It’s Definitely Better in the Bahamas!

Team Indian Valley had the pleasure to visit the Bahamas for seventeen wonderful days in April, representing Indian Valley Travel as we visited several new exciting destinations for future visits, and finally enjoying a weeklong Indian Valley Scuba charter on the Aquacat liveaboard. During this arduous journey, our hard working “scouts” spent time visiting several other resorts and dive operators there to expand Indian Valley Travel’s firsthand knowledge of our expanded choices of offerings in the Bahamas. And amazingly, every choice was a great one, so we have to call this trip an absolute success! So with that said, please sit back and enjoy our tale of travel and adventure as we try to bring the best of the Bahamas to you!

Day 1 Thursday 4/10  Like any good international adventure, we start the journey with our standard ‘running just a little bit late’ approach to Philadelphia International Airport, our launch point for this trip. To be honest, Shirley and I had spent a busy night packing and actually headed down to the airport in what I felt was more than sufficient time. Unfortunately that estimation did not take into account some heavier-than-normal morning traffic, which required some last-minute adjustments, such as parking at the closer but somewhat more expensive Wally Park versus the tried and true, and economical Smart Park lot. Yet even with that costly adjustment, our shuttle driver felt as if his personal mission this morning was to pick up everyone in the lot, and after three or five times of me saying “Hey, please, our flight is already boarding; can we just head to the airport and let another driver pick up a few customers?” he finally picked up on our sense of urgency, and we left the lot for the short jaunt to the airport.

Finally...we've arrived!

Finally…we’ve arrived!

We pull up in front of the Delta terminal and as I hurriedly tipped our driver and grabbed our bags, I encouraged Shirley to hustle over to the Delta counter to get the check-in process started. There were a few folks already in the premium line, and we all know how shy Shirley is, so I had to work all my puppy dog smiles and eyelash batting to get them to all let us cut in front of the line.   Well Ms. Lucinda, the Delta ticket agent, had picked up on my slick moves, and I guess when she woke up this morning, some little voice inside her head told her that her role today was to be the ‘Queen of the Airport’, so as I approached her, smiling and being sweet, she quickly put me in place, demanding to know what flight I was on and how did I manage to get in front of all those folks who were patiently waiting to pay her homage. So I told her that everyone (except her) understood my urgency, as our flight to Atlanta, and connection to Nassau, is scheduled to be “wheels up” in just 25 minutes from now. “Well”, she told me with an air of self-appointed authority, “you are late for your check in and we can’t take your bags”. “Stop, breathe, relax, restrain, repeat…..” is what MY inner voice was saying, as I brought every bit of self-control that I had in me to be able to respond sweetly to this little bundle of negativity that was threatening to urinate on my morning’s parade. I am sensing that perhaps she just felt an inner need to read someone the official Delta Riot Act that morning, slowly and with exaggerated punctuation, and somehow I have been selected to be the one to help her get past that! I really wondered where I sinned recently for this to be happening to me right now, but there was no way around Ms. Lucinda on my path the Bahamas, sooooo, I smiled, acknowledged everything she said, complimented her on educating me on how to be a better flyer, fully admitted to being late, and kinda felt like I was back where we started, but down to 22 minutes until takeoff now.   So, throwing caution to the wind, I cautiously brought up that I “knew” that the best Delta agents, of which I assured her that she must be one, could make this happen for their most loyal customers (like me). Well it seems that our little airline professional just needed a little complimentary hug this morning, and I was ready to deliver, and before you know it, she managed to get it done.  Bags checked, boarding passes issued, and we’re off to security, but not before I asked her to call the gate and tell them we’re on our way. Why we need to play these games I will never know, but I was thankful that I was able to satisfy her today! Of course, the security line is backed up, but we weasel our way to the front [more puppy dog eyes here and plenty of ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’], and finally, we end up stepping aboard the plane at 8:53 for a 9:00 flight, encouraged by the gate agents shouting our names over the loudspeaker all the way down the terminal…nothing like a little adrenalin rush to start off the adventure! The important thing is we’re finally on our way!

South Bimini

South Bimini

Once we land in Nassau, we quickly cleared Bahamian Customs, retrieved our bags, and navigated our way over to domestic departures to find the friendly folks at Western Air waiting for us to board our flight (what a surprise!) to South Bimini Island. Thirty minutes later, we land, grab a taxi, and $10 later we were standing in front of Neal Watson’s Bimini Sands Resort!

DSCF3726

Neal Watson’s Bimini Sands Resort

We were here as guests of the Watson family, and honored that they had reached out to us, eager to show their brand to Indian Valley Travel. Neal’s daughter Beth runs the operation from her office in Fort Lauderdale, while her bother Neal Jr. runs the dive operation on site. This very nice condo marina consists of 260 units, with a mix of configurations ranging from one to four bedrooms, either located right on marina with a slip in front of the unit, or directly on the beautiful white sand beach. They broke ground on the project in 1995, with a few slowdowns based on the economy, coupled with an “island time” construction schedule, but we got to see the last few units nearing completion. The docks and marina are first class and you got a sense of that from some of the upscale yachts that were visiting while we were there.  With two nice pools, including an infinity pool on the ocean front, a half mile of beautiful white sand beach, the dive center and a water sports activity center right on site, and a great little restaurant open for breakfast and lunch, you don’t need to leave the property for much of anything.

Bimini Sands Resort & Marina

Bimini Sands Resort & Marina

Our unit was a one bedroom, with a nice kitchen, living room, and patio right on the water. Like the entire island of South Bimini, it was quiet, relaxing and very nicely done. The dive operation was very laid back and relaxed, with Neal Jr. captaining a 40 ft. Carlton boat, roomy, wide, stable and very comfortable for diving. His crew was personable and helpful, as he put a DM in the water on every dive to lead or observe.

Stay off the sidewalks, Valaika's at the wheeel and we're driving on the wrong side of the road!

Stay off the sidewalks, Valaika’s at the wheeel and we’re driving on the wrong side of the road!

Day 2 Friday 4/11  We awoke to a pretty good wind blowing this morning so we decided to check out the island today. We rented a golf cart and toured the entire island; all 5 miles long and one mile wide. Saw our first example of wildlife, a cat that surely had no luck at all, as it had been run over on the road, and with only about a dozen cars and 50 golf carts comprising all the traffic on the island, you know this cat had to have used up all nine of his lives. All this touring was working up our thirsts, so we stopped at one of the three watering holes on the island, a little combination gift shop / luncheonette / bar located next the airport. There we met the proprietress, Ms. Deandra, a “seaweed” from the island of Abacos. She had come over as a housekeeper at small motel, and saw the opportunity in this closed business. With $25 to invest in inventory, she opened up serving breakfast one morning, and before lunch, she had enough income to buy fixings to make lunch sandwiches and stayed open. She opened for diner the very next day, and is doing great in her new enterprise. She was a hoot to talk to, very articulate and astute, and we spent the better part of the afternoon listening to her share some local Bahamas knowledge and life experiences. The term “seaweed” is a derogatory slang word for Bahamians who come from other islands within the Bahamas to work. Truth be told, there’s about 1,000 residents on South Bimini who obviously aren’t inspired enough to work so there’s room for others to come in and fill the job openings, earning the moniker ‘seaweed’. During our chat she gave us a tour of the place, showed us some of the artwork for sale in the gift shop, and her little kitchen where she prepared our lunch. She told us of a local woman who had come to the airport to take a flight with her two pet cats, and somehow one of the carriers had opened up and the cat bolted from the taxi right there at the airport. She came by every day, calling for her cat, and crying, leaving food bowls out and hoping her kitty comes home. Deandra showed us the “Missing Cat” poster she had put up, and as soon as we saw it, we knew we recognized that cat…but not in a way that we wanted to share. Oh well, some stories are best left untold – we didn’t have the heart to tell her that I think we found the missing cat.   Oh well, we finished up our beers, and got a few to go in our golf cart – I love this place…it’s 100% legal in the Bahamas to drink while driving! There are only two restaurants on the island, so tonight we headed up the beach road to the Conch Club, owned by Bimini Sands. It’s actually three establishments in one, the restaurant, a beach bar, and a sports bar, located right on the waterfront with a marina on one side and a beach of the other, complete with dive shop, tiki bar, kayak rentals and beach volleyball. All your bases covered in location! Dinner was great, and for seeing no one all day long, the place was jamming. Turns out a lot of folks take the water taxi over from North Bimini Island to enjoy the facilities here.

Day 3 Sat 4/12 DSCF3891Winds had died down during the night, so we headed out with Neal Jr. to dive this morning and enjoyed two tanks on the reef. Colorful, good fish life, healthy corals and sponges, and lots of variety. First dive was a leisurely drift dive, and the second was moored. Had a special moment on the second dive as I was off dinking around in the sand, just running my fingers along under the surface, seeing what might pop up. Well gosh, what a surprise, when a beautiful stargazer shook the sand off and lifted up gracefully, before settling back down to observe what my intentions were. We watched each other for a bit, my very first encounter with this species of unique bottom dweller. Very cool and made for a very memorable dive!

Percy Cavill's Conch House, or what is left of it

Percy Cavill’s Conch House, or what is left of it

Back to the condo, I rinsed the gear off and laid it out to dry. Shirley & I headed out for dinner to a local eatery, the Thirsty Turtle, which as I pulled in, for some reason, the place looked familiar. Well truth be told it was Neal Watson’s original property here, with dive shop, motel, and restaurant – I’ve looked at this place in brochures and on line for years and pretty funny to be standing there now, knowing that I’m staying at the new and improved version. Anyways, there were no cars in the lot, but I tried the door and it was open. The bar was empty, but the lights were on, and the liquor all out, so kinda odd that no one was there. I opened the door to the kitchen, saw that the food was all still out, so I shouted, and got no answer. Too weird to hang around any longer, so we left and did some more touring, taking in the Fountain of Youth park and nature trail, and the Bimini Sands Nature Trail, which was a really well done pathway through the bush with lots of informative signage and quite a bit to see, including the ruins of a beachfront mansion, built from conch shells, which was constructed by an alcoholic former Australian Olympic Gold Medal winning swimmer who had come to America to work and ended working on the island, teaching swimming at a local hotel, which was subsequently destroyed by a hurricane. How’s that for a bit of local colorful history?  With the two local ‘must-see’s’ off the list, we motored back over to the Thirsty Turtle and found the place hopping. We must have just hit it during siesta time earlier, so chalk that up to a local interesting experience. The food was great, the ambience pretty special, and we’ve got another eatery to recommend on South Bimini Island! Overall, we give the Bimini Sands Resort and Neal Watsons Underwater Bahamas two big thumbs up!

Day 4 Sunday 4/13 Checkout day today from Bimini Sands, so we returned our golf cart, and caught the taxi to the water taxi landing, for the five minute ferry ride across the channel that separates the two major Bimini islands. The third island, West Bimini, is an uninhabited strip of rock and sand about a half mile away.

Bimini Big Game Club

Bimini Big Game Club

The ferry driver was kind enough to take us right to our destination, the Bimini Big Game Club, where we met our host and the resort manager, Michael Weber, and he showed us around the property and gave us the story behind one of the most famous fishing clubs in the Caribbean. A favorite haunt of an all-star cast of famous fishermen, including Ernest Hemingway, Zane Gray, and Michael Lerner, the island of North Bimini is one of the top destinations worldwide for bonefish, marlin, dolphin, wahoo and a number of other sports fish. There are two basic accommodations here, a standard motel-type room, and one-bedroom cottages that have an interconnecting door, ideal for families. With slips for yachts in excess of 100 ft. in length, there are plenty of chances to rub elbows with the rich and famous in a casual and fun setting. In fact we ran into John Havlacek, former Boston Celtic and teammate of Larry Bird, and it turns out that he, along with quite a few of his NBA friends, frequent the island in pursuit of catching bonefish on light tackle in the flats. Our room is in the main building here, with a nice view of the courtyard and pool. It’s an older property, but more than sufficient for divers, fishermen, or anyone who is looking to enjoy the quieter end of North Bimini Island. Also on site is a an excellent restaurant overlooking the marina, Hemingway’s Rum & Cigar Bar and Lounge, a recreation area with pool tables and games, a small retail store for your incidentals, the marina, and of course, the BBGC dive center.

BBGC's Boston Whaler, perfect for small groups

BBGC’s Boston Whaler, perfect for small groups

The dive center is managed by DeVito, a local professional with many years in the industry. In fact, some years back, he used to run Neal Watson’s operation on the South island, so he’s got plenty of local knowledge of the area, the people and the marine environment. A true professional, he runs the dive center in a relaxed and no-stress sort of way, perfect to compliment your Bahamas vacation experience. They operate two boats, a large multi-use boat that offers glass bottom tours, snorkeling, and diving for larger groups, and a smaller Boston Whaler, perfect for small groups of 4 or 5 divers. In addition, they offer a very unique activity right in the marina – cage diving for bull sharks! They have a permanent cage attached to one of the docks, and a hookah setup, so divers and non-divers alike can enjoy very up close and personal observations of a number of larger bulls that have grown accustomed over the years to the offerings that come from the many fish that are cleaned in the marina. This is a great opportunity to let everyone in your party get a taste of scuba diving without any stress or training.

Day 5 Monday 4/14  Another unseasonably windy morning greeted us, and just as well, as Indian Valley Scuba has been selected by the producers of ION Television for a documentary on companies that dare to be a little different than the pack, and IVS’s business mantra, “the deliberately different dive center” is a perfect match for this series on ION. With IVS’s Special Events Coordinator Jay Burkos coordinating the teleconference from home, I’m able to attend a two-hour planning session discussion with members of the TV production company, ION’s management, and our team in Harleysville, we’re able to cover a lot of ground and hopefully we’ll see this project coming to fruition in the near future! With the wind not dying down, we decide to rent another golf cart and tour the island. The southern end, where we’re staying, is the heart of the residential area, with most of the 3,000 island residents, and a slew of local eateries, located right here. As you move north, you enter the Resorts World Casino property, a massive planned community, with gated residential areas, a gaming casino, a couple of high end restaurants, and some nice high-end shops. They run a fleet of high-speed ferries to shuttle cruise ship passengers to the casino, and also run some larger ones back and forth to Florida, which sits only 48 miles away from North Bimini. So for about three quarts of petrol, we’re able to cover every single paved and unpaved road on North Bimini. For dinner we stop along our tour at the Anchorage, a resort built in the 30’s by Michael Lerner, founder of Lerner Stores across the U.S. There’s quite a bit of history here, and it turns out it was a favorite haunt of Earnest Hemingway who loved fishing for marlin and swordfish here.

Day 6 Tuesday 4/15  Morning dawned and not a palm tree was swaying – a perfectly calm day to head out in the Whaler to visit the fishes. DeVito had a young couple from Switzerland there for a Discover Scuba experience, and one other diver who was with a yoga retreat group at the resort. Our first site was a pretty reef area, and our second site was for a shark ‘baiting’, not exactly a feed, but rather a suspended chum bucket to entice the sharks. There’s plenty of reef sharks with some nice eight footers mixed in, so it made for a nice experience for the Swiss couple for sure. And back at the dock it seems the bull sharks have taken the past few weeks off for a vacation of sorts, eliminating that optional bull shark cage diving experience from our list of activity choices. Oh well….as the Arnold would say……..”we’ll be back!” Speaking of ‘back’, we gussied ourselves up and headed back out in our cart to enjoy dinner at a local pizza pub, capping off another great day in the Bahamas. Overall, I give the Bimini Big Game Club, and island of North Bimini, an enthusiastic two thumbs up, and would recommend it for divers, fishermen, and families alike.

Day 7 Wednesday 4/16 Another morning in paradise, and time to check out and head over to the next phase of this research effort, which will take place on new Providence Island. So we pack everything up, check out of the resort, jump on the water taxi over to South Bimini Island, and jump into a cab there for the short ride to Bimini International Airport. A few minutes into our ride, the cabbie pulls over, and asks if we would like anything to drink from the liquor store, cause he’s getting a beer! Remember, it’s completely legal here to drink while driving, so hey, when in Rome…..

Air ambulance back to the mainland for treatment - $$$

Air ambulance back to the mainland for treatment – $$$

Never in the history of aviation was a sturdier plane built than the DC3 and the number of them flying since the 1930's is proof of that!

Never in the history of aviation was a sturdier plane built than the DC3 and the number of them flying since the 1930’s is proof of that!

We arrive at the airport, and as we begin to check in an ambulance pulls up, with a woman in a wheelchair and her family in tow. Turns out she had gotten ill during their vacation here, and with no real medical resources the best approach was to arrange and air ambulance back to Florida. We wished her the best, and I sense things all turned out well, but I wanted to share this experience to illustrate the value of travel insurance, and specifically travel emergency insurance such as that offered by Indian Valley Travel and Divers Alert Network to cover unplanned expenses such as that chartered air ambulance ride back to a place where you can get the proper medical treatment that you deserve, without digging a huge hole in your pocket along the way. Things to add to your travel-planning list!

Finally, with the air ambulance off, and a DC3 dating from a half a century ago but still active as a freight carrier coming in to land, and we’re ready to board our twelve seater for our trip back to Nassau. We arrive without any surprises, grab a cab, and pull into Orange Hill Guest House, our accommodations for the next three nights.   Orange Hill is pretty neat place, built just 33 years ago, and the front counter is staffed by the very first guest to ever stay there…..pretty neat, eh? We’ve got a standard room looking out over the pool, and enjoy dinner right there at the resort that evening before calling it a night.

Stuart Cove's

Stuart Cove’s

One hoppin' dive operation, and the movie set from 'Flipper' to boot!

One hoppin’ dive operation, and the movie set from ‘Flipper’ to boot!

Day 8 Thursday 4/17 Another morning and another dive boat calling my name, this time it’s Stuart Cove’s Diving that will be our host for the next few days. A short ride later, we arrive at the dive center, and wow, what a picture of organization they have going there! As we pull in and get organized, I am suffering from a deja vu sort of moment there looking at the property. Well, my mind is not playing games with me; the truth is that the entire property was built as a Hollywood set for the Flipper TV show from the 60’s! As a kid I remember watching that show weekly, and here I stand playing back bits of scenes in my mind as I look at the various boathouses, store fronts and docks that played such a big part in the show. We’ve got a morning 2-tank dive arranged for today, so we quickly are processed through the uber-efficient registration station, staffed by a super friendly and very upbeat crew of pink-shirt wearing smiling members of the Stuart Cove team. I get assigned to a boat with some other more experienced divers, and I head on down with my gear to begin setting up. I notice one fellow on board that seems to be, shall we say, more than amply equipped for the dives I am expecting we’ll be doing this morning. He’s got a stage bottle, several reels, canister lighting, a couple of lift bags….you get the picture. Well as we head out on our ten minute ride to the site, the lead divemaster asks if I have a buddy, and I say no, so he asks if I’ll buddy up with the fellow I was just describing. Well of course I will, so it gives me a chance to chat with him and find out what’s up with his kit. Yes, you know it….another small, small world moment……it turns out my new buddy is Matt David, and he’s a student of my good friend and fellow technical instructor Bernie Chowdbury in New York. He’s enrolled in some TDI training with Bernie and had come here, rather than Dutch Springs, to get a few warm-up / practice dives in before his classes start at Dutch Springs with Bernie.   Hence the extensive kit; all part of his standardized tec rig that he’ll be using in his classes and he wanted to get some time in practicing his self drills and making adjustments before he finds himself standing in front of the master! We enjoy a couple of great dives, and I share some coaching moments with him that helps him achieve better poise in the water, as we enjoy a double wreck dive on our second location with some nice penetration. Very cool, and Bernie and I chat later that evening; turns out Matt has already checked in with his teacher so we all get a good chuckle about this fate meeting so far from home. That afternoon, Shirley and I grab a cab and do a little shopping on the island, picking up some supplies for the Aquacat trip and doing a little sightseeing around the island, before stopping for dinner at the Poop Deck, right on the water in Sandy Beach. Great dinner, great evening, and we call it an early night.

Ready to roll...and play with the sharks at Stuart Cove's

Ready to roll…and play with the sharks at Stuart Cove’s

Day 9 Friday 4/18 Double dipping with Stuart Cove’s today, starting with a morning 2-tank trip to a wall and reef location. Back at the dock, we enjoy some really fine luncheon fare prepared by the staff at the dockside grille, all part of the Stuart Cove’s experience. The dive center is really well thought out and organized, and the amenities abound with an abundance of activities to choose from on the dock. As mentioned earlier, the staff gushes with positive attitude and helpfulness – the management at Stuart Cove’s deserve high marks for building such a model dive center, and I am honored and thankful that we were invited to experience everything they do so well here, and bring that message home to share with clients looking for great experiences in the Bahamas. Dinner this evening was a short walk from Orange Hill, at Café West, a local pizza pub about a mile up the road. Great food, reasonable prices, and a friendly staff, and we leave smiling at yet another superb Bahamas evening.

The Aquacat awaits!

The Aquacat awaits!

Day 10 Saturday 4/19 Well today’s a special day, as the rest of our group are flying in to join us for our weeklong charter on the Aqua Cat liveaboard. Shirley and I enjoy a relaxing morning catching up on emails (my last chance for a week) before checking out of Orange Hill and taking a taxi over to Paradise Island and the marina. Just as I’m getting ready to shut the laptop down, Mike Parzynski updates his status on Facebook….”So I’m sitting at the Green Parrot bar getting ready to board the Aqua Cat, and I strike up a conversation with a group of Canadians there. They ask what I’m doing, and I tell them I’m with the Indian Valley Scuba group, and one of group says “With Dave Valaika?” Just amazing who knows this guy!” Turns out the fellow who mentioned my name is Frank Owens, an old friend of mine and our former sales rep for Atomic and a few other lines. He heard IVS had chartered half the boat and figured we’d be a fun group to dive with, so when he saw one of his clients, Water Sports Scuba in Toronto, Canada had chartered the other half of the boat, he knew he had to jump on! Small, small world!

Doing my part to help keep the Bahama's moving!

Doing my part to help keep the Bahama’s moving!

It was pouring rain as Shirley and I taxied over, and as we pulled into the parking lot, I watched a van back down the hill and run it’s ass end right up and over a concrete abutment. Rear wheels completely off the ground and spinning, the driver was clearly out of her element with the situation. I gave her a few minutes of senseless revving of the engine, then walked over laughing and offered to give her a hand. Turns out our cab driver had a nylon sling, and another fellow had stopped in a 4-wheel drive pickup, so we had all the necessary ingredients to make this happen. Ten minutes later, I ended up mud-covered and getting a big hug from a very grateful driver whose day had just turned around in a great way. All good, and what a great way to start our charter!

Provisions for the week - check!

Provisions for the week – check!

Mike Parz, soon to be known as "Mr. 400"!

Mike Parz, soon to be known as “Mr. 400”!

On board, we met the rest of the folks, including Mike Parzynski, John Glodowski, Frank “Lucky” Macy, Heather, Spencer, Bryce and Brittany Ingram from Rhode Island, Bryan from Florida, and Reinhard & Beata joining us from Vienna, Austria. The Water Sports group included the shop owner, Paul Pelletier, my good friend and former sales rep Frank Owens, Luke McKenzie, Adam Shinehoft, Renee Gaudet, Michael Vandertal, Bill, Paul Tozer, Tak, Sue Miller, Malcolm Mackinnon, all from the Toronto area. It’s only been a few minutes together but I already sense that we have the perfect ingredients for another awesome liveaboard adventure.

The Aquacat crew, first class all the way!

The Aquacat crew, first class all the way!

The crew, led by Capt. Ron and First Mate / Capt. Tom, give us the customary meet & greet introduction experience, covering all the key safety and diving procedures for our journey, and an overview of the planned itinerary for the week ahead. We have four instructors working as our DM’s for the week, Adam, Mick, Julien & Adan, along with Engineers Randy and Jean to keep the equipment humming, and Sous Chef Martine assisting in the galley. ‘House Mouse’ Callula will make sure our housekeeping is in order, and finally, perhaps the most important member of the crew is introduced, Chef Kirk.  The weather report is posted, and we are predicted to have to endure eight straight days of endless sunshine, flat seas, minimal wind, and amazing visibility. This is going to be a tough one for sure, but we’re up for the challenge that lies ahead!

 

Our gang of adventurers for the week!

Our gang of adventurers for the week!

Day 11 Sunday 4/20 On most liveaboards, the first dive is usually a very controlled experience, so all the once-a-year vacation divers can get a chance to shake the bugs out, get their weighting sorted out, equipment tested, etc. Well here on the Aquacat, they make an assumption that the detailed information we provided in their pre-trip questionnaire was accurate, and that being said, that we are divers who don’t need a lot of handholding. Everyone dives their own profiles, with buddies of their own choosing and without any leading by the crew unless you specifically asked for it. With that in mind, our first dive site is an absolutely beautiful wall, Dog Rocks, with a sheer drop-off of a few thousand feet or so. Everyone nails it, and the week is off to a great start! We end up with four more dives today, including a night dive on the Austin Smith wreck, and the day was interspersed with three great meals and some snacks too. This is truly a first class operation, and we know we have done well with our third, and hardly last, charter of this great boat and crew.

Shark Feed on the Austin Smith wreck

Shark Feed on the Austin Smith wreck

Day 12 Monday 4/21 We start the morning with a shark dive on the wreck we dove as our fifth dive last evening, and that gets the adrenalin pumping a little bit. Plenty to see around the site also, so when you got tired of watching the sharks and groupers hammering the chumsicle, you could just drift off and do your own thing. Another four dives followed, ending with another nice night dive after dinner. During the day, I couldn’t help but watch some of the other dives, and one this I generally notice is trim and attitude in the water. Our Rhode Island family, the Ingram’s, seemed to have an awful lot of lead hanging on their waists, and sure enough, watching them in the water confirmed that there was probably room for some improvement in that area. So, cautiously, I approached them, always careful to avoid being accused of criticizing someone’s diving style, but to their credit, they were very open to talking about ways to improve their diving. So we spent a half hour sharing all things Archimedes, and talked about the risks of overweighting, the obvious symptoms that they should be able to see on themselves and each other, effective bubble management at depth, and how they could all contribute to each others quest for proper weighting. So, with a wee bit of skepticism, they agreed to give it a try, and see if they could part with a bit of lead and still be able to enjoy the great diving this week offered.

Day 13 Tuesday 4/22 Decisions, decisions….upon waking today, we found ourselves forced to make a big one – either start the day off with a dive, or head over to Whelker Cay to visit the Exuma Keys National Park ranger station. Believe it or not, I opted for the park to maintain a sense of topside balance on this trip, and along with about half the group, we piled into the Sea Dog and motored over to the island. On our way in we passed quite a few beautiful yachts of the rich and famous, all moored along the channel while the passengers were enjoying the beautiful waters and white sand beaches of the Bahamas. As we began our hike into the bush, what do I hear but a “Hey, Dave Valaika” coming from a group heading the other way on the trail. Well chalk another one up to the ‘it’s a small world’ department, I look up to see my friend, and PADI inside sales contact, Adam Wucherpfennig, who’s here with a group on the Aquacat’s little sister-ship, the Cat Ppalau. What a hoot, we laugh and share a manly hug, to the amazement of the folks around us…asking what are the odds of running into each other so far away from home? Well with that behind us, we continue on to tour a small portion of the park, visit the famous blowholes, hike to the top of Boo Boo Hill for a photo op, stop to feed some lizards on the beach, and finally swim on the beach before heading back to the mother ship.

Aquacat, the Sea Dog, and our motley crew for the week!

Aquacat, the Sea Dog, and our motley crew for the week!

Back on board, we caught up with the gang from the morning dive, and soon enough, it was time for Dive #2, on Danger Reef. Nice site, lots of large critters here, groupers, sharks, horse-eye jacks, and more. Pleasant dive with Mike P leading the way and snapping photos. The afternoon’s first dive site was Jeep Reef, another collection of coral heads with quite a collection of life large and small. The central point was a coral-covered motorized dump cart that had fallen off a barge years ago, but unless you looked close, you’d think it was at this point just another coral pillar. Pretty awesome to see how some life is just looking for a bit of structure to grab onto and call home. Our late afternoon dive was at Danger Reef, a site similar to Jeep Reef, with the same great viz and 79 degree water that entices you to enjoy each and every dive offered on this charter. Following dinner, Capt. Tom fired up the Sea Dog for a Sunset Booze Cruise, heading over to a local white sandy beach to play in the tidal zone and wrap up the evening for those who chose to not dip back in for the night dive on Jeep Reef. For those of us who did choose to dive, we were not disappointed, with turtles, sharks, lobsters (I had to catch one, just because I can…but safely returned him to his reef after a few picture and videos were shot)

Mike Parz and the famous swimming pigs!

Mike Parz and the famous swimming pigs!

Day 14 Wednesday 4/23 Aqua Cat’s itinerary for this morning was a little different, with no early a.m. dive, rather, a shore excursion to visit the legendary swimming pigs on Big Major Key, and snorkel famous Thunderball Grotto from the James Bond movie of the same name. That was followed by a nice, shallow drift dive along Conch Cut, before we fired up the engines and motored a short distance to our afternoon dive site, Shroud Wall. A really picturesque deep drop-off with the mooring set right on the edge of the wall at 60 ft., and the bottomless abyss just a few short fin kicks away. Personally, I could do dives like this all day long, with sweeping panoramic views of the sheer face dropping down further than the eyes can follow. During that dive I got to watch Capt. Ron in action, as he lowered a hydraulic drill with a long coring bit on it to the bottom, and drilled a pair of nice new mooring anchor holes in the top of the reef substrate. He’s a pretty crafty guy, and I admired the jig he had made up which allowed him to drill the second hole an accurate distance offset from the first, so he could pre-fab his u-shaped stainless steel mooring anchors and have them ready to go, just set them and cement in place on the reef for a new, sturdy boat connection. Well done! While we were making that dive, the Sea Dog ran another shore excursion over to North Exuma Land & Sea Park, complete with a hike, beach play, and sun! Our late afternoon dive was a shallow area known as Hammerhead Gulch, a collection of scattered coral heads surrounded by acres of eel grass – lots of small critters and color to feast the eyes on. Shirley joined us on this one and we got a little more pre-certification bottom time in for her. Back on board, Chef Kirk treated us to another culinary delight for dinner, and we wrapped the evening up with another night dive, right here on Hammerhead Gulch.

Brittany & Heather, celebrating a total of 22 pounds of weight loss this week!  Great job ladies!

Brittany & Heather, celebrating a total of 22 pounds of weight loss this week! Great job ladies!

After dinner, Brittany Ingram asks me how much weight do I think she’s lost this week? I laugh, and tell her this is a loaded question to ask a man to answer, so she goes ahead and tells me…..14 pounds! That’s 14 pounds less lead that she’s carrying on every single dive here, and looking so much better in the water, with improved trim, greater control and comfort, and reduced risk of injury in the event of an accidental loss of her ballast. Mom chimes in and says she’s down 8 pounds, and dad has dropped ten so far, and looking to raise that number before the end of he week. Even their son has dropped lead, and they are all gushing about how much better they feel, how much less air in their BCD’s to manage, and how they all can see how each of them has better attitude in the water. Truly amazing, and so wonderfully rewarding, to be able to share some simple observations with our divers and to see how they take it to heart, and make their own self-adjustments that they had never given any thought too before, even with nearly 100 logged dives each. Sadly, they’ve also completed a number of continuing education courses, and in none of these did their instructors take the time to help the divers grow and become more complete by sharing their observations and knowledge of simple physics…or wait, perhaps it’s the lack of knowledge that so many instructors suffer from, and the tunnel-vision of only thinking about the course they are teaching, and not of providing a greater benefit to the overall diver with every student they interact with. Sad, but a very true and common affliction the industry suffers from.

Day 15 Thursday 4/24 Great dive at Blacktip Wall to start the day, perhaps the nicest wall yet, with lots of deep cuts and swim-thru’s exiting on the face of the wall around 100 ft. deep. Viz was excellent, the corals healthy and colorful.. just missing one thing – some big pelagics! It’s funny how with such great conditions here that we see o few large open water fish on the deeper sites, and it’s not that they are fished out since most of these sites are within the marine reserve … but as Bruce Hornsby sang to us….”That’s just the way it is.”

"Mr. 400!"

“Mr. 400!”

Post-dive, several of us headed out for a short jaunt on the Sea Dog to try our hand at catching dinner for tonight. We hooked one really nice dolphin, 48 inches or so in length, but it threw the hook after a series of spectacular jumps, and we lost it. Our second dive was back on Blacktip Wall, and it was as spectacular as the first dive. Perfect way to work up an appetite for another great lunch prepared by Chef Kirk and company.

J Glo in sidemount rig, test diving his scooter

J Glo in sidemount rig, test diving his scooter

Our next dive is at a site called “Washing Machine” and for good reason – the incoming tidal current, which we are about to experience, causes such a rush of water through this quite narrow pass, which is comprised of a series of 40 ft. deep washouts, holes basically, on the bottom, one arranged right after the next. So as we drift in, the current catches us, throws us to the bottom of the hole, then pops us up almost to the surface, spinning us wildly, and then repeats the ride for the next hole. Pretty darn cool, although probably not a profile highly recommended by the folks at DAN, but a lot of fun none the less! We followed that with a leisurely drift dive for the next 40 minutes or so, until the mother ship magically appears to pick us up. Last late-afternoon dive of the week is at Lobster-No-Lobster Reef, and it’s a perfect lazy dive to cap the day. Shallow, clear, and colorful – sweet!

My personal favorite for the photo contest, but alas, was not the winning entry!

My personal favorite for the photo contest, but alas, was not the winning entry!

 

Tonight we capped off another great dinner with the week’s photo contest and the showing of the video that was produced by the boat crew this week. Really nicely done, everyone had at the very minimum their 15 seconds of fame and glory, and the whole presentation was quite entertaining to say the very least. There were a number of awards handed out, some recognition of certifications completed this week, and our own Mike Parz was awarded a pretty schnazzy certificate for logging his 400th dive on this trip – well done Mike! Needless to say, there’s a copy of the video going home to be shared at the next Indian Valley Divers Club meeting in two weeks!

 

Day 16 Friday 4/25 Another morning in paradise, and sadly, the trip is drawing to a close with only one more day on board before heading back to reality….wait a minute, this IS my reality! Oh well, at least it sounds sadder when I say it that way.  Hopefully you’re feeling my pain!

The viz was forever, sitting on the edge of the blue hole and getting ready to drop...deep!

The viz was forever, sitting on the edge of the blue hole and getting ready to drop…deep!

My Project Aware photo of the week, showing my personal haul of non-treasures from the bottom of the sea

My Project Aware photo of the week, showing my personal haul of non-treasures from the bottom of the sea

We get our final two dives in this morning, the first at one of the Bahamas famous blue holes, deep pits that just drop out of the bottom of the sea. The one we visited today measured about 100 ft. in diameter, and started at approx. 60 ft. deep. I can personally verify that the bottom of the hole was just over 200 ft. below the surface, and am thankful for that little dose of sweet narcosis to cap a spectacular week of diving.   Our second and final location was Periwinkle Reef, a shallow little site just full of life on a small scale, and Mike Parz and I spent the last 60 minutes of this week’s bottom time just enjoying the in’s and out’s of this little piece of paradise under the sea. From there, it was time to break the gear down and lay it out to dry as we enjoyed our last fine lunch on the ride back to port. Finally we had the Internet again, so everyone got a little busy checking in for their flights and touching base on their emails.

For dinner, the Ingram’s and Mike P joined Shirley and I at the Poop Deck restaurant on the harbor for one last great session of laughter and making plans for some new adventures in the future. This is perhaps the best part of trips like this, where a boatload of folks from around the world, who are, for the most part, total strangers just seven days ago, and here we are now swapping recipes and emails, and talking about the next times we’ll be seeing each other. That’s something that’s really hard to script, but it’s most certainly part of the magic that goes along with great group travel like we experience time and time again on our adventures around the globe.

Day 17 Saturday 4/26 Finally, as with all good things, we’ve come to our end. Our week included approx.. 250 miles of sailing up and down the length of the Exuma Islands, from Nassau over to Ship Channel Cay and down to Staniel Cay and back, twenty-five great dives, a bunch of new friendships formed, thousands of photos both under and above the sea, and a lifetime of great memories. We give our final high fives and hugs as the shuttle busses come and take us over to the airport to catch our flights home. One last goodbye to our home for the past week, and to the crew that made it such a memorable experience. Thank YOU everyone for another great trip, and we look forward to our next charter!

The Jungle called…and I answered! Time for an African Adventure!

The earth is a vast and wonderful place, with so much to see and experience.  One of the challenges of my dual career-choice roles of running a dive center and an adventure travel company is the need to constantly seek out the best places to visit in every corner of the globe, on every continent.   Yes, it’s not an easy job, but it’s a burden I feel the need to bear for the sole benefit of the Indian Valley community of travelers. I thank each of you for feeling my pain!

The African continent is a diverse land of contrasts, from beautiful beaches, barren deserts, lush jungles, towering mountains, majestic waterfalls, and so much more.  Equally teeming with life, one could easily dedicate their life to exploring this vast land mass and barely scratch the surface. Enter Sonja Newlands, the founder of Africa Tours and Unashamed Travel, her two businesses that specialize in offering the very best expeditions that Africa and the surrounding region have to offer for discriminating travelers.  Over the past two years, Sonja and I have been hard at work developing a unique partnership designed to provide Africa Tour, and the destinations she represents, with a solid marketing presence in the Americas, while guaranteeing Indian Valley travelers the very best choices for adventure travel opportunities of every nature. The truest definition of a “Win-Win” situation is sure to result from our efforts.  My mission over the next couple of weeks will be to sample the best of the best in South Africa, and use that firsthand knowledge to help our travelers select the operators and destinations that maximize the adventure they seek, while optimizing the greatest value in terms of time, money and effort.

So our trip begins on a dark, stormy January day with a chill in the air, accented by overcast skies and periods of torrential rain.  Not a bad setting to put behind me, I say to myself,  as I put together the final touches of preparation for my visit to the Dark Continent.  As one might suspect, I have left trivial travel details, such as packing, to the last possible moment…I function so much better under stress.  So the alarm goes off, it’s six a.m., and time to get my procrastinating butt in gear for my 2:00 flight.  I check my lists, and start pulling two weeks worth of tropical clothes together.  Keeping in mind that there are a number of in-country flights planned, I have a two-bag, max 50 lbs each limit to respect.  That certainly rules out my luggage of choice, my Pelican cases.  For this adventure I opt for the Akona’s newest offerings, the  ‘Less than 10’ suitcases, complimented with a ‘Less than 7’ carry-on roller bag.  Yes, traveling light…something new for me, but I’ll give it a whirl…this time!

With bags packed and weighed, I bid my farewells to Pete and Niki at the shop, and then its hugs & wet kisses to my girls Isabelle & Ruby.  It’s uncanny how they know daddy is going away…I love my German Shepherds so much!  So all is good, as I ramble down the highway with plenty of time to spare….yes, another thing different for me!  This is looking like a great start to a great trip…right up until the moment my cell phone starts to ring and I see those dreaded words in my caller ID…Delta Airlines.  Man oh man, what can be happening now?  Well, remember all those dark clouds and stormy skies?  Seems that has caused my flight out of Philadelphia to Atlanta to be canceled due to the weather, but not to worry, I am “protected” on a USAir flight to Paris to connect me to something.  OK, I relax, and keep heading on down to the airport.  Wait….my phone rings again….seems that flight was canceled too…now I am heading to New York to connect to Amsterdam …. oh man…too much to compute, let me just get my truckster parked and deal with it at the counter.

I pull into SmartPark, my favorite off-site parking lot, and the shuttle van is waiting for me.  Mid-afternoon, and it’s nice and slow, so I’m the only soul in the van.  But wait…another car pulls into the lot, so the driver asks if I mind if we pick them up.  “Heck no”, I reply…I am already in limbo-land on my flights so no rush now.  We pull up behind the car, and a couple gets out with their skis.  Funny thing is though, we recognize each other immediately…why, it’s Mary & George Foering, members of our dive club!  What an amazingly small world it is!  We chat about diving and skiing all the way to the airport.  Seems they are heading to Deer Valley for the first time, and that happens to be one of my favorite Park City ski resorts, so I give them a few tips on places to eat, such as one of the Valaika family establishments, Shabu restaurant in downtown Park City!  Yes, my cousin Robert Valaika’s place…gotta keep it in the family!  We split at the airport with them heading west and me going east, with a date to meet again next month at the Indian Valley Divers club meeting.

Strolling up to the ticket counter, I search for a familiar face there, and lo and behold, who’s working today but my long-time Delta friend Kim Kates-McGrory. Kim & I go back probably 20 years of flying Delta out of Philadelphia…it is always good to have friends and great relationships in business!  No better hands would I like to find myself in, especially after all those troubling phone calls on my way to the airport.  As one might imagine, my travel issue is a bit complicated, so the line forms behind me as Kim devotes no less than 45 minutes to getting me re-routed on my flight.  At times she is on one phone, and I am holding the other for her, as we’re working with different agents trying to salvage my travel plans for the day.  Finally she manages to work it out, with a “fingers-crossed” route to Atlanta in hopes of catching that trans-Atlantic flight.  I thank you immensely, and head up through security and to the gate.

Well the weather gods are not done with me yet, and my flight is indeed delayed.  By the time we board, and wait on the taxiway, it is a lost cause, and there is no way I am making my Atlanta flight.  The official word greets me when I arrive there, as they hand me my hotel voucher and dinner ticket for the night.  Geesh….what a start to this adventure!  My bags are safely locked up for the night, so I jump into the hotel shuttle and enjoy an evening in ‘Hotlanta’ on Delta’s dime before calling it a night.  We’ll continue this journey in the morning.

Day Two – Still in America but moving in the right direction! 

Thursday morning dawns to another sadly gray day, but the good news is that I am 660 miles closer to my destination!  Back to the airport, I throw myself on the mercy of Rosie and Tyrone, two of Delta’s finest working the Atlanta ticket counter.  I share my tale of woe, my “lost day” of travel due to the airline’s flight cancellation, and they pick up the phone and talk some airline magic to the folks on the other end.  They hand me my boarding pass on today’s oversold flight, and send me off to the security line with a ‘wink’.  Amazingly the airline gods smile once again, and the gate greets me with a nice single-digit row number to ease the pain of this seventeen-hour flight.  Thank you!

I send an email to Sonja to confirm my new flight info, and she has already taken care of moving my South African Airlines flight back a day, along with adjusting the start of our itinerary.  She is truly a professional, and her presence in the local market shines through brightly.

I arrive in Johannesburg, clear immigration, collect my luggage, and pass through customs without a glitch.  Stop at a currency trader, and change some US $ into South African Rands, aka ZAR (the Z coming from the Dutch / Afrikaner spelling of ‘South’, not the ‘English’ version.  Exchange rate is about 9 Rands to a Dollar, so a Rand comes in at about 11 cents each.

I head over to the South African Airways counter to check in for my domestic flight, and of course, in spite of me packing light, I am still over the limit, so it costs me R250 ($28) for my second checked bag..geeesh!

Now folks have often heard me speak of the value of brand loyalty, and especially how it applies to air travel.  Well here is a perfect example – not only do I get banged for my bag, but my seat assignment is the absolute last row in the plane, a non-recliner up against the lavatory bulkhead.  Talk about a night & day difference from last flight to this one!   Thank goodness it is only two hours so all things considered I’ll just have to suck it up and endure.

The pilot announcing the preparation for landing in Cape Town doesn’t come a minute too soon, and we touch down.  Collect the bags once again, and now into the throng of greeters at the airport with the hopes of finding my driver there.  It’s only a few minutes of scanning the crowd before I make eye contact with Gary Flynn, my local expert and tour guide for the first portion of the journey.

We load up the bags and head 50 km to Simons Town, a quaint village halfway down the peninsula from Cape Town to Cape of Good Hope. Gary is a wealth of local and national knowledge, as well as an avid diver and conservationist, so the banter never stops as we make our way along.

We pull up the Quayside Hotel, located right on the harbor in Simons Town.  Really nice cute 5-star hotel with spacious rooms and a helpful staff to get me situated for my first night in-country.  It’s late to right to bed to rest up for a busy day tomorrow.

Day Three – Simons Town, Cape of Good Horn, transit to Cape Town

Up early and ready to go, my first appointment of the day is with my friends at Shark Explorers, one of the top operators for Shark Diving in SA, and specializing in Great Whites.  The owners, Morne Hardenberg, has been diving with sharks and great whites in particular since 1999.  His lovely wife is actively involved in on-going research with a number of international organizations dedicated to learning more about this mysterious apex predator that pre-dates man by a million years. He has his right-hand man Brocq pick me up at the hotel and take me around for the morning, onto the boats, checking out the shark cage, and glimpsing into the wonderful research they have gained during their experiences in the water with our big grey friends.  Amazing small world story:  Brocq attended boarding school in Lawrenceville, NJ, about 25 miles from Harleysville, and knew the area well.  Back to Shark Explorers, it is utterly amazing what they have discovered so far, and how much more there is to learn about these animals.  Sadly, we have 30 km/ hour winds coming in from the southeast, across a thousand mile of open ocean, so the seas are not looking good for getting out today.  It is whitecap city everywhere you look, and the long run hour to the best great white grounds would be impossible to endure.  So after a bit of a cruise around the harbor, I bid them farewell for now and meet up with Gary from last night for the rest of the day.

Our mission today is to tour southward, to the end of the peninsula that is known as the Cape Floral Kingdom.  Consisting of a ridge of mountain peeks starting in Cape Town, end runs to the southernmost point of the African Continent, the Cape of Good Hope.  We start at the dive center, and head back to the harbor area.  We pass the South African Naval Museum and the largest naval facility in the country, home to the biggest part of the SA Fleet.  Pretty neat to see a major naval facility completely surrounded by recreational and commercial docks and boats, a little less security paranoia here than back in America for sure.  After passing that, we pull down a small road and park for our walk Boulders National Park, the home of a huge population of South African Penguins.  This is one of the five major species of penguin, and like their cousins in the Galapagos, the only ones that are not found in Antartica.  These guys are great, hanging out right alongside us, not bothered by the tourists and the clicks of the cameras.  They roost on the rocks and beach, and swim playfully in the kelp beds….assuming, of course, that there are no sharks awaiting them!

OK, Penguin experience satisfied, we move further south, along the shore line of False Bay, a huge, 30-mile wide expanse of water that has only one outlet to the sea, alongside Cape Point directly ahead of us.  With the summer winds prevailing from the Southeast, the warm water is trapped in the bay, and it is a full 20 or so degrees warmer than the ocean just outside.  This of course brings a lot of sea life, and the admirers of sea life, such as big predators, into the bay, making for quite the viewing opportunity for watching dinner being served. All along the way we can observe frenzies of feeding activity in the water, with diving birds, leaping fish, and lots of splashing, indicating that someone out there is not having a good day at all!

As we pass out of Simons Town, I start noticing a lot of signs warning of baboons, and of course, the inquisitive mind needs to know.  Well it seems that the baboons have adapted very well to the presence of humans, and in a reverse illegal immigration sort of way, the nice people moved into the bad neighborhoods, so to speak.  The baboons, with males weighing a few hundred pounds and taller than me, equipped with sharp claws and huge teeth, are not so easy to deal with.  They often attack in packs, swooping down on outside and inside restaurants, entering homes, and doing pretty much anything they want.  In fact, we spotted some ostriches alongside the road, and I had Gary pull over so I could get out and take some photos.  While I’m standing there with the birds a car pulls up, and the family jumps out to get some pictures too.  I mention to them that they might want to close the windows and lock the doors, but who are they to listen to this gringo?  So, I have my ostrich pics, and I walk over to their car, and start taking pictures of the baboon in the back seat ripping apart the bags and purses…the family screams hysterically seeing what I am taking pictures of, and I give dad a big “thumbs up” for taking my advice..maybe next time, eh?

Our next stop is a little impromptu meeting with Dr. Larry Hutchings, a marine biologist and Professor of Marine Studies at Cape Town University.  He’s out today searching the surface of the bay for the sign of Yellowtail, the fish we call Amberjack.  He’s got a research study going on with the species, so we chat a bit about the habits they exhibit here and what we see in the US waters.  It’s interesting to note that the parasitic worm that infests the tail half of most of the ones we catch is non-existent here, and that’s a good thing.  Of course they have their own army of parasites, so we swap parasite stories for a while.  Our vantage point is on a bluff overlooking not only the bay, but a small village of little vacation homes built in a cove a few hundred feet below us, right on the water.  I ask about them, and especially the fact that I see no vehicles and no roads there at all, and he proudly shares that one of them is his and has been in his family since the 50’s.  It was a one room cabin when it started, and over the years, he has added several rooms and a full kitchen to the home.  When I ask about the lack of vehicles, he says that is the way the owners want it, and there are literally no access roads to the village; 100% of the construction materials, food, and everything else is hand carried down from the place we are standing.  Wow is all I can think – what a lifestyle choice!

We pass along further south, and finally reach Table Mountain Nation Park, which encompasses the entire southern half of the peninsula  and is the home of the Cape of Good Hope and the Cape Point lighthouse.  A total of 15,000 acres of land is inside the park, and it’s the home of more than 1,500 floral species – pretty intense diversity.  As we park and prepare to get out and walk a bit, Gary points out that in addition to all those plants, there are three critters here I should pay mind to:  Mole Snakes, Puff Adders, and Cape Cobras.  Seems all these plants make some good food sources for African White Striped Mice, and birds too, so it’s pretty prime hunting grounds for snakes too!  While the mole snake reaches a length of 12 feet, it is a constrictor, and it’s bite is not dangerous.  The Adder and Cobra though are pretty deadly, and the Adder is also not fearful of humans, so as you walk along, it doesn’t slither away like a good snake should, but sits and waits for you to get within range.  Death occurs within hours unless you receive prompt medical treatment and ant-serums, but the tissue damage is so extensive that the bitten area, usually an arm or leg, must be amputated.  Well, that brings up a lot of memories from my Hellfire Coral interaction in Truk Lagoon a year or so ago!  Yikes….let’s watch for the snakes!

Well the fact that you are reading this suggests that I never lost focus on my guides warning words, and that our stroll through the brush was without incident. Todays score, at least so far: Dave 1, African Poisonous Snakes 0.  We’ll try to keep it that way for the next 10 days!

In spite of the constant fear of a painful death or at a minimum loss of an appendage, I must admit that the park was beautiful, a rugged, yet lush landscape filled with lots of life no so obvious at first blush, but thanks to the learned eye of my guide Gary, he is able to point out so much to me.  Good call having him along!

We head from there back along the road to the end of the peninsula, and the Cape of Good Hope.  This is the southernmost point of the African Continent, and also where the waters of the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean mix.  In addition to the turbulence of the seas coming together, there are nearly always strong winds, plenty of fog, and many submerged rocks, which help maintain this areas recognition as one of the most historically dangerous sailing passages known worldwide.  There are actually two points jutting out next to each other , the second being Cape Point, and that is where in 1860 they erected a lighthouse at the top to help sailors avoid catastrophe on the rocks below.  Well, the early Einstein’s neglected that fog thing I mentioned, and so for the 40 years of it’s working life, ships continued to crash with regularity in the area, mainly because no one was looking 750 ft up into the clouds for a navigation marker.  So around 1900 they finally erected another lighthouse, down along the waters edge, well below the clouds and fog, and finally, they succeeded in their mission, and the local shipwrecking business came to an end.  Today, thankfully, was clear and bright, and the view from the lighthouse was pretty spectacular.

Located right on the point, actually under the parking area, was a great restaurant called Two Oceans.  Now usually when you have some tourist destination, the first two mandatory improvements are rest rooms and some crappy restaurant serving predictably mediocre fare.  Well that is hardly the case here, these folks did it right!  Our lunch is superb, selected a fine menu which included a huge selection of fresh sushi delights to accommodate the significant number of Asian tourists that visit the area.  Well done!

Bellies full, we start heading north, cutting across the point to the Atlantic Coast.  Our first stop along the rocky coast is to observe local lobstermen working to catch delicious South African Rock Lobsters in the kelp.  They are working in about 4 to 6 feet of water, using a long pole onto which they tie a piece of bait to a string, and dangle it in the water.  Lobsters come out of hiding to sample the bait, and once they decide it is indeed tasty, they latch on, and the fisherman slowly raises the pole, with the lobster hanging on, until he can maneuver a long net into position behind & below the lobster, who realizes this was not a free lunch and drops off the bait, ideally into the carefully positioned net.  Pretty interesting technique, and even more interesting is how many lobsters live in the relatively shallow waters under the kelp, and how active they are during the day – a bit different that what we experience at home.

Continuing up the coast, we pass through the village of Scarborough, which holds the infamous title of the area with the greatest number of baboon home invasions.  You gotta be famous for something, but man, couldn’t they choose something better?  As we travel further along, Gary points out some areas where divers or surfers have suffered Great White attacks over the past years….this shark thing is pretty serious here!  Many of the beaches with good surfing waves have, in addition to the lifeguard, a Shark Spotter on a high tower or piece of ground, who is constantly scanning the water looking for sharks.  Today, however, the risk is quite low, as the water is a clear blue with great visibility, and that reduces the risks of sharks accidently attacking a human through a case of mistaken identity due to low viz. They have a flag system for warning, and today the Green ‘Shark’ flag is flying, indicating low risk. Point taken:  only frolic in the clear water in Africa!

We pass along the beautiful rugged coast heading northward, dotted with rocks & kelp, mixed in with a number of pristine white sand beaches.  We pause for a quick hike down a trail to a beautiful viewing area high on a rocky cliff over the ocean, and Gary points out that last November, in the exact spot I am standing, a gust of wind blew a tourist right over the railing to his death below on the rocks.  I think I have enough photos from here thanks, let’s head back to the van!

As we begin to approach Cape Town, we start to pass through some obvious hardscrabble housing developments, and Gary enlightens me about some of the pre-apartheid practices of the South African government, namely, forced relocation.  This land is made up of a number of diverse ethnic groups, and unlike the overly-politically correct US, here they make no bones about it.  There are Blacks, the native people of South Africa, Coloureds, who are mainly the descendants of slaves imported from other lands, and the Whites.  And the Whites, who only make up 7% of the population, are further divided into Afrikaners, with Dutch roots, and the English, with ties back to the UK.  Every group, except of course the Blacks, can be traced back in history to different times of occupation and exploitation, from the Dutch East India Trading Company arriving in the early 1600’s, to the British West Indies period, through the Anglo-Boer wars over gold and minerals, and finally to where they are today.

But during the mid 1900’s the Afrikan government took up the practice of racially segregated housing, which resulted in massive forced relocation projects.  We are driving through them now, acres and acres of cheap government housing units, filled with economically challenged people, and rife with crime.  There are more electric fences in South Africa than I have ever seen anywhere, all erected with the idea of keeping those with even less than you out. South Africa also does not have a welfare system, so ‘work to eat’ is the order of the day.

A little further along, we see the next phase, where, after the end of apartheid, formerly relocated persons could apply for what essentially amounted to a free home provided by the government. These “Mandela Palaces” as they are mockingly referred to, are very simple one and two room units, that require the prospective owner to occupy for seven years, at which time title will be passed down to them.  Although nothing to shout about, it is certainly a step up from the projects.

Finally we arrive in Cape Town, where I check in to the Southern Sun Waterfront hotel for the night.  Located right in the downtown, district, it’s a first class property very conveniently located near the V&A Waterfront district, a vibrant and exciting area of restaurants, shops, nightlife and attractions right on the water.

Day Four –  Cape Town area, & transit to Durbin

Morning comes and I head down to breakfast to find myself breaking bread with the members of the New Zealand National Cricket Team, in town for a match.  Pretty animated bunch for sure, and they certainly start my day off with a bit of laughter.  Gary arrives, and we’re off for another day of touring before I have to head to the airport again.

We start with a drive up Table Mountain, the towering u-shaped land mass that forms the City Bowl, a natural low-lying area which contains all of Cape Town.  We drive as far as we can, and then take a cable car up to the very top to enjoy some phenomenal views of the city and surrounding areas.  The mountain got it’s name from it’s shape, which includes a large flat top.  The warm, humid air coming in from the sea forms dense clouds as it rises up the face of the mountain, but the prevailing wind from the back side traps the cloud there, where it lies like a table cloth, draping over the edges of the mountain top – very unique formation, and we’re treated to quite a view today. A little local tradition is the monthly “Moon Walk”, during the first phases of the full moon thousands of folks hike up the mountain, toting refreshments, and enjoy a spectacular view of the sun setting to the west while the moon rises in the east, both in full view at the same time.  A few more refreshments, and I am sure they see all sorts of other things up there too!

From there, we head down and then back up to Lions Head mountain, right on the coast where the City Bowl ends at the sea.  It’s easy to see why the Dutch came and built a port here in this natural harbor, the first European development in the southern African continent. We also get a commanding view of Robben Island, commonly referred to as the Alcatraz of Africa.  Situated four miles offshore, this island is a former political prison which housed Nelson Mandela for 19 years.  Today it’s a tourist attraction, with ferry shuttles running people out all day long.  From our position we are also overlooking Cape Town Stadium, which, with it’s round shape and round hole in the roof, is jokingly referred to as the largest toilet seat in Africa.  Built for the 2010 World Cup soccer championships, it evidently is the wrong size to use for anything else, and the government is looking to tear it down and rebuild a more useful stadium.  Way to think ahead on that one, eh?

Another amazingly small world story:  As I’m taking photos of the stadium, a couple walks up with the same idea.  We start to chat, and they are Afrikaners from the Johannesburg area, that come down to Cape Town annually for a weekend vacation. They ask my origin, and I tell them, and that starts a whoe new discussion – they are avid travelers to the US, having visited Key West, San Diego, San Francisco (including Alcatraz), the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Niagara Falls, and of course, Disney World. We end up yacking for another thirty minutes on the side of the road, sharing travel stories and favorite places – pretty cool!

Enough of the high-level sightseeing, we head down into the city for some up close and personal sights.  Our first stop is one of the oldest sections of the city, with colorful houses, cobblestone streets, and a few mosques.  The neighborhood of the original Dutch inhabitants, they abandoned it when the British took over in 1800, and when they left, their former slaves took over. Most of the slaves had been imported from Malaysia, hence the neighborhood is known as Malay Town.  It has a strong community culture and there are no homes for sale, in fact, if a family is having difficulty with making ends meet, the community gets together and works out a financing plan to help them get back on their feet, rather than suffering the risk of the home being sold to someone from “outside”.  The second half of the Malay Quarters is Cape Town’s gay district.  Like San Francisco was to the US, Cape Town has for years had a strong gay ( I suppose we should use today’s term LGBT) community.

Further downtown, we pass by the Castle of Good Hope, the 1st European building constructed in SA.  Built in the 1670’s to defend the vital port, it was located immediately on the shore line, with it’s cannons pointing seaward.  Of course, the Dutch being who they are, reclaimed much of the land along the sea, and the fort ended up being about a half mile inland by the time they were done.    Across the street from the fort is the old City Hall, an imposing structure facing the city square.  In 1990, immediately upon release from prison, Nelson Mandela was brought here and gave his famous Freedom Speech from the second floor balcony to throngs of cheering black supporters in the square.  It was the first time many of the whites had ever seen such a gathering, as until that point it was illegal for more than ten of them to gather in a group.  My, how far they’ve come!

After there we drove through infamous District Six, the former neighborhood of more than 60,000 blacks who were forced into relocation in the 60’s.  The government designated this area to be an all-white neighborhood, but no developers would touch the project out of concern of land title claims from the former residents. Most of the former residents were in fact renters or squatters, and by the late 90’s many had passed away so when the government offered a “Mandela Palace” to anyone who could prove former ownership, few were able to take them up on their offer. Today, most of the area still stands as barren blocks of prime downtown real estate, undeveloped.

Located adjacent to District Six was a building that looked like it had been attacked, and Gary confirmed it, that it was the Zimbabwe Embassy, attacked and torched by it’s own people over their government’s failure to issue paperwork and permits for them to work and live in SA. The Zimbabwe president/dictator, Mugabe, has managed to run that country through massive inflation, to the point where one US dollar = one trillion Zimbabwe dollars.  Improvements have come slowly to that country, but one of the first steps was to become the first African nation to adopt the US dollar as their official currency.  Needless to say, I am not sure why, but so many peoples around the world believe violence will cure their ills.  Today, all we have to show here is a deserted embassy here, and guess what…..no permits or paperwork. Nice job!

From there we toured the beautiful Company Gardens, originally constructed by the Dutch East Indies Trading Company to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for its schooners sailing back and forth between the far east and Holland.  Today it’s been converted into a park and open air botanical garden.

But that garden was just a tease, as our next stop is the famous Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, a 60,000 acre site just outside the city.  Established in 1913 to conserve and promote the indigenous flora of southern Africa, today it is recognized as one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world. Truly world class, it’s a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting the area.

Finally it’s time to say goodbye to Gary as he drops me off at the Cape Town Airport for my flight to Durban, and I head two hours towards the other side of SA.  Here I am greeted by Cheryl, another tour operator specializing in the western region of SA, and she is another bundle of energy and local knowledge.  Her father was a conservation officer who dedicated his life to working to preserve and restore the animal population in the national reserves, and his love of the land and knowledge of the native people were not lost on his daughter.

As we pass along the coast, the land changes with the resources and agricultural usage.  Initially we pass through acres upon acres of sugar cane, by far the largest crop in this region. This cash crop was brought in from Australia in 1848, and was originally harvested by hand.  However, the British farmers found that money was not a big incentive for the tribal Zulu’s to work for, as their eco-social structure was based largely on barter within the community.  So with crops going rotten in the field, the English turned to another resource, and in 1861 started importing Indians as contract workers, who typically had a five year period of servitude as a payback requirement to cover their ship’s passage from home.

As we passed a little further up the coast, passing through Mtunzini in Zululand, the farming starts to change to stands of eucalyptus trees, also imported from Australia. The primary purpose being to take advantage of the ideal growing conditions to produce pulpwood for the growing paper industry.  Much of the land we are passing through now is occupied by descendants of John Dunn, an English settler who arrived in the 1870’s and befriended Zulu King Cetchwayo, and ultimately turned his attention to the Zulu ladies, taking 49 wives, and fathering 117 ‘coloured’ children.  A very busy man indeed!

Most of the Zulu’s live in small family housing camps, with a number of circular huts forming the perimeter with fencing in between to protect the camp from the intrusion of trespassers or wild game.  In the center of the circle, a wooden pen knows as a kraal would be constructed to house the cattle at night to protect them, as they were, and still are, the principal measurement of wealth in the Zulu culture.  And within the kraal, would be an underground pit, full of corn and grain, to sustain the family in the event of an attack, or fire, or some other loss. With the grandparents, parents, children and maybe the next generation occupying the various huts, the family was pretty well self-contained and did not need much if anything from the outside world.  Even today, in many of the families, only one or two members work outside, and bring currency into the family, for fuel, or an automobile, or some other need that is outside the general realm of barter.

Speaking of cows, they are everywhere here.  There are no fences, so the cattle roam freely during the day to graze and are brought back into the kraal each night.  A good cow is worth about 12,000 Rand ($1,500) so a wealthy family might have 20 or so head in their herd.  As one might imagine, with the cows representing wealth, the only time they are slaughtered is to celebrate a wedding or a funeral.  The rest of the time, it’s good to be a cow in South Africa!

Now of course I know you’re wondering, with all these “free-range” cows running around, how on earth does everyone figure out whose cow is whose?  Amazingly, the Zulu language has over 200 words to describe the different attributes of coes, like color, spots, identifying marks, etc.  These folks are one step ahead of the game here, although I did suggest to a couple of the guys that numbered ear tags like we use in the states would sure simplify things.   Watch for that to be implemented soon….NOT!

Continuing further along the coast we pass Richards Bay, the second busiest port in SA and a major industrial center.  It is surrounded by huge sand dunes left over from 60 million years ago when the sea level was 150 ft higher, and they are loaded with titanium.  A major local controversy is how to mine the titanium without creating a need to restore the dunes at the same time…that sounds like a bit of a challenge indeed.

We also pass a few mountains to our left, inshore a bit.  Zulu tradition requires that when a person dies, they must be buried at a higher elevation than where they lived, as it would be an insult for them to spend an eternity at a lower place than they occupied in life.  That certainly rules out any cemetery in the valley for sure.  In addition, Zulu kings and chiefs are buried in a seated position, with a cowhide around their shoulders to ensure they return in the spirit form.  If they are buried laying down, then they will sleep forever.  So many rules!!

And of course, with all this time in the car, we chat about a range of topics, including what Cheryl’s business, Zulu Destinations, specializes in.  It turns out they offer a wide range on domestic travel options, but also is unique in that on the international side, it serves as a overseas employment placement agency, and an incoming supplier of tours for schools and mission groups.   For the past 8 years, her placement business has specialized in obtaining work visas and providing South African workers for a number of traveling carnivals across the US.  And I ask her about the school group side, and she tells me a couple of  her biggest clients are Villanova University’s School of Nursing, and Malvern Prep High School.  Small world, I tell her – both those schools are located within 20 miles of our home in Harleysville!

Cheryl drove me to Umkomaas, in Kwazulu Natal, located on the coast of the Indian Ocean.  Lana, the manager of Ocean Park Guest House, greeted us and showed me around her property which would be my base for the next two days. A four star classically appointed oasis of privacy and peace with private balconies, a pool, and tranquil gardens, located just two blocks from the ocean. Complete with spacious rooms and all the comforts one could want, including a great personable staff who couldn’t do enough to accommodate you, I knew I’d be more than comfortable here. I bid Cheryl a good night and retired for the evening.

Day Five –  Aliwal Shoals

It’s 7:00 and here to wish me a good morning is Ferdi Oosthurzen, the owner of Blue Vision Dive Center.  We loaded up my gear and headed over to his place, just a couple of blocks away, where I have the pleasure of meeting his mum Carol, DM Jason, Captain Clark, and the rest of his staff.  I also meet the three other guests who I’ll be diving with, and here’s another chapter in the ‘Amazingly Small World’ story.  Emma and Daniel are from New York City, and have been over touring the area, hiking, diving in Mozambique, and sightseeing.  They saw my IVS t-shirt and immediately said “Aren’t you guys at Dutch Springs a lot?” Ten thousand miles from home, alone, and I find myself diving with some of the same folks I dive with at home – amazing.  The other diver is a young lady from Holland who is here attending Cape Town University and working on her PhD in Property Law.

Blue Vision specializes in diving along the Aliwal Shoals, a huge undersea mount formed of solidified sand that was the original beach in the area, during the last ice age.  When the ice melted and the seas rose, this area was submerged to a depth of approx. 100 ft, and the shoals rise to within 15 ft of the surface.  They operate three 8 meter Zodiac RIB’s with dual outboard engines, which they trailer down from the dive center to launch in the mouth of the river.  We pile in the Land Rover, and pull the boat behind us to the launch point.  Once in water, we clamber aboard, don our lifejackets (yes, everyone does, including the captain) and turn to the challenge of launching ourselves through the violent surf, churning chocolate brown as the muddy river water mixes with the sea.  The river water here carrying the soil down from the mountains makes the Cooper River that we dive in South Carolina look like a swimming pool – you couldn’t see a crocodile or bull shark here if your life depended on it, and frankly, it might! So with our feet firmly secured under the foothold straps, and hands holding onto the lines, it’s a bit of an adrenalin rush as we pound out through the waves, with Captain Clark expertly twisting and maneuvering the boat as he seeks the tiny areas of flat water between waves that the ocean offers us. Needless to say, we are thoroughly soaked by the time the water has become blue and we’ve cleared the surf zone, but what a great ride it has been!

The wind has been a bit stronger than normal today, so it’s 4 to 6 ft seas all the way out, with occasional 8 to 10 footers thrown in for an extra thrill.  Not a ride for the faint of heart, that’s for sure, but our group is loving it.  About 5 km out to sea, we come upon the shoals, and Ferdi briefs us on the dive plan.  Nearly all diving here is drift dives, with the DM towing a marker buoy for the boat to follow.  3-2-1-Go! and we roll backwards into the sea, gathering for a moment on the surface then dropping down to 100 ft to begin our multi-level drift.  Our first site is known as Cathedral, named for the huge arch swim through in to a large bowl area. We continue along the edge of the shoal, poking in to the numerous crevices and passageways, spotting lobster, huge stingrays, moray eels, Nudibranchs, and a new fish for me, Pineapple Fish, little round balls no more than an inch or two long, usually hidden quite well in the safety of an overhang.  We’re greeted with a huge turtle as we near the end of our first dive, and spot a few sharks checking us out from a safe distance, as we surface and crawl back into the boat for a bit of surface interval.  Dive two was similar, with us enjoying a shallower profile along the upper section of the shoals, before it was time to head back to shore, and enjoy another run in through the surf.

Gear rinsed and hung, I headed back to clean up and then Ferdi took me out to lunch at Croc World, a local reserve / zoo / restaurant combination, where we enjoyed a tour of the wildlife and a great meal overlooking the ocean while chatting about the events of the day.   Later that evening I walked down to Sebastian’s, a local eatery with a great deck and good food.  Really nice folks there, and I got to chat with a number of locals to help round out my knowledge of the area.

Day Six –  Tiger Sharks & transit to Sodwana Bay

Next morning and it was time for an especially thrilling dive, Tiger Shark diving without a cage!  I met Lloyd, our dive leader for the day, who has spent the last 14 years specializing in working with the big tigers and filming them for organizations such as National Geographic, the BBC, and Animal Planet. He gives us a good briefing on what to expect, the risks involved, and how we’re going to execute the dive.  He warns us that we don’t want to make his “Worst Of” footage which he has accumulated over the years, mainly provided by those who fail to pay attention to the briefing details.

We launch again, and motor out about 6 km to the area where he has established a consistent feeding routine and is know to be loaded with sharks.  We’ve got two chum buckets, one large closed container punched through with holes in it’s sides to serve as a lure, and then the second, actually a washing machine tub, full or sardines and anchovies, with a lid that Lloyd can open and reach in pull out bait during the dive.  We float the first one to start the scent trail, and amazingly, it is not in the water one minute before the first Oceanic Black Tips start showing up right next to the boat.  Most are in the 6 ft size range, they are eager to get the show started.  We give it about an hour in the water, and then it starts……our marker bouy starts running away at a good clip, and we know that a tiger is sampling the chum container.  The larger container with the bait is now lowered in, and it’s time for the divers to enter the water, which by now has probably 40 black tips circling the boat, fins cutting the surface and criss-crossing back and forth looking for whatever morsels they might come across.  We back-roll in, and the splashes draw an immediate investigation from the sharks, who are right up on us to see what might have just fallen in the water. OK, get the breathing back under control, it’s time to submerge into this ball of sharks and thousands of other fish attracted to the bait.  We hang at about 25 ft, and witness some major feeding activity with every species involved.  The smaller jacks are able to penetrate the tub, and as they push the boat out, the jacks and trevally slam in for the bigger chunks, competing with the sharks and remoras. Suddenly, Lloyd rattles his noisemaker, and I look down to see a 12 ft tiger shark coming right under me, not at all disturbed by us or all the other activity in the water, just knowing there is a meal, or at least an appetizer, to be had here.  Soon she’s joined by another female tiger, nearly as long, and the two of them clear a path through the biomass as they seek out the bait that Lloyd has scattered in the water.  They are at least 3 ft across at the head, just huge animals, and as they approach I run through Lloyd’s Do’s & Don’ts list from the briefing.  If all else fails, he said, place your hand squarely and firmly on the top of their head and push them downward as you push yourself upward to maximize the distance between your soft parts and the pointier parts of the shark.  It turns out I need to practice this a few times during the dive, as the tigers are pretty curious about checking out any visitors to their world.  The larger of the two decides she has had enough, and then thrusts her lower jaw out, and swallows the entire chum bucket.  It’s secured to the rest of the rig by ¼” braided stainless steel cable, so she struggles to separate it from the line, twisting and turning with clear intent that she has laid claim on her breakfast.  Finally, frustrated, she spits it out, and continues to bang it with her snout, cause clouds of chum to come out each time.  Satisfied she has given up on the big meal, we start to ascend but as we do we see her coming back to the drum.  We pop to the surface and Lloyd shouts out to the captain to pull the drums back on board, but too late, she has it and then, like in the movie Jaws, we watch it start to race away before it submerges below the surface.

We climb back on board, and I ask Lloyd how often this happens, and he answers “Never – first time I ever saw this.”  Well I love to be on the cutting edge of things so here’s an extra thrill for the day!

Back at Blue Vision Dive Center it’s time to bid farewell to some great new friends and there to meet me is Cheryl again.  She’ll be taking me now about five hours up the coast, to my next stop near the Mozambique border.  I noted earlier what an expert she was in African history and culture, and this overland journey was a treat in learning so much about this beautiful land and its peoples.  As we passed northward from Umkomaas, we travel along the coast, within site of the ocean nearly the entire trip.

We finally arrive in Sodwana Bay, home of the Sodwana Bay Lodge and Sodwana Bay Scuba Center. Here we’ll have an opportunity for diving some of South Africa’s hard coral reefs, which flourish in this area with the warm southward currents flowing from the upper Indian Ocean.  I check in to my traditional thatch roof hut, and enjoy a great dinner at the restaurant.  On the screen I recognize some of the faces, and realize it’s the NZ cricket team being interviewed during their game against South Africa – pretty cool!

Day Seven –  Sodwana Bay Diving & More!

In the morning I meet Ben Jones, the owner of the dive center, and he shows me around the facility and explains the operation.  They have four zodiac inflatables, that they launch directly from the beach into Sodwana Bay.  The launch site is a protected area so although you are launching directly into the surf, it’s usually manageable, as evidenced by the fact that they only had four days in 2012 that they could not launch.  Their shuttle takes me and my gear down to the beach, located about 5 km up the road, where I meet the rest of the staff and my DM for the morning, Dennis.

I have had the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling and diving around the world, but I must admit the Sodwana Bay staff was oneof the most personable and helpful groups I have ever had the chance to work with.  Every instructor, DM, gear handler, driver and boat handler, made immediate eye contact, introduced themselves, and just made everyone feel right at home in their midst.  My hats off to Ben and his team for having such a great team to work with his clients!

SBLDC has a permanent structure on the beach to provide a shaded area to gear up, and we set up for a 1-tank dive.  Gear handlers then took our equipment down to the boat, and Dennis gave us a thorough briefing.  We walked across the beach to the boat, sitting on the sand just above the waves.  The divers get alongside the boat, and a farm tractor pushes the boat into the surf.  We walk the boat through the breaking waves, the captain jumps in and fires up the engines, then the divers climb aboard, ladies first, of course!  A short zip through the breaking waves and we are at our destination in under five minutes time.  On the way we are greeted by a manta ray surfacing to check us out.

The captain maneuvers us over the drop zone, and it’s 3-2-1-go! as we splash backwards into the sea.  The reef is about 100 ft deep here, and the visibility is probably close to 200 ft, so it’s no problem for the group to descend down in the 84 degree water to begin our dive.  W gather on the bottom, and Dennis slowly leads us across the reef, enjoying a nice multi-level dive and taking in the critters that inhabit the reef.  All the usual critters, plus some great nudi’s and another first, Ribbon Eels.  The dive ends too quickly as this is really a pretty area, and we climb back aboard and head in.  The boat approaches the beach at high speed, we hold on, and end up shooting completely clear of the water by the time we come to a stop.  Well done indeed!

Surface interval is enjoyed under the shelter, and the beach has a nice little restaurant, bath house and showers so all the comforts you might need are addressed.  Finally it’s time to head back in, so we repeat the drill and enjoy another great dive on the reef.  This is really a beautiful location and the beach setting just adds to the overall experience.  We load the boats up onto trailers, dismantle the camp except the permanent structure, and back to base.  It is unfortunate but theft is prevalent here, so nothing at all can be left on the beach overnight.

I return to the dive center to another pleasant surprise, as Maelle Colin, the owner of Afrikar, is there to greet me.  Afrikar specializes in self-drive off road experiences using their fleet of custom-made two-seater dune buggies, and she has arranged for one of her drivers, Ben, to take me out and show me the area.  We enjoy a great ride with some majestic views of the local lakes, mountains, and coast, with a good mix of down & dirty four-wheeling thrown in for good measure!  We’ll definitely be factoring this option into our diving trips to Sodwana Bay!  Enough for today, the dive staff arrives back to the dive center and we hang out for a couple of hours laughing and sharing stories while enjoying a few cold beverages.  Great way to wrap up a great day!

Day Eight – Transit to Coastal Forest Reserve & Rocktail Bay Lodge

Another morning and the bags are packed once again as my Zulu drivers are here to escort me 80 km north nearly to the farthest northeast corner of the Kwazulu-Natal province, just a stones throw from the Mozambique border and the Coastal Forest Reserve National Park, site of the pristine waters of Rocktail Bay and the home of Rocktail Bay Lodge.  The asphalt ends in short order, and we’re on a bit of a rough dirt road for a good 50 km until we arrive at Coastal Cashews, site of a very small general store and a large cashew farm.  We pull in, my guys engage the gatekeeper in their native tongue, and we’re allowed inside.  I sense they don’t get too many visitors here, but this is the transfer point for me to be picked up by Rocktail Bay’s shuttle.

Sure enough, here comes a Land Rover safari vehicle, complete with tiered seating for guests in the back, and driven by ‘MP’ a super-personable gentleman who has spent the past 30 years working in the bush with various conservation groups and camps.  I truly feel like I have finally arrived in Africa!

It’s another 30 km down a sand and mud track to the lodge, but the time flies as MP runs a continuous dialog of factoids about the area, the forest, the people, and the land.  We pass under some spider webs that stretch entirely across the road, from tree to tree, like a canopy, and the spiders themselves are huge…last thing you’d want to walk through in the dark, that is for sure!  Speaking to MP, his Zulu pride shows through, as it has in every person you talk to in this region.  Before you know it, we have arrived at the resort, and like in the old TV show Fantasy Island, the whole staff is lined up out front to welcome me.  Talk about feeling like royalty!

This lodge is worlds apart from any so far, starting with there is no reception area, the bar is on the honor system, and there are no room keys.  My room, in fact, is a screen-walled hut overlooking a vast forested area, with the ocean visible in the background. There are 17 units here, and I cannot see or hear another one from my cabin or deck; this is truly a private place. As I’m getting settled in, a crash sounds from the roof, and I step outside to see two Bush Babies wrestling on top of my unit. Yes, I’m in Africa for sure now.

I head over Makarran Dive Charters, Rocktail’s on-site dive operator.  Founded and operated by Larry Smith, it’s truly a gem of an operation, totally first-class and just tucked away in the jungle here.  Together with just one other camp, they share the exclusive rights to approx. 30 km of reef along the coast here, so there are no crowds to speak of when you are on the reef. Sonja truly knows how to choose her operators, and I have been favorably impressed every step of the way so far.  We get the logistics squared away for tomorrow – looks like I’m the only diver on the boat!  It just keeps getting better and better!

Walking back over to the lodge, I stop at the pool and meet Wayne and Sandi, from the Johannesburg area, here enjoying a little holiday.  They ask about the diving, and I tell them I suspect it will be pretty fantastic.  Well it turns out that Sandi was previously certified but inactive for many years, and Wayne has been considering giving it a try.  So after a bit of chat and some encouragement, they head over to the dive center to sign up for a DSD and Refresher, and before you know it, I’ll have some company on the boat tomorrow.

A quick lunch, time to update the blog, fire off a few Facebook posts, and take a stroll through the forest before dinner.  It’s really beautiful and quiet here, and one could really get into a state of mental and physical relaxation in short order.  MP finds me and asks if I would like to go look for turtles on the beach tonite, as it is their nesting and hatching season, and of course I agree.  We head out in the dark around 7, as he artfully maneuvers the Land Rover through the woods and onto the beach, and we start cruising along, being careful to only drive on the hard sand below the high water mark, as the turtles dig their nests above that.

We aren’t on the beach 5 minutes when a little movement in front of us catches our eyes, and we stop and jump out to find baby leatherback turtles crawling out of the ground and dragging themselves across the beach and right into the surf.  How absolutely amazingly cool is this?  Probably close to 75 babies dig out of the nest and follow each other to the sea as I stand and watch, utterly speechless.  I am living on the Animal Planet right now, and loving it!  They are popping out of the sand at the nest site, and with some built-in GPS, head right to the ocean, which is probably 200 ft away.  It is amazing, but not a single turtle makes a wrong turn, as soon as they pop their head up, boom…it’s off to the races!

Finally the action slows, and we patrol another 10 km of beach, finally coming upon a loggerhead that just finished laying her eggs and is heading back to the water. MP pulls out his tagging kit and I give him a hand as we delay her escape long enough to get a numbered tag in her front flipper, and take her overall measurements to be sent in to the conservation office.  Enough action for one night; it’s time to head back and get some rest before the real fun starts tomorrow!

Day Nine – Rocktail Bay

Another beautiful dawn awakens me, with the sunlight streaming in all sides of my little jungle shanty. Time for my 7:00 meeting at the dive center, so I head over and meet Ondeyne, Darryl’s instructor and right-hand staff member.  She gives us a briefing about the boat operation, the dive site, and our dive plan, taking into consideration that she’ll be leading Wayne on his DSD experience, and I’ll just be off on the fringe shooting some video and enjoying the view.  Her briefing method and presentation is nothing less than spectacular, and when PADI is ready to produce their next instructor training video, I am going to recommend her for the role!

I ask her about her unique name, and she shares that her mother was a bit of a free spirit, naming all three of her daughters after mystical Nordic characters.  Ondeyne is actually the name of a Scandinavian mermaid who fell in love with a human and had to make a decision between walking on legs next to her love or keeping her tail and living in the sea…..wait one dog-gone minute! I have always wondered where Disney got the inspiration and story line for Ariel and the Little Mermaid….mystery solved!

Well with briefing behind us, and my favorite red head from the sea sorted out, it’s time to follow the boat down to the water in the safari truck for a surf launch.  Here they have a nice reef line running parallel to the beach, so it greatly reduces the size of the waves.  We slip the boat off the trailer, walk it out a bit, jump on, don life jackets, and off we go!  Seven minutes later, we are on the dive site, and as suspected, there is not another boat on the ocean, or for that matter, even on the beach, from horizon to horizon, it is just us.  Not many places you see this!

We backroll in and the viz is 150 ft or so in the 85 degree water.  We gather for a moment at the surface, make sure Wayne and Sandi are good, and drop down to the beautiful reef. Huge Potato Bass swim up to check us out, and the abundance of sea life on this reef is amazing.  Large honeycomb moray eels, anemones and clown fish, leaf fish, a few sharks, a couple of turtles, giant sting rays, all the usual critters, and another new one for me: eggshell cowries, all make for a fantastic dive.  And that was just the first one!

We head back to shore, and tie the boat to a rock while we enjoy a little surface interval and breakfast on the beach.  The lodge has sent down a complete breakfast setting for us, and it is served up on a table overlooking the vast empty beach and majestic sea views. We sit in the shade, sharing stories of what we saw, and how exciting it was for the Wayne and Sandi.  I think they’re hooked, and hope they return for their lessons – I know they’ll be in good hands!   They opt to not do the second dive, so we run them back to the lodge, and Darryl, Ondeyne and I head back out, the only boat on the sea within 30 km, for a very private second dive.  An hour and half later, Ondeyne and I surface, my two video cameras memory cards full, and our tanks nearly exhausted.  We head back to the shore, and of course, in customary last dive of the day fashion, as we approach, it’s maximum throttle as we hit the beach and launch the boat completely clear of the water – what a great adrenalin pumping way to end your dive!

Enough time to actually relax for the first time on the trip, so I catch some southern hemisphere rays laying by the pool.  Lunch is served, and we arrange to head back out for another turtle run tonight. I meet with the new managers coming down to the resort, and talk about how a great destination like Rocktail Bay Lodge must make it onto everyone’s ‘Bucket List’.

Our timing for the beach drive is based on the incoming tide, so it changes every night.  We are allowed on the beach two hours before high tide, and must only drive in the hard sand along below the high tide mark, so as to not inadvertently drive over any turtle nests which are made above the water line.  We head north and sure enough, there’s the tracks of a large turtle that had come in from the surf, and we stop to take a look.  Right before our eyes, there’s a huge female Leatherback just finishing up laying her eggs, and covering the nest with sand.  She turns and begins the difficult task of dragging herself all the way back to the sea, but we need to ask her a few questions first!  We measure her, and tag her, so she can be added into the conservation agency’s database for when we hopefully see her again.  I’m wondering if those were some of her babies that were hatching last night, as a turtle will typically come in to lay 3 or 4 nests of eggs on approx 30 day intervals, before heading off to explore the world for a few years until it’s time to breed again.  Finally, our “interview” is over, and she makes it back into the sea, disappearing below the waves.

It’s high-fives all around and we pile back into the truck and head south for a bit.  Movement ahead, so we stop, and well look at that….an army of little Loggerhead turtles are popping up out of their nest and marching to the sea.  We enjoy this spectacular miracle of life for a while, then head a little further south, and wouldn’t you know it, but another Loggerhead nest is hatching.  So very, very cool to be part of this, and I am so thankful for all the forces that came together for me to be here, right now, experiencing this.

Day Ten – Rocktail Bay and transit to Falaza Game Park

The diving yesterday was too good to not get another one in, so I’m back over to the dive center first thing this morning.  It’s only me, so we throw the gear in the boat, jump on the tractor, and head down to the beach.  The boat’s in, we jump on, and run out to the reef for one last splash.  Again it is totally private, just me and Ondeyne in the water, and not another boat in site, or for that matter, another person on the beach except Darryl driving the boat.  More great life, a few sharks, leaf fish, lots of nudi’s, just a fantastic hour and a half in the water and a fantastic final dive on this adventure.

Too soon and it’s time to head out, so I pile into the 4 x 4 for the ride back to Coastal Cashews to meet with my drivers for the next phase of my adventure.  We head off, leaving the shore behind us, and arrive at Falaza Game Reserve & Spa.  Falaza is an upscale tent camp, which means each room is in a separate tent structure, with a hardwood floor, beautiful furnishings, and a full bath.  That “tent” part is hardly noticed; nothing like my Boy Scout camping days from years gone by!

I’m greeted by the staff again, with the customary welcome drink and an escorted tour around the grounds to get familiar with the property.  My bags show up, carefully balanced on the heads of a couple of staffers, and I’m all set up in my room.  No time to relax though – we’re ready to head out for a game drive!  I walk back up the entrance and meet Game Ranger Justin, who will be our guide & driver, along with Athol & Carin from Johannesburg area.  We immediately connect and there’s no doubt this is going to be a fun ride through the bush in the Land Rover. As Justin drives along and shares jungle-life factoids with us, Athol and I am one-upping each other cracking jokes.  It’s a laugh a minute for the next two hours as we crawl along four wheel drive trails and see Giraffes, Zebras, Blue Wildebeest, Nyala, a couple of Warthogs  w/babies, Impala, Red Duiker, and Vervet Monkey.  We get out of the vehicle a few times, and inspect Foaming Nest Frogs, poisonous Toad Trees, and massive Kite Spiders whose webs stretch across the trail, and in some cases, the entire roadway.  Not something you’d want to walk into in the dark, that’s for sure!

Another critter that is common here is what the Egyptians call Scarab Beetles, but are locally known as Dung Beetles.  These are pretty interesting creatures, and get their name from the fact that the males locate a pile of animal droppings (dung) and carve out a tennis-ball sized chunk, and then roll it around and work it with their legs making it rounder and rounder.  Why, you are asking, would they go to all this effort?  As you might suspect, it’s the universal answer – to impress the chicks!  It seems the females are pretty selective about choosing a mate with good dung rolling skills, and once she is suitably impressed, she’ll insert her eggs into the center of the dung ball. As the larva hatch, they’ll sustain themselves from the nutrient value of the ball material, and enjoy the protection it provides from predators until they are ready to crawl out and meet the world.

We stop for a break, and just like a scene from Out of Africa, Justin brings out a folding table and picnic basket, and we enjoy some light fare under a spreading Marula Tree, the fruit of which is fermented and becomes the source of the liqueur Amarulo.  We watch the sun starting to settle on the horizon, and its time to beat it out of the bush and back to the safety of the camp before the nastier things come out.

Dinner is served on the deck, a perfect way to end a perfect day.  The food and service are top shelf, and the weather couldn’t be better for an evening under the stars. This is truly a very nice place, and again, my hat’s off to Sonja for her recommendation.

Day 11 – Falaza and transit to Duma Zulu

5:30 a.m. and time for a morning game drive in nearby Hluhluwe Game Reserve.   Well, almost nearby, so we start off with a brisk 80 km/hour drive in the open top safari vehicle to make sure we are good and awake for the “Big 5” animals we hope to see.  Hluhluwe is the oldest game reserve in Africa, founded in 1895, and the third oldest in the world.  It is the site most famous for restoring the White Rhinoceros from the brink of extinction.  We enter the massive park through the main gate, and start our drive.  This park has both gravel and off-road areas, so you can opt for a “self-drive” safari and bring passenger vehicles in as long as you stay on the gravel path.  With our 4×4 we are permitted to explore the entire park, and Justin has some strategy in mind as we turn off the beaten path into some deep brush.  We crawl along, spotting endangered African Vultures, various ground birds, various flavors of antelope, impala and the usual.  We also spot a community of Weaver Birds and their very unique nests.  Of course, in another example of sexual inequality in the animal kingdom, the male is responsible for selecting a branch in a tree that overhangs the water, to reduce predation, and also carefully strips all the leaves off the branch so snakes or lizards cannot hide and sneak up on the nest. Then, he goes about gathering grasses and carefully, painstakingly weaves a beautiful round nest, suspended from the selected branch, with a shelf inside for the eggs and babies, and an entrance hole at the bottom. Finally, when it is ready, he puts on a little show to attract a female, and when one does show interest, it’s not him she’s looking at, but his “crib”.  If he built a superior example of a weavers nest, she might decide to grace him with the role of daddy to her eggs.  But, far more likely, she’ll find flaw in his efforts, and then pick at the top of the next until it breaks free of the branch, crashing into the water and causing the male to have to start all over again.  This might be repeated up to five times or more before she is finally happy..sound familiar?

After we’ve had our fill of weaver birds and nest smashing, we go a little further up the road, and suddenly a deep rumbling growl is heard.  We stop the vehicle and wait, and hear it again, getting closer, until finally just in front of us a male Lion emerges from the tall grass and checks us out.  Satisfied we are not a threat, he walks around the vehicle, giving us a good look-over, before finally disappearing back into the bush.  No sooner than he is gone behind us, we hear another one, and sure enough, from the other side of the trail comes another male, strutting about, marking a little turf, and again, showing no fear of us whatsoever.

We spend a total of three hours on the drive, and see more of the standard fare, but the exhilaration of the two lions override anything else we saw today.  First class sightings, and not at all common to see one, let alone two!  Fate has once again been kind.  We motor back to camp, grab my bags, and then Justin runs me down the road to my lodge for the next night, at DumaZulu Village.

Day 12 – DumaZulu, Endomeni, and transit to Thula Thula

In the 1980’s well known philanthropist and Zulu activist Graham Stewart, known as “the White Zulu”, approached King Goodwill Zwelithini, the reigning head of the Zulu Nation, and proposed the development of a center to preserve and present the Zulu culture.  From that idea, DumaZulu was born, and the lodge and village opened in 1994.  Centered around a typical Zulu village, when they advertised for the twenty full time spots for people from the local community to live there, over 200 applied.  Today, in addition to the village, the site includes a full lodge, restaurant, reptile park, turtle rehab center, and more.

I met Heinz, the manager, and he showed me around the entire site.  His energy and passion for his job and the work here exuded from him as he showed me projects under construction, plans for the next phases, and what has been accomplished in the three years he has been at the helm.  His right hand man, Issac, who has been with the project since it was just an idea in Mr. Stewarts head, is my personal tour guide for the day.  A Zulu man himself, he has two wives and four children, but he’s the youngest of nine from his mother, who was one of four wives to his father.  He grew up in a village much like this one, with his father, his mother and the three other wives (who can never be addressed by their first name once they marry), his 47 siblings, and their heard of close to 200 cattle.  Wow!

Isaac introduces me to the members of the village, who live there full time and who produce many of the products sold in the gift store on site, including shields, spears, baskets, pottery, beadwork, and many other traditional village crafts.  I meet the Medicine man (Inyanga) who is preparing potions to cure just about whatever ails you, and the ‘One who talks to the Spirits’ (Isangoma) who has the power to figure out just what it is that is ailing you!  The ancient healing methods are still very much alive and well in the Zulu Nation, and they are proud of their independence from modern “white” medicine.  Before I leave, the village members gather and give me a fantastic cultural show complete with traditional drums, stick fighting, dancing, singing and all the festivities that come together for special occasions such as weddings and funerals.

From there, Heinz drives me over to Endomeni Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which specializes in the rehab, breeding and release of wild cats.  I meet Carin, the facility manager, and she takes me on a private tour of the facility, showing me all they do there, and then has a special treat for me – some “behind the fence” visits to her favorite cats – Cheetahs!  She has six cheetahs on site, and has been working to entice some breeding between them, but they have frustrated so far.  Her spirit is undaunted, and she’s ready for the long haul here, to send some of her own cheetah offspring out into the wild.  She’s already achieved a great deal of success with her other three breeds of cats, African Wild Cats, Serval, and Caracal (Lynx).  Endomeni also has lodge facilities on site, so visitors can stay on the property and help with the care of the cats as part of the structured program.  Very cool!

Finally, it’s time to say goodbye to Carin and her feline friends, and my shuttle guys are back to take me to the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park, South Africa’s First Natural World Heritage Site.  The third largest park in SA, it covers an area of almost a million acres, consisting of ocean shoreline, offshore protected reefs, rivers, estuaries, lakes, wetlands and coastal forest. Here we take a boat ride north into the lake, which is the home to over 200 species of fish, over 1,000 crocodiles, and 2,000 hippopotamus! The shores are lined with both white and black mangroves, and vast scenic grassy plains go on forever.  The hippos are amazing, one of the worlds largest animals, they are excellent swimmers, and can stay underwater for up to six minutes while they forage for food on the bottom.  They form social packs of a dozen or more animals, and are extremely protective of their young.  When disturbed, such as by a croc slipping into the water, the adults actually pick the babies up and support them out of the water to keep them out of the hungry mouths of predators.  We enjoy hundreds of these homely creatures in the water as we slowly sail past.

Finally we arrive at the last destination in my adventure, Thula Thula, made famous by the recent best-selling book The Elephant Whisperer.  It’s about 150 km further inland, but thankfully most of the road is paved…most, I did say!  That being said, its almost three hours before we arrive at the gate and I transfer over to another 4×4 for the two mile ride in to the camp. Here I meet Victor, one of the rangers, as he picks me up in his Land Rover for the ride into the camp.  Along the ride he shares stories of the camp, and stops at a few points along the way to show me places that were featured in the book, and it’s really a neat experience to be able to connect in such an intimate way.

At the lodge, I’m greeted by manager Anne Pickard, as she welcomes me to this beautiful boutique camp and shows me to my “hut”, which is the world’s biggest understatement.  However, as we start across the grass, suddenly I sense a presence behind me, and sure enough, here come two huge rhino’s jogging across the lawn to check me out.  Anne sees them, and turns and high-tails back to the main lodge, and I am thinking, that was odd, as I watch these guys approach.  Suddenly Anne is shouting to me to hurry, get back to the lodge, and I am thinking, hmmmm…I might actually be in harms way here!  So I do the appropriate thing, and take a wide track back to join Anne, while the rhino’s stop and watch me. That was kinda close, but cool in a strange African way.

Thankfully, each hut has a front door as well as a large back patio and entrance, so we wait until the rhino’s are resting on the front porch, and we sneak in the back.  You can hear them breathing and grunting with just an inch and a half of wood door between me and them, which really adds to this whole sensory experience!  Again, it’s no time to rest, as we have a game drive heading out in a few, and I don’t want to miss it!

Game rangers Andre, and ranger-in-training Cameron, introduce themselves to me when I return to the lodge.  Both very personable, and knowledgable in the ways of the bush, they’ll be our leaders for this late afternoon excursion.  Joining us will be Pete & Liesl from Ntunzini, SA, and the minute I meet them, I realize that this will be another wise-cracking three hours in the bush with a running commentary coming in from all corners.  We also have an older couple from the UK with us, and once they’re on board we head off.  We quickly learn the difference between a ranger and one in training, as Andre gets to sit inside and drive while Cameron is strapped in the seat on the front fender, “Daktari-style”, and manages to be the first one to experience each massive spider nest we drive through.  It’s comical to watch his seated kung-fu movements each time one wraps around him, but on a positive note, at least he’s keeping those “spiders on steroids” from jumping into the land rover with one of us!

In 2000, the late Lawrence Anthony purchased the property, which at that time was an exclusive hunting camp, and turned it into a permanent preserve for animals to live their lives safely in a natural setting.  Sadly, Anthony suffered a heart attack just a few weeks before my arrival here, but thanks to his artful planning and skillful negotiation with the government, local Zulu chiefs, and the head of the Zulu Nation, he has been able to triple the original size of the reserve and has additional adjacent properties dedicated to be donated to the reserve to allow this property to connect to other reserves and afford the animals huge migratory pathways for movement and growth.

We tour the expansive property, with Andre driving and sharing his wealth of knowledge, while Cameron is kept busy swatting humongous spiders away.   We see herds of impalas, Nyala, warthogs, wildebeest, giraffes, zebras, and finally…..elephants!  Andre spots them while we are driving along a ridge, all the way on another hillside, and asks us if we mind going over there with a bit of a heavy foot on the pedal, since the sun is starting to get close to the horizon.  It was  unanimous “YES!” from all of us, so into the thick brush we headed, taking a shortcut through some thicker stuff, much to Cameron’s disappointment.

We arrive and are greeted by another great surprise – the two herds, led by matriarchs Nana & Frankie, had come together for the evening, and we found ourselves in the midst of twenty-some elephants enjoying their evening meal.  These members of the Pachyderm family have all come from the seven original inhabitants brought to the property by a stroke of luck & chance in 2002, and now are successfully breeding and raising the next generation before our eyes.  The adults tower above our vehicle, 10 to 12 ft at the shoulders, and weighing 12,000-15,000 pounds.  The babies are born weighing 400 pounds and walking with the herd within 15 minutes of birth.  In spite of their massive size, they are amazing graceful and skilled with their trunks, gently selecting which branch they wish to eat, wrapping around it and stripping leaves, or pulling clumps of grass up, then using the trunk to hold and chew the food.

As we enjoy the view at the all-you-can-eat buffet, a bull elephant that had been on the far side of the group starts working his way through the crowd towards us.  Turns out he’s in “musk”, a annual period where is testosterone levels rise to 400% of normal, which tends to make the big boy a bit feisty.  How feisty, you ask……well how about he starts off walking towards us, so we pull back about 30 ft, resume our viewing.  He stops for a pause, realizes we must not have fully gotten the message, then turns, folds his ears back, lowers his head, and breaks into a  full charge at us, running through the brush as if we had a large bulls-eye painted on the side of the ‘Rover.  Holy smokes, this certainly raises the bar on the excitement, as Andre quickly turns the key in the ignition, thankfully the engine fires to life, and down the road we go, while the elephant, realizing he won, slows and watches us fade away, of course with me hanging out of the back and snapping photos the whole time!

Back at the lodge, I meet the other guests, a couple visiting from Austria, and another pair from the Durban area, who actually used to be employed at Thula Thula and come back from time to time to help.  As we are enjoying some refreshments before dinner, we are joined by the lovely Francoise Malby-Anthony, the owner of the property and the widow of the late Lawrence Anthony, famous in his own right for his passion for the protection of animals great and small.  We’ll dine together at one large setting, which really promotes social interaction, as we choose from the menu prepared by Francoise, who studied in the art of cooking in France before coming to Africa twenty-five years ago.  She prepares a unique menu daily for the lodge, with specialties drawn from her background and experience.  After a delightful four-course meal, we move outside to the boma, where they have a raging campfire blazing, and a number of experimental drinks mixed up for us to sample.  Yum, yum – another perfect evening under the African sky, listening to the frogs, and the hyenas singing in the bush. This is a very different, very special sort of camp, and has immediately risen to the very top of my list here!

Day 13 – Thula Thula and transit to Casa Newlands

5:30 in the morning and time to head out to see what we might find.  We don ponchos, as a light rain is falling, and Andre heads us out in different direction than we explored yesterday.  We cross the river, and stop at the pond, which was formed by building an earthen dam across the stream and making an estuary that stays full year round.  It was here that Anthony had sat and watched his beloved elephants swimming, giving their vote of approval on the project, on the morning before he passed away.   His ashes were scattered across the waters of the pond as an eternal salute to the man who did so much for those without a voice.  Today, it is a site full of life, with crocodiles splashing, birds diving and hunting fish, antelope at the edge drinking, and kudo keeping a wary eye on us from the far bank.

We continue along, spotting more of the abundant life here, and suddenly something catches our eye in the edge of the bush.  By golly, it’s an elephant, enjoying some morning browsing from the thick leafy canopy that lined the trail.  We stop, he pauses, senses we are not a threat, and resumes eating, while we sit and watch for a good 20 minutes, shooting video and snapping away with our cameras.  He is extremely photogenic, giving us some fantastic views of the range of dexterity of his trunk as he snaps branches off with ease and crunches them in his massive molars.  We can hear his stomach, emitting that low, deep rumble that elephants use to communicate with each other across miles of bush.  This is a very special treat to be a part of his day!

Back at the lodge, I get to chat with Alyson, the “Rhino Mom”.  She started her career as a veterinary nurse in the UK, then, four years ago, she caught wind that Thula Thula might be the new home of two young orphaned white rhinos, and she wasted no time in packing her things and moving to South Africa to be a part of that.  From the moment the rhinos arrived, she has spent every single day, all day, in their immediate company, bottle feeding them at first, then overseeing them as they learned to take care of themselves in the wild.  She gets  five days off each month, and spends most of them right back here, with her “kids”.  Rain, shine, or whatever Mother Nature throws at them, she is out walking with the rhinos wherever they decide to wander.  And she is not alone with them…poaching of rhino’s for their horn is at an all time high, with 37 killed already this year alone.  What is it with the Chinese and Vietnamese that they can have such a lack of respect for God’s majestic creatures and feel a need to slaughter them just for a little powder made from the horn, primarily believed to be a sexual aphrodisiac.  I hate to slip from my normal political middle-of-the-roadness here, but I think a castration process in the far east should be something to seriously consider and eliminate this ridiculous trade in exotic animal parts.  I will volunteer to hold the knife to help bring an abrupt end to the sexual activity of anyone who considers that killing a rhino makes him more of a stud.

OK….stepping down from my soapbox…..I opt to join in on the 11 o’clock Safari Walk-a-bout, a Game Drive on foot.  This is amuch more intimate experience, as we cover far less territory, but examine the bush to a much deeper extent, covering the flora, fauna, biological processes, inter-actions, and more…and once again, Andre impresses the heck out of me with his knowledge.

Finally, it’s time to say goodbye, and Cheryl picks me up to tour the coastal Durban area, downtown, and then finally to Sonja’s house north of the city.   My host Sonja has prepared a traditional braai, (Afrikan for BBQ) for me to enjoy as I meet her family.  Husband Roy comes from an agricultural background, speaks Zulu fluently, and understands the culture and society of the Zulu people from his years of running a large farming operation.  Today, he works for the government, developing and implementing projects that directly benefit the Zulu people, from agriculture, to economics, to school nutritional programs that support the local community, and more.  His versatility is impressive and the proven results of his efforts speak volumes about this man.  On top of that, he is an avid fisherman, diver and participant in triathlons, marathons, mountain biking, and other grueling sporting events.  I also get to meet their kids, Luke and Hana, ages 6 and 4 respectively.

Dinner is fantastic, and Roy introduces me to Phoenix beer, an excellent pilsner brewed on the tiny island nation of Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar.  Good to support an even more local economy during my travels!

Day 14 – Taking the Long Road Home

Great morning with Sonja summarizing the good, great and otherwise on this journey, and how to make this affordable and enticing to Americans to travel here and experience what I did.

And you know, you can never get enough Amazingly Small World stories….I’m driving back to the airport with my friend Cheryl and she tells me someone in her office wants to talk to me.  It seems that when she took my business card back the other day, it caused quite a stir in the office.  So she calls, and I speak to her office manager Thiloshnie, who, it turns out, did a stint as an au pair a few years back in Harleysville, and now her sister lives there full time.  She asked if I knew where Henning’s Market was, and of course I do, and she tells me that they like to get their manicures at Fancy Nails there in the Meadowbrook Shopping Plaza.  Is that amazing or what?

And now I have a chance to do my part to make it an amazingly small world for Cheryl’s group of Villlanova University nursing students coming in May – Indian Valley Travel is hosting a welcome beach party and traditional braai for them when they arrive in Africa.  What a surprise that will be for them, eh – a zillion miles from home, and a gift from a friend back home!  We’ll treat the Mavern Prep students with the same when they arrive a little late.  It’s good to plant seeds, near and far!

Finally I’m at the Durban airport to begin my 30 hour journey home.  I bid farewell to Cheryl, and having learned my tricks in navigating the South African Airlines excess baggage fee system, I walk right up to the First Class counter (with my economy ticket) and strike up a nice conversation with the young man there.  We get to talking about scuba, and he starts to mention that my bags are both overweight and I have too many of them, when I suggest that SAA has a sporting goods exemption, and he smiles, knowing that I know at least a little.  So he picks up the phone, chats a bit, and then asks if I am going right to security or if I am going to shop or eat first since I have plenty of time.  Seems that he needs an “over-write code” and the supervisor that can give him that is in a meeting, so he asks if I can just leave my bags with him and come back a little later for my boarding pass.  I smile, and agree……another system figured out, and another way around it in the traveling tool kit!

Finally 30 hours later, I arrive home, exhausted yet thrilled, and so excited about going back with friends to share this most amazing place!

The End!

‘Phinding’ our way back to the Land of the Pharaohs!

Team IVS gallops back into the land of the Pharaohs!

We’ve waited a year  since our last visit to the land of the Pharaohs and it’s high time to return!  This time we’re on a bit of a different mission, combining the beauty and history of this ancient land with modern efforts to preserve the fragile ecosystem of the reefs of the Red Sea – a perfect combination for adventure, education and a ‘Leave No Trace’ approach via the support of sustainable travel through Indian Valley Travel.

Part I – The Journey  Our adventure will start with our group gathering in Cairo and taking in the cultural highlights of that bustling metropolis, then we’ll tone it down a little as we journey southward and up the Nile to the city of Luxor, and finally, we’ll swap cameras and sunhats for work gloves and neoprene and begin the actual working portion of this travel odyssey along the shores of the Southern Red Sea in El Qusier, as we join forces with representatives of HEPCA on conservation projects they have started along the shore .  A perfect trifecta of seeing what was, what is, and what we can do to protect for future generations!

My American sidekick for this adventure is Joe Cox, a fellow diver and neighbor, who is working his way through his ‘bucket list’ of places to dive and see in his lifetime.  Egypt was high on that list, so the timing of our Red Sea visit was just perfect.  We’ll join up with local forces and some other folks traveling in from Europe to assist us on the project tasks, but first, we’ll have a few days to relax and breath in the historical air of this land.

Joe, a travel professional in his “day job”, booked himself on a Turkish Airlines flight out of JFK through Istanbul and then on to Cairo.  “Man, that’s nuts!”, I thought, and I booked myself on tried and true Delta Airlines, starting in PHL getting to Cairo via stops in New York and Paris.  So I said goodbye to Joe as he headed out early Saturday morning to drive to New York and begin his adventure.  Heck, I had a whole day at home ahead of me, not departing PHL until 6:30 this evening.

Well the weather got a little funny later that afternoon, and a tornado actually touched down just outside of NYC, so guess what?  Yes, the FAA issued a ground hold for flights coming into the New York airports and we got to sit in Philly for a bit longer.  Long enough, in fact, for me to miss my connecting flight to Paris by the time we arrived at JFK.  Great!  Well to Delta’s credit, they entertained me for the night, and re-booked me the next day on, yep, you guessed it, the same Turkish Air flights that Joe took today!  So an uneventful night in the city, without my luggage, and finally I was jetting off across the Atlantic to catch up with Joe, albeit a day later!

Now it’s funny, because I usually have a TSA nightmare to share when I travel, but today, when they spun the big wheel, the arrow landed on “Joe”, and he got to take the brunt of America’s first line of insecurity all by his lonesome.  Seems Joe was traveling with a 30 cubic foot pony bottle (small scuba cylinder) in his checked luggage, with valve removed and no pressure inside, so totally and completely safe and within every published TSA and FAA document that exists.  Now of course, yes, by the use of the word “document” there, it would imply that the worker bees in the front lines actually took the time to read the rules they are supposed to be enforcing.  In Joe’s case, it was pretty obvious that they had not!

So after Joe had checked his bags, gotten his boarding pass, cleared security, and made it to the gate, he was called on the PA system to return to the ticket counter.  Turns out that the TSA agents did not like his cylinder, and said it could not go in his back.  He was a bit befuddled, thinking he was about to abandon his tank, but the Turkish Airlines representative stepped up and said, “We could put it in a box.”  Well, that solved the problem, and Joe’s possible HazMat / WMD item was safely taped into a cardboard box and laid on the conveyor to be loaded on the plane, not “inside” his luggage (that would be bad!) but “next to” his luggage (which evidently is A-OK).  When someone can figure out the logic in that, please call me!!

Back to our flights – Joe arrived on time, with all his stuff, minus his cardboard box.  He was met by our man Afifi in the terminal, received his required tourist visa, and took the opportunity to relax for the day in our luxury hotel, the Mena House, to await my arrival. He was informed that I was not coming that evening, but in the morning, and not to worry, he was not being abandoned in a foreign land!

Mohammed is thrilled with how Dave has “pimped his ride” with a shiny new IVS sticker!

So I arrived in the morning, and after traveling all night, and I have to say, the Turkish Airlines international flight was absolutely first class, in the attitude and attentiveness of the staff, the condition of the plane, and nearly everything else.  Now the domestic flight was something entirely different, with no one paying attention to seat assignments, lots of staring at the gringo, quite a bit of pushing and shoving, and a real wake up call that I was not in Kansas anymore!  But we got there, I met Afifi, got my visa, and found out that my luggage had failed to make the connection somewhere, so I was bagless in Cairo.  However, on a positive note, Joe Cox’s box was there, but they could not give it to me, cause I was not Joe.  Rules, we have rules…sometimes! Geeesh!  I tried to trace my bags but that was an exercise in frustration, so I emailed my friends at Delta and left it in their good hands, believing I’d see my stuff soon enough.  Oh well, on to the start of the tours!  Outside I re-connected with my driver from last year, Mohammed, and he told me that his van needed a new IVS sticker, so I promptly took care of that!

Part II – Ancient Cairo  Monday morning was bright and sunny – what a surprise, since it rains a maximum of two days a year here!  But the weather didn’t matter, cause it was time to immerse ourselves in history!  We met our certified Egyptologist, Manal, and our driver Farag, at the hotel, to begin a day of education and familiarization with this land so rich in history.  Manal was my guide during my last visit also, and she truly is an expert in everything Egypt that takes her job to heart.  We had such a wonderful time last time I was here that I wanted to give her a big hug, but had to restrain myself – men hugging woman that are not your wife is definitely not cool here!  So, a respectful handshake had to suffice.

Our first spot was the Temple of Memphis, located just south of Cairo.  Memphis was the ancient capital of Aneb-Hetch, the first nome (administrative disttrict) of Lower Egypt.  There were 42 nomie in all of Egypt, and Aneb-Hetch had the distinction of being District #1.  According to legend, the city was founded by the pharaoh Menes around 3000 BC.  It was the capital of Egypt during the period known as Old Kingdom, and even after that it remained an important city throughout ancient Mediterranean history.  It occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile delta, and was home to feverish activity during its heyday. Its port harboured a high density of workshops, factories, and warehouses that distributed food and merchandise throughout the ancient kingdom. During its golden age, Memphis thrived as a regional center for commerce, trade, and religion.

Massive statues under restoration at the Memphis Temple

Memphis was believed to be under the protection of the god Ptah, the patron of craftsmen. Its great temple, Hut-ka-Ptah (literally, the “Enclosure of the ka of Ptah”), was one of the most prominent structures in the city. As a side note, the name of this temple, rendered in Greek as Aί γυ πτoς (Ai-gy-ptos) by the historian Manetho, is believed to be the etymological origin of the modern English name Egypt. Like most of Egypt’s historical centers, its eventual downfall is most likely due to the loss of its economic significance as the nearby coastal port of Alexandria rose in prominence.  To add to the uniqueness of our experience here, we had the opportunity to chat with a team of Japanese scholars and archaeologists who were here on a project doing 3-dimensional mapping of the carvings on the temple walls.  Pretty cool!

The Great Pyramid of Giza, with our Egyptologist Manal

And no visit to Cairo is complete without a visit to the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the El Giza Necropolis bordering what is now modern day Cairo. It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact. Egyptologists believe that the pyramid was built as a tomb for Pharaoh Khufu during the 4th Dynasty, over a 10 to 20-year period approx. 2,560 BC. With an original height of 481 feet, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years.

And talk about serious construction project: The Great Pyramid consists of an estimated 2.3 million limestone blocks with most believed to have been transported from nearby quarries. The Tura limestone used for the casing was quarried across the river. The largest granite stones in the pyramid, found in the “King’s” chamber, weigh 25 to 80 tons (each!!) and were transported from Aswan, more than 500 miles away. Traditionally, ancient Egyptians cut stone blocks by hammering wooden wedges into the stone which were then soaked with water. As the water was absorbed, the wedges expanded, causing the rock to crack. Once they were cut, they were carried by boat either up or down the Nile River to the pyramid.It is estimated that 5.5 million tons of limestone, 8,000 tons of granite (imported from Aswan), and 500,000 tons of mortar were used in the construction of the Great Pyramid.  Access to the interior is provided via the “robbers tunnel”, bored in approx 820 AD, which was used to penetrate and loot the burial chambers – amazing how some things never change, eh?

Pyramids as far as the eye can see! What a land so rich in culture and history!

From there we headed down to the Giza Plateau, the site of numerous pyramids, and there we were able to visit a burial chamber (looted, of course), and toured a few of the other ones.  Joe got his mandatory camel ride in here too, so that’s off his ‘bucket list’!  There are approx 100 pyramids remaining in Egypt today, many in terrible condition, but there were quite a few more over time.  As the powers in charge changed, old pyramids were no longer guarded or respected, so not only did you have grave robbers going for the treasure, you also had ever Tom, Dick & Mohammed who had a local building project and who need stone or granite facades going there and dismantling the pyramid – I suppose we can trace the roots of recycling and “building Green” back to the Egyptians too, eh?

Young carpet weavers hard at work employing their skills

Time for lunch so we visited a local eatery and ate an unidentifiable meal, but heck , it was good!  Then we drove over to a carpet factory and watched them hand weave carpets.  What an intricate process, and I’m not saying anything, but I don’t believe they have very strong child labor laws here either!!  Just saying!

Next on the list was the Papyrus Institute, where we were given a hands-on demonstration in the making of original papyrus-based paper.  The papyrus plant, native to the shores of the upper Nile, played a large roll in the early documentation of history and the creation of easily transported documents. Paper was a huge step in the advancement of civilization as we know it today.  I know it’s hard for some of our younger readers to remember, but there was in fact a time before email and texting!!  OK, OK, grandpa’s going back to his rocker now!

The Sphinx..no other words needed!

We wrapped up a whirlwind day with a visit to perhaps the most well known and highly photographed symbol of ancient Egypt, the Sphinx! Considered by many to be the greatest monumental sculpture in the ancient world, the Sphinx is carved out of a single ridge of stone 240 ft. long and 66 ft. high. The head, which has a markedly different texture from the body, and shows far less severe erosion, is a naturally occurring outcrop of harder stone. To form the lower body of the Sphinx, enormous blocks of stone were quarried from the base rock. The origin and period of construction of the Sphinx is highly argued among Egyptologists and historians; some maintain that the Sphinx was constructed in the 4th Dynasty by the Pharaoh Chephren, but most think that the evidence points to a far greater age.  With absolutely no inscriptions on the Sphinx, or on any of the temples connected to it that, there is little scientific evidence to tie it into any specific period.

Some even argue that the erosion on the body of the statue actually is from water, not wind, and that could take the age back perhaps to 10,000 BC, based on astrological studies, and other theories.  No matter how you look at it, the Sphinx is truly amazing and a true wonder of the world!  Time to head back to the hotel and catch up on some much needed rest!  Whew!

Mosque of Mohammed Ali aka Alabaster Mosque

Tuesday started off bright and early with a 7:30 pickup my Manal to pick up where we left off yesterday. The Department of Tourism must have been a little slow, so we picked up an additional escort to help ensure that our experience in Egypt was without incident.  Our first stop is the very famous Mosque of Mohammed Ali (the ancient Egyptian, not the boxer!).  Also known as the Alabaster Mosque from the material used in it’s construction, it towers over the city of Cairo on a commanding bluff.  Constructed between 1830 and 1848 by Muhammad Ali Pasha in memory of his oldest son Pasha, who died in 1816.  Situated on the summit of the citadel, this Ottoman mosque, the largest to be built in the first half of the 19th century, is, with its animated silhouette and twin minarets, the most visible mosque in Cairo.

Like so many other key historical projects in this land, prior to the completion of the mosque, the alabastered panels from the upper walls were taken away and used for the palaces of Abbas I. The stripped walls were clad with wood painted to look like marble. In 1899 the mosque showed signs of cracking and some inadequate repairs were undertaken. But the condition of the mosque became so dangerous that a complete scheme of restoration was ordered by King Fuad in 1931 and was finally completed under King Farouk in 1939.

One of the highlights of the mosque is a brass clock tower in the middle of the northwestern riwak, which was presented to Muhammad Ali by King Louis Philippe of France in 1845. The clock was reciprocated with the obelisk of Luxor now standing in Place de la Concorde in Paris.  Good deal for the French, the obelisk is perfectly functional, yet the clock never worked!

One of the impromptu highlights of the trip so far was our group gathering in a circle on the floor of the mosque and engaging in about a two hour discussion of religions, history, world affairs, and how they are all tied together.  Our guide Manal was a wealth of knowledge to share with regards to thousands of years of religious history in the middle east, through conversions, invasions, suppression, politics and other affairs that impacted the who/what/why of religious practices and choices (or non-choices) for those involved.  Thank you Manal!

Nassar’s Little House of Horrors, the political prison, built on the grounds of the former citadel under the Alabaster Mosque

As we strolled around the mosque grounds, which were built on an original citadel, built to defend the city two hundred years ago, we took in some other historical sites too.  During the period that Nageb Nassar ruled Egypt, a huge network of political prisons were built to control the population and limit free thinking, and one of the largest complexes were built right under the shadow of the Alabaster Mosque.  The prisoners were liberated and the facility demolished by Anwar Sadat when he came to power in 1972, but the ruins remain as silent testimony to the terror that the people must have lived under during that time.

Our next stop stop was one of the most famous in Cairo, the National Museum of Antiquities.  On our way, we passed through the world’s largest Muslim cemetery, over 8 square kilometers covering both sides of the highway for several miles.  A pretty amazing site, and Manal pointed out the variations in the tombs, the mausoleums, and the houses that were scattered all through this very holy site.  Lots of history and even more to be learned here, that’s for sure!

Finally we arrived at the Museum, and no matter how many times you visit this place, you only leave thirsting for more.  It is the holy grail of ancient preserved history, and you could spend a couple of weeks here just taking it all in.  Sadly, we only have a couple of hours, so we’re doing the “Cliff Notes” version of 10,000 years of history!

Museum of Antiquities in Cairo

The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities contains many important pieces of ancient Egyptian history. It houses the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, and many treasures of King Tutankhamen. The Egyptian government established the museum in 1835, and moved half a dozen times over the years before ending up in 1902 at it’s current location adjacent to Tahrir Square, the site of the major protests that led up to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.  The respect of the people is so great for their history, that a human chain was formed around the museum during the conflict, and no damage was suffered at all, minus a little looting of the gift shop and the destruction of two mummies as the robbers searched for treasure on the bodies.

Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo

After our visit to the Museum it was time to move on, and grab a bit of a late lunch before heading back in the direction of the hotel.  Manal had a special treat for us today, a visit to the El-Fishawy coffee house in the middle of Khan el-Khalili bazaar, once the center of all trading in Old Cairo.  Built in the 1300’s, the bazaar has been operating continuously since.  She ordered us a tray of drinks and then disappeared around the corner to negotiate some little delights for us, Foul and Felafel, served in a little bag.  The Foul (yes, auspicious name I know) kinda looked like re-refried beans in a pita bread shell, with some other stuff in there.  They were OK. Our favorites though were the Felafels, which were some sort of meat-bearing mix with some greenery rolled up, breaded and fried.  These were good, so good in fact we ordered a second round!

Located in the the heart of the center, al-Fishawi (El Fishawy) is Egypt’s most famous, and most exciting coffee shop. Al-Fishawi has been open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for hundreds of years, and used to be a favorite haunt of artists and writers such as Nobel prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz.  How’s that for a little Egyptian trivia?

The so-called “cafe of mirrors” extends along the side of one of Khan al-Khalili’s narrow alleyways, and has a gorgeous, carved wood (mashrabia) interior. These days, the sheer volume of people visiting al-Fishawi means rickety wooden tables and chairs spill out in to the alley itself, with the effervescent waiters fighting a constant battle to squeeze the extra bodies in somewhere – we witnessed this the entire time we were there! The atmosphere is chaotic, with a heady mix of tourists, locals, shop-keepers and trinket-sellers variously drinking, shouting, and pushing their way through the throng.  Sometimes the vendors get a tad aggressive, and the word “No!” does not seem to exist in their dictionary –  think Tijuana or Jamaica, but with a gallebaya.

Finally, one last long trek through rush hour traffic and absolutely insane drivers to our hotel, to pack and await our 4:30 a.m. wake-up call for our flight to Luxor.

Part III – Luxor on the Nile  The alarm rang waaaay too early but it was time to get our move on and head to the airport.  We packed, grabbed an early breakfast, and piled into the van for a ride across town to the Cairo airport.  Along the way we passed queues of vehicles lined up for fuel; it seems that one thing that has not been restored since the revolution has been the timely delivery of fuel to the gas stations.  Sorta reminded me of the U.S. in the 70’s!  Never the less, our tank was full, so not to worry – today!   Once we arrived at the airport, we unloaded, bid goodbye to our driver, and passed through security with nary a glitch.  No need to remove anything like electronics from our bags, just pile them on the belt, no need to space them out, bags on top of bags….it would be impossible to actually “see” what was in the bags through the monitor, if anyone was really looking.  It certainly makes you wonder if this is a charade, because not a single bag didn’t make it through and there was no secondary inspection at all. I’m not even sure the metal detector was turned on as I walked through it with a few things in my pocket that should have caused at least a little sound.  Aaah, the beauty of domestic travel in a foreign country!

We arrive at the ticket counter, and here is where the inefficiency kicks it into high gear.  The ratio of Egypt Air employees to passengers in line is like 3-to-1, and it takes an amazing amount of time to get checked in and our boarding passes printed.  I cannot for the life of me figure out what could be so complicated, but it just was.  Good thing we were plenty early for our flight; traveling on “Valaika time” woul d have been a disaster here!  We finally are ready to receive our boarding passes, but wait, we have an extra bag each, according to the ticket counter (but not according to the airline website).  Who’s to argue though, so I get the cost, and everyone says just put it on your card and we’ll give you cash.  OK, no sweat….I whip out my MasterCard, but guess what? No money is taken at the ticket counter; I need to go to the cashier located practically in the next terminal to give them my money and get my receipt stamped.  Off I go, leaving my bags guarded by the others, and find the cashier station, three guys behind a desk with a couple of hand-held credit card swipers.  Process completed, receipt punched and stamped a few times, I head back to the original counter, work my way through the throng, and my agent then starts to finish the processing of our boarding passes.  But wait, I only have one receipt, and we have multiple passengers!  Aaaaarggh!   He finally figures it out, and we get our passes.  Whew!!

So in the end, the combination of confusion between the “two free checked bags” and “only one carry-on” worked in our favor as we had our camera and electronics gear in a couple of backpacks and duffle bags with us, and no desire to check any of this sensitive stuff!  So paying the extra bag fee was probably a wise investment.  Finally, boarding passes in hand, we head towards our gate, and hunker down for a cold soda and free WiFi at the Coffeeshop Café before boarding our plane.  Of course, we have to pass through another security screening station at the gate, but we got the same passing grade as the first one, so we were good to go.

It’s a relatively short flight and we’re greeted by our new guide and driver at the Luxor Airport.  Emile will be our guide, and he’s got a great command of local and national history to share. I notice the cross tattooed on the inside his wrist, and ask if he is Coptic, and of course the answer is yes.  Coptic mothers tattoo their young children as a sign that they are “Coptic for life”, a tradition dating back hundreds of years.  During our next two days together, he provides a very good insight into the two primary religions in the area, the history and relationship between them, and how they affect life in this country even to this day.

We get checked into our hotel, the Sheraton Luxor Resort, and thanks to my Lifetime Gold status with them, our rooms are upgraded to riverside balcony suites!  Nice!!  We decide to take a couple hour break before beginning our tour, grab some lunch, and retire to our rooms to refresh.

The massive entrance walls to Karnak Temple

Our first stop is the massive Temple of Karnak, comprised of a vast mix of decayed temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings. Building at the complex began approx 2,000 BC and continued until the time of the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC.  It served as the main place of worship and a community center during those two millenia.  During that period approx. thirty different Pharaohs contributed to the construction, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere.  Each one added another wing, or column, or fountain, and of course statues, usually bigger and more intricate than what had been done before…yes, a little competitive nature existed even back then!

Today, the complex is a vast open-air museum and the largest ancient religious site in the world. It is believed to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt, second only to the Giza Pyramids near Cairo. It consists of four main parts of which only the largest is currently open to the general public.  The three other parts, the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Montu, and the dismantled Temple of Amenhotep IV, are off limits. There also are a few smaller temples and sanctuaries located outside the walls, as well as several avenues of goddesses and ram-headed sphinxes connecting the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Amun-Re, and the Luxor Temple.

Just one of the 100+ columns in the Temple of Karnak – look at the man in front of the column for reference!

One famous aspect of Karnak, is the Hypostyle Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re, a hall area of 50,000 sq ft with 134 massive columns arranged in rows. Some of the columns are 65 ft tall, with diameters or 10 ft. The caps on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. Many theories abound concerning the means of construction, but no matter how, they got it done and it just blows you away to be standing in the middle of it!

Luxor Temple

Well enough of huge, historical sites….almost!  The sun is getting low in the sky, and it’s time to head down the road a bit to Luxor Temple, just about 3 kilometers down Sphinx Avenue.  This site was constructed approx 1,400 BC as part of the overall Karnak / Luxor temple complex in what was then known as the capital of the civilized world.

The actual purpose of the temple is unclear, however it it has been determined that the Luxor temple held a great significance in the annual Opet Festival a celebration of life and fertility in the Nile Valley.  However, as the ancient religions came to pass, the temple fell into disarray.  From medieval times the Moslem population of Luxor had settled in and around the temple, and as the cities population grew, they began building on top of and around the Luxor temple, piling centuries of rubble into what had been this most historic and beautifl place.  In fact, it is estimated that the rubble had accumulated to the point where there was an artificial hill some forty-eight or fifty feet in height.  In the late 1880’s historians began the process of excavating the temple and starting the restoration process. Today, it is one of the most beautiful historic sites in all of Egypt, and certainly one not to be missed!

With the ‘East Bank’ behind us, it was time the following morning to cross the Nile to the ‘West Bank’.  The significance, in ancient times, of the two sides of the river was that the sun rose in the east, bringing “life”, and then it set in the west, bringing “death” to each day.  So the east side of the river was full of life, the community was built there, the temples and government centers, all that was Luxor in its heyday.  At the same time, the opposite bank became an area for burials, in keeping with the ‘death’ theme, and was covered with tombs and burial grounds of every order of magnitude, from massive memorial structures, deep, hidden underground tombs for leaders and the nobles, and simple ‘potters field’ sites for the common folk and worker-bees.

Valley of the Kings was the first stop for today, and headed on in to explore.  Unfortunately, this is a “no cameras” zone, so we’ve got nothing visual to share.  This is a natural valley between some large sandstone hills that served as a central pathway for the excavation and construction of massive tomb networks for a number of pharaohs and some of their family members.  Some of the tombs are absolutely massive, extending hundreds of feet below the ground and with dozens of huge, ornately decorated chambers and rooms, while others are a tad more modest, maybe only 100 feet in, and just a couple of chambers, in addition to the burial chamber itself.  The tombs were built over many years while the intended permanent resident was still alive, and were never completely finished while that person was alive; that would bring bad mojo into the otherwise gifted lives they led.  However, as soon as the last breath had passed their lips, a seventy-day clock started for the simultaneous embalming/mummification of the corpse, as well as the completion of the tomb.  It was also very interesting to note how the complexity and grandeur of the tombs declined in line with the economic position and power of Egypt over time.  Rameses II was by far the largest as was the tomb for his 70-some sons, while by the time they got to the era of Rameses V and VI, those two ended up sharing a tomb for eternity.  Of course, the tombs fell victims to grave robbers over the years, and often the robbers, pressed for time during the crime, simply hauled the mummy off site to strip them of any treasures buried inside the body, then dumped the corpse along the road side.  Sounds like parts of Mexico today, eh?

Deir El-Bahri Temple

Cameras back in hand, it’s time to head down the road a piece to one of the most beautifully restored memorial sites in Egypt, the ‘Holu of Holies, more commonly known as the Deir El-Bahri Temple.  This mortuary temple was constructed over a period of fifteen years during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, the only female Pharaoh in the history of Egypt.  She is actually the only female ruler buried in the Valley of the Kings, a testament oh her behalf that she was as powerful and important as the male rulers before her.  In fact, she actually kind of stole the crown when her older brother died, and before her much-younger brother Tuthmose III could ascend to the monarchy.  Now I’m no expert, but according to my observations, this evidently didn’t go over well with him, and in today’s perspective, he could probably have benefited by some anger management counseling.  Hatshepsut’s cause of death is unknown (hmmmmm…) but you can guess who ascended to the throne with her out of the way.  It’s interesting, and perhaps I’m reading too much into this sibling rivalry, but after Tuthmose III became the Supreme Ruler, he made a point of having every painted or  carved image of his sister that he could find chiseled away from every temple wall, monument, and any other place her image has been pasted during her twenties years of leadership.  Not too suspicious, I know, but I’m just wondering if there might have been a connection between his “issues” and her passing!

Queen Hatshepsut’s image in Karnak Temple defiled by her jealous brother, Tuthmose III – yep, I can’t see her either!

It’s almost time for a lunch break before we get on the road to El Qusier, but we can’t ignore another of Luxor’s fabulous and historic sites, the ruins of the Temple of Memnon.  This was built by the Greeks and named in honor of Memnon, at the time the King of Ethiopia, and a hero in the Trojan War.

The Colossi of Memnon are two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III that stood guard at the entrance of the temple, which at the time was the most massive and opulent in the world, dwarfing even the Temple of Karnak.  They have stood for nearly 3,400 years (since 1350 BC) and remained essentially untouched until the temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 27 BC.  An interesting note is that one of the cracks that came as a result of the earthquake is such that on certain days, usually at dawn, the breeze coming in from the Nile causes the statue to “sing”, just adding even more legend and mystery to the site.

One of the twin statues of the Colossi of Memnon….Joe looks a little shorter than usual in this shot!

For those readers with a special place in our hearts for sliderules and the such, here’s some Engineering Factoids: the statues are made from blocks of sandstone, quarried from a site near Cairo, and transported 420 miles to the site of the Temple.  They are 60 ft tall, and weigh in at 720 tons each.  Yes, 720 TONS!  It leaves me in a state of awe just pondering how they managed to excavate, load, transport, carve and then erect these statues in place, all without the benefit of modern technology and equipment.  My hat is off in respect to the engineers behind so many of the monuments and temples that were designed and constructed in this land over the the thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history.

Another fine example of the local cuisine that we have enjoyed at every meal!

Finally it’s time to say goodbye to the city of Luxor and it’s beauty, and get on the road.  We’ve got a 4 1/2 hour ride to El Qusier to being the next phase of our adventure, and see Egypt from a whole different perspective – underwater!  But first, we need to eat, so what better than a local establishment like the Oasis Palace in downtown Luxor.  Built in a converted luxury apartment building from the 1800’s, it in itself just requires you to stroll through and take in the beauty and dated charm of what must have been one of the fanciest apartment buildings in town at the time.  We enjoyed some more of the local culinary delights, and Joe was proud to model with his meal before we dug in and enjoyed!

Scenes from a local Bedouin village along the way

The ride across the desert was uneventful, and we enjoyed several more hours of interactive Eypytian Q&A with our guide Emile.  This is a vast land, with sweeping expanses of desert and rocky mountains as far as the eye can see.  We passed a number of Bedouin villages, repleat with camels and pickup trucks, situated in the harsh landscape. It is amazing how these hardworking people have managed to learn to exist and endure in the conditions, yet they continue to thrive there today.

Roots Luxury Camp – El Qusier, Egypt

Part IV – The Red Sea Finally, we arrive at our destination – Roots Luxury Camp on the shores of the Red Sea in El Qusier!  Our hosts Clare & Steve Rattle meet us and give us the complete tour of the upscale camp and resort. It is a very unique operation with 36 rooms that vary from traditional thatch-roofed open air bungalows to air-conditioned suites with in-suite bath and more.  There’s a lovely restaurant / dining hall for meals, exquisitely prepared by Roots’ head chef Bibo and his staff, along with a bar, patio area, and sheesa court for our enjoyment.   Two hundred meters away, situated right on the sandy shores of the Red Sea, is Roots Beach, with another bar and dining facility, tables & umbrellas on the beach, a bathhouse, and a full range of watersports activities for our pleasure.

Also on site is Pharaoh Dive Club – El Qusier, one of the top dive centers in Egypt.  Founded in 2005, Pharaoh has grown to be the destination of choice for discriminating divers who demand the best conditions, highest level of services, most attentive staff, and first class training while enjoying the world class diving the Red Sea offers.  Primarily drawing on the Western European markets (France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, and the Scandinavian countries), they are also seeing a growing population of US visitors who come to take advantage of the fantastic conditions and great values the Red Sea center offers.

The sand volleyball court at Roots Camp – perfect!

We’re joined this week by a group of 16 from Diving 2000, a dive center in Denmark, along with some additional travelers from the UK.  The camaraderie and social energy at the camp is immediately apparent, with lots of smiles, friendliness and conversation all around.  This is going to be a great week here, we can tell already! The camp hosts a great sand volleyball court at its center, and there’s plenty of action going on there to join in on!

Our mission here is two-fold: to dive and take in the splendor and wonder of the Red Sea, and to work with some local environmental organizations to develop programs for our returning divers to participate in when this visit on upcoming Red Sea adventures we have planned for 2013 & beyond.  Once we’re settled in, and set up our gear at the dive center, it’s time for a couple of check out dives to make sure everything is good to go for the week.

Diving the caverns at Pirates Boneyard, El Qusier

We jump in the van and head down to El Qusier harbor, where we’ll use Pharaoh’s 80 ft “mother ship” as our staging area, then, since the dives are so local, we’ll actually conduct them from their 20 ft high-speed inflatable, returning to the big boat for in-between dive snacks and surface interval times.  Our first dive is to a site called Pirates Boneyard, and if you could ever imagine a dive center based on the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, this would be it!  With massive canyons and caverns to explore, this site, located just outside the harbor entrance, has managed to collect more than its fair share of drifting nets, ropes and lines, and other various other bits of marine debris, so the effect as we swam through the canyons was utterly breathtaking, with the decorations hanging from above as we passed along.  The corals and sea life evidently haven’t suffered either, and we enjoyed the colorful display of a huge variety of hard corals, many indigenous to the Red Sea, as we spent an hour in this nautical wonderland.  What a great way to start it off!  After a short interval, we’re back in the water for dive #2, enjoying the tremendous array of reef critters large and small, and all colorful, that flourish here.

A friendly octopus out checking me out during a night excursion – it stayed and played peek-a-boo for quite a while before calmly swimming away

And if that wasn’t enough to kickstart our Red Sea diving adventure, we participated in a night dive off the beach right here at the camp, spending a hour and a half exploring all the wonderfully cool critters that live in the nocturnal world.  Huge, and I mean huge, Flamingo Dancer nudibranchs, crabs, snails, urchins, octopus’s, turtles and more made for a very colorful and interesting dive!

Big snail, one of many, out enjoying the night dive with us. Beautiful shell and mantle, another masterpiece of nature

Enjoying a post-night dive barbecue on the beach with our Danish friends at Roots Luxury Camp

And while we were enjoying ourselves underwater, Bibo and his team were busy topsides, setting up and cooking for a delicious beach BBQ for our group, served under the stars at Roots Beach.  Several meat choices, plenty of veggies, desserts, and refreshments, along with a lot of great conversation and laughter, really brought this first full day at camp to a wonderful conclusion.

Day two, and it’s time to begin getting involved with the what we hope to accomplish on research dives on the reefs, as well as looking at the logistics of setting up some clean up dives on the reefs. While not planned for this visit, we’ll also look at including a beach clean activity on our upcoming trips.
We started with a briefing with representative of QDSM – Qusier Dive Site Management, a local grassroots environmental organization dedicated to the preservation of the beauty and health of the Red Sea reef system along the coast of Southern Egypt.  They explained their programs and core objectives for upcoming week, which include:

Marine Life Surveys
[1] Monitoring marine life on specific reef areas, recording and documenting sightings to measure the abundance and variety of fish and invertebrate populations throughout the year in specific reef locations. The long term goal is to be able to distinguish ecological cycles on these reefs, enabling future identification of specific threats to the ecological balance.

[2] Setting up for the dives preparing equipment and determine areas of research. This will be slates, tape measures, cameras, grids etc.

[3] Complete research dives taking measurements and photographs of the area aimed at the specific tasks.

[4] Analyse the research and record findings.

Reef Clean Dives
[1] Our objective in this phase is to reduce the negative impact of human activity in the seas. Primarily the removal of fishing lines and general garbage from the reef and sea. The briefing included potential hazards from marine life such as fire corals and dangerous marine fish. On certain sites this could include the installation of marker buoys or light weight permanent dive boat moorings.

[2] Set up for the dives preparing equipment and determine areas of cleaning. This will be cutting tools, gloves, collection vessels and land logistics for removal of debris.

[3] Complete Reef Clean Up Dives.

[4] Evaluate the debris collected record findings.

Dive Site Management
[1] This is a combination shore-based & underwater activity, with the key objective being to reduce the negative impact of human activity in the local environment. QDSM has selected a dive site and is seeking ‘sponsors’ the oversee the continued management of what we can acomplish in the initial phase of the program.  The principle actions will be provision and installation of:

  • Road side dive site markers
  • Easy vehicle access to a parking area
  • Permanent sun shelters
  • Waste collection bins with daily evening removal service
  • Dive site map board
  • Dive safety information board
  • Scheduled beach and reef clean ups

[2] We’ll visit several of the selected sites to survey what is required to achieve the objectives, including diving the site to research for producing a detailed map of the site.

[3] Upon our return to base, an action plan will be prepared, which includes recruiting help from the community for the clean up of the beach. In accordance with local regulations, permission is also required from the Coast Guard for erection of any signs or shelters in the beach area.

Our team setting up on the beach at El Makluf dive site

Morning came, and it was time to head out and begin diving in earnest!  Today we planned some shore dives planned, three in all, at Roots Beach, El Makluf, and Abu Hamra sites.  Our dive leader was Moudi, a PADI Staff Instructor for Pharaoh Dive Club, and a registered Egyptian Professional Diver.  The second is the key to shore diving here in the Red Sea, because unlike places like Bonaire, the Coast Guard requires that shore divers are accompanied by a registered guide, and Moudi is a fantastic one at that.  His briefings are first class, preparing us for the dive at hand, and he is extremely adept at locating and pointing out many of the better-camouflaged creatures that inhabit the sea here.  He’s truly an asset on our dives, are we are thankful that Clare & Steve have chosen their staff so carefully.  Our crew brings the gear out to each site for us, and after the diving is complete, they wash, dry and pack the gear for our next excursion.  Truly the definition of Platinum Service!

Shore entry through the reef – El Makluf

Some of the dive site entries are pretty unique here, with an access hole coming in via a cavern from the reef wall face, and then up through the top of the reef.  We walk on out across the reef, and then climb down into the hole, following the pathway out to the open sea. Pretty cool, and pretty different too!  There is marine life aplenty on top of the reef and inside all the cracks and crevices too, so something for your eyes to feast on no matter which direction you turn!  One of the interesting things here is that the brittle stars are all out on top in the reef in direct sunlight, whereas back in the Florida Keys or the Caribbean they hide under rocks all day, only coming out at night.  In fact, if you shine a light on one there, they quickly disappear into the darkness of a hole, but that’s not the case here for sure!  Interesting!

Brittle Star working on it’s tan on top of the reef

A colorful Giant Clam on top of the reef

On all three dives we managed to complete surveys by species and quantity of the reef fish population, and this information was turned into QDSM for incorporation into their marine survey database.  Coupled with the date, time, and conditions under which the counts are taken, these tools prove valuable in establishing a baseline, from which a more thorough understanding of the normal fish population counts and trends though day, the seasons, and even with events such a varying water temperatures can be achieved.  The work being done here closely parallels that which R.E.E.F. (the Reef Environmental Education Foundation), located in Key Largo, Florida, is so actively involved with worldwide.   Indian Valley Scuba has been a REEF Field Station for nearly ten years now, so conducting these sort of fish count surveys is something we’ve grown quite familiar with over the years.  Even so, it’s pretty thrilling when your counts includes all sorts of new species that you have never seen before!

Back at the ranch, it was time for another great dinner, and some after-dinner conversation and laughter before calling it an early night and getting rested up for tomorrows activities!

Surrounded by dolphins…oh my!!

Another bright and beautiful morning beckoned us as we looked out our windows on the flat, calm blue waters of the Red Sea.  Today, we’re heading back to El Qusier harbor, and onto the boat, for a couple of dives in the cavern system that runs all through that area.  Gear on board the mother ship, we kitted up and climbed into the zodiac for a ten minute run to the dive site.  About seven minutes into it though, we were rudely interrupted by an enormous splash directly in front of the boat, causing our driver to promptly back off the throttle.  Splash!  There it goes again!  Dolphins! Three of them, just begging us to stop and play with them!  OK…..hold on that dive site we were headed towards, we need to tend to this matter…now!  Masks on, regulators in mouths, and over the sides we rolled, and sure enough there were our friends waiting for us.  We spent about fifteen minutes hanging with them as they cavorted through and around us, just teasing us with their closeness.  It was early in the day, and they were full of energy, that was obvious!  It looked like it was as much fun for them as it was for us, too.  Finally, they had enough, and as if on cue, they sped off into the blue.  We climbed back on board, got re-organized, and finished the balance of our trip to our dive site, known as Pharaoh’s Tomb.

Our host Steve Rattle getting up close and personal with some friendly dolphins

A great dive, and we headed back to the big boat for a short break and to get ready for our next dive, Fanadir Reef.  We climbed back on board the zodiac, enjoyed the short ride to the reef, and dropped in.  Once we gathered on the bottom, we started down the reef, and no more than five minutes into our exploration, suddenly ‘Swoosh!’ ..we were being buzzed by our three friends from earlier.  Well so much for this reef, our focus now turned on our visitors, or were we visitors to their world?  Matters not, because we were all enjoying each other now.  For over an hour they cavorted with us, mimicking us when we laid on the bottle, or spun upside down, and the circled us with tails kicking up rings of mud around our group, kinda like a game of cowboys & indians.  Cooler than words can convey, just feeling so blessed to be able to share this hour with some of God’s most majestic creatures.  Absolutely awesome!

 

Stay Posted….Plenty more coming!!!

Manatee Madness – Crystal River, here we come!

And so it begins, the 2012 Indian Valley Scuba season of diving!!  We’re starting the year off in traditional fashion with a trip to wrestle, er, observe the manatees who are enjoying the warm waters of central Florida, along with visiting some of the rivers and springs there also.  These lovable critters congregate each winter in the warm-ish waters of the natural springs located in this area while waiting for the ocean to warm back up.  Come spring they head off to cruise the seas, returning once again late in the year, when the temperatures start to fall, to their winter homes in Florida.  Kinda like a lot of our more senior friends and neighbors, eh?

Our kick-off trip roster includes Tom Brennan, Mairead and JJ Twohig, John Jones, and the Beaver brothers, Keith and Craig.  Yours truly had the honor of leading this crew on a fun, laid back adventure offering a great variety of diving not typically seen on most IVS trips.  Our base of operations will be the Best Western Hotel and Resort in Crystal River, FL, conveniently located in the middle of all the cool diving we plan to enjoy!  Sitting right on the banks of the Crystal River, we are literally on top of some of the greatest concentrations of manatees to be found in the Sunshine State.

Now some factoids on the focal animal of our trip, the manatee:  Manatees (family Trichechidae, genus Trichechus) are large, fully aquatic, mostly herbivorous marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows. There are three accepted living species of Trichechidae, representing three of the four living species in the order Sirenia: the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), and the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis). They measure up to 13 feet long, weigh as much as 1,300 pounds,and have paddle-like flippers, complete with toe nails like th. The name manatí comes from the Taíno, a pre-Columbian people of the Caribbean, meaning “breast”.  Yes, your guess is as good as mine on that name origin, but who are we to argue with the facts?

But first, we need to get there, and this is usually where all the fun begins!  Mairead and her dad, enjoying a bit of spring break from her studies at Slippery Rock University, enjoyed a leisurely drive down, visiting all sorts of neat places along the way.  The Beavers also drove, as this is the starting point of their adventure, heading from here to Key West, then on to visit Amoray Dive Center in Key Largo, before heading back to reality and the colder temps of the north.  John flew into Tampa, and my plans were to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight out of Philadelphia and have now-Florida resident Tom Brennan pick me up at Orlando airport and head west to meet the others.  Seems everyone was on time with their travel plans, well, almost everyone, as I called Tom in the morning and said he could wait a little to pick me up, instead of 1:30 it’s gonna be 3:00 now.  “No problem”, he says, “I have plenty of work to do here at home today”.  Bad idea to share that info Tom!  So, as one might imagine, the next call from me to Tom is “Make it 4:30”, followed by the “Make it 6:15 – that’s my final answer and I’m sticking to it!” call.  So, finally, Tom gets a chance to get caught up on work, and I finally arrive in the Land of Mickey to begin our fun.

Arrival in uneventful, and cannot even comment on the state of security along my journey (cause I think they are watching me!).  But I arrive unscathed, un-probed, and not too manhandled, to find Tom awaiting me outside baggage claim.  Great start to this trip; let’s hope it keeps on coming!

The hotel is pretty darn nice, and the location is superb.  Check-in is good, everyone’s happy with their rooms, and the first night is a winner!  We agree to gather at breakfast at eight to head over to Adventure Dive Center for our first day of fun – a manatee swim in Three Sisters Spring, a dive in Kings Spring, and then an afternoon of drift diving down the scenic Rainbow River.  We checked into the dive center, completed all our necessary paperwork, and watched the mandatory Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission video on manatee interaction.  From there we walked across the street (almost as convenient as diving at Amoray!) to the boat and loaded our gear for the morning.

Now yes, we are in Florida, but you sure would not know it from the chilly 50 degree air this morning, accompanied by a pretty nice breeze.  Brrrrr!  Well it’s a short ride across the bay to Three Sisters, and there are a few boats there already this morning.  We slip into the 72 degree water silently, armed only with snorkels, as the state has recently decided scuba diving is a no-no around manatees.  The good news is that the spring is literally overflowing with manatees, of all sizes and flavors, lots of moms & babies, sleeping, cruising around, checking us out, doing all the fun things that manatees enjoy doing.  The spring’s average depth is about four feet, with a few holes that drop down to nearly 20 ft.  The water is amazingly clear, and the manatees are amazingly active this morning, swimming around, checking us out, rolling over for us to tickle their bellies, and clearly not intimidated by our presence.  One big one takes a strange sort of liking to me, and comes in for one tickling session after another.  At one point she (he?) swims up, wraps a flipper around my arm, pulls me close, and puts its big lovable head in the crook of my arm, just sitting there like a puppy, as I gently scratch its head…kinda like something out of a Jurassic Park love scene.  Yes, strange animal interaction, but it was good for me, and left me thinking afterwards ….why do I suddenly have this urge for a cigarette?

OK, ok…enough of those thoughts!!   Finally, after about an hour and a half with the animals, we swim back out to boat where Captain Ned awaits, and we climb back aboard.  The breeze has picked up and my oh my, it is nippy now!  Sitting there shivering in our wetsuits, we make a unanimous decision to pass on the scuba dive in Kings Spring, and head back to the dock to warm up.  Yes, I passed on a dive…..but trust me…when the total temperature of the air and water combined is less than 120 degrees, you can do the math…..we were cold!!

Back on shore, we got out of our wet things and enjoyed a nice lunch at ‘Taste of Philly’, the most authentic cheesesteak source in the south.  Owned by a couple of ex-Philadelphians, the place is properly decorated with all the correct sports team logos (Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, 76’ers) and the accent by the staff is genuine south Philly.  Good food, good people, and we’re properly warmed up for the afternoons activities as we pile back into the cars and drive north to Rainbow River.  There, we meet Dave Middlestadt, the other owner of Adventure Dive Center, and we launch the boat for a drift dive down this scenic river.

The Rainbow River is the flowpath for the waters eminating from Rainbow Springs, to the tune of approx 500 million gallons per day.  Yikes, that’s a lot of water!  As a result the river is consistently clear and 74 degrees year round.  We meet at K P Hole State Park, and get a chance to chat with the rangers as we get ready.  Dave launches the boat, we pile aboard, and motor up to the limit of the river, right where the springs begin.  Final gear checks complete, we slip in to enjoy a 90 minute drift dive back towards the launch area.  There’s quite a bit of life in this river, alligator gar, turtles, various species of fish, and plenty of undulating eel grass to cruise by, or in some cases, through!  Today is a chance for John to observe marker buoy handing procedures on a drift dive as he prepares to try his hand at this skill as part of completing his PADI Drift Diver specialty certification.  We enjoy a great dive, and finally it’s time to pull the boat and head home.  Rumor has it that the Beavers have discovered a local Irish pub that we must visit, so we pack the cars and head back to town.

Now I’m thinking that I have been at this place in the past, but once we realize where we’re heading you can throw that memory out the window.  Sure enough, it is a real Irish pub, chock full of real Irish brews, and all the color and pageantry you’d expect in a real Irish pub … located in Crystal River, FL!  But the staff are great, and even I find something I can drink there.  We enjoy sampling a few of the local flavors, and then walk down the street to the Fat Cat restaurant.  This place could have been called the Twilight Zone, in honor of our waitress Savannah, who clearly was overwhelmed with having to serve a table of seven..all by herself!  At first humorous, then not so funny, to finally annoying with nothing coming out in the order it was intended, we managed to have a good time in spite of it all.  With all of today’s activities we call it an early night and head back to our bunks to retire.

Saturday dawns bright and not quite as cool as yesterday, so that is a plus.  Today are plans are to head up to Silver Springs to drift dive down the Silver River, a protected scenic waterway that is untouched by development along it’s entire length.  Typical of a true wilderness area, it has all the stuff you might expect to see in the wild, including monkeys and alligators.  The good news for the divers is that the alligators don’t digest food well in the colder months, so we get to taunt them as we swim by, knowing they are just thinking “Come back in a few months, sucker!”  But first we need to meet the boat and the captain, both of which are supposed to be sitting here awaiting our arrival.  Hmmmm, I am thinking, wonder what’s up with that?  So I call the shop, and suddenly I hear the guitar rifts of Jimmy Page playing in the back of my head to the tune of Robert Plant singing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Communication Breakdown’ ….  it seems that somehow in yesterday afternoons planning session the deal was I was going to swing by the dive shop this morning for tanks and that would be the signal for the captain to drive the boat over to meet us in Silver Springs.  Yikes….talk about dropping the proverbial ball here!  The upside is that the park where we are is beautiful and it’s a ver nice day, so the rest of the gang gets to enjoy a little early morning leisure while Tom and I high-tail it back to the shop to load some tanks in his car!  

We return and find the crew and the boat all set and ready for us, so finally, we load and get this show on the road!   We head about 4 miles upstream, drop in, and enjoy another very nice drift dive.  John takes the lead with the marker buoy, and quickly comes to grips with the realization that you cannot swim under a downed tree while dragging a surface marker.  He’s a quick study on that concept, and leads us down the river, taking in some very pretty sights along the way.  Finally he and Tom are chilled, so he passes the buoy off to me, cause Mairead still has about 1,500 psi left in her tank and figures we still have some diving to do.  Another walking talking pony bottle in the IVS family; she’ll be a popular choice as a dive buddy on some of our Spiegel Grove adventures!  In fact, as we drift along, I am wondering how long can she possibly last, cause my breaths are becoming increasingly difficult to draw.  Not to worry, we’re in five to ten feet of water, so a rescue scenario is not likely.  Finally, I signal to her, with a slashing sign across my throat, that she has won the longetivity contest!  I check and she still has nearly 1,000 psi to my zero….thank goodness no one will know about this…whooops!  It’s in the blog!  Another great day followed by another great gathering for dinner as Dave & Carl from Adventure Diving join us at Cody’s Roadhouse for some great laughter and good grub too.

Sunday now and it’s time to visit some caverns, so we load up some tanks (not forgetting them a second time!) and drive up to Blue Grotto.  We check in and start to set up on the benches near the cavern entrance.  It’s pretty obvious who the locals are and who’s from the north, as we’re walking around in t-shirts and diving wet, while most of the folks are huddled around campfires, bundled up in boat coats, and diving in drysuits.  Some thin blood in these here parts, I am thinking.  We watch the obligatory video, sign the waivers, and I give everyone the nickel tour of the cavern entrance area.  Suits on, we walk on down to the waters edge and step into the refreshing 73 degree pool.  First matter at hand is a weight check on the platforms, and once everyone is looking pretty good on their buoyancy, we head down into the edge of the cavern area.  In spite of the big buildup in the video presentation, it is a very short dive.  We visit the suspended breathing bell on our way out, and finally surface again near the dock.  With plenty of air left in our tanks, we head back in for the longer tour. past “Peace Rock” and get to venture on the limits of the light zone.  Couple of nice, although short, dives, and we’re ready to head to our next destination, Devils Den.

Conveniently located nearly across the street, Devils Den is a completely different set up, with a friendly laid back staff, nice picnic area, and subterranean cavern entrance.  There is no accessible surface water here, as the diving is within a collapsed dome that lies about 40 feet below the ground.  There’s a hole in the ceiling to allow ambient light to enter, so it is not considered a cave environment.  We unload our gear from the cars and Mairead’s dad JJ rolls into action as our personal valet parker, moving the cars from the loading zone ot the parking area.  Nice!  

It’s about this moment when we feel that we’re not too far from our local quarry, Dutch Springs.  We observe a fellow half-wearing a drysuit having words with the manager, and then she walks over towards us.  You can see by the look in her eyes that there is a “situation” that needs to be addressed.  It seems that the table that we are sitting at, one of fourteen identical tables in the picnic grove, has been ‘reserved’ by a dive shop from North Carolina, and they are upset that we got there before them (yes, at the crack of noon) and started setting up on that particular table.  Truthfully, we are having a hard time containing our laughter over the incident, and we select another table, moving our gear all of about ten feet from the first table.  Friggin’ amazing, but that is part of what makes this sport so colorful….. people like this!

The dives (we do two) at Devils Den are pretty neat, and it is an experience you are not likely to get elsewhere.  We finally wrap it up, and head back, enjoying our final dinner at Crackers Restaurant next to the hotel, with the NFL playoff games on the big screens.  Another wonderful trip in the memory books, with great friends, good diving, and an excellent time for all!  We’ll be back for sure!

Key Largo – you’re calling our name – again!

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

 

What is the magic of the sea that continues to draw us back, time and time again, to immerse ourselves in it’s healing embrace?  Is there something mystical about it?  Is it a subliminal return to the place where some say we came from so many millions of years ago?  Or is it the pleasant, muted euphoria that comes with the mind settling state of narcosis that the deep provides us?

Well I don’t know about you, but I’m going with #3 on the list above!  Yeah baby – and it’s time to head down under the waves again!  But this time of the year we’ve got so many fun additions to our normal Key Largo trip, including lobster hunting, and underwater pumpkin carving, to just add to the already great time we enjoy in America’s Caribbean.

Team Indian Valley Scuba head south today for another five wonderful days of splishing and splashing in the azure waters of the third largest natural reef system in the world, along the Florida Keys.  Our destination is Amoray Dive Resort, one of the most pleasant and well run operation in the islands.

My day starts off with in quasi-typical fashion, nothing is packed and I still have to build some PVC pipe frames for our upcoming DEMA show booths.  But wait, what, me worry?  Naaah!  We get the frames knocked out, I pack, sweep all the papers off my desk into my backpack, and actually head to the airport with time to spare!  No adrenalin rush today, that is for sure!

More to follow…

IVS Heads South to the Land of Dixie

The Basic Facts…
It’s summer time and you know what that means…the Gulf Stream has shifted westward and is at its closest proximity to the continental US. In areas such as Beaufort, NC, where the coast juts out into the Atlantic, that means the warm clear waters traveling northward from the Gulf of Mexico are within 15 or so miles offshore and very reachable by boat.

IVS Trip to Cooper River July 4-6, 2011

The IVS Team with Some Serious Shark Teeth at Cooper River

So it is not coincidental that we have scheduled our first North Carolina dive adventure for this holiday weekend. We’ll spend three days diving the wrecks off the coast there, then we’ll depart on the evening of July 4th to enjoy a collection of fireworks displays as we travel down the highway. Some of us will head north and homeward, while the more adventurous (or crazy!) will head south to dive in the murky alligator-filled waters of the Cooper River, in search of fossilized Megaladon sharks teeth.

Traveling South…
But first we need to get to North Carolina, and of course that might make for an adventure in itself! Some of us, like Csaba Lorinczy, daughter Niki, and Craig Bentley, opt to head down an entire day early. They depart Thursday evening, stopping in the big honkin’ RV at a campground on the way down, and arrive in NC early Friday morning. Early enough, in fact, that they were able to get a 1-tank dive in on Friday afternoon with Olympus Dive Center, visiting the Indra. Conditions were acceptable, with 30 ft of viz and a slight current, a good way to get a 60 minute head start on the bottom time for the weekend.

Herb Dubois, with sons Sheldon and Ryan, head down early Friday morning, and Judy Mullen and Ashley Carpenter drive up from Savannah, GA in the morning also. Mike Barnhardt drove down from Maryland, and Shelly Liu and Stephen Francke came from New York to round out our crew of twelve for the weekend. Training-wise, the Dubois men, along with Ashley, will be completing their Advanced Open Water dives this weekend with us, so we are hoping for some stellar conditions and great weather!

Meanwhile I still have a few things on my desk screaming for attention before I can head off, so I need to spend a few hours in the shop Friday morning. No problem, I can get out around 11, that will get me there in the early evening. Well 11 rolls around and now noon is looking good, but we need to do some more service work and fill some oxygen tanks for a client, so now 2-ish sounds feasible. Nope, a few more things need attention, and I must get that darn newsletter out, so 2 comes and goes, as does, 3, 4 & 5. Finally, I am packing gear and loading the truck, and as the wheels start to roll southward, the little hand is on the 6! At least we are going! In nine-ish hours, I should be in sunny North Carolina!

Well as luck would have it, Michele didn’t have any plans for the weekend, so she offered to help with the drive down and maybe, just maybe, if the seas are really, really flat, she’ll come out and dive. Based on our experience in Riviera Beach earlier this year, we’ll see about the diving part, but I am thankful for the driving part indeed! Off we go, and we make it to the Harbor of Mercy, Havre de Gras, Maryland, where we stop for a dinner and some music along the waterfront there. McGregor’s Pub is always a great choice for some local seafood, and the soft shell crabs are in season. We’re not disappointed in the least! We get back on the road and I make it til almost midnight, until we need to stop for fuel and a change of pilots. I kick back for a few zzz’s while Michele drives, and I am really enjoying a nice nap when I am rudely awakened by those darn flashing blue lights. Seems someone wants get to know us a bit better here, and he’s walking up to the drives door right now.

Well for those of who remember last year’s drive to Florida and Mark Hughes run-in with Officer Napoleon Bonaparte Jr., I am thinking, as I look over at the drivers window and just see the top of blue hat and the end of the over over-compensating big flashlight, that this must surely be his little cousin! It usually sets a bad tone when the diminutive cop needs to look up at the lady in big truck and ask her to pass down the paperwork. “Well hello officer”, I say from the passenger seat, “what brings about this meeting tonight?” “I clocked your vehicle doing 75 in a 55 zone, sir”, he announces, and I am thinking good, we are making progress here, a little ice breaking so to speak. “Where y’all heading?”, he inquires, and I think about saying Beaufort, but rather than botch the pronunciation like only a true Yankee can manage, I opt for the easier to pronounce ‘Morehead City’. “Going diving?” he asks, like the name on the truck and the stack of tanks sticking up in the back didn’t give him a clue. “Yup, we are, we’re here with the stimulus program and about to spend a lot of money at the local businesses”, I say, thinking maybe this might inspire him to think of the overall positive impact our visit will have on the North Carolina economy as a whole. “I’ll be right back”, he says, and walks away with the registration and Michele’s license. Well a few minutes later he’s back at the door, and I am about to slap myself on the back for my intervention, when he announces “I’ve written you up for doing 75 in a 55 zone”, he says, as he hands the paperwork back. “Hey, thank YOU for the consideration”, I offer, and before I say anything further, that little voice of sanity and prudence inside my head tells me it is time to go. You gotta love North Carolina cops…NOT!

So now we really have to push it a bit to make up for the time we lost, and I am thinking, he might have baited us into speeding! But no, that would require a little more thought process than the little man in blue could likely muster, so I take over the helm and finish up the last hour to the lodge. Nice way to be welcomed into the state! Oh well, we are here, that is what matters most, and the engines on the boat have not started yet, so that is progress for me! And I even have time to relax a bit!

Saturday Morning, the Diving Begins…
The rest of the gang stirs on Saturday morning and we start to gather at the dive shop in preparation of our day on the water. Releases are signed, gear is loaded, and we await our departure. Wait, who is that walking across the parking lot? Well it’s Paul Highland, our neighbor and owner of Divers Den in Lansdale, He’s down for the weekend also, with a group from his shop, so I am wondering who we left at home to dive Dutch this weekend? We exchange hellos and bid each other safe diving, as his group departs on one of Discovery’s other boats. We’re on the big boat, the Outrageous, a 47 ft former crew boat with owner/captain Terry at the helm, and fellow captain Steve working as crew. Boat briefing complete, final gear checks done, and we head out to sea.

Stop number one is the Schurz, [history] 83 surface, 74 bottom temp, 50 ft viz, covered with baitfish so much that you could hardly see other divers 20 ft away, big stingrays buzzing with shark escorts, a few lionfish, 111 ft of depth, 37 minutes of bottom time, great starting dive to kick off the weekend.

Many of our readers are familiar with our practice of honoring great undersea navigators, and have visited many of our commemorative sites, such as the ‘Z-ball’, ‘C-ball’, and ‘Lynn’s ball’ during some of dive adventures. Needless to say, when you are leading a group underwater, and your name is associated with one of these infamous sites, it comes as no surprise that your navigational decision-making is sometimes questioned. So it should have come as no surprise to Csaba as he led Niki and Craig back to the anchor on the Schurz, and proudly pointed it out to them as the ascent line, that the two of them simultaneously shook their heads and indicated “No, that is NOT our line!” Csaba. His confidence rattled, decided OK, maybe they’re right, and continued down the wreck, second-guessing himself all the way. All the way, that is, until they got to the other anchor line, and he looked at the big “Divers Down” written on the lift bag attached to it, that he turned to his two companions and said, as best as can be said underwater, “That’s what you get for doubting me!”. So back to the original (and correct) anchor line they headed, Csaba chuckling and knowing that this won’t be the last time he’ll have to redeem himself.

Once everyone is back on board, its only a short motor away, and a little more surface interval, until we splash for dive #2, this time on the famous U-352, a former German U-boat sunk in action during WWII. A perfect example of bad decision making, the loss of this U-boat can be attributed to it’s captain’s decision to take on a US Coast Guard cutter, the Icarus, on a clear day in only 100 ft of clear water…not exactly ideal conditions if your plans go awry and you need to hide your submarine. Oh well….thanks for the wreck go dive on! Here we enjoy another amazingly similar profile, 111 ft for 37 minutes, finally returning to the surface for a little work on our tans and some degassing as we head to site #3.

Keeping it consistent and taking advantage of the great conditions, we opt to stay deep and head over to the USCGC Spar for our third and final dive of the day. Another 111 ft dive for another 37 minutes (how’s that for consistency?) and did I say “sharks?” Let me say that right here, we were surrounded by sharks, sharks, & more sharks! Small one, big ones, huge ones, and every one laid back and just checking us out as we were checking them out, literally within less than 2 ft away. Let me tell you, I was close enough to brush those big snarly teeth, I kid you not. After I sent everyone back up to the surface, except Shelly and Stephen on their rebreathers, I just spent another 15 minutes suspended in the water with the sharks. Truly, truly a magical dive, another “top 10’er” for me.

And meanwhile back on land, the folks in the “Darwin Awards” Department were picking a local winner today, and Michele, who has joined us on this trip but opted to not test the seasickness gods, had the chance to enjoy quite a show in the harbor this afternoon. She was waiting to take a ferry over to the uninhabited island across the harbor, and of course with it being the Fourth of July weekend, she expected to see and hear fireworks all around. So it sounded like a couple of vintage M-80’s exploding right there at the fuel dock in front of the ferry landing, where a line of boats awaited the chance to pull up and get some go-juice in their tanks. “Hey, check that out”, someone shouted, and Michele noticed one of the boats pulling away from the dock spewing smoke. Then she saw the flames, thinking wow, this was getting interesting! And the people screaming on board as the fire really got going on the boat. But wait, time for some decision-making on the captain’s part….he needed to get the people off his boat, and hey, there’s a convenient dock right there so he started towards it….totally ignoring everyone else screaming at him “Stay away from the fuel dock!”. Yeppers, he was bringing his burning boat right back into where enough gas was stored to create one mother of a fireworks display. Out of nowhere, a Coast Guard launch and a tow boat were there, getting a line on his boat, pulling him away from the potential disaster, and encouraging his passengers to leap into the water to get picked up. Crisis averted, remind me to not invite this guy to a barbecue!

Back to port, we fuel up the boat and tie up for the night, ready to repeat it all again tomorrow! Some of us head over to the Stillwater Café on the waterfront for dinner, and to share photos and swap stories of today’s awesome events, including these shots of the fuel dock episode…

Sunday the Diving Continues…

We headed out again at 7 this morning to slightly less inviting conditions with a bit of a chop and 3 to 4 ft seas. Our plan was to run east to the Caribsea, but the pounding would have made for a less-than-pleasant travel experience, so we shifted to a more southerly course and made for the Westland, a wooden barge carrying scrap iron that went down in 1941. Most of the scrap iron had been run through a compactor, so you essentially had solid steel boxes, measuring 18” square by about 3 ft long, stacked as far as the eyes could see. And we could see pretty far, as the viz was probably 100 ft or better today. Lots of life covered this oasis in an otherwise barren sandy bottom, with sand bass, tropical, moray eels, amberjack, sheepshead, spadefish and plenty of other varieties to make for a very interesting dive. One of the most prominent life forms that selected this particular place to call home was bristle worms, numbering in the thousands, and stretching to 8 inches or more in many cases. They were literally everywhere you looked and crawling on every surface, nook and cranny. Now many of you know that I have a special relationship with these guys, where I inadvertently offer them parts of my body to sting and they oblige by stinging it. I am sensing a few years of nightmares are in the works now with the visual of this wreck burned into my memory. A good dive overall, with a bit of current, 108 ft deep and a 45 minute run time.

Next stop on the hit parade of wrecks is the HMS Bedfordshire, a 162 ft long British armed trawler, which was performing escort duty and anti-submarine patrols along the middle Atlantic coast. It was sunk in 1942 by the U-558, under the command of Kapitanleutnant Gunter Krech, which had been prowling the east coast seeking merchant ships to send to the bottom. Not having much luck in that department, when they spotted the British warship on patrol they decided any sunken Allied ship is a good sunken Allied ship, so sink it they did. One well-placed torpedo split the boat in half, and according to the U-boats report, actually lifted it out of the water. The Bedfordshire was lost with all 37 hands aboard, and in fact was not even known to have been sunk until two of it’s crewman’s bodies washed ashore on the beach in Ocracoke.

We dropped in to a bit more current, and the viz was probably down to 50 ft or so, but hey, we’re diving! Water is still 80 degrees, wrecks are still covered with life, a couple of big stingrays with us on the bottom, big amberjacks swooping by, very nice. Another 50 minutes of bottom time, max depth 96 ft.

En-route to our third drop for the day, we come upon a huge leatherback turtle sunning himself on the surface. Very cool to see this majestic endangered species out here!

Our destination is the Ashkhabad, a Russian freighter converted to a tanker that met it’s demise on bright sunny day in April, 1942, when the U-402, right under the nose of her escort ship the HMS Lady Elsa….hmmm..are we seeing a trend here with the British anti-submarine efforts during WWII? I’m just saying…..

Anyhow, the story gets better. As the leaking gasoline and fire spread across the ocean, the crew abandons ship, but the captain’s lifeboat is right in the middle of the fire. He orders the crew to jump overboard to escape the fireballs blasting from the ship, and they do, going under with each explosion. When it finally quiets down they surface only to find their lifeboat on fire. They manage to get that under control and begin to row to shore, joined by the other two lifeboats. The Lady Elsa, incompetent at keeping the subs away, at least serves as a nice ride for the crew back to port, as the Ashkhabad quietly sits on the surface, with fires still burning in the cargo area.

The captain returns the next day to the wreck, still floating and smoldering at sea, and they re-board the vessel. Much to their surprise, the ship has been looted, and personal belongings, valuables, and some navigational equipment stolen. What the heck, they are thinking, can this get any more embarrassing?

They return to port and again visit the ship the next day, only to find the HMS Herfordshire tied up to her, and the Herfordshire’s crew taking even more booty off the Russian ship. Busted, the British sailors are forced to return everything they took from what they claimed to believe was an “abandoned ship”. Nice try, boys.

So now with personal items back in hand, the crew goes back to port to prepare to reboard the vessel in the morning and prepare it for a tow to a shipyard. But before they can get there, the USS Semmes, a destroyer, comes upon it and deems it a navigational hazard, and begins firing a few rounds into the Ashkhabad to sink it. The Semmes is joined in the target practice by the HMS St. Zeno, and as Captain Alexy Pavlovitch steams over the horizon with the US naval tug Relief, he is greeted by the site of his vessel, torpedoed, burned, looted, un-looted, shot, and now sinking below the waves. What a report he must have to send back to Mother Russia, eh?

Well with all that wacky history behind it, our dive today was a great way to celebrate the collective military fumbles that brought us this wreck. Broken now on the ocean floor, this looks like the Benwood on steroids, a huge, busted open wreck, marked by two prominent boilers sitting in the center, and an equally large condenser blow off into the sand about 40 ft away. We’ve got more fish of all flavors, a huge green turtle sleeping inside one of the boilers, morays, shrimp, crabs, toadfish, and some really nice healthy cowries too! Towards the end of the dive, we’ve got everyone safely back on the ascent line except Shelly and Stephen, so I have some quiet time to really enjoy the wreck without teaching or leading…these are the best times for me!

As I approach the anchor line, I notice a huge cloud of lower visibility water coming towards me in the current. Why is the viz down, I am thinking…..well it is because of the millions of stinging jellyfish that are floating right at me!! Yikes! I need to back away from the anchor, retreating to the relative safety of the big boilers, as the cloud starts sweeping by me, nothing but thousand upon thousands of pulsating jellies, trailing long streams of stinging tentacles behind them, in some cases extending back 3 to 4 feet from the larger specimens. I brush a few away that come to close, and as I am hiding there, I notice Stephen and Shelly coming. I signal to them to come my way, and they do, as their eyes widen watching the cloud of jellies go by. While they are hanging with me we check out the turtle again, play around with some little critters, and finally there is a break in traffic, and we bolt for the anchor line. We ascend to just about the thermocline at 60 feet and that’s the magic number for the jellies, as they are working in the colder water below. Whew!! Our ascent is uneventful, with 60 minutes of bottom time at 60 ft, and we re-board, and begin the two-and-a-half hour bumpy and wet ride home. Another great day in the books!

For dinner tonight the entire group gathers at the Spouter Restaurant, where we enjoy a great meal and a lot of laughter, stories and jokes…OK, we enjoyed them; I can’t vouch for all the other patrons in the restaurant with us! After that it was time for bed and one more North Carolina wake-up to round out a fantastic weekend!

And now, it’s Monday….and Mother Nature has not been kind to us, with rough seas and high winds, high enough in fact that Discovery’s captains have unilaterally decided to cancel operations for the day. No ship is leaving the port, so there’s no diving today. Bummer!

So we enjoy a leisurely morning, unload the gear from the boat, and pack for traveling. Herb, Ryan & Sheldon Dubois, Judy Mullen, and Ashley Carpenter are heading south to South Carolina with me, while the rest of the crew head north and home. It’s a five hour drive to Charleston, SC, so I get in a mornings work at the “office” and then follow the guys south, arriving in North Charleston around 9 in the evening. Time for a quick bite and then some rest before we swim with the alligators in the morning.

Tuesday we gathered for a 6:30 a.m. complimentary breakfast in the Sleep Inn lobby, and go over our plans for the day. We’re doing four dives today, so we need to supplement our tank count a bit to make it through the day. Bill Routh, owner of Off the Wall Charters, and our guide for the day, joins us with the extra tanks in tow, and we load up and convoy over to the Cypress Gardens landing on the Cooper River. He runs a 33 ft long pontoon boat, nice and roomy and stable for playing on the river.

We load the boat up on the trailer, and Bill slips it into the water without a glitch. We climb aboard, get our briefing out of the way, and chug on down the river. We are just between tides now, per our plan, and the river is slowing down on the outbound tide. We are planning to dive the inbound tide, where the ocean tide backs up and overcomes the downriver current, so this tide is a lot easier to manage than the other. The downside is that the visibility is reduced due to the amount of silt and vegetation in the water, but we’ll manage.

Stop at the first sight, tide stops, but before we can get in, it turns and begins moving in the other direction. This area has a lot of eddy currents so we opt to visit it tomorrow and move to an alternate site for our first dive. A quick dive site briefing and then Capt Bill drops us in, one by one, spread along a massive gravel bed that runs through this section of the river. Five first time Cooper River divers with me, and every single one comes up an hour later with wide smiles and bags full of sharks teeth, fossils, and some pottery pieces too. Way to start it off!

That certainly sets my mind at ease for the rest of this trip, as this is true solo diving here. With visibility of less than 2 ft, there is no staying in touch with your buddy, in fact, on the outside chance you run into another diver while you are down, you can hardly recognize them, and have to shine your light on various parts of their kit to figure out who it is.

Meanwhile, a pod of bottlenose dolphins are in the river with us today checking us out and playing around the boat…very cool, especially since we are about 25 miles upriver from the Charleston Harbor and the ocean. Ashley is a little freaked out about this, since she has now twice on this trip related a story about an incident in Hawaii, where a female swimmer was sexually assaulted by a male dolphin, with him allegedly wrapping his extended penis around her knees. Well, after the laughter died down a bit, we talked about dolphin anatomy and endowments in general, and concluded, in our little study group, that surely a male dolphin must have originally told this story, complete with all bragging rights and exaggerations. We assured her that we’d keep a close watch on her knees in the event of a dolphin encounter, and she felt better knowing we had her back like that.

Dive #2 was a second location just around the bend from the first, and we get another 60 minutes of bottom time here also, with a max depth of 41 ft. And again, we have scored well in the tooth-gathering department.

We take a short surface interval after the second dive to allow the peak tide to pass, and then we’re in for dive #3. Another hour of solo diving, max depth about 40 ft., and more teeth in the collection bags. Sheldon scores a really nice fossilized turtle shell, Ryan is coming up with some amazingly small teeth that the rest of us are missing, and Ashley is kicking butt in the overall number of teeth collected. Everyone is having a blast!

When we surface from each dive, we inflate a small safety sausage on a 10 ft. jon line, allowing us to mark our location and take a moment to hang safely below the depths of propellers from boats that might be ignoring our ‘Diver Down’ flags in the river and on the dive boat. The nerve of some people! Once we have ascertained that there are no incoming propeller sounds, we surface, and Bill runs the boat over to pick us up. On this particular dive, Ashley surfaces, gives us an OK sign, and hangs quietly on the surface awaiting her pickup. We’ve got another diver ahead of her to get, so she has to wait a few minutes, and she is enjoying a little ‘Zen’ time basking in the glory of kicking our butts in the collection totals. Well, this was not a great idea at this particular time, as we watched the grass part on shore and a nice big alligator slip into the water, swimming right over to see what sort of gift has been left on his doorstep. Ashley is oblivious to this, and we are shouting out to get her attention. Finally, as the ‘gator is less than about 20 ft. from his potential dinner, she hears us yelling to her to make noise and wave her arms, and she obliges. With that, the ‘gator realizes she is not carrion, an alligator delicacy, and he submerges and turns away, leaving Ashley for the dolphins. Anyhow, we breathe a collective sigh of relief, and are thankful that this crisis has been averted!!

Bill is an absolute wealth of historical information regarding the river, the artifacts, and the history of the area over time, and shares factoids and stories with us during our time aboard the boat. One of the lesser-known artifact facts he shares concerns Prohibition-beating South Carolina Dispensary Bottles that are often found in the river. These unique bottles were used to package and sell liquor in a manner much the same way as “medically prescribed marijuana” is sold today..by some pseudo-prescription…proving that once again, some laws tend to be, as I like to say, “guidelines”…

Dive #4 is more of the same, and the animal life is aggressive on this one…as I drop to the bottom, I feel “bang, bang” on the back of my legs, and then again, and I am thinking, what is trying to eat me? Of course I can’t see that far, so I rotate slowly, and sure enough, there are the culprits, two catfish who are thinking they have found the mother lode of a dinner here. Not happening today, boys, I think, as I shoo them away and begin my dive. Again, everyone spends an hour solo diving and everyone comes up with teeth and smile. Very cool day of diving indeed.

Back to shore we unload the boat, clean the silt out of our hair, and then head out for a local dinner, before calling it a night and getting ready for our next day of fun on, and in, the Cooper River!

More to come…including photos!!!

The Benefits of the PADI National Geo Open Water Course

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

Lora Sigler Feeding Hungry Tarpon at Robbies

Lora Sigler Feeding Hungry Tarpon at Robbies

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

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

Training Platform at Jules Lodge Lagoon at Key Largo Undersea Park

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

Mortar Once held in Giant Pickle Barrels from Pickle Barrel Wreck

Mortar Once held in Giant Pickle Barrels from Pickle Barrel Wreck

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

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

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

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

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

Adult Spotted Drum on Newfound Reef off Islamorda

Adult Spotted Drum on Newfound Reef off Islamorda

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

Lora Sigler Demonstrating Level Buoyancy on Spanish Lady Reef

Lora Sigler Demonstrating Level Buoyancy on Spanish Lady Reef

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

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

Growing Staghorn Coral on Pete's Reef off Tavernier

Growing Staghorn Coral on Pete's Reef off Tavernier

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

Lora and Wayne Celebrating their SCUBA Cert at Snappers Sunday Brunch

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

A Journey to the Sacred Land of the Mayans

Four long, dry days working in the salt mines of Harleysville, and I know it is time for a change.  What to do, what to do, what to do…OK – I got it- let’s go diving!!!  The Mexican Riviera is calling is calling sweetly, so Team IVS packs up and gets ready to head south to the land of the Mayans for nine days of extraordinary diving in the Akumal region.

Our plans are to fly into Cancun a day early to save a bundle on airfare, and then drive south approximately 70 miles to Akumal.  But wait, I am thinking, why wait 70 miles to moisten our gills?  We can start our trip with some diving right in Cancun, then, properly hydrated (no, not in ‘that’ way!), we’ll make the drive further down the road for the balance of the trip.

And actually Cancun has been on the list for some time now to check out as a potential destination for a future Indian Valley Scuba trip.  So we can do some reconnaissance diving and information gathering while we are here, better to serve the needs and desires of the IVS family of divers.  Yes, I know, it is work, but the sacrifice is the least we can do for the folks back home.

And before you all start thinking this Dave Valaika must have some sort of deathwish, marching off into yet another land of banditos and revolutions like my recent jaunt through Egypt, let me assure you that once again, the advertising departments at CNN and FOX News have gone all out to make it appear that Mexico is all but lost to the drug cartels, and no gringo will come out alive if you go there.  Nothing can be further from the truth, and there is nothing of that sort anywhere on the entire Yucatan peninsula, including the tourist-dependent Mayan Riviera.  The biggest fear you need to worry about here is how bad that great new suntan is going to hurt tomorrow, or are you sure that you packed your Pepto-Bismal!  So Americans everywhere, please take notice:  Mexico is open for business! Come visit!

So, my Public Service Announcement out of the way, I dig into my bag of resources, and the best dive operator in Cancun comes to mind, Scuba Cancun, owned and operated by my good friend Thomas Hurtado.  In fact, I had just seen Tom at the Beneath the Sea show and he had given me heck for not getting down there yet, so how fortuitous is this that we’re going to be in the ‘hood’ this very weekend!  We’ll be staying at the Hotel Casa Maya for the night and our plans for tomorrow are two deep reef dives, followed by a special dive in the Cancun Underwater Museum, an undersea art project created by Jason deCaires Taylor. I’ve seen it advertised and talked about for years, and now we’re going to have a chance to check it our up close and personal.

From there, the balance of our week will be spent at Villas de Rosa, a fantastic oceanfront property designed, built and operated by Tony DeRosa. Conveniently located between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, it offers easy access to all the major cenote systems that riddle the Quintana Roo area, plus the beautiful reefs of the Caribbean Sea right outside our doors.

So our flight is booked down for 10:15 Friday morning, out of Philadelphia.  Brian LaSpino, a man who’s always up for a thrill, decides to throw caution to the winds and drive down to the airport with me and catch the same flight.  Something tells me he is not a regular reader of the blog, that, or he has some short-term memory issues we might have to address!  But none the less, we book our flights together, and agree to meet at the shop early Friday morning to being our adventure.  We verify the flight departure time, back up the baggage check-in cutoff, add some time for parking and the shuttle, consider the rush hour traffic we’ll be driving in, and then, get this, round up a little for comfort, finally deciding to depart at 7:00 in the morning.

So tell me, what is wrong with this picture?  It is 6:45, and I am sitting on the deck at the dormitory, bags stacked neatly alongside me, reading the paper, and with nothing to do but wait for Brian.  Here I am, tapping my toes, checking my watch…where is Brian!!  I check my pulse, and verify that I’m not dreaming – yes, I am ready, early and ahead of schedule.  Sensing this must be some sort of sign, it’s probably going to snow in Mexico this week.

So I wait and finally around 7:25 Brian comes rolling in, and asks what time I’m really planning on heading to the airport. OK, faith is restored – he really DOES read the blog!!  But there’s no need to build the anxiety this morning, and my plan is to give the adrenalin glands the day off, so I suggest we just climb into the truckster and get on the road.  It’s 7:45 as we pull out of the parking lot.

So ready for the dramatic report from the ride to the airport?  There is none!  This morning is starting off waaay weird, nothing is stressful, traffic is flowing well, speed limit is observed, and parking is readily available.  TSA is, well, the TSA, and we observe some arguments over break times, and I speak out, loudly, saying “Hey, America’s security is at stake here, perhaps we can all focus on our real jobs here”.  That scores me some nasty looks from the boys and girls in blue, and Brian cringes, in anticipation of that less-than-gentle body cavity search that may be in the making.  Alas, nothing comes of it, and we pass through.  First stop is the brand spanking new Delta Crown Room at the Philadelphia airport, a year in the making, and it is a nice relaxing oasis in the hustle and bustle of the airport scene.  We get some complimentary breakfast items there, and before you know it, it’s time to stroll down the terminal and board our flight to Atlanta.

Once we land, it is a bit of a hustle to get across the airport and catch our flight to Cancun.  And as it turns out in the small world department, the flight attendant is a diver, and she and I swap stories and exchange emails with the hopes of diving together somewhere down the road.  Then Daryl sitting next to me wants to learn about diving, and next Michelle and Fred, a couple from Maryland sitting in the row in front of me, turn around and start talking diving.  Turns out they are divers and coming to vacation with their non-diving daughter Nicole, and her equally non-diving boyfriend Brian.  They were concerned about who they were going to dive with here, and as you might imagine, we cleared that concern up right away – they’re coming diving with us!  What a cool sport this is, and to share it with others is all that much better!  Well after another 2 1/2 hours in the air, and we touch down in the Land of the Mayans, Mexico.

Meanwhile, as we work our way through the serpentine line at immigration, Nichole comes up to me and asks how deep she would have to go if she tried diving with me.  Her parents were talking to her, and after listening to “no way” for so many years, they are shocked that she is ready to try it!  So now we’ll be doing a Discover Scuba for her and her boyfriend on Monday too!  Meanwhile Brian has been talking to his seatmate and passing out IVS cards brochures so we’ve got some other interest brewing from the “back of the plane gang” too.  This trip is picking up already and we’re not even wet yet!

Finally we make it to the front, and after the cursory rubber-stamping immigration process we gather our bags and then get to play the baggage rummaging lottery.  Press the button next to the nice man with the latex gloves on, and if you get a green light, you are good to go, but if it comes up red, you can count on everything you packed getting re-arranged as they dig through every nook and cranny in your suitcases.  Thankfully my honkin’ Pelican cases, crammed to the gills, get the green light, and my careful packing earlier this morning won’t be disturbed.  Brian clears also, and we head out to the taxi station.

Of course it would not be Mexico without some negotiation, so our cab fare starts out ‘astronomical’, then after some back & forthness, we negotiate a better rate, get the extra bag fees waived, and the price to take the two of us to our hotel is manageable.  We pile into the shuttle van, and immediately you know you are not in Kansas anymore – there are eight of us in the cab, including a young man from Australia, two girls from Bulgaria, a couple from Germany, and three Americans – a pretty neat international mix right from the start!  Our hotel for the night is the last one on Cancun’s hotel row, so we get to see a lot of nice properties as we drop off the others one by one.

We pull up and are greeted by Tony Smith, one of our other divers on this trip, who flew in earlier today from Philadelphia.  At the front desk we are welcomed by Raymundo the group manager, and we’re quickly set up in some very nice rooms overlooking the pool and the ocean – sweet! A quick dinner and we all head off early to bed to get a good start on our first day of diving tomorrow.  But not without first sharing the view from my room:

Saturday comes and it is an absolutely glorious morning.  We get our gear ready and leave our bags for the hotel to watch while we are diving today.  A short walk across the street and we are standing in Scuba Cancun, our dive operator for today’s activities.  There we meet Tom, the owner, and get the complete nickel tour of his dive center.  It is part of a many-faceted family business empire, and has been operating in Cancun for 31 years now.  It’s the second largest dive operation in eastern Mexico, and judging from the excellent customer service and attitudes we see everywhere, it’s easy to understand why is has been so successful.

Today we’ll be doing three dives, one wreck, one reef, and one visit to the Underwater Museum.  We load our gear on one of their five boats, a nice 65 ft long former crew boat from the oil industry.  These boats are popular at so many dive centers and make great platforms to work from.  All loaded, we get our briefing from Lars, who will be one of our dive guides. Lars is from Switzerland, via Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, so he’s a pretty interesting dive professional.  Pablo will be our other guide,  and we are joined by Herb, a former Texan who currently resides and Indiana and is down here for a little vacation.  There is also a group of locals on board, who will diving with two more guides, plus a videographer, so there’s plenty of staff to go around. The seas are relatively flat and the water is a stunning shade of blue, and we enjoy our thirty minute ride out.

Pulling up to the site of our wreck dive, the current is ripping, so the decision is made to abort the dive and head to a reef location in hope of better conditions.  We head over to Punta Negral, and hot-drop off the boat, knowing this will certainly be a drift dive with the currents.  Down we go to about 60 ft, and the reef is a serious of ridges and drop-offs, not too much vertical, but plenty to look at and covered with fish.  The currents are mixed and confused, and we sail along, working hard to not work hard, enjoying the dive and letting the water take us where it wants to.  Some nice morays, lobster, crabs, smaller fish, barracuda, and all the other typical Caribbean sea life provide a nice visual backdrop for us as we enjoy 50 minutes of bottom time in the 80 degree clear water.

All too soon we must return to the surface and we head over to our second location.  A little off-gassing on board, and sensing the crew might be operating on Mexican time, I decide to speak up and say, “Hey, my computer’s beeping – it’s time to dive again!”  Smart move, Dave, cause that inspires the crew to wrap up siesta time, and we’re back in the water in 30 minutes for dive #2.   Location #2 is a site called Granpin, because it supposedly resembles some sort of anchor, but we see no evidence of this at all.  It is, however, a real pretty dive site, and the current for the most part is much better here, allowing us to enjoy a lot of swim through’s and more pretty reefs.  Once we are done with the site we position ourselves above the reef, and enjoy a high-speed sail across the flats, with current probably approaching 4 knots – very cool to just hang upside down and backwards, enjoying a bit of a psychedelic visual as the sea floor flies by you.

Back to the dock, we enjoy a light lunch from the snack shop as the boat prepares for the afternoon trip.  We’ll be joined by some folks doing a Discover Scuba, and some others in an Open Water certification class, as we head out to a shallow, sandy site where the Underwater Museum is located.  Again, it’s a thirty minute ride out, and we tie up to a mooring above the site.  With the increased pressure on the reefs due to the popularity of diving in the area (not to mention the less-than-stellar buoyancy skills of many of those divers) the local diving community had looked at artificial reef options as a way to expand the diveable areas and reduce the impact to the natural reefs.  At the same time, the art community had an idea about doing something under the sea, and wouldn’t you know it – the two factions got together and hatched the idea for the Underwater Museum.  Funded by both government and private sources, the project moved forward with great efficiency (a rarity considering where it was taking place) and from last fall to today over 400 statues have been placed on the sea floor.  Built on hexagonal concrete bases approx 10 ft square, each contains about six life-size concrete statues of people depicting many aspects of life and careers.  Each block is butted up to the next, so you have a vast field of people standing on the bottom of the ocean – very  surreal indeed!  The sea has evidently approved of the project, and the surfaces are covered with early stages of sponges, some corals, and algae, and serve as homes and hiding places for schools of small fish.  Although the site itself is quite small, it’s still interesting enough for us to spend 70 minutes at 28 ft, examining the artwork, playing in the rocks and rubble that surround it, and observing the other divers and wanna-be divers cavorting in the water alongside us.

Let’s just say that it was pretty clear that these were not Indian Valley Scuba instructors at work here, as we witnessed some excellent breath holds during the regulator recovery and mask removal skills, none of which were caught by the staff.  Gauges dragging, over-weighted students standing and laying on the bottom, I was thankful indeed that we were not on a reef.  The sad news is that these folks will be getting c-cards and now taking these non-skills out to wreak havoc on what we love so much about the sea.  OK, off my soap box now.

Back on board, Brian, always working that mojo, engages one couple who were doing a DSD today and really loved it.  Turns out they live in New Jersey, and before you know it, emails are exchanged, cards are swapped, and Bev can be expecting a call from two new students who want to join the IVS family!  Nice work Brian!!  The trip back to the dock is quiet and scenic, right until we cross paths with a big catamaran out on a booze cruise,a and realize that nearly everyone on board is naked or near naked.  That inspires our captain to turn around and circle the catamaran again, making sure we were not confused over what we saw – yep, drunken naked people!  Pretty funny addition to the afternoon, and we return to Scuba Cancun’s dock to unload and say goodbye’s all around.

Meanwhile Roberto, our driver from Villas de Rosa, has arrived and is waiting to whisk us south to our next destination.  We gather our gear that the hotel has been carefully watching all day, and climb aboard for the ninety minute ride.  Tony DeRosa Sr, the owner of the resort, greet us when we arrive, and they have our room ready for us.  We get our paperwork completed with Tony Jr and his long-term Canadian/Russian squeeze, the lovely Mila, shows us to our condo.  Living large is an understatement for our accommodations this week, as we have a three-bedroom, three-bath condo with a huge deck right on the beach. Big kitchen, dining area, living room, we will certainly not get in each others way here!  We also get to spend a little time with our other two divers, who actually came down a week earlier, and are checking out today, Staci from Lake Tahoe and her daughter.  They had a wonderful week enjoying the cenotes and the reefs here, and can’t say enough about the service and accommodations they enjoyed at the resort.  The kitchen stepped up and took care of their strict vegan diets, and the dive team made it a mom/daughter vacation to remember!  So great to hear!

Dinner is served up to us in our condo, and we call it an early night.  Morning comes and we enjoy a dramatic sunrise, rising from the sea right in front of our east-facing condo; it doesn’t get any better than this!  Plans for today are a couple of cenote dives this morning and a visit to the reef after lunch.  We busy ourselves swapping our gear configurations for the caverns, grab some breakfast, mix up some delicious Divers D\Lyte for the day, and get ready to jump in the van to start this next phase of our adventure!

But wait!  It is a most beautiful day here, and the seas are absolutely flat!  So our host suggests we take advantage of these conditions and do some ocean diving today, since the weather can’t be counted on to be so nice every day.  So we re-configure our gear, haul it the long 40 yards to the beach, and load it in a 24 ft panga (open boat with outboard engine) that they brought up for us.  We get connected with Tito, who will be our personal guide and diving sidekick for the week, and Carlos, who will be our boat driver whenever we go out on the reef.  We load up the tanks, push off, and head out, enjoying some spectacular views as we motor the 15 minutes to our first site.

The boat is a little small, and the gunwales a little low, for getting all geared up on board, so we just inflate our BCD’s and toss our kits overboard, then roll off the boat in mask and fins.  We put on our gear in the water one final group buddy check, and then it’s thumbs down as we drop into the 200 plus feet of visibility  that greets us.  This site is called the canyons and it is appropriate, as the cuts between the vast fields oh healthy coral drop down 20 or 30 feet, making for some really fantastic diving conditions.  Our depth here is 90 ft, and we spend 50 minutes taking in our first taste of Akumal reef diving.  We like it!!

After that we head back to shore to get a second set of tanks, and push right back off for dive #2.  Another short ride, another great dive at a site called The Iglasius (the churches) named for all the dramatic arches and swim-throughs here.  Very, very nice, and Tito is very cool, allowing us to dive our computers and run our own dives, as he just swims along like one of us.  This is going to be a great week!  Finally, 70 minutes later, we surface from the 50 ft deep site, and climb back on board for the lunch run.

Lunch is served up poolside with some delicious butterflied chicken steaks and all the fixing’s – food is NOT going to be an issue here.  The cook is very accommodating, and has all my dietary quirks written down (no onions, no peppers, no guacamole) so he’ll be preparing “near-Mexican” dishes for me this week.   We kick back for a bit after eating, respecting mom’s rule “No scuba diving for 30 minutes after you eat” or something like that.  But soon enough, it’s time to head back out!

This time Tito figures out we are not going to give up easily, and we load two sets of tanks for the afternoon’s dives.  First stop is Dief Reef, similar to the others, and we get 60 minutes at 55 feet in.  Some very friendly turtles here, and Brian work’s on our PETA endorsement with some great critter interaction.

Finally, stop #4 for the day is Akumal Reef, and after a long 30 minutes of surface interval, we head back under for another 70 minutes at 55 feet.  OK, some of us enjoyed 70 minutes, that list being limited to the guy using the Cochran computer!  The NDL’s on the others tended to be a little more conservative, so I waved them all good bye and enjoyed the last part of the dive alone with the fishes! Finally time to head in, and enjoy dinner served up on the beach, with a beautiful moon over the ocean to accompany us.

Sweet!  Monday morning and breakfast is served in our condo dining room – this is living the good life for sure!  This trip might have been a bad idea, cause it sure will be hard to get Brian back into the IVS salt mines next week! Our first order of the day is to get some cenote diving in, so we load the gear in the van and get ready to head down the road.  But wait, no IVS story is complete without a little twist, and here’s this mornings: our van has California plates, and is registered in the US.  Mexicans are not allowed to drive American cars here under the insurance laws.  So go figure, who is our designated driver for the week?  Captain Dave of course!  Look out Mexico!!

So, map in hand, and Brian on board to translate the Spanish instructions, we head down the road to Dos Ojos (two eyes) one of the more famous of the cenote systems that riddle the area.  This is part of an immense underwater aquifer, with passages and channels cut through the limestone substrate millions of years of slightly acidic rainfall, creating a myriad of flooded tunnels to explore, some easily, and some not nearly so easily.  And as the earth has warmed and cooled over time, and the polar caps formed, melted, and then reformed to their current sizes, the sea levels rose and fell accordingly.  So at one point in earth’s timeline, this entire region was under the sea, and the actual ground we walk on here is actually formed of the old skeletal remains of coral reefs from days gone by.  When the water levels dropped to provide the water for the ice caps, the Yucatan rose from the sea.  Years of rainfall helped cut the passages, but it was the millions of years of leaks dripping through the cave ceilings that really added the silent majesty and beauty to the cenotes, creating thousands of stalagtites and stalagmites, some forming floor-to-ceiling columns and others just hanging down from the ceilings or rising up from the cave floors.

Although they have existed for tens of thousands of years, it was only recently that divers began crawling into holes, and down wells, to see what laid below the surface here.  And we are thankful they did!!!  Most of the major cenote systems have been explored to some extent in recent years, and as they have been, steps have been taken to help ensure the safety of divers using them, and the sanctity of these natural aquatic art museums.  Permanent guide lines, also know as “gold lines” due to the diving community standardizing the color, have been put in place along the cave floors, marking a clear path to follow that positively leads back home, to help avoid making a wrong turn and ending up as another pile of bones down some dark passage, as you can often discover during your dives here (although those bones are mostly that of animals, thank you).

So here at Dos Ojos, the site is named for the two areas that open to the surface, which, if viewed from above, are two circles, hence the “two eyes” name.  How those early Mayans got airborne to see that view I have no idea, but we’ll just accept that fact.  There are two major loop routes here, all starting and ending back at the smaller of the two open eyes, with permanent lines tracing a nice long path through the underground cenote systems and back.  There are many side passages and long dead-end tunnels that go off from the main route, but these are considered true caves from a diving perspective, and require significantly higher levels of training and preparedness in order to safely execute dives in these areas.  The cavern portions of the dives are primarily defined as being not further than 200 ft from an area where you can surface, and not having passageways so tight that only one diver can pass through at a time.  Additionally, there is some source of outside light that can be located when you are in the passageways, although the key word there is “some” cause in some areas it is not much at all!

So we brief our team with the overall plan, familiarize them with the site layout and what to expect down below, and walk on down to take a look at the final staging area and cenote entrance.  There are quite a few divers there already, and snorkelers and swimmers enjoying the refreshing, crystal clear water.  Listening to the various conversations taking place around us it is amazing how many different languages and accents you hear – cave diving is truly an international sport and draws folks from many lands, near and far.  All geared up, we do a final equipment check, and head down the path to the entrance.

Two dives are planned here this morning, one on each of the loops. The first route will be around past the “Barbie Line”, named for a jump that leads off to a beautiful cave system. We slip into the water, and perform a bubble check on each other, making sure none of our precious gas is leaking from a hose or fitting, cause there’s no early exits from some of the points on this dive.  All good, we drop down, and enjoy 50 minutes of touring through this beautiful system.  Brian’s new mb-sub cave light truly illuminates our path, and shows off the fantastic structures that draw folks here year after year. Maximum depth is only 26 feet but the distance we cover is non-stop eye-popping geo-art to the max!  Love it!

We come up and while the boys are switching tanks, I enjoy my doubles and get a 20 minute solo dive in down one of the passages, playing with the fish that live there, and checking out the tiny critters that live in the nooks and crannies and under the rocks here.  Finally the men return, and it’s time for dive #2 (or 3, for me).  This time we head down the “bat cave” line, and get another 45 minutes in the deeper portion of the cenote, at 39 feet max.  Great couple of dives to start the day, and we re-load the van and head back, stopping at a local market to pick up some supplies for our condo.

And speaking of hydration as we weren’t, once again we have brought a supply of Divers D\Lyte with us on this trip, to help maintain a healthy balance of hydration, electrolytes and nutrition.  This product, developed by our friend John Dooley, has taken off like a rocket in the scuba diving community, and we are proud to share it with others everywhere we go, planting the seed for future Divers D\Lyte believers across the globe!  In fact, here you can see Tito our dive guide enjoying the product, as well as a smokin’ model quality shot of yours truly with some great product promotion! And, just in case you don’t believe in proper hydration, you can walk around all day like a Michael Jackson look-alike with your pink umbrella – name withheld to protect the innocent, Tony!

OK enough of that scary thought!  Sorry children, it is safe to come out now!   Meanwhile our new friends from our flight, the Banner family, have driven down to Villas de Rosa to dive with us this afternoon.  Fred & Michelle are certified divers, and today their daughter Nikki and her boyfriend Ryan would like to see if diving might be the sport for them.  So, since this is a ‘business trip’ and NOT a ‘vacation’, Brian and I will conduct an open water Discover Scuba Diving for the two of them, along with a refresher for mom & dad.  We get a couple of sets of rental gear together from the local inventory, and head poolside for the first part of our DSD.   Paperwork is, of course, completed, and then we go through Scuba 101 for our two new candidates.  Physics, physiology, equipment, environment, we cover all the key points to help ensure a safe and fun experience in the ocean today.  Brian leads them through their skills in the pool and everyone is looking good.  Lunch is served poolside, and the anticipation builds for our open water fun!

We haul the gear down to the panga on the beach, load up, and pile the bodies in.  A quick briefing before we head out, questions are answered, and we fire up the 60 HP Yamaha outboard.  The wind has picked up a bit so it’s a wet and bumpy ride on out, but the viz is forever as we pass over the reef.  We choose a shallow site, Cabasas Malos (Bad Heads) where the maximum depth is 40 ft, and drop our anchor to try to reduce the surface drift while we get everyone set up.  Gear is tossed overboard, followed by the bodies and, and Brian and I make sure our new divers are all hooked up and looking good.  Regulators in, thumbs down, and we drop below the beautiful blue water to the reef.  No issues on descent, clearing is good, weighting is right on, and we get our buoyancy neutral above the reef.  Big OK’s all around, everyone is smiling, so let’s go see what we can see! The conditions are great for a first open water experience, and there’s plenty of sea life to entertain our newest divers.  We end up spending 45 minutes on this dive, surfacing with plenty of air all around, and pile back into the boat for the ride in.

The ride was a bit more than our friends had counted on, so once we are back at the beach, they make a wise decision to leave it at one dive today, and forego the second trip.  Well the ocean is calling our names, so it’s hugs and handshakes all around, and the three of us pile back in for another go at it!  Dive site is Islas Akumal, and we get another 70 minutes in (OK, I get another 70 minutes in, but those last 20 minutes were a solo dive as my dive buddies have all abandoned me) at a max depth of 55 ft to wrap up another beautiful day of diving in Akumal.

Another excellent dinner served to us in our condo, log books are filled out, photos downloaded, and off to bed to rest up for tomorrow’s activities – ALL cenotes!!

We’ve made an executive decision to not waste time by coming back to the resort for lunch today, and just staying out and enjoying our day of diving.  This lets us enjoy a more leisurely start and we finally get on the road around 10:00 to head south our first stop today, in the Chac Mool area.  Here they have an extensive cenote system, and our first dive will actually be in Kukulkan cenote.

Different than yesterday’ dives in Dos Ojos, here we have fewer ‘decorations’ as the formations are known as, but another feature which adds some spice to this particular dive – a heavy halocline that permeates most of the route.  A halocline is the technical term for when a layer of fresh water sits on top of a layer of salt water, which, even though the salt water is significantly warmer, the heavier density of the liquid keeps it from rising up on top of the fresh water.  But it is the actual zone between the two liquids that is the coolest, as the two waters are intermixed, creating a layer of liquid with varying refractive properties.  In appearance it is similar to the heat waves that rise off a hot desert or highway in the sun, and the net result is that our eyes cannot focus through the medium, no matter how hard we try.  It’s like someone smeared vaseline on the front of our masks, and you can’t even read your gauges, it is that strong an effect.  Dip your head below it, into the salt water, and the visibility is as clear as above it, in excess of 200 ft or more in most of the caves.  Same when your head is above it too!  But because the caves tend to follow paths that go up and down quite a bit, we pass through or swim through this layer multiple times in the particular cenote, so it is a good test of your confidence as a diver and ability to relax to know to just keep swimming and eventually you’ll be able to see again – very cool (OK, at least to me!!).  Here’s a pretty cool video that shows how this cenote, and the halocline, appears to the divers.

We spend 22 minutes at a maximum depth of 48 ft with our first traverse through the system, then catch our breath and debrief a bit before we head back to where we started, taking another 20 minutes to return to our starting point.

We climb out of the cenote and most of the gang heads back to the van to swap tanks.  I am diving in full cave gear as required by local law to lead these dives, including double tanks, so I just slip into the next cenote, Chac Mool, and hang out and chat with some of the other divers there while awaiting my team’s return.  Finally everyone is back, and we head into this system, which is similar to the first, and enjoy 71 minutes of this silent underwater splendor, with a max depth of 44 ft., before we climb out of the cenote and pile the gear in the van for the next top on our cenote-a-thon experience.

But first, a little more about Brian and his mojo!  While we were first setting up our gear, Brian strikes up a conversation with the gringo’s who are parked next to us. Turns out that Shawn, from Toronto, is an avid photographer, and is using an Olympus camera in an aftermarket housing.  He comments to Brian that he wished Olympus made a housing for his camera, and Brian, says “Did you know that they do make that?”.  Turns out Shawn had been misinformed by his local dive shop, and as a result has been suffering through with a mis-matched housing and camera setup.  Brian speaks with authority, as IVS is the North American distributor for Olympus Underwater Imaging systems, and Brian fields questions from customers on the product line daily.  Well they are waiting for us when we return from our dive, and before you know it, business cards are swapped, and Shawn is writing down his address for us to ship a new housing to him when we return to the states,  Way to go Brian! – he makes me soooo proud!!

The next stop on our hit parade is the Ponderosa Cenote, also known as Jardin de Eden (Garden of Eden), just a few minutes drive from Chac Mool.  Another little gate, another little entrance fee, and we head on in.  This is a very pretty spot, with a huge open swimming area, a high cliff for the kids to jump off of into the water (gotta watch that when diving underneath them!) and a nice dock and ladders for our entries and exits.  We set up and slip into the crystal clear water, and head into the cavern area, under the cliff (avoiding the bodies dropping down from above!).  It is another beautiful site, with a long swim through one portion of the cave system, then through a smaller open cenote, and finally into the entrance to the deeper cave system.  A great dive with 50 minutes of bottom time, max depth 39 ft.

We cruise from there to our last stop on today’s trip, at Tajma Ha cenote.  Often mis-spelled (and misunderstood) as Taj Mahal, the name is really Tajma Ha, with ‘Ha’ being the Mayan word for ‘of the water’.  Sorry to debunk that myth for anyone who wrote Taj Mahal in their logbooks!  OK, enough of the linguistics lesson, on to the dive!  This is probably one of my personal favorites in the Mayan Peninsula cenote system, and once we get it, the rest of the crew quickly agree.  You actually will pass through three separate cenotes as you dive through, with a maximum depth of 47 feet.  Several of the cenotes are not open to the sky, but rather end up in air-filled caverns above the water, filled with beautiful hanging formations, tree roots streaming down, and of course, bats!  Bats everywhere!  Can’t have a good cenote without having a lot of bats, and we are not disappointed here!  Besides the “dry” areas, there is so much to see in this cenote system, with fantastic decorations, huge collapses and piles of rocks, and cross-sections of the geological stratification that has taken place over time as this system was created by nature.  In a word:  Sweet!

That’s enough for today with five dives in four cenotes, and we head back for another great dinner, some debriefing time, and photo downloading from the cameras – look for some great stuff in the gallery – soon!

Wednesday now, and time to get out and explore some more cenotes!!  Today the kitchen staff has packed a lunch for us, so we don’t have to go hungry while out exploring for the day.  We load the gear, the designated driver (me) assumes the position, and we roll.  First stop is the chief’s house in downtown Tulum, where we pay our entrance fee and pick up the key for the gate at Angelita, a unique cenote located in the jungle about 10 kilometers south of town.  This is a different sort of cenote, essentially a shaft cut straight down into the jungle floor, with a maximum depth of 200 ft.  There are a couple of small caverns that go off the sides but nothing of any significant merit for exploring. The thing that makes this spot so special is a layer fo hydrogen sulfide in solution in the water, making a thick, whitish cloud across the entire cenote from approx 95 ft to 110 ft of depth.  As we drop down and approach it the appearance is surreal, with the limbs of trees that hurricanes have tumbled into the cenote sticking up our of the cloud in silent testimony to natures wrath.  The bottom appears solid, but as Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues would say, “that is just an illusion”.   As we approach, we grab our buddy for reference, just as we briefed, and slip silently into the mist, completely disappearing from view  – and each other!  But as predicted, we emerge from the bottom edge and sure enough, we can see, but now this day dive has just turned into a night dive, because zero light is penetrating the layer today!  Lights on, we split up into buddy teams and most begin a slow spiral back up and around the walls of the crater.  Meanwhile, Brian is going for a pinnacle dive here, in the dark, under the cloud, in a cenote – I love this guy’s style!  I take him down to 150 ft and we decide that is deep enough for today, a new personal best for him!  Good job Brian!  Eventually we surface, with 40 minutes of bottom time, and it’s high fives for a great dive for all!

We hump the gear back up the winding path through the jungle, and load the van for our next stop.  As I slip my booties off, Brian, with his medical background, takes a look at my foot and says “Whoa, what do we have going on over here?”.  My right foot, for the last year or so, has been peeling and somewhat reddened from around mid-foot to my toes.  It sheds skin constantly, and worse when I dive, but it never appears to be growing or getting worse, so yes, it is somewhere on my list of things to get checked out, but not quite near the top.  “Here, put that up here on the table”, Brian directs, and he gives me a thorough examination.  His diagnosis:  Trench Foot, or Jungle Rot, as it was coined during the Vietnam War, caused by my foot staying wet so much!  Not sure how we can ever cure this, I am thinking!  But Brian suggest fungicides and we’ll get on that as soon as we get back to Harleysville; no shopping at the Farmacia here!

OK, we close the clinic, pile in the van, and march our jungle-rotten feet to the next cenote – Calebero.  Also known as the Temple of Doom, this cenote has a very small vertical opening with only a ladder to get out.  Getting in is simpler, just a big giant stride and you can’t miss the water!  I know I am sounding like a broken record here, but this place is beautiful!  I need to digress here, and wonder where that term came from – broken record.  Growing up in the days of 45’s and LP’s (albums), if your record was ‘broken’ then there was no way to play it, similar to a CD snapped in half (there, the younger audience can understand it now).  However, if you scratched one of the grooves on the surface in such a way that the needle tracked back over to a groove it had already played, then in fact that short audio snippet would play again, and again, and again.  So why don’t we use the term “sound like a scratched record?” rather than a broken record?  One of life’s great mysteries, I suppose.

Ok, digression over, I am back!  I leave the group for a bit here cause there is a entry into the cave system that is just screaming my name, and I cannot deny the call.  Reel out, tie-off’s made, and I am down the shaft, exploring the dark zone and taking in all this fantastic beauty.  This place is stunning, and you have to see it to understand it (by the way, cavern and cave training classes ARE available at Indian Valley Scuba – OK, got my plug in!). But seriously, this is such a different kind of diving and so much more ‘Zen-like” than anything you’ll ever experience on a reef or a wreck.  OK, OK, enough said, I retrace my steps, collect my reel, and rejoin the group, as we wrap up another great dive with 45 minutes at 58 ft max.  Up the ladder we go, and boy these doubles are a bit of a hump, but I make it out with all my gear, and we head back up the path to load up the van and head down the road to cenote #3.

Well we ‘almost’ loaded the van, cause after the short ride down the road to our next stop, the Carwash cenote, we spread our gear out and Tito, of all people, realizes he is missing his fins and mask.  I am feeling like a mother hen here now, making sure everyone has all their stuff before we move on!!  Geeesh!  No problem, I jump back in the van (as the designated driver, it’s my job!) and haul donkey back up the road to Calabero.  Of course I have to deal with some local jokesters there who knew it was Tito’s gear, and finally I get it and return to the team.  “OK, is everyone ready?”, I ask, and into the drink we go!

Now here we have raised the bar on our team and their roles in the cenote diving.  There is no permanent line here, so I will be having Brian and Tony run the line for us this morning. We go over the proper tie-off techniques, selection of appropriate tie-off’s, routing of the line, proper tensioning, housekeeping and neatness, and team communications.  Buoyancy control is emphasized, as is situational awareness and keeping a cool head while working in the cavern.  And last but not least, I encourage them to actually look up and see how beautiful it is in there, which is an easy thing to overlook with all the other tasks at hand!  So we head in, Brian in the lead, Tito pointing the way, and we make our first tie-off’s.  On to the very important secondary tie-off, and then in we head, Brian laying line, Tony keeping it neat, and me just trailing along and observing the team at work.  Soon enough we run out of line on the primary reel, and Brian motions “what to do?”.  I hand him a finger spool, he ties it in, and we get another 150 feet along.  Again, out of line, but wait, we have another spool!  So another 150 feet down the line we go, before finally being completely out of line.  Here we are in a ballroom, so we leave the line to explore, knowing we can keep the end of our line in sight at all times.  Once done, we return to the line, and the team begins the job of reeling it all back in, spool after spool, until we are finally out of the cave and into open water.  Great work team!!  And a great dive to boot, with 60 minutes of bottom time and a maximum depth of 51 ft.

Finally, it is time for cenote #4 of the day, and we’ll wrap it up at Grand Cenote, or the “White Cenote” as it is known, since all the underwater formations are bright white here.  Another popular swimming hole, we walk through along the docks with our gear, answering questions as we go, and slip into the water through a crowd of young people enjoying this beautiful sunny day.  Down we go, and this cave has a long traverse line that passes around the system, almost 270 degrees around the main opening, with several passage ways off to the cave system to explore as we dive along.  There are over 56,000 feet of surveyed passages in this cenote system, so you could certainly spend a bit of time here exploring the various nooks and crannies below.  We get another hour of bottom time in at 50 ft, and finally head back up and back to the van to call it a day.  Poor Tito has not worked this hard in a long time, he confides to us, so we decide to cut him a break tomorrow and do some reef diving instead.

Morning comes and poor Brian is not feeling so well from all this abuse we have been putting his body through all week, so he opts to sit out the morning dives.  Looking at the stack of paperwork that I have hauled from my office to Mexico with me, I decide that a day of catching up on work and being Brian’s nurse would be a better investment of my time than the reef, so I pack Tony a lunch and send him off in the panga with Tito to do some diving.  I start on my paperwork, but then some little voice in the back of my head, starting out as a whisper, is not screaming at the top of it’s little lungs “Hey, you are missing a dive!”   Yes, you heard it, I nearly passed on a couple of dives!

Enough of that momentary lapse of reason, Brian will be fine and now owes me big time for me almost missing those dives!  We toss the gear in the panga and head out into some bigger waves than we have seen all week. It’s a wetter than usual ride out, but we make it, and our first location is Hogfish Reef.  Another nice 80 foot dive, with less-than-stellar visibility, no doubt due to the wave action above.  We get to play with a really big turtle here at this site, so that added a nice touch to the murky dive.  Still we manage to get 50 minutes in and head back for a second tank.

As we load the boat in the surf for dive #2, we realize it is sitting a little lower in the water, and each wave splashing against it is getting closer and closer to coming over the sides.  Wait a minute, it IS sitting lower – shoot, the boat is sinking!!  Seems the battery for the bilge pump has died, and we are not putting the ocean back on the outside of the boat where it belongs!  We bail, jump on board, pull the hull plug on the way out, and salvage the day!  And anyone who knows me knows that sinking boats and Dave V go hand in hand!  Oh well, enough of that bad memory, next you’ll start talking about leaning navigational markers in the Keys…Anyhows, we head out, and this time it’s Adventuras Reef, another nice one, and another 50 minutes at 50 feet in the logbook.  Plus our first shark sighting here, a nice nurse shark under an overhang.

We come back in for lunch and to check on our patient, and he is still not looking so good, we we decide it is best for him to sit out the afternoon dives.  Being in the land of the Mayans, we respect that older cultures way of thinking, and for this decision, I actually draw upon another native American culture, the Eskimos.  They knew they needed to keep the tribe moving for the benefit of the majority, so when one member became ill, or too old to keep up, they left them behind, for the polar bears to enjoy.  Well Brian, keep a sharp eye out for polar barracudas!! Tony and I discuss the splitting up of Brian’s gear as we walk down to the boat for the afternoon dives, and I make it clear I have first dibbs on his new Atomic T2X regulator!

Rather than fighting the surf again, we moved the boat down the street to where it is protected by a small breakwater, and we load up for out two afternoon dives.  First stop is Morgan Reef, 55 ft deep, and we get 60 minutes in here, with the highlight being a motorcycle sitting in the sand that provided some photo opportunities.  Second location was Los Quebralo, 57 feet deep, where we logged another 55 minutes of bottom time.  Viz sorta sucks at this point, so glad it was the fourth and final dive of the day!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, poor Brian has not been feeling well at all.  So as fate would have it, as I return with the van from this afternoon’s dive, there is someone parking in my spot, and I ask him to move so we can unload the tanks. Well funny thing is, he’s wearing a stethoscope, which I think is kinda odd, but hey, I am the stranger in a strange land here, so who am I to judge.  Well then he asks me if I know where room #204 is, and I say “Of course I do, that’s my room!”.  Wait a minute here!  This doctor is coming to see my Brian!!  Brian was not feeling well this morning, thought his tail bone might have bruised from some bouncing on the boat or my driving in the van (ha!).

Brian also suspected he may have something else, butt (pun intended) more on that later

So it turns out that my new friend and visitor is none of than Dr Cabelero (yes, Dr. Cowboy) who came from the Akumal clinic (yes they still make house calls here) to see Brian here in our room.  Turns out Brian has an abscess on, as Forrest Gump would say, “on his buttocks”, that has flared up and needs to be treated here.  So they took him away to spend the night in the Akumal clinic and put him on IV antibiotics for the night with the hope to be able to lance his derriere tomorrow to drain the abscess and then pack it with dressing for the trip home.  They would prefer he stays on the IV for a few more days, but, acting as Brian’s advocate in his weakened state, I told them we have to fly home on Saturday, so they can have him til the morning, butt (ha ha) then we need him back!  And suddenly for some reason I am thinking about that Atomic regulator again…

And if you’re wondering, no, I’ve got no pictures of it (Brian was too shy)!

But wait, breaking news here!  Brian just skyped me, and it turns out that he has a bigger pain in his ass than they suspected and it’s too big to operate on here in the little Akumal clinic, plus the risk of it involving other anatomical parts is too great for them to get out the power tools and cut into him here.  Should they err in their navigation, and get too close to any other parts of his intestinal tract, they would risk creating a shitstorm (pun intended) of problems for our boy, so they are taking him to the bigger hospital in Playa del Carmen for the night and intend to “go in” tomorrow. It’s a somber dinner for Tony and I tonight, worrying about our partner and his ass!

Friday morning comes and the seas have laid down a bit, and we head out to a site called Meke Maze.  This is a deeper site, at 115 ft, but we are rewarded with great visibility and healthy corals, so the shorter dive time is worth it!  We end up with a 45 minute dive, and return to our waiting panga for a 30-minute surface interval.  We motor over to our last reef location for the week, Chaemuiel Reef, and get our final 60 minutes of salt water bottom time in with the depth around 57 ft.

Back in I check on our patient, and he is still intact, and has not left any parts of himself here as a sacrifice to the Mayan Gods.  It’s getting kinda late in the day for surgery, I point out, and he agrees, considering our travel plans tomorrow.  Heck, I’ve got a clean dive knife, if we need to do any lancing I’m there for him!  Brian shudders at the thought and assures me he’ll be OK to make it home to see a real doctor there. OK, just wanted to offer!  A little home surgery makes for some great blog fodder!!

But while I am talking to Brian and making sure things are all good for the travel home, he realizes that he has a 10 a.m. flight, while Tony and I are flying out after 3 in the afternoon.  Now he needs a special ride to the airport, and can’t consider joining us in our ride to the Tulum ruins.  He’s flying on Delta, like me, so I suggest he give my friends at the Medallion desk a call, explain his predicament, express the fact that he is not sure when they will discharge him from the hospital, and see if they can do anything for him.  So he calls them up on Skype, using a video call, and there he is laying in his hospital bed, with his IV line in, and looking at the agent with his best puppy dog eyes on.  She looks up my record, sees we are connecting on the second part of our flight, from Atlanta to Philadelphia, and then goes ahead and says “Let me see what I can do”.  Well by the time this phone call is done, not only has she moved Brian from his morning flight to my afternoon flight, but she has upgraded his sorry (and swollen) ass to first class on both flights!  Holy Smokes, I need to remember this approach when my upgrades are not looking good!  Now he is my seatmate all the way back home!

OK, sensitive moment complete, it’s time to go diving!  Tony, Tito and I pile in the van and head down the road to Dream Gate cenote, a bit of a more primitive site.  We head about a mile into the jungle, stop at a small shack to pay our entrance, and then travel about two more miles down a trail cut in the jungle, without improvements, to the actual cenote.  There’s no swimming area here, as the cenote lies about 20 ft below the ground, and can only be accessed at two points, both involving ladders!  At one of the ladders there is a hoist to lower tanks down, and at the other, everything is on our back as we crawl in.

The extra effort is worth it, as the Dream Gate Cenote is a phenomenally beautiful cave system with a very unique twist:  Mayan human sacrifice victims, still swimming today where they were entombed hundreds of years ago!  Over 40 skeletal remains join us on this very poignant dive today.  Here’s a little video of what we saw today!

We end up with a couple of nice dives here, and I get a third one in, for a total bottom time of one hour and 50 minutes in this very special place.  Way to wrap it up!!

Back at the resort, we get good news – the authorities are releasing Brian tonight!  He calls for a ride and all the vans are locked up, so I suggest he grabs a cab from the hospital.  He does so, and confirms that his string of bad luck is not over – the cabbie has his wife and sick kid with him, and they stop several times on the way for the wife to open the door and let the kid vomit.  Nice!  Meanwhile poor Tony and I are pacing nervously, worrying about our Brian!  Finally he arrives, safe & sound, and it’s hugs all around as the team reunites!  We rinse all our gear together and spread it out on our patio to dry overnight in the arid air and constant breeze.

So on Saturday morning we’ve got some time before we need to head to the airport, and so our plan is to immerse ourselves in one last bit of Mayan culture, and that’s a visit to the Tulum ruins!  Our plan is to borrow one of the resorts vans, and head south to check out this rich site located on a towering precipice along the shoreline.  But allow me to digress yet again…Tito, who has been taking such great care of us all week, decides to wash the van for us to drive.  Only yesterday in fact we were talking weather patterns and precipitation in the area, and Tito pointed out that the official annual “rainy season” is September to November, when they might get rain once a week, and in some years, none at all.  So here we are in April, and that month does not fall in the rainy-ish period.  But, Tito did wash the van, and guess what?  Just like at home, the same phenomenom holds true – wash your car and it rains!  SO today, perhaps in the first time in Mayan history, it is pouring!  Amazing!  But does that deter us?  No!

We head down the rainy road and arrive in Tulum at the site of the ruins, which is quite the carnival with souvenir shops, trinket dealers, authentic actors doing authentic Mayan stuff, and everything else you would expect at a world class ruins site.  We buy our $2.00 tram tickets, and head up to the actual Tulum historical site.  We head in and let me just share – it truly takes your breath away to stand here and imagine this site 1,000 years ago, back in it’s heyday, with all sorts of village and religious activity taking place, the market trading, the seaport, and the hustle and bustle of a major gateway to Mexico and the Mayan civilization.  Very cool indeed!

We spend a couple of hours taking it all in, and then it’s time to head back, re-connect with Brian, grab our bags, and have Roberto drive us up to the Cancun airport for our flights home.  What a most wonderful week this has been, with thirty great dives, a dozen different cenotes, and more good stories and experiences than we deserve!  A most hearty recommendation for Scuba Cancun and Villas de Rosa – both first class operators in a first class diving destination!  Like the Governator says, “We’ll be back”.

But hold on, there’s more, from the ‘Team IVS Dives the Globe‘ department!  I get a text from Bill Zyskowski, who most know as the honorary poster child for the “Z-Ball” on the Spiegel Grove wreck in Key Largo.  Bill is diving today with our friend Randy on the Emerald dive boat out of Jupiter, and he is just gushing with his dive report.  Turns out they had a fantastic day there, with TWO hammerhead sharks, a big 14 ft bull shark, and a few others cruising with the divers and putting on a great show.  Bill was hunting lionfish today, and nailed five in total.  But not without cost, as one of his victims managed to return the favor, and nailed Bill good with his toxic venom before heading off to fishy heaven.  Bill reports a lot of swelling and pain, but once I shared Brian’s swelling and pain with him, he just said “Never mind!”

Hold on, there’s even more!   So Brian and I arrive at the Philadelphia airport and between waiting for our bags and then catching a shuttle to the off-site parking lot, it ends up being after 2 a.m. when we finally get back in the shop.  Brian jumps in his car for the short ride home, and between the shop and his house, he can’t resist getting turning on the mojo and getting one more comment for the blog.  Here it is, in Brian’s words:

By the way, I have one more final piece for your blog on this trip.  On my way home from IVS that night, I get pulled over at 2:15am for “making an erratic left turn” whatever that means.  The cop takes the usual license, registration and proof of insurance and goes back to his car. After about 20 minutes, he comes back and asks me if I have been drinking.  Naturally, I tell him “no” and he counters with, “are you sure?”  At this point I tell him I have been traveling all back returning from Mexico and I turn on my internal car light to show him my suitcases and he sees my IVS shirt.  He comments on it and how he always wanted to try SCUBA.  I briefly tell him about my trip (sans my buttock story) and I give him my card and invite him on a DSD.  He thanks me and lets me off with a warning!  I say “thank you and I will see you at the shop!”

Thanks for enjoying our story with us, and we’re sticking to it!  Stay tuned for our next adventure coming soon!

Dive the Revolution Tour with IVS!

An so it begins…
Diving has always been to me such a life changing experience, and as an instructor, my ability to share that with others is something I cherish and look forward to every day.  But just like any other Nirvana, sometimes you need to mix things up a bit to keep it fresh and exciting.  So, speaking, as I was, of life changing experiences, how appropriate a time is it to travel to the Middle East and dive right smack-dab in the middle of all sorts of changing things, including governments?

So it’s Friday, and I am thinking, where haven’t I been in a while? Well out of the blue pops Egypt and the Red Sea, so I figure I don’t need to give this any further thought….let’s go!

Indian Valley SCUBA Travels to Egypt and the Red Sea

Truth be told, this is an exploratory trip to conduct some firsthand reconnaissance in preparation of IVS’s trip to this area next year. With so many reports of doom and gloom coming from Egypt and the entire North African / Middle East region, I know the only thing to do is get on the ground there myself, cut through the CNN sensationalism, and come back with the real status that our divers want to know before planning to head there.

So as with any good adventure, we need to start with some packing. Yes, I admit, this trip has been on the books for a while, but does that magically move it up on my priority list? No! Why should this visit to the center of civilization as we know it be any different? Exactly…we’re operating on ‘Dave time’ now!

So as Friday morning dawns, I’ve got about 12 hours worth of work left on my weekly to-do list as of this morning before I depart Philadelphia at 6:25 this evening. So I start the day with a breakfast of diet Mountain Dew and an attitude like the Rob Schneider character in the Adam Sandler movie Water Boy, shouting out ”you can DO it!” First things first, I take inventory, and realize I need to start with piling a load of laundry into the washer, cause without this key step, I’ll be nekkid in Egypt! Not cool, I am thinking, as I get the machine loaded up and spinning away.

But heck, we have a lot to do today, so let me start with some important tasks, such as re-arranging the recycling area, then cleaning up Sue’s apartment. She’ll be coming in to Harleysville for the Beneath the Sea show before I get back, and I have been kinda using her place as a bit of a warehouse for my things – time to clean that up before she picks up on it!! Yes, if you are thinking David might occasionally exhibit some hints of OCD / ADHD you are probably right – but I’ll be back on track with today’s priorities shortly!

OK so I have my packing list out now, but I’ve got time, so before I get into that I sense the geese and duck need some loving before I go, so I decide to clean out the pen a bit, play with them, feed & water them, and play some more. But all this barnyard love only makes me think about the rest of my extended pet family – Pumpkin the cow and Maldives the horse! They are currently living about a half mile from the shop, so I head over there to get some more four-legged loving before I head to the land of the pyramids and camels. They are excited to see me, and so I endure a bit of a mauling when I enter the barn. Big, wet kisses from both of them and I know stopping by to see them was a good decision! Pumpkin is a “rescue cow”, a Jersey-breed dairy cow male, and I don’t think I need to explain the usefulness of a male cow in the dairy herd. Most end up as veal calves or dog food, but this boy lucked out and joined the family a few years ago. He’s about 1,600 pounds of sweet bovine love now, and I sense he is grateful – not always sure but I sense it! Meanwhile Maldives is a 4-year-old Belgian draft horse, and he stands about 19 hands high, which means his shoulders are waaaaaay over my head! He is not yet broke as he has had a bit of a traumatic start, but I’m working with him to get things squared away and let this 2,000# critter know who the alpha male is in this relationship! We end up having a nice morning visit, and I head back to the shop feeling refreshed and somewhat organic from the experience.

It’s 11 now, so still plenty of time to get this all done, and I continue on with my multi-tasking. Clothes are clean & dry, but the emails keep ‘dinging’ in on the laptop….distractions, distractions, distractions! Plenty of time still, no need to worry…yet. Answer a few emails, sort through some more paperwork, another customer in the shop that wants to kibitz a bit….it’s ok, it’ll all fit in. That flight’s not til 6:25!

So finally at 2:00 I start to think about packing my dive gear, and step one is to actually locate my dive gear, which seems to be in a constant state of movement at IVS. I do have a checklist, but sadly, I am a few pieces short of a complete list! What did I do with that double regulator setup?? Where is that wing? Holy smokes, this is painful! OK, let’s swap a few hoses, yes, this will work! We’re looking pretty good now! Regulator located, I need to throw in an octopus in case that is required, but I am hoping the Red Sea operators have stage bottles for me, even at the recreational dive sites. Add a couple of wetsuits, a spare mask, some new boots, and the pile is looking dive-able.

Finally have it together, and I close the two Pelican cases. Each case is amazingly well under the 70-pound limit so I don’t even need to weigh them. It’s now 3:30 and time to pack something to wear. Step one is to empty the clothes from the dryer! OK, how long as I going to be gone for? Yes…15 days…so let’s start…some undies, socks, a couple of bathing suits, bunch of Indian Valley Scuba t-shirts, a pair of shorts, and most importantly, a dozen Hawaiian shirts! Must bring some style to the desert with me! Ooooops…this pile won’t fit in the old bag, so I head back over to IVS to do some shopping. This nice Scubapro Caravan roller duffle seems like it will do the trip, so I take it across the lot for the acid test – will everything fit in?

Lo and behold it passes the test, and now it’s time to clean off my desk. The clock says 4:00, an hour after my “initial” planned departure, so I need to hustle a bit here. Desk is cleaned, now time for me! I jump into the shower, dry off, throw some clothes on, and head into the shop to find my limo driver Ray.

Well wouldn’t you know it he is busy closing a regulator sale, and the retailer in me says I can’t just pull him off of that! So I do some busy work for a few, he closes the sale, and we’re ready to go. Ray fires up his SUV for the airport run but we still have to stop at the bank, as I need a couple of hundred dollars in one-dollar bills for this trip. Seems the standard drill in the land of the pharaohs is a one or two dollar tip for just about everything someone does for you. Looking at that stack of ones, the girls at the bank wonder if I am heading off to some major go-go bar party, but I assure, them it’s nothing like that, only business travel!

So with that stop out of the way, it’s time for Ray to put the pedal to the metal and get us to the airport. OK, I am patient at first, yes that was nice to let that lady in, OK, we’ll wait while this guy makes a left, rather than drive around him on the shoulder…OK…enough! Ray – I’d just like to point out that we have exactly 50 minutes to make the 36 miles to the airport and get me on my flight! Let’s crank it up a bit…a big bit!

We head down the turnpike and we’re cooking around 70 MPH, and I start to relax a little. But wait…as we approach the interchange what is with all this stopped traffic? “Go left Ray” I say, and we pick up a few positions. “OK, right lane looks good” is my next driving suggestion – gosh look at this Route 476 traffic, stop, go (a little) stop again…there’s no rhyme or reason…just a conspiracy to make me late for my flight!

Finally after our umpteenth stop in traffic, I realize that I am not going to make the baggage cutoff for my scheduled flight, so I pick up the phone and call my friends at Delta’s Medallion desk to see what they can do for me. Well wait a minute, they say, let’s call the airport and see what we can do about getting around those baggage checking cutoffs…I shake my head, recognizing that another one of life’s “Rules” has just been reduced to an FAA guideline subject to tweaking when required. “How far away am I” she asks, and I tell her “about ten minutes”. She is on the phone, they have the baggage team involved now, and we come to a complete stop in the traffic. Not wanting to burn a big favor, I tell her there is no way we are making this flight in any fashion, so we forego the secret baggage process, and look at other ways to get from Philadelphia to Cairo tonight.

“Well look at this”, she says, “can you make a 6:50 flight?” Indeed that looks good for the moment, so I tell her “Sure, what do you have?” “How does Philadelphia / Detroit / Paris / Cairo sound”, she asks, and I say, “Let’s do it!” So she begins the process of re-rerouting my travel, but since it’s international travel, we need a ticket counter agent at the airport to get involved. OK, we are in the airport now, and Ray is driving along, dodging the rental car and hotel shuttles all the way. “C’mon Ray, timing is critical here” I point out, and he cuts and swerves us over to the Delta terminal. I grab a skycap, point him to Ray with my bags, and I race inside to get this deal done.

At the Philadelphia ticket counter I approach the agent and introduce myself and explain my “situation.” She introduces herself as LaMonika, and says “there’s no way we’re gonna get this done”. Whoa there sister, those are hardly the reassuring words I was seeking to hear tonight. So I say to the Medallion desk representative, who I still have on the phone, “Ms LaMonika thinks this might be a challenge getting me to Egypt tonight” The phone rep, whose name I never caught, says “Let me talk to her”. I hand over my cell phone, and it’s obvious from the immediacy that Ms LaMonika starts typing with that we have the right team on this job! “Hurry”, she says, “ I need a credit card for the third bag”. Well I pass one over, and she gets it in and hits the “enter” key with exactly one minute to spare – it’s 6:04 as I am taking a picture of my wristwatch and another of Ms LaMonika to start the photo gallery for this adventure.

Up through security, past the IVS bumper stickers strategically located throughout the terminal, and right onto the plane, where, as luck would have it, they upgraded me to the front cabin – sweet! My flight attendant is Ms Avis, and she is just the bundle of joy and purveyor of light beer that this traveler needs right now! I’ve been on a self-imposed two week Coors-free period so tonight is my first taste of the Sweet Nectar of the Gods in fourteen days, and boy, does it taste good! So does the next one, and the one after that too!

Finally we land in Detroit and my connection is not only tight, it is from the opposite corners of the airport with the gates being about as far apart as they can be. So I feel like a celebrity as they repeatedly announce my name over the loudspeaker system, seeking my presence on the soon-to-depart flight to Paris. Finally I arrive and the gate agents are clearly relieved, knowing their mission has been fulfilled and David was on board.

Eight hours later and we set the wheels down on the land of quiche and fried potatoes – France. I’m looking forward to grabbing some fine airport food, because the on-board meal service has been interesting to say the least, with all sorts of French-ish delicacies offered, none of course which I would choose if they were the last meals on earth. Yum, yum… NOT!

On to Cairo and my first Egyptians…

A quick meal at Charles de Gaulle and I board my next and final flight, to Cairo. This is a five-hour jaunt, a piece of cake after the earlier flight, and before you know it I am in King Tut-town. I gather my bags, pass through all the required “Welcome to Egypt” security lines, and there I see Rami, my escort, awaiting there just inside the terminal for me with a big “David Valaika” sign…sweet! He has a pass that allows him to get to the other side of passport control, which is really cool as it helps make sure you start right off in the right line and avoid any immigration hiccups.

So speaking of international incidents, I am in an immigration holding area chock full of Egyptian citizens, Europeans coming to visit or work, and a couple of planeloads of Egyptian blue collar workers in refugee status from Libya. What an eclectic group to be with this evening as I start to absorb this strange new land. But wait, up front in the line voices are rising, then arms are flailing, as one of the immigrants demands faster service from the passport control crew. That leads to him crawling up and banging on the glass on the security booth, which leads to the security guy coming out and screaming back with arms a’ waving, then another guy with more gold stars on his epaulets getting involved and more screaming…God I love this place already!

So I suggest to Rami that perhaps we might consider entering his homeland through another line, and he concurs, so we head over to a less-agitated passport control officer and sail on into Egypt. From there we grab my small mountain of bags, march through the “nothing to declare” line and we’re in-country! Now past a throng of locals wearing the traditional long robes (officially known as Gellabiya) and a few hundred horn-blowing drivers reminiscent of Tijuana or NYC. Finally we arrive at our van and I meet our driver, none other than Mohammed Ali…. no, not that one, but close, named after the great Egyptian leader from long ago! He shuttles me over to the Le Meridian Pyramids hotel where I am to hook up with Dave Hartman to begin our adventure!

But first we have to pass through the first layer of hotel security, the five large steel pipes that are sticking up from the ground completely blocking our passage onto the hotel property. The guard comes out, checks us out, we pass the test, and he activates the hydraulic system which lowers the pipes to ground level and lets us pass.  Now Rami and I unload at the front entrance, and we are greeted by three members of Egypt Tourism Police, an official government security agency specifically charged with security at places of tourism, including hotels, public places, museums, and the like.  All bags pass through an x-ray machine, and we walk through a metal detector, basically the same level of security it takes to board a plane in the U.S.  Again, we pass through successfully, and we proceed to the actual hotel check-in.  That process goes smoothly and I even score Starwood points since this is an affiliated hotel – sweet!  Up to the room with the bags, and there is Mr. Hartman himself waiting for me!

OK, handshakes & hugs complete, it is time to head to the lobby bar and enjoy a cold Sakara Gold’s…. Egypt’s version of Coor’s Light! Dave catches me up on our plans for the next two weeks, which have evolved a bit since we last talked, but what the heck, I am flexible and we’re on a mission to discover the best of Egypt and the Red Sea.  So discover we must!

The hotel is truly first class, with spacious well-appointed rooms, three really nice pools, and a stack of hookah pipes to enjoy!  In the lobby they are celebrating a wedding, and the entire sweeping staircase to the second floor is wrapped in flowers – really pretty and neat to be here to see this part of Egyptian life.  Dave & I are enjoying our brews and the lobby internet until finally the bartender announces he needs to close.  Well closing is one thing, breaking up our party is another!  So he sets us up with a bucket of beers and ice, and we are good for the balance of the evening.  Very nice!  Finally we call it quits and retire for the night to get some decent rest before the adventure really starts tomorrow.

New Pyramid Discovered in Egypt

New Pyramid Discovered in Egypt

Our first morning in Cairo dawns bright and clear and I step out onto the room balcony to check out the view – and lo and behold, there is the Great Pyramid right there practically next to the hotel – how cool is that?  Now my cultural side is pumped, and I tell Hartman we gotta go check these out!  So we spruce up for the day, I pick a nice low-key Hawaiian shirt to allow the Egyptians to warm up to me slowly, and we down to a superb breakfast buffet complete with omelet bar.  And in the European style I like best, they have cold cuts and sandwich fixin’s out alongside the standard breakfast fare.  I am set, an omelet and a ham & cheese sandwich to fire up the Dave-ster for the day, and we’re ready to go get cultured.

View from the Le Meridian-Pyramids Hotel Pool Area

View from the Le Meridian-Pyramids Hotel Pool Area

In the lobby we meet up with Rami and today’s host, Ms Manal, a registered Egyptologist and tour guide.  She’ll be showing Dave & I around today as we absorb a bit of the history of this nation.  First stop is the pyramids I saw from the room, and in fact there are several right here adjacent to the hotel.  So Muhammad drives us over in his van. As we pull up and pile out, we are greeted by a policeman and a bomb sniffing dog, who gives our van and backpacks the once over and approves.  Security is clearly taken seriously here, and that is a good thing. Manal gets our tickets, and we begin out tour, walking over to the first pyramid, the one known as The Great Pyramid, and the only surviving example left of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Five Minutes at the Pyramids and on a Camel Already

Five Minutes at the Pyramids and on a Camel Already

Well I make it about ten steps towards the pyramid before I am accosted by a couple of camel jockeys, blocking my way with their animal.  OK, OK, I was planning a bit of a camel ride on this trip, so lets just get it out of the way.  I grab a traditional headdress, climb aboard, stand this beast up, and we are off for a little ride around the plaza.  Great photo op, and Dave is there shooting away and capturing the moment.  Enough is enough, here, let me give you this camel back, and that’s when the fun begins.  I feel like someone just hit the ‘hyperspace’ button and I popped up in Tijuana, as the negotiations start over what I have already purchased.  Well my two Egyptian friends picked he wrong guy out of he crowd to work over today, and we have at it, and it gets a little heated.  Five dollars is all this was worth to me, and that is about 10% of what a great time they feel I experienced!  Well five is it, and Malan jumps in, and rips these guys a new orifice or two – I am impressed big time!  That ends it, I give them the $5, and we get on with our pyramid tour.

But there is a lot more to learn here than price bickering, and Manal is chock full of Egyptian facts and secrets to share.  So lets start with Pyramid 101.  The main entrances of all pyramids face due north, and their four sides are perfectly square.  Most have a 52 degree angle up the sides, although that varies a slight bit with some measuring only 49 degrees – still pretty darn accurate and consistent in my book.  And when you build a pyramid its not as easy as getting 2 ½ million blocks, each weighing around 3,000 pounds, and piling them up in a nice geometric shape.   First you have to take in all the ancillary structures that go with any good pyramid project, including the mortuary temple for the embalming process, the main funerary temple for the final service, a giant causeway to transport the body to the entrance, and let’s not forget the five 150 ft long boats that are buried around the outside of each pyramid for the entombed soul to use to sail through his or her afterlife.  Yeah, the construction of the pyramid itself is only the ‘down payment’ on this project!

There are actually three major pyramids located here in relatively close proximity to each other.  The largest, and oldest, is the Great Pyramid of Giza (also called the Khufu’s Pyramid, Pyramid of Khufu, and Pyramid of Cheops) and is the first installation in the Giza Necropolis bordering Cairo, and is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that survives substantially intact. It is believed the pyramid was built as a tomb for Fourth dynasty Egyptian King Khufu (Cheops in Greek) and constructed over a 20-year period concluding around 2560 BC. The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years, built as the final resting place for the king known as Cheops. The base of the pyramid covers 13 acres, 568,500 square feet and the length of each side was originally 754 feet, but is now 745 feet.  The original height was 481 feet tall, but is now only 449 feet.  The majority of the outer casing, which was polished limestone, was removed about 600 years ago to help build cities and mosques which created a rough, worn, and step-like appearance.  How’s that for paying attention to Ms Manal?

Next to that is the #2 pyramid, built for Cheops son Chephren, and finally the third structure sits behind these two, that being the third pyramid and the tomb of Cheops’ grandson, Mercirous.  These buildings are like the world’s largest Lego set, and towering as they do about 500 ft high over the surrounding desert terrain, they are pretty dang impressive to stand next to!  We actually go into #3, and while it is a neat crawl down a long, narrow and tight shaft way, it is kinda cool to be in a place that was so important to a civilization so long ago.  But like visiting the red mountain known as Uluru in Ayers Rock, Australia, you only need to penetrate one pyramid in your life to cross that off your bucket list of ‘must-do’s’.

Solar Boat of Cheops Museum with Headstones in the Foreground

Solar Boat of Cheops Museum with Headstones in the Foreground

One of the neatest things were the burial pits for the boats they had excavated around each pyramid. Measuring about 30 ft deep, and carved out of the solid bedrock with a rounded bottom for the boat, they had several open ones there to examine.  For some inexplicable reason, when they dug up the first three, they found them to be empty.  Its not easy to loot one of these boats, as the top of the pits have about 75 carefully nested stones fitted across them, each one weighing about nine tons.  But they struck pay dirt in the last two pits, unearthing complete boats in perfect condition in each.  One is still being excavated and restored by a team of Japanese archaeologists, but the other has been already brought up and is on display in a custom-built museum structure behind the pyramid.

We get our tickets and enter the museum that is run by a really low-key bunch of civilian-type folks.  First of course it is another metal detector and x-ray machine, followed by the handing out of canvas shoe covers for us to wear while we are strolling around the museum.  Sure cuts down on the mopping and waxing the floor expense, I am thinking!  We suit up, and head in to check out the goods.  The museum starts off with lots of pieces, actual artifacts from the recovery process, lots of photos, and tools used in the restoration.  It keeps getting bigger and better as we move further into this museum that has a spiral design, moving us further and further upward.  We walk past the actual pit, which the museum was built over and around.  Finally we get to the top floor, and what are we greeted with?  The actual boat itself!

The Solar Boat of Cheops-Let's Go Diving

The Solar Boat of Cheops-Let's Go Diving

Holy smokes, how cool is this on a number of levels.  First of all, it is a 4,000-year-old wooden boat in perfect condition.  Second, it was actually buried in “kit” form; it was built, tested on the water, and then disassembled to lie flat in the pit.  The reason for this is that if a dead person is going to use something in his afterlife, it has to be “dead” too, and in the case of the boat, taking it apart after it sailed made it “dead”.  Yeah I know, it’s a stretch, but work with me here.  Anyways, that’s the way it works in the world of the Egyptians!

But even more important are my personal observations and determination how this finely crafted boat fits into today’s society.  First of all, the boat was cut into pieces so some of the wood sections fit together like a Chinese puzzle, with all sorts of angles and tabs and holes and other little things.  And, not a single metal fastener was used; every single connection was made either through interlocking the pieces or with rope – really neat to see!  So here is my theory – archaeological teams from all over the world have studied this vessel, and although it was not noted in the records, I know for sure that the Swedes have been here too.  While most went home with photos and volumes of notes to ponder over later, the Swedes took something else from what they saw in this knocked-down, minimal fastener boat – the idea for IKEA furniture!  And there, my friends, you have it!

So finally we are ready to head towards the next stop on our tour, the Sphinx!  It is actually just around the corner from the pyramids, so we jump in the van and head on over.  It is located on the corner of Culture and Urban Sprawl – seriously sitting right there with a birds eye view of the lesser side of Cairo.  I am sure it was pretty dang dramatic in it’s day, but today, well, let’s just say it is a little anti-climatic to be at a place of such cultural significance with a Pizza Hut located across the street.  Still good for some great photo ops, and that dang IVS bumper sticker keeps showing up too!  Kinda like the best of the old and the best of the new, I suppose!

The Sphinx at the Pyramids of Giza-IVS was here too!!

The Sphinx at the Pyramids of Giza-IVS was here too!!

And now comes the best part – I am looking at a couple of photographs there, just blending in with the locals as I do so well, when this young man comes up to me and asks if I am an American.  Well gosh, my cover is blown, so I fess up “yes I am”.  “May I take a picture with you?” he asks, and I quickly shed my Sean Penn ‘no pictures’ attitude.  “Sure” I say, and he motions to his posse to come over with me.  “Stand next to him”, he says to his wife, and he comes around me, and then another guy, and another woman, and another guy.  ‘Click, click, click’ go the cameras and the smiles are huge and genuine.  He turns and says to me “Thank you” and I say “For what?”.  He explains to me how America’s position, and Obama’s words to Mubarak that it was time to step down, were so overwhelmingly received here.  It was pretty cool to hear that about America from someone in a foreign land.  Then he turns to me and says, “Can I give you something?”.  “Of course”, I say, and with that he reaches into his pocket, and pulls out his January 25th martyr badge, a card that the protesters had printed up and wore around their necks to identify to others in Eltahrir Square and elsewhere what team they were on.  He wore it himself throughout the protests that ultimately peacefully overthrew the government, and wanted to give it to me.  It had the photos of those killed in the initial protests on it and banner of protest (in Arabic of course).  To say I was moved would be an understatement – this was unbelievable and made me so unbelievably proud to be an American.  This is one souvenir from a trip that I will never forget!

Our New Egyptian Friends at the Solar Boat Musuem

Our New Egyptian Friends at the Solar Boat Musuem

OK, sentimental moment over, it’s time to head back into the city and go visit the Egyptian Museum, also known as the Museum of Antiquities.  It is on the other side of town, and Sunday is a workday here.  The Egyptians celebrate their weekend on Friday and Saturday, so Sunday it is business as normal, with all the traffic and congestion that might go along with that!

But first we must stop for lunch.  The locals eat lunch around 2’ish, so we just beat the crowd into a local eatery called Eltahrir Restaurant, of the same name as the famous square in downtown Cairo that my new friend had spent so many days at.  The menu here is interesting, as they have exactly one thing on it – Koushary.  It’s an Egyptian favorite and staple of their diet, and since my options are limited, it is three orders for our table, for myself, Dave and Manal.  It consists of a bowl filled with layers of Rice, Brown Lintels, Macaroni, Hummus, Spaghetti Pasta, topped with Fried Onions and Tomato Sauce.  Yessiree Bob, that is exactly what I was hoping we’d have for lunch!  Well she was so proud to take us to this local place I had no choice but to ‘man up’ and clean my plate, like my counterparts.  Note to self:  ipsnay on the Koushary on the next trip!

Enjoying the Best Lunch Ever with our Guide Manal

Enjoying the Best Lunch Ever with our Guide Manal

Our bellies full, we go to one of the many papyrus making shops for a demonstration of the art and science of making paper from papyrus reeds.  Now let’s just get this straight – these places are all exactly the same, just with varying degrees of class – they are art galleries that have really nice papyrus making displays to suck you in.  OK, now that I cleared the air on that, we headed in to one of the newer and classier ones, the Sonodous Institute.  There we met Amir, who welcomed Dave and I over to a nice little papyrus paper making table, and he gave us a first class demonstration on how the stalk of the papyrus reed can easily be made into very durable paper, good for thousands of years as documented from so many items from the past here.  So after a good demonstration, and just like any good tour, where did we end up but the gift shop?  Actually the whole gallery, and they had a lot of cool stuff, but we were strong and resisted!  Good solidarity!

OK, now it’s time for our next and last stop before the airport, the Cairo Museum, also known as the Museum of Antiquities.  We approach through the unending traffic, and as we near, a very dark building appears alongside us.  Well it is none other than the shell of the former headquarters of Mubarak’s political party, the Ruling Party.  Totally gutted and blackened, it stands as a tribute to the power of the people here, seeking positive change for themselves and generations to come.  The amazing thing is the control that the people exhibited, this was not mindless mass damage like the L.A. Lakers fans exhibit after winning another NBA championship, setting random cars on fire, and of course looting all the Korean businesses (why do they hate those people so much?).  No, this was directed solely towards and against the man and his rule, and nothing else was damaged or destroyed in the process.

We pull up to the museum entry road and are greeted not only by the Tourism Police, but by real soldiers with real automatic weapons and real tanks and armored personnel carriers, all here with one specific purpose – the people have spoken, and Egypt is not going to be trashed by a few radicals.  Enough said, there is more than enough firepower present here to straighten out anyone who gets out of line.  Really nice to see, and everything is really cool, there is no bravado, the soldiers are smiling, the people are smiling, the guns are there but not threatening, a very clear picture that nothing bad is going to happen here today!

Smoozing Security at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

Smoozing Security at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

So we worked our way through the traffic to the front of the line, pass the required tests yet again, and drive onto the museum grounds.  We park between a tank and an APC, I snap a few photos, and we walk into the museum front yard.  Some more photos, and we have to check our cameras before we enter the museum.  Wait though cause it turns out the Ruling Party headquarters is locate right next door, so major photo op here!  We snap a hundred or so pics, and then turn our cameras in for the interior tour.

There is so much to see here, and our time is limited, so we focus on the treasures of King Tut, the Boy King.  He is the most documented King in the history of Egypt for one primary reason – no one knew where his tomb was until 1954, so it was never looted or stripped.  Once discovered everyone was pretty dang sensitive about history being lost, so it was documented, cataloged, moved to the museum, and put on permanent display for generations to enjoy.  The funny thing is that of all the kings and rulers of Egypt, he was the most inconsequential, serving only from age 8 to 18, dying a mysterious death, and leaving nothing of any legacy behind him, except a well-hidden tomb full of not-yet-stolen treasure!  Hardly the impression the world has when his tour comes to town, but that is the official Egyptian take on King Tut.

But one of the neatest parts of the display was Tut’s collection of coffins and storage chambers.  Of course he was mummified, then, dressed in all sorts of solid gold bling, like a big ornamental helmet, hand protectors, and lots of chains & stuff.  Then he was placed into a solid gold, 220 pound coffin that essentially fit his body very snugly.  That was then placed into a slightly large gold plated one, that in turn inside a slightly larger wood & gold one, and finally that into an even larger solid wood one.  Then, these were placed into a specially constructed box with a door on the end, and that was placed into another box, and that into another…you get the picture?  So, I am thinking that perhaps he was not given the credit he was due for his inspiration for one of the most fascinating trinkets that still amaze people until today – the nesting Russian matryoshka dolls!

The 220 Pound Solid Gold Inner Coffin of King Tut

The 220 Pound Solid Gold Inner Coffin of King Tut

But all that aside, the display is huge, covering nearly the entire second floor of the museum.  We visit it all, and Manal is amazing in her knowledge of things past, and also of all the various theories and contradictions that exist. But as most of you who know me can attest, my “stink-0-meter” is always on, so I take everything with a grain of salt.  Manal says a few things that don’t quite add up, and can’t answer a few pointed questions I ask, debunking some of her theories.  We are enjoying a good and positive banter back and forth on history, physics, physiology, mechanical engineering, and more, when this woman pops up in my face, and says to me, with an accent – “Sir – can you please save your discussion for outside? The tour groups are listening to you and not the tour guides!”  Well gosh, aren’t I just so sorry to bring some illumination of the slightly distorted ‘facts’ those around me?  Perhaps it was the guide over there, who as I walked past his group earlier, he was telling them that the famous River Nile passes through a total of nine countries – when in fact it actually passes through eleven!   Good tour guide training program they have here at the museum!!  So I say to her, ” I will see what I can do” and she turns on her heels and snubs me as she storms off.  With that Manal speaks up, loudly, that “She is just a French journalist and she gets in her for free – this is not her museum – don’t listen to her!” OK, that’s all I needed to hear, no ‘Ugly American’ story here, international incident over, it was just a French journalist!  Dave 1, French 0.

We finish our tour, having only seen perhaps 10% of what the museum has to offer.  I definitely need to get back here!  One thing we also did get to see was where the scumbags broke in during the revolution and stole quite a few artifacts; I hope they are caught and dealt with in the true Islam way…. tough for a thief to break in again with your hands missing.

From there we pile back into Mohammed’s van and head towards the airport, enjoying some more exhibits of military might on display as we pass by a number of the embassies and consulate offices.  Lots and lots of hardware out there, no one is going to stir any crap here!

Time to leave the desert & start diving, Red Sea style…

On the way to the airport we bid farewell to Manal, and Rami escorts us the rest of the way.  Once at the airport we endure a bit more security right at the airport entrance to keep the riff raff out, and then enjoy some really first class treatment at the Egypt Air ticket counter.  Really nice folks and really nice treatment!  We bus out to our plane (they are not big on jetways in this country) and enjoy a short flight to Hurghada on the coast of the Red Sea.

Upon landing we are met by Steve and Clair Rattle, owners of Pharaoh Dive Club in El Qusier.  They’ve got a van waiting, so we get right on down the road to our next hotel, the Movenpick.  Located right on the shores of the Red Sea, this resort offers everything a diving or non-diving tourist could want in this region.  We check in, head to the bar for a few quick ones, and call it an early night – OK it’s 2 a.m. – and get ready for our 7:30 pick up to go diving tomorrow!

Our Morning Transfer to Pharaoh Dive Club

Our Morning Transfer to Pharaoh Dive Club

Dawn breaks beautifully with a sunrise to greet us coming in from the east over the Red Sea, and it’s time for these two adventurers to get moving!  We head down to breakfast which is even grander and bigger than we had in Cairo, with everything you can imagine, plus a few other things, out for our consumption.  We fill our bellies and walk out to meet Steve and his crew who have come to pick us up in the Pharaoh Dive Club van.  Gear is already loaded so we jump in and head down the road about two miles to the dive center, which is located at the Fanadir Hotel on the beach.  Great dive center, not our kind of hotel, of that I assure you!  Glad we are staying where we are!

We meet the staff and get all checked in with paperwork, they inventory our gear for us to make sure they don’t lose track of it while they wash it, and we get the lay of the land, so to speak.  The highest priority of course is to properly “sticker” the place and we get that done with IVS stickers proudly displayed in all the key locations!  That out of the way, dive #1 is going to be the house reef right in front of the resort, one of the 80 shore-based dive sites that Pharaoh has identified in the local area.

Steve Rattle of Pharaoh Dive Club Briefs the Fanadir House Reef

Steve Rattle of Pharaoh Dive Club Briefs the Fanadir House Reef

We set our gear up, and the crew questions whether I am really an American or not, since my regulators are all DIN-style.  They usually only see that from the Europeans and Russians, but I assure them I am 100% Grade A Prime U.S Beef!  Once we have everything set up we wade out on the reef about 100 yards in knee deep water, then it drops down to about 4 ft of depth. Fins on, we surface swim a little further, and then drop into the top of a hole down into the reef.  It bottoms out around 35 ft and from there we enter a cavern that we follow through and out to the actually reef face.  The sand is about 35 ft and the reef wall comes right up nearly to the surface all along it, in some places actually poking above the surface.   The water here is a tad saltier than the Atlantic, so we actually had to add a little weight to achieve proper buoyancy.

The Numerous World Class Dive Sites in El Quseir

The Numerous World Class Dive Sites in El Quseir

The coral life is so very alive and healthy here, with an amazing variety of hard and soft species, lots of reef fish, and all the neat little critters that make a dive special.  We head north about a half mile along the bottom, then reverse back higher up on the reef, and I am positive we have picked a winner here!  Water temp was 75 degrees, so while not quite ‘tropical’ certainly no gloves or hoods needed.  I’m wearing a 4/3mm full suit for warmth (and to avoid marine incidents!) and doing fine with staying warm. We finally head back in and as we surface and stand up on the top of the reef, where we are greeted by Steve’s team who is there to carry our fins and assist us back in – service plus indeed!

Large Pristine Hard Coral Head on Fanadir House Reef

Large Pristine Hard Coral Head on Fanadir House Reef

We enjoy a bit of a surface interval here and the wind kicks up, blowing at about 30 mph off the sea.  Let’s hope this dies down soon!  After a nice break we toss some tanks in the van, and head north to the harbor, about a mile up the road in town.

We pass through the downtown area of El Qusier and pull into the harbor.  Here Pharaoh Divers keeps their local fleet, consisting of a 28 meter (90 ft) long “day boat”, their “Speed Boat”, a 20 ft Zodiac-style boat, and another larger Zodiac.  Additionally they utilize another local boat for some of the inshore dive sites, and that is what we’ll be diving off today.

Port security protocols are a little different here than in the U.S. due to a heightened worry of invaders from across the sea.  Folks who follow my blog know that I have bit of personal experience with port security and international invasions.  Obviously the Egyptians also have a little history here to support that fear, as this land has been invaded dozens of times in it’s history, and most often from the east.  That being said, Pharaoh needs to have permission from the Coast Guard on a daily basis to leave and return to the harbor, and ultimately one single Coast Guard official in the local office grants this permission.  Seems he “went out to the desert” a few days ago and has been incommunicado, so Steve cannot operate the big boat for diving until they find the guy.  This also explains why there is no night diving by boat off the coast, cause you know you’ll be in some missile launchers sites all night long while sitting out off the coast.

El Quseir Harbor-"The Land that Time Forgot"

El Quseir Harbor-"The Land that Time Forgot"

But it gets better – the government built a new fancy police station here in town, and the Coast Guard felt slighted, with their little office on the water in the harbor.  So they demanded a new building too!

And they received it – a brand new, shiny Coast Guard station – except the only land available was a couple blocks from the harbor, in downtown El Qusier.  And after spending all that money on the ‘crib’, guess what they did not have?  Money left in the budget for a vehicle!!!  Yes, in spite of the fact that the station is located far from the water and the coast they are “guarding”, they have no vehicle assigned to the station.  So every day that Pharaoh wants to head out with their boat, they need to drive over to the Coast Guard station to complete the paperwork (no radios here!) and then, if the officer wants to do a visual inspection, they have to drive him to the boat, and take him back to the station when complete.  Shaking my head here…

So we load the gear onto the big boat and get a chance to tour the vessel.  This is nothing like any day boat you will find in North America, as it is 100 ft long with a 22 ft wide beam, and roomy beyond description.  Although built only 12 years ago, the all wood construction is full of details such as curved glass doors, a hardwood floor throughout the salon area, a bar, couches and chairs with ornate wooden legs and details, enough sun deck area for about 40 people, and more.  By Egyptian custom and prudent local security foresight, the captain lives on board the vessel.  The whole experience is a bit surreal, as you feel like you have gone back in time when you look around at all the details and finish that you’ll never see on a Newton or Island Hopper boat.

The Huge Sun Deck of the Noir El Medina Dive Boat

The Huge Sun Deck of the Noir El Medina Dive Boat

So we will use this vessel today as a staging platform for our diving, plus a nice place to do our briefings, complete our surface intervals, and enjoy a hot cooked lunch.  The crew shuttles our gear over to the smaller neighbors boat via the zodiac so we can head out for our first dive.  We get our wetsuits on, climb down, transfer over, and head out of the harbor.  You may be asking, how does this boat get out?  It’s all in the licensing and the local Egyptian ownership, but that is a whole story in itself. The good news is that we are diving, and the wind has died down!

First drop is at Ras Qusier (literally the Head of Qusier, don’t ask).  We do a hot drop and backroll off the boat, dropping onto the reef wall face.  Everyone is cool, so we drift on down the wall to the sand, and narcosis junkie that I am; I keep heading down to hit the 150 ft mark.  There was plenty further to go, but I don’t want to worry my friends, so I enjoy the euphoria for a bit before heading back up to a shallower depth along the base of the wall.

A Large Coral Outcropping Busting Out with Red Anthias

A Large Coral Outcropping Covered with Red Anthias

Lots of cool critters here to see, in addition to the amazingly healthy varieties of coral.  So much vertical profile in the reef, with lots of grooves, channels, and holes to explore.  Fish life is healthy, even with an indigenous population of lionfish, who have been here for thousands of years and evidently have developed a following of natural predators that keeps their population in check.  It’s funny when you talk to the locals about lionfish problems because that is truly an alien concept to them, having had them living in balance with the rest of the marine population here for as long as anyone can remember.  We see Nudibranchs, black lobsters, turtles, Napoleon wrasses, yellow tail barracuda, huge flatworms, Crown of Thorns starfish, and many more delightful citizens of the deep, large & small.  Our plan is to head along and then cut out to see some “secret” pinnacles covered with anemones and clown fish, but we are having such a great time we never make it nearly far enough down the reef to see that.  We’ll have to come back!

Crown of Thorns Starfish on Fas Quseir Reef

Crown of Thorns Starfish on Fas Quseir Reef

We surface and the boat is right there to pick us up.  It’s kinda cool to be the only boat in the ocean, let alone the only divers on the entire reef.  Nice!  We head on back to the ‘mother ship’ and the crew swaps tanks while we enjoy a little sun and surface interval.  But the cook has been busy, and we are called to lunch in he salon, another great spread of hot and cold items, varieties of meats, and more.  We talk about our next dive, and agree to return to where we left off on the last one ‘cause it was way too nice to not see more of it.  After that we’ll just motor over to another reef location for our fourth dive of the day – I am liking Steve and his passion for diving!

Large Moray Eel Surrounded by Red Anthias

Large Moray Eel Surrounded by Red Anthias

So back we go, drop down, enjoy even more of what I mentioned above, surface, and motor over to the last site.  This is the Cathedral, and consists of a bunch of cavern and cave-ish systems under the reef.  We drop and I lead the group in, and what a really cool dive this turns out to be.  I so love being inside caves in the water and there is no disappointment here as this labyrinth goes on and on under the reef.  OK, my friends are cold so we need to head back on up, all smiles and laughing over what a great dive that was.

Blue-eyed Lobster hiding in the darkness of the Cathedral

Blue-eyed Lobster hiding in the darkness of the Cathedral

Back to the mother ship, and we pack the gear (OK, the crew packs the gear, this is a Trish Arrington sort of resort – the boys do it all for you!). We grab our personal things van it back over to the dive center, say good night to our friends, and get shuttled back over to our hotel.  Once there, Dave heads over to the restaurant to grab dinner, but I am so beat I just crash for the night, still in my bathing suit!

Day breaks and we’re up and running early, at the restaurant at 6:15 to make our sandwiches.  The van is spot on time for a 6:40 pick up and we down to the dive center, where Steve and a group of nine German divers await us.  They pile in and it becomes decidedly more “friendly” in the van, but we’ll be fine for our hour and ten minute ride south to the Marsa Alam region, where Pharaoh has another of their four operations is located.  Here we’re going to head out on a 10 meter Zodiac, similar to the Wild Side boat in Bonaire, to dive a couple of sites on Elphinston reef.

Our stepping off point is a ‘camp’ sort of resort, with actual tents on the beach for rooms, a nice restaurant, and a pretty hopping dive center with a pile of fast Zodiac boats.  We gear up under the shady huts, and walk on into the water, where about 75 feet out, we walk up a set of stairs to a dock.  Now one thing I have noticed with docks and jetties here so far, is that a) wood must be expensive for the legs, and b)it is easier to work at low tide.  So, as a result, every dock we have seen so far is under water at any time other than dead low tide.  Interesting!

Shagra Dive Camp with view of floating dock and dive tenders

Shagra Dive Camp with view of floating dock and dive tenders

But I digress… we get on the dock and then into the Zodiacs, with the Germans splitting into two groups.  Three of them join Dave and I on our boat, along with our guide, a young man named Mohammed.  He’s got a great command of English so we enjoy a lot of banter as we get ready to head out.  The briefing was completed back under the huts, so there is no need for any more of that detail now.  We are heading into the wind with seas running around 3 to 4, with an occasional 6 and 8 footer.  It’s a bit of a Wild Side experience, but we pound through, with our captain looking very much the Somalian pirate part with his headdress flying in the wind as he races our boat out the 5 or so miles to the reef.  The reef itself is a seamount that rises from the deep ocean floor to a depth of approx 10 ft at the top, and it’s about 1,000 feet long and 100 ft wide.  Before we go we decide to send in the Germans, who drop off the boats in a fairly  un-synchronized fashion in spite of the eins, zwei, drei, loudly shouted out by the leader.  A couple of minutes later, heads are popping in various places around us, so the lack of synchronization was not limited solely to the boat entry.  They finally get them all back on the boats and re-position for a second drop.  Meanwhile we decide it is time for us to go, so the three of us drop over and down.

Colorful Coral Heads on Elphinstone with Swarms of Anthias

Colorful Coral Heads on Elphinstone with Swarms of Anthias

We are at the very northern point of the seamount, so I decide to drop to 160 to check out the life there, before heading up slowly with the team and working our way along the edges.  The density and variety of corals here is amazing, and the entire mount is covered with fish.  Pretty darn cool dive, and we get a good 45 minutes of bottom time before shooting our surface maker and getting picked up by the boat.  Once we have the Germans on board, we head in, break down the gear, and load up the truck for our second site inspection, just back up the road a bit in Abu Dabab, home of the dugongs!  The dugongs are eastern manatees, and the love the grassy flats here as do quite a few large sea turtles, so our hopes are high!

Second dive was in Abu Dabab off the beach at Solymar Resort, a beautiful seaside complex catering to Italians.  It is a bit surreal gearing up to the lilting sounds of Italian classical music being piped to speakers on the beach.  We wade on and this starts out as a grassy flat plain in 10 to 25 feet of water, and is the year round home of a dozen very large green sea turtles, in the 400 to 500 pound range.  We aren’t down four minutes before we are greeted by the first of our turtles, a huge green one, complete with a couple of bright green remora escorts and a pilot fish.  This turtle could not care less that we were right there, and swam between Dave and I, munching away on the sea grass.

Big Turtle with Remoa and Pilot Fish in Two at Abu Dabab

Big Turtle with Remoa and Pilot Fish in Two at Abu Dabab

What an excellent photo op this was!  We accompanied him for a bit, flashing away with the camera, and finally turned and left him on his own as we searched for our next exciting sighting, and we were immediately rewarded with a guitar shark swimming past us. Cool!  Another turtle, more sharks, ho hum, this is getting boring…. just kidding…this is fantastic.  We decide to head over to the adjacent reef which is covered with life but unfortunately the viz here today is quite low so it is tough to really appreciate the true beauty of this particular area.

For those Fish ID’ers amongst our readers the Red Sea has a lot of the critters we see in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, but also some interesting additions to our regulars sightings:  pipefish, guitar sharks, crocodile fish, unicorn fish, Picasso triggerfish, Emperor angelfish, Sweet lips, batfish, blue spotted stingrays, bright green remoras, amazingly multi-hued parrot fish, and huge morays that I could not get both hands around touching finger to finger – don’t ask if I tried!

Back in the truck we head another 10 km north to Shoni Bay, where another of the Pharaoh Dive Club centers are located.  After a tour of the beautiful grounds, we gear up and wade out to Steve’s Zodiac boat. Once onboard, we motor out about fifteen minutes to our entry point and drop into the reef, descending down the wall to about 100 ft before leveling out and starting our drift dive home.  This reef, like so many of the others, is absolutely pristine, and so full of life and variety is it utterly amazing.  We spend an hour poking around and working our way south, finally turning the corner into the bay and ending up back at the beach where we started.  Another wonderful dive in the books!

Superfast  Zodiac Tender at Pharaoh Dive Club in Shoni Bay

Superfast Zodiac Tender at Pharaoh Dive Club in Shoni Bay

On our way back to the hotel we stop to visit Port Ghabil to check out some liveaboards that we might use for a future trip, and also get to drool over some high-end custom yachts docked along the waterfront.  This harbor area is the result of a Kuwaiti investment and nothing was left untouched – it has a Disney-like feel to it, with everything first class and welcoming.  After our stroll, we stop in at the waterfront TGI Fridays for a snack.  One great day of diving with friends, and now here we sit, Pink Floyd music being played, professional soccer on the TV, and cold beers – does it get any better than this?

Finally it’s time to go, so back in the truck to drop off our gear at the dive center, and head back to our hotel for the night.  Second night in a row I am too beat to even make it down to dinner, so we blog a little, upload some photos and videos, and call it a night.

Wednesday morning and today’s plans are to do a little wreck diving just north of us in Safaga.  Steve picks us up at 7:15 and we travel 80 km north the port town. On the road to dive I take advantage of an opportunity to learn even more about the local customs in Safaga 80 k north of El Qusier.  First, there are a lot of police checkpoints along the coast road – these guys pretty security conscious and take invaders and other nere-do-wells pretty seriously.  The second thing I pick up on are the white lines that are painted down the middle of the road, in some areas they are dashed, and other areas have a solid white line.  This comes to mind because Steve crosses that solid white line a few times to pass slower moving vehicles, and I just thinking, “hey, correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t that solid line indicate something about passing?”  Well I am glad I asked, because Steve enlightens me on the local highway department practices, and suggests I look a little closer at the solid white line, and take notice that they have repainted it with a dashed white line on top, indicating it is now OK to pass.  “Silly me”, I am thinking, “of course!”  Not like they could have blacked out the old white line or anything…. just paint white stripes on top!  Amazing.

So our 80 kilometer ride is mainly through continuous desert broken only occasionally by a single home or hotel or military security checkpoint.  We pass some islands covered with mangrove trees, some of the only greenery we have seen in this region.  One thing I have noticed is there are literally hundreds of partially constructed homes, hotels, resorts and the like, which are sitting with no obvious indication of recent construction activity.  I query Steve, and here I learn of another little quirk in the local law – the government owns nearly all the land, and individuals can purchase it for development, but, and this is a big but, you have to start construction within a certain time frame or the government repossesses your real estate!  Hence the “pour the concrete and lay some bricks” approach – we can work on finishing it later!  Not pretty, but it works for these guys.

New Wooden Live-aboard Being Built at Dry Dock in Safaga

New Wooden Live-aboard Being Built at Dry Dock in Safaga

We drive past a huge drydock facility, where they service and maintain boats as well as construct new ones.  Every boat built here, like our day boats, is made of 100% wood.  Sure, that makes sense to me, as I gaze upon the barren desert – where the heck do they get the wood?  So I ask a few folks today, and get the same answer – “I don’t know”.  A pretty closely guarded industrial secret I am thinking, cause no one knows where the wood comes from!  That actually sort of becomes the trivia question of the week, and no matter whom I ask, no one has a clue.

And I am thinking, if you came here with a fiberglass hull mold, you could kick butt in the boat building business – there’s my business tip for the day!

Finally we enter Safaga, our destination for today.  Most of the resort areas here are somewhat dedicated to attracting tourists from one or two nationalities, and Safaga is basically a German town.  Our dive operator is Ducks Diving, who runs 6 large day boats out of the harbor here. This is a pretty first class operation, and their shop, boats and equipment are pretty state of the art.  So we back the truck up with our gear and here come the equipment handlers, leading a donkey pulling a cart!  How cool, I think, as we load our tanks and gear onto the cart and the donkey is lead down the dock and to the boat.  You know we’re not in Kansas anymore!

Our Donkey Equipment Tender at Ducks Divers in Safaga

Our Donkey Equipment Tender at Ducks Divers in Safaga

Gear loaded, we get on board and wait for the others to load. But wait – there’s no one else getting aboard – Dave, Steve and I have our own 110 ft long private boat and crew for today’s diving!  Talking about living large – this is VIP treatment to the max!

Before we go, though, we get to enjoy another local treat – there are four or five mosques within earshot of the docks, and you can quietly hear the background start to come alive with the call to prayer.  Each mosque has a huge loudspeaker system mounted in it’s minuet tower, and the leaders call out to the members that is time for one of the five daily prayer sessions.  So the calls get louder and louder, and sort of like a Led Zeppelin soundtrack, they pass from tower to tower as the leaders somewhat synchronize the cacophony of chants.  Some of our crewmembers stop their work, and begin their prayer sessions wherever they are.  I am honored for the opportunity to be here and observe this cultural and religious experience.  Very, very different!

Back to our private yacht for the day, this really displays an amazing spirit of cooperation between dive operators in this region; this would be such an alien concept in the Florida Keys where this is so much bickering and in-fighting between the dive operators.  Steve has, over his 20 years here in Egypt, developed a great network of friends and allied businesses, and it truly helps him stand out as a professional in his field and someone I would heartily recommend to others.

Our first stop today will be on the El Arish or (El Tori) wreck, a 240 ft long ferry boat scuttled allegedly as an insurance fraud claim in the early 2000’s completely intact.  It sits on its port side in 120 ft of water a mile off the coast, and everything is still on the boat from the day it sank, including the automatic life boats which never fired upon sinking – good maintenance there for sure!!

Wreck Briefing on Sea Tiger by Divemaster Emad and Steve Rattle

Wreck Briefing on Sea Tiger by Divemaster Emad and Steve Rattle

Emad, our multi-lingual divemaster, gives us a thorough briefing of the dive site, and points out that there is NO PENETRATION on these wrecks.  God, I love a good guideline!  We splash, and can see the wreck right from the surface in the clear water.  Down we go, and we begin to swim along the wreck, until I come upon an opening in the deck…well you know where this is going!  Let’s just imagine, if you will, that I actually penetrated this wreck!  Very cool, but of course one would need to take care as there are objects falling and hanging inside, silt is thick, and there are no escape cutouts…. hey this is a neat wreck!   I (might have) spent a half hour or so inside, working my way around the machinery and fixtures, before rejoining my Steve and Dave.  Dive stats: 111 ft for 45 minutes – way to start off the morning!  Very cool wreck – we’ll have to come back and actually do some penetration!  (wink, wink).

Nudibran and Red Corals on the El Arish Wreck in Safaga

Nudibran and Red Corals on the El Arish Wreck in Safaga

Back on board, we talk about what might be inside that wreck if we were to actually penetrate it, and begin our slow drive over to the next site.  One thing about these big wooden boats with single engines…they are slow as heck!  So our surface intervals won’t be a problem at all!

Dive #2 will be on the wreck of the Salem Express, a 330 ft long ferry boat lost due to pilot error in a storm that drove it into the reef in 1991 with the loss of over 1,600 lives, mostly Egyptian Muslins returning from a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.   That is the unofficial count, which, if official would make it the greatest peacetime maritime tragedy ever, surpassing the Titanic.  But you would have to have records for all those extra seats sold, cause the ship was only rated for 650 passengers, which happened to be the official count of how many were on board when it sank – interesting!

Large Cafeteria Area of the Salem Express

Large Cafeteria Area of the Salem Express

The ship is resting on its starboard side in 115 ft of water, reaching up to within 35 ft of the surface.  We drop down, and again, like Ulysses and the Sirens, there is an opening in the deck just screaming out my name!  OK, I am weak, and I must obey the call, so in I go.  I drop into the cargo hold, and let me tell you, my breath is immediately taken away as I swim silently over thousands of suitcases, boxes and bags or personal belongings, seeing the name tags and claim tickets which will forever rest at the bottom of the sea, along with the owners.  This is almost overpowering, just sensing the madness that went through this area one late December night twenty years ago when the ship hit the reef and was lost beneath the waves within two minutes – too fast to even launch the lifeboats, which were still in the davits.  We spend an hour down here, touring sleeping rooms, the bridge, and some machinery spaces, before heading up to debrief aboard.

It’s prayer time again on board, so the crew tends to that, and when done, it’s time to bring out the hookah, so they gather in a circle on the deck huffing away and sharing a good smoke together.  Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore!!

Wreck #3 on today’s adventure is the Al Kafain, a 300 ft long cargo freighter that caught fire and sunk here in 2006.  Wind drove it into the side of a reef and it capsized, coming to rest on the bottom with the superstructure at 90 ft and the keep sitting up at 30 ft (which was until recently on 6 ft, so the ship is collapsing on itself).  Our plan originally was to drop from the Zodiac, check out the wreck briefly, and work our way around this pinnacle back to the mother ship, but we kept the option open to spend more time at the wreck if we liked it.  Turned out to be a very cool wreck, so we checked it out a little more closely.  It was kinda eerie as I entered (in my imagination, as there is NO penetration!) the first cargo hold and there are all the life jackets floating and jammed against the ceiling – spooky! We explore the wreck for about an hour, finding an all white Pepper Moray, a nice swimming black flatworm, a bunch of nudi’s, and some more of the usual critters.  But you know me, and there is an underlying need within me to “root around” so root around I do, and guess what I find?  The ship’s china, and there is perfectly preserved coffee cup with the emblem “K” on it from the shipping company.  How cool is that for a souvenir??

Large Propeller of the Upside Wreck of Kafrain

Large Propeller of the Upside Wreck of Kafrain

Finally it is time to head up, so up we go to the safety stop, and I unfurl my SMB and shoot it up to the surface for our supposedly waiting Zodiac driver to see.  We hang, expecting to hear the sounds of a speeding propeller at any moment.  We hang some more…well we have to hang, cause Steve is diving a Suunto computer and still has another seven minutes of deco obligation to off-gas (no comment on the Cochran vs. Suunto bottom time match-up).  Finally, we surface, and with memories of a recent Coral Sea incident fresh in my mind, there is no Zodiac in sight.  In what is evidently the local fashion, Steve shouts out at the top of his lungs, and the boat crew finally picks up on it, and here comes the Zodiac.  Man how I love it when a plan comes together!

Back on board, we pack our gear and enjoy the leisurely ride back to port.  Did I mention these boats were slow?  We pull up near the dock, and the crew gets it together, with lots of obligatory shouting and yelling that’s Egyptian for “discussing”) we finally manage to swing it around and slide it into the dock. Our donkey awaits, the gear is off-loaded, and we head off south again.

Roots Camp, water-pipes, and local ‘connections’…

Steve has a surprise stop for us, at a new project he has undertaken.  He has partnered with Roots Camp, an alternative style lodging and adventure resort along the coast.  The facility is great, with nice low budget, low amenity rooms, common showers, some new self-contained rooms, a restaurant, dive center and more.  Backpackers and budget travelers love these places, and what better location than right here for one!  We are really impressed with the operation and sit down for a chat with Steve’s two Egyptian partners.  Hassan is the former local chief of police, and Nazese, also known as “The Doctor”, is a railway engineer, and a professor of engineering at Cairo University. He also happened to have spent two years working on his doctorate in engineering in the lovely state of Oregon, so he was pretty savvy about the US and our language, which helped a lot in our political discussion about the world and the current state of affairs in Egypt.  Tonight the news announced the ‘regular’ police were coming back, as they had been sort of hiding for the past couple of weeks, after picking the wrong team to support in the revolution.  Eighty-five police stations were torched over three days during the revolt, so the people voted with their actions and showed the love they have for the cops.

Hanging with Locals at Roots Camp...When in Rome....!!!

Hanging with Locals at Roots Camp...When in Rome....!!!

We are there yacking away for a couple of hours, and enjoying some cold Stella’s (OK, maybe the Christian side of our table is enjoying the beer) and out comes the shisha, or water pipe.  “What flavor tobacco would you like”, I am asked, and I get to choose from honey, cherry, some other fruits, and a couple of flavors that I have no clue about.  I stay on the conservative side, picking cherry, and they set the pipe up.  Some cooling water in the bowl, a replaceable sanitary tip for the mouthpiece (pretty nice feature), the tobacco gets loaded in the top, then some glowing charcoal is placed over the tobacco to provide the heat to drive the flavor (and all the other good chemistry) out of the tobacco and into the pipe.  It is a pretty hard inhalation to get good flow through the pipe so it’s a little ‘heady’ just getting good puffs going, but I soldier on, not wishing to insult my hosts in any way.  Out comes a second pipe, with a different flavor tobacco, and I start to enjoy that.  Water pipe, cold beer, I am thinking, how could this get any better?  So I jokingly say, “I bet this would be great with hash in it”, and Hassan’s eyes light up and he says, “You want hashish?”  Whoa now, OK, let’s keep this nice and ‘proper’, so I respectfully decline the offer.  Whew!  International crisis #3 averted!  Finally it’s time to head back down the road and we say goodbye to our new friends, enjoy the short drive back to the hotel, and call it a night.

Thursday now, and our next to last day of diving with Steve and his gang.  The Coast Guardsman has been located, and we have permission to leave the harbor, so we head out in Pharaoh’s boat to a couple of sites just south of El Qusier.  The area is known as Serib Kebir, and we are going to do three dives here. Our first drop will be from the zodiac, which will run us a bit to the north, and we’ll dive our way back to the boat, which is moored in the center of the site.  We splash in right on top of some fantastic coral formations, and spend 55 minutes, with depths to 85 ft, just taking in the fantastic hard and soft coral here, literally covered with fish and anemones.  This place will be tough to beat, I am thinking, as we head back up to the boat.

Pharaoh Dive Club Divemaster Fatie Conducts Briefing for Serib Kebir

Pharaoh Dive Club Divemaster Fatie Conducts Briefing for Serib Kebir

A little de-gassing time on board, soaking up some sun on the upper deck, and it’s time to dive again.  This time Steve is going in with us (he sat the first one out) cause he wants to show us this site personally.  OK, I like the sound of that!  We head in right from the mother ship, with no zodiac ride, and swim south along the outside of the reef at first, finally stopping and turning towards shore and into the labyrinth of coral pillars and mounds.  Each turn through these formations just gets better and better – not even in Australia did I see such a collection and variety of healthy first-growth corals and fish counts – I am literally blown away.

Glass Eye Snappers Congregate on Serib Kebir Reef

Glass Eye Snappers Congregate on Serib Kebir Reef

Can it get any better, I ask myself.  Well, yes it can…cause there are caves here!!  Really cool caves, into the reef, with hundreds of navigationally challenging passages, dead ends, and cathedral-like openings – no narcosis needed here, I am in total awe.  An hour later, with depths to 120 ft, and we re-surface, and I tell Steve that without question this has been one of the Top 10 dives of my life!! I am amazed.

Shallow Swim-Through on the South Side of Serib Kebir

Shallow Swim-Through on the South Side of Serib Kebir

Back on board the crew has lunch ready for us, and it’s tough to chew with the huge smile on my face after that last dive.  We have another surprise, as there is a visitor on shore for us to pick up.  Andreas Tischer, the owner of Dive In Dahab, has driven over to meet us.  He will be our host for next week’s segment of the ‘Dive the Revolution’ tour, so it is great to meet him and start the transition.  It’s an immediate good connection, and so we spend some more time talking, relaxing and de-gassing, before finally Dave & I head in for our third dive, with Fati leading us.  We zodiac south a bit and work our way back to the boat, limiting ourselves to 100 ft for an hour, and passing again through the area we just explored with Steve.  Man, I really love this area!

Enough diving for the day, and still in quiet awe over the second dive, we head slowly back in.  And I mean slowly, holy smokes, this single-engine heavy wooden boat makes the dive boat Venture look like a cigarette boat!  But we make it eventually, and clean up for dinner with Steve, Claire and Andy.  Another great evening, and we put our heads on our pillows for the last time at this hotel.

Luxor and the southern antiquities…

Today we are going to head up to Luxor, with a few stops in between, but there is time to get in at least one more dive!  So we gather at 7 a.m. and head down to the beach in front of the Roots Camp to check out that reef, known as Abu Sauatir.  The wind is howling from the north today and it is cold, but we are here to dive.  We gear up on the beach and Andy is joining Steve, Dave & I for this one.  Wait a minute, we are in the Sinai, diving the Red Sea – what the heck is Andy pulling out of his gear bag?  A 7 mm Waterproof Drysuit!  What the heck is up with that?  Next thing you know he’ll be diving a Suunto!  We gear up, and head in.

Steve Rattle Briefs Andres and I on the Roots Camp Reef Abu Sauatir

Steve Rattle Briefs Andres and I on the Roots Camp Reef Abu Sauatir

Here we have a cut out through the reef, and there is a strong seaward current out the cut as it carries all the water from the waves that are breaking over the shallow reef.  Evidently it gets quite strong at times, as Steve has installed a pull-rope system underwater to use if needed to come back in, hand over hand.  Fortunately it is not needed to day, but we certainly feel the outward flow upon our return.  Since it’s the only dive of the day, I slip on down to 160 ft for a bit to check out the deeper marine life, and we end up with a 50 minute underwater experience on another fine local reef.

Clownfish Protect Their Sea Anenomoe on Abu Sauatir

Clownfish Protect Their Sea Anenomoe on Abu Sauatir

Back to the hotel, grab breakfast, showers and pack, and we jump into Steve’s van with one of his drivers for today’s journey.  Steve has given him good instructions, we think, cause we’re in trouble otherwise as there is no common language between him and the two gringo’s he is hauling around.

Our first stop is about two hours north, in the harbor town of Hurghada.  This is the largest and most southern Egyptian city along this piece of the coast, complete with an international airport and a busy harbor.  Our purpose here is to check out a couple of potential liveaboards for a future trip or two, and so we have agreed to meet one of the owners at the Marriott, right on the harbor, which is also where his fleet docks.

Nathan and Fefe of Blue O Two in front of Blue Horizon and Blue Fin

Nathan and Fefe of Blue O Two in front of Blue Horizon and Blue Fin

We walk in, pass through security, and there in the lobby is Nathan Tyler, the Director of Blue-O-Two, and his International Business Development Manager Frederique “Fefe” Morisod.  They are excited to have us there and have two of their boats at the dock for their end-of-the week turn-around, so we get to tour them without any customers on board. As we saunter down the dock past the other large boats, it suddenly becomes obvious which two boats we are coming to see, because they stand out among this crowd for size, finish & cleanliness.

If I thought the day boats here were nicely appointed, then there is no way to describe these vessels.  Nothing but rich finished woodwork everywhere, like a high-end traditional yacht in the states.  Every floor is fitted mahogany or teak, there is no paneling or fiberglass or painted surfaces anywhere.  The furniture is right out of a nice living room; the bar looks like it belongs in an old English pub – truly just amazing. And nothing was scrimped in the rest of the creature comfort department – they have huge dive decks and swim platforms, sunning areas, every cabin is way oversize compared to any liveaboard I have been on – let’s just say I was impressed!

I Take Command of the Blue Horizon....Good Thing We Are Docked!

I Take Command of the Blue Horizon....Good Thing We Are Docked!

So impressed, in fact, that booked a ten-day trip for 2013 right there while I was talking to them – we need to spend some time diving the Red Sea on these puppies!  Look for more details on that later!

Business complete, now we head towards Luxor, approx 400 km west.  We drive past at least a dozen or more military /police checkpoints, filled with cops of various flavors, all basically just leaning on their AK-47’s and chain smoking cigarettes, waving the cars by.  Some checkpoints had “guard towers” which is just a nice name for another place to put another guy or two that is doing nothing.  Talk about a job creation program – these guys make the TSA look like a productive workplace.

We drive past more random steel barricades set up in the streets without any warning or hazard lights, and speed bumps galore, just in the middle of any old road – seems this is the national program to slow cars down, and they are doing it well.  Update – we have just passed our 20th checkpoint now – not that I am counting or anything!

In fact, only at one did anything even remotely resembling any sort of security process take place.  A plainclothes cop (like all the regular cops are – there are no uniforms for the ‘regular’ police) came over to the van and asked Dave & I to write our names on a blank form he had,  – yes, just write our names, never asked for any ID, no passports, no nothing – just our names…Dave had the form and I said just put my name there too – Mickey & goofy is what I think he wrote, but the cop was happy to have two lines filled out n his form, and we were allowed to pass.  What a waste of humanity and resources this entire security system is.

By the way, the security checkpoint count is up to 24 now and we are still not in Luxor.

Travel by car here is not for the faint of heart or queasy of stomach – the drivers are absolute cowboys – constantly beeping horns, flashing lights, passing anywhere on left or right or opposite lane, ignoring oncoming traffic, tailgating you… name something you could get a ticket for in the states and I will point it out to you while it is happening here – weaving, swerving and cutting, this is a good place to hire a driver and forego the desire to rent and drive yourself – note to self!

We enter the town of Luxor, passing through another half-dozen police points and probably 20 more impromptu traffic barricades – still unlighted and unmarked.  We come to an intersection, just past another police checkpoint,  – and our non-verbal driver stops the van and just jumps out, leaving it running.  OK, this is weird…now he returns and some other non-verbal guy climbs in the passenger seat…who the hell knows what is going on here…this is really weird…I am in the third seat so I say to Hartman “ask what’s going on here”, but he is speechless, and frozen in place.  Is this another international incident unfolding before my eyes?  Is this guy a good guy, or what?  Hartman asks if he is our guide and the one-word answer is  ‘no’…OK, that too was weird…at least we are still on well-lighted streets so I am not yet thinking that some Saudi princess has targeted me to be kidnapped as her stud muffin and eternal cabana boy, but you never know…stranger things have happened…

Suddenly, that fantasy is shattered as we lurch to a stop, the mystery man jumps out, the driver jumps out, and it takes me a few seconds to realize we are at our hotel.  Long story short, through an interpreter we learn that our driver was clueless on directions in the town of Luxor, that the guy was in fact a cop (how would you ever really know that?), and he had been asked by our driver to provide directions to the hotel.  OK – interesting local custom, but we are here, my stud muffin dreams are shattered, and we have to check into the hotel.

View from our Room of the St. George Sonesta Pool Deck

View from our Room of the St. George Sonesta Pool Deck

In the lobby we meet with our host and Learning Through Travel’s head of Egypt operations, Afifi, and his associate Ahmed at the Sonesta St George Hotel, right on banks of the Nile River.  This will be our base of operations for one night and a day while we speed-tour the cultural sites here in Luxor.

Ring, ring, goes the telephone and it’s our early wake up call to get started on today’s tours.  We grab some breakfast and jump in the van, heading south along the Nile to cross over the bridge.  This area is very lush in crops, and there are vast fields of sugar cane to the left and right of us for miles as we drive along.  There are also literally hundreds of guys hauling sugar cane, from huge diesel tractors pulling multiple wagons of the cut plants, to pickups piled high, to donkey-drawn carts with smaller loads.  Exactly how the financial model works here eludes me, and no one I ask understands enough to give me a straight answer, so I just enjoy the view and give up on trying to figure it out.  I can tell you, they don’t farm this way in America!

Hot Air Ballons Rise Over the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor

Hot Air Ballons Rise Over the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor

Finally we cross over the bridge, and find ourselves on the West Bank of the Nile.  In ancient Egyptian culture, East means life, relating to how each new day is born with the sun rising over the eastern horizon, while West is equated to death, again, dominated by the sunset and each day coming to an end.  So it is natural that you find most of the life, temples and events located on the East Bank and the tombs, cemeteries, and other resting places located on the West.  By no means is this a hard and true law cause there were plenty of examples of exceptions, but it’s a cool cultural thing.

On our way though we get a very nice surprise.  Right here alongside the road is the site of the Colossus of Memnon temple.   It was huge back in the day, with all sorts of ceremonial sections, rooms and buildings, but a few good earthquakes over the years, coupled with a complete lack of any sort of maintenance program, led to it’s demise and the dilapidated state it is in today.  Add to that a few thousand years of local contractors hauling away stones and supplies for homes and other things they are building, and you can imagine what ultimately remains.  But this particular temple has been the target of continuous archaeological research for many years now, and you can see the tents and camps of various schools and groups set up, with a lot of people poking around, scratching the dirt, and sifting through sand for bits of history.  But right smack in front of the former entrance there are two huge carved statues, and I mean huge, which originally flanked the entrance to the left & right.  They were too big to steal I suppose, and carved right out of the ground so the earthquakes and robbers were not a threat.  And right in front of that there is an active excavation taking place, and we get to witness history in the making!

So here is a hole, maybe 40 ft long x 15 ft wide x 6 ft deep, being hand dug by about 15 guys with picks, who are filling up rubber buckets with dirt, passing them up out of the hole, and another couple of guys with wheelbarrows are running non-stop, emptying the buckets into the wheelbarrows, and then running them over to a growing pile a short distance away.  Look, I’m not saying anything, but one guy with a backhoe and a dump truck could take over this country!

But wait…there is a lot of shouting in the hole, and the westerners who were obviously the scientists or supervisors come running over.  They’ve hit something in the hole, and no one knows what it is!  So they continue to dig away, eventually unearthing a stone that measures about 18 inches square and five feet long, covered with ancient carvings.  By Jove, it’s a piece of the temple!  So now to get it out of the hole!  OK, where’s the nylon sling for the backhoe…oh wait, forgot where I was.  Fine, let’s just grab a bunch of mis-matched pieces of rope, get the whole 18-man team on it, pushing and pulling and lifting, and well look at that, it is now outside the hole!   High fives all around and a great photo op for Dave and I!  Timing is everything, eh?

Tombs of Pharoahs Inside the Natural Pyramid of the Valley of the Kings

Tombs of Pharoahs Inside the Natural Pyramid of the Valley of the Kings

OK enough of this, back in the van and let’s get up to the Valley of the Kings before it gets busy!  This is a site in the rocky hills here where they have unearthed to date 63 different tombs of kings, pharaohs, nobles and a few select other inner-circle types.  In the visitors center they have a really well done acrylic three-dimensional display, showing the valley and landscape about, with the tomb entrances, and then underneath, to-scale representations of the actual tomb excavations.  Truly amazing how deep and long so many of these man made anthills go into the earth, and a testament to the early engineers (and early cheap labor!).  From there we walk out to the bazaar that serves as the pathway to the shuttle trains (think Disney parking) that will take us to the tomb entrances of King Tut, King Ramses the IV, and the rest.  But first we have to run the gauntlet of local pushy vendors and their wares, which are constantly shoved at you at every step here. It’s a Tijuana atmosphere at many of these public places with the vendors – -evidently  ‘no” and “no thanks” are NOT in the Egyptian language at all.  So I shift to Plan B – indifference…maybe they’ll get the hint!

The Tomb of King Tut Ankh Amun

The Tomb of King Tut Ankh Amun..Buried in his Jammies!!!

Once inside the tomb entrance area, we buy a pass that lets us enter a few of them, and let me tell you, these babies are built for comfort as opposed to the pyramids we experienced the other day.  Nice wide walkways, high ceilings, great symbolic artwork on the walls, just a very neat thing to experience.  The sad part is the scumbags, squatters and grave robbers who have visited these places before us.  So many of the mummies were actually discovered elsewhere, cause it was a common Egyptian ‘smash-and-grab’ tactic to pop the top off the coffin, throw the mummy over your shoulder and run like hell.  Then, once you’re in your safe place, you rummage around on the dead guys corpse and hope to find all the jewelry that legends have it he was buried with.  But in some cases, the last guys to close the coffins made sure that all that gold wasn’t going to waste, and it never ended up in there in the first place.  Sort of like inner-city paramedics stripping wedding bands and jewelry off unconscious or dead victims as they transport them to the hospitals – yes, sad but true.

Finally we have had our fill of dead guys holes, so we head back out, survive the bazaar once again with wallets and money intact, and jump back in the van. We pass back out of the valley, passing the Valley of the Queens next door, and a few other significant temples and building sites, some intact, some restored, and many in ruins.  We run back up to the hotel to grab a quick lunch, get our bags, and head out for Part II of the world’s fastest cultural tour – the East Bank!

The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatchepschut in Valley of the Queens

The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatchepschut in Valley of the Queens

This is the last day all of us will be together, as Dave will be flying back to America tomorrow while Afifi continues on with me to the Sinai Peninsula.  After all these cultural tours and my many questions, Afifi mentions to Dave H that he is really looking forward to this upcoming week with me…mostly cause I will be underwater most of the time!  Nice.

Stop number one on the afternoon tour is the famous Temple of Karnak, located smack-dab in the center of Luxor.  This is a huge, and if I mentioned huge before, then this is the hugest huge temple structure.  It was really the cult center of ancient Egyptians back when Luxor was the capital of civilization.  There are hundreds of towering carved columns here, obelisks everywhere, stonework, sacred rooms and chambers, a special ceremonial & spiritual pool, and more, of everything mentioned above.  This place, if I have not mentioned it yet, is huge!

Afifi El Shimy and I in Front of the Main Pylon Wall of Karnak Temple

Afifi El Shimy and I in Front of the Main Pylon Wall of Karnak Temple

We come upon the Holy Scarab statue – legend has it you dance around it seven times and your wish comes true.  Yeah, right…but wait, there are a couple of German girls going round and round….go figure, these guys are from the land of the Maypole Dance, so it’s not too big a stretch.  The rest of the tour ends uneventfully and we head back out to the van for a drive-by of a few more sites on our way to the airport.

The most impressive is the ceremonial causeway, a virtual super-highway built to connect Karnak to Luxor Temple.  It is a couple miles long probably 200 ft wide, and all hand placed stones, with zillions of carved statues lining each side.  These guys clearly had too much free time on their hands!

Sinai or bust…

We get to the Luxor airport now for our flight to Cairo, where we’ll bid farewell to Dave and then continue on to Sharm El Sheikh for some more diving and educational touring.  Here the skycaps are just a gang of un-employed guys with a few shopping carts, so we take good care of them and our bags are delivered safely to the counter.  Once there, we know we are in Egypt again as Afifi has to argue with the counter staff, and involve a supervisor, and negotiate my extra bags (they wanted $700 in extra baggage fees!).  End result: Team Afifi/Dave 1, Egypt Air 0.

An hour after takeoff we touch down at Cairo International Airport, and taxi to a stop.  There are just a few jetway ramps here so the norm is to park out on the tarmac and unload into buses for the ride to the terminal.  Once there we have some time, so we do some promotional videos for Learning Through Travel, interviewing me, Afifi and Dave, with some good infomercial sort of discussions thrown in to promote tourism and travel in Egypt. Finally it’s goodbye to Dave, and he goes and collects his bags.  Rami will be meeting him here and escort him to his hotel, and he’s got a morning flight back to the land of the red, white & blue.  Afifi and I kill some time in the terminal before catching our connecting flight to the Sinai, landing at the Sharm El Sheikh International Airport just north of the city.

What a pleasant surprise awaits me there – it is Mohammed Ali, our driver, who Afifi has sent from Cairo to be our transport here for the week.  Very nice to meet a new/old friend here in this land so from home!  We roll into the town of Sharm El-Sheikh, and what an eye-opening experience this is, so vastly different than any part of Egypt we have seen so far.  Think ‘South of the Border’ meets ‘Las Vegas’ – this place is pure neon and glitter!  Mile after mile (OK, kilometer after kilometer) of hotels and resorts and golf courses and aqua parks, and even casinos – if you are looking to play then this is the right place!

But before we get into all that, let’s look at a little history.  Back in the late 60’s the Egyptians needed some money to build a hydroelectric dam at Aswan on the Nile, and approached their international friends for some help with the financing. The story has it that England, France and Israel all said that it was a good idea and they would bring their checkbooks to the party.  But when it came time to pony up, the big buys balked, leaving the Egyptians without funding for their dam project.  “Well we can fix this”, they thought, decided to take possession of both sides of the lucrative Suez Canal.  Yeppers, that’ll show ‘em!

Well needless to say, but some ideas definitely look better on paper, and this quasi-military action fell into that category.  It was not long before the powers that be decided to take back the canal and open it up to the world.  That certainly did not sit well with the leaders in Cairo, and they stewed on it for a few years before deciding to act.  Now while it was indeed a novel idea to invade the Sinai and Israel – let’s just say this proved to be not one of their most well thought out plans.  As history would show, they failed miserably and quickly, hence the incident being known forever as the Six Day War.  To help ensure a little advance warning the next time Nassir decided to send his tanks Eastward, the Israeli’s help on to the Sinai and occupied it.  They took advantage of the place, and guess what – they built some settlements!  What a surprise!

Finally, fifteen years later, a major international peace conference, the Camp David Accords, was held, and Israel gave the Sinai back to Egypt.  Of course there were a few restrictions; for starters, there was to be no Egyptian military presence on the peninsula. So you get one guess who got to hold that bag and expense to ensure this land was not up for grab – yes, the United Nations, and primarily the US, have been here “defending” this border ever since.  Sense a financial fleecing here?  Someone should revisit this idea and end this taxpayer-funded negative cash flow!

But I digress…all this touring and typing has my whistle a little dry, so I say to Afifi, “Hey, let’s stop at one of these little supermarkets and I’ll get some drinks for the room”.  “OK”, he says and instructs Mohammad to stop at the next one.  We pull to the curb, and I jump out and say, “Give me a minute here”, and Afifi says, “Wait, they will take advantage and overcharge you in there, let me come”.  OK, no sweat, and the two us head into the store.  I grab a few Diet Cokes and a water or two, and we put it on the counter.  Of course, nothing has a price marked, and everything is done a little hand calculator, so who knows what the real price is at any point in time.  The clerk announces the total in Egyptian Pounds, and Afifi says, “Do you have any Egyptian money?”.  Well no I don’t, so he pulls out his wallet and says he’ll tae care of it.  But before the transaction is completed, there is the customary arguing and verbal exchange for some negotiated discount, and then he pays the adjusted new amount. Whatever – that sort of shopping experience is so alien to me; just tell me what it costs and I can decide if I want to buy it or not.  We walk out and I offer to settle up with him later.  But they had no beer in this store, so I say, “Let’s go next door for some brews to go.”  We go in, I grab some Stella’s and Sakara’s, we put them on the counter, out comes the calculator, some more negotiation, Afifi’s wallet is out again, and we’re done.  So we’re walking out to the van, and out of the blue, Afifi turns to me and says, “So who’s your daddy now?” I just about bust a gut, this coming from such a relatively low-key guy.

Finally, we pull up to our ‘crib’ in Sharm, the Radisson Hotel, and Mohammed honks the horn at the front gate.  And as typical with most of the major hotels here, the driver hands his ID over to the security guard, and we sit quietly while another officer does a quick walk-around with the highly-trained (yeah, right) bomb sniffing dog and we pass the tail wagging test!  To the reception area, and Afifi takes care of checking me in.  The front desk manager has a ‘special offer’ for us, in light of all the business Afifi brings them, to upgrade my room.  Only hitch is I might have to “walk a little” to get to it.  Heck, I’ve been in hotels before, how can I go wrong with an upgrade.  And a little walk could be a good thing.  So I accept their offer and we complete the check in process.  One of the staff pulls up in a golf cart and shuttles me, along with my baggage, to the room.  I note we are riding at a pretty good clip for about five minutes, and it’s all downhill…that should have been a hint, eh?  We finally arrive and the room is indeed nice, with a view right over the pool and the Red Sea – very nice!

Sunday morning dawns and I pack up my dive gear in my mesh bag and head up towards the reception area for breakfast.  Remember that “little walk” thing?  Thirty freakin’ minutes of uphill climbing and zigzagging through this immense resort facility and I finally arrive, huffing like a steam engine, at the front area of the hotel.  Into Mohammed’s waiting van and we are off!  We pull up to the guard house, collect Mohammed’s ID, and pull out to meet a van from Pharaoh Dive Center, our operator of choice for the next couple of days.  It’s a twenty-minute ride to Sharks Bay harbor, where we will board our boat for today’s diving.  There I meet Pharaoh Dive Center owner Osama “no, not THAT Osama” Roshdi, and my fellow divers, Maria and Verresch Dufraing from Antwerp, Belgium, and Sebastiano Dallago and Paula Sangiovani from Bergamo, Italy, a small town about 50 km north of Milan.  The five of us have our own 110 ft long dive boat for the day – sweet!

But before we can board we have to have our group together and Osama needs to request permission for the boat to dock.  I take the opportunity to snap a few photos in the harbor, but when I shoot a few of the security area, the cop in charge gets pretty livid about having his photo taken and demands that I delete it.  OK, sure, I can do that…good thing I shot 3 or 4, so I delete the lousiest one.  He is satisfied, and we avoid another international incident.  Now that gets me to wondering, what would a cop have to hide, not wanting his photo taken….hmmmm….was he perhaps one of the club-swinging, crowd-busting camel riders from the recent protests in Cairo?

Enough of that theory, it’s time to board, so the boat pulls up to the dock and we walk out to greet it.  We climb aboard and meet the crew, but wait; here comes a few guys in street clothes following us aboard, talking to Osama.  OK, they are police of some sort, and they need to see ID’s for everyone on board.  I don’t have my passport as I left it in the van with Mohammed and Afifi, but Osama says, “Just show them your diving card”.  I do, they pass it around, it evidently passes muster, and the cops collectively agree that they have completed their mission today and national security is intact, and we can finally head out to sea.  To be honest, these guys make America’s TSA agents look like rocket scientists – it’s obvious they don’t have a clue what they are looking at, they never counted how many bodies were on board and if that number matched the number of ID’s they had, you get the picture.  As far as the ID is concerned, it has to be something “official”, like a government issued passport, or maybe a library card.  They all carry the same weight with these guys – amazing.

The captain fires up the engine, and then, to my complete surprise, he fires up another engine!  Whoa – so unlike our previous day boats this puppy has twin diesels!  Unlike most diver operators around here who lease privately owed boats each day, Osama actually owns this boat and another smaller (60 ft long) one.  That gives him an upper hand in controlling where we are going and when we are leaving, both important attributes in avoiding crowds of divers.

Huge Sea Fans at Jackson Reef, Straits of Tiran near Sharm el Sheikh

Huge Sea Fans at Jackson Reef, Straits of Tiran near Sharm el Sheikh

We motor out past hundreds of other yachts and commercial vessels in this busy harbor and start our way up the reef line.  Today we head north to the Straits of Tiran, off Tiran Island, which is the home of a large UN military base.  It’s taboo to come too close to the island or especially ashore, so we will dive on some of the many pinnacles that ring the island.  As we sail along the reef, we pass quite a few hulks of sunken and half-sunken vessels that have crashed into the reef and been left to decompose in place, doing whatever additional damage to the reef that may involve until the sea has absorbed the wreck.  Unlike the US and other areas, there is no agency here that would address such things as reef protection and removal of sunken boats from them – sad but true.

We are actually diving in the Gulf of Aqaba, which is that part of the Red Sea that lies between the eastern shore of the Sinai Peninsula and the western shores of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan.  We will start our dive day from a moored position so we head to one of the two moorings along Jackson Reef.  There is one boat already there on the other mooring so we tie up on the free one.  These are actually double moorings, so the boats tie up bow and stern parallel to the reef edge.  We are still tying in when another boat pulls up, and ties alongside the first boat, “raft-style”.  Wait, here comes another, and another – soon there are four boats rafted together on the other mooring.  I turn and look and here is another boat coming our way, and they pull up alongside us, then another, sow within the course of perhaps 25 minutes a total of seven boats have descended upon this reef to discharge their divers!  Kinda like Molasses Reef in the Keys on a busy Saturday in the summer!

While I am taking this all in I start to hear a sound coming across the water….I listen hard, sure enough, I hear it again, clearer and louder….it’s someone calling out “Hello Dave Valaika”.  What the heck, here I am about 8,000 miles from home, and who the heck is calling my name?  Well it turns out to be one of my Scubaboard compadres by the name of ‘Crowley’ who had been following the blog and knew where I was diving today, so he brought his boat from Sinai Divers out to dive near us – what an amazingly small world it is indeed!  We connect, have a laugh, and make a date to meet up for a beer (or two or three) later tonight in town.  Cool!

So we get to gearing up, and Osama is going to dive one-on-one with me to show me the best parts of one of his favorite reefs.  As we dress he looks over at me and says, “How deep do you want to go?”.  Wrong question to ask, I am thinking, but I’ll play along “Let’s see what we can find”, I respond.  OK, that settled, we finish gear up and splash.  From the moment we hit the water it is clear why this is one of his favorite reefs – there is an unbelievable array of colorful healthy corals and swarms of fish everywhere I look.  We cruise along, working our way down the wall, and I am thinking how thankful I am that Osama has brought out these fat 15 liter (108 CF) steel tanks for me, and that I chose air as my mix of choice just in case opportunities for some nice deep-ish drops like this came up.  We continue to drop to an undisclosed depth, and spend nearly an hour enjoying the reef around us.  We start our deco with a minute at 70 ft and slowly work our way back towards the boat and up to the surface, coming up with nothing but smiles after one fantastic narcosis-enhanced dive.  Welcome to Sharm El-Sheikh!

Masked Butterfly Fish on Tom's Reef, Straits of Tiran, Sharm el Sheikh

Masked Butterfly Fish on Tom's Reef, Straits of Tiran, Sharm el Sheikh

We relax on board for a bit, enjoying some ‘Sinai time’, as the crew works on lunch.  You have to be patient to dive here (yes, I can’t believe I said that either!) but soon we are called to eat.  Today we have a few selections to choose from the enormous spread the crew has prepared – salad, some other sort of local salad, fresh baked pita bread, meatballs, fried chicken, hamburgers, stew, pasta, rice, fried sweet potatoes, soup, and a couple of other things that the crew could not explain well enough through the language barrier to make me feel confident enough to give them a try.  Plus the best part – Osama has Diet Coke aboard!  Woo hoo!

After lunch there is time for some of the crew to enjoy a nap, while the rest of us sit and enjoy a truly international political discussion.  It is pretty interesting to hear how different the views are on world politics and events from folks who hail from different corners of the globe.  We had Belgium, Egyptian, Italian, and American points of views and commentary of so much of what was going on around us.  Today is an interesting day as Mubarak’s trial for crimes of corruption begins on this first day of the Egyptian workweek.  He was arrested at his home here in Sharm a couple of weeks ago so that really opened up a lot of discussion on Egyptian standards and customs.  But it was really interesting to hear Maria and Verresch share some stories of their recent vacation in the Tunisian border town of Djerba, where they were suddenly surrounded by about 250 refugee Chinese workers who walked across the Libyan desert to Tunisia to escape Ghadafi’s violence and madness there.  They had no food or water for the past two days, and the hotels in Djerba put out a big spread – really heartwarming to see how the people of the North African nations are pulling together to help each other as the region goes through this period of political upheaval and change.

And it turns out that Sebastiano works in a handicapped community in Italy, and noticed my IAHD-Americas Dive In Festival t-shirt.  We spoke at length about the programs and how the members of his community would benefit from the opportunity to enjoy scuba diving experiences.  Look for a visit to Bergamo in my near future.

Finally, finally we can dive again!!  Yes…I was jonesing to get back in the water!  Osama is sitting this one out for some crazy reason (I’m thinking the blood coming out of his right ear after our dive might have been a sign), but my gills need moistening!  So I buddy up with Verresch and Maria, and in strict accordance with PADI standards, I make the second dive shallower than the first, limited myself to the official Egyptian depth limit of 160 ft – yes I know, what a rule follow I am!

I have to take a moment to compliment Osama on being such a savvy businessman and owner of such a class operation.  He owns his own boats, which gives him a lot of control over dive site selection, departure times, and most importantly, customer relations as it involves his crews.  All of his guys are really friendly, open and personable, and they make it feel like family to be on the boat with them.  Everyone acts like a professional, and there is no yelling or screaming here. Of course, Osama being an Egyptian helps too, but still he has chosen a good team and done what is necessary to keep it together.

So what better way to celebrate a great day of diving than a few cold ones with friends at the pub?  I have arranged to meet Crowley at Champions sports bar so Mohammed drives me over and I head in to a decidedly non-Egyptian atmosphere.  I sit down at the bar, they pour me a tall draft, and before I even inhale half of it, there is Crowley coming in the door.  He’s from the UK, an has been teaching here in the Red Sea for about 8 years now, with some interim stints in Australia and a few other places.  We sit and chat and shoot the shit for a bit, and a couple of his friends join us for some fun and laughs.  All too soon it is time to call it a night, and I head out to Mohammed’s van and he whisks me back to the hotel.  It’s “lights out” about two minutes after my head hits the pillow, and I sleep with a smile looking forward to another great day of diving coming tomorrow.

Monday now and it’s time to dive the famous Ras Mohammed National Park area on the south side of Sharm El-Sheikh.  This area is highly rated and a must-do dive in nearly every guidebook you pick up on Red Sea diving, so the excitement is high.  We’ll be diving again with Pharaoh Divers who did such a great job yesterday.

I call for the golf cart at 7:30 (the heck with that ‘little walk’ nonsense) and meet Afifi and Mohammed in the reception area.  Grab a quick breakfast from the sumptuous spread the hotel restaurant offers, and we head out.  We drive to Travco Harbor, which is a few miles south of yesterday’s departure point, and closer to the Ras Mohammed area.  Osama truly runs a first class operation here and has thoughtfully moved the boat during the night rather than make us have a longer-than-necessary boat ride today.   Through security, and I am reminded “No Pictures No Pictures No Pictures!!” so I only get a few discrete shots!  In keeping with the general inconsistency of the security process here, we are not required to show any ID at this harbor.  Go figure.

We wait in the ‘holding area’ while Ligia, our dive leader today, requests permission for our boat to approach the dock.  Here we meet the rest of today’s team, including a couple from the UK and a Brit taking his open water class.  Again, five customers and 110 ft of boat – not too crowded!  Finally permission is granted, and we walk on down to board the boat.  It’s a relatively short ride out of the harbor to the dive site, and our plans are to actually do a drift dive here, starting at Anemone City and then swimming past Shark Reef.  We gear up, gather on the swim platform, the captain toots the horn, and we drop.  The reef opens below us and the viz is as we have come to expect here, forever!  I buddy with Verresche and Maria again and we start along.

Clownfish at Anemone City, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park near Sharm

Clownfish at Anemone City, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park near Sharm

The first impression of the Anemone City portion of this dive site is really good, with huge carpet anemones and oodles of clownfish swimming about.  Lots of colorful soft corals and life here, and it’s tough to take it all in.  We could have just spent our entire dive here with a camera, and in retrospect, we should have!  But swim we must, so we cruise along, and at some point Verresche turns off into the blue, with Maria following.  Who am I to argue, so I go along, and what we are doing is crossing an open area to get us to the next pinnacle, which is Shark Reef.  We spend another forty minutes cruising along here.  Halfway along we pass by the wreck of the Yolanda, a small freighter that was evidently carrying plumbing supplies and sank on the reef, cause the sea floor is littered with piles of piping and hundreds of porcelain toilets and sinks.  Interesting, but once you’ve gotten over the novelty of an intact toilet on the sea floor, the rest get pretty boring.  Ho hum….move it along.  One thing I notice here is that this reef is in a period of rebuilding, with all the basic hard corals that originally built the pinnacle structures essentially dead, and now serving as a rocky framework for all sorts of new soft corals, some sponges, and some young hard corals.  Very much like a Key Largo reef to be accurate.  I hate to judge too quickly, but I am not overly impressed with Ras Mohammed, at least not yet.

Blue Spotted Stingray at Jolanda Wreck, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

Blue Spotted Stingray at Jolanda Wreck, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

We move the boat a bit as Ligia needs to make her “instructatory dive” with her student.  After some initial confusion on my part, I learn that this is Egypt-speak for an Open Water Discover Scuba Dive.  We head towards a mooring area, and it’s raft up city again, as we pull up tight to two or three other boats already moored there.  These Egyptians sure are sociable here, cause they like to keep the dive boats close!  She splashes with her student and we get some additional chill out time for de-gassing.  You have to be pretty dang relaxed diving here, cause they sure like to move at a leisurely pace.  Clearly, we need to adjust that for our upcoming IVS trip!

Instructatory dive over, it’s time for the lunch spread to come out.   I didn’t think the crew could out-do yesterday’s feast, but I am wrong.  The variety, quantity and tastiness of the food are truly amazing and no one will lose any weight diving here.  And of course we enjoy some leisurely off-gassing time, which of course means we are missing potential bottom time, so the net result for a nitrogen-addict like me is that I will have to plan this next dive ten feet deeper to make up for the stress!

Sheer Coral Walls at Ras Ghozlani, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

Sheer Coral Walls at Ras Ghozlani, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

We finally move to our second dive site, called Ras Ghozlani, still in the park.  A little confusion between the captain and the crew, but eventually we hit the desired drop spot, and over we go, again this being a drift dive along the reef.  A pretty area, with scattered coral heads and coral clusters, separated by white sandy areas in between, it makes for a pleasant dive.  We keep this one shallow, 100 ft max, for an hour.

From there we head back in, and make pretty decent time with this twin-engine boat. Osama is waiting for us dockside, and we get our gear unloaded and into the van.  But before we go, he has a surprise in store for me!

Water Rescues & Hyperbaric Chambers…

“Let’s take a little walk”, he says, and we head a few properties down the street.  We stop, and with a wave of the arm, he announces we have arrived, at the Sharm El-Sheikh Water Rescue Team headquarters.  Technically called the Red Sea SAR-Med Center, this is a pretty cool and very vital operation, responsible for ALL water rescues and emergencies in the entire southern Sinai area.  We meet Mostafa Nabil, and the takes us out back where he shows us their souped-up Zodiac boats, loaded on trailers and ready to be launched and underway in under 10 minutes.  We head inside and he shows us the radio communication system, medical clinic and everything else needed to help ensure the health and safety of the water sports loving public here.  It is interesting because the facility was built with private money and gets no assistance from the government, in spite of the number of tax dollars paid and jobs created by the scuba and water sports industries.  One hundred percent of their operating budget comes from donations and insurance company billings.  But, as our host points out, close to half of their rescues and emergency calls are from locals, who typically are not insured so they perform more than their fair share of charity work. It’s just really great to see such dedicated people who are here in the event that they need to be called upon.

I thank Osama for that pleasant surprise and begin to say goodbye, but he says, “No, we are not done!”. OK, cool, I’m still in, and with that, we walk across the street to a building under construction, with a low white building next door.  As we get nearer I can read the sign; it’s the Hyperbaric Medical Center! Well how about that, I think, this just keeps getting better!

So we walk in, and there ready to greet us is Dr. Adel Taher, the founder, designer, director and chief medical officer for the center.  Osama introduces Afifi and I to him, and we sit down to chat.  The talk, naturally, turns to hyperbaric medicine, and within minutes he and I have connected with mutual friends throughout the diving medical community and the hyperbaric medicine associations also.  Another example of an extremely small world, and how the web you weave in life can touch upon so many other connections that you would never imagine.  He knows the guys at the University of Pennsylvania’s team, and at DAN, so the bonding is again, immediate.  And on top of that he designed his chamber system, which of course is right along the lines of what I have done over the past thirty years of my engineering career, so we are talking valve choices, regulators, system redundancy, etc etc etc like a couple of excited school boys.  I sense he doesn’t get a whole lot of visitors that have such a handle on not only what he does there, but also how he does it.  I look over and Afifi is rolling his eyes – this darn American knows everyone!

And this entire hyperbaric medical center is his baby, from concept to daily operation.  As an avid diver and medical professional, he saw the need for a treatment center in the Sinai with the exploding growth of the diving industry.  Me worked his connections to get through the local political traps and secured the land for his clinic.  Recognizing Egypt as the “Land of Unfinished Construction Projects” that it is, he knew that he needed his system to be designed so that the locals could not sabotage his plans with excuses, delays and shoddy workmanship.  Also recognizing the complete lack of maintenance support and funding for spare parts available the system needed to be able to operate with multiple component failures without jeopardizing the patient undergoing treatment.  In his own words, it needed to be “Egyptian-proof”.  A pretty tall order, but Dr. Taher was up to the task.

He started by designing the entire center around using standard 40 ft shipping containers, which could be easily transported to the site and interconnected by his own staff.  Like a modular home, the first three containers sit side-by-side, with the reception and examination area in the first, the chamber and treatment area in the middle one and finally the complete piping, controls and gas storage system in the third.  Additionally a fourth container contains redundant emergency generators to keep the process going through a local power loss, which is not uncommon at all.  He had the system built in the US, securing donations and funding from a variety of sources and personal connections, and then had it shipped to the site, which he had already prepared.  The containers arrived on Friday and by Sunday afternoon the chamber was fully operational!  That in itself was a tremendous feat and all the credit is due to Dr. Taher.

But it gets better!  In addition to his redundant valve, piping and control design, he can operate the chamber fully automatically, or eve with multiple failures, in the manual mode, ensuring that a patient being treated will be guaranteed service without interruption.  And his tinkering is not limited to the mechanical realm – he added a booster system and helium lines to the system so he can experiment with chamber treatments using high helium blends which have proven to be more effective for treatments than a standard Oxygen or Nitrox mix.  He is also seeing very positive results in treating other conditions, such a Cerebral Palsy, using his custom blends and high gas pressures.  The downside is that these treatments are considered “alternative” and as such, not covered by insurance, so the lack of funding limits the development of these new and exciting processes.

But the clinic is doing well, and currently Dr. Taher is installing a twelve-place treatment chamber from Germany, with individual gas mix feeds for each patient and a fire suppression system, which is really cutting edge in chamber designs (and helps avoid an Apollo-like incident).  He showed me the system, which is partially installed in a new building he put up, adjacent to the original clinic.  It looks great, but I took one look at the smoothly bent stainless lines, compression fittings, neatly routed conduits and the overall general finish of the installation, and said to him, “Are you using local contractors for this work?”.  He laughed, and said, “Remember what I said earlier?  This is being installed by crew from Germany – it’s obvious isn’t it?”  We laugh at the mutual understanding and appreciation of professional contracting and workers who take great pride in everything they do and touch.  Enough said.

And yes, there’s an IVS label on the chamber to let the world know we were here!  Can’t forget that finishing touch!  As we are getting ready to leave, he says he has something else to show me, so we walk out to a garage he has out back, and Dr Taher proudly shows me his motorcycle collection.  I am not surprised that he is a motor head also, another trait of that left brain thinking process.  But wait, “What’s this?”, I ask, eyeing a couple of older models, painted in olive drab.  Sure enough, it’s a 1942 BSA WM40, built during the war years and exactly the same as those that are stacked for eternity on the Thistlegorm, the most famous wreck here that I am not going to be able to fit into my dive plans this week, sadly.

Well sensory overload complete, Osama still wants to show me his dive center, so we jump in the van and head over there.  Another grand tour, he introduces his staff, all of which have been with him for years.  He’s got a great operation, a PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Center, complete with everything you need to teach every level of scuba programs.  He has a large well-maintained rental inventory, a redundant compressor system, and all the other accouchements that make it a place you want to hang out at for a while after your day of diving.  Very nice indeed.

Ready for a little Dahab-ing…

With all this extra touring and diving-related sightseeing, Afifi decides to keep us here at our hotel an extra night rather than drive up late to Dahab.  For starters, you can’t drive the coast highway after dark, for security reasons.  So while I have been gabbing with all these folks, he has already moved our checkout to the next morning, and we’ll plan to get on the road early to Dahab.

And like I have not had enough surprises this week, he asks if I would really like to dive the Thistlegorm, because he can arrange it.  Well is the Pope Catholic?  “You betcha”, I answer I a heartbeat.  “OK, let’s do it”, he says, and we start looking at our options.  I am supposed to fly from Sharm back to Cairo Friday night, so we’re thinking a couple of long deep dives that day might not be in my best interest.  But wait, he has Nitrox, can Afifi move my flight back?  That doesn’t look good so Afifi calls the next place I am going on my tour, to see if we can shorten that by a day to get back here.  Well no, they have a calendar full of great stuff for their special guest and now we are coming in mid-day rather than being there first thing in the morning, and yes it will really rock the apple cart if I try to cut a day out of there.  So that doesn’t sound like we want to mess with that!  Then the phone rings, and Afifi’s office has managed to move my Friday flight back to 9:30 at night, so we are good.  Friday it is!  I’m gushing as I thank Osama for his efforts, and Afifi for making mountains (or pyramids) move!

On the way back to the hotel, we stop at another market and I let “Daddy” take care of my alcoholic beverage needs for me – it’s good to have a “Daddy”!

Of course because we stayed in the town an additional night, and now are leaving, Afifi has to go down to the local Tourist Police station and get my “get out of Sharm El-Sheikh” card – friggin’ amazing to have so many petty rules and BS in place in a country that otherwise seems pretty modern.  More on that topic later for sure!

We check out of the Renaissance and enjoy an early morning 100 km hour-and-a half ride up the eastern shore to the town of Dahab. I take the time to attempt to update the blog, but we are in the land of the asphalt speed bump, and no town has more than Sharm El-Sheikh, so a few thousand typo’s later, I give up and enjoy the view. The ride and scenery is beautiful, in a desert barren wasteland sort of way.  All traffic on the coast road needs to be registered with the police so they supposedly know who is out there – of course, in reality, they don’t, but it sounds good.   As we enter the highway to Dahab, we come to the control station – OK, really there three-in-a-row control stations.  Step one, about a dozen soldiers and an equal number of Tourist Police, and we show them our permission slip to travel the coast road.  They want to keep it but Afifi argues NO and we get it back – not sure what that was all about, but again, the “rues” here are truly negotiable guidelines!  OK, we move up 75 feet to station #2, maybe a half-dozen Tourist Police all slinging AK-47’s and 9 mm side arms, and one sticks his head in the drivers window, does the customary handshake with Mohammed and Afifi (skips the obvious infidel, me) and we are good to go.  Go another 75 feet, where the army has a dozen more heavily armed guys in helmets standing around, and we give them a wave and pass through.  Maybe they are scaring some one, but I really don’t get a strong sense of unified national security here.

Camels Roam Freely on the Coast of Dahab....Old School Egypt!!

Camels Roam Freely on the Coast of Dahab....Old School Egypt!!

As we pass through the desert we begin to see actual Bedouin camps, shepherds and herds of animals in the fields.  I have no idea what these animals exist on for feed.  Talk about some primitive living, man there is nothing here!  OK, except piles of litter – the concept of a landfill or trash collection has not made it here yet, so you can imagine the result.  There is some scattered greenery here, indicative of some recent rain this winter, and one of the hazards here is flash flooding, since he ground is so porous when it rains it just runs, wreaking havoc and danger everywhere.  Of course we pass through two more police checkpoints on the way – help me understand – there is only one road, and one way in – how could these subsequent checkpoints ever discover anything different than what the entry points found?  Maybe a lot of tourists skydive in, I don’t know, but there must be some reason other than government job creation, dontcha’ think?

The IVS Adventure Tour bus finally rolls into the quiet seaside hamlet of Dahab.  The word Dahab actually means ‘gold’ which came from the effect of the sun shining on the waters surface and the industrial base is 100% travel & tourism dependent.  It had early historical significance due to its location as a port near Saudi Arabia and a good harbor.  Today there is no airport or ferry service so the only way in is via the highway, and there are only three of them that get here!  There are only five hotels here (that meet western standards) in this town so the crowds are non-existent. We pull into our home du jour, the Iberostar Dahab, and they are a bit less paranoid here, with no dog sniffing of our vehicle.

Our host here is Andreas ‘Andy’ Tischer and Hans Langer, owners of Dive In Dahab.  We met Andy last week when he came over to El Qusier to dive with us at Roots Camp, and the bonding was good and immediate.  He came here in 1998 from Germany and opened his dive center with partner Hans Lange and the business has grown steadily, helped in no small part from his partnership with a German travel agency.  I will be one of the first Americans to grace his operation, so the pressure’s on for me to leave a good “typical American” impression.  I’ll be doing my best indeed!

Andy meets us at the hotel ahead of time (remember, he is German) so I need to hustle and get ready – no rest for the weary here!!  We follow him out and he has a few stops planned.  The first, and most impressive, is the hyperbaric chamber, where he introduces me to the doctor, gives me a complete tour, and makes it clear that they are here to assist if needed and called upon.  It’s very comforting and very great to see that safety and health so high on his list of priorities.  From there we head towards the other side of the harbor, on dirt roads, and end up on a very long straight road to the beach – turns out this was the Israeli military air strip during the years of occupation.  Here we visit Miracle Lake, basically a Sinai version of Palau’s Jellyfish Lake, with a dozen of more endemic species of critters found here and her alone – neat to see!  We take in a fantastic beachfront view of Andy’s ‘House Reef’, stretching about 4 miles down the coast and 100% accessible and dive-able.  Impressive to say the least!

We head over to the dive center and Andy personally introduces me to every one of his staff members, with a genuine smile and a sincere handshake exchange with each.  I meet 21 year old Matthias, who is here doing a six-month divemaster candidate internship, and Angelika, a 34 year old neurosurgeon from Köln, Germany who is here taking her digital underwater photography course from Andy, both of whom will be diving with me the next few days.  Overall the staff here at Dive In Dahab is like family for sure, a real different sort of operation than so many of the other operations here.  There is no caste system and everyone pitches in.  The team energy is high, and Andy assures me that is anyone starts so exhibit slacker qualities, the team either fixes them or votes them off the island, the sense of solidarity is that strong.  He gives me the complete tour, triple compressor system, classrooms, barbecue and socializing area, even where the all-important “deco beers” are kept on ice!  No “Daddy” needed here!

From there we walk over to Marine Biology lab that Andy and Hans have constructed next door to the dive center.  It is a completely self-contained research facility, built with private funding and support from several universities to conduct marine biology and similar programs for research and educational venues.  I meet Dr. Marc Steinegger who is currently working on doctoral thesis in marine animal behavior with the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland.  His particular area of study is cooperative hunting, such as that exhibited by goatfish as they work sand patches alongside each other, kicking out prey and then directing it towards their neighbor’s mouths.  He has an entire marine eco-system set up complete with underwater video recording systems here in the lab, and he demonstrates the behavior for me by dropping a small crab down a pipe into the tank. Sure enough the goatfish gather around and take turns batting at the crab with their barbels until he is popped out of the pipe and eaten by one of the fish.  It’s funny but we witness this behavior often on the reef and never truly recognized that it was as organized as it is between the goatfish.  Part of the practical aspect of this study is that although cooperative behavior, and hunting, is often observed with mammals such as coyotes and dolphins, it was never thought that fish, further down the evolutionary chain of development, were capable of such advanced behavior.  Pretty cool to see live and being documented right here!

The lab also hosts educational youth camps year round, with students from ages 10 to 18 coming to spend two to six weeks on site, working in the lab, the lake, and the ocean to learn more about the ocean and all that goes on within it.  Check out the lab’s website to learn how you might get involved with this great endeavor!

After that exciting portion of the tour, Andy takes me out to me meet my driver for today, Salem Hassan Hamdi.  Salem, like all of Dive In Dahab’s drivers, owns his own nicely kept Toyota pickup.  After experimenting for a few years with a company-owned fleet, Andy decided to hire a team of drivers, each of who own their trucks and who take very nice care of them.  That solved a lot of maintenance and expense issues and raised the bar for guys who want to drive for Andy.

Salem is excited; as his wife is due to have their first baby in the next day or two.  He has a pretty decent command of English, so he shares a bit of his life story with me.  His wife comes from a big family, and he tells me how great their wedding was, with over 2,000 guests coming to the wadi, and a dozen camels and fifty goats slaughtered for the feast.  He tells me how excited his friends were, with the traditional display of joy, firing thousands of rounds into the air from their AK-47 automatic rifles.  I point out how that can be dangerous, with all those bullets falling back down from the sky, and he says yes they know that, so they angle the guns down now and don’t shoot them straight up.  Ah, evolution at work! I’m thinking you just don’t want to be at the party next door!

Andy is really excited about the diving he has to offer so it’s time to get this party started!  Our first site will be right out front on his house reef; at a site he calls “The Islands”.  We are planning a “normal” dive, 60 ft max for 60 minutes max, with clockwork like precision on the navigation, depth and timing – what else would you expect from the Germans?  Andy, Matthias, Angelika and I wade in from the beach until we hit a hole about 4 ft deep, where we don our fins, and then drop right vertically down into a cavern that leads out to a sandy area inside the outer reef.  I love a dive that starts off with an adrenalin rush like that! This site is a series of coral pillars and structures, with huge crevices and valleys between, and a vertical profile of about 40 ft.  It is stunning to put it mildly.  There is so much variety here and healthy corals that is beyond description.  Andy takes me out to an area that was until a few years ago used by local dynamite fisherman, and the destruction to the reef structure is so apparent, with gaping holes in the pillar corals showing how they were blown apart by the indiscriminate blasts of the fisherman.  Thank goodness that has ended, and thanks to the overall health of the surrounding reef, this area is recovering at am amazing pace.  It is truly beautiful what nature, unaffected by man, can do to cure our sins.   We surface exactly 60 minutes after we went in….are you surprised?

OK, now that we have that “normal” dive behind us, it is time to ramp it up a bit!  We drive up the road a little bit to a site called “The Canyon”.  This is a little north of the center of town, and another beautiful site.  Before we go in, Andy asks me if I have a light.  Well yes I do, showing him my OMS canister light.  “Very nice”, he says, as he pulls his canister light out of his bag.  “Is that an mb-sub?” I ask, and he replies, “Yes it – seven years old and only serviced once!  They are the best in my opinion.”  Well what a small world, once again!  I tell him that mb-sub founder and designer Michael Bienhaus is a personal friend and he tells me that is who personally serviced his light for him when he went home to Germany.  I then explain to him that we are the North American distributor for the mb-sub line, and he is blown away.

Alright, dive industry group hug over, it is time to get wet!  Here again we walk on in, and then drop down the face of the wall, to a depth of 200 ft, where we enter the bottom end of a narrow cut in the reef.  It is not quite a cave, being open at various times to the sky, but at other times closed over completely.  We follow the sloping floor towards the shore, finally exiting at around 50 ft.  Way cool indeed!  Such dramatic scenery and views, with a bright overhead sun filtering down through the holes in the roof, really make it a surreal dive.  The narcosis probably helped a bit too!  Once we emerge, we re-connect with the other two, who did not come down to the depth with us.  Angelika is taking photos for her class, so Andy works with her while Matthias and I swim alongside.  What’s this swimming towards me, some sort of flounder?  No, by golly, it is an electric ray, just cruising right over to check me out!  According to most books, they have a charge of about 400,000 volts, but he is so cute, I am thinking, “How bad can this hurt?”  No, I did not carry this experiment any further forward, but must admit I did put it on the bucket list!  We finally surface after 50 minutes of bottom time, again smiling ear to ear with what we just experienced.

It’s lunch time now, so where better to eat than at the local Bedouin restaurant on the beach?  There are plenty of them here, with little huts with pillows and low tables (no chairs in this culture!) and an offering of local coffees, tees and food.  The place we choose is one of Andy’s favorite, and the owner puts a nice spread out for us, a rice-based dish with chicken, lamb or tuna in it (plus some unknowns for me to pick out).  It is perfect after our dive, and we are refreshed.

In fact so refreshed that we are good for a third dive!  We head to the middle of downtown Dahab, right on the water, to an area known as “The Lighthouse” after an old navigational aid that used to exist here.  We pass by about two dozen dive retailers, none of which offer dives or training (part of the unwritten law here, kinda like the Dahab mafia).  Then we get to the waterfront.  There are 54 dive centers in Dahab, and I think about 52 of them are located on the properties that ring this harbor area call the lighthouse.  Andy explains that this site offers year round access even if they are having storms and that most of the local training takes place here.  There is also snorkeling and swimming, plus a few other water sports.  OK, I am thinking, the Dutch Springs of Dahab!

Well I could not have been further from the truth!  The moment we put our heads under water, there was a snake eel looking up out of the sand at me!  Cool!  We swam a little further out, saw more cool stuff, crocodile fish, pepper and giant moray eels, a big octopus, shrimp, crinoids coming out for the night and opening up on the reef, and so much more.  We came upon a nice commemorative plaque that the local dive association had made and sunk in memory of the martyrs of the January 25th revolution, and that was pretty touching – ok, well except for the part where they spelled Egyptian wrong!  But I got the drift!  We explore the wall down to 150 ft, but Andy needs to head up early, as his Uwatec is giving him 13 minutes of deco obligation (versus zero for my Cochran) so we spend the second half of the dive in a “same ocean buddy” sort of mode.  We surface together after 55 minutes and it’s nothing but high fives all around for another great dive!  Back to the dive shop to rinse the gear and Salem takes me to the hotel, where I decide to relax a bit before dinner with a brew at the bar and a little blogging.

The bartender and bar manager come over and talk to me, asking where I am from.  When I tell them America, it is handshakes and smiles all around.  They are thrilled I am here (how come I don’t get that same reception at the Harleysville Hotel?), and upon learning that, keep filling my glass to the delight of a couple of Polish girls on holiday having a party of their own at the other end of the bar, flirting and smiling. I am like a prisoner here, with the Muslim bar staff doing their best to lead me down a road of potential international debauchery – I need to get out of this place!!  Whew, I manage to finally escape unscathed, bid my goodbyes to everyone, and head up to my room to crash.

Technically, we’re still diving…

Wednesday morning and it’s time to meet Andy at 7:00 for an early start.  We have a technical dive planned for later this morning but we want to get a base-loading of nitrogen in the tissues first before we start throwing helium in – all part of my never-ending DAN medical research.   We dive in at a site at the very far north end of the road (if you call it that) known as The Bells, adjacent to the world-famous Blue Hole, which we will dive a little later today.   This is a beautiful remote area with crystal clear water and viz forever.  One of the most interesting features is actually ashore, where the towering bluffs along the coastline here are actually made of coral skeletons, pushed up by tectonic plate action from the bottom of the Aqaba Gulf some 80,000 years ago – just another wonderful example of our earth at work!

The Entrance to the Bells Just North of The Blue Hole

The Entrance to the Bells Just North of The Blue Hole

OK, focus back on the water now Dave! We slip into a crevice that drops out down and out to the reef at about 150 ft, and from there we work our way south along the outside fringing reef that makes up the seaward side of the Blue Hole.  I drop down to about 220 ft and work my way along, slowly decreasing the depth as we head south.  Over the top of the Blue Hole reef we go and then a nice blue-water swim through the center of the hole to cap off a great 38-minute dive.

The 80 Foot Long Chute of The Bells...very impressive!

The 80 Foot Long Chute of The Bells...very impressive!

Now we head back to the dive center to grab the rest of my gear for a “real” technical dive with Dahab Divers.  There we meet Tom Steiner, the owner, his assistant Audrey, and two students that are looking forward to completing their TDI Extended Range program this morning.  We get our gasses analyzed, and run the dive plan through Deco Planner software.  My bottom mix is 18% O2 and 30% Helium, so we plan our maximum depth, deco stops and total run time.  I have two 80 CF sling bottles of deco gas; yes a bit of an overkill, but you know how they’re thinking – “new guy, might be a heavy breather!”  One contains 32% EAN and the other 70%, with gas switch depths of 120 ft and 40 ft planned.  We drive back up to Blue Hole and holy smokes we get caught in the morning “traffic jam” as herd after herd of camels are being led down the road to greet the tourists arriving from Sharm, eager for their hour-and-a-half camel ride up the coast to the little fishing village of Ras Abu Galum (named after the cactus-like plant that can hold vital water supplies for years in between rains).

It’s pretty funny seeing the camels that are not kept in pens, as they have a rope tied between their two front legs.  This limits their range, so you don’t have to look so far when you are collecting your camels.  I am thinking a fence or a leash might be an idea, but don’t want to scare the locals with thoughts of innovation!

e Blue Hole in Dahab-Just Like on Belize but this Hole is Shore Dive

e Blue Hole in Dahab-Just Like on Belize but this Hole is Shore Dive

Finally we are at the dive site, and I have driven there in Dive In Dahab’s pickup truck with Ibrahim, a driver who has worked for over 12 years with Andy – you gotta love that long-term workforce stability!  There are close to a hundred vans, pickups and jeeps all lined up along the shore, all in the traditional local color of WHITE – how on earth are we going to find our technical diver friends?  Wait – of course, here they come, in the all-BLACK pickup!  True techies to the core!  It’s funny, all of these guys have additional lead strapped to their tanks, and I am feeling a bit under-dressed.  They ask what I need in weights, and I say none, and they are amazed – how can you maintain your buoyancy?  I don’t know, just watch me I suppose!  Sorry, I should have given them a more technical answer, but hey, it’s me!  Weighting chat over, we gear up and I buddy up with Audrey while Tom takes his two students in tow.  The plan is to drop in inside the hole, descend to about 170 ft or so, and pass through the dramatic archway that leads out to the open sea.  Unfortunately the viz inside is not as great as it was outside this morning, but still we drop, and Audrey and I enter the archway.  Looking at the depth and the potential for dis-orientation due to narcosis, it is no wonder there are a line of memorial plaques along the seawall remembering many of the divers that have perished here.  Funny thing is, most of them are Russian – must say something for that vodka consumption during surface intervals that is a common practice among them.

Traversing the Arch in the Blue Hole with Plenty of Tech Gear in Tow

Traversing the Arch in the Blue Hole with Plenty of Tech Gear in Tow

Audrey and I cruise down to 210 ft then work our way further south, spending 15 minutes at the depth before beginning a slow ascent.  My Cochran shows a first mandatory deco stop at 90 ft for a minute, but that is due to the helium in the mix, not the nitrogen.  We switch gasses at 120 ft as we work our way up the reef, and then continue to zig & zag back & forth, slowly ascending, off-gassing as we go, until our second switch t 40 ft.  From here we can swim over the top of the reef to the inside, and now enjoy the view from the other side as we spend another half hour floating along.  I take advantage of this time to do a little Project Aware work, accumulating quite a pile of water bottles, coral-choking towels, and various other bits of debris in my arms before finally, at the 60 minute mark, we surface.  Great dive and a great team to dive with, even with that black pick up truck!  As we break down our gear we do a bit of chatting, and wouldn’t you know it, but Audrey spent two years working in King of Prussia, 10 miles (14 km) from Indian Valley Scuba.  Amazing!

The Coral Covered "Saddle" of the Blue Hole

The Coral Covered "Saddle" of the Blue Hole

Andy and Angelika have been diving alongside us, albeit at a shallower depth, as she continued to work on her underwater digital photography skills.  We connect after the dive and head back to the shop to re-arrange the gear and get another dive in.  I really love this guy’s passion for diving, and am truly looking forward to introducing him to more of the IVS family of divers.  Our final location for the day is Um El Sid, a great easy shore entry on the far south end of Dahab, technically outside the city limits and located in the Nabquec National Park area.   We decide to keep this one shallower, no reverse profiling for David today, so 160 ft is the max depth, and we work our way up and along the reef from there.  Lots to see, huge gorgonians, schools of Red Sea Bannerfish, clown fish, jumping which was really tiny shrimp, lionfish (it’s OK, they are natural here) and more.   Finally, 50 minutes later, it is time to head to the land of the mammals again, and we call it a day.  Not too shabby at all, three dives, about 600 ft of total depth and three hours of bottom time – life is good!

Emperor Angelfish at Um El Sid in Dahab

Emperor Angelfish at Um El Sid in Dahab

Hans & Andy decide to throw an impromptu barbecue tonight at the dive center so it’s time for a quick shower, arrange my growing locks, and throw on another low-key Hawaiian short to blend in with the locals.  I invite Afifi to the party, but seems he has been a bit busy today; visiting the Tourism Police station three times already to get “permission“ for me to travel back to Sharm tomorrow night.  Hold on a minute while I climb onto my virtual soapbox here – I have been in Eastern European countries during the 80’s and early 90’s when communism was still in vogue, and the way the game was played was you secured a visa to visit the country, and once there, you could enjoy yourself, spend money, and see the land.  And this is from the real big guys with real big guns.  Here we are with a bunch of AK-47 toting camel-riding cops and they are so friggin’ paranoid about one stinking tourist traveling back down the road 60 miles to where I was already approved to be that they need the president to approve my ‘permission slip’ – but wait – there is NO president.  What a friggin’ circus this is for a so-called National Security program – these guys are afraid of their own shadow and tell me, where do these forms we file “in triplicate” ever eventually end up????  Heck, even the TSA could trump these guys!

OK, back off my soapbox now, Andy picks me up at that hotel and we head to the party.  There I meet a bunch of Dive In Dahab’s guests, and they have put on a nice barbecue spread.  Burgers (meat source unknown, but definitely not pork), baked potatoes, salads, veggies, and all the fixin’s.  We have a great time and I really enjoy this social aspect of this particular dive center – it’s got sort of a “Cheers” atmosphere from the TV show where you want to come and hang around. Finally, enough burgers and beers consumed, I head back to the hotel, steering well clear of the bar and the Polish girls!

Thursday and Andy has planned a day of boat diving for us.  Early get-together at the dive center, load the gear, and we drive from there over to the town dock, or jetty as they are called here.  This is a much smaller harbor than any of the previous ones we have visited, with about a dozen boats in total, and a two-man security force, one plainclothes cop and a uniformed Tourism Police officer.  We have our Egyptian version of a “hall pass” in hand, our permission slip, so we pass on through, with no ID’s, bag checks, or any other sort of security procedure – gotta love the consistency!  We board our boat, the Romy Star, another 80 ft twin-engine nicely finished day boat.

Forty minutes later we arrive at our dive site, Gaber El Bint, where we anchor and plan to do two dives.  We have a few other passengers on board, so Andy will be briefing the entire boat, then diving as my buddy.  He draws another typical highly detailed dive site plan, with divemaster-candidate Matthias watching intently as the master’s hand works.  That is another compliment to the depth and detail that Dive in Dahab put into their training programs – each DM candidate is required to maintain detailed logs, site maps, and time/depth graphs for each dive they do here.  This is just one aspect of how Andy truly prepares his candidates to conduct themselves as true professionals wherever their scuba career takes them.

With the boat secured on the mooring, we head on in to begin our dive, starting in the northward direction.  There is a truly dramatic drop-off that is just screaming my name, so answer I must!  I drop down and spend the first 10 minutes cruising at 200 ft, then work my way back up, finally enjoying the return leg to the boat on top of the outer reef at 30 ft.  One more phenomenal dive and another greater 50 minutes under the sea!

A little break time and relaxing on board, and for this second dive Matthias is going to be my dive guide, with Andy observing.   OK, as we gear up, I realize that this “supervision” will fall under what PADI terms “indirect”, meaning that poor Andy is too chilled to get back in the water!  Major woos!  Matthias & I head in, and get another great 60 minutes underwater while enjoy the southern end of the reef down to 100 ft.  We also conduct a bit of a Project Aware dive here at the end, collecting a dozen or so plastic water bottles and other bits of trash & debris off the reef.

Another great day boat lunch is served up and we fill our bellies while warming up in the sunshine on this perfect day.  We’ve got one more drop planned today, so we head back north towards the town to do our drift dive at a site called Shahira.  The boat captain drops us a bit north of the reef we intended to cruise over, but you know what?  The viz is forever, the water temp is good, there are no currents and we are diving – life is good!  A little more Project Aware work, and another 100 ft’er, with 40 minutes of bottom time to add to the logbook.

Back to the dock now, unload the boat, back to the dive center to rinse gear & say goodbyes (plus enjoy that mandatory deco beer or two), and then I get whisked back to the hotel, rinse off, and pack my gear (loosely) for the ride back to Sharm El-Sheikh.

Time for one more great wreck…

Permission slip in hand, we roll into Sharm and head directly to our hotel for the night, the Concorde.  Our stay here will be very short, which is unfortunate, because this might be the nicest hotel / resort we have stayed in yet.  Really nice, huge multi-level dining area, live music and shows, nice rooms, great grounds – but except for a quick dinner with Afifi, it is all for naught, cause I have a 6 a.m. show up time at the dock for our final day of diving on the Thistlegorm.

Mohammed and Afifi are up and ready to drive “Miss Daisy” to Travco Harbor for our departure.  It’s a little early for security, so they just sleepily wave us through, all the way to the dock.  Nope, no passports or ID, no permission, just basically “have a nice day”.  I am sensing the supervisor must come on around 8:00 and I am sure it gets sticky after that.  So, terrorists and other ne’er-do-wells – the early bird gets the worm here!

We board another nice day boat, but this one is even better than all those before it – it has a steel hull, along with twin engines, which gives it an actual cruising speed in excess of ten knots – woo hoo!  I am thinking about water skiing here today!  I meet my dive buddy for today, Pharaoh Divers’ manager and technical diving instructor, Yann Vautrin, a Frenchman from the Brittany area.  He’s been in country nine years primarily focused on technical diving and training for Osama.  He sees my gear, complete with an extra clip or two, and some color, and comes over and thanks me for not being a ‘cult-based’ (wink wink) tech diver.  He just spent a week with a group of them; all dressed identically in black and one-piece harnesses, and basically described them as serious wanna-be’s hell bent on suicide. Nice!  They were aghast at the fact that Yann smoked, chastised him for it and went on about how it violated the cult philosophy and rules.  But, he said, they had no qualms about downing more than their fair share of beers, and acting upon the results, at the end of each day of diving.  Just funny to hear that perspective from an unbiased third party.

It’s a two-and-a-half hour ride to the wreck so we enjoy a nice breakfast on board on the way out.  And I re-unite with an old-new friend, Ligia, the Instructor from Pharaoh Divers, who is also on board and leading a group of divers on the wreck.  Our plan is to let the recreational divers splash and then go about setting up our gear.  As they are nearing the end of their dive, we’ll go in, hopefully having the entire wreck to ourselves while everyone else is up doing their surface intervals.  Of course we are counting on few to no other boats here, but with our early start and the fastest boat in the harbor that should be the case.  Yann tells me that sometimes during the busiest summer seasons there may be upwards of 25 boats, with 30 divers each, out here diving this wreck – not a thought that excites me for sure!

A little history about our dive site – The Thistlegorm was a British transport ship, just built in 1940, and was sailing from Cape Town, South Africa, full of munitions and supplies for the British troops in Egypt who were, at that time, getting their tea-drinking butts kicked by the Axis armies.  It was attacked at anchor in October 1941, by German dive-bombers operating out of Crete and who were actually searching for a transport ship with 3,500 Australian soldiers aboard.  Good for the Aussie’s as they were not found, but bad for the crew of the Thistlegorm, 8 of who died during the attack and sinking.  The boat went to its watery grave before it could get it’s cargo unloaded, and came to rest in an upright position on sand at 110 ft.  In spite of a fire on board during the attack, the ship, first “discovered” by Jacques Cousteau in 1956 (like no one knew it was there?) is virtually intact, as is the cargo, which includes small arms, ammunition, grenades, a couple of tanks, two locomotives, a few trucks and all the other standard war goodies you find on these sort of wrecks.  It was approx 500 ft long, and has grown a little over time as some sections have opened up or spread out, but essentially it is the size of the Spiegel Grove, just not so “sterile”.

We get about to analyzing the gases, and as requested, we have 36% for a bottom mix and 50% for our deco gas, so my plan of reducing my nitrogen loading prior to a couple of long international flights is looking good.   As we pull up to the wreck site our prayers have been answered – there are no other boats here!  We gear up and splash, and can look right down at this great wreck below us.  We drop down, get oriented, and then head off into the sand to the port side.  Sure enough, just as Yann predicted, we come upon one of the steam locomotives that was blown off the wreck by the explosion, coming to rest a couple of hundreds yards from the wreck, sitting upright and pretty in the sand.  Strange to see it sitting there, but it is picture perfect with great viz and a bright sun lighting things up from above.  The current is fairly strong so we pass on heading further away from the wreck, and work our way back in to explore it.  By now we are alone as all the other “survival divers” have exhausted their air and have gone up on the boat.

If I may take a moment to digress, as a diver who travels quite a bit and gets to see a lot of other folks diving, it is as obvious as day and night when divers are well trained and confident in themselves, their skills and their abilities.  That is always the case with Indian Valley Scuba divers and it is so refreshing to see those same traits exhibited by other non-IVS divers elsewhere.  Today’s divers on our boat did not fit into that category at all, hence my “survival diver” comment.  I call them that because it is amazing that they actually manage to survive dive after dive, and keep coming back to the sport to roll the dice again.

OK, back off the soapbox, the dive is fantastic from beginning to end.  We explore every open space above and below the decks on this wreck.  Row after row of light and heavy trucks, cases upon cases of Enfield rifles, airplane parts, hundreds of motorcycles, locomotives and rail cars, ammunition, and plenty of other cargo.  We see at least three different species of Nudibranchs, a colorful flatworm, a huge crocodile fish, the biggest scorpion fish I have ever seen, eels, and a blind shrimp meticulously cleaning the hole it shares with a goby, using it’s antenna on the goby’s tail to let it know the coast is clear or not to come out of the hole with trash & debris – pretty cool.

Coal Tender on the Deck of the WWII Wreck of Thistlegorm

Coal Tender on the Deck of the WWII Wreck of Thistlegorm

We surface after an hour-plus at 100 ft, and come back on board just as the rest of the gang are jumping back in for their second tour.  The main salon smells good as the crew is getting lunch started so we’ll have some good eating this afternoon for sure.  As soon as the recreational divers re-board lunch is served and it is another winner.  No one loses weight here while diving!

BSA Motorcycles Lined Up in Cargo Hold #1 of Thistlegorm Wreck

BSA Motorcycles Lined Up in Cargo Hold #1 of Thistlegorm Wreck

We head back towards the port, and there seems to be a certain sense of urgency as the ship is making good headway heading into the docking area, weaving between the lines of boats tied up or idling blowing the horn like a cab driver, and just generally showing a bit more urgency than I have come to expect here.  We are being waved into the dock, then waved off, then waved to dock at the end so the captain is pulling it in alongside another boat, which is great, but we are backwards and cannot get off the boat.  The captain figures that out and we move again, dodging other 60 to 100 ft boats all doing the same thing.  Well it turns out that there has been a law since the Six Day War about boats navigating on the Red Sea after 5:00 in the afternoon, so if you are caught out you get hammered with a fine.  So none of the boats want that, so it’s a mad rush to touch the dock before the bewitching hour.  The Tourism Police commander, so obviously absent this morning, is on duty and in fact standing right on the dock, acknowledging the boats as they come in.   What a circus, and so unnecessary – these guys need a unified scuba industry association to get together and get some of these antiquated laws fixed!

But before we disembark, Yann tells me he has a surprise for me – this is like Christmas every day here with surprises!  He has co-authored a book on the Thistlegorm and wants me to have a signed copy.  But he has already called in to the other author to bring a copy to the dock, meet me, and sign the book together.  I am touched by this gesture, and know that I have made the right contacts for Red Sea adventures on this trip.

One last look at security – lots of it…

Afifi and Mohammad are awaiting me in the parking lot, so once we get our book signing out of the way, I jump in the van to head to Cairo.  We have opted (wisely) to blow off the flight tonight, and since Mohammad was already driving to Cairo with the van, I suggested that we just ride with him.  Healthier for me, cheaper for Afifi – everyone’s a winner.  As we leave Sharm, we pass through a major security checkpoint, and Afifi tells me to make sure I have my passport and travel visa ready because these guys will be checking it.  We pull up, and get the customary wave from the collection of soldiers and cops there.  That was interesting, I note to Afifi, and question why we needed the passport out.  He said normally they would have gotten up and come to the car to check out papers – I am thinking the operative words here are “gotten up”.  No one is expending any more energy than they need to at these security checkpoints. In fact, over the next 500 or so kilometers, we must have passed through another twenty of them without incident.  I ask myself out loud, “Is anyone really fooled into thinking anything is getting done here?”

But as we approach the Suez Canal, there is road construction, so they detour the traffic to a short stretch of road that is, in Afifi’s words, “Army territory”.  Whatever that means, I am not sure, but we pull up to a couple of old 55 gallon drums in the dark, and there is one soldier in uniform and one cop in street clothes, who stops the van and asks who we are.  Well hell’s bells, we are the traffic that was just diverted fro the road construction, I want to shout out to him – but I refrain.  So he takes the drivers ID and our “Get our of Sharm” permission slip and gets on his cell phone, shouting into the hone and carrying on like we had the stolen nuclear devices in the back of our car.  Then he is at the window shouting at Afifi who is shouting back, and then he is shouting on the cell phone again – so friggin’ unnecessary so subjective is this whole security process.  Finally some conclusion is reached, our ID is handed back, and we continue.  At each of these stops when asked who is in the back, they simply say “an American” and that satisfies whoever is asking.  I question Afifi about what a “bad” nationality would be, and he can’t give me a clear answer, so I wonder what is the point of asking at all?  It’s back to that Mickey and Goofy thing again.

As we get even closer to the canal here is another checkpoint with a scattering of Egyptian army armored vehicles here to frighten the weak of heart.  We are directed to pull off into a parking lot, where again, so supervisory type questions our driver, and a pair of foot soldiers open the sliding door of the van and stare me down.  Guess they were waiting for me to blink or something, that would have given me away for sure! One is holding a mine detector – yeppers that will work well on a steel vehicle – rocket scientist he is not!  The other says something to me that I don’t understand, so I shrug my shoulders and say that I don’t speak Arabic, so he says something else, also not in English, I shrug again, then finally it clicks and he asks where I am going.  Well my little gun-toting genius, friggin’ Cairo, where else does this road go, is what I want to say, but I limit it to “Cairo”.  We must have passed the test cause he smiles, waves goodbye and closes the door – that was one tough test for sure!  Can you sense that I might have exceeded my checkpoint congeniality limit by this point in the trip?  We continue on our merry way, through the Suez Canal tunnel, and into Cairo, where I am staying at the Iberotel at the airport.  Time to re-pack the bags, post the blog and get ready for my flight home in the morning!

What a fantastic week this has been, not only from the cultural and social aspects, but the diving has been phenomenal – 28 dives logged, all but six of them deeper (or a lot deeper) than 100 ft, with five deeper than 200 ft, and 1,520 minutes of total bottom time – I am so loving the Red Sea! And looking forward to coming back in 2012 & 2013!

So I get up and check my email for any late breaking news, and guess what – there’s something here from my friends at Delta Airlines! Yes, there might be yet another surprise on this never-ending adventure.  I open it up and am, to say the least, shocked!  My 7:35 a.m. Air France (a Delta partner) flight to Paris will now be leaving at 10:00, and, they note, with my 1:55 arrival time at Charles de Gaulle airport, I may miss my 1:40 connecting flight to New York.  May???  Not sure what you’re smoking in your shisha, buy I know if I land fifteen minutes after my connecting flight is taking off, then I have missed it.  So thank goodness for Skype; I dial up Delta and get a Medallion desk representative on the phone.  “Hmmm,” he says, “I’m not sure why they did that. Yep looks like you are going to miss your flight, but they re-booked on the same flight the next day”.  Well not that a night in Paris doesn’t sound inviting, but I’ve been away on this adventure for 14 days already and it is time to go home before everyone forgets who I am.  “Who would be paying for that night in Paris”, I inquire, and he says, “I’m not sure.  Delta didn’t change this ticket”.  Great, now they are going to fight over me.  “Look”, I say “what other options do I have to get to America today?”  Well we run through a lot of possibilities, but this late in the day, Philadelphia is not looking good.  So he rebooks me on a Cairo/Paris/New York/Philadelphia itinerary, and agrees Delta will put me up in NYC tonight, and I can catch my flight to Philly in the morning.   I can decide once I get to JFK if I want to rent a car and head home tonight or just relax and get there in the morning.

So my escort Romi calls and I give him the news and we adjust our morning a little.  Time now to enjoy a nice breakfast at the hotel, then we all pile into Mohammad’s van for one last little ride, to the airport.  Romi gets me inside, past the outer security ring, and the inner one, and to the ticket counter.  He picks the friendliest French girl at the counter, and I can see why his friends’ nickname for him is ‘Romeo’. The ticket agent re-issues my tickets, takes all three of my 30 kilo (70 pound) bags, gets me aisle seats with no one sitting next to me, and stamps my credentials for admission to the Air France lounge at the airport.  OK, not bad for a morning that showed all signs of starting off terribly.  I hit the lounge for a bit, then head down, take the bus to my plane, and get to enjoy (endure?) another 4½ hours of French-flavored service – oh boy!

Now I’m not one to bitch, but let me tell you, the “Let them eat cake” mentality did not die with Marie Antoinette* 250 years ago, it is alive and well with the flight attendants that Air France employs today.  If you miss your beverage service cause your eyes were closed, it is like pulling teeth to get them to pony up a complimentary drink.  Ask for another?  You’d swear they were paying for it themselves.  Note to travelers – avoid Economy Cabin service on Air France flights if at all possible, or pack your own snacks for onboard.

Penmanship, and how it threatens Americas borders…

We finally land in New York, clear immigration (but not before being chastised for not using good penmanship on my customs declaration, so I had to wait while twiddle dum asked me “what town is this?” “what state is this?”, etc as he felt the need to painstakingly re-write the answers and fill in the blanks on my form, knowing full well that you simply hand this card to his brother, twiddle dummer, on the way out, and they never, ever go anyplace other than the trash.  But he is satisfied that this important national security process is complete, and I am given the green light to come back home.

Next step – with neatly filled our customs declaration form in hand, I walk over to claim my baggage at the carousel.  Jockeying for position with all the other bag grabbers that feel a need to crowd the belt, I snag one bag, wait a little while, grab another, and wait for the third.  I wait, it’s easier to see the bags on the belt now cause the crowd is thinning out, and I wait…yes you got it, no soup for me today!  Bag #3 is M.I.A.  Here’s a friendly-looking gal with a clipboard, so I walk up to her and she turns to me and says, “Are you missing a bag with a claim ticket ending in 0138?”  Her intuitiveness amazes me, and she continues, “I’m looking for it too.”   OK, that doesn’t necessarily sound good, but I play along.  Turns out that bag came up missing on the manifest when they matched up passengers and luggage on the flight from Paris, so they’ve got an APB out on my bag.  “Head over to the Air France office when you clear customs”, she says, “and I’ll meet you there.”  OK, fair enough, I do as directed (I am such a rule follower) and hand my neatly filled out form to the robot who is working at customs, he slaps it, without even glancing at it, on the huge pile of other blue customs declarations forms, and says, “Have a nice day.”  I just shake my head again…

So I saunter into the Air France baggage claim office, and meet Gabrielle and Heftzi.  In pops the girl with the clip board so I’m ready to start the battle, but no, there will be none of that here today.  All the customer service that Air France has surgically removed from their flight attendants, has been implanted into the staff here in the baggage service office!  These guys are amazing, and since I sense I am in a good place, I mention that one of my bags that did arrive has been somewhat man-handled by the folks on the ground and damaged.  Well while Gabrielle works on my lost bag issue, Heftzi comes out and says let’s see your damaged bag!  The line is starting to form a little bit but these two ladies stay focused so taking care of me, and before you know it, my missing bag has been found (or course it was found in Genoa, Italy – don’t ask!) and my damaged bag claim filed, and they tell me they will watch my luggage and give me directions of who to go see to get fed and out up in a hotel for the night – first class!  I’m feeling pretty good here, so I head upstairs and meet with Roberta at the Delta/Air France office, and explain my predicament.  She shakes her head and says “yes, Air France has a habit of doing this; changing flight times and screwing Delta’s customers with connection.”  But she takes care of me, gets me a nice room at a local Doubletree Hotel, gives me $30 worth of meal vouchers for dinner, and leaves me with a smile.  I go down and get my bags which have been under the watchful eyes of Heftzi and Gabrielle, they point in me in the direction of the Air Train that I need to take to catch the hotel shuttle, and it’s farewell to all.

I roll my cart across the street and take the elevator up to the train platform and I’ve got a few minutes to wait for the train.  I notice a group of women that are in need of some help; it is obvious from how they are asking folks there in the train station and not getting the answers they need.  I sense their frustration and ask if I can be of some assistance.  Well, it turns out they are here from Germany, actually on their way home from a tour of China, and are in the same situation as me, being stuck overnight here in NY.  They don’t understand their directions and no one wanted to step up and help, so ambassador-at-large that I am, I decide to see what I can do.  Well over the course of getting them on the train (same one as me) and to the hotel shuttles to their lodging, we chat, and they are divers also, and talked about the Red Sea (they have dove it) and in fact are going to Bonaire a week after our trip in June.  They take a photo of me with them for their memory book, and head off to their hotel.  What a small, small world it truly is!

Well my shuttle is here, the pillow will feel good tonight, and I’ll be home in the morning.  What a most wonderful adventure this has been!  I can’t wait to back.

The end!

*Note:  This statement is historically inaccurate, was actually said 100 years before her by Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV.

Scouting Report from Bonaire – Amy & Brian’s visit

Note: This blog entry is brought to you by Amy & Brian Dunn, members of the Indian Valley Scuba diving family!

Well after Brian spent the last 18 months recovering from Achilles Reattachment and Knee Surgeries – we were both itching for a vacation and had the urge to submerge!  We spent the last few months of 2010 trying to decide where to go….We have done a bunch of Caribbean diving to date in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Bermuda, Cozumel, St.Lucia, Caymans, Tulum and of course with IVS/Amoray in Key Largo……

But once we heard all the great comments and feedback from Dave, Bev, Brian, Roy and Butch regarding last summer’s IVS Trip to Bonaire – we had narrowed the list of destinations fairly quickly to between Belize and Bonaire….then the direct flight from Newark and more great feedback from Brian at the Shop convinced us to book a week in Bonaire staying at the Harbour Village Beach Club (http://www.harbourvillage.com/)  The holidays brought the Dunn family some much needed new dive gear and it was clear that Santa had stopped at the IVS Shop to gather regs, computers and other goodies to fill the stockings!

So now we had the reservations and new gear but since it had been a while since we had been in the water we took Bev and Dave’s invitation to share some pool time with them at the Harleysville YMCA one Thursday evening.  There we took the opportunity to practice some skills and familiarize ourselves with our new equipment (especially the Epic Dive Computers.)  Satisfied and wet we stepped out into the 11 degree weather confident we were prepared for our trip now just 3 weeks away to Bonaire.

Fast forward to our departure night of Friday February 25th……..we took a red-eye direct flight from Newark Airport to Bonaire.  With the one hour time difference we arrived in Bonaire at 5:30am Saturday morning.   Upon arrival we quickly got our checked baggage and headed out to be greeted by the agents booked for the airport transfers by the concierge at the Hotel.  15 minutes later we were pulling into the gates of the resort and being escorted to a temporary room they had set up for us to relax in until we could check into our Beachfront Suite at 11:30am.  Amy and I relaxed from the overnight flight for a few hours and then headed to breakfast.  By 11:30am we had checked into our suite and taken delivery of the pickup we had rented for the week.  Now we figured we should head to the on-site dive shop – Adventure Diving and introduce ourselves.  After getting all the paperwork out of the way, and a tour of the shop, we were given a mandatory educational overview of the Bonaire National Marine Park.  That completed, we were issued our Park Passes (Good for One Year and at a cost of $25).  We scheduled our mandatory check out dive with the shop for the next morning (Sunday).  We spent the rest of the afternoon playing on the famous private beach at Harbour Village before relaxing in the room and having wonderful Duck Dinners at La Balandra which is the main restaurant at the resort.  Below are 2 shots of the room and view from balcony.

Interior of Harbour Resort Hotel Room

Interior of Harbour Resort Hotel Room

Balcony View from our Harbour Village Room

Balcony View from our Harbour Village Room

Sunday breakfast was filled with good food and anticipation of the excitement the days’ activities would bring.  First, we headed to the Dive Shop and were shown both our “day” and “night” locker spaces  – then we were issued our weights and headed for our check out dive to the house reef which contains a small wreck “ Our Confidence”  shown below in just 50 feet of water…..

The Our Confidence Wreck off Harbour Village House Reef

The Our Confidence Wreck off Harbour Village House Reef

After that we headed out in our rented pickup to get the lay of the land and familiarize ourselves with the maps and some of the dive sites that had been recommended both by IVS crew and in a great book “Bonaire Shore Diving Made Easy”  (http://www.infobonaire.com/bsdme/)  Our first stop was at the dive site called 1,000 Steps (having just dove the house reef – we decided to head down to the site and snorkel.  Tons to see whether diving or snorkeling!  Reef is beautiful, current minimal and many turtles, barracuda, eels call this spot home!   From there we motored along doing a loop of the Northern Half of the Island.  That evening we ate a great Argentinean steakhouse called Patagonia.  The steaks were paired with a fine Malbec – delicious!

Our Rent A Pick Up Truck/Dive Tender

Our Rent A Pick Up Truck/Dive Tender

The next day (Monday) we headed to breakfast then the minimart to stock up on lunch fixings (Raisin Rolls, Peanut Butter & Jelly etc.)  Then we threw some tanks and our gear in the truck and headed to the dive site called Andrea One which we had scoped out on the previous day’s drive.  This dive was nice to be able to drive right up to the shore (see pix below) and has a pretty easy entry but we missed the sandy slot and had a more challenging exit.  This dive has a short swim to the buoy and great reef….we saw many blue faced trumpet fish, green moray as highlights.  After this dive we decided to drive around the entire South end of Bonaire and take note of more of the many Marked/Unmarked Dive Sites.  We dined that night at a wonderful little French place called Bistro de Paris.  Reservations are recommended as it is a quaint small place but the food was awesome..for example the Belgian Waffle Appetizer complete with shredded Duck Breast and Whip Crème topped with a Black Cherry dressing was so unusual  – had to be tried and was truly enjoyed! 

Gold Spotted Moray Eel

Gold Spotted Moray Eel

Tuesday morning found us headed to the South side of the island and to dive site called Margate…..lots to see there as far as reef and fish life!   Easy entry and exit and just a short drive to Windsock where we sat on the benches on the shore and enjoyed a picnic lunch….afterwards we headed for some snorkeling back at the Hotel’s House reef and prepped for the night dive we scheduled for that evening.  The night dive was great with us entering via the sandy beach at Harbour Village heading out to the Wreck and then off to the reef to see eels, tarpon, barracuda, parrot fish, lobsters, angel fish, nurse shark and unfortunately a large lionfish (which we reported to the Dive Shop the next morning). 

Orange-striped Triggerfish

Orange-striped Triggerfish

Wednesday we decided to take a sea kayak over to Klein Bonaire.  The trip took just a few minutes and once we beached the kayak we did some snorkeling the choral there is beautiful and we saw a green sea turtle just as we were leaving.  Once back at the resort we had lunch and Amy joined the afternoon boat dive from Adventure Diving.  There were 12 divers in the group and the dive site was a quick seven minute  boat ride to the far tip of Klein Bonaire.  The drift dive was beautiful, relaxing and included the highlights of seahorse, spotted eel and puffer fish.  Amy also got to witness first-hand the removal of a Lionfish that was spotted by one of the Dive Guides.  That evening we dined at a great seafood restaurant at the Marina called “It Rains Fishes” – al fresco, great food and pretty location at the Marina for sunsets!

Sunset from Harbour Village Marina

Sunset from Harbour Village Marina

Thursday brought us back to the South Shore of the island to the dive site “Invisibles” .  This is an easy entrance/exit with a brief swim to the buoy.  Then it is down to the reef….tons of fish including large schools, many Trunk Fish – saw a friendly green sea turtle there as well! 

Smooth Trunkfish

Smooth Trunkfish

Green Turtle at The Invisibles

Green Turtle at The Invisibles

That wrapped up our diving on this trip to Bonaire…..we spent the last day relaxing on the beach,  taking in the Spa and having a celebratory Chef’s dinner on the balcony of our suite!  We really want to thank Dave and everyone at IVS as we appreciate everyone’s comments, feedback, tips and recommendations that helped us pick this overdue vacation!   We really enjoyed it and will be back to Bonaire hopefully with the IVS crew in 2012!

 Thanks for letting us share our adventure!  Hope to see you all soon!

Brian & Amy Dunn

Becky DunnBrian Dunn