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!

Manatee Madness in Crystal River!

Manatee Trip January 2013

Trip Report by Mairead Twohig

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

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

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

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

‘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!!!

Lauren ‘O’ in the land of the Manatees

Indian Valley Scuba & IAHD-Americas – perfect together!

2011 starts off with a very, very special trip south to visit the manatees and explore the freshwater springs of North Central Florida.  Why so special, you ask?  We come here every year to play with the second largest mammals found in the ocean and root around in the underground caverns and caves that cover this region.  I’ll tell you why this years trip is one of the most special ever – because we are celebrating Lauren Ostrowski’s checkout dives this weekend.

Hmmmm, you are thinking……it seems IVS is doing that just about every weekend of the year someplace!  True, true, we do so love to dive and introduce others to this wonderful sport, but our student this weekend is extra special, and I think you’ll feel the same way as I share her story with our readers.

Lauren Ostrowski and her family have been part of our latest International Association of Handicapped Divers (IAHD-Americas) project here at IVS for the past 16 months.  Lauren is 28 years old, and has spastic, quadriplegic cerebral palsy, a condition that affects the way her brain sends signals to control her muscles.  It affects how she moves her entire body and all of her muscles are tight, making her body stiff and her limbs nearly set in position.  Her effective movement is limited to her right hand, and her left for some typing, as well as her neck & head, qualifying her for the title quadriplegic, or quad for short, the term used for those with limited or no usage of all four appendages.  She uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility and there’s a lot more to her than what you see at first glance.  She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.  Edinboro is a school located outside of Erie, PA, with about 9,000 students in attendance.  What makes this school differ from others, though, is that Edinboro receives state funding to provide personal care to those students that need help with activities of daily living, such as getting dressed, eating and more.  There are usually about 60 students enrolled that are in need of some kind of help.  Edinboro also provides people to assist with meals and writing answers to exams.  Lauren says Edinboro was really a springboard for a lot of what she does now and plans to do in the future.  Lauren has a full-time job as an outpatient psychotherapist, is a National Certified Counselor, and is working on becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor.

Her life has not been an easy one.  The effects of this birth defect, which approx 10,000 babies are born with annually in the United States alone, are varied and the symptons range from mild to severe, often accompanied with some form of mental retardation.  While Lauren suffers from the physical attributes of this disorder, her mind is as sharp as a tack and her mental process clear and bright, as evidenced by her attainment of her masters degree noted above.  From the physical side though, life has been a challenge, with major spinal surgery at age 14 to correct severe scoliosis, which her twisting her in a twisted position towards her left side.  Failure to address this would eventually lead to grave difficulty in breathing as her lungs compressed against her other organs.  In the surgical process, which included the insertion of a pair of rods and a pound or two of stainless wire into her spine, she ended up growing 4 inches in height, and on a side note, can now carry firearms without detection through any TSA location!  She attended Lower Pottsgrove Elementary, enrolled in regular education since third grade, in spite of her need to be fed and assisted by others. She is  truly a trooper, and graduated from Pottsgrove High in 2000, and  was accepted in Edinboro with classes starting in the fall.   Any one of these challenges might be more than the average person could deal with, but does any of this keep Lauren down?  Not a chance!!

Outside of diving, Lauren enjoys parasailing, gliding  (or soaring) with Freedom’s Wings (that is her on the front page with her mom and a glider pilot) and playing power soccer.  Lauren also would like to try adaptive skiing and floor hockey, but hasn’t quite gotten around to those……..yet!

Lauren’s interest in diving was actually spawned more than 10 years ago when she was attending a summer camp session at the Variety Club.  There, she got to try scuba equipment for about five minutes in the pool, but it was enough to get her hooked.  In the summer of 2009, she did a Discover Dive while on vacation with a friend and the wonderful instructor, leading to a renewed interest and desire to do much more diving.  During the 2009 Dive-in Festival at IVS, Lauren met Butch Loggins and after hearing about her interest in diving, he answered with “Let me go get the boss…” and the rest is history in the making now!

Once Lauren committed to learn to dive, the IAHD-Americas professionals at Indian Valley Scuba wasted no time getting the plans in motion.  Dave Valaika stepped up to be the lead instructor in the process, and his support team included Joyce Kichman, Katie Chin, and Linda Gusenko.  A training program was mapped out, and once Lauren’s abilities were assessed, we determined that she would qualify as a Level 3 IAHD-Americas certified diver.  For those unfamiliar with adaptive scuba certification levels, IAHD-Americas ranks them under three broad categories, Levels 1, 2, & 3.  The deciding factor in all cases is how easily the adaptive diver can affect a self-rescue, or assist another diver in a rescue, while underwater AND on the surface.  In Lauren’s case, she would not only be unable to assist in a rescue, but in fact, if abandoned underwater, could not bring herself safely to the surface.  Thus, a minimum of three support divers are required, with the mindset that in the event one of the divers required assistance, a second diver could render such assistance, and still one diver would be available to focus 100% on Lauren, leading her to the surface safely and stabilizing her in a positively buoyant state on the surface.

And so it began, with Lauren’s dad and brother (Guy and Kyle) making the decision to take the entire scuba diving course with Lauren.  We began our program in January, 2010, and the three of them worked together on the academics.  For the confined water work though, Dave and his team of support divers worked solely with Lauren, while Kyle & Guy trained alongside in a regular class.  This allowed them to observe what Lauren was learning, without compromising their scuba education experience.  Once the Ostrowski men  completed their academics & confined water activities, they were able to join Team IVS and get their checkout dives completed at Dutch Springs last summer.  This was an important prerequisite to becoming qualified to be adaptive scuba support divers for Lauren.  With their intimate knowledge of Lauren’s condition, no one is more qualified to be part her dive plan anywhere!  Gail, Lauren & Kyle’s mom, is an avid snorkeler, and is IVS’s next challenge to get her into diving and through the certification process.  She might prove to be a tougher nut to crack than Lauren, but we all know I don’t give up easy!  Even as a snorkeler though, on this trip, with it’s excellent shallow, clear water locations, mom will be in on all the fun and adventure we’re about to enjoy!

Lauren’s classes continued all year, as her family’s schedule allowed.  Each session allowed us to work on the continuing evolution of Lauren’s equipment requirements and considerations as to what would work best for her.  First and foremost, we knew after the very first session that Lauren would need some environmental protection to keep her from turning blue and shivering!  With her limbs as they were, slipping into a traditional wetsuit was out of consideration.  So Beverly worked with Lauren and our wetsuit suppliers, and we found a suit combination that fit her dimensions, then installed full length zippers from neck to wrists on both arms, allowing us to slip it around her and then zip her into place without placing undue stress on her joints.  First problem solved!

Now onto the next – with her inability to recover and replace a lost regulator, this caused an awful lot of stress as we would submerge and swim underwater, as even a partial slippage of the mouthpiece would allow some water to flow into her mouth, and only by watching her eyes widen would be know that perhaps something was amiss, and surface to sort it out.  To address this, we switched to full face masks, which completely covered her face, enclosing eyes, nose and mouth in one space.  This let her breath any way she wanted, and the masks clear so easily, any intrusion of water could be seen by her support divers and easily dealt with.  Additionally, this allowed us to add a communications system, so Lauren could talk underwater to her co-divers. With her limited ability to affect movement, communications were indeed a challenge.  Lauren could not initiate an OK or “not OK” signal underwater, so it was imperative that one of her support divers maintained continuous eye contact with Lauren at all times.  We managed this by having her primary support diver swim inverted underneath Lauren, ‘reading’ her eyes, while one of the other support divers served to steer the team and avoid obstacles underwater.  A second support diver was needed to provide stability as Lauren’s body has a distinct tendency to “turn turtle” and roll her around, tank down, face up.

Once we had the lost regulator issue resolved with the full face masks, it was time to work on the stability in the water.  There are many ways to deal with this, and some in the adaptive scuba field promote slinging weights below the diver, in a pendulum fashion.  While this provides a significant improvement in the diver’s stability while horizontal and under the water, it proves to be potentially dangerous when the diver is turned in an upright position, and the pendulum-mounted weights swing down to their legs, or even their chest, and influence the ability to maintain a comfortable, face-up position on the surface.  Our approach differs from this convention, as we seek to incorporate stability into the diver as a “package”, by trimming the weights and strategically addressing the factors that influence why they are instable in the water, such as a large scuba cylinder and it’s center of gravity mounted behind and on top of the diver.

Part of the issue here is that Lauren’s muscles have stiffened in a “seated” position, and it is difficult to stretch her legs out.  Secondly, she has a bit of a J-Lo build, and that extra ‘junk in the trunk’ makes her tend to float ‘butt high’.  So we spent quite a bit of time working to achieve balance for her both under the water and on the surface.  Some of the techniques we used included mounting twin 30 CF cylinders on her back, which lowered and widened the CG (center of gravity) across her frame.  We switched to a backplate system from a jacket-style BC, and this allowed us to gain an additional six pounds of weighting from the stainless steel backplate evenly distributed across her back.  Conversely, the back-mounted inflation also removed any positive buoyancy from the front of her body when we were on the surface, so this technique is a double-edged sword, so to speak.   To address the excess positive buoyancy in her pelvic area, we added custom weight pockets to the hips of her wetsuit, allowing us to target the weighting exactly where it was needed, without adding a cumbersome weight belt.  We had tried ankle weights, but found they simply lowered her feet and in fact exacerbated the butt high position, so we knew they were not the answer.

We finally settled on a 40 CF single cylinder, which was lighter to manage than the twin 30’s, and provided ample air for Lauren to dive with.  We made custom tank bands to mount this on the backplate system, and installed it with the valve opening facing away from the diver, a reverse from the conventional method.  This allowed us to use a DIN regulator and remove the bulk of the regulator or yoke from the area behind Lauren’s head, improving her comfort substantially.

With everything tested and proven, it was time to actually plan a trip to a location that lent itself to the conditions and style of diving that would be most appropriate for Lauren for her check out dives.  Hence the decision to go with the Manatee trip, which afforded us some shore entries, and a platform boat with no adverse sea conditions to deal with.  Our dive operator of choice for this mission would be  Adventure Dive Center in Crystal River, FL, operated by our good friends Carl & Dave, so we made the arrangements and prepared for our trip.

Finally it was show time, and we all flew out of Philadelphia this morning to Orlando.  Dave traveled on his signature carrier Delta, while the Ostrowski’s flew on Southwest for the convenience of a non-stop travel experience.  It’s not easy for a quad to travel, but thankfully Southwest’s team was ready to accommodate and make the trip as painless as possible.  Lauren drives her chair down the jetway, and thanks to her slight frame, Guy simply picks her up and carries her aboard.  The chair is then stored under the plane, which in itself is no small task, as Lauren’s little Cadillac weighs approx 250 pounds without anyone sitting in it.  Once they arrived in Orlando, they allowed the rest of the plane to disembark, and the ground crew brought her chair up to the jetway. Guy then carried her off the plane, and once back in her chair, Lauren demonstrated why her email address starts off with “Speedie” !

Off to the rental van company, and they scored a full size Ford van with a hydraulic lift ramp in the rear.  Not quite as nice as the modified Toyota Sienna they have at home, where Lauren can easily load herself and then enjoys a front passenger seat position for a great view, but it’s wheels none the less. Once they have loaded in the van, they call and rescue me from the grips of the Delta Crown Room, and I head down, find my bags at the baggage office, and we load up and roll.  It’s a short 90 mile ride from the Orlando airport to the Holiday Inn Express in Crystal River, our base of operations for this weekends adventure.  We check in, grab our rooms, and get ready to crash for the night.  But first we need some grub, and we head to Quiznos, located a 1/4 mile down the road from the hotel.  We get our sandwiches ordered, and as I check out, I am reminded we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.  The young lady at the register swipes my credit card, and then asks, “is this a gift card?”.  “No”, I reply, “why on earth would you ask that?”  “Cause it only rang up part of your bill”, she says, showing me the receipt which is about six dollars short of the total.  Clearly we are not dealing with a rocket scientist here, and I shrug my shoulders, as she scratches her head and tries to figure out what to do.  “Can you call someone”, I query.  “Oh yes”, she says, and picks up the phone to dial.  Well a blind guy could see from the look on her face that this was going nowhere positive and we were beyond her realm of reasoning.  So, tired as I was, I pulled out a business card, and said to her “have your boss call me in the morning to settle this up”.  With that, we left, headed back to the hotel, and crashed for the night.

Well sure enough Friday morning my phone rings, and it’s Michael Kazemfar, the owner of Quiznos.  He apologoizes for the events the night before, and I tell him we’ll swing by on our way out to take care of things.  We load up after enjoying our free breakfast at the Holiday Inn, and make our first stop at the sub shop.  I walk in and ask for Mike, and who comes rolling up to me but Michael himself, in his chair.  I introduce myself, we both laugh over his employee selection process, we settle the balance of my bill, and get into a conversation about what he’s doing in a wheelchair at Quiznos.  Well it turns out he missed his polio vaccination when he was young, and at age two, was misdiagnosed, allowing his polio to affect a substantial part of his lower limbs before finally stopping.  “How about that”, I say, “have you ever considered scuba diving?”  I then tell him about Lauren and why we are here, and then he shocks by saying he’s a certified diver, and also enjoys snorkeling, kayaking and a myriad of other water activities.  He introduces his assistant, who happens to be his daughter and dive buddy, and we all get a great bonding moment to start off the day.

So with that behind us, we head out to meet with Carl & Dave at Adventure Scuba Diving, and get ready for a fun day with them. First it’s the mandatory educational video presentation from the US Fish & Wildlife Agency, where we are informed of the proper (and improper) way to hug and interact with the manatees.  We get some tanks, and head over to Hunter Spring, a nice easy shore entry for Lauren’s first open water dive experience.

Hunter Springs is a pretty little state park, with a beach, bath house, and nice set of concrete stairs down into the water.  We gear up, and get ready for our first drop. Everyone suits up, we get Lauren dressed, and we enter the water, which is only a couple feet deep at the bottom of the stairs.   The key to a great diver experience is ensuring that we have Lauren’s mask properly positioned on her face, sealing tightly but not too tight, and with the internal nose blocks adjusted and set to allow her to clear with assistance at depth.  Once she gives the the virtual thumbs up (with her eyes) the rest of us gear up and we head under.  As you might suspect we have kicked up a bit of silt with all standing, but as soon as we near the springs the water clears up to perfect visibility and hundreds of fish watch us as the we enjoy our underwater exploration.  The flow is pretty good here from two major holes in the bottom, plus a number of smaller sand boils where the force of the incoming water causes the sandy bottom to dance continuously.  We get a good 25 minutes of bottom time here, with a max depth of about 13 feet, and consider this our first dive a complete success!

From there we head back to Adventure Scuba to top off our tanks, and then grab lunch at a local restaurant.  From there, we drive a half hour up through Dunellon to the K. P. Hole county park located on the Rainbow River.  Dave meets us there with one of Adventures pontoon boats that he has trailered up, and we load up and head up river.  The sun has abandoned us, and there is a distinct chill in the air, but we soldier on, cause their is some great diving to be had!  We approach the headwaters and Dave pulls the boat to the bank and we tie off to a tree so we can get everyone set and in the water to being this fun drift dive.  Everything checks out OK, and Guy, Kyle, Lauren and I slip beneath the surface, and enjoy the almost surreal serenity of this underwater wonderland.  Visibility is in excess of 100 feet, there are fish everywhere, and the bottom varies from flowing grasses to rubble to rock ledges, with some sunken trees added for extra color.  As we sail along the depth varies from 5 to 25 feet, and Lauren is having a bit of a struggle clearing her right ear on the deeper parts, as she worked it a tad too hard on the airplane ride down on Thursday.  Not a problem, we just watch our depths, and enjoy the ride, kicking only as much as we need to maintain steerage with the current doing most of the work for us.  Hiding in the grasses were all sorts of painted turtles, Florida Shad, bass, and other critters, forcing us to keep our heads on a spindle, looking right, left and ahead to not miss a thing.  Hey, what’s that up there, as we see something in the grass……hmmm…looks like a dead bird…..we get closer…..and guess what? ..it’s not a dead bird, it’s a hunting bird, working on nailing something to eat in the grass!   Well we certainly fouled it’s dinner plans, and it swam past us, and I know in my soul that that if it had fingers, it would showing us a certain one to show his appreciation for our interference!  Oooops…sorry!

We continue on, and finally Kyle is getting chilled and also having some ear clearing issues, so we surface, and he climbs back aboard.  Captain Dave says “are you guys getting on?” and we look at Lauren, who screams though her mask “more please!”.  Enough said, we get back to our diving, just the three of us.  Another mile or so downstream we’re cruising along, and I spot the mother of all turtles just on the other side of a hump in front of us.  With that, i grab Lauren buy the chin to make sure her eyes are pointing in the right direction, and we sail right over that first hump and enjoy a great view of the turtle as he takes in his visitors and then slowly swims off to the side.  Well we couldn’t stop looking so all three of us were watching off to the side, and guess what was in front of us?  Another big friggin’ hump in the river bottom, against which I was able to firmly slam Lauren into, face first!  For a moment, my heart skipped a beat, but when I looked and her eyes open and that she was breathing normally, I began to laugh out loud uncontrollably in my full face mask.  So loud in fact that Lauren’s mom Gail heard it up on the boat and asked Captain Dave if he thought everything was OK.  Meanwhile, we’re just sailing along, and yep, there go the buoys marking the swim area where we boarded the boat, and then some more, and I am thinking, I don’t remember this part of the river, but what the heck, we’re having fun!   So we kept on going, and going, and going……..until that telltale sound of the banging on the ladder told us it was time to finally end this dive.  We popped up, and sure enough, there was Dave and the boat waiting for us.  Turned out that they had already tied up at the dock, figuring we were going to stop, and Kyle had gone up to bring the van down, when they realized the S.S> Lauren was still steaming south down the river!  So untie the boat, fire up the engines, and catch up with the divers!  It’s all good and nobody lost an eye – just another great day of fun and adventure on the water!

We headed back to hotel and everyone gussied up for dinner.  Tonight we headed down to Cody’s Steakhouse, a local favorite dining place and watering hole.  There was a bit of a wait, so we went to the hostess station and asked how long.  Well, I have often wondered where the airlines send their pilots to learn how to gracefully lie to the passengers about how long a delay will be.  Tonight, I found that place!  Only ten minutes, the young ladies said, so we waited.  Thirty minutes later, we went back up, and with that same great smile, they said “only about 10 minutes”.  Time has truly stood still for us here, but how much longer ( or how many more “10 minutes” can it be?).  Finally, we’re seated, and our server saunters up to our table, whips out a crown, and as she scrawls her name across the white tablecloth, announces she is Faye, and will be taking care of us tonight.  Talk about setting the right kind of tone for this group!  You can tell from that moment that dinner was a non-stop hoot, from Kyle’s massive 40 ounce margarita to Guy telling Faye he can’t decide what to order, so just surprise him!  We were laughing so much it almost hurt and the food was fantastic too!  What a fun night!

Saturday and we had already decided to take the day off from diving so Lauren’s muscles could recover from Friday’s abuse (not to mention unintended crash into the river bottom!)  Guy and Gail took in a game of golf nearby, and then the Ostrowski family headed down to the Homossassa Wildlife Preserve to watch a few hundred manatees up close and personal in the water.  For dinner we headed out to another local steakhouse, the Boathouse, where our server Wanda was almost as much fun as Faye last night!  What a blast we are having at dinner on this trip!  From there we headed back, updated the blog, and called it an early night.

For Sundays dive we are heading up to Ginnie Springs, to enjoy some more crystal clear water and explore some of the sights there, including there famous cavern, the Ballroom.  We stopped at Adventure Dive Center, picked up our tanks, and made the hour and a half ride up to High Springs.  Check in, grab some lunch at the deli there, and then we headed over to the Little Devil system.  There were quite a few cave divers out today, in spite of the brisk mid 50’s temperature, and they were smiling when they saw Lauren get geared up and head in to dive with us.  A few of them approached Gail with questions, and they were amazed to see her daughter enjoying herself in this sport – very cool!  We spent a good 25 minutes dropping into the fissure there, then Devile’s Eye and Devil’s Ear, before spending a little time enjoying the Santa Fe River.  We worked out back to the entry point, and poor Lauren was shaking like a leaf in the chilly air, but when I asked her if she wanted to call the second dive, she responded with a resounding “No!”.

OK, fair enough, we jumped back in the van, warmed up a bit, then drove around to the ballroom area, and got back in the water.  Her eyes really opened when she saw the entrance to the cavern, and the communication was clear to her dad – let’s go inside!!  And so we did, getting another 25 minutes of bottom time here in the 73 degree water, shooting lots of pictures, and just having a blast.  Lauren was still struggling with her ear clearing a bit, so she stayed in the upper portion, but Guy and Kyle both toured with me down to the spring inlet at 51 ft in the cavern, and both of them were surprisingly comfortable following me and squeezing through some minor restrictions inside.  They are great divers and perfect buddies for Lauren, and truly a success story for what IAHD-Americas is all about – bringing the sport to those far less likely to ever being able to enjoy it.

After our second dive, we headed back, enjoying the thrill of the Green Bay Packers kicking Bear butt in the playoffs while we drove.  We cleaned up and went out for one last celebration dinner, and the only disappointment of the weekend was the  failure of the NY Jets to show up for their game against the Steelers.  Oh well, there must be a limit on miracles this weekend!

Monday morning we packed up, I got dropped off at the airport, and the Ostrowski’s headed to Disney for part II of their adventure in the Happiest Place on Earth!  Mission accomplished in a big way!!

Florida Keys Dive-a-Thon….Wrecks, Lobsters & Laughter!

OR, “Is that a snorkel in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”

And now, for a completely different start of a trip – I am not personally responsible for getting myself to the airport. Steve Holak and Joyce Kichman decide to help me with my adrenalin addiction, and offer to carpool to Philadelphia International. Steve in fact was on a later flight but changed his plans just so he could be part of this therapy session, helping me enjoy a leisurely trip to the airport, complete with curbside drop-off. Their flight was an hour and a half later, so they would have plenty of time for breakfast and car parking after dropping me off. This would be a very different approach to flying from what I am normally accustomed to. Or so it seemed…..

Joyce arrives at the shop, to find my bags completely packed and me just finishing up my morning rituals, so different from my normal ‘rushing about, throwing things into Pelican boxes’ sort of airport departure. I am thinking if this pans out I might change my whole travel approach, leave early, arrive with plenty of time, and relax on my trips. Pretty thoughts…..or so I think! Steve’s wife Dawn drops him off, we toss his bags into Joyce’s SUV, lock up the shop and we’re off. Traffic is light, I am sitting back, no stress at all, I’m in good hands. The banter is light, everyone is a bit excited about the trip, and we’re ready for a great week. Steve has a bunch of questions about his upcoming PADI Instructor Exam, as he is enrolled in our current Instructor Development Course, and looking forward to getting into the Team IVS instructor rotation. He’ll be a real asset to the team and I am equally excited about having him take this great step forward. But enough on that, let’s get back to our journey!

The traffic on the road is light, and we had the foresight to check Joyce’s tires before leaving the shop, as she has a bit of a history of flat tires when traveling with us lately. Steve and I keep a careful watch out for deer carcasses, as she has been known to impale her tires onto them, much to the detriment of the tire. Nope, no issues, just a relaxing ride south to the airport. Now keep in mind that I normally am shifting gears, gas/brake/gas/brake, changing lanes, pushing, watching the clock, as I get my adrenal glands into high production. But not today, this is a new David, and I am so relaxed I have not even bothered to look at my watch. I’m in good hands!

We pull up to the terminal, and there are some of my favorite skycaps working, so they hop right over and hump my small mountain of five bags over to their workstation. It’s hugs and high fives for Joyce & Steve as I bode them farewell, at least until 2:50 this afternoon when we’ll reunite in Fort Lauderdale. Steve is joking about how I’ll explain this in the blog, me having to pass time & twiddle my thumbs, sitting at the gate ahead of schedule, relaxed and waiting on the plane to start boarding. They’re flying Southwest and we managed to get schedules that worked well together, so they leave to park the car and take the shuttle back to the airport. Man am I relaxed, I am thinking, as my man is punching in the info into his computer, and I await the sound of the printer spewing out my baggage tags and boarding passes. But wait, his forehead wrinkles, “Mr. Valaika, we missed the cutoff”, he announces. “What, I exclaim, it’s only a 45 minute check-in requirement” I exclaim. “It’s 7:34, the cut-off was 4 minutes ago” he points out. Well talk about your morning euphoria taking a Challenger space shuttle sort of launch! Geez – now I finally look at my watch, and guess what….he’s right! What a pickle I’m in now, I think. What the hell was I thinking, this whole ‘being relaxed on the way to the airport thing’.

So inside we go, and lo and behold, there’s on of my BAF’s (Best Airline Friends) Sandra working the counter. “Missed it, eh?” she asks, knowingly. “Yes ma’am, help me out please” I implore. In no time at all she has me re-booked, upgrades and all, to Florida, but the routing is a bit less than efficient – Philadelphia / Detroit / Ft Lauderdale. Yep, almost a straight line…NOT. It’s OK though, I have learned my lesson…flying is better when I am on edge! So we check the bags, get my passes, and head up to security to see what adventure may await me there.

Well sure enough, there are enough blue shirts standing around this morning. I flash my priority boarding pass and take the short line, hoping to get through the masses quickly. Suddenly one of the blue shirts is approaching me, and I get that same feeling when the disheveled panhandler is walking up to you in the street, asking for some change to support his habit. I lean back, hoping he’ll miss me, but no, he is locked on target. I grimace, as he asks if I am traveling alone, wondering what sort of counter-terrorist science experiment they might have in mind for my body. Alas, my fears are unfounded, all he wanted to do was actually expedite my process over to a lane that just opened and had no line – whew! I headed right over, dropped my underwater camera case on the belt, pulled out my laptop, tossed my shoes on, and started to walk through the metal detector when the TSA’er who’s job it was to monitor this vital piece of America’s security curtain said “Sir, you have a bulge in your pocket”. Well you can imagine the snappy punch lines that were running through my head, but I refrained, figuring his sense of humor might not be in sync with mine. Figuring that it wasn’t just how happy I was to see him, he surmised it was my wallet and instructed me to put it through the X-ray machine. “When did that become a TSA requirement?”, I asked. “I can’t travel with my wallet now?” Sir, it is bulging from your pocket and I can’t you pass through like that. Well let me make a note to look up the official TSA ‘bulge allowance’ next time I am at my computer. I figure there is no talking any sense to this walking & talking version of a cigar store indian, so I put my wallet through the machine and he allows me to pass, sans bulge, through his station. Of course, when I get to the other side, there is another boy in blue with my camera case, asking me to follow him to the camera case washing station. He opens it up, wipes it all over for me, asks if it is for scuba diving (pretty intuitive with the IVS stickers all over it) and I can see we’re right on the same page (page number that is, in two very different books!). My camera is now washed and dried, and I am allowed to pass.

So now Steve was right, what to do with my time before my NEW flight takes off! Well, for starters, here I sit, blogging away! And enjoying a cold Coors Light as I work to take the edge off my roller coaster of a morning. Finally it’s time to board, and my flights are uneventful, putting me into FLL around 5:00. Joyce & Steve are already there so they grab my bags, and are awaiting my arrival. We grab the rental minivan, load up and off we go, southward-bound for adventure. First stop is dinner at Pon-Tunes in Key Largo, home of Florida’s last pirate ship, which was featured in an earlier report. Our bellies full (and the same can be said for the local mosquitos), we head over to the Paradise Pub where we connect with the ‘Z’ brothers, Bill & John Zyskowski, and IVS-south legend Dave Hartman. These guys just came back from all all-day, all Spiegel dive, four dips onto and into one of our favorite wrecks. Lots of good stories as they did some serious penetration into the belly of the beast, visiting areas well off the beaten path, including the aft engine room under the well deck, pump room, and a search for the ship’s brig too! Great way to kick off the trip. And joining us there also is Frank Gabriel and Carlos Diaz, so our Wreck Safari team is complete. It’s like a little family reunion at the pub, with a couple of our favorite girls Annette and Dawn, along with owner Jay, joining in to welcome us back to the Keys.

The guys had spent the morning diving with Ocean Divers but for the afternoon they opted to head out with Horizon Divers and a couple of old faces from IVS visits, Bob Bates and Troy, former Amoray Diver crewmembers, along with the Horizon’s owner Dan. Bob was skippering the boat, and Troy and Dan were instructing, so they had an extra diver on board that needed a buddy, and Bill Z generously opted to step up to the task. Turns out the fellow somewhat over-represented his skill and experience level, and managed to suck his tank down on the wreck, then head off in the wrong direction as he abandoned Bill in search of the ascent line. Bill managed to locate him, found that he was down to 200 psi (still on the wreck) and escorted him back, sharing gas the entire way. From the safety stop he bolted to the surface, and the crew managed to get him back on board. Troy & Bob credited Bill with saving the divers life, and there were high fives and back slaps all around. Way to go Bill and way to make a great impression on the Horizon boys with the skills and level-headedness of Team IVS divers.

While at the Pub we managed to finalize some some underwater communication techniques, so look for the the new “Trust me”, “The Bulge” and a sure-to-be favorite “Imminent Penetration” hand signals on a dive near you soon! We also learned that Steve, was a closet scuba Mormon, and had recently been re-arranging the ranking of his scuba wives. Seems Sam Auyeung has a lock on spot #1, but Joyce has slipped to #3 as th equiet and demure Grace Crawford moved into the nuimber two spot, based on her ability to speed Steve through airport check in lines with her Continental frequent flyer status. You are so shallow, Steve! After this revelation, Steve further confessed that he recently mis-interpreted some Facebook postings and emails from Bill Z regarding his ‘partner’, but we’ll let Bill & Steve share this story in person. We finally headed on down to the Keys Motel for the night and got some well needed rest for our mornings dive plans.

Our first morning started off with absolutely perfect conditions both on land and at sea. Our destination was the Bibb, and we enjoyed 100 plus feet of visibility, near zero current, and just a fantastic dive overall. With as many dives as many of our group have on the Duane, it was cool to be able to dive her sister ship. Dive #2 was the Spiegel Grove, and the conditions were equal if not better. On the Spiegel eagle-eyed (but mooring ball challenged) Bill Z spotted a young lionfish taking up residence on the deck of the ship. Springing into action, Joyce chose her light for smashing, while Bill went with the knife for stabbing, while Steve looked on in terror. Remembering recent events in Bonaire, Steve acted quickly, he reached for the most sensible weapon, and wrote on his slate – “Don’t be a Dave!” I am proud to report that no lionfish OR divers were hurt in creating this particular blog entry. Prudent diver that he is (and great scuba hubby, or so we’re told) Two great dives to kick off our trip under our belt, we came back to the dock and enjoyed pizza under the tiki hut while our tanks were refilled. For the afternoon we headed out to the Duane and Eagle wrecks, and by the end of the day we have the following dive profiles: Bibb 134 ft for 45 minutes, Spiegel Grove 125 ft for 45 minutes, Duane 120 ft for 45 minutes, and finally the Eagle115 ft for 45 minutes – wow, that’s a lot of diving! Plus turtles, sharks, sting rays, huge morays, lobsters, and more to start this trip.

And speaking of lionfish, this was without question the greatest number of lionfish sightings we have ever seen in a day of Florida Keys diving. Between the four wrecks we saw over a dozen lionfish, and almost caught/killed several. And for those avid readers who follow my science experiments, let me point out that the second time you get nailed by a lionfish is not nearly as painful as the first. Perhaps the body accepts the fact that you are going to continue to bombard it with toxins, or whatever, but I had one slam me three quick times on the Duane, three penetrations across two fingers, and I though oh my gosh, this is going to hurt, but alas, the lionfish whisperer is growing stronger! Never the less, the score is now Dave 7, Lionfish 2 for the season.

After we got back to the dock we refilled our tanks, kibitzed with the crew a bit, and headed south. Dinner was at the world famous ‘No Name Pub’ on Big Pine Key, and we spent three hours there, eating and telling jokes, to the point our sides were splitting from the laughter! We also were treated to lots of endangered Key Deer out and about on the road back to the tavern and back. Pretty cool. Our bunks for the night were at the La Concha Hotel on Duval Street, smack dab in the middle of the action! Ready for a Duval Crawl story? You’ll have to wait, as we were so beat we checked in and went right to bed, party animals that we are!

For Day two, we are diving with the folks from SubTropic Dive Center in Key West, and our morning plans call for a double dip on the Vandenberg. Today we are joined by Ms Judy, a gal from Savanah, who was here for the week with a group of divers from her area. They didn’t have quite the same passion for bottom time as we have, so they were opting for a day laying around the pool today. Not Judy – she picked right up on us, and drove down to Key West from Tavernier this morning to spend the day with Team IVS – let’s just say she is already family! We pull out of the dock and as we motor along a small pod of dolphins, adults and juveniles, decide to escort us out to sea, playing and jumping through our wake – what a great way to start the day! The seas are nearly flat and the sun is shining bright, and as we pull up to the the wreck there is zero current. Perfect! We splash, drift straight down to the ship, and enjoy two great 45 minute dives at 140 ft. I must say it is really cool to dive with a group of divers as skilled and in sync as our wreck safari group is. Back to the dock for lunch and a quick turnaround and we head back out to the Vandenberg again, followed by the Cayman Salvager. Four more 100 plus foot dives, nearly four more hours of bottom time, in perfect conditions! Had a nice big octo being a little shy on the Cayman, and plenty of sea life all around. We wrapped up the day filling our tanks and headed out to the Conch Farm for a celebration dinner before making that long drive back up to Key Largo for the night.

Meanwhile the rest of the crew had arrived at Amoray, including Beverly & Butch Loggins, Ray Graf, Tom Rebbie, Vicki Stauffer, Shelly Lui and Gary Fasano, and everyone got a good short nights sleep before being roused for our 4:00 a.m. boat loading. The enthusiasm was running high and our carnivorous crowd was ready to hunt some lobster! Again the conditions were perfect, zero wind, flat seas, and a clear (but obvioulsy very dark) sky overhead greeted us as we motored out to the reef. Our first location was North North Dry Rocks, and we splashed at 5:48 a.m., the earliest you could hunt in Monroe County. The first hour-long dive proved a bit frustrating, with plenty of shorts and spotted lobsters, but only Shelly managed to bring a keeper on board. Our second location on North Dry Rockk made up for it, as we were ‘on the meat’ and the cooler started to fill as each team returned with bugs in their bags. We moved 100 yards for the third dive, and then, seeing as how we still had tanks on board, we moved another 100 yards for the fourth morning dive – way to start! By the time we headed in we had 26 nice lobsters in the cooler, and there were smiles all around. And making it even better, Joyce & Steve managed to net an adult lionfish, and Steve dispatched it with a large rock. Nice job guys!

Once back most of the gang had the chance for a little siesta, but Steve Holak and I headed over to Jules Undersea Lodge with Vicki Stauffer for her first couple of check out dives. Steve is interning for his Open Water Scuba Instructor course, and he, along with Ms Vicki, both scored high marks for the day! A couple of naturals to be sure! And we even had a nurse shark there in the lagoon with us! Now we load for the 3:00 p.m. departure, with three dives planned, the last at sundown and ending 60 minutes after legal sunset in accordance with the game laws. Charles Kichman has awoken from his siesta and has joined us for the afternoon’s hunt, and Vicki is coming along as well, for a combo open water checkout / lobster hunter specialty program. And to make it even sweeter, on our first drop there comes a turtle swimming by. We end up getting in five dives this afternoon, and come home with a pile of lobster to add to the fridge. For Steve Holak, it’s a new personal best, getting in 10 dives with me in one day. The crew is dragging a bit by the time we get back, but a round of cheeseburgers at the Paradise Pub helps to re-energize the gang for the next wake-up call in 3 1/2 hours.

Thursday morning you could not have asked for better conditions, if I said flat yesterday I was exaggerating, cause today was FLAT on the ocean. Minimal current, clear sky and 100 plus ft of viz everywhere. We did three more dives this morning, bringing home 33 more lobsters for dinner, including a couple of huge 4+ pounders, to bring the count so far up to 74. Quick lunch, siesta, and the crew will be ready to go again. Meanwhile, Steve and Dave head back to Jules for another dive with Vickie to get her solid on some of her remaining skills. Steve is quickly learning the difference between a dive trip as a diver and a dive trip as a working instructor! Vickie does great, Steve is one step closer to instructor, and Joyce likewise towards her Divemaster certification too.

Back at the dock, we head back out with Captain Jacob for our last dive trip of mini-season. We end up getting in 4 more dives, for a total of 8 for the day. Steve Holak has 28 dives so far over 4 days, while Bill & John Zyskowski have 28 over 5 days – we LOVE to dive By the time we climb back aboard tonite at 9:15, we have a final count on our lobsters of 105, a new team record for IVS! Dinner will be good and ample Friday night!! The highlight of the evening was a visit by our Goliath Grouper friends who hang out nearby on the City of Washington wreck One is larger, probably 250-300 pounds, wile the second is a more petite 150 pounds or so. They have been following Frank on his dive now for about 15 minutes, and as he hunts, they are right there sticking their noses into the holes he’s checking out. He catches one bug and bags it, and his friends seem to like that fact, getting even chummier with Frank. They are rubbing against his leg and his tank as he hunts, making it difficult for him to concentrate. Despite the annoyance, he manages to snag one nice one with his snare, a lasso-like device that you open up into a loop, slide behind the lobster and up his tail, then yank back and you’ve got “lobster on a stick” as the critter is tightly bound with the snare wire. So as Frank pulls this bug out of the reef and holds it up to show Dave Hartman who is working with him, there is a blur and a lot of commotion as the larger grouper flies forward, and inhales the lobster along with the end of Frank’s snare. Frank’s initial reaction is shock, but he quickly recovers and thinks, “this is nonsense give me my lobster back!”. So he tugs, and gains a little ground, but the grouper waits, then opens his mouth and just as quickly, re-closes it, but not before gulping in most of the rest of the snare handle. Frank gives one last tug, but with that the grouper turns, and begins to swim away, towing Frank to points unknown, and Frank wisely decides this lobster is not worth it. Talk about a wildlife encounter!

Friday morning starts off great again, but there are a few problems with Amoray’s boat, pushing our first departure back a half hour, which after two non-stop long days of bug hunting, our divers do not complain about. While most of the gang are heading out, our new open water candidates Michele Highley, Sally DiBartolo, Leann Rohrbach are joined by instructor candidate Steve Holak and divemaster candidate Joyce Kichman and myself as we head over to Jules Undersea lodge for the morning. The ladies perform excellently, and we motor back to Amoray, only to find the boat, although it had headed out for the morning trip, ended up losing a lower unit on one of the outboards, and had to motor in on one engine. What is it with us and boats?? Well this will certainly push back our afternoon dives and our dinner plans too. A few choice snapshots of Capt Jacob in the water to add to our gallery of dive boats being repaired, and we finally begin to load up for the afternoon trip to the Spiegel Grove and a reef location.

IVS-South instructor and Spiegel Grove tour expert Dave Hartman has joined us for the afternoon, along with Z-brothers friend Adam Musgrave, and he leads another one of his signature tours through the ‘Belly of the Beast’, visiting pump rooms, engine rooms, and plenty of other spaces below the welldeck where few venture. Others enjoyed the absolutely perfect conditions at various depths and levels of intensity, and it was a great dive. Needless to say, everyone is all smiles when they return to the boat! Spot #2 was Sandbottom Caves on French Reef, and everyone had another good dive here. It was 6:45 when we entered the water for afternoon dive #2, so we had to move our dinner reservations back a bit from the 7:00 time slot to accommodate our revised schedule. We had a great dive and then scooted back to the shop to gussy up for dinner.

We showed up for dinner fashionably late, in Valaika-style, arriving at 9:00. The good news is that allowed the folks at the Key Largo Conch House Restaurant to better accommodate the dinner rush, so it was a win-win for all. This is the fourth year in a row since Sue Douglass first started arranging our lobster dinners with the Conch House, and even though she was unable to be in attendance this year, her touch was obvious everywhere, as the dinner was well coordinated, delicious, and belly filling for sure! Nearly forty IVS family members and friends filled the Conch House to capacity, and you could hardly hear yourself think over the laughter and merriment that ensued over the next 2 1/2 hours. This was so much fun I think we’ll have to do it again next year!

Well the crowd slowly drifted out until only the true hard cores were left, and as we began to head out, the Z Brothers car failed to start. No problem, as Biil & John, along with Adam, piled into the minivan with Steve, Michele, Joyce and I. OK, maybe a small problem – we’re not ready for bed! So we all agreed that a visit to the Caribbean Club was in order, and we tooled on down the road to check out some of the local wildlife. You know there is something special about a place that won’t serve you drinks in any container, such as a bottle, that could possibly double as an impromptu weapon. Certainly adds the local flavor! Well we enjoyed a few libations there, taking in the great southern rock served up buy the house band, and before you know it, the toes were tapping and the hips were swaying; the message was obvious – we needed to dance! So we did, in dribs and drabs, hitting the dance floor, mingling with the natives, having a blast. Well it was all fun and games until I found myself nearly alone on the floor, dancing away with local Curt Murphy, and at that distinct moment, I knew it was time to go! Quick bye-bye’s to the admiring crowd, and we bolted out the door, hit the car running and headed home to bed! Whew! Hope that doesn’t make it into the blog…whooops!

Well it’s Saturday morning, and “Hey, how about those Tigers?” seemed to be the saying of the day, recalling the inappropriate moment between Steve Martin nd John Candy in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. OK, memories of dancing with the falling stars out of my head, it was time to go diving! We headed out to the City of Washington and were greeted by another local animal that seems to have an inter-species affection for me, Bruiser the Goliath Grouper. This big boy worked the crowd of divers like a politician, rubbing against us, checking to see if we had any food to offer, not taking “no” for an answer, and just making the entire 60 minute dive a very special one for us. It’s really something to have to push the grouper out of the way when you are trying to take pictures! Dive #2 was at the Christ of the Abyss, always a great photo op for all, and with the crystal clear water and blue sunny skies, the lighting was near perfect! The Flying Romano, Camilo and his lovely wife Tamrah had joined the group this morning, along with friends of Frank Gabriel Medaul Campos and his son Phil, Zyzkowski cousins Joan and Juan Alverez, Carlos’ daughter Anizah, and three more Allentown locals and Dutch Springs buddies, Carl, Patricia and Kari Schulthers. Such a small world indeed!

Back to the dock for the customary quick turnaround and we find a little confusion on board. Seems that the left side of the front office doesn’t always talk to the right side, so they had booked a deep wreck trip at the same time as a double shallow location trip…hmmmmm..what to do? Well we have an answer – let’s make it a three-location afternoon! Bonus dive!! So out we headed, and our first location was the Spiegel, where again Mr. Hartman led a select group on one of his tours, and I had the distinct pleasure of escorting Leann, Sally & Michele, along with Steve and Joyce, on their very first deep/wreck/open ocean dive after graduating as Open Water Divers two hours ago! Talk about advanced placement!! Everyone did fantastic, and the conditions were surreal, with zero current, great vis, and lots of life to be scene around and inside the wreck. Location #2 was the Aquarium, and finally drop #3 was the Benwood, where we entered the water at 6:50 to check on the marine life before we returned to visit for our night dive.

Quick trip back to the dock and right back out for the night dive…gosh this group loves to dive!! We ended up getting in the water at 10:15 p.m, and had an hour and fifteen minutes of great diving before coming out as the clock neared midnight! Great day!! So showers on the boat, comb through the hair, and let’s head to the only known place to get food in Key Largo at night, the Paradise Pub. Well what a surprise as we walk in to see the kitchen looking a little dark-ish. Ruh-roh! Before I can even open my mouth, Antoinette picks up the phone, hits “call” and holds it up to our groups ears….”hear that”, she says. “the phone is working!” Then, to add to the dramatic effect, she hits the ‘missed call’ log…”Nope, I don’t see Dave’s number here”, she announces. Seems that she had told me to call if we were coming for dinner, and somehow that seemed to slip right off my ‘things to do’ list today. I put on my best puppy dog eyes, nearly dropping to a knee for the sake of my hungry friends. Well, like Carrie Fisher, putting down the rocket launcher as John Belushi pleads with her in the Blues Brothers, she reneges, feels my pain, and calls in Jay the owner to open the kitchen and cook for us! Whew! Saved again…I owe her big time! Our tired little group gobbles down our dinner and we head back, no Club tonite for us!

Now it’s Sunday and the trip is starting to draw to a close. We head out for dive #38 of the week, hitting two reefs in the morning, back for lunch, and then it’s the real graduation dives, going to visit the Duane and the Spiegel again. Our good friend and Amoray owner Amy Slate has joined us this afternoon, along with her brother Justin. Michele has lamented that her weekend would be complete if only she could see a turtle, and the 15 or so that the rest of us had seen earlier in the week did not appease her. She points out to me in no uncertain terms that she has no interest in a rusty ol’ hunk of metal so there better be turtles there for her. Hey I work well under pressure, so let’s just go diving. Well Shazam, shazam…..what greets us on the bottom but a huge loggerhead, just hanging right there on the railing for us to take in. What else do you want to see Michele? The dive ends up as fantastic as the rest have this week, and we visit the Spiegel with simialr great results, lots of cool things to see, everyone getting more and more comfortable with the wreck and the deep diving. It is such a beautiful thing to see, and if you told the class on Thursday that this is what they’d be doing by Sunday they’d say no way! Gotta love the progression and development – there is nothing that compares the IVS checkout dives in the Keys.

Well as we sail back in, Ms Amy herself says this was such a wonderful day to spend with us, and the conditions were so perfect, that it’s too bad we’re not doing a night dive. At that, Steve Holak’s ears perked right up and he ‘night dive? Who want so to go?” Well, sure enough, we had a team, and since we numbered seven, Amy offered the Just-In-Time, her luxury catamaran, for the evening. Of course that meant I had to work as crew so we had room for the seven of us, but I’ll suffer through for the team….god I hate my job sometimes! We headed back out, again getting a nice late entry into the water at 9:15, and enjoyed an hour and a half of diving under the stars. Octopus, stingrays, big eels, sharks, lobsters, you name it, it was there to play with us. And what better way to cap it off then to come in to the dock at midnight to find Ray has the grill fired up and has put a complete spread together for us! Burgers, dogs, drinks, and more……way to go Ray!! What a great way to wrap up a super week of Florida Keys diving!

But wait, there’s more!

It’s Monday, and while everyone else gets to relax and head to the airport, I have to, you guessed it, dive again! My good friend Nancy Caruso and her husband Tom have come in from Laguna Beach, California, for some diving in the Keys, and I had arranged to take them out this morning to get them started. Nancy runs a non-profit in California, called Get Inspired, and it is dedicated to preserving and restoring the kelp forests, and providing educational opportunities for others to learn about the sea. I was eager to show her our efforts here with the Staghorn Coral restoration work we have been doing with Ken Neidermeyer and the Coral Restoration Foundation, so we dove the Wellwood site and Eagle Ray Alley. Great chance to share stories and learn a bit more about related efforts two coasts apart. And who else is on board but IVS diver Johnny Larson and his bride, just continuing the growing string of IVS-family connections.

Finally we were back at the dock, and I had no time to waste! Shower, pack, and await my ride from Dave Hartman to Fort Lauderdale, where I had an appointment to continue my ‘Flying after Diving’ medical experiment. Needless to say, the results were the same, and the travel was good. Home, after 8 wonderful days in the Keys, and 44 new great dives in the logbook. Time to relax, get caught up, dry out the gear, and get ready for the next adventure!

Manatee Wrestling & Other Fun Stuff!

Alrighty, caught your eyes there, didn’t we?  No, we are not manatee wrestling, but we are here in Homasassa Florida to go diving with them this weekend.  That, plus visit a few of our favorite rivers, caverns & caves that Northern Florida is known for!

The trip started off on a great start, with me getting to the Philadelphia airport with plenty of time to spare.  That pretty much summarizes the great start portion of the journey for me!  I check my three big bags of gear at the curb, pass through security with no issues, and start down the terminal to my gate.  Hmmmm, it seems a little busy here today….what’s up with that? 

Well here’s what’s up – seems that a teenage airplane passenger using a “Jewish prayer object” caused a misunderstanding that led the captain to divert a Kentucky-bound plane to Philadelphia and prompted a visit from a bomb squad.

According to the Philadelphia Police, a 17-year-old boy on US Airways Express Flight from New York to Louisville was using tefillin, a set of small black boxes containing biblical passages that are attached to leather straps. 

When used in prayer, one box is strapped to the arm while the other box is placed on the head.

“It’s something that the average person is not going to see very often, if ever,” said the FBI spokesman. 

Friggin’ amazing, I guess no one aboard the flight had the Chutzpah to actually ask the young man what he was doing, assuming they are not familiar with this Hebrew practice.  But noooooooooo, we have to sneak around to the crew and they need to pass the word up to the cockpit and the captain needs to get his flight plans diverted to make an emergency landing and a rendesvouz with the Philadelphia Bomb Squad just cause of one religious American citizen.  Cheeeeesh!

OK, so all is good, and we reset Gov. Tom Ridge’s famous Homeland Security Threat Level Status light pole from ‘Red’ back to ‘Orange’ and get on with our lives.  That makes me wonder….do they even have bulbs in the blue and green lenses?  Will we ever see them lit? But I digress………….

By now of course, my flight is late as it gets caught in the queue of delayed flights from Philadelphia. So of course I miss my connection in Atlanta, which on it’s own would not be such a bad thing, except for the fact that I am picking up Dan Leone in Orlando and driving him to the resort!  Our plans were for him to arrive about a half hour before my flight, and come meet me when I landed.  Well I hope he packed a book or two, cause that is clearly not in the cards today!  When I get to Atlanta, the next flight to Orlando is oversold, so no sneaking onto that one.  And, the one after that is also!  Finally I am confirmed on the third flight to Orlando, and scheduled to land at 9:30, only four hours after my original plans.  So, I take a peek out of the big window at the gate, and realize I can see all the way to the next gate…….hmmmm…let’s look again, cause I am sure my view should be blocked by a big ol’ Boeing jet that I should be boarding in a few minutes.  Well no, my first glance was correct…..there is no jet there, cause it hasn’t even arrived yet!  Not looking good for Dan in Orlando, that is for sure!  Finally, an hour later, our plane arrives, we go through the unloading/cleaning/boarding  ritual, and we are off, heading southbound towards the land of Disney.

When I de-plane in Orlando it is after 11:00 and Dan is looking a bit haggard from his extended wait in the airport tavern!  Let’s get my bags and roll I say, and sure enough, there are my bags, heck they have been here and waiting for me for close to 4 hours!  So much for that official airline mantra about no checked bags flying without the passenger who owns them…just more rhetoric designed to appease the public.   We check in to EZ Car Rental, pick up our nice new Ford F-150 pick-em-up truck, and head west to the Homasassa Riverside Resort, our base of operations for the weekend’s activity. 

I pull into the resort and Bubba, the night clerk, hands me my stack of keys for the four rooms we have reserved.  “Hold them horses, pardner” I say, “we are four divers not four rooms!”  Oh no, he says, as he points it out in the reservation book, I have four rooms.  I can see that this argument is not going to go any place positive here at 2:00 a.m., so I say “how about we start small, and I only take one room tonight?”.  OK he says we can do that….I shake my head, collect our keys, and Dan and I go and move in.   Like a good daddy, I spend a couple hours nervously pacing until finally Dave & Natalie McLoughlan safely arrive, and by 3:30 a.m. I have everyone tucked in for the night, power-napping away in preparation for our first full day of diving.

Friday morning comes way too early, but there is no rush (can you imagine me saying that?) case we “own the boat” today, and Carl & Dave, owners of Adventure Dive Center in Crystal River, are as laid back as us!  So we get our gear together, pile into the van, and head up the road to connect with the Adventure Dive Center crew.  We arrive and the banter and joking begins immediately, if I did not know better, I’d swear we were in Indian Valley Scuba-Crystal River!  I love these guys!

So after the introductions, initial sarcasm & general abuse that is part of the IVS tough-diver-love program, we get to the ‘meat’ of the matter (what…did someone mention something about manatee’s tasting just like chicken?).  Whoa, whoa….let’s keep it politically correct here!  Remember Rule #1 of Scuba Diving? Of course we all do – Fill out the waiver!

So, paperwork completed, it’s time to watch the manatee movie, sponsored by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission.  Actually a pretty informative flick, and with some great videography, it prepares our crew for what we are about to see – 1,000 pound sea cows frolicking amongst us, as we dodge the kayak-based manatee nazi’s who’s sole purpose in life is to keep the manatees separated from those that love them the most! 

A short hop over to the boat, and we load up, hear the Cliff Notes version of the Coast Guard safety talk, and motor out into the Crystal River to our first location – Kings Spring.  This site is a little different, as it is a nice deep cavern very well camouflaged in the middle of an otherwise flat and lo-visibility river.  The bottom of the river in this area is 5 to 8 feet deep, and usually murky.  Today was no exception and the viz was around five feet or so in the river.  Two manatee refuge zones are located here, separated by a narrow gap where you can dive or swim to access the cavern entrances.  It’s really, really important to NOT swim into the manatee refuge areas, as they pointed out in the video.  So, I turn around to find the crew, and hmmmmmm…..I am alone here, let me surface and see where they have gotten off to!  Well, is that a manatee over there blowing those bubbles I see on the surface?  Nooooooo, it’s Team IVS, off the beaten path and smack dab in the middle of the refuge!   Psssst!  Hey – get over here!  Hurry!!!  Note to self -navigation might be good thing to emphasize this weekend!

OK, we re-regrouped and swam right over the top of the cavern area. Once you are there, the bottom drops into a rocky hole about 30 ft deep, and then you slide down the side, squeeze between a couple of rocks into a very dark slot, turn left, and viola!  you are inside the cavern!  That wasn’t too scary now, was it? 

Once inside, the cavern opens up a bit and by all standards, while the cavern is not deep, you clearly cannot see natural light from most vantage points once you are inside.  But oh well, who are we to point this discrepancy out?  The hole goes back about 100 ft, dropping to a depth of 48 ft inside.  Water clarity is phenomenal as this is entirely fed by crystal clear spring water.  It’s just dark!  And OK, maybe a little tight, especially if you follow me into some of the side shoots and little holes to see the catfish that like to hang out there!  But that’s all part of a good adventure!

So after our first initial drop into the cavern, we come out and ascend, and let everyone’s heartbeat fall back into a more normal range.  Breathing slows down, and I ask if we’re ready to go back in and actually see the cavern this time?  All answers are ‘Yes’ so we drop down, squeeze back in, and this time everyone is relaxed, and we enjoy cruising around inside, looking at the rock formations, wondering when it actually was that the big rocks we are swimming over fell from the ceiling, and even crawl into some of the catfish holes.  There’s a nice halocline at about 46 ft, where the salt water is mixing with the fresh, and it’s cool to stick your head into it and realize that no matter how hard you try, you can’t focus on anything!

After another half hour of play in and around the cavern, and we swim back out to the boat, taking the official path between the refuge areas this time!   Once there, we spend a little time searching for Dave M’s light in the silty murky bottom, but that official DIR-color black light isn’t giving away it’s position, so after a thorough search, we decide Dave needs a new light from Indian Valley Scuba (preferably yellow or some other bright color!). Cha-ching! “Oooops!  Was that my outside voice?”

Our second location is Three Sisters Springs, and as we motor up to the site, we can see where all the manatees have been hiding!  The water is thick with them, and there are manatees swimming, and resting, and nuzzling the snorkelers, and getting tickled and scratched – all cool!!  Of course, there are quite a few manatee-huggers, under the guise of “informational guides” crusing among us in thier kayaks, ready to give you a quick swat on the head with their paddle should you look menacing in the direction of any of the manatees.  We slip/fall into the water (it’s only four feet deep!) and walk over to the manatees.  A few of the local rocket scientists share their observation with us that our scuba gear might be a bit of an overkill for this depth, but we soldier on.  Everyone gets some great manatee photos, and some nuzzling and tickling, and finally it’s time to head up into the spring.  So we drop into the water, and swim through the narrow entrance to the springs themselves.  It is a very pretty swim, water depth varies from 5 to 8 ft, and the clarity is maybe, oh, 100 ft plus! As we swim we can start to see the sand boils, where the springwater is coming in from below, and the sand above is literally boiling as it tumbles and churns with the force of the water stream passing up from below – pretty darn cool! 

The springs branch off into three offshoots once inside (hmmmm…..maybe there was a reason to call it Three Sisters!) and although relatively small, they are beautiful, with white sandy bottoms, tree lined shores, a sunny day overhead, and lots of little fish and critters to amuse and entertain us.  And as we start to get a little bored with all that, here come the manatees – the union meeting must be over, cause they are starting to pile in!  First one, perhaps a scout, then here comes mom and a baby!  Very cool, very tolerant of us, very photogenic! Our morning is complete!

So back on board, we motor back to the dock, unload, and prepare for this afternoons dive on the Rainbow River.  But we have time for lunch, and the boys at Adventure Dive Center recommend the Taste of Philly Sub & Cheesesteak Shop across the street.  OK…..we are 1,000 miles from home, and all our zip codes start with 19xxx, so we are quite skeptical as to the authenticity of our sandwich experience.  Well one step inside the shop, and we think we have been transported right back to 9th & Passyunk in South Philly!  The owners fit the mold to a “T”, including the look, accent and mannerisms that you’ll experience at Pat’s or Geno’s – not to mention understanding what “wit” and witout” mean!  Needless to say, our sandwiches are absoutely delicious, and we have a new spot to recommend to everyone passing through Crystal River, FL!  

So we say our goodbyes, snap a few memory photos outside the shop, and drive up to meet Dave and the boat at K. P. Hole, the launching site for our Rainbow River drift dive.  Heading upstream towards the headwaters, the river is just beautiful, with lush woods, a few nice homes, and water as clear as can be flowing from the springs – as you might imagine when you get 400-600 million gallons a day of spring water coming up from deep inside the earth!  We stop just short of the end of navigable waters, and drop in at 5:30 p.m. for what is about to quickly become a night drift dive!  Gotta love the adventure – let’s do a first time drift dive for some of our party, in a new location they have never dove before, at night!  Like they say in the Guiness commercials – Brilliant!

 Well the dive turns out to be just fantastic and we see all sorts of cool things, including alligator gar, turtles, bass, catfish, even a couple of wild otters swimming with us – an hour and 10 minutes of drifting, cruising, up, down, around, just all great – OK, maybe almost all great, as this body of water has somehow managed to snatch another one of Dave M’s dive lights – those things must have magnets in them, set for the bottom of Florida’s waterways!  What a way to wrap up our first day of diving!  By the time we get back to the condo, Dan crashes for the night, Dave & Natalie head out for a quick snack at the restaurant, and I sit down to type this blog!  Such dedication, yes, I know!

Now it’s Saturday, and we have a surprise for our divers! In lieu of heading up to one of the springs today, we are going to have an opportunity to drift dive down the Silver River.  This river is totally primitive, completely surrounded by untouched forest preserves, and chock full of really cool critters above and below the water!  No one except Adventure Dive Center dives this river, and they only got the idea after years of running bird watching and nature lover tours on this untouched piece of Florida’s natural beauty.  The river can only be dove in January and February, cause during these two cooler months, most of the alligators and water snakes are in some state of hibernation, and unwanted underwater animal encounters are less likely!  How’s that for Indian Valley Scuba taking our divers safety and well being to heart?

So we head up, and it’s almost a two hour run to Ocala where we’ll launch for the river dive.  We load up the boat with gear, supplies, food, and beverages, and start the journey upstream against some really strong current.  The river is full of sunken logs and half-submerged logs and other hazards to navigation, and our captain is still learning the ropes, as he demonstrates with a few unintended 180 degree turns as a result of putting the boat a little too far into a turn for the current we are running against.  Oh well, we manage to get ourselves turned around each time, and the trip upriver is a photographers dream come true, with Anhinga, Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Ibis birds out and about, wild Rhesus monkeys hanging from the trees, turtles of all sorts, and some really nice large American alligators sunning themselves on some of the half-submerged logs in the river – wait…did these guys not get the memo about it being hibernation season until February???

Our two dives there are great, with the current varying from mild to ripping as we go along, and some really cool buried underwater tree entanglement/death traps that we manage to avoid as we cruise along.  Armored catfish up to 30″ long are all over (those are Plecostomus to our aquarists), and the alligator gar and pickerel really added some nice new sightings to our fish list.  Lunch on board included Cheetoh’s and canned sardines, either packed in soybean oil or cajun style ( those who know me will be able to pick the flavor I chose!), beverages, and some good joke telling with our new friends Shane Rickman and Keith Fisher, a couple of good ol’ boys from Arkansas, and a local cracker, Capt. Jason Scott.  After that we pulled the boat, and headed over to Ken’s Winghouse, a Florida version of Hooters, complete with scantily clad waitstaff and icy cold brewskies – I’m thinking what more could we ask for?  (Natalie was rolling her eyes when I brought that up – go figure!)

And talk about small worlds..while I am eating my cell rings and it is none other than our Vandenberg connection, Joe Weatherby!  And he’s calling cause he just got to Crystal River and wanted to know who we would recommend going out to see Manatees with!  Well how much easier can this get, I hand the phone to Dave Mittelstadt, and Adventure Dive Center suddenly has a charter for Sunday! 

Sunday we opted to visit two of the more unique springs from our original itinerary – Blue Grotto and Devlis Den.  Blue Grotto is our first stop, and we check in, fill out waivers, and watch the informative (but frightening) video about diving the site.  Needless to say, this sorta freaks out part of our party, so by the time we are waterside,  it is touch and go whether to dive or not.  Thankfully we all agree to go in and check it out (liek the hundred or so other lemmings there that day) and turns out that it is not as scary as it was made to sound.  So we do the shallow loop, then the deep one, and work on our buoyancy skills, and have a nice dive.  After our first loop around the bottom, we head back towards the entry area, and Dan signals to me that he is low on air, so he is going up.  OK I signal back, and continue to work with Natalie on her hovering and bubble management, which is going great!  So we pop up and I see Dan hightailing up the stairs back to our staging area – strange, I think!  So I spend another ten minutes or so in the water with Dave as he is looking for a dive knife that he found (if you’re keeping score that is two lights lost, one knife found, for a minus one score so far for the weekend) but that he somehow dropped out of his BC pocket (making the score minus three).  So we look around, come up empty handed, and I take one last loop around the bottom of the cavern, and we surface.  Well there’s our friend Dan, standing at the dock, ready to go diving with a fresh new tank!  ‘Sup, I ask, and he says he’s ready to see the rest of the cavern.  Uhhhhh Dan, sorry to diappoint, but that was it – in spite of the video and the owner’s long explanation about the deep dark place, we have just seen it all.  Talk about disappointed, he was sure there saw more to see down there, and didn’t want to be low on air while exploring it!  Sorry!   And to add salt to the collective wounds, while Dave and I were down searching for Dave’s newly found (and newly lost) knife, Natalie reports that some kid taking a class came up and was proud as a peacock ’cause on his checkout dive he found a really cool knife!   

So anyhow, we got over all that, and we throw the gear in the car, jump in, still wearing our wetsuits, and drive about a mile down the road and across the street to Devils Den.  This is a really cool place if you have never dove it, with a subterranean chamber that is spring fed, and only accessible by your choice of either rappeling down through a small hole in the ceiling, or taking the more conventional approach, walking down the stairs.  We opted for the conventional approach today, and geared up and walked on down into the cavern.  The water is of course perfectly crystal clear, with depths to about 50 ft.  The entry point is a platform set on a pile of rocks that fell from the ceiling (making one wonder if more are due to fall today!) and the dive is a complete circle around the perimeter, with swim-thru’s, crawl-thru’s and just lots of neat things to explore and see.  A couple of large catfish patrol the place, there are some nice signs complete with the Grim Reaper and “DANGER OF DEATH IF YOU PASS THIS SIGN” messages – good guidelines to follow!  A few turtles, some smaller fish living in fear of the big catfish, and some barred-off entrances to the back cave areas that are really tight to squeeze through (whoops…was that my outside voice again?).  All in all a neat dive, and we spent another hour and twenty minutes there enjoying it and wrapping up a nice weekend of very different diving.

Driving home we stopped at Cody’s Steakhouse, and what a fine time we enjoyed over a great steak dinner and a super waitress.  Jokes were flowing, the laughter never stopped, and boy were those 32 oz beers all around good!  We ended with a great chocolate brownie sundae that fed four – talk about size matters!  Great cap on a great day with great friends!  From there it was back, a few hours for the gear to drip dry, pack up and head to the airport for our respective rides home.  Great trip, we’ll be back next year!