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

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

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

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

The Lobster Queen Bill Z and trip leader Steve H

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy, Maribel, Reinel & Emanuel on the Amoray Diver

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

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

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

Ray, Frank & Bill – lobster clearning crew!

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

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

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

Esther & Paul Gehman on the Amoray Diver

Nick & Scott on the Amoray Diver

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

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

Hartman and Michelle at Conch House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end…..for now…we’ll be back!!

Manatee Madness – Crystal River, here we come!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Very Special Indian Valley Divers Club Meeting

A Record Turnout at the Indian Valley Divers August Club Meeting

A Record Turnout at the Indian Valley Divers August Club Meeting

Over 70 people turned out for a very special Indian Valley Divers Club Meeting under the Tiki torches on August 9th at Indian Valley SCUBA. The Club meeting included special Guest IVS founding member Sue Douglass who flew in from California to enjoy the company of the IVS family of divers.  IVS co-founder David Valaika announced that Indian Valley SCUBA was this week recognized by PADI of the Americas as one of the first PADI TecRec Diving Centers in the United States. The IVS PADI TecRec Center is offering numerous new courses of different levels just released by PADI for technical and rebreather training including training on the new Poseidon rebreather units.  Read PADI’s Announcement

Introduction of the new full time staff members Avery and Casey Chipka

As if that wasn’t enough great news already, Valaika also announced the formation of Indian Valley Travel, a full-service travel company, located in Harleysville, PA. Indian Valley Travel will serve the complete travel needs of the IVS local and extended community well beyond the extensive list of the dive trips offered by the IVS Travel program. IVS South’s own David Hartman, a certified and seasoned travel agent from Key Largo, will head up the new travel company and plans to split his time between Key Largo and Harleysville, staffing the new Indian Valley Travel desk located on the main campus of Indian Valley SCUBA. Beyond offering traditional travel options in adventure, cruise and dive travel, Indian Valley Travel will focus its core program offering on Sustainable and Accessible Travel. Indian Valley Travel will leverage existing and new partnerships to create value based programs that allow people to travel with a purpose and give back during the vacation. The Indian Valley Travel brand and unique travel programs will be rolled out over the next few months with a soft launch at the Global Abilities Conference in Philadelphia and an official launch at the diving trade show DEMA 2011 in Orlando, Florida where IVT will be exhibiting in the IAHD-Americans booth. While the official launch is being planned, David Hartman and Indian Valley Travel are available now for specific individual group travel requests.

David Hartman explains the creation of Indian Valley Travel..a full service travel company

David Hartman explains the creation of Indian Valley Travel..a full service travel company

Indian Valley SCUBA is working with Indian Valley to offer lengthy long term dive travel schedule from 2012-2014 to both familiar annual locations like Key Largo and North Carolina to first time exotic destinations like Egypt, South Africa, Rotan, Sea of Cortez, Belize, Vanuatu, Fiji and Raja Ampat to name a few. David Hartman and Sue Douglass briefly reviewed some of the highlights of the new comprehensive dive travel schedule and built up excitement among attendees regarding some favorite diving destinations. Handouts of the new Indian Valley SCUBA long term travel schedule were given to attendees and can be downloaded here.

Barbara Beck talks about her work in Key Largo with the Marine Mammal Conservancy to help rescued Pilot Whales

Barbara Beck talks about her volunteer work in Key Largo with the Marine Mammal Conservancy to help rescued Pilot Whales

Sue Douglas took over the speaker’s podium to review the details of Indian Valley SCUBA’s Nov 2012 return trip to the Republic of Palau in Micronesia. The upcoming Palau trip offers three different options for live-aboard and land based diving to fit all travel schedules and budgets. The live-aboard will be 7 nights on a brand new boat on the world famous Siren Fleet of sailing vessels and departs on November 30, 2012. IVS will be the second group to sail and dive Palau on the newest boat in the Siren Fleet-the SY Palau Siren. The second half of the Palau will be spent 7 nights at the Sea Passion resort with 5 days of two tank diving with Sam Tours who IVS used during our Nov 2010 to Palau. Travelers can join David Valaika and Sue Douglass for both weeks in Palau or just dive liveaboard or resort only. Palau Trip Flyer
Bev Loggins wrapped up the meeting with some local announcements on an upcoming Sky Diving trip plus the usual 50/50 and bonus gift raffles. Bill Zyskowski was the big winner of the “to serve prize” for the September Club Meeting

Bill Zyskowski wins the "To Serve" honor for the next Club meeting

Bill Zyskowski wins the “To Serve” honor for the next Club meeting

The Allure of Lobster Mini-Season

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

Every year the Florida commercial lobster season ends on March 15th and reopens in early August 1st for traps and harvesting.  This little break gives the lobster population a chance to spawn, tend to their eggs, and create the next generation of tasty crustaceans.  It also is a time for lobster movement, often from deeper waters, to the shallower reef systems inshore, where food is plentiful and the habitat offers a lot of great hiding places.  The last Wednesday and Thursday of July every year are reserved for recreational divers and boaters to get first dibs on all the spiny lobster that have been spawning all spring and summer before the commercial fisheries set their lobster traps.  This very special time of the year, as far as the lobster hunters are concerned, is called the ‘mini-season’!  For two days people from the around the country descend down to Key Largo to try their best efforts at catching Florida Spiny Lobster.  Although anyone with a Florida fishing license and crawfish stamp can hunt for lobster Aug 6-March 15th, most non-locals come down only for mini-season.  Late July in Florida is a recreational divers Mecca and a frenzy unmatched on the local waterways and reefs during the rest of the year.

Lobster Tails Abundant at the IVS Lobster Feast

Lobster Tails Abundant at the IVS Lobster Feast

For the past seven years, customers of Indian Valley SCUBA (IVS) have traveled from Harleysville, Pennsylvania to Key Largo to take part in Lobster Mini-Season.   The size and popularity of the IVS Lobster Mini-Season group has grown steadily over the years starting with just a few people in 2005 to a full boat of 24 divers the past few years.  IVS combines the two days of Lobster Mini-Season with the group’s usual weekend of Reefs and Wrecks dives with Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, and also adds a two-day Florida Keys Wreck Trek from Key West to Key Largo option at the beginning of the week to round out a complete week of summertime diving.  The 2011 Edition of the IVS Lobster week included 17 divers on the Wreck Trek, 24 divers for Lobster Mini-Season and over 30 divers for the Reef and Wrecks weekend. The diving conditions all week were a bit windy but manageable for the IVS team.  Catching lobster on the shallow reefs off Key Largo was a bit challenging on the bumpy conditions but smaller recreational vessels stayed inland to avoid the rougher seas of the outer reef which meant more lobster to catch for the courageous IVS crew.  By Thursday evening, Team IVS captured 172 legal sized lobsters in two days of Mini-Season shattering the group’s 2010 record of 107 lobsters and providing the bounty for fantastic annual feast at the Key Largo Conch House.

Forty-Five Attend the 2011 IVS Lobster Feast at the Conch House

Forty-Five Attend the 2011 IVS Lobster Feast at the Conch House

The Conch House, established in 2004 by Ted & Laura Dreaver, started as the Key Largo Coffee House, and quickly established itself as a great place for a good breakfast.  In no time at all, they expanded to lunch & dinner, and at the same time, changed the name to the Conch House to better reflect their all-day fare.  Today, with the addition of daughter Stephanie, and sons Justin & John, the family owned Conch House is one of the best restaurants in the Upper Keys due to the establishment’s unmatched combination of ambience, unique culinary delights and friendly service.  Most often, it’s one of the family members who takes care of you while dining at the Conch House.  For the annual IVS Mini Season Lobster Feast, the staff of the Conch House graciously takes in hundreds of lobster gathered by the IVS crew and cooks up tasteful dishes of lobster cerviche, lobster fritters and of course broiled lobster tail with drawn butter…Hmmmm!!  For the 2011 IVS Lobster Feast, the Conch House served up over 150 lobsters with no leftovers to spare.  Forty-five hungry people attended the lobster feast including the complete weekend contingent of IVS Reefs and Wreck divers, the owners and staff of Amoray Dive Resort and a few local friends who dive with the IVS crew.  Everyone at the annual lobster feast ate like kings and had a fantastic time.  The warmest appreciation and thanks go out to the owners of Amoray Dive Resort and the boat crew of the Amoray Diver for making another successful IVS Mini-Season possible.  Plus, a big thank you goes out to the professional staff of the Conch House for once again putting together a wonderful annual lobster feast.  See you all again next Lobster Mini-Season!

A Special Wreck Trek Starts Off Lobster Week

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

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

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

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

Warming up for the Keys Invasion – Dry Tortugas Tech Diving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Memorable Memorial Day Weekend in Key Largo

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

David Valaika Gives a DPV Presentation at FKCC in Key West

David Valaika gives a DPV Presentation at FKCC in Key West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The IVS Team Listens to Presentation at Pilot Whale Rescue Pen

The IVS Team Listens to Presentation at Pilot Whale Rescue Pen

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

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

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

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

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Navigates Hourglass Cave on French Reef

Michael Stellatto navigates Hourglass Cave on French Reef

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

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

Shannon Hovers over the Wreck of the City of Washington

Shannon Hovers over the Wreck of the City of Washington

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

Spotted Spiny Lobster on the Wreck of the Benwood

Spotted Spiny Lobster on the Wreck of the Benwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IVS Key Largo Weekend Summary

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

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

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

Night Dive: Wreck of the Benwood (starboard bow)

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

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

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