Manatee Madness in Crystal River!

Manatee Trip January 2013

Trip Report by Mairead Twohig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lobster Queen Bill Z and trip leader Steve H

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy, Maribel, Reinel & Emanuel on the Amoray Diver

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

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

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

Ray, Frank & Bill – lobster clearning crew!

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

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

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

Esther & Paul Gehman on the Amoray Diver

Nick & Scott on the Amoray Diver

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

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

Hartman and Michelle at Conch House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end…..for now…we’ll be back!!

Manatee Madness – Crystal River, here we come!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

 

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

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

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

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

More to follow…

A Special Wreck Trek Starts Off Lobster Week

Part II in our Six Part Blog Series is by David Hartman of Key Largo, Florida

Indian Valley SCUBA arrived early in South Florida to take in the sites and some serious wrecks prior to Lobster Mini-Season arrives on Wednesday and Thurday.  David Valaika headed to the Dry Tortugas for an adventure excursion on a private boat to dive some deep wrecks.  Sue Douglass, Bev and Butch Loggins, Brian LaSpino, Jesica Tyre headed to South Beach for some R&R. Bill and John Zyskowski arrived in Key Largo Saturday night to get a head start on the Indian Valley SCUBA Wreck Trek-Lobster Week by taking a private all day wreck charter with IVS South’s David Hartman. The Z-Brothers Wreck Trek included three dives on the Spiegel with lunch and a gorgeous dive on the Duane to end the all day affair. Excellent conditions on both wrecks plus sunny skies made for a fantastic dive day.  The highlights of the Spiegel dives included the “Belly of the Beast Tour” of the Pump Room and Aft Engine Room, The Ulimate Tour with the “Chute” Snoopy, Galley, Mess Halls and Machine Shop and pressing some shirts in the ship’s Laundry Room.  A special thanks to the Captain Pete Lacombe (The Mustard King), Divemaster Justin and Keys Diver II for taking good care the Z-Brothers team.

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

Read More on the IVS Wreck Trek in Part III of the Blog Series……..

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!!

The invasion continues – Team IVS beats the cold in Key Largo

Key Largo Trip Report, by Dave Hartman

I have been working with Indian Valley SCUBA for the past five years as a local host, instructor and dive guide in Key Largo and all previous 25+ trips of the group the dive shop’s owner and fearless leader David Valaika was with the group taking care of all leadership duties. With David V. in Palau (lucky him), I was left to lead the group through all of their dives and certification courses. Thankfully, I was able to solicit the help of my instructor classmate and friend Tori Steinmeier fresh off a billionaire’s yacht in the Mediterranean. The IVS group of 8 divers arrived in town safely Thursday evening all eager for some serious diving the next 3 days.

The weather was sunny but a bit blustery with North winds ranging 10-15 knots all weekend. Despite the winter weather, the conditions underwater were excellent all weekend with 80 feet of blue water viz and very little current on all dives including the wreck dives. That’s right no current on wreck dives..a rare sight for the team IVS. Friday started off with some shallow reef dives at the Elbow on Mike’s Wreck and the City of Washington. The IVS group boarded the Amoray Diver in the morning with Capt Dan Harvey behind the wheel and First Mate Beth overseeing the divers. Dive buddies were divided up by instructor assignments and I was in charge of the brother and sister dynamic duo of Emily and Steven to guide their first dives outside of Dutch Springs, PA. Emily & Steve received their Open Water cert cards this past summer and were ready for some tropical dive conditions and to take their PADI Advanced Open Water course. The IVS group was half newbies to an IVS trip and half of past customers. Felix is an IVS regular and Rick, Luke and his son Dylan were just down in Key Largo a few months ago. The other two newbies besides Emily and Steve were Diane and Marilyn both new to the dive shop as well as their first IVS Key Largo trip. The other divers taking PADI cert course in the group besides Emily and Steve were Marilyn for Wreck Diver, Diane taking Peak Performance Buoyancy and 14 year old Dylan taking Jr. Rescue Diver. The other divers were just out to have fun and enjoy some vintage Key Largo diving. Our dives on The Elbow were all about relaxing and getting comfortable with diving again. I brought my Sea & Sea 1G camera (purchased at SCUBA Gear Plus/IVS) along for the dives with Emily and Steve and took some advantage of some great photo opps. The most impressive photo opp was a HUGE Jewfish who resides on the City of the Washington. Emily was eager to get up close to the big fella almost appearing to kiss the big creature. Hey Emily no harassing the marine life! The entire team had great dives on the Elbow and now it was back to the dock for a quick launch, tank exchange and then back out to dive the Spiegel Grove.

Jewfish on the City of Washington

Friday afternoon was time for some serious wreck diving! All divers were back aboard the Amoray Diver with Capt Dan and First Mate John replacing the beautiful Beth. IVS divers were divided into two groups: Group 1) Divers on their first their first Spiegel Grove dive went with Tori Steinmeier for the “candy ass” wreck tour in honor of IVS’s own Sue Douglass (who was also in Palau) Group 2) Seasoned Spiegel Divers went with me for some serious wreck “swim throughs”inside the well deck and superstructure of the massive naval ship. Both groups loved their Spiegel dives and conditions were favorable with no current and descent viz. A special thanks to Rick for awesome air consumption and for joining “extended dive time with Dave” for my 1 on 1 “Nooks and Crannies” tour of the Spiegel where we look for new details in tight spaces on the Grove. I found two new gauges, a new closet and a new placard label in the extra time with Rick. Despite a few hundred dives on the Spiegel, there is always something new to see. The second dive of the afternoon was on French Reef and time for exploration of underwater “caves.” French is an older Reef in Key Largo with numerous swim throughs created under coral heads from thousands of years of erosion. Our mooring was on Christmas Tree Cave but my group also visited Hour Glass Cave (and the secret 3rd Chamber), the Chimney of Five Caves and Dylan and I navigated my self-named swimthrough “The Branch” of Christmas Tree Cave. Congrats to all divers for some courageous diving.
Dylan Miller in Christmas Tree Cave

Friday night was time for some Key Largo fun with cocktails and barbecue at Club Dave (my house). Thanks to the entire team for attending and special thanks to Emily and Steve for food shopping and Tori and my friend Capt Pete for last minute provisions and an emergency propane run. Everyone had a blast and even our First Mates Beth and John showed up to represent Amoray Dive Resort. Saturday morning called for favorable sunny dive conditions and more shallow reef dives on Molasses Reef. Certification classes started in earnest with all students busy at work underwater. Underwater Nav was all too easy for Emily and Steve in 80 feet of blue water viz although Emily needs to work on which boat to return to for natural navigation. The highlight of the first dive on Molasses on Permit Ledges was seeing some majestic Eagle Rays gliding through the water column. The second dive on MO was North Star just behind Winch Hole with the famous winch in the sand and the Hole in the Wall swimthrough. More classes underwater and also another fantastic dive and all students performed well on their skills.
IVS at Winch Hole on Molasses Reef

It was back to the Spiegel Grove Saturday afternoon was some more advanced wreck dives. Those on the “Sue Douglass Candy Ass Tour” on Friday had the option to upgrade to a more aggressive profile on Saturday with yours truly as the guide. Even Tori took off the training wheels and conducted some minor penetration of the wheel house with Diane and Marilyn. I took Emily, Steve and Luke inside the superstructure of the Spiegel in a quest to find Snoopy and some other cool rooms including the machine shop. Felix and Rick were on their own private tour of the Grove now that they had numerous Spiegel dives under their belt. Congrats to Felix for finding Snoopy on his own! All had fun on the Spiegel and again no current and descent viz. Next stop was the Benwood for a real ship wreck-not intentionally sunk like the Spiegel Grove. Nice conditions on the Benwood and fish everywhere which made for some great pictures by Emily and Steve during the Underwater Photo Adventure Dive. Thanks to Diane for some improptu underwater modeling.

Sunday called for one last day of excellent dive conditions before a serious cold front hit Key Largo on Monday. The morning dives were spent Snapper Ledge on Pickles Reef- the fishiest dive in the Keys and a perfect side for the Project AWARE Fish ID class. Emily and Steve filled an entire slate attempting to ID all the different species of marine life. Snapper Ledge did not disappoint with schools of Snappers, Grunts and goatfish everywhere.
French Grunts on Snapper Ledge

The Wreck of the USCG Duane was on tap for Sunday afternoon and the beautiful ship did not disappoint. No current and fantastic viz made for a memorable Duane dive. Emily and Steve finished their AOW class by completing a few deep water skills on the deck of the Duane and Marilyn smartly tracked me down underwater to complete her Wreck Diver reel skills when her instructor Tori was stuck on the mooring line with congested ears. Nice job Marilyn with the improptu signals saying your instructor is in dispose! The last dive of the trip was one last tour of the Spiegel Grove. The late hour of the day and a bit of clouds made the dive almost twilight and so cool. Marilyn completed her wreck penetration with reel exercise as Diane proceeded to break the world record for a descent on the Spiegel Grove. After Marilyn completed some flawless reel work (but far from silt free) it was time to retrieve Diane and take the group for brief superstructure tours of the Grove. A great way to end a fantastic weekend of winter diving in Key Largo with the IVS team. Congrats to all students who completed their certification classes during the weekend and to Tori for qualifying for Master Instructor by conducting Dylan’s Jr. Rescue class. Thank you to all IVS divers, Amoray Dive Resort and the staff of the Amoray Diver for another legendary IVS dive weekend in Key Largo.