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!

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!

Warming up for the Keys Invasion – Dry Tortugas Tech Diving

This is Part I of a Six Part Series on “Team  IVS Invades the Keys”

The IVS Truck Loaded for Our Extended Trip to the Florida Keys

The IVS Truck Loaded for Our Extended Trip to the Florida Keys

Well it’s late July, and we all know what that means – time for Team Indian Valley Scuba to invade the Florida Keys for our annual lobster mini-season event and lobster festival dinner!  This year we’ve made the trip even better, by growing it to include three days of nothing but wrecks before we hunt, and then a Wreck Racing League event after the festival.  Heck, we’ve even thrown in a day of cave diving to round out the nearly two weeks of Florida diving we have planned

But before we get into all of that – let’s not forget how weather and traffic teamed up in perfect harmony to destroy my chance to dive the Andrea Doria last week.  I am still hurting inside from that “non-trip”, and this is made worse by the fact that I have to walk around the huge pile of scuba cylinders custom blended and tagged with Trimix in the garage, that we had prepared for that trip.  Where and when will I ever use all this great gas, I think to myself each day as I gaze with teary eyes at the pile of tanks.

Fate is a funny thing, sometimes our friend, sometimes our foe. So, sensitive soul that I am, consider how I felt when the phone rang and it was my good friend Joe Weatherby calling from Key West, to let me know that a private tech charter there had just gotten a cancellation from one of the members, and they asked Joe if he could recommend anyone and thankfully he thought of me. But of course, before he could commit, he needed to see if I was available.

“Three days on a private 43 ft Bertram yacht diving and spearing fish on some of the most famous technical wrecks in the Dry Tortugas, and the spot was mine if I could make it  down.  “OK, OK, when is this scheduled”, I asked, and Joe replied “next weekend, July 21-24 – can you make it?” Wait a minute, I am thinking, that is the four days before our upcoming Wreck Trek in Key West….so just to make sure, I ask Joe to repeat himself.   Yep, those are the dates, but he has to know if I can make it, and if I have time to blend gas for it!  “Let me look at my schedule for a micro-second”, I say, and then “Count me in!”

I ask you, what are the odds that a diving opportunity will come up like this, with dates that dovetail into our already arranged trip perfectly, and to wrecks that require the exact same gas that I have blended in the garage.  Is there something I am missing here?  I pinch myself a few times, and immediately begin making the necessary adjustments to my travel plans! This will work, just need to move a few things around, get packed, and head down a bit earlier, with an expected departure at noon on Wednesday.  That will allow me to have plenty of time to enjoy a relaxing drive south – so unlike me!!  Well keep reading to see how well this part of the plan / fantasy worked out.

The crew that is putting this adventure together includes Zach Harshbarger, a USAir pilot that owns a yacht in Key West, Steve Moore, spearfisherman supreme and owner of Keys Mobile Diving, Kenny Rad from the Great Lakes, John Herrera from Boca Rotan, and Laura Pettry from Lake Worth.  Joining me and this select group will be Michele Highley, who was already on board to drive down with me for the Wreck Trek.

The plan is to motor out to the Dry Tortugas for four days of technical diving and spearfishing, visiting such great wrecks as the Araby Maid, the Rhein, and the former WWII German U-Boat S-2513.

We’ll have two boats, Zach’s 13 meter (43 ft) Bertram Trojan as our mother ship, with it’s roomy 17 ft beam and spacious galley and cockpit, along with Steve’s 23 ft Glacier Bay catamaran will be alongside to serve as an alternate dive platform and chase boat for the spear-o’s.  In order to conserve the smaller boats fuel, the plan is to tow it out behind the Trojan for the nearly 100 mile run out to the Dry Tortugas.

Well plans are one thing, execution is another.  For starters, what was I thinking when I said we’d leave at noon?  I’m finishing up mixing a few bottles of gas in the morning, then starting to get my gear together, when I remember I need to get an IVS newsletter out!  Yikes!  So to the computer I go, shift gears, put my “creative helmet” on tight, and type away, sharing Amir Stark’s fantastic Bonaire movie, Randy Rudd’s NOAA award, Rob Tenilla’s ride to cure cancer, and a few more tidbits of timely news.  If you don’t get the newsletter, you can subscribe to it by clicking here!

So finally that is out, and now I need to help Ray with a few Nitrox fills for a customer. Then Bev has something I need to look at, Brian has a few questions, the contractor who is painting the house needs some time with me…you get the picture!  I am thinking I should make it a practice to just sneak out quietly during the night!

Eventually the truck is loaded to the hilt, 38 tanks of various gasses on board, tech gear, sidemount gear, lobster gear, more gear…for some reason I can hear the voice of Captain Quint from Jaws, saying, “We’re gonna need a bigger truck!”  And look at the clock on the wall – it’s 7:00 pm!  That’s almost noon-ish, and using the same math as America’s major airlines, I consider it an on-time departure!  Only 22 hours to go, and we’ll be in Key West!

Well the trip is uneventful, and we make good time, finally arriving in Stock Island, just outside of Key West, for a pre-departure dinner with the group at the Hogfish Bar & Grille.  This great little restaurant is right in the marina where our condo is and coincidently where the Fish Happens and Keys Mobile Diver are docked.

We enjoy some fresh grouper that Steve had shot earlier in the day, and start to load the boat.  We put most of the tanks and gear on the Trojan, to keep the Mobile Diver as light as possible for towing.  Let’s just say, that when we are done loading that we have one impressive pile of tanks on board!  Personal gear is brought down, we draw straws for the bedroom assignments, and start to settle in and prepare to begin our journey.  This is perfect – what could go wrong now?

Oooops!  Starboard engine fires up, but Port engine does not want to crank for nothing!  Not cool, considering we are planning to spend the next four days alone on the ocean with no support in sight.  So as is so typical on an IVS trip, the engine hatches are opened, tool boxes brought out, and the crew assumes the characteristic “head down, butt high” position of men on a mission!  It appears that perhaps the problem is as simple as a dead battery, but it’s a little late at night – it’s 1:00 am now – to get any parts, even in Key West.  So we call it a night, and bed down dockside to await the morning and the opening of the local ships chandelary.

The sun wakes us up and we re-check the nights work – yup, it still won’t start.  OK, with that confirmed, we get some breakfast and Zach heads over to West Marine and picks up a new battery.  Installation is not too big a job and even Michele is in the engine hatch helping get the job done!   Finally we test our work and shazam! We have two working engines!

We’re pretty sure we’re ready now, so we throw off the lines, and slowly motor out the channel.  Once outside, we rig up a tow line from the Trojan to the Mobile Diver.  Now I hardly consider myself a sailor (as anyone salutes my personal navigation marker in Key Largo), but I did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express one night, and I am sensing the tow line is a little light for the job.  Reassured by the crew that it’ll do the job, we head out, and sure enough, at 7 knots, it is doing well.  But as soon as we begin to open the throttle up a bit, ‘Zing!’ there goes the line flying by, putting an end to that tow rig configuration.  We leave Steve on his boat to put another rig together and we crank up the big Detroit Diesels and start making good time on our trip.  The plan is for Steve to catch up to us along the way and we’ll re-visit the towing concept there.

The sea is as flat as you can ask for, the sky clear blue, and the sun just shining down on our boat as we motor past schools of playful dolphins on the way …ah the life of a sailor indeed!  Of course, without all the deck swabbing & plank walking parts!  Our plans are to make way directly to the Araby Maid where we will tie up for the night.  Steve has caught back up to us, so now, at towing speed, that equates to about 12 hours to make the 94 mile run from Key West. With our delayed departure due to the battery problem, that puts us on the wreck at about 9:30 this evening, a little late and a little dark to think about that being our first dive of the trip!  Usually better to get the bugs out on something less than 200 ft deep, night dive on a natural wreck covered with nets and fishing lines.  So, what to do!  Wait, John remembers he heard of a wreck called the Night Lady, a wooden fishing boat lost in a storm many years ago, that happens to fall almost directly in our path. Well, as Gomer Pyle would say, “shazam, shazam”, we have a plan.  We’ll stop on the wreck, get the gear wet, and be in good shape for our technical night dive later!

We locate the wreck 64 miles out from Key West, sitting in 110 ft of water.  It hardly shows up on the depth finder so we are not expecting to see much left of the wreck.  But dive we must, and we head in, to practically unlimited visibility and 86 degree water.  As we descend, we hit a thermocline at about 80 ft, and a “vis-o-cline” too, with very cloudy water the rest of the way down.  I get a few pictures in the less-than-ideal conditions, and kill two lionfish, but am unsuccessful in feeding either of them to the four huge Goliath groupers that are following me around.  Oh well, this is all I have to offer them today, so they can find their own dinner!  Meanwhile spearfishers John & Laura nail four Mango Snappers and a grouper, so we have dinner for tonight!  We get in a good 20 minutes of bottom time and a nice easy ascent back up to re-board and get on our way, to the Araby Maid for the night.  Good way to start it off!

We fire back up, tie the Keys Diver in for the rest of the ride, and continue our journey.  John & Laura go about prepping our dinner, with a whole plethora of fresh fish offerings, including ceviche, sashimi, and grilled fish – this is living large!  The grille is fired up, and dinner is served enroute.  We are loving this!  We enjoy some cocktails as we work our way towards our tie-in tonight, with an anticipated arrival of 11:00 pm.

Here’s a great shot of our two captains enjoying cocktails and conversation in the bean bag chairs on the bow as we sail into the sunset…I don’t know, but why did I just think of those darn Cealis commercials?

As we head into the night, Zach cranks up the music on the boat’s surround-sound system, and then the Kracken emerges!  No, not the mythical Nordic creature made famous by the Johnny Depp movies, but rather Kracken, the dark & potent rum!  At this pace the disco ball will be dropping from the ceiling soon here!  And we still have dives to do tonight!! It’s not easy being “good” with this crowd, but you can see here I am as studious as ever, working on the blog for our readers.

Finally the engines slow down as we approach the GPS coordinates of the 3-masted wooden schooner Araby Maid, sitting upright in 215 feet of water since colliding with the SS Denver in 1902 and sinking directly to the bottom. Steve and Kenny climb back aboard the Mobile Diver and we cut them loose to get an accurate location on the wreck.  They are carrying a grapple hook with a few hundred feet of ¾” line attached and a 36 in. diameter float.  Attached to the bottom of the float is about 20 ft of additional line, and another small float with a small loop tied in the end of it to grab with the boat hook and loop our main line through.  Did I mention that this line between the main float and the small one was negatively buoyancy, in fact, substantially negative?  More on this coming up!

So it’s 11:30 now and the boys in the small boat have dropped the hook and believe they have snagged the wreck.  They back away, and now we maneuver the large boat into place to make the tie in.  I am on the bow, boat hook in hand, peering down into the black water with no moon to provide any illumination at all.  Needless to say, this was looking like it was going to be a bit of a challenge.  There was a bit of a wind blowing in a different direction than the current, so it was doing funny things to how the balls were floating as we approached them.  It took us several passes to get us in alignment with the balls and anywhere close enough for me to get the hook on it.  Did I mention the hook was black?  And remember that negative buoyancy of the tag line?  Well the result of that was the line dropped straight down from the big ball, and then looped back up into the bottom of the small ball, giving you absolutely nothing to snag with the hook except the small 6” loop on the small ball itself.  With the black water, black sky, and black hook, this was no easy matter for me to snag the loop, but finally I succeeded and we were able to tie off.  Our celebration was short-lived, as we realized that we were in fact NOT tied into the wreck, but simply dragging the anchor across the sand at a decent clip.  Once this became obvious we untied the line, the guys brought all the gear back on board, and we repeated the process once again.  So at 1:00 a.m. the radio crackled to life as Steve reported that they had hooked the wreck once again, and we could tie up to the line.  So we approached, dealing with the same wind/current issues, blackness, negatively buoyant lines, etc.  We made a couple of passes and I missed the loop not once, but twice, as the ball drifted from one side of the boat to the other.  We were idling, and the wind shifted again, pushing us sideways towards the balls, when suddenly the little ball disappeared, and the next thing you know the big ball is coming towards us at way too fast a pace.  That can only mean one thing – yes, the small ball and line must be bonding with our propeller shaft….ruh roh!!

We quickly shut down the engines, but the damage was done.  Zach and I jumped in the water and began sorting out the mess.  The first thing we did was tie off the main line going down to the hook, so we could work with slack line as we cut & untangled the mess.  As we tied off we noticed the GPS was indicating we were still making about a knot and a half, so we were dragging the hook again.  Go figure.  So into the water I went with Zach, and we spent the next two hours dicing and slicing and avoiding getting beat by the bouncing boat overhead and getting stung by passing sea life and avoiding slashing our own hands with the knives in the dark.  Finally at 2:30 in the morning it was mission accomplished and we set the big ball free to be picked up by the Mobile Diver, cleared all the line off the propeller and prop shaft, and climbed back on board.  We had now drifted about 4 miles from the wreck, dragging the anchor the entire time,  so an executive decision was made – the anchor from the small boat was not large enough to hold the big boat in place!  So enough of that, we ran over the Araby Maid for the third time, dropped our 60# anchor and 350 ft of chain and line, and hooked in solid.

So at 3:00 a.m. we made an executive decision – we were going to pass on our dive tonight and save it for first thing in the morning.  Probably a wise decision, but at least we made it here, in spite of all the challenges thrown our way!

The morning sun came shining down on the crew, scattered about the boat in various sleeping spots.  Beanbags on the deck, sleeping bags in the cockpit, the couch in the salon, and the bedrooms too.  After our late arrival and the additional in-water work we did during the anchoring process, no one was exactly jumping up and heading in for a Bonaire-style ‘Dawn Patrol’ dive.  Breakfast was made up, and we starting setting the rest of the gear up for our morning dive on the Araby Maid.   Upon checking the GPS, we discovered that we had drifted approx.. ¾ of a mile during the night, dragging our anchor across the sand.  So the first thing on the agenda was to pull the anchor, re-position, and drop again, hopefully right on the mark.  We reset the anchor, and let out about 400 ft of line to help reduce the chance of dragging again.  Some gear movement between the two boats and finally everyone was ready. Zach & I went in from the mother ship, but Steve suggested that just in case we were drifting again, that he drag us over with the current line to the marker ball.

Well let’s just say that some plans definitely look better on paper than in life, and this in-water dragging fell into that category.  The extra drag from the four bottles we were each wearing, managing free-flowing reg’s due to the current as we motored over, and the extra physical stress of holding on to the line as we bounced through the waves, made for a somewhat winded start on our deep dive.  We recovered well though, helped by the excitement of discovering the 200 ft plus visibility stayed with us all the way to the bottom today.  The wreck was covered with life, from the large goliath groupers to big tropicals and schools of swarming amberjacks.  With the fantastic visibility this was a photographers dream come true, however, I had opted to not bring any extra gear down not knowing what the conditions would be.  Neither did I bring my lionfish spear, and boy what a target rich environment we had here!  Probably a hundred of them on the wreck – would have made for some easy pickin’s for sure!  Zach & I enjoyed a 215 ft dive on Trimix, with 30 minutes of bottom time followed by 90 minutes of deco and hang time, for a total run of 2 hours – sweet!

Back on board for lunch, and then the spear-o’s went back for one more visit to the seafood aisle.  Before we broke camp though, there is a lot of discussion about what we should do next, with some wanting to stay here and dive this again, or possibly head further out to the Rhine, or north to the U-Boat, or back closer to Key West and home.  With our group of 18 IVS divers coming down on Sunday for the Wreck Trek, it is imperative that I am back at the dock by early Sunday afternoon to begin the next phase of this adventure, so that information helps finalize our plans (for now).  We opt to get moving and head back in the general direction of home, to our third destination, the wreck of the Chelsea.  This former ocean-going tugboat, which was featured in the movie The Mysterious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt.  This was the boat that he worked on in that movie during one phase of his life.  It has only been down for 2 or 3 years, accidently sinking as it was making passage out of Key West.  It sits perfectly upright in 175 ft of water, and even though it is a relatively new wreck, the sea life is really being attracted to this wreck.

But the challenges on this trip are hardly over!  As we approach the Chelsea, we stop about 30 minutes out, to cut the Mobile Diver free and let it run ahead and mark the wreck site with it’s grapple and float.  Since only a few of us are making this dive, we decide to streamline the process and hot drop on the wreck, letting the two ships idle nearby and pick us up when we complete our dive.  Pretty cool, night diving on a new wreck, middle of the ocean, black night, 185 of water, no civilization within 80 miles of us – perfect night dive planning!  So we pull the Mobile Diver up close, Capt. Steve climbs aboard, and we cut him loose to fire up his boat and run ahead.  Well, as we pull away, the radio crackles to life, and Steve informs us he cannot get his port engine started and has no electronics. Seems he left something on earlier today and it drained his batteries.  He managed to get one outboard started, but that was it.  So we back up to him, and pass the generator over, so he can begin charging his batteries while he motors over to the site with us.  Of course, nothing comes easy, and an hour later, the situation has not changed.  So now we are thinking a hot drop might be in order, and the creative minds are hard at work here with plans, alternate plans, and various other scenarios that are making my head hurt!  Finally we get the ball dropped to the wreck, and the Mobile Diver tied off to it, and leave the Fish Happens to idle nearby and await us.

Only Zach, Steve and I make this night dive, finally getting in the water at 10:00.  Now we often talk about “pinnacle” dives, and what you should do and what perhaps you should not do.  So, considering this might end up being my deepest, longest, technical night dive, on a brand new never-dove wreck, with a new buddy, 85 miles out to see…yeppers, this falls smack dab in the middle of the “what not to do” list.   That being said, we decided to dive, and dive we did.  Now back when Steve was dropping the hook, he felt he was “right on the numbers” meaning his GPS was telling him that the wreck was right below him. His sonar was also on the fritz with his electrical problem tonight, so we just said the heck with it, it must be there!  Just in case though, I had the presence of mind to take a 450 ft reel with me on this dive.

Kenny maneuvered the big boat over alongside the ball, and Zach & I dropped in.  Down the line we went, and the viz was kinda murky. Not a problem, we are looking for a wreck of some sorts, that neither of us have ever seen before.  No problem mon!  So I set a strobe at the 20 ft mark on the down line, and another just above the chain at the end of the line.  We looked up to see the wreck and saw…nothing.  So with the fact that we are 175 ft down, in an unknown area, and can’t see anything, I decide it might be appropriate to tie off the reel and use that as our virtual “breadcrumbs” to find our way back to the ascent line when it is time to come up.  I tie off, and Zach & I begin the search.  I pay out line as we go, and have about 400 ft of line out when we decide it is probably not to our right.  So we pick up and begin a big arc towards our left, using the reel as our guide, just swinging along and maintaining our search pattern.  Seventeen minutes into this technical dive, suddenly Zach is waving his light to me, indicating he has something of interest to show me.  Well it’s a wreck of course, and we are right at the  propeller.  Had we had 20 ft less line we might very well as missed that too, but fate has once again been kind.  We tie off the reel at the wreck, and begin our exploration.  A couple of huge Jewfish are there to check us out, swimming nonchalantly around us, letting us know who owns this wreck.  Schools of amberjack are there hunting, and a good cross-section of the marine food chain is represented here tonight.  The ships name ad homeport of Norfolk, VA is clearly visible, and evidence of the surprise and speed that this boat sunk was everywhere, with suitcases full of clothing, shoes and other personal items, and plates and other sundry supplies can be found all over the wreck.  This is a very cool wreck indeed and I am very glad Zach and I decided to do it.  Funny, at no point in the dive did we run into Steve – it seems he dropped in, didn’t quite follow the anchor line to the bottom, and as a result, he never found the wreck!  Oh well!

Well this wreck was so cool, we could hardly pull ourselves away.  Now I was diving double 100’s on my back with 17% O2 and 30% Helium in them, plus a single 40 CF sling cylinder with 55% O2, plus another 40 CF with 100% O2.  Now I had used the 100% bottle earlier this morning, so it only had about 1,500 psi remaining in it.  The boat had an O2 line hanging at 20 ft, so I figured just in case I needed it, at least that was there to tap into.  Well forty minutes into this pinnacle night / deep / tech dive, my “time to surface” was showing about 3 hours before I could breath air again.  Hmmm, I am thinking, re-thinking my gas supplies, and I figure it is really time for Zach and I to head up!  But wait, there is a navigation lamp sitting there, calling my name.  So we stop, and I remove the light, sawing the cable off against the sharp edge of the wreckage, and we head towards the stern to begin our path to ascent.  At the reel, Zach offers to carry my prized navigation light, so I reluctantly hand it to him so I can have both hands free to rewind the line on the reel.  So we coil up the line, get back to the hook, and start our ascent.  Bottom time is now at 50 minutes and total ascent time has exceeded 3 ½ hours.  I am thinking, this is not going to be pretty.

My first deco stop is at 100 ft, so I begin the slow ascent.  90 ft, 80, and finally I can switch over to the 55% bottle.  My partial pressure of oxygen hits a little over 1.7 ATA, but I am relaxed, my breathing is controlled, efficient, and slow-paced, and I am thinking we should be fine.  Well the 70 ft stop alone was 17 minutes, the 60 was similar, the 50 even longer. I am watching the needle on my stage bottle get lower and lower, and thinking about alternate plans.  Meanwhile, Zach, diving with similar yet different gases, and using a Liquidvision computer vs my Cochran, has a different decompression profile and different stops, so we are ascending as two solo divers, not as a buddy team.  Hmmmm, I am thinking, he is a real good breather, and I am wondering what he is planning to do with his deep deco bottle.

Well at 50 ft my regulator starts to breath a little hard, and I eek through that stop but this 40 ft stop is going to be a challenge.  By slowing my breathing even further, thinking happy thoughts, and really getting as “Zen-ish” as possible, I manage to suck the last drop of gas from that cylinder just as it was time to head to my 30 ft stop.  Here I needed to make a judgment call, and Zach was too far above me, so I opted to split my 30 ft stop and my 20 ft stop, combining them into a 25 ft stop and switching over to O2 a little early.  The Cochran was able to do the math, and adjusted my times, recognizing that I had reached my switch point for my final gas.  With my limited supply of 100% O2, I had planned as a contingency to utilize the ship’ hanging O2 supply to finish my obligation, plus an extra five minutes for good measure.  It all worked out, and we finally surfaced. But just before we surfaced, Zach hits his leg on the mooring line, he same leg he had tied my navigation light too, and yes, you guess it.…it dropped to the bottom of the sea. We signaled the mother ship, and started our swim towards them.  But wow, the sea had really kicked up here and it was everything we could do to make it over to the boat.  Big confused waves, lots of chop, the wind is howling, the boat can’t back up to us cause it is so rough…yeah, this is the way to wrap up a great dive!

Of course that same weather was here to play hell with our towing plans, and we began looking at the hook-up in the dark.  We send additional fuel over for the generator, plus supplies and drinks for Capt. Seve to spend the night on board his boat.  We get hooked up, and begin the tow, As soon as begin to make way, the first three waves crash right over the bow of the small boat,  OK, looks like we have to slow it down, and we do, and we slow it again until we are making 2.4 knots.  This is going to be one long ride; that is for sure!  This probably also impacts our morning dive plans, but of course safety comes first, so we’ll re-visit things once the sun rises and hopefully the seas have subsided a bit.

So much for the seas subsiding, at least during the night.  That bit of wind and waves that we encountered at the end of our dive was just a prelude to what was to come.  We ran through the night with winds in excess of 25 mph, and waves exceeding six feet in height, along with periods of driving rain, made for a 2 knot speed all night long.  So starting from 104 miles out, we were still 80 miles from home come sunrise!

Oh well, we decided to cut the Mobile Diver free and let Steve work on his problems as he tagged along behind us.  Of course, with him only running one engine on a catamaran, that limited his speed, and also limited our matching speed, to about 4 knots.  This could be a long ride home!  But one again, the wheels were turning, and Zach jumped ship to head over to help Steve out on the Mobile Diver.  Four hours later, a couple of new spark plugs, a bit of education on how to jump start electronic ignitions, and the Mobile Diver was up and running!  Woo hoo!   So we fired up all the engines and made haste back to port, finally arriving at Key West at 4:30 Sunday afternoon.

A quick unload, hugs and handshakes all around, and it was time to head to Duval Street to meet the Indian Valley Scuba Wreck Trek gang!  See Part III of this blog report for more on that!

Breaking News: Bonaire Invaded by IVS!

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

Team IVS Invades Bonaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Parzynski also chimed in on the Hilma Hooker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Parzynski also added:

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

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

More to come here….

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

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

Tech Diving the Florida Keys

A tale of deep, dark adventure for sure!  Following on the heels of the Memorial Day trip, Brian Hubler is staying down to complete his Trimix certification with me this week.  So we’ve got some exciting dives planned – first the Spiegel Grove to do some technical warm-ups and skills reviews, followed by a trip out to the Northern Lights off Key Largo, then finally a celebration dive on the USS Curb in Key West.

Well fate, and the weather, has decided to not be so kind to us, and the fantastic days, quiet seas and calm breezes that we have enjoyed for the last week are officially…Over!  It is blowing now, but dive we must, so we head out on Monday to do a single extended technical dive on the Spiegel with Chris Brown and the folks at Silent Dive.  We opt to do this dive on nitrox with some 100% O2 to clean up at the end of the dive, and head out into bouncy seas and gray skies.  The current above the wreck is ripping, and the mooring balls are a bit awash, so we know we’re in for a bit of a thrill on today’s dive.

The IVS Boys at the No Name Pub

The IVS Boys at the No Name Pub

Well with the start pictured above, you can only imagine the rest of this story!  No, not like that…just three good divers planning and executing a day full of really nice dives!  We boarded Robert Trosser’s boat, FINZ, and headed out into a beautiful day on the ocean!  Swordfish were jumping, dolphins were playing with our wake, just everything you imagine when you think of great days at sea.
Stop # 1 was the USS Curb, a former naval salvage tug sitting perfectly upright in 190 ft of water.  For some reason Rob was unable to get a fix on it, even though we saw it on the depth finder, jumping up from the bottom profile.  So Rob dropped in overboard, and we dragged him a bit to where the underwater mooring should be, but he came up dry.  We repeated the exercise a second, and then a third time, and finally said “screw it, that’s not going to work”.  So we ran over the marks on the depthfinder again, threw the hook, and then drifted back in the current until we hopefully snagged the wreck.  Well we drifted, and drifted, and drifted, and finally, we snagged something!  At this point I said the heck with it, whatever we grabbed, we’re going diving!
So we geared up and in we went, Dave with a big fat 120 of air on his back, and Mark & I with some Helium in our double 100’s.  We were all slinging stage bottles, a 100% O2 and a 50% O2, both forty cubic foot cylinders.  Should be more than enough gas…..more on that later!
Dropping into the beautiful clear warm water, we saw nothing but anchor line going forward from the FINZ.  So we followed it, and followed it, and followed it…..holy smokes, how much anchor line does he carry??   We followed it some more, and some more…..and our depth was still less than 50 feet!!  What the heck, I am thinking, as we followed it..some more!  Finally, something is materializing out of the mist….what the heck is that I am thinking??   Lo and behold, as I get closer, I see what it is:
Yes, the anchor had snagged the underwater mooring, and we were in fact tied into the Curb!  Cool!  So another 150 feet of line, and sure enough, there we were, on the wreck!
More to come!

A Memorable Memorial Day Weekend in Key Largo

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

David Valaika Gives a DPV Presentation at FKCC in Key West

David Valaika gives a DPV Presentation at FKCC in Key West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The IVS Team Listens to Presentation at Pilot Whale Rescue Pen

The IVS Team Listens to Presentation at Pilot Whale Rescue Pen

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

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

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

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

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Navigates Hourglass Cave on French Reef

Michael Stellatto navigates Hourglass Cave on French Reef

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

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

Shannon Hovers over the Wreck of the City of Washington

Shannon Hovers over the Wreck of the City of Washington

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

Spotted Spiny Lobster on the Wreck of the Benwood

Spotted Spiny Lobster on the Wreck of the Benwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IVS Key Largo Weekend Summary

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

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

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

Night Dive: Wreck of the Benwood (starboard bow)

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

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

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