baggage is hauled aboard also.  A quick briefing and our rooms are ready for us. I’ve got a standard cabin, and it measures about 10 ft x 12 ft, plus a full bath.  The shower is “Dave-size” so that is a big plus, as so many boats really have tight shower enclosures. All the diving will be done from the tender, which itself is actually a 40 ft long dive boat. The tanks & gear will remain on the tender, and will be filled between dives by the onboard compressor system.  Nitrox is the gas of choice and they have a membrane system to pump it right into our cylinders.  The gear is kept in roomy milk crates under each persons seat and there’s plenty of hanging space for wetsuits, but with the 86 degree water, we sure won’t be needing too many of those!

Our plan is to do a quick “check dive” at a nearby reef to make sure everything is in order, and for everyone to get their weighting right.  We pile into the tender, and run about twenty-minutes up the coast to Feydhoo Wall.  This turns out to be a really nice dive, with the wall starting at about 10 ft and dropping down until it ends in the sand at 100 ft.  It is covered with life, and riddled with cuts and grooves that provide refuge for plenty of colorful critters.  The most prominent fish are blue triggerfish, in the 3 to 8 inch length, and there must be 10,000 of them within sight.  Many of them are laying on their sides, with their heads in small holes, ostrich-like.  There are other species of triggerfish here also but the blue ones dominate.  With lots of hard & soft corals, sponges, and gorgonians, the life here is rich and varied.  We see numerous Nudibranchs, a great looking turtle sitting on a ledge, some morays, an octopus, anemones and clown fish, various crinoids, some tuna buzzing by, mantis shrimp, banded shrimp, angels, puffers and more.  What a great way to kick off the week, and we spend 50 minutes with a depth of 100 ft to get a good baseline of nitrogen loading in our systems.

And again, without sounding like a broken record, I must say we feel great after 30 hours of non-stop air travel, and I attribute a lot of that to Divers D\Lyte, which we have been mixing with our water and drinking all along (OK, in between beers for me!).  No sense of dehydration or jet lag to speak of!

Back to the boat, we enjoy lunch, and then motor south a few miles to South Kaafu Atoll, also known as south Male atoll.  Here we tie up for the night in a protected mooring area, off a site called Guraidhoo, and are joined by a few other liveaboards and some sailboats.  Dinner is served and it is delicious, and I sense that my diet plans will be on hold for the next few days.

One comment I might make on the boat and the crew is that there is not a lot of clear communication here on any level.  Having enjoyed some great crew introductions and briefings on such boats as the Spirit of Freedom, Aquacat, Odyssey, Aggressor, and others, one might expect to be introduced to the crew members, get an overview of the week to come, and learn some local culture and information.  Here, the information is doled out on a “need to know” basis, and sadly, that takes away quite a bit of the experience that could be.  And speaking of information, the only paperwork filled out (but not reviewed) was a simple diver info form, and never was a certification card asked to be produced at all! End of soapbox, but you can rest assured it will be passed on the boat’s owners.

Our fellow shipmates for the cruise include Tia (a fellow Lithuanian) & John from Palo Alto, Tony & Alan from the San Francisco area, Bonnie & Dana from Michigan, Cheryl from Colorado, Leigh, originally from Worcestershire, UK, but currently residing in Dubai, and a group of six from Spain who speak as little English as I speak Spanish, so we’ll just skip on the names and origins.

It’s 6:00 a.m. and the wake up bell stirs us.  First dive briefing is at 6:30 and then we’ll be in the water before breakfast.  We learn the dive leaders names this morning, Thippe (pronounced Tippy), and Boee (pronounced Boy), as well as some female DM who spoke Spanish for the rest of the divers, but evidently didn’t interface well with westerners.  Our first site today is Kandoomaa Thila, a pillar that rises from the bottom in the center of the channel, from a depth of about a hundred and fifty feet to approx. 40 ft at the top.  With the tremendous tidal flow of water from the atolls, the current this morning is just ripping as we head out. You can see the diverging flows boiling the surface of the water as we approach the dive site.  We drop on the west end of he pillar, and there is a bit of confusion as the current tries to split the group to the north and south.  Once re-organized, we pass along the north side of the reef, keeping the wall on our right shoulder (OK, most of us do, but in spite of the briefing, a few of the divers still manage to get themselves separated from the group….shaking my head here) and enjoy a nice 35 minute dive from 120 ft to 60 ft of depth.  White tipped sharks, eagle rays, triggers, titans, bumphead wrasses, turtles, all sorts of interesting life to take in and enjoy.  Good dive!

Back up, we return to the mother ship and breakfast is served.  Plenty of food and variety, so no one is going hungry here.  Before you know it the time to dive has arrived, so a quick briefing, and onto the tender tor our five-minute run to the site.  The plan was the same as earlier, we’ll dive in three groups.  OK, well that is the description of the start at least.  We end the dive in about 8 groups, scattered all along the reef – utterly amazing how challenging it is for these DM’s to monitor their groups and attempt to keep any sort of order there.  None the less, it is the best dive yet, with visibility in excess of 200 ft, and sharks, turtles, octopus’s, golden leaf scorpionfish, big spotted morays, titan triggers guarding their nests, and more.  Quick summary – great dive!

On to dive #3 for the day, another channel inlet dive, similar profile with the reef rising to approx 30 ft on either side of a 300 ft wide 100 ft deep channel.  Here we have a strong incoming tidal current, plus an ocean current to deal with, so we start off the dive about 100 ft west of the channel entrance, swim like hell to get down and not washed into the channel, then enjoy a nice deep dive traversing the inlet of the channel.  The water on the ocean side is several hundred feet deep and dark, while on the reef side it is crystal clear, except for some areas of mixed temperatures that make for a “jelly on the lens” sort of effect as you try to focus.  Here we start the dive with some of the usual critters but as we near the far side of the channel the real show begins, with gray and white tip sharks of all sizes cruising in to check us out.  At one point I can count 18 sharks in front of me, very cool to be here and experiencing this!  All too soon our tanks are running low at this depth, so we work our way up the reef to our safety stop and finally surface 45 minutes later.  Excellent dive, but note to self:  doubles would be better here!

Time for a quick nap on the sundeck, and then dinner is served.  Following that there is a lot of socializing and a bit of alcohol consumed as the boat nears our mooring destination for the night.  Well the temperature and clarity of the water is top much to deny, so what better than a late night swim in the ocean?  Not everyone is brave enough, but the intrepid few, consisting of Leigh and Michele, set a positive example for the rest as they cavort and frolic in the sea.  The current here is no small consideration, and one needs to be mindful of that while enjoying the water, cause the anchored boat gets pretty far away pretty darn fast if you are not paying attention.  Sure enough, not enough mind is paid to that, and as the mother ship begins to fade in the darkness, it’s time for the crew to fire up the dingy and head out for a little late night rescue!  All ends well, and there’s laughter all around.

April Fools Day, and we get to sleep in an extra hour for some inexplicable reason.  Communication from the crew continues to be somewhat lacking, but we just go with the flow here and take the extra hour.  We are near a site that lies within some sort of national park, again, can’t get a clear answer on what that means, but I’ve got enough information to make that statement with confidence.  The site is a small bommie, or pinnacle, that rises up from deeper water and it probably isn’t more than 150 ft in diameter, with the top at about 50 ft.  It is absolutely covered with life of all sorts, especially schooling fish such as grunts, snappers, and other local species.  We enjoy watching a turtle having breakfast on the many sponges that grow on the reef, and a couple of not-too-shy octopus are out and about.  Plenty of eels, a local version of a goliath grouper, and some tune darting along make for a great 50 minutes with a max depth of 110 ft.

Back for breakfast, the boat moves a bit, and the plans for the second dive are announced.  We’re going to search for whale sharks in the tender, and if we’re lucky and come upon some, we’ll jump in and snorkel with them.  Then we’ll do our dive, and maybe look for some more whale sharks on the way back.  OK, I just gave you the entire dive briefing, and yes, they forget to talk about the actual dive site at all.  I suppose we’ll figure it out when we get there.   Maybe…

If I may digress for a moment…It is always interesting when I get a chance to dive with non-IVS divers and observe just how “different” that truly is.  The first and most obvious observation is the overall worldly experience this group has, as they drop names of places they have dived like Fiji, Indonesia, Bali, Lembeh Straits, and all sorts of other exotic locations.  Most of them exhibit some great dive skills and their experience diving together as buddies truly shows.  In conversation I find quite a bit of continuing education achievements and aspirations, with a few rescue divers, some public safety diving experience, and more.  It behooves anyone who embraces diving this much to seek a solid understanding of the physiological effects of diving, and a clearer understanding of basic dive equipment and skills, that might in fact help save their lives somewhere down the road.  OK… off my soapbox…again!

So we board the tender and head out to see if we can find some whale sharks. We’re in an area that is somewhat plankton rich, and a good location to find the biggest fish of the sea swimming, mouth open, into the current, filtering out lunch from the sea’s salad bar.  The method of searching consists of putting a few crew members on the roof and looking for shadows in the ocean as we cruise along.  There are other boats out here doing the same thing, but do you think anyone has a radio to talk to each other?  You know the answer to that.  So we pass the other boats and they pass us, repeatedly, as we all search in a fairly large area along the coast.  The plan is to search for two hours, and if we’re not successful, then we’ll dive and search for two more hours.  Let’s hope we find a whale shark in the first session!  One hour, a false alarm, back in our seats, almost two hours now….wait…there’s a boat ahead dropping folks into the water!  Sure enough, it’s a whale shark, who was enjoying a leisurely breakfast, but is now the subject of about 100 snorkelers chasing and racing to swim alongside it.  The scene is reminiscent of the starting line of the Iron Man Triathlon, with plenty of kicking and splashing and pushing as everyone wants the front row seat, but the darn front row keeps moving!   Still a decent photo op and I get quite a few shot off before the shark turns and heads to the peace of deeper waters.  Back on the boat, and the search resumes for a bit.  We find another, but this one is on the game, and heads towards the deep much quicker than the first.  Overall, I think it’s a bit abusive for the whale sharks, but at least they have the option of interrupting lunch and coming back when the crowds are gone.  The good news is that we don’t have to look forward to another two hours of searching now!

So we splash on the reef, and as soon as we get down, there is a beautiful black & purple flatworm swimming along the reef.  It stops and sets down on a piece of coral, and what is right below it?  Two beautiful large cowries, their shells beautiful and shiny, just perfect to compliment the scene.  Plenty of table top corals throughout the area, and lots of fish life, some nice nudi’s, including a really large purple one that bears a strong resemblance to a sponge, need to get an ID on this.  Decent dive, 60 minutes at 80 ft and up, and we return to the boat for lunch and a break before heading back out for a late afternoon dive.

Quick briefing and we’re back on board to our final site, which promises to be a manta ray cleaning station.  First bad sign when we arrive is that there are three other boats already there with divers in the water, and I am thinking, “Just how tolerant are those mantas of divers?”  Well, my suspicions were right on the money, as we spent 60 minutes huffing for a mile or so across so-so reef in search of non-existent manta rays.  A nice friendly turtle, a school of photographic sweetlips, and a stingray being cleaned were the highlights, but overall we could have dove this one a lot closer to home without 50 hours of airline travel!  90 ft max, 60 minutes, another dive in the logbook.  Let’s go to dinner!

Again we appeal to the guys who appear to be in leadership positions in the crew to have the guys introduce themselves, and again we are assured this will happen soon.  Flash forward – this NEVER happens; truly a disappointment to spend ten days in close quarters with nine or ten guys and never know who’s on first.  Something to consider for future charters.

Oh well, back to life on board – another great night under a clear skies with the heavens providing a fantastic star-filled show for us to enjoy.  The boat has a nice celestial telescope so all the amateur stargazers gather around and test their knowledge of the constellations and other things stellar.  Nice bunch on the boat and everyone is bonding well – well OK, there are two distinct groups, those who speak English, and those who don’t!

OK, it’s a new day and time to get some diving in.  Our first location is a wreck sunk in the 80’s as an artificial reef, the Kudhima Wreck, sitting perfectly upright in 100 ft of water.  This old inter-island freighter is covered with life, including a lot of hard corals.  It’s really interesting to see growth of table top corals right off the side of the hull!  We check out some morays, a really nice mantis shrimp playing hide-and-seek with us, big puffer fish, a remora looking for a host, and more of the usual suspects.  Sixty minutes and 100 ft of depth and we call this one a winner!

Back to the boat, breakfast is served, and then we head out to our second location, a site known as Five Rocks.  This is another “thila” (pillar, or bommie to our Australian readers) that rises up like a sea mount, from 120 ft to maybe 50 ft.  It’s split across the top with some deep crevices and just full of life.  We get buzzed by a few white tip sharks and enjoy another turtle munching away on the reef.  Just a thought – how come we can’t touch the reef but the turtles get to hammer away on it?  Just fooling of course, but the dangerous mind wanders you know!

On the way back in to enjoy lunch, I take the time to chat with Thyppe and see if I can encourage him to maybe get a little more diving into our day.  The original excuse was the time it took to fill the tanks.  Now, he confides with me that when the crew proposes four dives a day to a lot of their groups, they are met with laughter, so they learned to back off from that.  Well, this is no ordinary group here this week, I assure him, and we’d appreciate more bottom time.  He says the tanks could be filled quicker, so I challenge him to prove it to me.  As we tie up to the mother shop, he walks over to the white board where the daily diving info is posted, and writes “sunset dive” at the bottom of today’s schedule,  I high five him, and we go in to eat.

After the tanks get filled, and we head back to Manta Point to repeat the dive we did yesterday, which sucked.  Hopes are high that our previous experience was an anomaly, and as we approach the first good sign is that there are no other boats there to scare away any mantas.  We splash, and in less than one minute, there’s our first manta.  Our group displays some good discipline, staying low and not moving much, and we are rewarded with about ten minutes of manta aerobatics as the gentle giant swoops over us, runs through our bubbles, cruises up and down our group and just does about every other manta thing you can imagine.  Very cool.  OK, he leaves, so we move down the reef, and hey, here’s another, and more of the same.  It’s interesting also that the reef is absolutely covered with morays of various flavors and all sizes, and as we sit there motionless they are swimming between our arms, under our bodies and all around – really adds to the experience!  Two more big ones cruise overhead, then a couple more, so we get a total of six mantas for today’s dive – we are glad we did the second take on this one!!  Another 100 ft for 60 minutes total – great dive!

Back for a quick surface interval and tank filling, and we head out for a sunset  dive which quickly turns into a night dive on the house reef.  Very nice, although not very fishy – seems a lot of the inhabitants must head to deeper waters to survive the night.  We have some squid checking us out, a few sharks, and lots of sleeping parrot fish in the coral – seems like Key Largo!  All good, and another 50 minutes of bottom time for the logbook.  Back for dinner now!

What a most brilliant sunrise greets us this Sunday morning as we get up at 6:00 for our first dive.  A quick briefing and we head out to Dhigaa Thila, another lump on the sea floor about ten minutes from the boat. This is a pretty cool site with a dramatic wall that drops vertically down from about 15 ft to 100 ft, riddled with big caverns and crevices.  The soft corals here are the best we have seen yet, and we find a nice big octopus, some more white tip sharks cruising in close to check me out, pretty nudibranch’s, and the highlight of the dive, three ornate ghost pipefish that pose for me alongside a feather star.  Beautiful!  Another 100 ft and another 60 minutes makes for a perfect dive log entry!

Breakfast is served while tanks are filled, and we head out to Maahlos Thila, a beautiful wall dive along the side of yet another channel from the open sea.  We drop down to 100 ft to begin, and then ride the outgoing current along the wall which is covered with bright blue soft corals and so many other corals and sponges that no matter which direction you looked, you found yourself speechless.  Totally covered with schooling fish of all sorts, they wall was also riddled with deep undercuts and quasi-caverns, which provided even more homes for animals of all sorts.  We ended up on top of the reef at 40 ft, with 55 minutes of bottom time.  Overall a most wonderful dive to add to the list!

And this dive was even more special as it was Alan & Tony’s 100th dive.  Pretty cool way to celebrate!

And speaking of small worlds as we weren’t, Alan is wearing one of his favorite tee’s today, featuring Conch Republic Dive Center.  What a coincidence, I point out, that today Butch Loggins and Dave Hartman are leading the IVS crew on a dive in the Florida Keys with Conch Republic this very day!  The IVS dive flag is flying on both sides of the globe at the same time today!

Our afternoon dive was to Dhonkalho Thila, another manta ray hangout.  We dropped in to about 70 ft and there they were, in under a minute, our first two.  Swooping over and past us, they made for a magical experience.  We had about seven mantas in total spending time with us, and we did not move at all. Finally, they left, so we worked our way along the reef a bit, and ended up with another 50 minutes at 70 ft total.

No night is complete without a night dive, so by golly, we had one tonight!  The group got a little smaller as half the passengers opted to head over to the uninhabited island we are anchored in front of to do some swimming before we have a barbecue on the island.  The rest of us headed under, and were treated to the standard night time fare here, including another leaf scorpionfish, some really cool feeding coral with tentacles out about 24 inches, and all the other stuff.  I enjoyed it as a solo night dive, logging 100 ft and 50 minutes.

Now we get dolled up and head over on the dingy to the island, where the crew has put together a nice beach barbecue setting, complete with a 30 ft whale shark carved into the sand as our dinner table – really neatly done!  They have brought the entire dinner over, with all the fixin’s, and the bar too, so we enjoyed a few really pleasant hours dining under the stars and chatting on the first bit of land our legs have touched in a week!   All too soon, it’s time to wrap it up and head back to the Ark Royal for a good nights sleep.

First dive for Monday is a small ridge of a reef line called Fish Head, off North Ari Atoll.  Nice dive, 126 ft of depth, lots of fish life, nudi’s and feeding turtles, a few sharks in the distance, superb viz, mild currents and a great 55 minutes of bottom time.  We motor north while eating breakfast to our second site of another four-dive day, a site called Kan Thila.

For our next dive we head out to a site where big grey reef sharks abound.  We drop in and head down and into the current, and I am thinking, gosh, this is just like the 1st manta dive – and guess what – it was!  It sucked!  OK, so it was 86 degrees, and I am in the Maldives, but the dive sucked.  Or, as Cheryl noted, the best part of that dive was the safety stop!  So we spent the better part of an hour poking under rocks, looking at eels, some Nudibranchs, and not too much more.

Back for lunch, and then we headed out to Hafzaa Thila, to look for even more sharks.  We saw maybe two big grey ones, a few white tips, but the cool stuff was big honking tuna fish shooting along through the schools of baitfish.  There were quite a few of them, all in the 30 to 50 pound size range, and they were cruising for dinner.  Pretty neat to watch, but tough to photograph.  Up on top we had a dozen juvenile white tips, around two feet long, hiding under the table corals and thinking about living a longer life by doing so!  Must be a tough neighborhood when all the big grey’s come home.  Also had some more of the usual, clownfish, a scorpionfish, nudi’s, beautiful anemones, some squid, and zillions of schooling fish trying to avoid becoming someone’s dinner.  100 ft max and 70 minutes of bottom time, with a couple of inquisitive squid joining us at the end to top off a really nice dive.

We head back out to Hafzaa Thila for our night dive, and expect the action to be intense with all the food in the area.  We are not disappointed for sure!  Sharks are feeding all over the reef, big marble rays and morays out for dinner also, and thousands upon thousands of smaller fish seeking shelter and refuge there.  It was like someone pumped some Red Bull into the predators for the night, cause they sure had the energy to burn!  The good news for the prey is that the sharks and eels are terrible hunters, so you get plenty of chances to err, Still quite a few meet their maker tonight, and no one is going to bed hungry that’s for sure!  Another hour of bottom time rounds out the night, and we head in for a late dinner and right to bed.

Up again at 6:30 our plans are to head back to last night’s site for one more visit to this Thila.  But as we approach, there are three boats on it already, so we shift gears and head 10 minutes north to the site we had planned for our second dive, Maaya Thila.  It’s a similar site, although not quite as defined as a pillar, but still full of life of all sorts.  Nice dive, 120 ft max, 60 minutes of bottom time, just enough to work up a good appetite for breakfast!

OK, bellies full (like that is not a recurring thing all week!) and we head out to the original site, Haafza Thila, and enjoy our third dive on this pillar of sea life, where we get to see some more dogfish tuna nailing their breakfast, and the rest of the “busy town” life on top of the coral column.  We explore out in the sand for a while at 130 ft, do a little Project Aware work cleaning up some old fishing line, and then spend the rest of the sixty-five minute dive on top of the reef.  Good way to see three completely different versions of life and visitors on this reef, from yesterday afternoon’s pelagics coming in to visit, to last night’s feeding frenzy, and today to a nice quiet neighborhood to raise your kids if you’re a fish – just get them off the streets before sunset!

After lunch we head to a new site, a channel dive at Rasdhoo Atoll. We splash in on the ocean side of this barrier reef, along a wall that drops down into the abyss.  Large gray reef sharks buzz us, along with tuna, as they patrol the edge of their domain.  I drop down to 130 to check out some of the undercuts and crevices below.  There’s more to see deeper, but my Nitrox mix keeps me from pushing it any further.  I find some large beautiful cowries, a large moray, and schools of swirling bar jacks in the deep.  As I move up the wall, five nice eagle rays swim by slowly in perfect formation, giving us ample time for some great pictures.  Another great fifty minute dive, we collect our divers bobbing along on the surface, and head back to get cleaned up for this evenings island entertainment.

We take the launch over to the island and get a chance to walk through a typical Maldivian community, complete with all your standard Maldivian tourist and gift shops.  Seems this island is a regular stop for all the liveaboards, so you know what to expect.  Still, it is pretty and most of the show owners have a pretty good command of English so I am able to get a lot of questions answered about the islands and the local life.  Then back to the boat for dinner and Part II of our evenings entertainment,

The crew has something special for us, and after dinner, all the dining tables are stacked up in the corner  to make room for a large rug they unroll.  Next, here comes three large double-ended drums, and some cushions to sit on, and before you know it, the crew has transformed into a Maldivian folk band,  For the next hour and a half they entertain us non-stop with some high energy drum pounding and serious synchronized chanting and clapping and dancing.  None of us understand a word that they are singing but it was far more experiential than that, to see the passion that they put into this was truly amazing,  Even more amazing was the fact that these were the same quiet guys who have tended to our every need all week, and here they have their moment to let their hair down and show us with great pride how they like to celebrate – very, very cool indeed!  This is one of those moments words cannot describe – you have to live this one yourself to understand it!

After that, it breaks down into a dance party since the Spaniards are leaving us tomorrow, and the boat turns into a bit of a disco scene.  Well with a five o’clock wake up for some blue water hammerhead shark diving looming, I turn in early to get my beauty rest.

We started the morning off with a 5 a.m. wakeup and quick briefing so we could be out and in the water before the sun peeked over the horizon.  Better opportunity to view hammerheads that way, we were told, as they move to deeper water during the daylight hours.  So we motored out, and although the sun was not officially up, it sure was light when we splashed at 6:05.  We dropped in and immediately descended to about 110 ft, with the instructions to stay in a tight group, better to not scare the hammerheads off.  Well there’s always one, and sure enough, one of our divers felt some compelling urge or personal right to swim out in front of the pack, ensuring that any possible hammerhead sightings would now be a bit further out in the murky viz.  Why can’t some people listen, I ask, and respect the rights of all the others?  Needless to say, 30 minutes into the dive, we turned and headed to the reef to finish it off in shallow water and salvage an otherwise wasted dive.

Yoshimas Thila was our second dive site today, and this was another pillar that hinted at the opportunities for shark sightings.  So in we dropped, and the top of the reef was at 70 feet, so I did a little exploration down the side hitting 160 ft and about a 1.9 ppO before deciding I was close enough to the sand to see that there was not much different here than there was up shallower.  I shot some pics of some nudi’s crusing about the reef, then headed up on top and finished up the dive there, with some nice schooling sweetlips and grunts swirling about us. We headed in for lunch, and afer a discussion with some of our fellow divers, I figured it was time for a little “Come to Jesus” meeting with the chief dive leader, Thyppe.  I told him we had been out enough times searching and hoping for sharks or mantas, and while these dives were cool in their own right, nearly every one of us had a camera, and none of the sharks came in close enough for any decent photographs.  That being said, with five or six dives left on our itinerary, we wanted clear water, minimal current, and close up photo opportunities.  Thyppe understood and agreed that the rest of our dives would meet this criteria.

While we ate, the captain moved the boat across the channel so we could be within range of dropping off the Spanish contingent.  Some of us are wondering if perhaps our itinerary and travel route was compromised by the boat having both 9-day and 6-day passengers on board, meaning we needed to be back near the airport three days earlier than usual so the others could depart.  Hmmmmm…

Our post-lunch dive site is Naseem Thila, a nice bommie that rises up from the bottom and tops out at about 45 ft, with the sides dropping down to the sand at about 130 ft.  In addition to the main pillar, there are several additional coral pillars just a short distance away, all covered with soft corals of every color imaginable, hard corals, and fish.  We get another sixty minutes of bottom time here and a slew of more great photos.

Our fourth and final dive of the afternoon is Banana Reef, another nice lump that comes up from the sea floor.  The current is absolutely ripping when we arrive, so we know this is going to be a fun dive!  We drop in and visibility is forever, and indeed the current is hot.  So we drop onto the corner of the reef, hold on to rocks for a bit to see what is going to come by, and then we let go and work our way around the bommie.  This is truly an adrenalin-producing dive, with currents coming from all directions, including down currents, as we move along.  A dive like this really gets your head into the game, thinking of your next move, being cognizant of the currents as you feel them or observe them affecting the fish or soft corals & sea fans.  Lots of eels, bumphead wrasse, turtle, tropicals of all flavors, octopus and more.  You can surmise that I absolutely loved this dive today!!

The Spaniards leave us when we get back to the boat, and gosh, I miss them already!  Not that I could say that in Spanish, but they were a pretty nice bunch and all really good divers, so it was a pleasure having them as part of our dive group.  The crew has the candles on our tables, and our next to last supper is served, as we enjoy  a quiet evening on the mother ship.  There’s one more day of diving and there seems to be a bit of dissent among the divers, with one camp (led by me) wishing for clear water and beautiful scenery, and another faction seems to think if we don’t go into deep murky water and wait for something big to maybe swim by, then it’s not worth diving.  We’ll see who wins this battle of wills tomorrow.

The day starts off in grand style celebrating Tia’s 65th birthday (yes, they still let them dive at that age here) with our first dive on a site called HP, appropriately named for the ‘High Pressure’ diving and convergence of currents there.  The surface is literally boiling with water moving in all directions and currents crashing into currents – very neat visual to give us a hint of what lies below the surface.  We drop in off the north side of the reef, with the plan to swim to the side of the reef, but the current isn’t too cooperative and is running both downward and parallel to the reef, so as we drop and swim hard towards the reef we are zipping along and down.  Whooops….it’s time to check the gauges, dang, that does say 140 ft and there bottom lies easily another 50 or 60 below us so that is not an option.  Kick, kick, kick, finally we make it over and begin sailing along the reef.  Gotta find some protection here, and after a turn or two we get into some calm areas, where we can enjoy some of the great sea life here, corals of many colors, and beautiful topography.  We do some Project Aware work on this dive, uncoiling a few hundred feet of old fishing lines from in and around the corals and sponges.  Excellent dive overall, 50 minutes of bottom time, and nothing but smiles all around when we get back to the surface.

Lankan Manta Point is our second drop of the day, and true to his word, Thyppe will verify that there are mantas on site before we waste time in the water looking for them.  We arrive, our man drops down, and comes back up to report zero mantas at the site (whether or not they were there, the answer he gave was appropriate, and yesterday’s debate is over!).  Thank goodness for checking – wink, wink!  So we head over to Naseem Thila and do another nice 100 ft dive  for 60 minutes on this proven good site.  Only one dive to go, how sad.

But wait…back on board, John & Tia ask me if I’d like to get another dive, and I have to think about that….for a nano-second!  Yeppers, so we run that up the flagpole with Thyppe, and he affirms, indeed, if we want a fourth dive today, then we get it!  Yippee!

So for our third dive we head out to another Thila, and the current is pretty strong as we drop in. Michele and I just chart our own course on this one, and as we head over to the edge of the drop off, there’s a little octopus looking at us. Great start, and we head over the side of the reef. I’m poking around, and sure enough, there’s another octo, substantially larger, peeking at me from over the edge. I cruise up slowly, and he is not startled by my presence. I spend the next twenty minutes at 80 ft just inches away from him, getting some great photos and interaction with this very intelligent critter. Truly one of those extended moments when life takes on a whole new perspective, just sitting and watching and communicating with another one of God’s great creatures. Sweet!

So I am thinking, that is enough, this dive is complete, and I leave my little eight-armed friend, and head over to check out a bit of a cavern in the reef side a few yards away. As I start to slip inside, I am pushed aside by a Napoleon Wrasse who must have figured if I see something in there, then maybe it is his! In fact he is so close to me I cannot back up enough in the cavern to get his photo, and have to change to the wide-angle lens to get most of his body into the viewfinder. He has no qualms about edging me out in the cavern, and it is yet another take-your-breath-away moment on this magical dive.

OK, enough of that, let me just cruise along a bit, but wait, here’s another friendly moray, and some more sweetlips, and just more great stuff to truly rank this as another of those top ten dives. I am energized for sure!

So we surface, and head back to the Ark Royal for a quick surface interval before we get our fourth dive in. Of course, this one is not without controversy either, as the “other faction” emphatically told the other divers that there would be no fourth dive, as the tender was needed to get provisions for the next charter. I just shake my head, wondering what it is within a person that causes such a need to be heard, without regard as to whatever is being said is factual or not. Some folks will never get it, I must conclude, and we have one of those examples on this charter with us.

So out we go for dive #4, in the tender, which of course is not really happening at all, according to “the voice”. But off we go anyhow, and as we approach, the seas are truly boiling with the currents and the incoming tide. This dive is going to be FUN! So we drop in, kick like made to catch the reef, and then begin our ‘sail’ along the sides of the thila, with currents probably exceeding 4 knots at some points, and what a rush it is! With our regulators cranked down tight to reduce free flowing in the currents, we cruise along, with east-to-west, then west-to-east, then down currents, then up currents, then combinations to just keep it fun and fresh and exciting for the entire 60 minute. We get washed down as deep as 140 ft, and washed up to less than 5 feet, so buoyancy control and situational awareness is key to a safe experience today. I stop to take some pictures of a banded coral shrimp, and as I frame him in the viewfiender, a moray shoots out of an adjacent hole and bites my camera right in my hands – very cool! More good photos, more laughter as we tumble along the reef, what a high-energy way to wrap up a great week of diving – and remember, this dive is NOT happening!!

So we come on back, and the crew takes our gear for some rinsing and drying, as we enjoy our last supper on board. Some more photo sharing, emails are exchanged, and our glasses are raised one last time to celebrate a great week and 30 wonderful dives. One last wake up call and we’ll be heading back to the airport for the journey home – how sad!

Our flights home are uneventful, save for one near-international incident in Dubai. First, the background – on my Sri Lankan flight from CoIombo to Dubai, I order the lamb dinner on the flight, and it is just a little bit stringy, so as I finish my meal, I need to dislodge a small piece of meat from between a couple of teeth, and what do I have at hand to do that with? Well, my boarding pass, right here in my shirt pocket, and what a nice little combination toothpick / floss it makes. Mission accomplished, I place the saliva-laden card on my tray to be disposed of. Now we land, and as we disembark the gate agents await us at the top of the ramp, demanding our boarding passes be turned in to them for some insane reason. Well I hand them my pass from the previous flight, but the eagle-eyed agent catches that and says he needs the one for this flight. Well, I try to explain the whole oral hygiene thing, but you can see it is going nowhere, and he gets a bit adamant in his demands. I take a deep breath, count to ten, and walk into the Dubai airport, leaving them to search for the missing Dave Valaika who must still be hiding somewhere on that aircraft. Amazing, but true.

A few more hours, a flight to Paris, overnight there to allow the French to redeem themselves and show me some love, and then back to Atlanta and Philadelphia, bringing this trip to a happy and safe conclusion.

Summary – we are going back!! Look for the Maldives trip on the website soon!

Before I forget, let me make a few notes here for anyone booking on the Ark Royal. First, Rooms #1, and #8, near the engines, are NOISY! Not too bad when you are dead tired, but anything short of that it might prove to be an issue. Second, if you want a larger tank to enjoy the deep dives that are so common here, you need to confirm it ahead of time. Bring a few bottles of your favorite wine as the selection is limited on board and is only sold by the bottle. Also don’t forget soft drinks, they are sold by the glass on board. If not for the delicious Divers D\Lyte I’d be suffering from a Diet Coke and Diet Mountain Dew shortage! Bring your snorkel for the whale shark chasing experience. Don’t forget the safety sausage and audible alert horn, plus your reef hook. Also you can rent an internet card on line from the crew for about $10 a day to stay in touch with the folks back home!

That’s all Folks!