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

Team IVS gallops back into the land of the Pharaohs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massive statues under restoration at the Memphis Temple

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

The Great Pyramid of Giza, with our Egyptologist Manal

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

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

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

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

Young carpet weavers hard at work employing their skills

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

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

The Sphinx..no other words needed!

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

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

Mosque of Mohammed Ali aka Alabaster Mosque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museum of Antiquities in Cairo

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

Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The massive entrance walls to Karnak Temple

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

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

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

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

Luxor Temple

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

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

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

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

Deir El-Bahri Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes from a local Bedouin village along the way

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

Roots Luxury Camp – El Qusier, Egypt

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

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

The sand volleyball court at Roots Camp – perfect!

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

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

Diving the caverns at Pirates Boneyard, El Qusier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Analyse the research and record findings.

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

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

[3] Complete Reef Clean Up Dives.

[4] Evaluate the debris collected record findings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shore entry through the reef – El Makluf

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

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

A colorful Giant Clam on top of the reef

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

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

Surrounded by dolphins…oh my!!

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

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

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

 

Stay Posted….Plenty more coming!!!

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Dive the Revolution Tour with IVS!

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

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

Indian Valley SCUBA Travels to Egypt and the Red Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to Cairo and my first Egyptians…

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Pyramid Discovered in Egypt

New Pyramid Discovered in Egypt

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

View from the Le Meridian-Pyramids Hotel Pool Area

View from the Le Meridian-Pyramids Hotel Pool Area

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

Five Minutes at the Pyramids and on a Camel Already

Five Minutes at the Pyramids and on a Camel Already

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

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

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

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

Solar Boat of Cheops Museum with Headstones in the Foreground

Solar Boat of Cheops Museum with Headstones in the Foreground

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

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

The Solar Boat of Cheops-Let's Go Diving

The Solar Boat of Cheops-Let's Go Diving

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our New Egyptian Friends at the Solar Boat Musuem

Our New Egyptian Friends at the Solar Boat Musuem

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

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

Enjoying the Best Lunch Ever with our Guide Manal

Enjoying the Best Lunch Ever with our Guide Manal

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

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

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

Smoozing Security at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

Smoozing Security at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

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

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

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

The 220 Pound Solid Gold Inner Coffin of King Tut

The 220 Pound Solid Gold Inner Coffin of King Tut

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Morning Transfer to Pharaoh Dive Club

Our Morning Transfer to Pharaoh Dive Club

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

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

Steve Rattle of Pharaoh Dive Club Briefs the Fanadir House Reef

Steve Rattle of Pharaoh Dive Club Briefs the Fanadir House Reef

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

The Numerous World Class Dive Sites in El Quseir

The Numerous World Class Dive Sites in El Quseir

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

Large Pristine Hard Coral Head on Fanadir House Reef

Large Pristine Hard Coral Head on Fanadir House Reef

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

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

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

El Quseir Harbor-"The Land that Time Forgot"

El Quseir Harbor-"The Land that Time Forgot"

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

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

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

The Huge Sun Deck of the Noir El Medina Dive Boat

The Huge Sun Deck of the Noir El Medina Dive Boat

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

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

A Large Coral Outcropping Busting Out with Red Anthias

A Large Coral Outcropping Covered with Red Anthias

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

Crown of Thorns Starfish on Fas Quseir Reef

Crown of Thorns Starfish on Fas Quseir Reef

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

Large Moray Eel Surrounded by Red Anthias

Large Moray Eel Surrounded by Red Anthias

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

Blue-eyed Lobster hiding in the darkness of the Cathedral

Blue-eyed Lobster hiding in the darkness of the Cathedral

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

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

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

Shagra Dive Camp with view of floating dock and dive tenders

Shagra Dive Camp with view of floating dock and dive tenders

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

Colorful Coral Heads on Elphinstone with Swarms of Anthias

Colorful Coral Heads on Elphinstone with Swarms of Anthias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superfast  Zodiac Tender at Pharaoh Dive Club in Shoni Bay

Superfast Zodiac Tender at Pharaoh Dive Club in Shoni Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Donkey Equipment Tender at Ducks Divers in Safaga

Our Donkey Equipment Tender at Ducks Divers in Safaga

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

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

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

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

Wreck Briefing on Sea Tiger by Divemaster Emad and Steve Rattle

Wreck Briefing on Sea Tiger by Divemaster Emad and Steve Rattle

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

Nudibran and Red Corals on the El Arish Wreck in Safaga

Nudibran and Red Corals on the El Arish Wreck in Safaga

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

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

Large Cafeteria Area of the Salem Express

Large Cafeteria Area of the Salem Express

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

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

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

Large Propeller of the Upside Wreck of Kafrain

Large Propeller of the Upside Wreck of Kafrain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pharaoh Dive Club Divemaster Fatie Conducts Briefing for Serib Kebir

Pharaoh Dive Club Divemaster Fatie Conducts Briefing for Serib Kebir

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

Glass Eye Snappers Congregate on Serib Kebir Reef

Glass Eye Snappers Congregate on Serib Kebir Reef

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

Shallow Swim-Through on the South Side of Serib Kebir

Shallow Swim-Through on the South Side of Serib Kebir

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

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

Luxor and the southern antiquities…

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

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

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

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

Clownfish Protect Their Sea Anenomoe on Abu Sauatir

Clownfish Protect Their Sea Anenomoe on Abu Sauatir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tomb of King Tut Ankh Amun

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

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

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

The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatchepschut in Valley of the Queens

The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatchepschut in Valley of the Queens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sinai or bust…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water Rescues & Hyperbaric Chambers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready for a little Dahab-ing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technically, we’re still diving…

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

The Entrance to the Bells Just North of The Blue Hole

The Entrance to the Bells Just North of The Blue Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Coral Covered "Saddle" of the Blue Hole

The Coral Covered "Saddle" of the Blue Hole

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

Emperor Angelfish at Um El Sid in Dahab

Emperor Angelfish at Um El Sid in Dahab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for one more great wreck…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coal Tender on the Deck of the WWII Wreck of Thistlegorm

Coal Tender on the Deck of the WWII Wreck of Thistlegorm

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

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

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

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

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

One last look at security – lots of it…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penmanship, and how it threatens Americas borders…

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

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

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

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

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

The end!

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

Lauren ‘O’ in the land of the Manatees

Indian Valley Scuba & IAHD-Americas – perfect together!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch out Vegas, here comes IVS & IAHD-Americas!

It’s that magical time of the year again, and we’re not talking Christmas here but the DEMA show! It’s the Diving Equipment and Manufacturers Association’s annual trade show, and it’s the biggest show in the world dedicated solely to scuba diving. I have been personally attending this show since 2000 and each year come away wiser, better trained, and enriched with even greater product knowledge and dive destination knowledge than I thought possible. This is good stuff!

This year I am wearing two hats at the show. First and foremost we are here representing the world’s oldest and largest adaptive scuba training organization, IAHD – the International Association for Handicapped Divers, and it’s American counterpart, IAHD-Americas. The DEMA show brings together under one roof thousands of instructors, dive center owners, and resort operators and is wonderful platform to spread the IAHD message to the masses. We’ve got a great booth location and hope to add a number of new instructors and dive centers to the growing IAHD family over the next four days. My second role here is to ‘press the flesh’, Indian Valley Scuba style. So many of our vendors and industry associates are here it is a social lovefest, reconnecting with old friends, making new ones, and putting faces to the emails that we have grown to live with daily.

So in addition to me splitting my time between IAHD and IVS roles, the rest of Indian Valley Scuba’s presence this year includes Jim Cormier, Brian LaSpino, Mike Petrochko, Dave Hartman and Sue Douglass. We’ve got people to see, places to go, training to conduct, deals to make, all sorts of activities to make for a very busy week. Brian & Mike flew in Monday in order to spend all day Tuesday in training seminars from Oceanic & OMS. Dave H arrived then too. Meanwhile Jim C has spent the last three days driving across America in the IVS truck & demo trailer, getting us 2,500 miles of roadside advertising exposure and making a few new friends along the way. I flew in to meet up with Jim and relieved him for the last 4 hours of driving – yes, what a saint I am!

Jim & I arrived in Vegas, checked in, and parked the truck and trailer for the night in a well-lit portion of the hotel parking lot, once again choosing a position that gave us maximum impact on the visual of all those great graphics we have. Now keep in mind we parked alongside trucks and trailers from all sorts of manufacturers and a few other local dive centers, so we were just “part of the scenery”. And boy did the rig look good there under the lights!

Well we all know that IVS has made a huge effort over the years to establish brand identity and be known as a dynamic dive center with plenty to offer. And to many, that is good news, as our diving family has grown in leaps and bounds, more and more divers flock to us and join us on trips, for training and for gear purchases, all under one great red roof in the center of the scuba diving universe, Harleysville, PA. All these are things that make folks smile, well at least most of the folks! While we believe in running and growing our business on positive energy and karma, never speaking of others in a negative term, it appears that not everyone is of the same philosophy. I suppose there will always be “haters” out there no matter what you do or how you do it. Some of you remember when we enjoyed a nice “keying” incident last year thanks to a local diver who wasn’t crazy about us (but of course wasn’t smart enough to check out the security camera that caught it all on film!). Last night though, we saw that sort of hate crime ramped up just a bit. This morning we were greeted with two nice bullet holes through the windows of the truck – friggin’ amazing, but true. No other vehicle around us was involved, and there was no break in, just a wild west sort of message that said someone loves Indian Valley Scuba, in a ‘Deliverance’ sort of way! I am taking that as a sort of compliment about how well we have marketed ourselves, to know we have stirred such passion, negative as it is, in a nameless, faceless competitor.

So first thing Wednesday a.m. we pull the bullet-riddled truck up to the convention center to unload our display. First I need to work my way through the registration and get my posse signed in early to help set up the booth. But of course, there are rules that must be followed and you know how I am with that! The gatekeeper nazi’s are adamant about not allowing my guys in, so I switch to Plan B. Checking my resources, I have a bag of caramel taffies in my backpack, so I amble my way over to the registration counter, make some small talk with the ladies there who are already being hassled by some belligerent vendors, and in my most sensitive way, let them know I feel their pain and agree via eye contact and gestures that some of these guys are jerks. OK, ice is broken, I pull out my bag of taffies, get them all a little sugar rush, we laugh, and I tell them “I’m not sure what happened but our badges were not mailed to us”. Of course I had my fingers crossed as I said that, but it worked! “What are their names”, my taffy-chewing new friend asks, and before you know it, I have early admission badges in hand and get my team in the gate. Meanwhile, the jerk is still up there arguing……

But we’re not quite done. We pull the truck up to the designated location, and as I reach for to unlock the trailer, I am immediately approached by a representative from Teamsters Local 530, who asks the obvious “what are you doing?”. Of course, I can’t just let that one pass, it’s too easy! So some sarcastic banter back & forth, another teamster or two gather around, and I sense that I will need to make some sort of concession here in order to accomplish the mission. So I switch gears, change tone of voice, put on my best puppy dog non-profit face, and share what the IAHD is all about, helping others, making smiles, we don’t make any money here at the show, we’re not like the manufacturers, blah, blah, blah. One of the senior guys leans over and says “How about $63 for us to unload one cartload of stuff for you?”. “What if it doesn’t fit on one cart”, I ask. With a knowing wink he says “I think we’ll make it work”. Done! Minutes later four teamsters are unloading our stuff, piled it on a couple of carts, carried our banners in hand, and our booth is set up! Well spent $63 and now I have some new friends in low places.

Oh well, incident and union involvement aside, we move on and the show gets off to a great start. So much to see and so many appointments, the hours whiz by. Quite a few dive centers are looking to come on board as IAHD training centers to accommodate this growing adaptive scuba market, and we are starting to fill up our training calendar for the first part of 2011. Very cool to see! Meanwhile Brian, Jim & Mike have been going from one training seminar to the next, bringing more technical knowledge and skills to IVS to further enhance our service department’s resources. IVS diver and WRL racer Mark Hughes joined our team for the day, and IAHD’s Klaas Brower and Fred Seibert flew in from the Netherlands to help staff the booth and coordinate our activities on both sides of the Atlantic.

The day done, it’s time to start on the all-important social circuit, and our first stop is the DAN booth where they have a live band, Greg from ScubaRadio is the emcee, mermaids are there, and the free food is out! From there it’s the NAUI party, where I tease them with what it would be like if IVS was a NAUI center – that’s good enough for unlimited food and drinks for the team! After that Joe Weatherby and I have a dinner meeting with representative of the island of Barbados who wish to bring both the IAHD and the Wreck Racing League to their beautiful country. It’s a very positive and productive session all around and a lot of progress is made on both items. And while we are there, Joe gets an email from the French dive magazine Plongeur, who wants to sponsor a WRL event in France in 2011. How very cool eh?

Thursday kicks off well, with more training seminars and meetings to attend, vendors to visit and interested parties to share the IAHD message with. The men are still busy with their seminars so I am lonely in the booth, but I manage to suffer on. More good connections and Brian is talking to even more manufacturers and bringing in more lines to IVS. The afternoon wraps up on a special note, with Jim Cormier being honored and award his Platinum Pro 5,000 Award from SSI, recognizing his 5,000+ dives and his contribution to the dive industry with his training, continuing education, and activities such as the annual clean-up dives he organizes each year on the Campbellford River. After that teary-eyed moment, we head over to the Poseidon party and mingle with the silent ones, our friends from Sweden, and we get to meet some other shop owners who carry the Poseidon line.

Of course our visit to the affair is not without controversy, as it is the position of Poseidon, backed by several training agencies, that instructors should offer students the opportunity to learn to dive on a rebreather right from the start. Well let me think about that for a split second….Not a chance at IVS!! Holy smokes, how much task loading and difficulty do we want to add to someone who is just learning how to defog a mask and at the same time learning to monitor the partial pressure of oxygen in the loop? Not in my lifetime, I tell them, and of course that goes over like a lead balloon! Can you imagine when this newly certified diver goes on a trip someone and does not have their machine, and a friend says “hey look at that beautiful reef, let’s get a dive in”, to which the rebreather diver must respond “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to dive open circuit”. Geeeshh……shaking my head here! Baby steps, baby steps……

Now on a local note, I need to ship some items I picked up at the show for Ms Bev, so I head out to the local UPS store. I get to talking to Dave, the owner, and turns our he’s a diver, so we talk about the local diving. He relates how one of the coolest dives in Lake Mead is an old B-29 bomber. Back when this was first re-discovered in 1999 (the Navy knew it was there since it sunk in 1944), it was a technical dive at 180 feet to the very top of the tail section, and the cockpit was sitting at 260 ft. Now, due to the 10 year drought, the lake level is down about 125 feet and the B-29’s tail sits at a nice recreational depth of 55 feet! So much for selling tech diving in Lake Mead!! These guys are in sad need of global warming and the polar caps melting to re-fill the lake!

More great show time followed, more folks interested in getting on board the IAHD train, and Brian wheeling & dealing with our vendors like there’s no tomorrow! “Mini Me” sure makes me proud! More time spent with my European friends working to bring the ISO standards to IAHD and work towards a 10 year plan of growth on our way to being the dominant adaptive scuba training agency globally. Big goals, but we support them, and time will tell how well that all pans out, but boy are they pumped about it! We end the day with a nice dinner at the steakhouse, head over to the Venetian for some live music, and call it a day.

Saturday now and the last day of the show. Still so many to see, so the sneakers are tied tight cause they’re gonna get a few miles on them today for sure! Like a man possessed I cover aisle after aisle, all 38 of them. The show floor is over a 1/4 mile from end to end and each aisle has about 40 booths so it is quite the task to cover them all. But there is flesh to press, and deals still to be made, so I have at it, and thankfully come out quite successful by the end of the day. We book a Galapagos trip, start the process for an Africa trip, swing some sweet deals on our Bonaire trip, firm up some IAHD training, and spend a bunch of money on new products. What a day!

Finally the magic hour comes and it’s time to break the booth down and load out. Unlike the load in, we’ll complete this without the help of any organized labor, so team IVS gets it in motion and less than 20 minutes later the entire booth is on two carts and heading towards the elevator. Meanwhile the Australians have been busy breaking their booth down, and loading everything we store for them in the truck. Once outside and loaded, we head over to the shooting range, er, I mean the other parking lot, hook up the trailer and load everything for the long ride home. So while Jim & I are looking at the long ride home, Brian and Mike still have a few hours to kill before they catch the red-eye flight home at 1:00 a.m. so what better way to spend your time than with some indoor skydiving? Jim & I figure it is better to pass and get on our way home, so we bid farewell for now and fire up the truckster.

So, as Jake & Elwood would say, it’s 2,380 miles to home (that’s 4,028 kilometers for our Canadian readers, Jim reminds me), we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses….hit it! And we’re off and running. Thirty-four hours of non-stop driving ahead of us, except for three special hours tomorrow evening when we stop someplace with cold beer and a big screen TV to cheer the Eagles on to victory over the Giants. Our ride home will take us past some great sights, the first being the Hoover Dam, but in the dark, it is not quite as dramatic. Ditto for the Grand Canyon, so let’s just focus on our driving. The elevation rises as we travel, and before you know it we are passing through the Arizona Divide at 7,300 ft of elevation. We stop for the first of many loads of fuel, and what an eye opener it is, as I step out of the truck in my thin Hawaiian shirt, perfect for Vegas, only to find it’s a tad more nippley here in the 34 degree air!! Smart move, packing all my clothes and my sweatshirt in the trailer….duh! It’s OK, I suffer through, we are fueled, and I finish my first four hour shift before turning the wheel over to Jim and lean back for a little power nap.

We hit a bit of rain during the night but overall it is thankfully an uneventful first night of travel. When morning comes we are three states and 10 hours closer to home …only 25 hours to go…woo hoo! Off the list..Nevada, Arizona, now New Mexico, so we’re in Texas, and you can’t pass through Texas without getting your kicks on Route 66, and what better way than a stop at the famous Cadillac Ranch! Pretty odd, ten old Cadillacs buried nose down in a cow pasture, complete with cows. Oh well, good photo op, and a chance to stretch our legs. OK, that’s off the Bucket List, so back on the road!!

Rolling, rolling…..the miles click by, so the cows, rest areas, and beautiful views of America. We’ve noticed a small problem with the trailer, seems that the screws that our sign guy pulled out for the lettering are all backing out. We’ve lost almost two dozen so far, so it’s time to stop at the Tulsa Home Depot and get some screws, double sided tape and thread adhesive. Like a well-oiled NASCAR pit crew, Jim & I rework the sheetmetal and get Team IVS back in the race east. We make it to Miami where it’s time for a mandatory NFL stop – the Eagles are coming on! That’s Miami, Oklahoma, in case you were wondering about our routing. Slowed down by traffic and an accident (involving others, not us) we are short on our goal of making it to Joplin, Missouri for the game, but Miami will do in a pinch. First we have to exit the turnpike, which had paid a $9.75 toll for earlier. We show our receipt at the Miami toll booth, and they refund $1.75 to us since we did not finish our ride down the ‘pike’. Strange but true. We ask the attendant where we can catch the game and he recommends a casino aobut five miles down the road, so in that direction we head.

We pull into the High Winds Casino and they’ve got six wide screen TV’s in the lounge and every one has the game on – we like this place! …..OK, now as Paul Harvey would say….the rest of the story……

Jim and I order a beer and some appetizers while the game gets underway. Now mind you there are approx. 30 seats at the bar with about 5 occupied, and a dozen tables, with a group of 4 at one, and Jim & I at the other. So you get a sense that the place is dead. I ask the bartender if it is OK if I use my computer and she says “of course”. So I pull it out of my backpack, she plugs it into an outlet for me, and I start to update the blog. Meanwhile Jim takes a picture of me hard at work, we chuckle, and get on with our game watching, beer drinking, appetizer munching and blogging. We’re there for over an hour, from the kickoff until the 10 minute mark of the second quarter, when a blue shirted security guy walks up and says “Sir, there are no computers allowed in the casino”. I said “we’re in the bar, and all I am doing is blogging and reading email”. He says “they’re concerned about folks hacking into the casino security so no computers are allowed.” “OK,” I say with a laugh, “I must look like a real threat here!” Never the less, I close the laptop, shut it down, he says thanks, and we get back to enjoying our drinks and the game. Lo and behold, five minutes later he returns, this time he says “sir, you have to put the camera away.” Now the camera has been sitting here the entire hour, untouched, except for that photo Jim took of me an hour ago, but I say “Sure, no problem, but why?” He says they are concerned with people taking pictures in the casino, and I inquire about the cell phone cameras that, let’s say, every single person here has tonite?? He misses the point, Jim puts the camera back into the backpack, and again we return to our quiet evening. I chuckle to Jim and ask if they have nothing better to do than watch the two guys in the bar, and with that, I slowly, discretely, raise a single digit flagpole salute in the middle of our table, never raising my arm above my head, just a quiet symbol of defiance between Jim & I. And back to our game…..but no, there will be no peace tonight, as now there are two blue shirts at the table, and I am informed in an official sounding voice “Sir, since you flipped the bird at the security camera we will have ask you to to leave the casino immediately.” I just about fall out of my chair laughing, but no, they are not kidding. Jim chuckles, they bring our tab, we settle up and head out of this joint, wiser, partially fed, and clearly amused. Security risk abated, the blue shirts return to their rounds.

So we are missing our game, and that is not a good thing. We drive back up the road and figure there has to be a sports bar in this little hamlet of Miami, so up the main drag we go. And back down the main drag we come, nary a bar of any sort in site. We decide to check out another casino, which seems to be the main source of employment and entertainment in this town. This time it’s the Little Miami indian reservation casino, and we park in the tiny lot, barely squeezing the truck and trailer in. Enter the casino, and it is more of a bingo hall with slot machines, and lots of scary looking local ladies checking out the “new meat” that just walked in. Jim’s a little nervous, but I reassure him that it’ll be OK, I am here to protect his virtues, and we march through, right up to the girl who is dutifully pulling the balls for the bingo. “Where’s the bar”, I ask, and she says “we don’t have one”. I probably should have picked up on that when we walked past the self-serve soda fountain right in the middle of the slot machines. “OK, where can we get a beer and watch the game”, I ask. She rattles off another two or three casinos and I have to ask her if there are any bars with TV’s in town, that are NOT casino’s. “Oh yeah”, she says, “Boomers is a bar”. We ask where it is, she says right at the light, we ask for more detail since we just drove through that light and surely did not see any neon beer signs. “It’s right at the Best Western”, she tells us, and a guy sitting at a slot machine pipes in and confirms that yes it’s right there at the Best Western. OK, sounds simple enough, and we head out, fire up the truck and go back to the light. There’s a Hampton Inn, Microtel, Budget Inn, another local place or two, but no Best Western at all. We pull into the Love’s gas station and Jim jumps out and asks the clerk. “Boomers is right back at the light, turn at the ‘Snack Attack’ and you can’t miss it”. Yeah right, we go back out, once down, and once back, utterly amazed that we cannot locate a bar that everyone is telling us is right here. We stop once more, at the Microtel, and the clerk confirms the Snack Attack location. Shaking our heads, we go at it once more, and sure enough, under the HUGE gas sign, behind the BIG lottery sign, is a tiny, unlit sign that says ‘Snak Attack’. We pull in and there is NO Best Western sign, and NO lights in the bar or name over the door, in fact is shut down. Great local info for sure! We decide to try one more casino, this time the Buffalo Run casino, so we see the sign, roll the window down to confirm with a local, it’s just a half mile down this dark road. One and a half miles later we see the inflatable teepee-like building on the right housing the casino, and we head on in. First we need to park, and there in front of the parking lot is a metal structure with a pipe hanging to make sure we are not too high. Wait a minute, the parking lot is a big open field. So the height limit would be something like the sky?? Whatever, but we don’t fit, so we drive 10 feet to the right and around the height checker and park the truck in the big open field. Geeesh. Into the casino we go, yes they have a bar, yes they have TV’s with the game on, so far so good. OK, I’ll roll the dice here and ask I ask April our bartender if it is OK if I work on my laptop and she says “sure, why not?”. Whoa, I am thinking, but Jim, ever the tactful one, says “we were just thrown out another casino for that!”. Thanks Jim, I am thinking. April says “wait a minute, let me check.” So sure enough, here comes a red coated security supervisor, and he says “what’s up?”. I re-state the question, asking if it is OK if I use my laptop here, and he says “Sure, I don’t see a problem with that, but you can’t do it at the bar. You need to move to a table”, and he points to a table that is about, oh, 7 feet away from the bar. I acknowledge the code speak, April carries our drinks to the “table”, and we are good to go. So here I sit, blogging away! Amazing stories of Oklahoma casino experiences, but true!

Finally the game comes to a conclusion, with the Eagles playing with our hearts and souls but finally emerging with a ‘W’ for the night. We settle our tab for $9.00 (yes, one dollar per pint of beer, a little more cost effective than it was in Vegas). We head back out to continue our road adventure, and Jim takes over at the helm. Once again we drive around the height limiting gate, get back onto the highway, re-pay our $1.75 that we were refunded, and see the last bit of Oklahoma before passing into Missouri. 13 hours to go, almost like a Key Largo road trip now!

Thirty five hours into our trip, and sometime during the night we get a bad load of diesel and suddenly our mileage drops to 6 1/2 MPG, with the truck slowing to 40 mph up the hills, and pouring smoke like we’re running on coal….definately injector fouling taking place here! I stop at a truck stop, walk in with my best 18-wheeler swagger, grab some injector cleaner off the shelf, bitch about bad fuel with some of my new buds there, and beat it back outside before they figure out I’m about 10 wheels short of a real trucker here! I slip the truckster a healthy dose, and within 75 miles we are as good as new! Whew! All sorts of bad visions going through my head there, but all good now.

Driver swapping continues, and I’m half-asleep (not behind the wheel this time) when I feel the rumble strips under the tires. I jolt awake, look at Jim, and he is fading. Like an NFL trainer, I know what to do, and reach into the console, grab a double-shot of 5 Hour Energy Boost, pop the top, and feed it to Jim like Gatorade! He perks right up and gets back in the game, and I ask what happened….turns out he was trying to do a Canadian conversion on his last dose, and didn’t realize that 5 did not convert to 6.4 hours. Math problem solved, I slip back into my slumber, knowing I’m in good and alert hands now. I also set my alarm for 4 1/2 hours to make sure I am up to administer his next dose!! During the night we pass through Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio.

While I was shopping at the truck stop, I picked up something else for us, and I present Jim his gift as the sun starts to come up and the cab begins to warm a bit. We’ve been traveling about 40 hours now, after spending all of Saturday in the trade show, and our shirts and body parts are starting to reek a bit. So I had bought a couple of air fresheners, and Jim’s wearing his around his neck (Canadian Pine scent) while I have mine on (citrus, so you can tell us apart). We look like a couple of rap stars with our bling on, but at least we can start breathing through our noses again, as we roll through upper Virginia and finally, we’re in Pennsylvania and home!

Keys, Keys Everywhere….which one(s) to choose??

And once again, we’re off! This time we are starting on a multi-faceted journey, but to keep things simple, we’ll blog ’em in parts. Part one starts our journey southward, heading from Harleysville to the Florida Keys for a week of excitement including doing some training in Key Largo, then on to Marathon to train some some divers on the Poseidon Mk VI rebreather, then finally ending up in Key West and conducting our final Wreck Racing League event of the 2010 season.

So of course it begins with waking up on “travel day” and figuring out what needs to get done before I can actually get on my flight. Today, that list is short but concise – review the modifications to the race scooter at the machine shop, get it crated and shipped, empty the rental truck we have loaded with items from the shop for storage, return said rental truck, pack my dive gear, pack my clothes, and get to the airport. In fact, the only thing I don’t have to address is packing the rebreather which John Glo has thankfully taken care of last night! OK, that certainly takes care of my morning!

So things progress amazingly well this morning, and my good friend Ray Graff comes over to the shop to help me get on my way and give me a ride to the airport. I have already picked up the modified scooter, met with Mike Petrochko who is building the shipping crates, handled few dozen emails, packed my scuba gear, fed the chickens, watered the ducks and walked the dogs….so just need to shower and pack! Ray offers to drive the truck over to Philadelphia Toboggan, where owner and IVS dive Tom Rebbie graciously has loaned us storage space, and unload it. I say go ahead, I’ll meet you over there! So Ray takes off and I finished getting ready. Well wouldn’t you know it, but by the time I get there Ray & Tom have just finished getting the last piece off the truck. Timing is everything!!

So we’ve got time, so Tom gives us a factory tour and history of his business, and then we start talking horses, and before you know it we are looking at his custom made horse trailer, and that leads to a sneak preview of his newest roller coaster car for an upcoming trade show. OK, we’re still good on time, I note. OK probably should head on out now, still need to fuel up the rental. So where can we get some diesel in this part of town? No where, that’s where, and we have to drive back up almost to the shop to fuel up the truck. OK, this is cutting into our time a little, so let’s get moving here! We pull out, and I find myself behind a series of cars that are two days late on getting out on the road, cause they ‘Sunday drivers’ for sure! Holy smokes, they must be reproducing, cause as soon we get around one, we find another! Man now the time is starting to look a little tight, and we still have not returned the truck. I briefly consider parking it and letting Ray take care of it later, but where’s the fun in that? We’re gonna make this happen!!

Finally we return the truck, and head down towards the airport. Lot’s of back roads, and more Sunday drivers out to slow us down. We are finally on the Blue Route, and I am checking the time, 28 minutes til baggage cut-off, and we are 19 miles up the road. Push it, push it…18 minutes till cut-off and we still have 9 miles of Blue Route plus 5 more up I-95 to cover. I call Delta,to check out my options. Yep there is one last flight that I could catch that would get me to Miami tonight, but I maintain the faith, and tell the agent to not change my ticket yet. We’re gonna make it, by golly!

OK, we hit I-95 with 9 minutes to go, with a one minute discrepancy between the van’s clock and my wristwatch. I’m going with the wristwatch here, and push it a little harder. We weave and bob our way up to the 291 exit, and cut off, passing another car or two as we have the airport in site! Dang..red light…gives me time to grab my ID though which may prove critical at check-in. OK, it’s green, and we blast into the airport. I point out the six speed bumps to Ray as we fly over them, and he is thankful for his potty break at the truck rental place. Three minutes now…..here is the Delta skycap, two rental car vans with Delta passengers are pulling up, so I gun it and swing in to cut off the vans, ensuring my first place in line. Throw it into park, and I jump out to grab the skycap’s attention. Quickly he types me in, and with 90 seconds to spare, my baggage claim checks are printing! Whew!!

Of course between my three cases I have exactly 210 pounds of “stuff”, but unfortunately it is not evenly distributed. “That will be $90 each for the two overweight bags”, he informs me. ” I don’t think so, my friend” I inform him, chock full of confidence now that the boarding passes have printed. So I throw each of the two offending bags onto the scale, pop the tops, get them down to 70’ish pounds, and toss the removed items into my third bag. Done – $180 still intact in my pocket.

I breeze through my favorite camera-washing station, Philadelphia’s TSA security, and have them give it a once over. “You missed a spot”, I joke, but my humor falls on the deaf ears of a Federal Agent. Oh well, we pass – again! – and I head on down where my flight is boarding – again, timing is everything!

So I take my seat and as I am setting my things down Kathleen, a health care consultant from Scottsdale, AZ, slides into the seat next to me. She seems harmless, or so it appears. The flight attendant asks what we would like to drink, and she asks for a Scotch, straight up, while I opt for my standard pre-flight hydration, a Miller Lite. My god, you would have thought I just backed over her kitten! “You are drinking light beer?”, she asks with a tone of disdain, like the words ‘light’ and ‘beer’ cannot be used in the same sentence! So I say, somewhat befuddled, “Why yes, yes I am”. “Why?”, she asks, “it has no flavor”. Is this Tom Brennan’s secret sister, I am thinking to myself, abusing me over my taste (or lack thereof) in brews. She then goes on to inform me that she and her own sister have started a log of all the micro-breweries they have visited across the world and which they prefer so they can plan travels around them. They have their own beer drama to deal with, as her sister Marianne prefers a wheat beer, while Kathleen is all about hops & ale. I can see we’ll have plenty of common things to talk about on this flight to Atlanta.

Thank goodness the Miller supply outlasted the flight time, and I survived the unending ribbing about my beverage of choice. I bid farewell to Ms Kathleen in Atlanta, and seek out the Delta Crown Room to settle my nerves (and enjoy another light beer, without the abuse!). Finally back on a plane and heading south to Miami, my airborne destination for the evening. This flight is nicer, and my seatmate is none other than Jerome Bettis, former star of that other football team from PA, the Steelers. Cool thing is he is a normal guy, and even better, drinks light beer! We bond immediately, almost like brothers (although he has a better tan)! No, I do not get an autograph, although about half a dozen other yahoo’s on the plane pushed their way in to get one. Tell me….what are you doing to do with that??

In Miami, touchdown is uneventful, and I stop for some hydration to give the baggage guys time to hump my stuff up to the Delta carousel, Good news is that if you leave it go around enough times, the good folks in baggage actually will gather it for me at the office and I can just pick it up there. Cool! My tissues properly hydrated, I head down, gather my bags, and shuttle it over to the car rental center to pick up my ride for the week. An hour later I am snuggling in my bed at IVS-South headquarters aka casa Hartman.

I awake Wednesday morning to put my rebreather together, and ask Dave Hartman where the new electronics module is that he was supposed to pick up for me yesterday. My old one, just back from a factory rebuild, had failed on start-up last week, and Poseidon Central in Houston, TX assured us they would make good on this and get me one to use this week. Well it seems that somewhere between Poseidon Central and the overnight shipping guru’s at UPS, that my package somehow did not arrive yesterday as promised. Not pointing fingers, but I’ve been shipping things for 30 years, and my stuff arrives when promised. Not sure who dropped the ball here, but I do know when I look at the ground, there lies the ball. Needless to say, this certainly fouls my ability to teach on the rebreather today as planned. So I shift gears, head down to Hall’s Diving Center, and meet my students. Since I am rebreather-less, I have the students go through some maintenance and care training, review academics, and then we head to the pool to work on trim and basic skills. Our ocean dives are deferred to Friday, when I would hope I have my parts here by then. Sooooo frustrating, not to mention embarrassing. We shall get past this, but so unnecessary.

Thursday is Veterans Day, so it is a teaching holiday in Florida, and I am forced to spend the day working in my pseudo office at IVS_south headquarters. Lots gets done, and it ends up being a very productive day. The new parts get swapped in the rebreather, and we geta couple of successful start-ups, so I am excited about tomorrow! Dave & I end up having dinner at Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill, and boy the food is good here. Plus the NFL is on tonight, so we get to see the ASPCA’s new mascot Michael Vick’s old team the Atlanta Braves put a shellacking on the Baltimore Ravens. Nice way to relax with a good friend in a fun town. And it’s an early departure from the game as I head up to the Miami airport to pick up Sue Douglass who has flown in to participate in the weekend’s race activities in Key West. Her plane is early but the bags are late (tell me how that happens??) so it is almost 2 a.m. by the time we get back to our lodging for the night.

Friday morning and I am back at Hall’s with my students, Christina from San Francisco and Kyle from Broomall, PA – yes that Broomall, about 20 miles from Indian Valley Scuba! Yes it is an amazingly small world. We get the units re-assembled, go through our checklists, brief for today’s dives and skills, and load the gear up on the Lady Key Diver, and we head out to a nice deep reef location, with a max depth approx 60 ft deep. We review our briefing, gear up, conduct our on-board safety checks, and make a hot drop in for a nice drift dive down the reef line. My students look pretty good, and have decent weighting in the water. Christina takes a bit of work to get her neutral at depth, and Kyle looks good. We also have Mike in our group, a recent Hall’s rebreather graduate, so I have my hands full on this dive. We drift down the reef line, comforted by the occasional sound of the Lady Key Diver moving overhead to keep up with us by watching out buoy, as there are no bubble trails to follow with the closed circuit rebreathers! So at 45 minutes I signal for us to ascend, making it clear I want a three minute safety stop at 15 ft. before we hit the surface.

Well let’s just say this is where the fun began! At 60 ft I look them in the eyes and motion to “go up”, so I start up. I watch as I ascend, as they go about a series of adjustments, fin strokes, and other motions, never the less maintaining their depth at 60 ft. Hmmmm..I am thinking, was I not clear that this dive will actually end AT THE SURFACE? I am not sure so I drop back down, get their attention, and once again, suggest we head on up now. So once again I start up, and finally MIke is heading up, Kyle starts up, and then Christina, not wanting to be left behind, really starts up!!!!! I reach out and grab her, drag her back down, and get her to vent her BCD a bit. That stops her uncontrolled ascent, at least for now. So now we are heading up, with the goal being that magical depth of 15 ft. Suddenly there is a turtle below us, and the students start to motion to each other to look at it. Well, like a dog and a frisbee, there went our buoyancy control, as they spiraled downward to some depth between the desired and the maximum.

So I allow them plenty of time for self-correction, and finally I head back, let them know we are still in class, and we head back up. This time the BCD is not the issue for Christina, but her counter-lungs which are over-full, so again I grab her, stop her ascent, and get her to dump her lungs. Whew! We begin to head up to our safety stop (thank goodness we are on rebreathers and not open circuit or we’d be out of gas for sure by now). So we are there, Mike is hanging, Christina is too, and Kyle must be on a yo-yo, 35 to 10 feet of depth on his safety stop. Oh no…suddenly there is a nurse shark, and again the kids get excited, and there goes our buoyancy control. Yes these are one-task ponies for sure, and we’ll be going over that in our de-briefing!

OK, enough goofing off, I once again go down and use my firmest, most daddy-like “it is time to go up NOW” hand signals. We ascend, and again, Kyle is struggling to maintain his buoyancy again. Now Christina starts giving me hand motions, pointing at her watch and asking hwo long am I going to make them hang at this safety stop. Well, I am thinking, once we are ALL at our safety stop, we can start the clock, eh? I drop down to Kyle, lock eyes with him and using powers of mental coercion get him to stop screwing around and get up to 15 feet where we can start the safety stop clock. He gets it, we hang and ascend to be picked up by the boat. Whew!

Back on board we do a little de-briefing, and go over all the good and not-so-good things we saw underwater. As one might imagine, the critiques don’t go very well, but once we get past the defensiveness, it turns out to be a great discussion and everyone is excited about getting in for our next dive and a chance to really work on our skills and the ability to manage more than one task at a time. This time the dive is on a shallower reef, and we anchor, drop in, and enjoy a nice dive. As suggested, the students cruise along just inches off the sand bottom, maintaining their buoyancy within inches during the entire dive. I smile inside, knowing how good they are feeling getting in control of their machines, not the other way around. Kyle has to exit early, as he has huffed through his gas, but he manages his stop well, and Christina, Mike and I finish out the dive together. We ascend and they execute flawless safety stops, communicating with the team, maintaining buoyancy, watching gauges, and even seeing some wildlife! What a difference between dive one and two! We surface, re-board the boat, and it is high fives all around. It is so amazing when “it clicks” for a diver, and I am honored to be here with them to experience it!

We head back in, conduct our post-dive maintenance on the machines, and finish with a great de-briefing for the past couple of days. I wish them the best, complete their paperwork, and head out. I pick up Sue and we roll down to Key West, where Part II of this adventure is just beginning!

It’s 6:30 when we roll in the Ibis Bay Hotel, host facility for the Wreck Racing League’s last event of their inaugural season, the Quest for Atocha Gold! This is our fourth race of the season, and like the previous three, it is designed to highlight the local scene as well as the concept of competitive underwater scooter racing. Indian Valley Scuba has been a sponsor of the Wreck Racing League from it’s inception, and our co-sponsors for this weekend’s event include Mel Fisher Treasures, the Florida Keys Community College, Key West Hidden Treasure resort, and the M/V Spree.

The event starts with a pre-race meeting for racers, spectators, and the media at the Ibis Bay Hotel. The folks from Mel Fisher have come out with a million dollars worth of actual treasure, it is is impressive to say the least! The theme for this event is the treasure from the lost Spanish Fleet, highlighted by the ship Atocha. The fleet suffered heavily at the hands of a hurricane in 1622, laden with official and unofficial, i.e. smuggled, treasure from South America and other locations. It struck the reef and sunk in 30 feet of water. A week later a search crew came up from Havana to find five survivors clinging to the mast which stuck out of the water. Once they rescued the hardy survivors, salvage divers attempted to go down for the cargo, only to find that the ship had been properly battened down during the storm and could not be accessed without heavy equipment. They left for Havana to get the gear and by the time they returned another storm had passed through, dragging the sunken wreck into deeper water and breaking it apart, scattering the treasure across the seabed. So much for the salvage operation, although the Spaniards continued to return and search for the wreck for over 250 years.

Enter Mel Fisher and the rest of the story is history now, with hundreds of millions of dollars in treasure salvaged to date, and well over that amount again still hiding and under the bottom of the sea. But back to our racing, one of the programs at Florida Keys Community College is marine archaeology, which certainly includes old sunken ships. Once the Atocha was discovered, the Mel Fisher group working in conjunction with FKCC’s archaeology department, and documented the wreck site. Recognizing the historic significance, and the opportunity for others to learn from it, they decided to relocate the actual timbers that formed the hull of the wreck into the lagoon at the college, re-creating the actual wreck site for generations to study and explore within the safe confines of the protected lagoon. That is where we’re planning to conduct this final race for 2010, the ‘Quest for Atocha Gold’.

And to add to the growing popularity of the Wreck Racing League, this weekend’s event is being filed by Adrenalina TV, a major actions sports adventure program on the Dish Network and selected cable markets. Pablo Lanatta, the show’s host, has brought his entire production team up for the weekend to capture the adventure from beginning to end. They filmed the presentations on Friday night by race organizer Joe Weatherby, Atocha expert Joe Rice from FKCC, Mel Fisher VP Shawn Cowles, and yours truly, speaking on the growing interest in adaptive scuba programs and how IAHD-Americas is rising to meet the challenge for more instructors and professionals.

Saturday morning we started at the college, where we spent the morning conducting a PADI Diver Propulsion Vehicle certification class for 26 new DPV divers, as well as an in water demonstration of DPV’s from a dozen different manufacturers. What an exciting morning it was with diver after diver getting in the water and testing scooter after scooter, learning the skills and techniques necessary to safely operate the vehicles underwater. After the classroom and pool session, we headed into the lagoon and spent the afternoon racing from end to end in the murky waters of the FKCC lagoon. In fact, the water was so murky near the Atocha wreck timbers that the WRL executive committee convened for an emergency meeting, and decided we would switch to Plan B – let’s take the actual race out to the ocean. So who steps up to the plate other than Frank & Melanie Wasser, owners of the M/V Spree, a 100 ft liveaboard based on Stock Island, less than a mile from Key West. They donate their boat, and their crew donate the labor, to make it possible for us to return to the Vandenberg for our race! Ver cool indeed!

So once the DPV class ends, and we’ve wrapped up our meeting with Frank, it’s time to head over to Mel Fisher Treasures, the headquarters of the Mel Fisher professional salvage group. Shawn Cowles has arranged a very special behind the scenes VIP tour for the race participants, and we eagerly get cleaned up and head over to the museum. The presentation is nothing less than phenomenal, with millions and millions of dollars of treasure on display in the vault room for us to touch and see. Let me just say it is spellbinding to hold a chalice or chain or gold bar in your hands that was manufactured over 400 years ago, and which spent the last 375 years resting on the bottom of the sea. The combination of the beauty of the products, coupled with the reality of the tragedy and loss of life that was part of the process of that treasure being here with us today, really stirs something deep inside you.

We wrap up our tour as the alarms as set at the museum. Without giving any secrets away, let it suffice to say that there has never been a successful break-in at the facility which holds far more in assets than nearly any bank or museum – this place is Fort Knox in flip-flops. Once outside, it’s time to eat, so we stroll down to Alonzo’s Oyster Bar for some light snacks and libations. From there we head over to take in some of the sights and sounds of Duval Street and end up enjoying some great live music at the Hog’s Breath Bar. Perfect Key West night!

Sunday comes all too early as it’s an 8:00 show up at the Spree. Gear and scooters are loaded, tanks are topped off, race techniques and secrets are shared, and the excitement builds, We have 24 racers on board today, plus that many more in spectators, safety divers, and media personnel. This is our biggest event yet and we are pumped about it! Capt. Frank gives us a thorough safety briefing, and his lovely wife Melanie follows with the diving rules of the boat. After that the microphone is handed to Joe Weatherby and he, along with Natalie Oriente, go over the layout of the race course, the procedures, safety considerations, and how the event is going to be conducted. Our race site is the USAFS Vandenberg, a wonderful place to conduct such a cool activity. We fire up the big Detroit diesels and head out under perfectly sunny skies to the wreck as final preparations are being made on the dive deck.

Once on site, it is obvious that the current is not cooperating with us today, in fact it is ripping! We tie into the already submerged stern mooring ball, and drop our hang lines overboard. Now these hang lines have 40 pound lead blocks at the bottom of each, yet they are still swinging out at 45 degree angles with the strength of the current. This is not going to be pretty! But we are here to race, and race we must!

Joe Weatherby and the setup team get in the water with the course markers, finish line, judges camera, and the flags, and they are down nearly an hour struggling with the condtions getting things set up. Finally they come back on board, and Joe calls a meeting to make sure that everyone is aware of the conditions and can use their own judgment whether they wish to dive or race or stay on board. Amazingly, nearly everyone opts to stay the course and go race! Very cool to see the determination of the divers and how everyone is so pumped for the event. While it will be challenging, it won’t be dangerous, and that is the key. Of course with the current running lengthwise down the race course, we are expecting some record times on half the laps and some seriously slow times on the return legs!

So into the drink we go, scooters tied off to trail lines behind the boat, camera systems being managed by the crew, and the divers who are not racing with scooters kicking like mad against the very strong current. I fire up our double Hollis race sled and easily cruise down to the wreck. We’ve tweaked the machine since the last event, reducing some of the weight of the stainless steel frame with a plasma cutter, and switching out our twin 40 cu. ft. aluminum cylinders with new 4,400 psi composite cylinders from Interspiro. These are manifolded together so we only need one regulator on board, even better for streamlining! The machine really is much easier to manage than it was in the last event, and I give our improvements a big two thumbs up!

In fact, the machine performs so well I am down on the wreck and waiting at the start line a full five minutes before another racer even shows up. Thank goodness the rules committee mandated larger tanks for the racers cause sitting at 50 ft in this smoking current is causing some heavy breathing. Finally the other racers show up, and the camera team, and everyone gets situated. Joe gives the final safety check to everyone, it’s all “OK’s” from the racers, and Natalie drops the green flag! We are off, and the first leg has the current at our back, so what a quick start we had! Racing down the deck, the leg is almost 300 ft long, with a very tight pair of 90 degree turns in front of the smoke stack to negotiate to get on the back leg home. I swing wide then roll onto my side, and the scooter slips right through the markers, perfect, with no loss of velocity! I turn into the current and wham!….it is like hitting a wall! I hunker down, get as streamlined as I can , and drop down to find some quiet water that is getting some protection from the current. I am nearly on the deck at 100 ft but am able to move much more quickly down here than higher up in the water column. As I approach the start/finish line for turns 3 & 4, I realize that I need to ascend 40 ft, then swing hard, over the handrail, and down onto the roof of the pilothouse to pass in front of the judges camera. So I swing wide again, then roll onto my side as I prepare to pass over the rail and down to the deck, but when I roll I am sideways to the current, with my entire body and sled directly exposed. I am slipping downstream in the current, and as pass over the rail and roll the machine back to horizontal, my left propeller shroud catches on an antenna mast and as quick as I can type this, I am swinging a 360 degree donut around the mast! I wrestle the scooter off the mast but when I do I am now pointed vertically upward, with both throttles locked on in high speed. I pull one hand off the sled as I continue to spiral, with my tether lines started to wrap around my regulator hose and making my heavy breathing a tad more difficult now! But I need that hand to reach up and pull one, then the other, throttle locks off, and finally I come to a stop……whew!!! I must have spun around 6 or 8 times during this and now I need to quickly unclip my tethers, unwrap them from my hose, re-clip and get back in this race!!!!

I point the sled down, fire up, and pass through that darn camera, then it is up and around for lap #2. Turns 1 & 2 are flawless, and as I approach turn #3 again I give it just a little more berth, don’t roll quite as much into the current, and viola! it’s turn, pass over railing, drop to camera, then pop back up over second railing and I am onto the final lap! Nice! One more time around and it’s the checkered flag! Unfortunately while I was struggling with that earlier mishap Marissa Wiganowske had slipped past me, sporting two Pegasus thrusters on her back. She passes through the finish line with me close on her heels, but to no avail, and I finish one position out of the money! Dang!!

Finally the rest of our racers come in, and after a few more play laps, we break the course down, grab all our markers, and head back up to the Spree. Back on board it is all smiles, high fives and stories as everyone is thrilled with how much fun they had on this run! We break out the champagne and soft drinks, and gather on the sun deck for the awards ceremony. Second and third place finishers are announced, and then the big hardware is given out to the winners for each class, and they include Lisa Mongy in the recreational class, Marissa in the modified, Jennifer Jacoby in the Expedition A, and our Adrenala host Pablo Lanatta in the Expedition B class – way to go racers!!!! Afterwards we retire to the Hogfish Bar for dinner and drinks and final farewells before everyone heads on their respective ways home, smiling, tired and tanned.

Monday morning and it’s time to fly to the left coast and meet up with the face of IVS-North, Jim Cormier, who has driven the truck and trailer across America to join me at the DEMA show in Las Vegas! Not sure we want to blog anything for the next five days now – you know what they say….what goes on in Vegas……..probably ends up on Dave’s blog!!!

Formula H2O Racing – Round II – IVS doubles down!

And so it begins……back from our recent Andrea Doria mis-adventure, diver Mark Hughes hails once again from Flagstaff, Arizona to get another heapin’ helping of the IVS kool-aid. This time our mission is a mixed one…what started out as a simple technical trip to dive some deep wrecks off Key West has now morphed into all that and more. Turns out the the second Wreck Racing League sanctioned Formula H2O scooter race is planned for this very weekend also. What’s a dive team to do? Short IVS answer: All of it!!

IVS Team leader and Wreck Racing League board member Dave Valaika, just arriving back from his recent Lady Gaga concert experience, learned of the timing of the new event, and immediately contacted Mark and asked if he wanted to combine our planned tech trip with some competitive scooter racing and the reply was solid YES! OK, that sealed the deal, so no it was time to go to the strategy room and figure out how we can better our times in the first event, where Joyce Kichman and Dave finished 6th and 4th respectively. We had come into that event like babes in the proverbial woods, using stock scooters, wearing standard fins, wearing a BCD…we had no idea what to expect. Well we do now! So, hmmm….thinking, thinking…… you know, if we rafted the scooters together, streamlined the driver a bit more, and had a little more time for practice, we might be able to kick butt here! Our strategy is simple – do whatever it takes to end up in the winners circle!! OK, enough said, let’s get to work.

So out come the cocktail napkins and the pencils, sketches fly off the paper and before you know it, we have a design, to take two Hollis scooters, plus a small breathing tank, and build a frame that ties them nicely together in a tight, streamlined package. All we need to do is build it now, and for that, Mark arrives a day early in Harleysville.

Now let’s get this straight here….Mark is actually having dental work done this week in Fort Lauderdale, but he jumps on an airplane, flies to Philadelphia, and ends up in Harleysville, where, after all is said and done, we’ll depart from and drive to…you guess it…Fort Lauderdale. “Huh”, you ask? Crazy? Yes….Very much us? YES! So he flies in late Tuesday evening, and gets a good nights rest in the dorm to prepare for the build.

Wednesday a.m. dawns bright and blue in the center of the scuba diving universe, and we kick it off with a design meeting at the shop. Once we go over the plans, tweak the design a bit, verify dimensions and create a bill of material, Mark is off and running to Home Depot and a few other local supply houses to gather our parts and raw materials. He finally arrives back at shop with his shopping list completed, and here’s where it gets a little crazy (if you don’t think it is already). Mark walks in the front door and stops in his tracks when he spots Bob Szalburski, who is in getting some O2 fills for the upcoming St. Lawrence Seaway trip. Well hell’s bells, Bob & Mark both attended an advanced wreck training class taught by Richie Kohler at Conch Republic Divers in June. What an amazingly small world we live it, and it’s even smaller for the IVS diving community! Bob from Wilkes Barre, Mark from Flagstaff, re-uniting right here at IVS in Harleysville!

By the time he has gotten back the shop is abuzz with activity, with several customers being taken care of, and our Discover Scuba Diving team just returning from working with the troubled youth at New Life School, where we conduct several DSD’s each year to help promote positive activities and a way to channel a lot of energy in a productive direction for the young men who attend this alternative educational facility. Today’s team was led by IVS-instructor Carlie Adams, and included Felix Gryn, Bill Bobwicz, Kyle Rosenberger, Chris Rich, Steve Holak, and Joyce Kichman. It’s a great opportunity to give back to the community and hopefully help to turn the lives of these young men towards a good direction.

At the same time, the classroom has morphed into a surgical suite, with Beverly nearly on her back and foot up on the table where Brian is drawing on his professional training as a Physician’s Assistant while he studies a classic PBT injury – that’s Post-Bonaire Trip! Now we all know the Loggins’ like to put their personal signature on some of our trips with lower appendage trauma; anyone who saw the pictures from Butch’s lacerations on the Australia trip will concur. But today we are looking at a potential imbedded sea urchin spine in Bev’s heel, and Brian laments that he is lacking the tools to properly perform an exploratory procedure. Well gosh, who might be able to help here? Hmmm, how about we turn to IVS’s Emergency First Response Instructor Trainer himself, Dave? Fresh off conducting an instructor level class this past weekend, I whip out my, er, medical kit and lo and behold, there is a complete set of surgical knives there for Brian! Well with tools in hand, the procedure moves along smoothly, and before you know it, Bev is minus one urchin spine, the wound site has been drained and cleaned, she is bandaged and put back on the line, what a good soldier she is! Nice work Brian!

So Mark manages to carve out a small bit of real estate for the scooter project build, and starts to gather the tools needed – radiac chop saw, power drills, hammers, files, wrenches, t-squares, socket sets, saw horses and more. The service area suddenly takes on a different persona, more along the lines of “Orange County Chopper” meets “Jacques Cousteau”. Mark plays Paul Jr, the son, while Dave takes on the role of Paul Sr, making sure that Jr. understands what we’re building here today! Complete with colorful language, and the occasional thrown tool and slammed door, the set is perfect.

Eight long hours later, Mark announces the birth of little Hollis II, siamese DPV twins joined at the housings. They are beautiful, and we hope to have the birthing photos up on the gallery soon. Yes, we cleaned the mom up first – why do people put those sort of pictures there? Sorry, I digressed. In any case, they weighed 106 pounds at birth, and measured 29″ long, with a beautiful ebony finish – how’d that happen?? The lab results have not come back on the gender verification as it appears there are no outward indicators to guide our judgment. They were listed on the birth certificate as Baby H-1 and H-2 for now to avoid any psychological trauma later should our early parental intuition be mistaken. They are quickly taken from the parents, photographed, and loaded into the truck for safe transport to their first ocean visit.

Now time to start mixing some gas for our first planned dives, the USS Wilkes Barre, a former naval cruiser sunk in 240 ft, and either the USS Curb, a naval tug sitting at 180 ft, or the USAFS Vandenberg, on the bottom with a max depth of 145 ft. We plan to dive the Wilkes twice, back to back, with a minimal surface interval, so even with an aggressive deco schedule, the Curb might be pushing it for our O2 limits. So we opt for the Vandenberg. Gases will be Trimix for the first 2 dives, 18% O@ and 41% Helium, with 50% and 100% O2 for the deco gases. Dive three will be on nitrox, so we go with 27% to allow us to play safely all the way down the sand. So six sets of doubles and a dozen stage bottles are filled, and this is just for our first day of diving? What is it with Mark? Every single time I dive with him we end up looking like a major gas storage facility as we load up the truck.

OK, tank filling and gas blending done, it’s 11;00 p.m. now, so maybe it’s time for Dave to pack. I toss gear into a couple of bags until I hit the 40 pound mark, and that’s usually enough stuff to go diving. I am going to have to start taking this more seriously soon! Just kidding, we have everything we need so we jump in the shower (separately, thank you), rinse off and finally, at the bewitching hour of midnight, begin the 23 hour, 1,400 mile journey to our first stop in this weekend’s adventure, Key West. Our boat will be beckoning us first thing Friday morning, so there is no time to waste. We climb aboard, fire up the truckster, and motor on down the road. I take first shift, letting Mark unwind after his busy and productive day, and he curls up on the seat for a little shuteye. I get us nearly to Delaware but Mark is restless, so i true Tom Sawyer fashion, I “let” him drive (how’s that for reverse psychology?) and I start writing the blog. Cool.

So we get started and I decide to catch a little sleep before my driving shift comes up. I have such a hard time falling asleep in strange places – NOT – so I am zonked out completely in a heartbeat. My peaceful slumber continues as the miles click on by and I am enjoying sweet thoughts of wet and wonderfully wild things to come, when suddenly I am jolted awake by a very bright light in my face! Mark is rolling down his window, the truck is no longer moving, and there is a cacophony of flashing red and blue lights all around – not a good thing! I am stretched out, reclining in the front seat, I can barely see the eyes of Trooper ‘Napoleon’ standing alongside the truck and reaching up to get Mark’s paperwork. I lean up and say “what’s up” and he shoots me a very stern look – weird for sure!

He has Mark’s license now and he is pointing out, with great prejudice, how things are done differently here in Maryland than they might be done in Mark’s home state of Arizona. Not sure the relevance, but maybe his mom abandoned him early on and moved out there or something. In any case, I also think they don’t think they allow sphincters to dress in cop uniforms and run around in Arizona either. So I am listening to him, and I squirm around trying to get a better view. Now, have you ever wondered what might happen if Sergeant Carter from the Gomer Pyle Show were to marry Tammy Faye Baker, and they had a child – this would be him, standing alongside the truck right now.

He is accusing Mark of traveling at 84 mph in a 65 zone, and he somehow measured this as Mark approached his cruiser, which was also traveling southbound, from behind. Now, most of you don’t know Mark, but you do know Ray, so you know how an old guy drives. There is no way Mark does 85 anything, and I know from a few road trips already with him that this is pretty solid. So my BS meter is way up in the yellow as the diatribe continues from our little trooper. He finishes, at the same time the spit stops flying out of his mouth (yes, I know, gross) and goes back to his patrol car with our paperwork. Mark and I chat about the lunacy of the moment, but defer from greater action cause there is no way this is going to get any better with any input from us.

So after a bit, he returns, and starts reading off what he has ticketed Mark for, including driving with our fog lights on. At this I say “you’ve got to be kidding” and his head spins towards me, like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, and he shouts out “You will NOT interrupt me!”. I want to ask, if I did, would he lose his place and have to start over? But I deferred, as difficult as that was for me, I felt it the best way to avoid being fitted in a lovely new orange jumpsuit this evening. So he finishes, Mark ends up a few hundred dollars poorer for the experience, and both of us are in need of a hug. We shake our heads in disbelief, and I note that here’s a guy who, when he retires from the State Police, has a clear second career opportunity with the TSA. [Bet you thought they wouldn’t get mentioned here!].

I drift back asleep, somewhat scarred from the trauma, but manage to drift back into dreamland. Morning beckons and the sunlight is streaming in, as ‘wild man’ Mark announces it is time to change drivers. So we stop, fuel up, and switch positions, and as I drive us across the border into North Carolina I glance at the GPS and what does it say? 999 miles to go – well doesn’t that inspire a drinking & driving song about lots of Coors Light on the wall! Well I stop myself from singing, letting my buddy rest, as I quietly listen to some classic tunes such as 1966’s ‘Happy Happy Summer Days’ by Ronnie Dove, and ‘Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie’, the 1967 release from Jay & the Techniques, who just happen to hail from the Lehigh Valley – how cool is that?

899 miles to go now, and I look over at my buddy and he’s curled up and sleeping like a baby in the front seat. He must be dreaming little Officer Napoleon thoughts cause he’s smiling and kicking every now and then. It’s so cute, it’s too good to pass up, but the camera is behind me. So what to do? OK, I wake Mark up, have him retrieve the camera, and then send back to sleep, so I can finally balance the camera across the steering wheel and get the shot I want for the gallery. Mission accomplished!

800 miles to go now, and I look at the odometer, and it reads 66,666 miles – ruh roh, is that an ominous sign or what? I shiver, but it passes. Duly noted though! Finally, 700 miles to go, and thankfully Mark is up, cause it it time for the morning headbanging session as I crank up some Nickleback and Metallica loud enough to feel the soundwaves on your skin. Ah, a road trip with Dave! We enjoy some of the great sound that the 10 speakers put out, running through an array of my favorite rock acts (except Lady Gaga, Mark doesn’t like her stuff). As we approach Savannah we give IVS instructor Randy Rudd a call, but he is offshore today working for NOAA on the research vessel Nancy Foster, so no lunch date available. Sadly, we pass through Savannah with no stops!

So now Mark’s stomach is growling so he feels compelled to stop, and I give him carte blanch to pick his favorite – Dairy Queen! Like a little kid he skips to the counter and orders a triple mocha chocolate chip Blizzard with extra mocha – this boy’s gonna be a little jacked up for the rest of the day! I fish some pickled eggs out of the jar for the ride and we’re about to head out when some commotion catches our eyes – the whole time we have been there a young woman has been perusing the candy aisle, picking up various things and putting them in her purse. Not at all discretely, in fact pretty brazen, and I’m thinking they must have been out of shopping carts, and she’ll just pay for that stuff when she leaves. Well silly me…..this is a crime in the works, and right before our very eyes, she shoves the last of her sugar fix in her back, straightens up, and walks right out the door. Mark and I look at each other in utter amazement – the clerk starts screaming and shouting, other people start running, and we’re thinking it is probably a good time to get this show on the road! Gotta go….buh bye!

With only 500 miles to go now, Mark re-takes the pilot’s seat. Last chance for a power nap for me, and I take it. I awake, and have plenty of texting and email still to go, and sadly, in spite of that DQ caffeine fix, Mark comes up short on stamina in the driver’s seat. OK, I’ll take another shift, but I still have work to do! So Mark attempts to settle in for that last bit of sleep, but as he sees me setting my laptop on the console, tucking my phone into my pants leg, setting my eyeglasses on the dash…clearly yes I will be driving, but that is not the only task going on! Mark’s eyes start to look like a couple of pie plates, wondering how much of that focus is actually on the driving aspect, and his grip on the door handle tightens up. “Relax my friend, it’s all good”, I assure him. In between text messages the phone rings, and it’s Capt. Chris Norwood, the owner of Florida Straits Diving, our operator for tomorrow. ” Here’s the condition update”, he says, “2 to 3 knots of current inshore on the Vandenberg, all the mooring balls are under water”. “Well”, I ask, “what does that mean for the Wilkes Barre and Curb?” “Probably even more current, it will be a real challenge to get on the wreck and get down”, he says, and offers “if you want to cancel the charter for tomorrow it is OK”. I turn to Mark, and ask him his feelings on the conditions. He looks at me, and says “we’re here to dive”. That seals it, if we need our scooters to actually descend against the current, so be it – we’re diving tomorrow. Mark is certifiably crazy, and I am here to keep him out of trouble this weekend. More importantly, Mark will holding onto a $4,000 IVS scooter, and no way are we losing that puppy this weekend! So, plans settled, we motor on, finally arriving for dinner at the Paradise Pub at 9 o’clock pm, exactly 21 hours after we left Harleysville. Our favorite barmaid Antoinette is awaiting, all smiles and hugs for couple of her favorite friends (OK, hugs for me, and I introduce Mark!). Dave Hartman, the face of IVS-South, joins us for dinner, and after some good belly laughs, we retire to Casa Hartman for the night.

Friday morning comes and Chris gives us the call from Key West – current still appears to be ripping but Mark is undeterred, and we prepare for the last 100 miles of our southern journey. We check on the ‘children’ who we left on the chargers for the night in the truck, and it appears that we may be victims of sad case of SIDS – one of our baby’s won’t wake up! Mark is next to her, talking, pleading, touching, nurturing, all to no avail. What could it be? Why us? They looked so good last night. Why is fate so cruel??? I sense his sorry and sadness, and ask him to compose himself and step aside, let daddy take a look here. I examine closely, checking for any sign of life or apparent cause for this sad situation, and as my fingers trace our baby’s wiring, it becomes apparent to me……Mark has hooked up the battery charger to the motor, not to the battery! You can hear me shaking my head and rolling my eyes here, can’t you? I correct the mis-wiring, the charger light shows “happy”, and our baby is back with us. Tragedy resolved. Note to self – when it comes to wiring, Mark is not the sharpest tool in our shed!

A tasty breakfast is enjoyed at one of our favorite local establishments, the Key Largo Conch House, and I’m starting to feel like a ‘kept’ man – Mark buys my breakfast for me! Shaking off those strange feelings, we start down U.S. 1 to Key West together. Wait….is that ominous or what? For the record Steve, Mark is my ‘dive’ partner, not like Bill Z’s partner, OK? Enough said…..the day is picture perfect, not a breeze in the air, the sky is blue, the sea is azure, how absolutely beautiful it is for our ride to Key West. Mark drives, Dave blogs, emails & texts…not a bad combo. Ten miles into our trip, the truck is silent except for the gentle rhythm of tapping figures on my keyboard, when “POW!!” the AC power inverter plugged into the dashboard explodes. The cabin is rapidly filling with smoke and we are ready for the oxygen masks to drop down. I am glad I am sitting in an emergency row and I’m ready to pop open the door and slide out like a disgruntled Jet Blue flight attendant. I manage to fight through the confusion and the screaming passengers – OK, knock it off Mark – and get the device unplugged. Whew! Emergency over…for now!

After that, the rest of the trip is almost anti-climatic, just beautiful views and no traffic at all. We arrive at the marina at 2:00 and as we are turning into the driveway, I spot something hidden down in the grass. Immediately, I am thinking, Bev so loves when I pick things up for her on trips, and so what have I found here? A nice spanking new shopping cart for her! She will love it for sure, and I can cross that bit of sensitivity off my ‘to-do’ list for the weekend – Bev has a gift! And, talk about an instantaneous return on investment – we put our new cart right to use humping our gear down the dock and onto the Lucky Dog, our vessel for this afternoon. Finally loaded, checked and ready to go, we head out at 2:30 p.m. for our first morning dive. Harbor traffic is light, and the views are pretty as we cruise along.

Making 30 knots across a dead calm sea, we arrive onto our first dive site in less than a half hour. The depth finder picks up the huge profile of the Wilkes Barre, rising nearly 100 ft up off the bottom at 240 ft. We drop the grapple, along with 300 ft of line and a 24″ dia. marker ball overt the side. Down, down it goes into the blue as we hopefully catch the wreck. But no, the current isn’t going to cooperate at all. It’s pushing us at over 2 knots already on the surface, and the grapple hook blows clear off the wreck, sailing across the uncharted bottom. Suddenly we see the marker ball drop under, and we know the hook has snagged something, and the strong current is now stretching the line out downstream. We motor over and pick up the ball and try to get the hook to come free. Nope, so it is snagged, so Capt Chris runs the engines forward, away from the direction of the snag, and the hook comes free, at least momentarily. So he begin moving forward, trying to keep the hook sailing above the bottom. All is going well until there’s a loud snap, the boat shudders, and the marker ball floats free to the surface, leaving our 300 ft of line and the grapple down with the fishes.

Well that sort puts the kibosh on the Wilkes dive, and with this current it would be dangerous to attempt to hot drop and find the wreck,in spite of its massive size. So on to Plan B, the Curb, at 180 ft. We head over, locate the wreck, and drop a sand anchor alongside, so Mark and I will scooter over to the wreck once we make it to the bottom. We drop in at 5:30 p.m. for our first morning dive…yeah, yeah…..and need to use our scooters on full power just to make it forward to the anchor line. Wow there is a bit of current here, and other than the anchor line there is no reference at all in the water. Down we go, nothing, nothing, nothing, here is the sand approaching…hmmm..no wreck yet. So I turn and wait for Mark..waiting, waiting….geeesh! Mark is having some difficulty managing his scooter, so not sailing as smoothly for him as hoped. He gets there eventually, and I signal that I am going to run a reel out to see if i can locate the wreck. Mark follows, and sure enough, I find the wreck about 100 ft away, just far enough in the slightly murky and dark water that it would be easy to miss. We tie off, making sure we have our ‘trail of breadcrumbs’ back to the anchor and our boat, and begin to explore the wreck. As we head towards the stern, we are greeted with a huge nurse shark, easily 10 ft in length, returning to the wreck after a busy day doing whatever sharks do all day. I spot a lionfish, but recognizing I am diving at 180 ft on trimix with two stage bottles and a scooter, I wisely decide it would not be cool to get nailed (again) so I pass on attempting to capture him. We turn and ascend slightly towards the deck level at 165 ft, and are immediately surrounded by 3 huge goliath groupers, and I mean huge..we’re talking 8 plus feet in length for the two larger ones, and junior is probably 6 feet long. They are interested enough in us, and clearly not intimidated, so they swim around us and keep circling, checking us out. They are completely surrounded by baitfish, so they are just like a huge cloud of biomass moving with grace through the water. It is truly surreal, and of course a little narcosis goes a long way towards helping achieve that sensation.

We find a nice hole in the side of the wreck and Mark feels the need for penetration, so he starts to poke around inside. I follow him in, get alongside, crank up the scooter, and motion him to follow me if he dares! So, here’s where the story gets complicated, and we’ll give it to you as seen by Mark, as well as Dave.

Mark’s version:
Looking at my gauge, and seeing 900 psi of back gas remaining, I am thinking maybe we should turn the dive here. Let me recall, we had 3,500 to start, Rule of Thirds, turn the dive at 2,300, one-third remaining…yep, that’s it! So ok, you say, I’m at 900 psi so I have kinda missed that 2,300 psi number, and a lot of other ones that followed! But I’m thinking, Dave is leading us in the general direction of home, of course penetration into a new wreck aside, it still was kinda towards home So, I’m in! It’s not a huge wreck, how far can this possibly go? In fact, I can actually see a little light streaming in ahead of Dave from above. So we’re in the engine room, and I realize that hole in the ceiling is waaaaay too small swim through. So I signal to Dave that it’s time (OK, way past time) to turn the dive, and I am outta here! I interpreted Dave’s look as acknowledging my signal, and turned and left the room through a very silted out door, into a even more silted out room after that. Remembering the portholes I spotted on my right as I entered this space, I instinctively moved to the left on exiting and sure enough found the portholes and the opening. Got out, turned around and looked for my buddy behind me, but alas, I was alone. Now I’m at 500 psi, at 180 feet, wonderingi what would be the most appropriate action at this time. I start back in to look for Dave, realize this is insane, remember Dave’s words “Self Rescue is Number One”, and act upon them – I hope he is proud of me! So I re-exit the ship, get up on the deck and start towards the line and see Dave squeezing out the hole, with a little less equipment than we went in with. Everyone is accounted for, it’s time to head towards the reel tie off and find the anchor.

Dave’s version:
New guy that Mark is, he bites, and follows along – silly man! We make it in through multiple rooms and passageways, finally ending in the engine room, which has only one door in, and a very small hatch overhead that opens to the deck. I am in the room, and notice Mark is signaling frantically, so I turn, with a “what do you need now” look, and he signals that is time to turn the dive, in fact it is way past time to turn the dive. He has been so enthralled with the dive (and perhaps the narcosis) the he somehow failed to pay proper attention to his gas usage and it is high time to skedaddle on out of here. So he turns, perhaps a bit too quickly, and quicker than I just typed that he managed to create such a shit storm of silt that I could not even see the doorway out of the room. Nice, I am thinking, wondering about my buddy selection. OK, it’s supposed to be his learning experience, but how the tables have turned. Like Helen Keller on scuba, I find the doorway he has disappeared into, and as I poke through, the viz becomes even less, if that is possible. No sweat, there is a small hatchway to salvation, so while we all have one day when it will be our time to go, and it is not my day today. So I move to the hatch, and check the dimensions…..OK, time for a little Jenny Craig moment here, need to slim down a bit. Let me unhook my scooter, yep, that fits, pass it through the hole, Now my first stage bottle, now my second. Note to self – they are filled with 50% and 100% oxygen mixes, and putting them back on in the improper order would no doubt have catastrophic results. Almost can fit out now, check my gas supply now, still looking good, so I slip off my backplate, pass my double 100’s out the hatch, keeping a firm grip on my 7 ft hose, and now I think I can fit out the hole! Hands over my head, everything on my svelte form sucked in tight, I am able to squeeze on through the hatch and make it out to the deck – whew! I collect my gear, put my backplate back on and resume normal breathing, and drag the rest of it over to where I figure Mark will be coming out, yep there is a huge cloud of bubbles, looks like an over-breather there for sure! Yep, it is, and he’s in a bit of a hurry, but I ask him to verify that my stages are back on properly, and he does, quickly, as he passes by me in a bit of a hurry. Yep – I like to teach that ‘self rescue is number one’ and here is a perfect example. So I signal him it is time to go and save himself, and I lead him back over the side of the wreck and find the reel line tied off, which Mark had very nicely marked with a nice strobe on our way in.

Mark’s version of the last of the dive and the ascent:
So I get to the reel tie-off on the side of the wreck, check my gauges, 250 psi, this will work, start to untie the reel, then realize it is fouled with the fishing line, realize that my regulator is starting to breathe a tad hard, check my back gas again I am at 130 psi, take one last look at Dave and signal “that’s YOUR reel, and I am outta here!” So I boogey on over to the anchor, and being my ascent, monitoring my gasses all the way.

Dave’s version:
I laid the line, so protocol says that Mark should be responsible to untie the line and feed it to me as I reel it up. He starts, sees that the line is fouled with some monofilament, realizes his not-so-good gas situation, turns to me, signals that this is my problem, as his is bigger, and leaves me. So I untangle the line, make sure nothing else is left behind, and work my way back to the anchor, picking up the strobes and lift bags we have there, and start my ascent. Mark is gone, and I can only hope he is above me somewhere, but my first decompression obligation stop is at 90 feet so I can’t go up to find out. I being my ascent, with a 2 hour deco obligation showing, and figure we’ll talk about it on the surface. With required stops every ten feet it will be a while, but eventually I reconnect with my buddy at 20 feet, and now I know he is safe and sound, and hopefully a lot wiser with regards to his gas planning!

We finally make it back to the surface, and though the use of the oxygen-rich deco gas mixes, our total run time is only 85 minutes. Once on board Mark suggests that perhaps it is time to hydrate, so I take the hint, reach for the blue mountains, and we call off the rest of the dives for the day. Wise move, we’ll hit it again tomorrow!

We stop at the No Name Pub on our way home, only to find that the kitchen just closed. Holy smokes, help us out here! OK, the barmaid makes us up a couple of salads. Mark finds the dollar bill wallpaper interesting to say the least. We enjoy our light snacks and head on back to Key Largo for the night.

Saturday morning the alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. – time to get ready to head north to Fort Lauderdale and the Formula H2O Wreck Racing League event. We arrive at the host operator, South Florida Diving Headquarters, at a timely 7:30 for our 8:00 a.m. departure – perfect! Truck is unloaded, gear is set up, waivers signed, and we’re off to sea. More fantastic conditions great us today as we are joined by an ever-expanding cast of who’s who in the scuba industry, including videographer David Ulloa and his lovely companion Dee McHenry, owners of Valeo Films and Undersea Expeditionary Video Services, ABC Sports director Dave Sirak, ‘Father of the Vandenberg’ Joe Weatherby, Sarah Monahan, who is currently producing her own scuba-based adventure series, ‘Going Down’ , Mike Stone from Key West, cave diving expert Mike Ange, and a few others. We’re also joined by Nathan Cruz, a wounded warrior diver who served on a Chinook aircrew in Iraq before being wounded, resulting in a number of injuries. He worked with IAHD-Americas pro Kurt Clifton from Chicago and was able to obtain his diving certification last year – way to go Nathan!

So we’re heading out, and as we pass through the harbor entrance, we enter the zone known as “small world”. There happens to be a group of scooter-racing free divers on board, lean, mean & fit, looking sharp in their skin-tight free diver suits. One of them, an attractive young lady, walks up to me and asks “Are you Dave Valaika?”. Well, it’s tough to dodge that question, and my mental Rolodex is spinning wildly trying to place her. She states the obvious, saying “You don’t remember me, do you?” The blank look in my eyes must be obvious, as she thrusts her hand out to shake mine, announcing “I’m Erin Magee!”. Well it turns out I was instrumental in some early career development for Ms Magee, recommending her to my friends at Florida Keys Dive Center, and then working with her there in booking our group trips. She has blossomed nicely since then, moving right through scuba training to instructing and then on to apnea (breath hold) diving, and currently is the U.S. National record holder in constant balance free diving, with a certified depth of 233 ft. Here’s a little video of her achievement. What a small freakin’ world we do live in!!

We get to our race location, the wreck of the Tracy, an artificial reef sinking right off Pompano Beach, sitting upright in 70 ft of water. The organizers give us a thorough briefing, and the divers splash, heading down with scooters and cameras of all sorts, to the wreck. We’ve got a start / finish set up, some chicane turns, and some great conditions to get some ‘canned’ shots to blend in with the actual race shots tomorrow. Mark seems to be dogging it with his scooter, I am lapping him on the wreck, wondering what he is doing….saving battery power?? Meanwhile, I work with Nathan Cruz, Elizabeth Weatherby, and her daughter Natalie, getting all three of them on scooters (and going faster than Mark!).

So we spend 45 minutes on the wreck and it’s time to head up. The girls signal they are going up, and I start to follow them up the line..there are little Polish voices in my head, telling me something is wrong….finally, I recognize the accent, it’s the Zyskowski brothers, trying to save me from an embarrassing moment – we are on the WRONG LINE!!!! I signal the girls, we MUST go back down, they look confused, I give them the “trust me” signal, and we head on back down to the wreck. Once there, I lead them to the right line, and for today, the mooring ball names will remain unchanged on the Tracy wreck – there will be NO ‘V’ ball.

So we make it back to the boat we started from, and I query Mark about his less than powerful performance with the scooter. Before I say more, there’s an old joke, where a slightly dim-witted fellow buys a chainsaw cause he heard it would help him cut trees down faster. A week later, he brings it back to the dealer, and tells them it is no faster than his old saw and ax. The dealer takes it back to the service area, and sharpens the chain, assuring the customer this will be much better. A week later, he is back, again complaining about the performance of his new chain saw, and again, they re-sharpen the chain and send him on his way. Finally, one week later, he is back, adamant about getting a refund because this chainsaw is no faster than his ax and handsaw, and the dealer says to wait here, we’re going to check it out right now! He calls the service tech up to the counter, and the manager explains that the chainsaw isn’t cutting any faster than the man’s ax and handsaw, and asks the service tech to check everything while the customer waits in the store. The tech takes it back to the service area, pulls the cord and fires up the chainsaw to test it, and suddenly the customer is right up at the counter, asking the manager ‘what’s that sound?”. Well, today’s post-dive debrief with Mark was a parallel to that story, cause when I asked him why he didn’t use high speed, he looked at me and said “there’s more than one speed?”. Again, shaking my head here, and I ask our readers to look back above, where I used the sharp tools and the shed analogy!

So we motor over to our second site, and our training goal for this dive is to get our racer familiar with ALL THREE speeds of his scooter! So we splash, and enjoy a great dive on the Copenhagen, a coal carrier from Philadelphia that sunk here in 1900. Mark shines, traveling in first, second AND third gear on this dive. There may be hope for us tomorrow yet! The dive is nice, nestled against the reef in 12 to 30 ft of water, lots of life, lots of wreckage. Good way to wrap up the day.

We head back in, offload, and travel down the road to the hotel, which is located right on the beach here. We gather around the pool for a good debrief of the days events, and finalize the plans for tomorrows actual race. There are 38 divers registered for the event so it should be a crowded field indeed. Plenty of ‘paint trading’ to look forward to! The rules have been tightened up, so we need to “enter the water” with at least 80 cubic feet of air, and emerge with a MINIMUM of 500 psi on our gauge. OK, our modified scooter system only holds one 40 CF bottle, so we strategize…we’ll sling a second 40 CF bottle, and drop it right at the starting line! Not only with that streamline us, but it will also help ensure that at least one of our tanks has 500 psi left in it – mission accomplished on both counts, and once again, in true IVS style, the ‘RULES’ are re-recognized as merely guidelines!!

And we have a bonus, the folks from the Discovery Channel are here filming our meeting and our pool demo’s for a program in the works. Very cool, adds a nice touch of Hollywood to our day. After all the festivities begin to wane, so does the crowd, and we call it an early night and retire to get ready for the big event!

Sunday now, and it’s Showtime! Mark has diligently assembled our dual-DPV sled, with our two Hollis machines bolted together along with his minimal gas supply. We keep the covers on it as we load the boat at 7:00 a.m., adding a bit of suspense to an already energized morning. Dean Vitale is here with his Pegasus thrusters, and he has raised the bar by strapping three of the machines to his tank! The free divers are here too, and they are planning to run the race as a relay, with new ‘drivers’ swimming down to take over the machines in tandem as they circle the wreck – pretty cool. And Mark, sensitive guy that he is, has brought out some chalk to write his girlfriends name on the side of his scooter, so he gets on his knees and writes, in big white letters, “DED”. “Ded”, I ask “isn’t your girlfriend named Deborah?” “Oh geeez”, Mark responds, as he begins to erase that last letter and change it to a ‘B’. Talk about confirming the ‘sharp tool – large shed’ observation above!!

As might be expected, there is plenty of ‘trash talking’ on board the racer boat, with “current champion” Dean Vitale milking his position for all its worth for the last few minutes of his reign (hopefully!). We’ll see how his three Thrusters work to save his title now! Meanwhile, the rules committee is looking closely our scooter and talking about a rule that would limit the amount of non-factory hardware allowed on a scooter. Hmmmmm. Looking at the Pegasus / Indian Valley Scuba competitive machines, Elizabeth Weatherby coins the phrase “Snap-On vs Strap-On”…..nice!

So we arrive on site, ready to go, but we have the Discovery Channel here with us, and in true Hollywood fashion, we have to wait. OK, and wait….and wait! The course is being re-set as the current has changed over night, and some new features have been added. And of course they want to get some good video footage before everyone gets in and trashes the visibility. So we wait…until finally it’s 10:00 and time to roll! So everyone suits up, point-of-view cams are turned on, scooters are lowered into the water, and the racers, photographers, officials and spectators all enter the water. Down to the wreck we head, and everyone takes their position. Going back to those rules/guidelines, one of the disqualifying factors would be if a racer surfaces with less than 500 psi remaining in their tank, so a few have taken to unscrupulous means to beat this. One fellow has his aluminum 80 pumped up to 4,400 psi! In in order for Team IVS to best avoid this, I have “air-hog” Mark enter the water last, and breath off my long hose until he is at the start line, where he switches over to his on-board gas supply. I take my position on the wreck, and the race timer begins the countdown, two minutes, one minute, Go! Go! Go! they are off in a blast of bubbles and silt.

Around and around they go, jostling for position through the curves, blasting down the straight-aways, nailing each other with propwash to slow the competition down, trading paint in the turns – whatever it takes! The recreational scooters are running three laps while the expedition and modified classes are running five. It is major traffic around the wreck as the pack stretches out, and it is obvious from the first lap that David Ollua is blowing everyone away with his Submerge scooter and side mounted 40’s. He is absolutely screaming! Mark is not looking too shabby later as he struggles a bit with his trip but when he gets it pointed right our machine really hums. And the Wreck Racing League has its first pile-up, as someone (name withheld to protect the innocent) passes Marissa and his octo hits one of her props, so she promptly spins and crashes right into the side of the wreck! No emergency personnel or rescue divers needed, she brushes it off, and resumes the race, eventually ending up with a second place finish. When all is said and done, there are a couple of very close finishes that will require video review to confirm.

Finally, it’s all over, and we head back up, exhausted but smiling, another great Wreck Racing League event under on belt! One quick stop for a second relaxing dive on another wreck and we motor back to the marina. A little gussie-up period and we meet for the awards ceremony, where all have gathered for one last celebration and the presentation of awards. Turns out Team IVS has moved up in the standings in a larger field to take 3rd place! Way to go team!

To celebrate, we decide to stop at a local Outback Steakhouse, which happens to be my personal favorite and counters Mark’s Dairy Queen choice earlier. We enjoy a nice dinner, and when the check comes, Keelan our server is asked by Mark to separate the bill, and to help facilitate this, Mark has noted next to each item on the bill #1 or #2, with one being him and two being me. Keelan looks at him a bit askew, says “this is kinda different”, looks at me shaking my head, and figures there’s no support here, they obviously must do things a bit differently in Arizona! We get it sorted out, settle up, and head back south to Key Largo for our last day of diving on a wreck to be determined early tomorrow a.m.

One last night at casa Hartman and we awoke to another beautiful Keys morning. First order of the day is sneaking outside and through the woods to photograph a huge crocodile that is sleeping on the dock. Like Steve Irwin, I slowly creep up on the beast, snapping away with my camera, until my hand is on his tail, and, like the lionfish, I am wondering how fast he might be able to spin around and how likely it might be that as 600 pounds of thrashing crocodile changes position on this floating dock that I might find myself in the water with him…..wisely, I opt to remove my hand and leave the alligator wrestling for another day. And as I make that fateful decision, my phone rings loudly in my pocket, and the croc lifts his head to see what the ruckus is! Whoooops…..backing on up now, the dock is yours, Sir! It’s Antoinette on the phone, and for those of you who frequent the Paradise Pub with us, you’ll recognize her as our favorite beer-maid there. She has been asking me for some time to take her diving, and finally I broke down (yes, sensitive moment) and said I’d take her this weekend while we were there. So she calls and says she is ready, has her mask & fins and is waiting for us to pick her up for the day. So I gather Mark, we pile into the truck, head over to Ms A’s, and finally arrive at Amoray Dive Resort. Now I had taken the time yesterday to call Ms Amy Slate herself and find out what the boat plans were for this morning, and she told me it was a two tank reef dive. Well Mark is still hyped up over getting to dive some big wrecks, and we still have two sets of double 100’s with trimix in them, so I toss out an idea to Amoray – “hey, what do you say about doing a 3 location trip, starting at the Spiegel Grove and then on to a couple of reefs?”. Keep in mind it’s not for me but for Mark – again it’s that sensitive side, yes I’ll do another dive for my buddy. Amazingly, the folks at Amoray agree, and we load up the boat for our three dive excursion! Woo hoo!

We arrive at the Spiegel and from the site of the mooring balls being somewhat submerged I am sensing we have a bit of current to deal with. But, we’re here to dive, so dive we must! We begin to gear up, and as Mark removes his shorts to get into his wetsuit, Antoinette looks over, and turns to me and asks the obvious…..”Is that really a Speedo he’s wearing?” “Yep, that’s my buddy”, I reply. Mr. Sexy and I finish gearing up and we splash in. The current on the surface is bordering on horrendous, so I struggle up the line, hand over hand, until I reach the mooring ball, and realize I am at about 10 ft of depth now, the ball is pulled so far under! The conditions remain consistent all the way down to the wreck, but once there, we are able to hide behind the structure, drop down to deck level, and have a really enjoyable dive penetrating the wreck and touring all over the innards. We surface 50 minutes later, and begin the short journey over the Benwood.

I have given Antoinette the reader’s digest version of the DSD briefing on the way out, so now I quiz her a bit on key points, she assembles her own gear under my watchful eyes, and performs a great first-time pre-dive safety check. I am sensing a ‘natural’ here, and as we giant stride into the water I am thankful the half mile difference from the Spiegel made all the difference in the current – there is none here! So we slip under the clear blue water, and Ms A enjoys a great first dive experience. She ends up seeing stingrays, cleaner shrimp, eels, scorpionfish, lobsters, and the rest of the usual cast of characters. What a fantastic way to get introduced to the sport of scuba diving.

Dive #2 for Antoinette an #3 for the morning is at Christmas Tree Cave, where again the conditions are superb, and our newest diver wanna-be excels again. We turn a corner and she ends up face to face with a nice size Goliath Grouper, and that ices the cake. Back on board, she confesses – “I want to get certified!” Look for her sporting a shiny new IVS cert card in the near future!

Back in town, Mark & I clean up, pack the truck, and head north. Two a.m. and we drop him off in St. Mary, GA, where he is getting his Evo Rebreather certification from Richie Kohler, and I journey the final 1,000 miles to home. Gosh, I miss him already!

But, like crack cocaine, you can’t get enough of the IVS Kool Aid, and Mark calls me as I am driving on Tuesday and tells me to save him a spot as our scooter driver in the next Wreck Racing League event, scheduled for Oct 2 in Key Largo. And the scooters are already back in the machine shop, being modified just a bit more for our next race. Sweet!

Off to Bonaire!

And so it begins, our biggest trip of the year (so far) with 44 divers heading to the enchanted isle of Bonaire for a week of fun, great diving and good times.  To help ensure the island and the diving will meet the standards and expectations of the IVS’ers Ray Graff, Amir Stark and I made the sacrifice and headed down a week early, sort of a scouting party if you will.  We gathered at the shop this morning at 3:30 a.m. to begin our journey.  As might be expected I was not fully packed at that moment, ok, to be honest, I had just started!  But heck, set a couple of big Pelican cases  on the floor, and toss in dive gear and a few changes of underwear, and we’re ready!  Oh yeah, don’t forget sweeping every paper and unfinished project off my desk too.  Thank goodness for that five bag, 70 pounds per bag limit that Delta imposes on me, or I’d take even more!

Amir drives us down to Philadelphia International, we park, and shuttle to the terminal.  Beautiful start, no traffic, no rush, and none of that trademark adrenalin rush that I like to kick most trips off with! Bags are checked before you know it we’re on board and winging our way towards Atlanta, our interim stop on the way to Bonaire.  To be honest, the reason we’re going down a week before the rest of the gang is to spend a week on an IAHD-Americas mission, working with our friends from Eels on Wheels and the Gridiron Heroes organization, taking a group of young men, who suffered debilitating spinal injuries while playing high school football, and introducing them to the sport of scuba diving.  You can read about our work with this group on the IAHD-Americas blog by clicking here! [link to be added soon!]

So our flight out of Philadelphia is uneventful and we landed in Atlanta.  With some time to kill between flights, we opted to visit the Delta Crown Room and enjoy some complimentary libations and breakfast treats.  As we sat down, we noticed the fellow sitting across from us was wearing a TDI polo shirt.  Well of course we can’t let that pass, so we engage in conversation, only to discover we are talking to Fleming Elleboe, the chairman of International Training, parent company of SDI, TDI, and ERDI.  Amazingly small world indeed.  So we spend the next hour enjoying some great discussion regarding diver training, the advantages and disadvantages of E-Learning and other techniques.  It was great to compare PADI’s methods to SDI’s and hear some insight from the top!  Finally it was time to board, so we bid adieu and headed to our Bonaire flight.

The views as we pass over the islands is beautiful with azur-hued waters and dark reefs calling our names.  We land and pass quickly through immigration, then the wait for the bags begin.  Here’s the vision:  big airplane, tiny baggage wagon!  So many trips later we are reunited with our bags, and then pass through the doors into Bonaire (yes, there is no inspection at all.  Bring what you want!).  We stroll outside and there are a bunch of stake body trucks being piled high with luggage, and we’re thinking ugh!  But no, our private driver holds up a sign, and the three of us pile into our own nicely appointed air-conditioned van and head over to the Divi Flamingo, our base of operations for week #1 of our adventure.

Timing is key, because as we are completing our check in process (three clerks, three of us, perfect) those stake bodies pull in and the circus begins.  Whew!  Beating that crowd by 5 minutes made all the difference in the world!  We are out of there, and on our way to our rooms.  We put our stuff away and head down to the dive shop to meet with the operations manager Serge, and to get our Park Pass and the official lecture, which qualifies as our check-out dives.  “This is reef, this is sand – know the difference!”.  Got it, we pass the test, pay our $25 and get our annual pass.  Off the list!

And while we are there the afternoon boats are coming in so we meet Chad Dietrich who is the head of the Eels on Wheels organization, our focus for the next seven days.  They have a large group, including us there are 50 people, mostly medical folks from a number of hospitals in the Austin area, but also about nine handicapped divers.  They represent a wide array of adaptive scuba challenges, including Spina Bifida, Down’s Syndrome, Spinal Injuries, Polio, and Fragile X Syndrome.   Right from the get-go we sense this will be a great group to work with, and they have a long history of group trips and visits to Bonaire to draw upon.

Our stays here are all-inclusive, so our first meal is a Saturday night BBQ, Bonaire-style.  Good chance to mingle a bit and get to know some of the folks.  Not quite as outgoing as an IVS crowd, but we’ll work on breaking down barriers and getting to know them all.  After dinner it’s time to get the gear wet, so Amir, Ray & I head down to the dive dock for our first dive.  What’s that PADI rule about diving in a new place?  Oh yeah, lead it off with a night dive!  So dive we must!

We splash, and it is black already.  There is a huge hatching of small krill-like critters in the top 3 ft of the water column, and I watch as Amir and Ray giant stride into their midst and are chewed up like an old cow crossing the Amazon River to attract the piranhas.   Now that the critters were busy I splashed, negative, and dropped right to the bottom, escaping the hungry hordes at the onset of the dive.  We had a really nice dive, viz is probably 200 plus feet, came upon a sleeping turtle, eels, sleeping parrotfish, the usual suspects, and tarpon.  Not little tarpon, huge tarpon.  You know how sometimes you come down to the kitchen at night, stumble through the dark, and open the refrigerator door, to be awarded with that light showing all the good stuff to eat?  Well that is exactly what we were to the tarpon, their little refrigerator lights, shining on the reef fish and showing the tarpon what was on the menu for tonight.  Overall a great dive, max depth 80 ft, 55 minutes of bottom time, and as we headed back in we hoped against hope that the krill-like critters had retired for the night.  Well, nice thought, but no!  As we approached the stairs leading up from the water, we made sure we had our fins off, and were ready to move quickly, cause the little carnivores were all over us as we passed through the top of the water column.   Good news is they just bite a little, no scar, no itch, so it is OK.

Sunday morning came with an early thunderstorm as we awoke, then a bright sky following.  It promised to be passing, though, as the dark clouds from the east were coming across the island towards us. We boarded the boat for a 2-tank trip over to Klein Bonaire, a small uninhabited island about a half mile off the resort.   We did a couple of great dives there, working with the group and assisting where asked as we got to know the folks on the trip.  Conditions were spectacular, cannot say any more, no current, great viz, super-healthy reefs, just that conspicuous lack of fish in the 6 to 12 inch range….think the locals are fishing in the park?

Back for a nice lunch, and out for a 1-tank afternoon dive, again to a site off Klein Bonaire.  This time Ray and I are on a different boat, and we work with three disabled divers, Joe, Kirin and Eric.  Joe suffered a spinal injury after a massive fall while climbing a frozen peak in Northern California, losing his grip and sliding several hundred feet before a tree broke his fall, and his back.  Kirin moved to the U.S. 12 years ago, and suffers from polio.  Finally we have Eric, here with his family, and born with Spina Bifida.  Three very inspirational divers really having a great time with our group.  We enjoy a great afternoon dive, with some frogfish on this one – man, are they tough to spot! Back at the dock, we plan a night dive for the group before dinner.  We splash again around 7’ish, and enjoy a nice night dive on Calabas Reef, the house dive site.  Just a great dive, but a big gaggle of folks to manage, making it at times a bit crowded on the reef.  Dinner was at the Chibi Chibi Restaurant, and we enjoyed some fine food and a few Polar beers as we relished in the days activities.

Monday came and it was indeed a nice day, again an early morning rainstorm as we awoke, but once that was out of the way, it was clear and bright all day.  We did a 2-tank morning dive, first off Klein Bonaire, then they attempted to bring us off the main island, but the viz sucked so we headed back to the smaller island.  More frogfish, and great conditions.  At the very end of the dive I am at around 400 psi and what do I come up upon?  A full-grown Lionfish!   So, lionfish whisperer that I am, I coax him into coming a little closer, and we move under a coral head that allows for ample room for me to work while minimizing his escape options.  Bad news, around 250 psi now, but he mission must be accomplished!  So I work him, and he is bigger than the plastic bag I have brought, so I go to Plan B – the lift bag!  I unfurl the bag, and am this close to working him into the opening, but now the breathing is getting a tad difficult.  Can I back off?  No, must get it done, so I abandon a bit of caution, draw one last good breath, and reach out with bare hand to strongly encourage him to enter the bag.  He has other thoughts, hesitates, turns and nails me twice on my left hand – DANG!   Does that hurt!  Good news is the blood is flowing, hopefully washing away as much of the toxins as possible!  For me, wounded, out of air, frustrated, it is time to surface –  but like the governor says, “I’ll be back”.

Interesting post-trauma study.  Within five minutes the finger is in intense pain, and blackness is evident at the site of the punctures.  I continue to milk the wound to keep the flushing going on, but some of it is inside for sure. Within 10 minutes it is to the main knuckle, and five minutes later to the wrist.  Dang this hurts, and that is an understatement!  But it’s time to dive, and dive we must!  For the second dive the boat is moored in about 250 ft of water, so we make sure our stuff is clipped on, cause no one is going down to get anything that is dropped!  We splash, and as I head down the extra pressure from depth starts to drive me bonkers!  I move my wrist watch from left to right wrist, that’s better.  Now the dive computer…now the slate……the pain is all consuming on this dive so I head shallow for some relief…..still manage to get my 60 minutes in, and by the time it is over, I am deadened to the pain.  My middle finger, where I was hit (is that a sign?) is twice the thickness of that on my right hand, and stiff as a board (great excuse!).  Back of hand is pretty dang sensitive, but nothing has radiated up any further.  I believe our DAN Medical Experiment du jour has peaked.   It is downhill from here, but the score for the year now stands at Dave 7, Lionfish 1.  We’ll keep that at a one if at all possible!  But the important thing is the conclusion, that another deadly sea creature myth has been debunked.  Meanwhile, Ray & Amir are great working with our divers, readily pitching in to help carry them on and off the boat, and providing great assistance getting into and out of the water.  While Eric is not overly mobile on his dives, Kirin and Joe more than make up for him, swimming circles around us, with nary a fin between them.  An utterly amazing day indeed, for all sorts of reasons.

Back for lunch, and we head out for an afternoon dive south of the resort on the main island, actually passing right by Plaza Resort Bonaire, our digs for next week.  Looks pretty good from the water, and our divemaster Nolli used to work there, speaking pretty good of the resort.  We head down almost to the Salt Pier, and make another nice reef dive, coming upon a young turtle that is very actively eating away and is not bother by us watching at all.  I find a very cooperative basket star and show some of the divers how it is really  one single animal  that is very animated – news to them.  We come back in, and after dinner jump back in the water for a night dive.  We spot morays in three flavors, spotted, sharptail, and finally a chain moray – very cool dive!  Also some diver/reef life interaction, playing with some coral shrimp, urchins and the ever-present hungry tarpon.

Post-dive, we gather at the bar and Ray & Amir enjoy some fine cigars as we have a couple of brews to celebrate the days events.  The conversation runs far and wide, and before you know it, Amir educates Ray and I in Scoville Units, the universal measurement of how hot a hot sauce really is.  Who’d of thunk there was an official scientific scale of “hot” but here you have it!  Amazing indeed!

Tuesday is as pretty a day as Monday, and we get out for a morning drop north of the resort at a site called Small Wall, aptly named for an abrupt drop-off right there at the site.  Nice dive, typical sea life surrounds us.  Second site is south of the resort, and another pleasant dive.  This is like living in southern California, the conditions never change!  No current, great viz, lots of life, and a really nice bunch to dive with.  Joe Murphy and I find a great octo at the end of the dive to cap a really nice undersea visit.  Lunch, then back out for an afternoon drop at Monk’s Haven off Klein Bonaire.  Seahorses, turtles, all good stuff, another great dive.  Back in for some dinner, and we drop in for our customary night dive, spending another hour exploring the reef right in front of the resort.

Another glorious dawn greets our eyes as we awake Wednesday morning, and we check our planners for what we have on the books today…..oh yeah…diving!  So dive we must, and we load our gear on board, help our adaptive divers onto the boat, and head out to a morning 2-tank adventure.  The sites visited are Invisibles and Corporal Mice, and we’re greeted by a small school of curious squid as we drop in.  Two more good dives, we get some good depth on these dives, 100 plus feet, and 2 more hours of bottom time….sweet.  Lunch and a run back to Klein Bonaire, to Leonoros Reef, and more turtles playing, another octopus, and a huge seahorse!  Easily 8 inches overall, really nice and photogenic.  Tonight we have our group photo scheduled, so we gussy up upon our return and head down to the appointed photo location, but alas, no one is there.  What’s that noisy crowd over by the pool, we wonder?  well it’s our group, and looks like they’ve been enjoying some frosty libations and other treats for quite some time now.  Hmmmm…..no group photo happening here tonight!   So we hang for a bit, but avoid the festivities cause we have a night dive to make!   So we’re sitting there, laughing and sharing stories and jokes, when I notice someone waving from the promenade along the shore.  Hmmmm…I look around….yes they are waving to me!   I look closer, and holy smokes, it’s Tony & Brenda, IVS-Puerto Rico, right here with us!   How cool is that?  We’re 1,951 miles from home, and we’re running into friends.  They have a group of 18 down for the week and are staying next door!  Small, small world indeed!  So hugs and handshakes all around, and they decide to join us on our night dive.  They go for their gear and we suit up and dive.  Amir and I are on the search for a reported sunken sailboat at 140 feet so we head way down the wall, but after 10 minutes of fruitless searching in the dark, we head back up to re-join Ray and the group at 70 feet.   We end up with another 75 minute dive, finding a playful octopus, chain moray, and hunting eels out and about – good dive!

Ho hun…another perfect morning sky starts Thursday off perfectly!   Two more nice morning dives, another good lunch, and our last afternoon boat dive with the Eels to Wheels gang, as they are flying out early Saturday morning, and heaven forbid, they don’t want to dive the day before flying!  In all seriousness, good caution on their part so we make the afternoon dive a good one, at a site called Cliffs right in front of Buddy Dive Resort.  Very nice dive, more of the same great stuff we’ve enjoyed all week long.  We head in and the talk starts about one last night dive, but the group can’t make up their mind on the time, some want 7 and some want 8.  So Ray, Amir and I agree, we can do a 2-tank night dive tonight and dive with them all!  So, we’re hanging around the Divi dive center a bit, and I walk into the shop, and who is standing there?  Frank Fennell, our Epoque camera rep!  Again, what an amazingly small world!  1,951 miles from home, and here’s another friend!  Well of course we get right into a good banter, and before you know it, we are invited to a birthday party tomorrow night, celebrating Captain Don Stewart, the founder of Captain Don’s Habitat, as he celebrates his 85th birthday!   This is going to be a very special treat for Ray, who rarely gets to go to a party for someone older than him!  And to make it even better, Frank brought a couple of demo systems, so he is coming over to Plaza Resort Bonaire Saturday afternoon to conduct an underwater photography / videography workshop for our group!  Does it get any better than that?

So we head to the water for our 7:00 and 8:00 night dive, planning a 2-tank, 120 minute bottom time dive-a-thon.  The sun is setting nicely and we’ve got a great crowd on the dock with us.  We splash and are joined by Paul, one of our Eels wheelchair divers.  Nice dive, lots of action and things to see, and a great last night dive for Paul for the week.  Once we get him back up on the dock, it’s time for our 8:00 dive, so back in we drop!   This one has a smaller crowd, and we really enjoy a great dive.

Friday morning it’s a little less hectic on the dock as most of the Eels crowd has quit diving for the week, but we still have Kiran, Paul & Howard with us, so Ray, Amir & I stay plenty busy all morning.  Back for lunch, and the obligatory afternoon dive.  That’ll be our last dive with Divi, as we have to gussie up for our birthday party tonight at Habitat.  We grab a taxi down, and head down the road to the resort.  We get there, and the driver doesn’t have change for our bill in US currency, but we tell him we’ll need a ride back, so what does he say?  “Pay me when I take you back”  When is the last time you ever saw that with an American taxi driver?  We confirm our pick up time, walk inside and boy what a great party!   There’s the birthday boy himself, Captain Don Stewart, looking fine with his wooden peg leg (when do you see one of those anymore?) and surrounded by a flock of pretty girls all evening long.  We run into a bunch of other IVS friends, including Dee Scarr, Wildside Larry and his wonderful wife Janice, and of course Frank Fennell and his daughter Christine, who turns out to be enrolled in law school so she and Amir strike it off immediately with law-talk.  The food is great, and served in a non-stop parade by the staff walking through the crowd with silver platters, each one better than the one before.   The bar is serving up some top shelf drinks, and the steel calypso band is the finishing touch for a truly tropical birthday party.  We end up shutting the place down, and sure enough there is our driver spot on time, and we head back to the Divi.  Bill is settled up and we arrange for him to be back at 5:30 a.m. to pick me up for Part II of our island adventure!  The resort is quiet, so we end up being on the receiving end of some excess beer purchases by our friends, and we gladly accommodate them, knowing full well we’ll find a home for them this coming week.

Saturday morning my 4:30 a.m. alarm jars me out of my slumber, and I finish packing to head down to the Plaza Resort Bonaire and greet our first crowd of arriving guests who are landing on the 5:00 a.m. Continental flight.  This wave includes, Dave West, John & Jody Alcott, Tricia & Jeff Mento, Joseph Cox, Jerry Barrick, Jesica Tyre, and Grace Crawford along with her sons Dylan and Austin, plus her multi-talented mom Georgeanne who decided a week in the islands was too good to pass up! I feel a bit like Ricardo Montelban, welcoming our guests to my island; all I am missing is my little friend Tatoo!  We sort the gear in the lobby, get the bathing suits and dive equipment out, and throw the rest of the bags into storage until the rooms become available.  From there it’s breakfast at the Banana Tree restaurant, and over to Toucan Diving for the orientation briefing on Bonaire diving and the marine park rules.  Paperwork completed, marine park passes in hand, we head to the beach and do our first dive right there in front of the pool, at a site called 18th Palm, which is also the house reef.  Great dive to start it off, everyone looks good, and most of us jump right back in for a second dive!

By the time we’re coming back up the second wave is arriving, so here comes Bev & Butch Loggins, Mike & Lin Gusenko, Lynn & Jim Swartley, Tom Brennan, Jeremy Lindsey, Bryan, Mary, Will & Dan Young, Kim Luisi, Mike & Cathy Parzynski, Tricia Arrington, Jack Sandler, Sue Douglass, Joyce & Charles Kichman, Mike & Teresa Swartley, Tracy Meyers, Roy Scherrer,  Brian Laspino, ……………. Same drill, get checked in, orientation at the dive shop, then let’s get wet!  Most of us are diving with our own gear, but for a few it’s a chance to try out some cool resort-quality rental stuff – Mike P, Tricia A, Mike & Teresa S all had some bags missing to kick off the trip.  Good news is they showed up the next day so no horror stories there.

It’s 10:30 now, and we’re sitting at the bar eating a late dinner, and who finally strolls in?  Katie & David Manninen, who enjoyed a four hour delay in the Curacao airport on their way to Bonaire!  But the spirits are good and the excitement is high, so everyone is ready for the morning!  And the staff at the Banana Tree Restaurant – Patricia, Manuela, & Andrew – are top shelf and make us feel very much at home, not only tonight but all week long!

Sunday morning and our last IVS’er arrives, Mark Sperry from Toledo Ohio – all 44 souls accounted for! And it’s time to get serious with the diving! With such a big group and the convenience of shore diving and setting your own schedule, everyone just heads out in small groups to dive the sites which are located up and down the coast of this beautiful island.  Each condo came with an SUV, so transportation was never an issue.  Some of the favorite dive sites during the week were Margate Bay, Oil Slick, Red Beryl, Vista Blue, and Alice in Wonderland, just to name a few.  The routine is simple – toss some tanks in the back of your SUV, grab the map, and head north, or south, along the coast.  Each dive site is marked by a painted yellow rock along the side of the road, so just pull off the road, gear up, and stroll into the usually calm sea (there were a few exceptions at some of the dive sites to that!).  Entries varied from sandy to rocky, so those hard-soled dive booties paid off in spades!

Every road on the island eventually leads to a dive site, but as some of us know, that eventually can be pretty long sometimes!  Lots of winding roads, minimal correlation between the actual roads and what is printed on the map, and not a single compass in any of the cars made each trip a potential touring adventure!   The good news is that the island is beautiful so no matter where we ended up driving in circles, we enjoyed it.

Sunday also saw Teresa Swartley and Dillon Crawford getting the first of their checkout dives in, and what a way to complete your certification!  Both did great and we want to congratulate them on joining the Indian Valley Scuba family of divers!

There is a another gem of an island here, Klein Bonaire, an uninhabited islet about a half mile offshore of the resort. It too is ringed with fantastic dive sites, so how could we not go there to dive?  So we set up a few boat trips with the on site dive operator, Toucan Diving, and they took good care of us.  OK, first we had to work out the details – here’s how they normally do it:  the afternoon trip is a one tank dive, and they moor the boat at a site.  A divemaster jumps in and leads the group along the reef, 20 to 25 minutes in one direction, then they turn back, and you end up under the boat exploring until you surface.  Alright, while that sounds nice, here’s the way we’re gonna do it, IVS-style:  First, we’ll make it a 2 or 3 tank trip.  Second, we won’t moor the boat except to get everyone in the water and organized to begin our descent.  Third, the DM can follow along as our group leads itself, and finally, we aren’t turning around!  And finally we’ll just dive in one direction, through several dive sites, until we eventually surface and the boat can pick us up there!   Gosh, similar to what they do the other 51 weeks of the year, but with a hint of that signature IVS “deliberatley different” flair!

So we ended up doing a bunch of afternoon boat dives, and on our last, we threw enough tanks onto the boat to have the crew drop us off on the way back to the harbor, and we ended up diving our way home back to the resort for our 3rd tank.  Cool!

One of the highlight dives on the island is the Salt Pier, a commercial pier where they load salt onto bulk carriers headed to ports around the world.  It is owned by Cargill and officially closed to the public, but available for diving if you hire a “guide”.  Let’s think about this…..it’s in the ocean, and there’s no fence around it – sounds like “we don’t need no stinking guide!”   And so a bunch of us head on down on Wednesday night, figuring what’s the worst that can happen?  And guess what?   We had a fantastic dive, no one was arrested (or thrown out of the country), and Sue & Joyce even nailed a lionfish, smashing the little omnivore with a rock on the reef – way to go girls!  Great dive, octopus, colorful sponges on the legs of the pier, eagle rays in the shallows, just another great one in the logbook for the week!

And speaking of highlights, you can’t just have a week of perfectly calm seas and gentle entries!  So we headed over to the east coast of the island, which is the windward side, and hooked up with East Coast Bonaire Diving, who recently took over the operation from our friend Wildside Larry.  They run a 30 ft Zodiac inflatable boat with a couple of huge Yamaha outboards on the back and visit some of the dive sites outside the harbor.  We gear up at the dock, including getting on board with our BCD’s on and fins in hand, and as we head out through the rollers, masks are on cause the water is coming over the boat!  It’s a wet and wild ride out to the site, and once we arrive, it’s a military style backroll entry, as they captain throws the boat in reverse and we start dropping off the sides of the boat two by two.  Once we’ve gathered on the surface, we descend and have a great dive on the reef.  Unlike the west side of the island, the fish life here is fantastic, and turtles abound.  On one dive we had no less than 11 turtle in our midst – fantastic!  Add some eagle rays, big tarpon, octopus, and a whole bunch of big green moray eels, and you have the recipe for some phenomenal diving.  We do one dive, head back to the harbor for a little surface interval and to change tanks, then back out to do it again!  Great addition to an already great trip.

The week is drawing to a close, and as Friday unfolds some of the gang are starting to, heaven forbid, rinse and dry their gear for the trip home.  But a few of us still need more….so off we head!  I end up wrapping the week up diving Vista Blue and Red Beryl with Amir, Brian and Joyce, getting dive #59 and #60 in for the trip!  Two last visits to 100 ft for an hour each….perfect!

Friday night is our last dinner on the island so where better to go than to Maiky’s Shack?  It’s a very local eatery located way out in the sticks, down several dirt roads and way off the beaten path.  Let’s just say they don’t see a lot of gringo faces there!  The dinner is superb, home-style servings of goat, grouper and chicken with plenty of sides and some local treats.  And the best part?  The bill is $15 each – amazing!

Since the group did so many individual trips this week, it made writing this blog a bit challenging.  So I passed around a pad and a pen, and asked everyone to share their comments and highlights for the week, and here’s a summary of what was written:

Joyce Kichman –Wild Side diving was all that and more!  First class!  Plus taking a lionfish off the reef with Sue left me feeling pretty darn good!  Joyce & Sue One, Lionfish Zero!  Plus diving with my son Charles!

Jeremy Lindsey – I came for some great diving and was not disappointed at all!  23 great dives on great reefs and a whole bunch of new friends!

Ray Graff – Two weeks is not enough for this island to see it all!  In the words of General McArthur, “ I shall return!”

Amir Stark – 40+ dives with friends is great but busting Brian’s chops for backrolling into the water with no mask is priceless!  Plus, in spite of Brian’s non-stop housewife-ness, I managed to drop my weights to zero!  Very cool!

Brian LaSpino – Having to hump Amir’s tanks because “his back hurts” was only second to having to wash Amir’s gear cause it smelled so bad!  Basically I played housewife all week!

Mary Young – Learning to really become comfortable navigating was huge!  And multiple visits to the Hilma Hooker wreck made me feel like I owned it!  And completing my Advanced Open Water certification.  Finally, discovering fire coral with my bum was a bit more than I had looked forward to!

Kimberly Luisi

  • Mindset June 26th:  I’m not sure about this, I think the diving people may be crazy!
  • Mindset July 2nd:  When can we go diving again?!?

Dan Young – Having my girlfriend pass the ‘Diver’s Test’ – see Kim L above!

Sue Douglass – 44 great friends, one seahorse, and learning to pay no mind at all to Brian Laspino with his dive site reports!

Lin Gusenko – What a hoot, Girls Rule on the “All Chicks” boat dive!

Jim Swartley – Wild Side diving iced the cake, petting the turtles, eagle rays, eels, and more, plus 44 new friends – fantastic!

Charles Kichman – First dive to 100 ft, turtles, really cool reefs – loved it!

Jerry Barrick – Awesome!  Shore diving, boat diving, all great!  Great place to spend a week (or two or more!)  Lot’s of great restaurants too!

Roy Scherrer – Let’s see, what did we do other than dive, dive, dive?  Oh yes, was fortunate enough to be on the dive when Ray G. tried to re-visit solo diving, and also, thanks to our teams great navigational skills, got to see the interior, exterior, and entire coast of the island of Bonaire!

Jodelle Bryan – This trip was a huge confidence booster for me and my diving.  I dropped a ton of weight, improved my buoyancy skills, and just saw an overall improvement in my diving!   Navigation skills are coming more naturally, and seeing octopus and eagle rays was very cool!  Plus spending my birthday with old and new friends really made this a special week for me!

Will Young – Getting to be back in the water after a year in the Iraqi desert was certainly a treat, and to be able to do it with my friends and family was even better!  Sad there was only one wreck to play on, but I was happy, as long as my brother Dan was in the water there was always a tank valve I could turn off!

Dave West – Getting left alone on a night dive was certainly an adrenalin producer!  Other than that, I experienced some of the best diving ever with some of the best people ever – I am smiling ear to ear!

Jesica Tyre – I am going home with 21 new dives in my logbook, and 56 new bug bites on me too!  This trip was amazing!  Great people, great resort, great food, and fantastic diving!

Joseph Cox – Great diving all week, but the highlight was getting narc’d right out of my mind at 144 ft – what a hoot – thank you Dave!  Thank you more for bringing me home!  And thanks even more for getting my Advanced Open Water done!

Jeff Mento – Met some great people, dove some great reefs, wished I saw more seahorses!  Maybe next year!!

Katie Manninen – Dave & I hit dive # 50 in our logbooks and we are thrilled with that!  Saw baby spotted eagle rays feeding, a monster slipper lobster, and a huge turtle, over 5 ft long!  Plus made some great new friends with Tricia and Jeff Mento!

John Alcott – Some great descents, seems the whole ear issue has passed!  Now to remember to put my regulator in my mouth!  I led a great night dive for instructor Butch L and DM Mike G, including a safe return to the same beach our cars were parked at!

Bryon Young – Just a great week being with everyone, re-uniting with the IVS family, and seeing how comfortable my wife Mary got with the whole diving process.  Fantastic!

Lynn Swartley – Seeing lots of seahorses (one on our first dive!), turtles, lots of cool fish, and celebrating 20 years of being married to the most amazing man, my husband Jim! Wait, he wrote his comments above….where’s anything about being married to me????

Jim Swartley (addendum) – Oh did I mention the part about being married for 20 years to my fantastic wife?

Tom Brennan – Good friends, great location, fantastic diving!  Had a great time with the IVS gang as usual!  And lobsters and turtle sightings – oh my!

Tracy Meyers – Wild Side diving baby!   And spending time with Jesica’s sisters!  The covert night dive on the Salt Pier was a hoot, ranking right up there with losing my entire dive team on the same dive!  And of course, Team IVS – can’t imagine diving without them!

Tricia Arrington – So many firsts, where do I begin?  First time with double aluminum  80’s (and second and third time too!),  first sunrise dive, first time diving with my new baby, the Liquivision!  I think I’m in love with my new backplate system!  Sad that my baggage was late in getting here, but glad it arrived a day later!   My ears got a bit messed up and that cost me a few dives, but I still had the most awesome time!   I absolutely love diving with the IVS family, and apparently the bigger the group, the bigger the fun!

Cathy Parzynski – I came down here as a confirmed non-diver, but that darn Sue Douglass took me diving, twice, and now I am thinking I like the taste of this Kool Aid!

David Manninen – Katie and I experienced our fist shore diving and fell in love with it immediately!   Just another great aspect of this sport we love so much!  Katie and I also dove without each other for the first time ever, and it really showed me what a great dive buddy she is!

Jack Sandler – First sunrise dive, multiple night dives (had only one night dive ever before!) Seeing old IVS dive buddies and making new ones, too many Hooker jokes to remember, and getting some darn good use out of that Nitrox certification!

Teresa Swartley – Getting certified!  And when I was not diving, seeing donkeys, flamingos, iguanas and goats all over the place!  And after seeing all those goats, I didn’t eat any at Maiky’s Shack!  I did 11 dives for the week – woo hoo!

Dylan Crawford – OK, OK, the diving!   Cooler than I thought, and a really great group to hang with!  Got my certification done, thanks Dave!  Mom picks good friends, I guess!

Mark Sperry – I do a lot of dive travel and I can say, there’s not a lot of groups that beat Indian Valley Scuba!  What  blast diving with these guys and they really have their act together!  It made for a really comfortable week of diving adventure!  Great people, great weather, great diving – I’ll be back!

Tricia Mento – My darling spouse dominating the shore diving with his broken ankle – he could have easily sat out but he is a super trooper (and knows how sitting out a dive would be been capitalized on in the blog!).  Great bunch of supportive divers made it a really great week – thanks guys for humping his gear down 1,000 Steps!  And of course meeting even more really cool people like we do on every IVS trip – this time we partnered with the Manninem’s which just really made traveling the island and diving all over an even bigger blast!  Thank you Sue!

Mike Parzynski – Island touring with Dave (under the guise of finding the dive site!) was a blast. “Keep the ocean on your right, er I mean left”.  Diving doubles & stage bottles and deco diving in these great waters!  Going deep, really deep (151 in not only  a rum!).  The 2-tank and 3-tank boat drift diving was great, and getting dropped off at the beach even greater!  Only negative was the delay in getting my bags to start it off, but all ended on some great notes!

Mike Swartley – Seeing my daughter get certified with Dave was the highlight of the trip, then diving with her as my buddy!   Also the good new friends we made here, the IVS gang is great!

Grace Crawford – #1 the people!   #2 my son Dylan’s certification, diving with him, and seeing his excitement!  And #3 – the most wonderful dives!  One of my favorites was when I went to Alice in Wonderland with Jack S – as soon as we went deown he was making all sorts of signs and signals and I couldn’t figure them out at all.  Finally he wrote on his slate “I’m a dumbass” – I couldn’t stop laughing for the rest of the dive

Mike GusenkoFirst, WHAT AN AWESOME TRIP!!  I think what I liked the most, (and there were many, many things to like about this trip), is that while still maintaining the “Group IVS” feeling there were a lot of opportunities to go out and explore individually (with my favorite Buddy Lin) or with whomever was going to your favorite dive site.  A great chance to meet new people and share great  experiences whether a night, shore, boat, or “wild side” boat dive (which by the way was VERY cool!)

Dave, I’m very impressed!  The one moment in the trip that I will not forget is at Maikis. There we were all settling in for our wonderful goat stew and dinner when you looked around and noticed there was someone missing from our group that may have missed out on the ride over or wasn’t sure of the dinner plans.  Instead of saying “oh well, too bad” you got in your car and drove back to the resort (alone) to find him, in the dark, with maybe a vague idea of how to get back on those dirt roads.  I was thinking of you while we were enjoying our dinner, and was hoping you’d make it back in time to have your share. Glad you did. THAT is what IVS is about!  THAT is why we have that “family” feel about the IVS group.  We look out for one another.

And that’s another point.  We were helping each other constantly on this trip.  Many thanks go to Butch and Jim Swartley and John Alcott for helping Lin get in and out of some tricky entry points. And of course Bev (Lin’s bff!).  She is such a trouper, a great person and good friend.  We were helping Jody and Lin with gear up and down a thousand steps (and it really felt like a thousand when you do it four times for one dive!)  Jody even likes shore diving over boat diving now…well duhhhh, I would too if someone carried my stuff (LOL!  Love ya Jody!).

And one last thing.  Lin and I have gone to Jamaica for the last six years in a row to our favorite “spot”, and we even have a trip on the books for next year.  We had such a good time on this trip, we will probably be eating the $100 deposit when we cancel that trip to make room for an extra trip with IVS (in addition to Bonaire).

Bottom line – what a fantastic trip!   We’ll be back next summer!