It’s Definitely Better in the Bahamas!

Team Indian Valley had the pleasure to visit the Bahamas for seventeen wonderful days in April, representing Indian Valley Travel as we visited several new exciting destinations for future visits, and finally enjoying a weeklong Indian Valley Scuba charter on the Aquacat liveaboard. During this arduous journey, our hard working “scouts” spent time visiting several other resorts and dive operators there to expand Indian Valley Travel’s firsthand knowledge of our expanded choices of offerings in the Bahamas. And amazingly, every choice was a great one, so we have to call this trip an absolute success! So with that said, please sit back and enjoy our tale of travel and adventure as we try to bring the best of the Bahamas to you!

Day 1 Thursday 4/10  Like any good international adventure, we start the journey with our standard ‘running just a little bit late’ approach to Philadelphia International Airport, our launch point for this trip. To be honest, Shirley and I had spent a busy night packing and actually headed down to the airport in what I felt was more than sufficient time. Unfortunately that estimation did not take into account some heavier-than-normal morning traffic, which required some last-minute adjustments, such as parking at the closer but somewhat more expensive Wally Park versus the tried and true, and economical Smart Park lot. Yet even with that costly adjustment, our shuttle driver felt as if his personal mission this morning was to pick up everyone in the lot, and after three or five times of me saying “Hey, please, our flight is already boarding; can we just head to the airport and let another driver pick up a few customers?” he finally picked up on our sense of urgency, and we left the lot for the short jaunt to the airport.

Finally...we've arrived!

Finally…we’ve arrived!

We pull up in front of the Delta terminal and as I hurriedly tipped our driver and grabbed our bags, I encouraged Shirley to hustle over to the Delta counter to get the check-in process started. There were a few folks already in the premium line, and we all know how shy Shirley is, so I had to work all my puppy dog smiles and eyelash batting to get them to all let us cut in front of the line.   Well Ms. Lucinda, the Delta ticket agent, had picked up on my slick moves, and I guess when she woke up this morning, some little voice inside her head told her that her role today was to be the ‘Queen of the Airport’, so as I approached her, smiling and being sweet, she quickly put me in place, demanding to know what flight I was on and how did I manage to get in front of all those folks who were patiently waiting to pay her homage. So I told her that everyone (except her) understood my urgency, as our flight to Atlanta, and connection to Nassau, is scheduled to be “wheels up” in just 25 minutes from now. “Well”, she told me with an air of self-appointed authority, “you are late for your check in and we can’t take your bags”. “Stop, breathe, relax, restrain, repeat…..” is what MY inner voice was saying, as I brought every bit of self-control that I had in me to be able to respond sweetly to this little bundle of negativity that was threatening to urinate on my morning’s parade. I am sensing that perhaps she just felt an inner need to read someone the official Delta Riot Act that morning, slowly and with exaggerated punctuation, and somehow I have been selected to be the one to help her get past that! I really wondered where I sinned recently for this to be happening to me right now, but there was no way around Ms. Lucinda on my path the Bahamas, sooooo, I smiled, acknowledged everything she said, complimented her on educating me on how to be a better flyer, fully admitted to being late, and kinda felt like I was back where we started, but down to 22 minutes until takeoff now.   So, throwing caution to the wind, I cautiously brought up that I “knew” that the best Delta agents, of which I assured her that she must be one, could make this happen for their most loyal customers (like me). Well it seems that our little airline professional just needed a little complimentary hug this morning, and I was ready to deliver, and before you know it, she managed to get it done.  Bags checked, boarding passes issued, and we’re off to security, but not before I asked her to call the gate and tell them we’re on our way. Why we need to play these games I will never know, but I was thankful that I was able to satisfy her today! Of course, the security line is backed up, but we weasel our way to the front [more puppy dog eyes here and plenty of ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’], and finally, we end up stepping aboard the plane at 8:53 for a 9:00 flight, encouraged by the gate agents shouting our names over the loudspeaker all the way down the terminal…nothing like a little adrenalin rush to start off the adventure! The important thing is we’re finally on our way!

South Bimini

South Bimini

Once we land in Nassau, we quickly cleared Bahamian Customs, retrieved our bags, and navigated our way over to domestic departures to find the friendly folks at Western Air waiting for us to board our flight (what a surprise!) to South Bimini Island. Thirty minutes later, we land, grab a taxi, and $10 later we were standing in front of Neal Watson’s Bimini Sands Resort!

DSCF3726

Neal Watson’s Bimini Sands Resort

We were here as guests of the Watson family, and honored that they had reached out to us, eager to show their brand to Indian Valley Travel. Neal’s daughter Beth runs the operation from her office in Fort Lauderdale, while her bother Neal Jr. runs the dive operation on site. This very nice condo marina consists of 260 units, with a mix of configurations ranging from one to four bedrooms, either located right on marina with a slip in front of the unit, or directly on the beautiful white sand beach. They broke ground on the project in 1995, with a few slowdowns based on the economy, coupled with an “island time” construction schedule, but we got to see the last few units nearing completion. The docks and marina are first class and you got a sense of that from some of the upscale yachts that were visiting while we were there.  With two nice pools, including an infinity pool on the ocean front, a half mile of beautiful white sand beach, the dive center and a water sports activity center right on site, and a great little restaurant open for breakfast and lunch, you don’t need to leave the property for much of anything.

Bimini Sands Resort & Marina

Bimini Sands Resort & Marina

Our unit was a one bedroom, with a nice kitchen, living room, and patio right on the water. Like the entire island of South Bimini, it was quiet, relaxing and very nicely done. The dive operation was very laid back and relaxed, with Neal Jr. captaining a 40 ft. Carlton boat, roomy, wide, stable and very comfortable for diving. His crew was personable and helpful, as he put a DM in the water on every dive to lead or observe.

Stay off the sidewalks, Valaika's at the wheeel and we're driving on the wrong side of the road!

Stay off the sidewalks, Valaika’s at the wheeel and we’re driving on the wrong side of the road!

Day 2 Friday 4/11  We awoke to a pretty good wind blowing this morning so we decided to check out the island today. We rented a golf cart and toured the entire island; all 5 miles long and one mile wide. Saw our first example of wildlife, a cat that surely had no luck at all, as it had been run over on the road, and with only about a dozen cars and 50 golf carts comprising all the traffic on the island, you know this cat had to have used up all nine of his lives. All this touring was working up our thirsts, so we stopped at one of the three watering holes on the island, a little combination gift shop / luncheonette / bar located next the airport. There we met the proprietress, Ms. Deandra, a “seaweed” from the island of Abacos. She had come over as a housekeeper at small motel, and saw the opportunity in this closed business. With $25 to invest in inventory, she opened up serving breakfast one morning, and before lunch, she had enough income to buy fixings to make lunch sandwiches and stayed open. She opened for diner the very next day, and is doing great in her new enterprise. She was a hoot to talk to, very articulate and astute, and we spent the better part of the afternoon listening to her share some local Bahamas knowledge and life experiences. The term “seaweed” is a derogatory slang word for Bahamians who come from other islands within the Bahamas to work. Truth be told, there’s about 1,000 residents on South Bimini who obviously aren’t inspired enough to work so there’s room for others to come in and fill the job openings, earning the moniker ‘seaweed’. During our chat she gave us a tour of the place, showed us some of the artwork for sale in the gift shop, and her little kitchen where she prepared our lunch. She told us of a local woman who had come to the airport to take a flight with her two pet cats, and somehow one of the carriers had opened up and the cat bolted from the taxi right there at the airport. She came by every day, calling for her cat, and crying, leaving food bowls out and hoping her kitty comes home. Deandra showed us the “Missing Cat” poster she had put up, and as soon as we saw it, we knew we recognized that cat…but not in a way that we wanted to share. Oh well, some stories are best left untold – we didn’t have the heart to tell her that I think we found the missing cat.   Oh well, we finished up our beers, and got a few to go in our golf cart – I love this place…it’s 100% legal in the Bahamas to drink while driving! There are only two restaurants on the island, so tonight we headed up the beach road to the Conch Club, owned by Bimini Sands. It’s actually three establishments in one, the restaurant, a beach bar, and a sports bar, located right on the waterfront with a marina on one side and a beach of the other, complete with dive shop, tiki bar, kayak rentals and beach volleyball. All your bases covered in location! Dinner was great, and for seeing no one all day long, the place was jamming. Turns out a lot of folks take the water taxi over from North Bimini Island to enjoy the facilities here.

Day 3 Sat 4/12 DSCF3891Winds had died down during the night, so we headed out with Neal Jr. to dive this morning and enjoyed two tanks on the reef. Colorful, good fish life, healthy corals and sponges, and lots of variety. First dive was a leisurely drift dive, and the second was moored. Had a special moment on the second dive as I was off dinking around in the sand, just running my fingers along under the surface, seeing what might pop up. Well gosh, what a surprise, when a beautiful stargazer shook the sand off and lifted up gracefully, before settling back down to observe what my intentions were. We watched each other for a bit, my very first encounter with this species of unique bottom dweller. Very cool and made for a very memorable dive!

Percy Cavill's Conch House, or what is left of it

Percy Cavill’s Conch House, or what is left of it

Back to the condo, I rinsed the gear off and laid it out to dry. Shirley & I headed out for dinner to a local eatery, the Thirsty Turtle, which as I pulled in, for some reason, the place looked familiar. Well truth be told it was Neal Watson’s original property here, with dive shop, motel, and restaurant – I’ve looked at this place in brochures and on line for years and pretty funny to be standing there now, knowing that I’m staying at the new and improved version. Anyways, there were no cars in the lot, but I tried the door and it was open. The bar was empty, but the lights were on, and the liquor all out, so kinda odd that no one was there. I opened the door to the kitchen, saw that the food was all still out, so I shouted, and got no answer. Too weird to hang around any longer, so we left and did some more touring, taking in the Fountain of Youth park and nature trail, and the Bimini Sands Nature Trail, which was a really well done pathway through the bush with lots of informative signage and quite a bit to see, including the ruins of a beachfront mansion, built from conch shells, which was constructed by an alcoholic former Australian Olympic Gold Medal winning swimmer who had come to America to work and ended working on the island, teaching swimming at a local hotel, which was subsequently destroyed by a hurricane. How’s that for a bit of local colorful history?  With the two local ‘must-see’s’ off the list, we motored back over to the Thirsty Turtle and found the place hopping. We must have just hit it during siesta time earlier, so chalk that up to a local interesting experience. The food was great, the ambience pretty special, and we’ve got another eatery to recommend on South Bimini Island! Overall, we give the Bimini Sands Resort and Neal Watsons Underwater Bahamas two big thumbs up!

Day 4 Sunday 4/13 Checkout day today from Bimini Sands, so we returned our golf cart, and caught the taxi to the water taxi landing, for the five minute ferry ride across the channel that separates the two major Bimini islands. The third island, West Bimini, is an uninhabited strip of rock and sand about a half mile away.

Bimini Big Game Club

Bimini Big Game Club

The ferry driver was kind enough to take us right to our destination, the Bimini Big Game Club, where we met our host and the resort manager, Michael Weber, and he showed us around the property and gave us the story behind one of the most famous fishing clubs in the Caribbean. A favorite haunt of an all-star cast of famous fishermen, including Ernest Hemingway, Zane Gray, and Michael Lerner, the island of North Bimini is one of the top destinations worldwide for bonefish, marlin, dolphin, wahoo and a number of other sports fish. There are two basic accommodations here, a standard motel-type room, and one-bedroom cottages that have an interconnecting door, ideal for families. With slips for yachts in excess of 100 ft. in length, there are plenty of chances to rub elbows with the rich and famous in a casual and fun setting. In fact we ran into John Havlacek, former Boston Celtic and teammate of Larry Bird, and it turns out that he, along with quite a few of his NBA friends, frequent the island in pursuit of catching bonefish on light tackle in the flats. Our room is in the main building here, with a nice view of the courtyard and pool. It’s an older property, but more than sufficient for divers, fishermen, or anyone who is looking to enjoy the quieter end of North Bimini Island. Also on site is a an excellent restaurant overlooking the marina, Hemingway’s Rum & Cigar Bar and Lounge, a recreation area with pool tables and games, a small retail store for your incidentals, the marina, and of course, the BBGC dive center.

BBGC's Boston Whaler, perfect for small groups

BBGC’s Boston Whaler, perfect for small groups

The dive center is managed by DeVito, a local professional with many years in the industry. In fact, some years back, he used to run Neal Watson’s operation on the South island, so he’s got plenty of local knowledge of the area, the people and the marine environment. A true professional, he runs the dive center in a relaxed and no-stress sort of way, perfect to compliment your Bahamas vacation experience. They operate two boats, a large multi-use boat that offers glass bottom tours, snorkeling, and diving for larger groups, and a smaller Boston Whaler, perfect for small groups of 4 or 5 divers. In addition, they offer a very unique activity right in the marina – cage diving for bull sharks! They have a permanent cage attached to one of the docks, and a hookah setup, so divers and non-divers alike can enjoy very up close and personal observations of a number of larger bulls that have grown accustomed over the years to the offerings that come from the many fish that are cleaned in the marina. This is a great opportunity to let everyone in your party get a taste of scuba diving without any stress or training.

Day 5 Monday 4/14  Another unseasonably windy morning greeted us, and just as well, as Indian Valley Scuba has been selected by the producers of ION Television for a documentary on companies that dare to be a little different than the pack, and IVS’s business mantra, “the deliberately different dive center” is a perfect match for this series on ION. With IVS’s Special Events Coordinator Jay Burkos coordinating the teleconference from home, I’m able to attend a two-hour planning session discussion with members of the TV production company, ION’s management, and our team in Harleysville, we’re able to cover a lot of ground and hopefully we’ll see this project coming to fruition in the near future! With the wind not dying down, we decide to rent another golf cart and tour the island. The southern end, where we’re staying, is the heart of the residential area, with most of the 3,000 island residents, and a slew of local eateries, located right here. As you move north, you enter the Resorts World Casino property, a massive planned community, with gated residential areas, a gaming casino, a couple of high end restaurants, and some nice high-end shops. They run a fleet of high-speed ferries to shuttle cruise ship passengers to the casino, and also run some larger ones back and forth to Florida, which sits only 48 miles away from North Bimini. So for about three quarts of petrol, we’re able to cover every single paved and unpaved road on North Bimini. For dinner we stop along our tour at the Anchorage, a resort built in the 30’s by Michael Lerner, founder of Lerner Stores across the U.S. There’s quite a bit of history here, and it turns out it was a favorite haunt of Earnest Hemingway who loved fishing for marlin and swordfish here.

Day 6 Tuesday 4/15  Morning dawned and not a palm tree was swaying – a perfectly calm day to head out in the Whaler to visit the fishes. DeVito had a young couple from Switzerland there for a Discover Scuba experience, and one other diver who was with a yoga retreat group at the resort. Our first site was a pretty reef area, and our second site was for a shark ‘baiting’, not exactly a feed, but rather a suspended chum bucket to entice the sharks. There’s plenty of reef sharks with some nice eight footers mixed in, so it made for a nice experience for the Swiss couple for sure. And back at the dock it seems the bull sharks have taken the past few weeks off for a vacation of sorts, eliminating that optional bull shark cage diving experience from our list of activity choices. Oh well….as the Arnold would say……..”we’ll be back!” Speaking of ‘back’, we gussied ourselves up and headed back out in our cart to enjoy dinner at a local pizza pub, capping off another great day in the Bahamas. Overall, I give the Bimini Big Game Club, and island of North Bimini, an enthusiastic two thumbs up, and would recommend it for divers, fishermen, and families alike.

Day 7 Wednesday 4/16 Another morning in paradise, and time to check out and head over to the next phase of this research effort, which will take place on new Providence Island. So we pack everything up, check out of the resort, jump on the water taxi over to South Bimini Island, and jump into a cab there for the short ride to Bimini International Airport. A few minutes into our ride, the cabbie pulls over, and asks if we would like anything to drink from the liquor store, cause he’s getting a beer! Remember, it’s completely legal here to drink while driving, so hey, when in Rome…..

Air ambulance back to the mainland for treatment - $$$

Air ambulance back to the mainland for treatment – $$$

Never in the history of aviation was a sturdier plane built than the DC3 and the number of them flying since the 1930's is proof of that!

Never in the history of aviation was a sturdier plane built than the DC3 and the number of them flying since the 1930’s is proof of that!

We arrive at the airport, and as we begin to check in an ambulance pulls up, with a woman in a wheelchair and her family in tow. Turns out she had gotten ill during their vacation here, and with no real medical resources the best approach was to arrange and air ambulance back to Florida. We wished her the best, and I sense things all turned out well, but I wanted to share this experience to illustrate the value of travel insurance, and specifically travel emergency insurance such as that offered by Indian Valley Travel and Divers Alert Network to cover unplanned expenses such as that chartered air ambulance ride back to a place where you can get the proper medical treatment that you deserve, without digging a huge hole in your pocket along the way. Things to add to your travel-planning list!

Finally, with the air ambulance off, and a DC3 dating from a half a century ago but still active as a freight carrier coming in to land, and we’re ready to board our twelve seater for our trip back to Nassau. We arrive without any surprises, grab a cab, and pull into Orange Hill Guest House, our accommodations for the next three nights.   Orange Hill is pretty neat place, built just 33 years ago, and the front counter is staffed by the very first guest to ever stay there…..pretty neat, eh? We’ve got a standard room looking out over the pool, and enjoy dinner right there at the resort that evening before calling it a night.

Stuart Cove's

Stuart Cove’s

One hoppin' dive operation, and the movie set from 'Flipper' to boot!

One hoppin’ dive operation, and the movie set from ‘Flipper’ to boot!

Day 8 Thursday 4/17 Another morning and another dive boat calling my name, this time it’s Stuart Cove’s Diving that will be our host for the next few days. A short ride later, we arrive at the dive center, and wow, what a picture of organization they have going there! As we pull in and get organized, I am suffering from a deja vu sort of moment there looking at the property. Well, my mind is not playing games with me; the truth is that the entire property was built as a Hollywood set for the Flipper TV show from the 60’s! As a kid I remember watching that show weekly, and here I stand playing back bits of scenes in my mind as I look at the various boathouses, store fronts and docks that played such a big part in the show. We’ve got a morning 2-tank dive arranged for today, so we quickly are processed through the uber-efficient registration station, staffed by a super friendly and very upbeat crew of pink-shirt wearing smiling members of the Stuart Cove team. I get assigned to a boat with some other more experienced divers, and I head on down with my gear to begin setting up. I notice one fellow on board that seems to be, shall we say, more than amply equipped for the dives I am expecting we’ll be doing this morning. He’s got a stage bottle, several reels, canister lighting, a couple of lift bags….you get the picture. Well as we head out on our ten minute ride to the site, the lead divemaster asks if I have a buddy, and I say no, so he asks if I’ll buddy up with the fellow I was just describing. Well of course I will, so it gives me a chance to chat with him and find out what’s up with his kit. Yes, you know it….another small, small world moment……it turns out my new buddy is Matt David, and he’s a student of my good friend and fellow technical instructor Bernie Chowdbury in New York. He’s enrolled in some TDI training with Bernie and had come here, rather than Dutch Springs, to get a few warm-up / practice dives in before his classes start at Dutch Springs with Bernie.   Hence the extensive kit; all part of his standardized tec rig that he’ll be using in his classes and he wanted to get some time in practicing his self drills and making adjustments before he finds himself standing in front of the master! We enjoy a couple of great dives, and I share some coaching moments with him that helps him achieve better poise in the water, as we enjoy a double wreck dive on our second location with some nice penetration. Very cool, and Bernie and I chat later that evening; turns out Matt has already checked in with his teacher so we all get a good chuckle about this fate meeting so far from home. That afternoon, Shirley and I grab a cab and do a little shopping on the island, picking up some supplies for the Aquacat trip and doing a little sightseeing around the island, before stopping for dinner at the Poop Deck, right on the water in Sandy Beach. Great dinner, great evening, and we call it an early night.

Ready to roll...and play with the sharks at Stuart Cove's

Ready to roll…and play with the sharks at Stuart Cove’s

Day 9 Friday 4/18 Double dipping with Stuart Cove’s today, starting with a morning 2-tank trip to a wall and reef location. Back at the dock, we enjoy some really fine luncheon fare prepared by the staff at the dockside grille, all part of the Stuart Cove’s experience. The dive center is really well thought out and organized, and the amenities abound with an abundance of activities to choose from on the dock. As mentioned earlier, the staff gushes with positive attitude and helpfulness – the management at Stuart Cove’s deserve high marks for building such a model dive center, and I am honored and thankful that we were invited to experience everything they do so well here, and bring that message home to share with clients looking for great experiences in the Bahamas. Dinner this evening was a short walk from Orange Hill, at Café West, a local pizza pub about a mile up the road. Great food, reasonable prices, and a friendly staff, and we leave smiling at yet another superb Bahamas evening.

The Aquacat awaits!

The Aquacat awaits!

Day 10 Saturday 4/19 Well today’s a special day, as the rest of our group are flying in to join us for our weeklong charter on the Aqua Cat liveaboard. Shirley and I enjoy a relaxing morning catching up on emails (my last chance for a week) before checking out of Orange Hill and taking a taxi over to Paradise Island and the marina. Just as I’m getting ready to shut the laptop down, Mike Parzynski updates his status on Facebook….”So I’m sitting at the Green Parrot bar getting ready to board the Aqua Cat, and I strike up a conversation with a group of Canadians there. They ask what I’m doing, and I tell them I’m with the Indian Valley Scuba group, and one of group says “With Dave Valaika?” Just amazing who knows this guy!” Turns out the fellow who mentioned my name is Frank Owens, an old friend of mine and our former sales rep for Atomic and a few other lines. He heard IVS had chartered half the boat and figured we’d be a fun group to dive with, so when he saw one of his clients, Water Sports Scuba in Toronto, Canada had chartered the other half of the boat, he knew he had to jump on! Small, small world!

Doing my part to help keep the Bahama's moving!

Doing my part to help keep the Bahama’s moving!

It was pouring rain as Shirley and I taxied over, and as we pulled into the parking lot, I watched a van back down the hill and run it’s ass end right up and over a concrete abutment. Rear wheels completely off the ground and spinning, the driver was clearly out of her element with the situation. I gave her a few minutes of senseless revving of the engine, then walked over laughing and offered to give her a hand. Turns out our cab driver had a nylon sling, and another fellow had stopped in a 4-wheel drive pickup, so we had all the necessary ingredients to make this happen. Ten minutes later, I ended up mud-covered and getting a big hug from a very grateful driver whose day had just turned around in a great way. All good, and what a great way to start our charter!

Provisions for the week - check!

Provisions for the week – check!

Mike Parz, soon to be known as "Mr. 400"!

Mike Parz, soon to be known as “Mr. 400”!

On board, we met the rest of the folks, including Mike Parzynski, John Glodowski, Frank “Lucky” Macy, Heather, Spencer, Bryce and Brittany Ingram from Rhode Island, Bryan from Florida, and Reinhard & Beata joining us from Vienna, Austria. The Water Sports group included the shop owner, Paul Pelletier, my good friend and former sales rep Frank Owens, Luke McKenzie, Adam Shinehoft, Renee Gaudet, Michael Vandertal, Bill, Paul Tozer, Tak, Sue Miller, Malcolm Mackinnon, all from the Toronto area. It’s only been a few minutes together but I already sense that we have the perfect ingredients for another awesome liveaboard adventure.

The Aquacat crew, first class all the way!

The Aquacat crew, first class all the way!

The crew, led by Capt. Ron and First Mate / Capt. Tom, give us the customary meet & greet introduction experience, covering all the key safety and diving procedures for our journey, and an overview of the planned itinerary for the week ahead. We have four instructors working as our DM’s for the week, Adam, Mick, Julien & Adan, along with Engineers Randy and Jean to keep the equipment humming, and Sous Chef Martine assisting in the galley. ‘House Mouse’ Callula will make sure our housekeeping is in order, and finally, perhaps the most important member of the crew is introduced, Chef Kirk.  The weather report is posted, and we are predicted to have to endure eight straight days of endless sunshine, flat seas, minimal wind, and amazing visibility. This is going to be a tough one for sure, but we’re up for the challenge that lies ahead!

 

Our gang of adventurers for the week!

Our gang of adventurers for the week!

Day 11 Sunday 4/20 On most liveaboards, the first dive is usually a very controlled experience, so all the once-a-year vacation divers can get a chance to shake the bugs out, get their weighting sorted out, equipment tested, etc. Well here on the Aquacat, they make an assumption that the detailed information we provided in their pre-trip questionnaire was accurate, and that being said, that we are divers who don’t need a lot of handholding. Everyone dives their own profiles, with buddies of their own choosing and without any leading by the crew unless you specifically asked for it. With that in mind, our first dive site is an absolutely beautiful wall, Dog Rocks, with a sheer drop-off of a few thousand feet or so. Everyone nails it, and the week is off to a great start! We end up with four more dives today, including a night dive on the Austin Smith wreck, and the day was interspersed with three great meals and some snacks too. This is truly a first class operation, and we know we have done well with our third, and hardly last, charter of this great boat and crew.

Shark Feed on the Austin Smith wreck

Shark Feed on the Austin Smith wreck

Day 12 Monday 4/21 We start the morning with a shark dive on the wreck we dove as our fifth dive last evening, and that gets the adrenalin pumping a little bit. Plenty to see around the site also, so when you got tired of watching the sharks and groupers hammering the chumsicle, you could just drift off and do your own thing. Another four dives followed, ending with another nice night dive after dinner. During the day, I couldn’t help but watch some of the other dives, and one this I generally notice is trim and attitude in the water. Our Rhode Island family, the Ingram’s, seemed to have an awful lot of lead hanging on their waists, and sure enough, watching them in the water confirmed that there was probably room for some improvement in that area. So, cautiously, I approached them, always careful to avoid being accused of criticizing someone’s diving style, but to their credit, they were very open to talking about ways to improve their diving. So we spent a half hour sharing all things Archimedes, and talked about the risks of overweighting, the obvious symptoms that they should be able to see on themselves and each other, effective bubble management at depth, and how they could all contribute to each others quest for proper weighting. So, with a wee bit of skepticism, they agreed to give it a try, and see if they could part with a bit of lead and still be able to enjoy the great diving this week offered.

Day 13 Tuesday 4/22 Decisions, decisions….upon waking today, we found ourselves forced to make a big one – either start the day off with a dive, or head over to Whelker Cay to visit the Exuma Keys National Park ranger station. Believe it or not, I opted for the park to maintain a sense of topside balance on this trip, and along with about half the group, we piled into the Sea Dog and motored over to the island. On our way in we passed quite a few beautiful yachts of the rich and famous, all moored along the channel while the passengers were enjoying the beautiful waters and white sand beaches of the Bahamas. As we began our hike into the bush, what do I hear but a “Hey, Dave Valaika” coming from a group heading the other way on the trail. Well chalk another one up to the ‘it’s a small world’ department, I look up to see my friend, and PADI inside sales contact, Adam Wucherpfennig, who’s here with a group on the Aquacat’s little sister-ship, the Cat Ppalau. What a hoot, we laugh and share a manly hug, to the amazement of the folks around us…asking what are the odds of running into each other so far away from home? Well with that behind us, we continue on to tour a small portion of the park, visit the famous blowholes, hike to the top of Boo Boo Hill for a photo op, stop to feed some lizards on the beach, and finally swim on the beach before heading back to the mother ship.

Aquacat, the Sea Dog, and our motley crew for the week!

Aquacat, the Sea Dog, and our motley crew for the week!

Back on board, we caught up with the gang from the morning dive, and soon enough, it was time for Dive #2, on Danger Reef. Nice site, lots of large critters here, groupers, sharks, horse-eye jacks, and more. Pleasant dive with Mike P leading the way and snapping photos. The afternoon’s first dive site was Jeep Reef, another collection of coral heads with quite a collection of life large and small. The central point was a coral-covered motorized dump cart that had fallen off a barge years ago, but unless you looked close, you’d think it was at this point just another coral pillar. Pretty awesome to see how some life is just looking for a bit of structure to grab onto and call home. Our late afternoon dive was at Danger Reef, a site similar to Jeep Reef, with the same great viz and 79 degree water that entices you to enjoy each and every dive offered on this charter. Following dinner, Capt. Tom fired up the Sea Dog for a Sunset Booze Cruise, heading over to a local white sandy beach to play in the tidal zone and wrap up the evening for those who chose to not dip back in for the night dive on Jeep Reef. For those of us who did choose to dive, we were not disappointed, with turtles, sharks, lobsters (I had to catch one, just because I can…but safely returned him to his reef after a few picture and videos were shot)

Mike Parz and the famous swimming pigs!

Mike Parz and the famous swimming pigs!

Day 14 Wednesday 4/23 Aqua Cat’s itinerary for this morning was a little different, with no early a.m. dive, rather, a shore excursion to visit the legendary swimming pigs on Big Major Key, and snorkel famous Thunderball Grotto from the James Bond movie of the same name. That was followed by a nice, shallow drift dive along Conch Cut, before we fired up the engines and motored a short distance to our afternoon dive site, Shroud Wall. A really picturesque deep drop-off with the mooring set right on the edge of the wall at 60 ft., and the bottomless abyss just a few short fin kicks away. Personally, I could do dives like this all day long, with sweeping panoramic views of the sheer face dropping down further than the eyes can follow. During that dive I got to watch Capt. Ron in action, as he lowered a hydraulic drill with a long coring bit on it to the bottom, and drilled a pair of nice new mooring anchor holes in the top of the reef substrate. He’s a pretty crafty guy, and I admired the jig he had made up which allowed him to drill the second hole an accurate distance offset from the first, so he could pre-fab his u-shaped stainless steel mooring anchors and have them ready to go, just set them and cement in place on the reef for a new, sturdy boat connection. Well done! While we were making that dive, the Sea Dog ran another shore excursion over to North Exuma Land & Sea Park, complete with a hike, beach play, and sun! Our late afternoon dive was a shallow area known as Hammerhead Gulch, a collection of scattered coral heads surrounded by acres of eel grass – lots of small critters and color to feast the eyes on. Shirley joined us on this one and we got a little more pre-certification bottom time in for her. Back on board, Chef Kirk treated us to another culinary delight for dinner, and we wrapped the evening up with another night dive, right here on Hammerhead Gulch.

Brittany & Heather, celebrating a total of 22 pounds of weight loss this week!  Great job ladies!

Brittany & Heather, celebrating a total of 22 pounds of weight loss this week! Great job ladies!

After dinner, Brittany Ingram asks me how much weight do I think she’s lost this week? I laugh, and tell her this is a loaded question to ask a man to answer, so she goes ahead and tells me…..14 pounds! That’s 14 pounds less lead that she’s carrying on every single dive here, and looking so much better in the water, with improved trim, greater control and comfort, and reduced risk of injury in the event of an accidental loss of her ballast. Mom chimes in and says she’s down 8 pounds, and dad has dropped ten so far, and looking to raise that number before the end of he week. Even their son has dropped lead, and they are all gushing about how much better they feel, how much less air in their BCD’s to manage, and how they all can see how each of them has better attitude in the water. Truly amazing, and so wonderfully rewarding, to be able to share some simple observations with our divers and to see how they take it to heart, and make their own self-adjustments that they had never given any thought too before, even with nearly 100 logged dives each. Sadly, they’ve also completed a number of continuing education courses, and in none of these did their instructors take the time to help the divers grow and become more complete by sharing their observations and knowledge of simple physics…or wait, perhaps it’s the lack of knowledge that so many instructors suffer from, and the tunnel-vision of only thinking about the course they are teaching, and not of providing a greater benefit to the overall diver with every student they interact with. Sad, but a very true and common affliction the industry suffers from.

Day 15 Thursday 4/24 Great dive at Blacktip Wall to start the day, perhaps the nicest wall yet, with lots of deep cuts and swim-thru’s exiting on the face of the wall around 100 ft. deep. Viz was excellent, the corals healthy and colorful.. just missing one thing – some big pelagics! It’s funny how with such great conditions here that we see o few large open water fish on the deeper sites, and it’s not that they are fished out since most of these sites are within the marine reserve … but as Bruce Hornsby sang to us….”That’s just the way it is.”

"Mr. 400!"

“Mr. 400!”

Post-dive, several of us headed out for a short jaunt on the Sea Dog to try our hand at catching dinner for tonight. We hooked one really nice dolphin, 48 inches or so in length, but it threw the hook after a series of spectacular jumps, and we lost it. Our second dive was back on Blacktip Wall, and it was as spectacular as the first dive. Perfect way to work up an appetite for another great lunch prepared by Chef Kirk and company.

J Glo in sidemount rig, test diving his scooter

J Glo in sidemount rig, test diving his scooter

Our next dive is at a site called “Washing Machine” and for good reason – the incoming tidal current, which we are about to experience, causes such a rush of water through this quite narrow pass, which is comprised of a series of 40 ft. deep washouts, holes basically, on the bottom, one arranged right after the next. So as we drift in, the current catches us, throws us to the bottom of the hole, then pops us up almost to the surface, spinning us wildly, and then repeats the ride for the next hole. Pretty darn cool, although probably not a profile highly recommended by the folks at DAN, but a lot of fun none the less! We followed that with a leisurely drift dive for the next 40 minutes or so, until the mother ship magically appears to pick us up. Last late-afternoon dive of the week is at Lobster-No-Lobster Reef, and it’s a perfect lazy dive to cap the day. Shallow, clear, and colorful – sweet!

My personal favorite for the photo contest, but alas, was not the winning entry!

My personal favorite for the photo contest, but alas, was not the winning entry!

 

Tonight we capped off another great dinner with the week’s photo contest and the showing of the video that was produced by the boat crew this week. Really nicely done, everyone had at the very minimum their 15 seconds of fame and glory, and the whole presentation was quite entertaining to say the very least. There were a number of awards handed out, some recognition of certifications completed this week, and our own Mike Parz was awarded a pretty schnazzy certificate for logging his 400th dive on this trip – well done Mike! Needless to say, there’s a copy of the video going home to be shared at the next Indian Valley Divers Club meeting in two weeks!

 

Day 16 Friday 4/25 Another morning in paradise, and sadly, the trip is drawing to a close with only one more day on board before heading back to reality….wait a minute, this IS my reality! Oh well, at least it sounds sadder when I say it that way.  Hopefully you’re feeling my pain!

The viz was forever, sitting on the edge of the blue hole and getting ready to drop...deep!

The viz was forever, sitting on the edge of the blue hole and getting ready to drop…deep!

My Project Aware photo of the week, showing my personal haul of non-treasures from the bottom of the sea

My Project Aware photo of the week, showing my personal haul of non-treasures from the bottom of the sea

We get our final two dives in this morning, the first at one of the Bahamas famous blue holes, deep pits that just drop out of the bottom of the sea. The one we visited today measured about 100 ft. in diameter, and started at approx. 60 ft. deep. I can personally verify that the bottom of the hole was just over 200 ft. below the surface, and am thankful for that little dose of sweet narcosis to cap a spectacular week of diving.   Our second and final location was Periwinkle Reef, a shallow little site just full of life on a small scale, and Mike Parz and I spent the last 60 minutes of this week’s bottom time just enjoying the in’s and out’s of this little piece of paradise under the sea. From there, it was time to break the gear down and lay it out to dry as we enjoyed our last fine lunch on the ride back to port. Finally we had the Internet again, so everyone got a little busy checking in for their flights and touching base on their emails.

For dinner, the Ingram’s and Mike P joined Shirley and I at the Poop Deck restaurant on the harbor for one last great session of laughter and making plans for some new adventures in the future. This is perhaps the best part of trips like this, where a boatload of folks from around the world, who are, for the most part, total strangers just seven days ago, and here we are now swapping recipes and emails, and talking about the next times we’ll be seeing each other. That’s something that’s really hard to script, but it’s most certainly part of the magic that goes along with great group travel like we experience time and time again on our adventures around the globe.

Day 17 Saturday 4/26 Finally, as with all good things, we’ve come to our end. Our week included approx.. 250 miles of sailing up and down the length of the Exuma Islands, from Nassau over to Ship Channel Cay and down to Staniel Cay and back, twenty-five great dives, a bunch of new friendships formed, thousands of photos both under and above the sea, and a lifetime of great memories. We give our final high fives and hugs as the shuttle busses come and take us over to the airport to catch our flights home. One last goodbye to our home for the past week, and to the crew that made it such a memorable experience. Thank YOU everyone for another great trip, and we look forward to our next charter!

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On to the Maldives!

Years ago I pondered whether a career in the scuba industry was right for me or not.  So much travel, so much hard work sweating under the hot sun, so much sand between my toes……OK, OK…I’ll take the job!

Here we are today and I can’t be any happier with my decision.  As part of my “job” (or living vacation, as some view it) I have the responsibility of going and checking our places we may want to run group trips to.  This week, my assignment is the liveaboard charter Ark Royal, and our destination is the Maldives.

This trip is starting less than 24 hours after the Beneath the Sea show ended, so as you might imagine, I am a bit disorganized this morning.  But I’ll manage, and have a high degree of confidence that I’ll make my flight this afternoon. Of course I have nothing packed, and my scuba gear actually just arrived on Friday after Air France lost it and then sent it to Genoa, Italy.  But like Peaches and Herb said, “we’re reunited and it feels so good!’  So I get some clothes together, and review the gear list, take out the cold-water stuff and re-pack for the 85 degrees that awaits me, and toss it all in the van.  Whew…glad I travel light!

In addition to my primary assignment of researching Maldives as a destination, and the Ark Royal as a viable liveaboard for a future Indian Valley Scuba trip, I’ll also be conducting a bit of a medical experiment on this trip, especially in light of the extended travel and flight times, and the stress on one’s system that can cause.  I’ll be traveling with a supply of Divers D\Lyte, the performance drink developed by John Dooley specifically to provide a combination of energy and hydration for divers and any other athlete for that matter.  Loaded with vitamins and electrolytes, this sugar-free, caffeine-free drink should help me  “Get my gills on!”   I look forward to reporting more on this later.

Recognizing that the adventure the next two weeks hold is far more than a mere mortal like myself can handle alone, and still smarting from losing Dave Hartman halfway through last week’s Egyptian extravaganza, I decide to put out the word and see if I can get a volunteer to step up and help me absorb all this culture and information to bring back for the IVS family of divers.  Fortunately, Michele Highley is available to assist in this work, and she signs on as my sidekick for the trip.  This should certainly help get a second person’s perspective on a trip of this magnitude and all the travel and other considerations that go along with it.

Our departing flight is not until 5:45 p.m. so I’ve got plenty of time to get a little caught up from the busy weekend.  A few hundred emails answered or deleted, some unpacking of the trailers from the show, a load of laundry, and I good to go and start packing for this week.  It’s time for the airport run, so I got started right on time at 3:30 (OK, original plan was to leave at 2:00, but who’s keeping score?).  Still, there’s no rush, the bags are checked in a good 20 minutes before the cutoff, no last minute heroics or special dispensation on the part of airline employees to comment on, nothing!  What a difference this trip is, deviating from my normal last minute rushing – I feel like I am suffering from a lack of adrenalin already!

Emirates Air makes the trip from New York’s JFK airport to the Maldives in two hops, stopping only in Dubai.  So that makes sense, doesn’t it?  No, not when you are working on maintaining your Diamond Medallion status with Delta Airlines!  So my route is Philadelphia / Atlanta / Dubai, then switching to Sri Lankan Airlines for Dubai / Colombo, Sri Lanka / Male, Maldives.  Yep, makes sense….not!  But hey, it’s me!  At the check-in counter in Philadelphia the Delta gate agent is a slug – you know sometimes you can read a person in a nanosecond, and that’s the case here.  She is not the helpful Ms Monika that saved the day when I missed my Cairo flight two weeks ago, that’s for sure!  When I started to say about checking the bags all the way to the Maldives, the look on her face said it all – let’s just check the bags to the end of Delta’s route, Dubai, and call it a day.  I’ll take care of things from there.

Sorry, but no “Blue Shirt” stories to tell; they were too busy arguing over breaks and time off to notice Michele’s two bottles of Vitamin Water in her bag as it passed through the x-ray machine  – America’s front line of security was absent today!   We boarded, and enjoyed an uneventful flight to Atlanta.  A little complimentary ‘hydration’ in the Crown Room, and we boarded our flight to Dubai.

Fourteen hours in a coach seat is a long, long time, let me tell you!  The good news is that they were exit row seats with no seats in front, so plenty of room to stretch my legs out and attempt to snooze a little between feedings.  And there were plenty of them, starting with late dinner, midnight snack, breakfast, and lunch, all accompanied by unlimited drinks and excellent cabin service by the flight attendants – so refreshingly un-Air France like, the experience was more akin to that you would enjoy on a cruise ship with the unending buffet line.

Finally, we land in Dubai, and sure enough, I manage to get our bags collected by the great gate agents at Sri Lankan Air, and they get loaded for our last two flights.  First we’ll enjoy 4½ hours of more great service and even more food and drinks are forwarded, served up with great smiles by the sarong-wearing flight attendants, and eventually we touch down in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Funny thing but it’s 5:00 a.m. locally (that’s 7:30 p.m. east coast time – seems they are a half hour out of sync here) making our journey 26 hours so far, with one more flight and a few more hours to go.  Sitting in the terminal, it is interesting to note how many westerners are passing through here, including a number gathered around us at the gate for the flight to Male.  My mind wonders how many of these folks will be our shipmates for this coming ocean adventure!

Finally, it’s time for flight #4, to Male, the only airport in the Maldives, and thankfully it’s a short 1½ hour trip.  The Maldives immigration form has the customary ‘fill in the blank’ format, but it is interesting to note that the space for your name has room for 51 characters – I feel like my parents shortchanged me!  Customs is a breeze and our bags arrive  – what a pleasant surprise!  We walk outside and are met by a couple of representatives from the boat, and we gather with some of our fellow shipmates, a group from Spain, who had arrived on an earlier Qatar Airlines flight.  They walk us across the street to the dock where our dive tender awaits to whisk us to the Ark Royal.  Of course, just to keep the heart pumping, as our tender begins to untie to pull away, a local police boat feels a need to come alongside and chat with the crew – I was afraid the Canadians had sent some intel down here!  But no, just a formality, and we are on our way in a few.

It’s a pretty twenty-minute ride out to where the Ark Royal is moored and being fueled by the local delivery barge.  We tie up and board, and our baggage is hauled aboard also.  A quick briefing and our rooms are ready for us. I’ve got a standard cabin, and it measures about 10 ft x 12 ft, plus a full bath.  The shower is “Dave-size” so that is a big plus, as so many boats really have tight shower enclosures. All the diving will be done from the tender, which itself is actually a 40 ft long dive boat. The tanks & gear will remain on the tender, and will be filled between dives by the onboard compressor system.  Nitrox is the gas of choice and they have a membrane system to pump it right into our cylinders.  The gear is kept in roomy milk crates under each persons seat and there’s plenty of hanging space for wetsuits, but with the 86 degree water, we sure won’t be needing too many of those!

Our plan is to do a quick “check dive” at a nearby reef to make sure everything is in order, and for everyone to get their weighting right.  We pile into the tender, and run about twenty-minutes up the coast to Feydhoo Wall.  This turns out to be a really nice dive, with the wall starting at about 10 ft and dropping down until it ends in the sand at 100 ft.  It is covered with life, and riddled with cuts and grooves that provide refuge for plenty of colorful critters.  The most prominent fish are blue triggerfish, in the 3 to 8 inch length, and there must be 10,000 of them within sight.  Many of them are laying on their sides, with their heads in small holes, ostrich-like.  There are other species of triggerfish here also but the blue ones dominate.  With lots of hard & soft corals, sponges, and gorgonians, the life here is rich and varied.  We see numerous Nudibranchs, a great looking turtle sitting on a ledge, some morays, an octopus, anemones and clown fish, various crinoids, some tuna buzzing by, mantis shrimp, banded shrimp, angels, puffers and more.  What a great way to kick off the week, and we spend 50 minutes with a depth of 100 ft to get a good baseline of nitrogen loading in our systems.

And again, without sounding like a broken record, I must say we feel great after 30 hours of non-stop air travel, and I attribute a lot of that to Divers D\Lyte, which we have been mixing with our water and drinking all along (OK, in between beers for me!).  No sense of dehydration or jet lag to speak of!

Back to the boat, we enjoy lunch, and then motor south a few miles to South Kaafu Atoll, also known as south Male atoll.  Here we tie up for the night in a protected mooring area, off a site called Guraidhoo, and are joined by a few other liveaboards and some sailboats.  Dinner is served and it is delicious, and I sense that my diet plans will be on hold for the next few days.

One comment I might make on the boat and the crew is that there is not a lot of clear communication here on any level.  Having enjoyed some great crew introductions and briefings on such boats as the Spirit of Freedom, Aquacat, Odyssey, Aggressor, and others, one might expect to be introduced to the crew members, get an overview of the week to come, and learn some local culture and information.  Here, the information is doled out on a “need to know” basis, and sadly, that takes away quite a bit of the experience that could be.  And speaking of information, the only paperwork filled out (but not reviewed) was a simple diver info form, and never was a certification card asked to be produced at all! End of soapbox, but you can rest assured it will be passed on the boat’s owners.

Our fellow shipmates for the cruise include Tia (a fellow Lithuanian) & John from Palo Alto, Tony & Alan from the San Francisco area, Bonnie & Dana from Michigan, Cheryl from Colorado, Leigh, originally from Worcestershire, UK, but currently residing in Dubai, and a group of six from Spain who speak as little English as I speak Spanish, so we’ll just skip on the names and origins.

It’s 6:00 a.m. and the wake up bell stirs us.  First dive briefing is at 6:30 and then we’ll be in the water before breakfast.  We learn the dive leaders names this morning, Thippe (pronounced Tippy), and Boee (pronounced Boy), as well as some female DM who spoke Spanish for the rest of the divers, but evidently didn’t interface well with westerners.  Our first site today is Kandoomaa Thila, a pillar that rises from the bottom in the center of the channel, from a depth of about a hundred and fifty feet to approx. 40 ft at the top.  With the tremendous tidal flow of water from the atolls, the current this morning is just ripping as we head out. You can see the diverging flows boiling the surface of the water as we approach the dive site.  We drop on the west end of he pillar, and there is a bit of confusion as the current tries to split the group to the north and south.  Once re-organized, we pass along the north side of the reef, keeping the wall on our right shoulder (OK, most of us do, but in spite of the briefing, a few of the divers still manage to get themselves separated from the group….shaking my head here) and enjoy a nice 35 minute dive from 120 ft to 60 ft of depth.  White tipped sharks, eagle rays, triggers, titans, bumphead wrasses, turtles, all sorts of interesting life to take in and enjoy.  Good dive!

Back up, we return to the mother ship and breakfast is served.  Plenty of food and variety, so no one is going hungry here.  Before you know it the time to dive has arrived, so a quick briefing, and onto the tender tor our five-minute run to the site.  The plan was the same as earlier, we’ll dive in three groups.  OK, well that is the description of the start at least.  We end the dive in about 8 groups, scattered all along the reef – utterly amazing how challenging it is for these DM’s to monitor their groups and attempt to keep any sort of order there.  None the less, it is the best dive yet, with visibility in excess of 200 ft, and sharks, turtles, octopus’s, golden leaf scorpionfish, big spotted morays, titan triggers guarding their nests, and more.  Quick summary – great dive!

On to dive #3 for the day, another channel inlet dive, similar profile with the reef rising to approx 30 ft on either side of a 300 ft wide 100 ft deep channel.  Here we have a strong incoming tidal current, plus an ocean current to deal with, so we start off the dive about 100 ft west of the channel entrance, swim like hell to get down and not washed into the channel, then enjoy a nice deep dive traversing the inlet of the channel.  The water on the ocean side is several hundred feet deep and dark, while on the reef side it is crystal clear, except for some areas of mixed temperatures that make for a “jelly on the lens” sort of effect as you try to focus.  Here we start the dive with some of the usual critters but as we near the far side of the channel the real show begins, with gray and white tip sharks of all sizes cruising in to check us out.  At one point I can count 18 sharks in front of me, very cool to be here and experiencing this!  All too soon our tanks are running low at this depth, so we work our way up the reef to our safety stop and finally surface 45 minutes later.  Excellent dive, but note to self:  doubles would be better here!

Time for a quick nap on the sundeck, and then dinner is served.  Following that there is a lot of socializing and a bit of alcohol consumed as the boat nears our mooring destination for the night.  Well the temperature and clarity of the water is top much to deny, so what better than a late night swim in the ocean?  Not everyone is brave enough, but the intrepid few, consisting of Leigh and Michele, set a positive example for the rest as they cavort and frolic in the sea.  The current here is no small consideration, and one needs to be mindful of that while enjoying the water, cause the anchored boat gets pretty far away pretty darn fast if you are not paying attention.  Sure enough, not enough mind is paid to that, and as the mother ship begins to fade in the darkness, it’s time for the crew to fire up the dingy and head out for a little late night rescue!  All ends well, and there’s laughter all around.

April Fools Day, and we get to sleep in an extra hour for some inexplicable reason.  Communication from the crew continues to be somewhat lacking, but we just go with the flow here and take the extra hour.  We are near a site that lies within some sort of national park, again, can’t get a clear answer on what that means, but I’ve got enough information to make that statement with confidence.  The site is a small bommie, or pinnacle, that rises up from deeper water and it probably isn’t more than 150 ft in diameter, with the top at about 50 ft.  It is absolutely covered with life of all sorts, especially schooling fish such as grunts, snappers, and other local species.  We enjoy watching a turtle having breakfast on the many sponges that grow on the reef, and a couple of not-too-shy octopus are out and about.  Plenty of eels, a local version of a goliath grouper, and some tune darting along make for a great 50 minutes with a max depth of 110 ft.

Back for breakfast, the boat moves a bit, and the plans for the second dive are announced.  We’re going to search for whale sharks in the tender, and if we’re lucky and come upon some, we’ll jump in and snorkel with them.  Then we’ll do our dive, and maybe look for some more whale sharks on the way back.  OK, I just gave you the entire dive briefing, and yes, they forget to talk about the actual dive site at all.  I suppose we’ll figure it out when we get there.   Maybe…

If I may digress for a moment…It is always interesting when I get a chance to dive with non-IVS divers and observe just how “different” that truly is.  The first and most obvious observation is the overall worldly experience this group has, as they drop names of places they have dived like Fiji, Indonesia, Bali, Lembeh Straits, and all sorts of other exotic locations.  Most of them exhibit some great dive skills and their experience diving together as buddies truly shows.  In conversation I find quite a bit of continuing education achievements and aspirations, with a few rescue divers, some public safety diving experience, and more.  It behooves anyone who embraces diving this much to seek a solid understanding of the physiological effects of diving, and a clearer understanding of basic dive equipment and skills, that might in fact help save their lives somewhere down the road.  OK… off my soapbox…again!

So we board the tender and head out to see if we can find some whale sharks. We’re in an area that is somewhat plankton rich, and a good location to find the biggest fish of the sea swimming, mouth open, into the current, filtering out lunch from the sea’s salad bar.  The method of searching consists of putting a few crew members on the roof and looking for shadows in the ocean as we cruise along.  There are other boats out here doing the same thing, but do you think anyone has a radio to talk to each other?  You know the answer to that.  So we pass the other boats and they pass us, repeatedly, as we all search in a fairly large area along the coast.  The plan is to search for two hours, and if we’re not successful, then we’ll dive and search for two more hours.  Let’s hope we find a whale shark in the first session!  One hour, a false alarm, back in our seats, almost two hours now….wait…there’s a boat ahead dropping folks into the water!  Sure enough, it’s a whale shark, who was enjoying a leisurely breakfast, but is now the subject of about 100 snorkelers chasing and racing to swim alongside it.  The scene is reminiscent of the starting line of the Iron Man Triathlon, with plenty of kicking and splashing and pushing as everyone wants the front row seat, but the darn front row keeps moving!   Still a decent photo op and I get quite a few shot off before the shark turns and heads to the peace of deeper waters.  Back on the boat, and the search resumes for a bit.  We find another, but this one is on the game, and heads towards the deep much quicker than the first.  Overall, I think it’s a bit abusive for the whale sharks, but at least they have the option of interrupting lunch and coming back when the crowds are gone.  The good news is that we don’t have to look forward to another two hours of searching now!

So we splash on the reef, and as soon as we get down, there is a beautiful black & purple flatworm swimming along the reef.  It stops and sets down on a piece of coral, and what is right below it?  Two beautiful large cowries, their shells beautiful and shiny, just perfect to compliment the scene.  Plenty of table top corals throughout the area, and lots of fish life, some nice nudi’s, including a really large purple one that bears a strong resemblance to a sponge, need to get an ID on this.  Decent dive, 60 minutes at 80 ft and up, and we return to the boat for lunch and a break before heading back out for a late afternoon dive.

Quick briefing and we’re back on board to our final site, which promises to be a manta ray cleaning station.  First bad sign when we arrive is that there are three other boats already there with divers in the water, and I am thinking, “Just how tolerant are those mantas of divers?”  Well, my suspicions were right on the money, as we spent 60 minutes huffing for a mile or so across so-so reef in search of non-existent manta rays.  A nice friendly turtle, a school of photographic sweetlips, and a stingray being cleaned were the highlights, but overall we could have dove this one a lot closer to home without 50 hours of airline travel!  90 ft max, 60 minutes, another dive in the logbook.  Let’s go to dinner!

Again we appeal to the guys who appear to be in leadership positions in the crew to have the guys introduce themselves, and again we are assured this will happen soon.  Flash forward – this NEVER happens; truly a disappointment to spend ten days in close quarters with nine or ten guys and never know who’s on first.  Something to consider for future charters.

Oh well, back to life on board – another great night under a clear skies with the heavens providing a fantastic star-filled show for us to enjoy.  The boat has a nice celestial telescope so all the amateur stargazers gather around and test their knowledge of the constellations and other things stellar.  Nice bunch on the boat and everyone is bonding well – well OK, there are two distinct groups, those who speak English, and those who don’t!

OK, it’s a new day and time to get some diving in.  Our first location is a wreck sunk in the 80’s as an artificial reef, the Kudhima Wreck, sitting perfectly upright in 100 ft of water.  This old inter-island freighter is covered with life, including a lot of hard corals.  It’s really interesting to see growth of table top corals right off the side of the hull!  We check out some morays, a really nice mantis shrimp playing hide-and-seek with us, big puffer fish, a remora looking for a host, and more of the usual suspects.  Sixty minutes and 100 ft of depth and we call this one a winner!

Back to the boat, breakfast is served, and then we head out to our second location, a site known as Five Rocks.  This is another “thila” (pillar, or bommie to our Australian readers) that rises up like a sea mount, from 120 ft to maybe 50 ft.  It’s split across the top with some deep crevices and just full of life.  We get buzzed by a few white tip sharks and enjoy another turtle munching away on the reef.  Just a thought – how come we can’t touch the reef but the turtles get to hammer away on it?  Just fooling of course, but the dangerous mind wanders you know!

On the way back in to enjoy lunch, I take the time to chat with Thyppe and see if I can encourage him to maybe get a little more diving into our day.  The original excuse was the time it took to fill the tanks.  Now, he confides with me that when the crew proposes four dives a day to a lot of their groups, they are met with laughter, so they learned to back off from that.  Well, this is no ordinary group here this week, I assure him, and we’d appreciate more bottom time.  He says the tanks could be filled quicker, so I challenge him to prove it to me.  As we tie up to the mother shop, he walks over to the white board where the daily diving info is posted, and writes “sunset dive” at the bottom of today’s schedule,  I high five him, and we go in to eat.

After the tanks get filled, and we head back to Manta Point to repeat the dive we did yesterday, which sucked.  Hopes are high that our previous experience was an anomaly, and as we approach the first good sign is that there are no other boats there to scare away any mantas.  We splash, and in less than one minute, there’s our first manta.  Our group displays some good discipline, staying low and not moving much, and we are rewarded with about ten minutes of manta aerobatics as the gentle giant swoops over us, runs through our bubbles, cruises up and down our group and just does about every other manta thing you can imagine.  Very cool.  OK, he leaves, so we move down the reef, and hey, here’s another, and more of the same.  It’s interesting also that the reef is absolutely covered with morays of various flavors and all sizes, and as we sit there motionless they are swimming between our arms, under our bodies and all around – really adds to the experience!  Two more big ones cruise overhead, then a couple more, so we get a total of six mantas for today’s dive – we are glad we did the second take on this one!!  Another 100 ft for 60 minutes total – great dive!

Back for a quick surface interval and tank filling, and we head out for a sunset  dive which quickly turns into a night dive on the house reef.  Very nice, although not very fishy – seems a lot of the inhabitants must head to deeper waters to survive the night.  We have some squid checking us out, a few sharks, and lots of sleeping parrot fish in the coral – seems like Key Largo!  All good, and another 50 minutes of bottom time for the logbook.  Back for dinner now!

What a most brilliant sunrise greets us this Sunday morning as we get up at 6:00 for our first dive.  A quick briefing and we head out to Dhigaa Thila, another lump on the sea floor about ten minutes from the boat. This is a pretty cool site with a dramatic wall that drops vertically down from about 15 ft to 100 ft, riddled with big caverns and crevices.  The soft corals here are the best we have seen yet, and we find a nice big octopus, some more white tip sharks cruising in close to check me out, pretty nudibranch’s, and the highlight of the dive, three ornate ghost pipefish that pose for me alongside a feather star.  Beautiful!  Another 100 ft and another 60 minutes makes for a perfect dive log entry!

Breakfast is served while tanks are filled, and we head out to Maahlos Thila, a beautiful wall dive along the side of yet another channel from the open sea.  We drop down to 100 ft to begin, and then ride the outgoing current along the wall which is covered with bright blue soft corals and so many other corals and sponges that no matter which direction you looked, you found yourself speechless.  Totally covered with schooling fish of all sorts, they wall was also riddled with deep undercuts and quasi-caverns, which provided even more homes for animals of all sorts.  We ended up on top of the reef at 40 ft, with 55 minutes of bottom time.  Overall a most wonderful dive to add to the list!

And this dive was even more special as it was Alan & Tony’s 100th dive.  Pretty cool way to celebrate!

And speaking of small worlds as we weren’t, Alan is wearing one of his favorite tee’s today, featuring Conch Republic Dive Center.  What a coincidence, I point out, that today Butch Loggins and Dave Hartman are leading the IVS crew on a dive in the Florida Keys with Conch Republic this very day!  The IVS dive flag is flying on both sides of the globe at the same time today!

Our afternoon dive was to Dhonkalho Thila, another manta ray hangout.  We dropped in to about 70 ft and there they were, in under a minute, our first two.  Swooping over and past us, they made for a magical experience.  We had about seven mantas in total spending time with us, and we did not move at all. Finally, they left, so we worked our way along the reef a bit, and ended up with another 50 minutes at 70 ft total.

No night is complete without a night dive, so by golly, we had one tonight!  The group got a little smaller as half the passengers opted to head over to the uninhabited island we are anchored in front of to do some swimming before we have a barbecue on the island.  The rest of us headed under, and were treated to the standard night time fare here, including another leaf scorpionfish, some really cool feeding coral with tentacles out about 24 inches, and all the other stuff.  I enjoyed it as a solo night dive, logging 100 ft and 50 minutes.

Now we get dolled up and head over on the dingy to the island, where the crew has put together a nice beach barbecue setting, complete with a 30 ft whale shark carved into the sand as our dinner table – really neatly done!  They have brought the entire dinner over, with all the fixin’s, and the bar too, so we enjoyed a few really pleasant hours dining under the stars and chatting on the first bit of land our legs have touched in a week!   All too soon, it’s time to wrap it up and head back to the Ark Royal for a good nights sleep.

First dive for Monday is a small ridge of a reef line called Fish Head, off North Ari Atoll.  Nice dive, 126 ft of depth, lots of fish life, nudi’s and feeding turtles, a few sharks in the distance, superb viz, mild currents and a great 55 minutes of bottom time.  We motor north while eating breakfast to our second site of another four-dive day, a site called Kan Thila.

For our next dive we head out to a site where big grey reef sharks abound.  We drop in and head down and into the current, and I am thinking, gosh, this is just like the 1st manta dive – and guess what – it was!  It sucked!  OK, so it was 86 degrees, and I am in the Maldives, but the dive sucked.  Or, as Cheryl noted, the best part of that dive was the safety stop!  So we spent the better part of an hour poking under rocks, looking at eels, some Nudibranchs, and not too much more.

Back for lunch, and then we headed out to Hafzaa Thila, to look for even more sharks.  We saw maybe two big grey ones, a few white tips, but the cool stuff was big honking tuna fish shooting along through the schools of baitfish.  There were quite a few of them, all in the 30 to 50 pound size range, and they were cruising for dinner.  Pretty neat to watch, but tough to photograph.  Up on top we had a dozen juvenile white tips, around two feet long, hiding under the table corals and thinking about living a longer life by doing so!  Must be a tough neighborhood when all the big grey’s come home.  Also had some more of the usual, clownfish, a scorpionfish, nudi’s, beautiful anemones, some squid, and zillions of schooling fish trying to avoid becoming someone’s dinner.  100 ft max and 70 minutes of bottom time, with a couple of inquisitive squid joining us at the end to top off a really nice dive.

We head back out to Hafzaa Thila for our night dive, and expect the action to be intense with all the food in the area.  We are not disappointed for sure!  Sharks are feeding all over the reef, big marble rays and morays out for dinner also, and thousands upon thousands of smaller fish seeking shelter and refuge there.  It was like someone pumped some Red Bull into the predators for the night, cause they sure had the energy to burn!  The good news for the prey is that the sharks and eels are terrible hunters, so you get plenty of chances to err, Still quite a few meet their maker tonight, and no one is going to bed hungry that’s for sure!  Another hour of bottom time rounds out the night, and we head in for a late dinner and right to bed.

Up again at 6:30 our plans are to head back to last night’s site for one more visit to this Thila.  But as we approach, there are three boats on it already, so we shift gears and head 10 minutes north to the site we had planned for our second dive, Maaya Thila.  It’s a similar site, although not quite as defined as a pillar, but still full of life of all sorts.  Nice dive, 120 ft max, 60 minutes of bottom time, just enough to work up a good appetite for breakfast!

OK, bellies full (like that is not a recurring thing all week!) and we head out to the original site, Haafza Thila, and enjoy our third dive on this pillar of sea life, where we get to see some more dogfish tuna nailing their breakfast, and the rest of the “busy town” life on top of the coral column.  We explore out in the sand for a while at 130 ft, do a little Project Aware work cleaning up some old fishing line, and then spend the rest of the sixty-five minute dive on top of the reef.  Good way to see three completely different versions of life and visitors on this reef, from yesterday afternoon’s pelagics coming in to visit, to last night’s feeding frenzy, and today to a nice quiet neighborhood to raise your kids if you’re a fish – just get them off the streets before sunset!

After lunch we head to a new site, a channel dive at Rasdhoo Atoll. We splash in on the ocean side of this barrier reef, along a wall that drops down into the abyss.  Large gray reef sharks buzz us, along with tuna, as they patrol the edge of their domain.  I drop down to 130 to check out some of the undercuts and crevices below.  There’s more to see deeper, but my Nitrox mix keeps me from pushing it any further.  I find some large beautiful cowries, a large moray, and schools of swirling bar jacks in the deep.  As I move up the wall, five nice eagle rays swim by slowly in perfect formation, giving us ample time for some great pictures.  Another great fifty minute dive, we collect our divers bobbing along on the surface, and head back to get cleaned up for this evenings island entertainment.

We take the launch over to the island and get a chance to walk through a typical Maldivian community, complete with all your standard Maldivian tourist and gift shops.  Seems this island is a regular stop for all the liveaboards, so you know what to expect.  Still, it is pretty and most of the show owners have a pretty good command of English so I am able to get a lot of questions answered about the islands and the local life.  Then back to the boat for dinner and Part II of our evenings entertainment,

The crew has something special for us, and after dinner, all the dining tables are stacked up in the corner  to make room for a large rug they unroll.  Next, here comes three large double-ended drums, and some cushions to sit on, and before you know it, the crew has transformed into a Maldivian folk band,  For the next hour and a half they entertain us non-stop with some high energy drum pounding and serious synchronized chanting and clapping and dancing.  None of us understand a word that they are singing but it was far more experiential than that, to see the passion that they put into this was truly amazing,  Even more amazing was the fact that these were the same quiet guys who have tended to our every need all week, and here they have their moment to let their hair down and show us with great pride how they like to celebrate – very, very cool indeed!  This is one of those moments words cannot describe – you have to live this one yourself to understand it!

After that, it breaks down into a dance party since the Spaniards are leaving us tomorrow, and the boat turns into a bit of a disco scene.  Well with a five o’clock wake up for some blue water hammerhead shark diving looming, I turn in early to get my beauty rest.

We started the morning off with a 5 a.m. wakeup and quick briefing so we could be out and in the water before the sun peeked over the horizon.  Better opportunity to view hammerheads that way, we were told, as they move to deeper water during the daylight hours.  So we motored out, and although the sun was not officially up, it sure was light when we splashed at 6:05.  We dropped in and immediately descended to about 110 ft, with the instructions to stay in a tight group, better to not scare the hammerheads off.  Well there’s always one, and sure enough, one of our divers felt some compelling urge or personal right to swim out in front of the pack, ensuring that any possible hammerhead sightings would now be a bit further out in the murky viz.  Why can’t some people listen, I ask, and respect the rights of all the others?  Needless to say, 30 minutes into the dive, we turned and headed to the reef to finish it off in shallow water and salvage an otherwise wasted dive.

Yoshimas Thila was our second dive site today, and this was another pillar that hinted at the opportunities for shark sightings.  So in we dropped, and the top of the reef was at 70 feet, so I did a little exploration down the side hitting 160 ft and about a 1.9 ppO before deciding I was close enough to the sand to see that there was not much different here than there was up shallower.  I shot some pics of some nudi’s crusing about the reef, then headed up on top and finished up the dive there, with some nice schooling sweetlips and grunts swirling about us. We headed in for lunch, and afer a discussion with some of our fellow divers, I figured it was time for a little “Come to Jesus” meeting with the chief dive leader, Thyppe.  I told him we had been out enough times searching and hoping for sharks or mantas, and while these dives were cool in their own right, nearly every one of us had a camera, and none of the sharks came in close enough for any decent photographs.  That being said, with five or six dives left on our itinerary, we wanted clear water, minimal current, and close up photo opportunities.  Thyppe understood and agreed that the rest of our dives would meet this criteria.

While we ate, the captain moved the boat across the channel so we could be within range of dropping off the Spanish contingent.  Some of us are wondering if perhaps our itinerary and travel route was compromised by the boat having both 9-day and 6-day passengers on board, meaning we needed to be back near the airport three days earlier than usual so the others could depart.  Hmmmmm…

Our post-lunch dive site is Naseem Thila, a nice bommie that rises up from the bottom and tops out at about 45 ft, with the sides dropping down to the sand at about 130 ft.  In addition to the main pillar, there are several additional coral pillars just a short distance away, all covered with soft corals of every color imaginable, hard corals, and fish.  We get another sixty minutes of bottom time here and a slew of more great photos.

Our fourth and final dive of the afternoon is Banana Reef, another nice lump that comes up from the sea floor.  The current is absolutely ripping when we arrive, so we know this is going to be a fun dive!  We drop in and visibility is forever, and indeed the current is hot.  So we drop onto the corner of the reef, hold on to rocks for a bit to see what is going to come by, and then we let go and work our way around the bommie.  This is truly an adrenalin-producing dive, with currents coming from all directions, including down currents, as we move along.  A dive like this really gets your head into the game, thinking of your next move, being cognizant of the currents as you feel them or observe them affecting the fish or soft corals & sea fans.  Lots of eels, bumphead wrasse, turtle, tropicals of all flavors, octopus and more.  You can surmise that I absolutely loved this dive today!!

The Spaniards leave us when we get back to the boat, and gosh, I miss them already!  Not that I could say that in Spanish, but they were a pretty nice bunch and all really good divers, so it was a pleasure having them as part of our dive group.  The crew has the candles on our tables, and our next to last supper is served, as we enjoy  a quiet evening on the mother ship.  There’s one more day of diving and there seems to be a bit of dissent among the divers, with one camp (led by me) wishing for clear water and beautiful scenery, and another faction seems to think if we don’t go into deep murky water and wait for something big to maybe swim by, then it’s not worth diving.  We’ll see who wins this battle of wills tomorrow.

The day starts off in grand style celebrating Tia’s 65th birthday (yes, they still let them dive at that age here) with our first dive on a site called HP, appropriately named for the ‘High Pressure’ diving and convergence of currents there.  The surface is literally boiling with water moving in all directions and currents crashing into currents – very neat visual to give us a hint of what lies below the surface.  We drop in off the north side of the reef, with the plan to swim to the side of the reef, but the current isn’t too cooperative and is running both downward and parallel to the reef, so as we drop and swim hard towards the reef we are zipping along and down.  Whooops….it’s time to check the gauges, dang, that does say 140 ft and there bottom lies easily another 50 or 60 below us so that is not an option.  Kick, kick, kick, finally we make it over and begin sailing along the reef.  Gotta find some protection here, and after a turn or two we get into some calm areas, where we can enjoy some of the great sea life here, corals of many colors, and beautiful topography.  We do some Project Aware work on this dive, uncoiling a few hundred feet of old fishing lines from in and around the corals and sponges.  Excellent dive overall, 50 minutes of bottom time, and nothing but smiles all around when we get back to the surface.

Lankan Manta Point is our second drop of the day, and true to his word, Thyppe will verify that there are mantas on site before we waste time in the water looking for them.  We arrive, our man drops down, and comes back up to report zero mantas at the site (whether or not they were there, the answer he gave was appropriate, and yesterday’s debate is over!).  Thank goodness for checking – wink, wink!  So we head over to Naseem Thila and do another nice 100 ft dive  for 60 minutes on this proven good site.  Only one dive to go, how sad.

But wait…back on board, John & Tia ask me if I’d like to get another dive, and I have to think about that….for a nano-second!  Yeppers, so we run that up the flagpole with Thyppe, and he affirms, indeed, if we want a fourth dive today, then we get it!  Yippee!

So for our third dive we head out to another Thila, and the current is pretty strong as we drop in. Michele and I just chart our own course on this one, and as we head over to the edge of the drop off, there’s a little octopus looking at us. Great start, and we head over the side of the reef. I’m poking around, and sure enough, there’s another octo, substantially larger, peeking at me from over the edge. I cruise up slowly, and he is not startled by my presence. I spend the next twenty minutes at 80 ft just inches away from him, getting some great photos and interaction with this very intelligent critter. Truly one of those extended moments when life takes on a whole new perspective, just sitting and watching and communicating with another one of God’s great creatures. Sweet!

So I am thinking, that is enough, this dive is complete, and I leave my little eight-armed friend, and head over to check out a bit of a cavern in the reef side a few yards away. As I start to slip inside, I am pushed aside by a Napoleon Wrasse who must have figured if I see something in there, then maybe it is his! In fact he is so close to me I cannot back up enough in the cavern to get his photo, and have to change to the wide-angle lens to get most of his body into the viewfinder. He has no qualms about edging me out in the cavern, and it is yet another take-your-breath-away moment on this magical dive.

OK, enough of that, let me just cruise along a bit, but wait, here’s another friendly moray, and some more sweetlips, and just more great stuff to truly rank this as another of those top ten dives. I am energized for sure!

So we surface, and head back to the Ark Royal for a quick surface interval before we get our fourth dive in. Of course, this one is not without controversy either, as the “other faction” emphatically told the other divers that there would be no fourth dive, as the tender was needed to get provisions for the next charter. I just shake my head, wondering what it is within a person that causes such a need to be heard, without regard as to whatever is being said is factual or not. Some folks will never get it, I must conclude, and we have one of those examples on this charter with us.

So out we go for dive #4, in the tender, which of course is not really happening at all, according to “the voice”. But off we go anyhow, and as we approach, the seas are truly boiling with the currents and the incoming tide. This dive is going to be FUN! So we drop in, kick like made to catch the reef, and then begin our ‘sail’ along the sides of the thila, with currents probably exceeding 4 knots at some points, and what a rush it is! With our regulators cranked down tight to reduce free flowing in the currents, we cruise along, with east-to-west, then west-to-east, then down currents, then up currents, then combinations to just keep it fun and fresh and exciting for the entire 60 minute. We get washed down as deep as 140 ft, and washed up to less than 5 feet, so buoyancy control and situational awareness is key to a safe experience today. I stop to take some pictures of a banded coral shrimp, and as I frame him in the viewfiender, a moray shoots out of an adjacent hole and bites my camera right in my hands – very cool! More good photos, more laughter as we tumble along the reef, what a high-energy way to wrap up a great week of diving – and remember, this dive is NOT happening!!

So we come on back, and the crew takes our gear for some rinsing and drying, as we enjoy our last supper on board. Some more photo sharing, emails are exchanged, and our glasses are raised one last time to celebrate a great week and 30 wonderful dives. One last wake up call and we’ll be heading back to the airport for the journey home – how sad!

Our flights home are uneventful, save for one near-international incident in Dubai. First, the background – on my Sri Lankan flight from CoIombo to Dubai, I order the lamb dinner on the flight, and it is just a little bit stringy, so as I finish my meal, I need to dislodge a small piece of meat from between a couple of teeth, and what do I have at hand to do that with? Well, my boarding pass, right here in my shirt pocket, and what a nice little combination toothpick / floss it makes. Mission accomplished, I place the saliva-laden card on my tray to be disposed of. Now we land, and as we disembark the gate agents await us at the top of the ramp, demanding our boarding passes be turned in to them for some insane reason. Well I hand them my pass from the previous flight, but the eagle-eyed agent catches that and says he needs the one for this flight. Well, I try to explain the whole oral hygiene thing, but you can see it is going nowhere, and he gets a bit adamant in his demands. I take a deep breath, count to ten, and walk into the Dubai airport, leaving them to search for the missing Dave Valaika who must still be hiding somewhere on that aircraft. Amazing, but true.

A few more hours, a flight to Paris, overnight there to allow the French to redeem themselves and show me some love, and then back to Atlanta and Philadelphia, bringing this trip to a happy and safe conclusion.

Summary – we are going back!! Look for the Maldives trip on the website soon!

Before I forget, let me make a few notes here for anyone booking on the Ark Royal. First, Rooms #1, and #8, near the engines, are NOISY! Not too bad when you are dead tired, but anything short of that it might prove to be an issue. Second, if you want a larger tank to enjoy the deep dives that are so common here, you need to confirm it ahead of time. Bring a few bottles of your favorite wine as the selection is limited on board and is only sold by the bottle. Also don’t forget soft drinks, they are sold by the glass on board. If not for the delicious Divers D\Lyte I’d be suffering from a Diet Coke and Diet Mountain Dew shortage! Bring your snorkel for the whale shark chasing experience. Don’t forget the safety sausage and audible alert horn, plus your reef hook. Also you can rent an internet card on line from the crew for about $10 a day to stay in touch with the folks back home!

That’s all Folks!

Micronesia diving extravaganza – Truk (Chuuk), Palau & Guam

And so it begins…………….. a year of planning and scheduling, and it’s 2:00 a.m. and I am looking at my empty bags and wondering why I am still not packed for my departure in 90 minutes. I think this confirms it, I really don’t pack well when NOT under pressure! My adrenalin rush has not yet kicked in, so I have time to start the blog, send a few emails, make a few more piles of things to do for Bev while i am gone, and dink around. Packing will start soon…I hope!

Our journey, well at least for me, starts this morning at 5:50 a.m. out of Philadelphia. First a short jaunt to Detroit, then a nice long 14 hour flight to Tokyo, overnight in the Land of the Rising Sun, then a four-hour morning flight to Guam, followed by one more flight up to Truk to officially begin the trip. I opted to travel with my favorite airline, Delta, and take advantage of the opportunity to upgrade all the way, OK, most of the way, more on that later – what a difference that will make with this much flying on the menu.

So I start packing away finally. Now to be fair, John Glodowski has already packed up my rebreather after a good pre-test and inspection, so that is off the list. Well, almost, cause the case comes in at 85 pounds, so that needs to be lightened up a bit. I pull one cylinder out, and a couple of valves, and we’re at 68.4 pounds. OK, now the second Pelican case starts to fill. In addition to the rebreather, I am also packing open-circuit gear for doubles and single setups. For the first week my plan is to dive doubles aboard the Odyssey with Mike Parzynski, and the second week dive the rebreather with John Glo, and just in case, I have the option of diving a single cylinder too. Yeah, I like options!

Back to packing, now the second Pelican hits the 70# mark, and there is still a pile to go. With the mix of diving I am taking two sets of fins, full foot and open heel, so I can walk to the shore dives in my booties but still enjoy the freedom of the full foots when boat diving. Yeah, options. But now I am packing a third bag, with fins and a pile of regulators, and a bailout bottle, and still have not gotten a stitch of clothing packed! I grab enough stuff to make it through most of the trip, toss in a couple of Hawaiian shirts for any formal engagements, pack an underwater camera system, and by now I am figurine I will be rolling one carry-on bag behind me on this trip, in addition to my backpack. So much for packing light, total weight is approx 300#. Looking forward to tipping a few Sherpas during the course of this adventure!

Jim Cormier is ready to drive me down to the airport, but as I glance at the clock it is 4:20, and my cut-off for checking bags is 5:05. “Jim, I’ll drive”, I tell him, and slide into the driver’s seat. It is dark and it is raining and we have to really push it to make my flight, so no time for the new guy to be figuring out the turns. We race to the airport, and I hit the T-minus 7 minute mark as we are getting off Interstate 95. T-minus 5 as we pass into the airport, only 6 terminals and a dozen speed bumps to go, plus some traffic. I whip up to the skycap, sneaking in (read that “cutting off”) two hotel shuttles that would have put passengers in front of me. Slam it into park, and I jump out with passport in hand, to get the skycap to get me checked in under the clock….and guess what…we do it….with over a minute to spare!. Now I feel like I am traveling, with the adrenalin rushing through my veins!

Bags are checked, I give Jim the customary hug and head inside. Up to the magical land of the blue shirts and I put my bag on the belt. As it passes through the scanner, the conveyor comes to a halt, and you can see it in the eyes of the TSA agent looking at the monitor that this one is a little different. “What do you have in the bag, sir”, he asks, to which I cannot stop myself from saying “You’re the one with the million dollar camera paid for with my tax dollars, why don’t YOU tell me what is in the bag!”. Needless to say, my Tea Party-like approach falls on deaf ears so we’re gonna head over to the special table for a closer look. My bag is disassembled, more blank stares as they hold various things up and look at them, of course I offer no input and just watch, amused, as the wheels slowly turn, they put it all back together, “America is safe”, I am sure they are thinking, and they give me my bag back. An amazing process indeed.

Down to the gate now, and we should be boarding, but no, one of the crew members is late to work. How can someone who is responsible for 250 people getting to their destination come to work late? She finally shows up, and we begin the boarding process, with a sense of urgency since we don’t want to let the Pokey Puppy’s late arrival impact our ability to take off in our assigned time slot. I am sitting in the first row so I have a bird’s-eye view of the loading process, and as usual, here comes one of the ground crew, with the paperwork in hand. But that’s where it gets weird. You can sense from the discussion back and forth that this is not going to be a standard “here’s the paperwork have a nice flight” sort of send-off. Finally the voices get a little louder, and I hear them say “we’re trying to figure out who fueled the plane last night cause that was our job this morning”. Seems that our plane has been fueled twice, once by the night crew and again by the morning crew, so now we have too much fuel to fly. Un-friggin-believable. You would think with all those instruments and gauges they could figure out how to fly the plane if the gas tanks are more than half full, but no, we can’t. So what do we do? Here comes the fuel truck, out come the hoses, and they suck the excess fuel back out of our plane. Amazing, to say the least. And the best part is they did this with the cabin door closed and locked, which is probably a FAA violation in the event of a fire, that we are all trapped in the plane. Finally we are the right weight, we back away from the gate, and take off, 20 minutes late but still plenty of time to make my connection in Detroit.

So, small world department, the guy sitting next to me is a Delta pilot on his way to work, and he notices my IVS fleece. He asks if we’re the place with the helicopter in our yard, and I tell him yes we are, and explain about our handicapped diver programs and working with disabled vets. Turns out he owns property along Route 113 and in fact just recently sold his biggest piece to the Mormon Church for the construction of their new temple about three doors down from the shop. Small world, indeed.

Detroit finally materializes out of the clouds and I touch down, uneventfully, and meet Sue Douglass who has flown here on a red-eye from the west coast. We’re flying together to Truk so we’ve got a few hours to kill in the Motor City before our Tokyo flight boards. To the Crown Room we head, and we enjoy the peace and quiet afforded there, not to mention the complimentary food and drinks. For breakfast I have packed an array of sliced kielbasa from yesterday’s delicious Thanksgiving dinner that the lovely Michele prepared, so my day starts off in true Lithuanian culinary fashion!

It’s boarding time and we take our seats on the upper deck of this Japan-bound 747. Delta has been so gracious as to award me with some nice upgrade certificates, and I put them to use for these extended flights, ensuring premium seating all the way along the journey from America to Guam and back. Yes I know, I am a wuss…but I can take it! I don’t think this will be the case for our inter-island flights, but thankfully they are much shorter in duration! But for the 14 hour and 4 hour-long legs, this feels oh so right!

Boarding the massive Boeing 747 that’s going to take us to Tokyo, they have two separate jetways, one into main cabin and the other dedicated for the business class cabin. We’re on the upper deck, with exit row seats with approx 6 ft of leg room in front – sweet! But before we take off, I cannot resist going up and talking to the team of pilots that are responsible for our safe passage. Well as you might suspect, one thing leads to another in the conversation, and before you know it, your very own Capt. Dave is in the pilot’s seat, and getting a sampling of the technology and old-fashioned pilot skills needed to keep this bird on track and in the air until we decide to make that controlled crash landing that marks the end of every good flight. What a fun crew, and lots of good photo op’s there too! And I thought there was an upper age limit on those cockpit visits…..ha! More guidelines!!

Back to my seat, the pre-flight service is just beginning, and of course we verify that the light beer has been loaded. Without getting too gushy, let’s just say the service was fantastic and unending, with a staff of very attentive flight attendants making sure our glasses never got empty, keeping the array of snacks coming at us, and feeding us like a cruise ship! A big soft comforter, fluffy pillows, bedroom slippers, flat reclining seats, complimentary noise cancelling headphones and a huge list of on-demand movies ensure this flight will be an enjoyable one!

We take off uneventfully, even with the proper amount of fuel on board this flight, and quickly make it cruise altitude. The menus are distributed, and there are six dinner entries to choose from today, so I go with the beef filet. That is preceded by a three-course appetizer tray, and followed by your choice of desserts. There is no one going hungry on this flight tonight, that’s for sure…ok, maybe I should qualify that, and say that applies to this cabin only! Did I mention the flight attendants were attentive? There are 24 passengers in this cabin and four flight attendants…I like that ratio!

Fourteen hours later the wheels come down, and welcome to Narita, the main Tokyo airport. Brisk through customs, answering all the questions on the forms with near-accuracy (such as “have you ever been deported from another country”), grab the bags, and catch the airport shuttle bus to the Sheraton Miyako. Good memories here as this is where my daughter Kristen and I stayed during part of our Asian adventure last year. The hotel is just as beautiful and the people are just as great; I love this place. Check-in complete, let’s head down to the bar for a quick refresher, and while there enjoy the very different bar scene from what we are used to. Local folks stop in and are served from their own bottles of spirits that are stored on the premises, the bartender takes personal pride in each drink he makes, and there is no sense of urgency anywhere. A really nice place to kick back and chug a few icy cold Asahi’s, the Coor’s Light of Japan.

From there it is time to get something to eat, and the hotel has three restaurants to choose from – Japanese, Chinese, and the ‘Cafe California’, which is how they interpret Western cuisine. I pass on all three and we head outside, grabbing the shuttle bus and heading up to the Meguro train station, which is a really nice shopping area. Plenty to choose from, and you can smell good things being cooked in the air. We take in the market a bit, then decide to head to a restaurant. Of course all the signage is in Japanese, and the buildings are all like 10 stories tall with businesses on every floor, so this could be a challenge. Where’s my favorite Tokyo expert Kristen when I need her? No sweat, there’s a police sub-station, complete with four cops – they’ll know where to eat. Well guess what? Not a lick of English spoken here! So I do m best sign language imitation of a cow, and a knife and fork, and some “um um good” belly rubbing (OK, that last part confused them with the Buddha connection) but finally they get it, and point me down the street and around the corner to ‘Jonnasuns’. OK, we are good, and head that way….hmm..no ‘Jonnasuns’ to be found, looking high and low. Ask a local, get a bit of a blank stare, then the lights come on….”Oh, Jonnasuns!”. And he points up to the second floor of a building, where a small sign says ‘Jonathon’s Restaurant’. Gotta love the dialect! Thank goodness the place has a picture menu cause not a word of English on the menu, nor does any of the wait staff speak it either. Truly amazing to be in such a metropolitan area and have so few who can speak our language – this is like being in a foreign country or something! Finally we sort it out, enjoy a fine dinner, then head up to the counter to settle the bill. Guess what…they don’t take credit cards, nor do they accept American dollars! Yikes…..OK, with nothing more than hand gestures and facial expressions, I give them my best “trust me”, and leave to head back to the hotel where I have a pile of Yen stashed. The cab driver is confused, not to mention he has no idea where my hotel is, but I have enough local road knowledge to get us back there, then tell him to wait, cause the trip is not over! More ‘trust me’s’, I bolt into the hotel, grab my Yen, back in the cab, back to ‘Jonnasun’s’, and I run up to the register. You can see the relief in my waitresses eyes that she is not going to stuck with this tab, I settle up the bill in Yen, we all laugh and share a quick hug, and I head back down to my now thoroughly confused taxi driver and direct him back once again to the hotel. Fare paid, it is time to crash and recharge the batteries for tomorrow’s 4-hour flight to Guam and then on to Truk.

It’s Saturday morning, well at least in this part of the world, and the alarm rings early and time to head out to catch the shuttle back to Narita airport. More great people encountered all the way, gotta love this place! We check in, flight is on time, and sit back to await boarding. Sue gets in a little trinket shopping for her girls (and mom) at home, and we escape to the Delta Crown Room to await our boarding call. This is one first class airline club, with computer stations everywhere (what would you expect in Japan), hot food, and best of all, an automated beer dispenser! How cool is that? Finally time to roll, and we head to the gate to catch the Guam flight.

Prancing on down to the boarding gate, there seems to be more Delta folks than needed for this process. Hmmm, I think…’sup with this? Well as I pass our boarding documents and passports to the gate agent, a voice from my says “Mr. Valaika?” “Dang”, I am thinking, “busted!” The source of the voice sees my acknowledgement, and the crowd parts, revealing one of my Pelican cases and one of Sue’s bags sitting there, looking awfully lonely without their traveling companions. “Is this your bag”, they ask intuitively, seeing that the case is stenciled to match my Indian Valley Scuba shirt. “Yup”, I say, “what’s wrong?” “You have batteries in your case?” they inquire, and with that I look down and see they have already ravaged my rebreather case for it’s batteries, and are now closing in on my canister light. Knowing that further resistance is futile, I nod my head, “yes, I do”. I open my case dutifully; pull my BC wing aside, exposing the case’s contents. I wave my arm, saying “what battery?”, knowing there are a couple of strobes in there, a back-up light, and my canister. They point to my OMS canister, and I open it up, remove the offensive device, and close the case. Security is once again restored…let’s just disregard all those other batteries in there!

Sue’s bag is a similar story, as she is packing a Sartek canister, but again, batteries are safely removed, and relocated to our carry-on bags. Smiles, bows, and thumbs up all around, and we are allowed to pass through the magic gate, with our batteries in hand.

We board and again enjoy some fine service on this four-hour flight to Guam. Somehow I am sensing our Continental inter-island flights are going to be a bit different with regards to the class of service. For now, we’ll enjoy the plush treatment, and hopefully the Asahi-induced buzz will carry me through the next leg of the journey.

Four hours later we can see this little gem of an island materialize out of the broad Pacific, and we know we are close to finally starting this dive adventure! Wheels down, airplane too, and we taxi up to the gate and another immigration test. We pass this one with flying colors, and head into the Guam airport.

OK, this is where it starts to go downhill…first of all, there is no Connecting Flight counter at the Guam airport. What that means basically is you need to get your bags at baggage claim, pass through Customs into the ‘country’, where you need to find the secret elevator hiding in the back (the first indication that actual US tax dollars paid for the design and construction of this airport), then upstairs, to the Continental ticket counter, where we were actually forced to stand in a line! Yo, I am thinking, is there no professional courtesy here, Delta loves me, maybe Continental can too! Nope, that falls on deaf ears, so we meander along in the queue, finally getting up front to gate agent Leo. Well Leo sees the bags piled on the cart and immediately he is thinking “baggage fees” but I do my best to bring him back to reality, and let him know that Guam and Truk are NOT in the same country, therefore, international baggage rules apply. He says “maybe you should speak to a supervisor” to which I reply “Yes, maybe I should!”. Well along come Ms Ann, the supervisor, and she has indeed passed fourth grade geography, knows her countries, and determines that international rules do indeed apply. For those with an accounting background, this little breakthrough saved us about $2,000 in baggage fees for this weeks travel.

So now we are entitled to bags that weigh up to 70 pounds each, ONLY FOR SCUBA GEAR, so she asks “do you have any personal, i.e. non-scuba items in those bags?” So what do you think the answer was? Of course we are diving naked all week! We get past this little test, and I recognize that I do not wish to repeat this effort three more times this week as we move from island to island, so I ask Ann if we can make notes in our passenger record and pay for all our excess bag fees now and never have to revisit this. Well this is new to her, but after giving it some consideration, she agrees it makes sense that we don’t need to re-educate ticket agents across Micronesia, and edits our record to show we are now clear all the way through. Whew! Finally we are done, pass our bags to the scanners, and head upstairs through security. Well, this is where it was obvious that American tax dollars were being spent…and not in a good way. Too many under-employed blue shirts here, courtesy of tax payers like me, and as we pass through the line, they decide that my bag is too “cluttered” for them, so they need to un-clutter it and pass it through the scanner in pieces. Whatever! Again, clueless on the battery packs and coiled wires, but who am I to point out what might be considered a bit odd! My flip flops get sent through by themselves, perhaps it was that bottle opener built into the bottom that threw them off!

Needless to say, after experiencing the professionalism and efficiency of Japan’s security system, it is truly an embarrassment to be an American and represented by such incompetence as the TSA. From the cell phone yacking guy in the front of the line (yes, I am sure that was a matter of national security he was talking about on his personal phone) to the blue-shirted badge-wearing bitch who did not let us cut over into the empty lane when I asked, only to then let folks about 10 back from us cut over. This is the face of America to the world, and it is one sad face. The only thing lacking here is union organization, wait, that is coming soon too!

We’re joined here by the rest of the IVS gang, including Jim Cormier, Joyce Kichman, Mike Parzynski, Tricia Arrington, Camilo (the Flying) Romano, and joining us for their first IVS adventures are Riley Peeples from Las Vegas, and Daniel Schnell and Tara Hackler hailing from Bend, Oregon. While Sue and I had a leisurely 4-hour layover enjoying the club lounge, the rest of the team had a very tight 30-minute connection in Guam, so it was a quick “hello and let’s get on this plane” at the gate. Amazingly, 100% of the passengers and 100% of the checked bags made it……we are clearly not in America here, ‘cause that would never have happened. The flight is a short one, under an hour and a half, and we touch down (well more like HIT down, I think there was some co-pilot training going on in the cockpit) on the tropical isle of Chuuk. Once there, half the passengers are let off the plane, and the other half, who are heading off to another island, are told to stay in their seats while security sweeps through and inspects the interior of the plane. Odd yes, but couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone on the purpose, so I am thinking that there might be some sort of illegal commerce taking place here under our very eyes!

Once inside the terminal though we are back on island time, and it is evident in the two immigration agents who are the keyway to the island. Molasses would be a sure bet if it was racing against them, as they have a system, very methodical, very slow, ensuring that none of these scuba diving tourists are a threat to the island. Finally we are through, and we pick up our bags, walk by the customs inspectors with a wave, and head out the door. Some of the Odyssey crew is right there to greet us, and they have a bus waiting for us. The bags are loaded into a few pickup trucks, island-style, and we head off to the boat. The information packet said it is about a 20-minute ride down a muddy road, so we figure how bad could this be?

We are joined on this trip by a few divers from around the globe, including Stuart Smith, a retired deputy sheriff from Bellingham, Washington, Super Jolly (yes, her real name) an entertainer from London, Jim & Jay Bell, a father and son team from Kansas City, MO, who happen to have careers in ammunition manufacturing so this trip has some special connections with all the rounds we will be seeing this week, and finally Andy Coull, from North Yorkshire, UK.

So, for those of you who are wondering what this Truk thing is and what is the attraction, it is an island and atoll sitting about 800 miles south of Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific. Back in the 1800’s the Germans had explored the area and claimed the collective group of islands known today as Micronesia under the German flag. During the First World War, the Germans were raiding on British shipping in the Pacific and the Brits asked the Japanese to help out with some naval support. Well talking about giving someone a blank check for national expansion, and the Japanese jumped on the opportunity to grab this bonus land and expand their influence in the south Pacific. Silly Brits, we’ll be paying for this later for sure!

Well sure enough, flash forward 20 years and now the little yellow man is our enemy and they hold some strategic spots thanks to those shortsighted British planners! During the war they built this area up as the headquarters for the Pacific Fleet, and Truk became in important base due to it’s central location and large protected anchorages in the lagoon. In 1944, an American recon plane stumbled upon the Japanese fleet sitting here, and it was decided a serious attack was in order. Of course, the Japanese were not sleeping that day, and most of the warships had moved out of the lagoon before the attack began, so the turkey shoot was responsible for sinking about 50 merchant and support vessels of various types, as well as a few minor warships that were in for repair. And that brings us to today, where we are here to visit the island and explore this bit of war history awaiting us on the bottom of Truk Lagoon.

OK, back to our ride from the airport to the boat, let me say that I believe the last time the roads saw any improvement was during the Japanese occupation in WWII. Top speed was maybe 15 mph, slowing or stopping numerous times to navigate through the bigger, wider, deeper puddles. There was a significant amount of open trenches dug in the road, as if someone was thinking about doing some construction, but without any sign that there was actually going to be anything done. Strange, but true. It appears that our decision to do this portion of the dive trip via a live aboard was a very wise one!

Finally we arrive at the dock, and there is a tender to take us out to the our boat that is moored further out in the dark harbor. Once on board, the crew steps right up to make sure everyone has a cabin, a place to store their gear, and something warm and tasty to eat. Once settled in, we take care of some paperwork, get the waivers signed, and set our gear up for the morning dive, before retiring to our cabins for the night.

The ship layout is great, with cabins below deck as well as a few on the main deck. There is a lounge with TV and other amenities on the main deck, while upstairs is the bar and dining room. Everything is really spacious, especially for a mono-hulled live aboard. Some serious thought went into the design of this boat, and we are thankful for that. And the best part – there are no upper bunks to put Camilo at risk of re-earning his reputation as the ‘Flying Romano’, a title bestowed upon him during our Australian live aboard trip last year.

Morning comes, and the crew begins the daily routine. Hot breakfast made to order, the engines are fired up, and we move to our first location, the Kiyuzumi Maru. This ship was formerly a large auxiliary cruiser, 450 ft long, but the armament was removed. It sits on its port side in 110 ft of water. The damage from the two fatal torpedo hits are obvious with major holes blasted into cargo holds #2 and #3. An interesting wreck, we dove it twice, and it is covered with hard corals, pipefish, and small tropicals. Since the ship was under repair when it was attacked, there was no cargo aboard, although we noted a number of artifacts including the remains of several Japanese sailors who were evidently victims of the attack. We did two dives here, with 85 minutes of bottom time each for me, thanks to the double 80’s that Mike Parzynski and I are using this week. As a side note, all merchant ships carry the suffix Maru, designating them as civilian ships; hence nearly all the ships we’ll dive this week have names that end in Maru. No warships ever carried the Maru suffix.

While we are enjoying our lunch, the boat relocates to our second wreck of the day, the Yamagiri Maru. This 436 ft long large combined freighter / passenger liner had been damaged elsewhere and had put in to Truk for repairs. Bad call, as it turned out, as it was attacked during Operation Hailstorm, and came to rest on its port side after a large torpedo blast struck it in the forward holds. Great penetration opportunities, and a lot of below-decks access, with some more human remains, various other cargo and repair items, and a lot of large artillery shells. It is interesting to note that for the first twenty years of the tourist diving industry here, it was touted that these were 18” shells, used by the largest Japanese front line battleships. Well, some myth-buster sort actually went in a few years ago with, of all things, a tape measure, and put that story to rest. Turns out they are 14” shells, so now the story has been amended. Two more good dives here and it’s time for dinner, before we gear up for our first night dive on this same wreck.

OK, scrap that night dive thought – everyone is so wiped out that we crash after dinner (I actually went to bed before dinner!) and the night dive never materializes. Oh well, plenty of night dives to go this week!

Tuesday morning and we awake to another good breakfast and a briefing for our first dive of the day, on the wreck of the Fumitsuki, a Japanese combination mine layer / mine sweeper that had put in to Truk Lagoon for some repairs. Turns out the morning of the first attack it had both engines disassembled for repairs, and thankfully it was spared in the first wave of the offensive. That gave the crew time to get one of the engines back together, and made it that much more sporting for the US planes to hit a moving target – end result was the same, future dive site created! That’s forward thinking on our part!

Mike Parzynski, Sue Douglass and I geared up to make this a technical dive with some planned deco, since we were only getting one dip on this wreck. Mike and I are wearing double 80’s plus stages, while Sue is wearing, for the first time in her diving career, a 40 CF stage bottle, slung from her spankin’ new Apeks backplate system. We enter, drop down without incident, and make our way to the wreck, which is sitting in 130 ft of water, in a quasi-upright position, with the forecastle split off and sitting askew on the port side, with a nice 5 inch deck gun looking like it is ready for action. The wreck is covered with soft corals and sponges and offers lots of picturesque views as we take it all in. The props and rudder make for a great swim through opportunity, and there are spent shell casings everywhere, so it appears the Fumitsuki went down with all guns blazing. One of the other neat things on this boat was a state-of-the-art (for 1944) rotating on-deck torpedo launcher, complete with a couple of 30-inch diameter x 14 ft long Long Lance torpedoes. Various other artifacts arranged on the deck makes for an interesting conclusion of our tour, and now with approx. 18 minutes of deco obligation we start to look for the up line. OK, maybe it is behind us, so we swim on back a little, nope, it was not this far back, so we go forward again, OK, it was definitely not this far forward. Hmmmm…..seems our friends have pulled the line, thinking no way were there still divers down here. Silly them!

OK so we swim back towards the stern, where I had noticed another mooring line, which I know from the briefing that while it did not make it to the surface at least gave us some reference to ascend with. Up we head, 70, 60, 50 ft…Mike’s first stop is minute at 30, so we hang with him, and then head up to the 20 ft stop, where we promptly run out of ascent line. Well son of a ‘B’, I am thinking, we’re on our own here! So I reach back and grab my lift bag, hook it up to the finger spool, and shoot it to the surface. There, now we have something to hang on to for our extended 10 ft stops. Up we go, and we’re hanging, when out the murk materializes the hang bag and ladders of the Odyssey, as it swings by in a wide arc. We start to swim for it, and Mike and Sue make it, but I cannot due to the drag of the lift bag, so I move forward slowly, figuring what swings left must swing right. Sure enough, here it comes again, and I grab on, and go for a swift ride along with my friends. Oh, son of a gun, there’s the upline, neatly coiled up and hanging off the ladder. So we didn’t miss it after all! Finally our obligations are complete, we hang another five minutes for good measure, and re-board the mother ship, one hour after we had stepped off. The engines fire up, and we head to our next location.

Along the way we pass the Odyssey’s only competitor, the Thorfinn. This live aboard, measuring 170 ft in length, accommodates a larger number of passengers in smaller cabin spaces, but the biggest drawback is – the boat never pulls its anchor! Yes, it is basically a floating hotel, and sits in one location all week, with all the diving done from small launches. Load your gear onto the launch each morning for a two location dive, drive a few miles across the Lagoon in the skiff, dive, hang out on the skiff for your surface interval, dive again, then motor on back for lunch. Sorta like Cozumel, but without the hotel. Very glad we opted for the Odyssey!

Back to diving, next on our hit list is the Heian Maru, one of the largest ships sunk in Truk lagoon. This former luxury liner, 509 ft in length, sits in 120 ft of water on its port side. Originally launched in 1932 it sailed the Pacific for a number of years, calling on ports such as Seattle, before being requisitioned by the Japanese Navy in 1936. Modified and used as a submarine tender, it was under sail when attacked and burned for two days prior to sinking below the waves, with a considerable loss of life. The holds are full of torpedoes, periscopes and various other submarine supplies. Due to it’s original design as a passenger ship, the interior halls and passageways are wide and the rooms spacious, much different than most of the other ships here in the lagoon. We anchored up before noon, and got our first dive in before lunch, a good 60 minutes with depths to 130 ft. After lunch we hit it again and I heard the deep and dark interior calling my name, so Mike P voted to escort me as we explored a bit more of this ship than is visible to the naked eye. Lots of extensive interior passages without direct egress, but Mike’s a great diver and good buddy and we really got a great 70-minute dive in. A bit of surface interval on board, and it was time to splash again this time for a twilight dive. Sue joined Mike and I and we got another 60 minutes at 120 ft in, ending well after dark. Time for dinner, and then a few are heading back in for a night dive. Dinner is calling, and another early bedtime.

Wednesday and it’s time to dive a few new wrecks. First on the list is the Kensho Maru, a 385 ft long freighter that was already in need of repairs when it put into Truk lagoon. It had been bombed elsewhere and the damage was stabilized, and repairs had been underway when it was hit again during Operation Hailstorm. The crew attempted to run it aground while a fire was blazing on board, but they managed to get the fire under control and aborted the intentional grounding. Bad idea, cause the next wave of attacks put it on the bottom anyway, but in water too deep to save her. It is sitting upright with a slight list to port, and offered a great penetration dive for Mike P, Sue D and I to explore deep into the engine room and associated areas. A great 65-minute dive with a max depth of 114 was the right way to start this day of diving. I had switched over to 100% O2 for my safety stops as I noticed a small bit of skin bends from the previous two days of exploration.

After that dive we moved to our second location for the day, the 500 ft long tanker sits nearly perfectly upright on the sandy bottom at 130 ft. It is a massive wreck and one of the few tankers that were sunk in the attacks on Truk. An interesting feature of this particular ship is that it served as a common medical facility for the ships it fueled and as such it had a complete operating room on board, remnants of which are evident today with an autoclave, operating table and various medication bottles and instruments. Very cool indeed.

We did three dives here, with my final dive being the best. Todd, our second captain, was looking to shoot some video and offered to take me for a tour, and we headed down to the wreck. Our goal was the engine room, with a novel entry route – right down the smoke stack! Twisting and winding our way down approx 80 ft into the stacks, we emerged in the massive engine room and spent the best part of an hour working our way through this labyrinth of compartments and machinery. Truly a great tour and a super way to end an already fantastic day of wreck diving!

Thursday morning and ho-hum, it’s another day of great Truk Lagoon wreck diving – we must soldier on! Our first location was the Hoki Maru, a freighter sitting upright in approx 170 ft of water. Great coral formations, lots of life, and perfect overhead lighting from a clear sunny sky made it a dramatic dive. This ship had been carrying aviation gasoline and construction equipment, sort of an “airfield in a can” of you will. I am sure that many sailors longed for the day they got to drive the big boat, but I can tell you when that day came for the helmsman of the Hoki Maru, it was not a good day. A direct bomb hit in the cargo hold immediately in front of the pilot house, into a hold filled to the brim with drums of aviation grade high-octane gasoline, cause this ship to absolutely filet itself from the pilot house forward, peeling the hull sides completely outward and wrapping the deck right up and over the pilot house, surely crushing anyone inside who had not died already from the explosion. The amount of destruction was beyond words, a testimony to the petroleum refining capabilities of the Japanese industrial sector. Approx 150 feet of this ship essentially disappeared in a heartbeat, leaving the forecastle section attached by the keel only. There is not a bit of cargo debris evident in the area, with everything exploding and being thrown clear of the ship.

But the highlight of this wreck is the construction equipment and supplies carried in the rear cargo holds. Bulldozers, steamrollers, tractors, trucks of all sorts and more lined the various levels of the holds, ready to be hoisted up and contribute to the Japanese war effort – that is until the good guys took care of that! Airfield mesh matting, sacks of concrete, timbers, wiring, everything you would need to build an airstrip in any jungle was loaded on this boat. Due to the depth, one dive to 140 ft for 80 minutes is all we did here, but it was one memorable dive indeed.

Deco obligation satisfied, we moved on to the Fujikawa Maru, another freighter, 437 ft long sitting in 140 ft of water, nice and upright. The ship holds an interesting array of cargo, including several early model war airplanes, lots of drums, airplane parts, piles of ammunition, and miscellaneous other items without clear rhyme of reason for being all on the same ship. The Odyssey crew was somewhat unclear of whether this ship was coming or going in the big scheme of things. Well, one good dive cleared that mystery up for me! The airplanes, besides being very early models from the war, had no engines or instruments. The drums, all fully bunged tight, were crushed, indicating they were empty when the ship sunk. 100% of the ammo had spent primers, with no live rounds evident. The propellers were all either bent or otherwise damaged, the rolls of electric wire were all somewhat short….get the picture? This ship was hauling precious scrap metal back to Japan for re-use when it met its demise in Truk Lagoon. Funny, isn’t it, here we are 65 years later, and the Japanese freighters are still hauling our precious scrap metal away from America’s shores to be made into new products in the Far East and shipped back to American consumers. So in the end, who won this war anyway?

After lunch, Capt. Nelson offers to give Sue & I a special tour, and of course we accept. Down we go, then off to the starboard side of the ship, and we enter the ship via Hold 4 like the first American offering did – that being the torpedo! The damage is unbelievable, with huge sheets of ¾” thick steel plate literally curled back onto itself like so many sheets of paper. Not only in the blast hole, but also through the next bulkhead into Hold 5. And look upward, and 50 feet above our heads the scene is repeated as the blast just tore right up through the main deck – way to build those torpedoes! After a few minutes taking in the magnitude of the blast, and considering how it felt to be a sailor on board that fateful day, we then turned forward and passed into the engine room spaces. Twin 3-cylinder steam engines powered this ship, and the heads are enormous. We pass through there, then a level lower, to the electrical switchgear, then lower, to the engine telegraph, where you can still see the last setting that they got from the bridge – “Full Astern”. Past tons of machinery and piping, to the machine shop, where the famous R2D2 air compressor is located. Made famous by the Star Wars movie, this is actually just a low pressure compressor that happens to bear a strong resemblance to the movie character, and is one of the most common photographs you see when Truk Lagoon is the topic. After that we enjoy the rest of the machine shop, complete with central overhead pulley system, and then back out through more machinery, finally ascending to the galley. Here we have a huge wood or coal burning stove, a couple of big rice pots, and the rest of what you might expect in a commercial kitchen. After that we pass by a few bathroom areas, complete with large tiled soaking tubs for the crew (maybe) or officers (much more likely). Through the bridge which caught hell the day of the attack, and up past some collections of artifacts that divers have piled in a few areas on the deck. Another 106 ft dive for an hour and 25 minutes, and we’re back on board for a little surface interval.

But as soon as I strip out of my gear, here comes Camilo to the dive deck, and he had a rough experience on his second dive, rough enough that he was considering hanging it up and working on his Lebanese tan the rest of the week. Well we’ll have none of that on an IVS dive trip, so I tell him to saddle up and let’s get back in the water. “No, no”, he protests, “let me alone”, “No way, Pilgrim”, I inform him, “there’s a dive site calling your name right here”. We do the dance for a little while, but my perseverance eventually whittles him down, and he gears up for a one-on-one, ‘get right back in the saddle after your horse throws you’ dive with me. I ask him what he would like to see, and he tells me “the torpedo hole and the airplane parts”. “Well it’s your lucky day, my friend”, I reply, “cause I happen to know where all those items are!” We dress, and I have to decide whether to wear the nice and comfy shortie or the full suit. I go for the short suit, thinking, “Heck what can go wrong?” Little did I know….but more on that later.

We splash on in, descend to the wreck, and I take Camilo on a nice tour, crossing off everything on his personal hit list. As we are taking a look at the commemorative plaques on the main deck, who swims by but our new friend Super Jolly (yes, that is her real name) who is carrying her camera system with her. I catch her attention and motion that I’d love to get a shot of Camilo and I on this special dive together. She understands, and I grab Camilo and get him behind the plaque for the photo with me.

This is where the dive takes a terrible turn…….as we are positioning ourselves for the photo, I want to make sure we get the plaques in the picture too, so I need to move us a little to the left, so I motion for her to wait, and as I shift over, suddenly I get the sensation that I buried my left leg deep into the dead center of a wasp nest. This was NOT fire coral, not by any means; this was instant tears in my eyes and an audible “WTF” spelled out through my regulator as I retracted my leg. “Quick, take the picture” I plead with Super, and she composes one, then gives us a finger up – wait a minute, as she reviews it, and takes another. This is repeated a third time but by now I cannot hold myself still any longer. I turn around to see what ten-headed, long-fanged, blood-sucking monster had taken a chink out of my leg. All I could see through my tears was a small soft coral, no bigger than a softball, a cute little tan-colored demon that was looking back at me with those Dennis the Menace puppy dog eyes that say, “It couldn’t have been me, Mr. Wilson”. Well that might have fooled your average diver, but not this boy. Just to be sure, I checked around, re-measured my position from where I had posed, and came to the absolute conclusion – this was the offender! Upon closer examination, the cute little tan-colored arms were covered with millions of stinging nematocysts waiting to immobilize or at least cause significant agony to an unaware passing victim who happens to make contact with the critter – well let me update that count, I figure this one is down a million or so, cause there are at least that many exploding inside my leg right now!

OK, if you are not a parent, and are reading this blog, I must ask you to get permission from said parent to read the next paragraph. OK……only adults and minors with permission here now? Let me sum my deepest innermost feelings at that moment for you right here, right now……Jiminy F’ing Crickets, this hurts like a son of a bitch! How could our loving God have given such nuclear-grade defensive power to such a nothing of an animal, yet not give him eyes to recognize that people are their friends too? I am about out of my ever-loving mind with pain right now; imagine maybe 4 or 5 simultaneous lionfish impalements just for shits and giggles. But let’s stay focused; I am here for Camilo to enjoy a good dive, and so dive we must! I soldier on, think about the pain, think about taking a breath, think about the pain, think about kicking my fins, think about the pain, oh yeah time to breath again…I sure hope Camilo is having a good time! We continue on, my dive buddy pointing things out, taking pictures, and I am thinking….is his camera’s SD card ever going to fill up? Finally, what feels like 7 hours later, he motions me that he’s ready to head up, and we start our ascent. The safety stop is the longest 10 minutes for me underwater yet. Finally we re-board and I get my gear off and decide to take a peek at what is going on with my leg.

I rinse off, and douse the affected area with vinegar. It is bright red, and welts are forming, and remember that wasp’s nest? I think I brought it back on board with me! I make it up the stairs and flop down on a chaise lounge, and before you know it Captain Nelson is by my side, taking a good look. Thankfully he just recently completed his EMT training in addition to seeing a multitude of marine life injuries from his work here on the island. He does not recognize the critter that got me, but there’s no doubt that about what is going on inside my leg right now…..zillions of nematocysts explode in sequence, responding to the difference in salinity between my leg tissues and the ocean they are used to. Each one unloads another dose of deadly toxins designed to immobilize or kill their prey or attackers, even though this was surely a mistake in identity on the part of this little soft coral, there is no calling this bullet back into the barrel. It is up to my body to take the pain and get on with healing, and Capt. Nelson is my Nurse Annie (as played by Kathy Bates) from the movie Misery, here to help me get through this. “First and foremost we need hot compresses, as hot as he can take”, the captain tells Tarsy the ships cook, and she heads right to the kitchen to boil some up. He disappears and comes back in a few moments with some industrial strength Benadryl, and Tarsy is here with the towel and boiling water. “Jeesus”, I say, “do we really need it that hot?” “Even hotter,” he says, “but we want to avoid additional blistering”. Comforting, I am thinking, and I brace myself for the treatment. Sue walks up with perfect timing and a couple of icy-cold Dos Equis’s in hand, and I know my medical team has my best interest at heart.

We start with the medicinal alcohol, internally applied as a prep, and I am ready for the treatment. The towel is dipped into the molten water, and draped over my leg, steaming. Lacking a leather belt or stick, I bite my lip to avoid screaming out (and embarrassing Team IVS) as Nelson applies the ‘compress’ part to the hot compress, squeezing it around my leg and I wriggle in pain-induced delight. More Dos Equis, more hot compresses, lather, rinse repeat. Another steaming bucket of water, more beers, this continues on for the next 45 minutes. Why, you are asking, are we adding this additional level of joy to my already colorful afternoon? Because we need to raise the temperature of my body higher than the proteins in the nematocysts can bear, causing them to break down and change their deadly toxins to mere non-deadly toxins for my body to deal with – progress, eh?

Now the site has turned a deep purple, and we’re not talking 60’s music here. Lines of purple discoloration are slowly racing down towards my foot, and my knee is hard to bend. But we persevere, and finally pain stops spreading, so maybe we are making progress! Within 3 hours I am walking with much less discomfort, the knee is bending a bit, and I think Nelson made the right call. Within 6 hours the site is no longer hot to the touch, and I am thinking we’ll be diving again in the morning! To immortalize the event, Jim & Riley make a dive and come back with digital mug shots of my new little toxic friend, to ensure that I, and the rest of our group, give him and his family members wide clearance on the rest of our dives here. We wrap up the evening in the salon watching some classics such as Leslie Nielson’s ‘Airplane’ and a few Jack Black hits too! Aaah, life on the high seas.

After it quieted down for the evening, Capt Nelson took it upon himself to contact DAN via satellite phone to see what he could find out about my coral sting. Amazingly, the folks at DAN had never heard of this, had never seen such a reaction, and together they could not identify the actual soft coral that had caused this condition, even with the photo that Jim had taken. Obviously there was both a soft tissue and neurological involvement, evidenced by the muscular spasms and pain, the radiating pain around the site, the pain in the shin bone, and the deep tissue pain that prohibited me from putting any serious weight on my left leg, and was causing it to stiffen when I was not moving it. Very comforting to know that once again I am the centerpiece of a new DAN medical study – look for my photo on the cover of the next Alert Diver magazine! We’ll be watching this one closely to make sure it does not take a turn for the ugly.

I awake on Friday morning not sure what to expect from the lower left end of my body. As I swing my leg off the bed and attempt to stand, I realize quickly that is not what is about to happen right now. I can’t even put a slight amount of weight on it at first, so it is a very slow and easy transition from the horizontal mode to the vertical one. Wow this puppy hurts! Finally I am fully erect (as in standing, you perverts!) and able to gimp along. I am thinking I will pass on this mornings dives, and for those of you who know me, you know I must be hurting! Our first location after breakfast is the Nippo Maru, a 350 ft long freighter sitting nearly upright in 155 ft of water. The gang does two dives here, and there is plenty to see.

We move for lunch, and then the afternoon location is the Rio de Janeiro. I can’t miss another dive, so I muster up the strength to head down to the dive deck, only to find my BC and other gear has been properly vandalized, or should I say scandalized, by my fellow divers. Four rubber chickens, various other marine critters, and other forms of abuse are evident. Jeeez…a guy misses one morning of diving while lying in the infirmary, and this is what he comes back to! Note to self: Paybacks are a bitch! Anyhow, back to our diving, the Rio de Janeiro is a 480 ft long luxury passenger ship that was pressed into service by the Japanese military in various roles as a submarine tender, troop transport, and cargo ship. The load it was carrying at the time of the attack included some gun turrets designed for shore emplacements, munitions, and beer – plenty of it! Any good navy runs on its liver, and the Japanese were no different. There is one complete cargo hold full of the precious elixir, a testament to how important it was to the troops. A couple of picturesque deck guns, a really cool engine and machinery area, and some remnants of the ships previous life as a luxury liner rounded out a great final dive for Team IVS on the Odyssey.

We are catching a mid-afternoon flight tomorrow, so we’re calling it quits after this afternoon’s dive. By doing so, we end up with a two hour connection for our flight when we disembark on Saturday. For the rest of the divers on board, when they disembark Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m., they have an 18-hour wait in the scenic Truk airport before their 1:00 a.m. Monday morning departure. I like our plan better, and giving up two dives here that will be added on when we get to Palau Saturday afternoon.

Friday night we get our last dinner aboard the Odyssey, and it’s a surf & turf special, very nice indeed! We follow that with a great viewing of the video that Todd has been shooting all week, and it’s a good one indeed, so of course here comes a copy home for the shop. After that, and a few rounds of drinks, we are taking turns naming my leg injury, and Gorbachev seems to stick with the dark purple-ish blob resembling the former Soviet presidents birthmark.

Saturday morning is a sad one, with a breakfast dive briefing that does not pertain to us…..this is just wrong! Never the less we pay attention, just in case we get word the airport is shutting down and we’ll have to stay and dive a few more days. Gorby is doing well, feeling a little better today, still just as purple and maybe forming a few pus heads for those following the medical condition. Time to settle up with the ships purser (who doubles as Captain) and everyone turns in raving reviews on the boat and crew. We enjoy some more chit-chat amongst the gang, and more connections are made. Turns out Stuart, who is diving a Cochran also, is a personal friend of Cochran VP Larry Elsevier, who hangs in the IVS booth at Beneath the Sea each year. Amazingly small world it is, and the more folks you talk to, the smaller you realize it is. The rest of the gang gets in two dives this morning, and then we motor along during lunch towards the Blue Lagoon Resort, our departure point from the Odyssey.

One last lunch on board, then it’s time for hugs and goodbyes as we load into the skiff and head to the dock to board our luxury motorcoach transportation to the Chuuk International Airport. Sense the underlying sarcasm there on the bus description, but heck, it beats walking to the airport! We’ll re-visit that thought again in a few; that’s for sure!

At least on this kidney-jarring trip across the island we are in daylight and can actually see what we only surmised on our way in last week. Yes, this island is a major fixer-upper in every direction you look. It appears that the people here were builders and constructors maybe 40 years ago, but mysteriously that generation disappeared, cause nothing, and I mean nothing, has been repaired, modified, or built since then. Truly sad to come off our fine boat and see the squalor that seems to work for the people of Chuuk, not sure what it is that makes them lack any sort of motivation to fix their homes, their cars, or even pick up the trash in their yards. The road was just as bad as it was coming in, but this time our little bus is stalling with great frequency, and each time it is more of a fingers-crossed moment as the driver attempts to restart it. We crawl, bounce, twist and jar our way along, stalling, re-starting, just one long-ass ride to the airport to head onto our next destination. Finally, Riley shouts, “Hey, there’s the airport”, and with one last bump, our bus stalls, and in spite of many tries, our driver cannot make the little machine run again. How fitting, we think, right in front of the airport. So we disembark, grab our carry-on items, and walk the last ¼ mile to meet up with our luggage that thankfully has made it to the airport ahead of us.

Bags in hand, we walk up towards the check-in counter but first we must pass through the Chuukese version of a million dollar bag scanner – a couple of locals that root through each and every bag as you walk up to the counter, ensuring the safety and security of airways and saving the airport a few million bucks for sure! Sue & I check in, and of course we have to start with the “too many bags and too heavy bags” thing, which they want us to pay for, but which I direct them to my passenger record showing how all that was negotiated back in Guam and we are good to go here. It takes a while, but the helpful gate agent finally gets it, and my three overweight bags are checked. I look at her and say, “Hey, don’t you think they are going to gate check this carry-on I have here?”, and with a wink of a knowing eye, she says “Why yes, I think so”, and with that, she prints our a fourth baggage ticket for me and slaps it on the bag. Perfect! How about some better seats, I ask, and she says “Come with me”, as she takes me into the back room behind the counter. Here sits Bryan and Douglas, evidently the dogs in he Continental staff on Chuuk, and they not only have a nice office, but they also have the first air conditioned space I have been in since leaving the boat. “Welcome to Paradise”, Bryan says as he offers me a chair. I feel I am in ‘wheeling & dealing central’ here, but that’s OK, because I already saw most of the other local passengers out there on m flight, and I don’t want to necessarily sit next to them for the ride! So we end up with some nice reclining exit row seats for Sue & I, with the center seat blocked out, for a very small upgrade charge, and this is good all the way to Guam, Yap & finally Palau. Sweet! I hang out with them for a bit longer and enjoy the great A/C in their space and finally head out to common area where the temperature is about 90 and the humidity is close to matching that. With boarding pass in hand, we pay our departure tax, pass through immigrations, and get the green light to leave the island. Our group is melting in the heat, but finally security opens, and we figure it has to be cooler on the other side. More hand-checking of the bags, one metal detector to walk through, and we’re in the international boarding lounge, which is NOT air-conditioned. Who on earth would build a lounge in a place like this and not even design A/C into it? There is no ductwork or any other indication that A/C was even a thought. Man, this is one long wait for the only plane of the day to land, which is the same one we’ll be heading out on. Mike asks me how it feels to actually be ahead of time and wait for a plane, and I tell him I had heard about people doing this, but had no idea it was this painful! I will stick with the Valaika method of airport travel, thank you.

Now it’s getting near time for our plane to arrive, the one flight for today, that will turn around and leave with us on the way to Palau. But before the plane comes in, we notice a flurry of activity on the runway, and quite a few guys in shiny silver suits climbing up into the three crash trucks that are parked in front of the terminal. They fire them up, and pull out, doing a series of donuts and figure eights like a Nascar crew, perhaps to warm up the tires. Then we start testing the top-mounted fire cannons, now we are testing the under-belly foam dispersement systems. Man, is this the sort of preparations you want to see for your flight coming in? Not me, that’s for sure!

So the plane successfully lands, with wheels down, no smoke or fire or explosion, and the passengers disembark. Meanwhile the crash trucks re-position themselves for our take-off, and I am wondering whether these guys know something we don’t or they are just playing the odds, figuring that something bad is gonna happen some day, and perhaps today is that day. Let’s hope not!

Finally we board and we’re off, waving goodbye to Chuuk and looking forward to part II of our adventure, Palau.

We are joined at the airport in Guam by the balance of the Polish contingent, John Zyskowski, John Glodowski, and Bill Zyskowski. This rounds our group out to 13 for the balance of the trip, and we are excited about seeing our new/old friends and moving on to Palau for the next part of this adventure. We board our flight for the trip to Koror, our island of choice in the nation of Palau, with one short stop scheduled on the island of Yap.

Take off is smooth, nothing to report, and it is a short trip to Yap. We land, but before we do, the flight attendants announce that security will be on the plane while it is on the ground; so all passengers seated on the left side of the plane must disembark. Bathrooms will be locked and there will be no moving around the cabin while security is on board. Hmmmmm….

So after the people who were actually coming to Yap get off, the rest of the left-side passengers get off and are led into a special holding room. Security boards the plane, and boy are these guys motivated to find something. Every seat cushion is pulled up, every bag in the overhead is rooted through, every seat back pocket is searched, and each seat headrest is moved and checked. Once done with that side the passengers still on board are moved and the exercise is repeated for the other side of the plane. Lord knows what they are looking for, especially considering that everyone that boarded came through airport security to get on the plane. And, as might be suspected, they find…..nothing. Passengers re-board, new passengers come on, and we complete our journey on to Palau, arriving at 1:00 a.m.

Representatives from the Sea Passion Hotel meet us at the airport, and they whisk us and our luggage aboard a very-well running shuttle bus and we head over to the hotel. Everything is in order, rooms are ready, keys, etc. – cannot say enough about the efficiency and friendliness here so far. It’s late so no partying for this crowd, we all crash and get ready for the morning.

Sunday comes and we are greeted to a first-class breakfast experience, while we wait for our ride over to Sam’s Tours, our dive operator here in Palau. Soon enough, the boats pull up to the dock right off the lobby, and we load up and enjoy a scenic ten-minute ride through the bay to Sam’s. Once there, this place is like a machine, with literally hundreds of divers, maybe 40 or so staff, and more buzz than a beehive, but there is nothing but positive energy, smiles and greetings from everyone you meet. Paperwork is completed, our boat crews introduce themselves to us, and John & I go about getting our rebreathers set up for the morning dives. John has already arranged everything we need for diving our machines here; I love the guy for his thoroughness! We are heading out in two boats today so we divide up and load our gear into the skiffs.

Now back to my leg problem, it seems that ‘Little Gorby’ is acting like his namesake, not happy with a piece of my leg, he wants it all. And while he’s at it, let’s invade the knee and foot also. This boy is hurting but we have diving to do, so I gimp along and get on board. The pain and swelling now involves my entire calf, so the Cypro that Tricia has been so kind to give me is clearly not helping the cause and I sense we have a losing battle going on here from my body’s point of view. I am thinking perhaps it needs some direct pressure; that works so well for so many wounds, so let’s go diving!

Our crew today is Dexter, our captain, Jimmy, our lead dive guide, and Laura, our DM. We head out and our first run to outside the reef is over an hour away, and our boat with its twin 150 HP Yamaha outboards is moving! But boy what an hour of breathtaking views and scenery it is! We pass probably a hundred islands on our way, weaving and working our way through the clear aquamarine water and reef system to covers this area. First stop is at another boat working out here, and our crew delivers a few packs of cigarettes to the crew, for which they are grateful! Such a spirit of cooperation here – it’s not likely you would see that in Key Largo! We pass a few sailboats and yachts that are cruising about, and finally come to a stop at an area they call Big Drop-off. It is a wall dive, and the name is fitting, as the wall starts at about 20 ft, then angles downward to about 18,000 ft of depth, so make sure you have everything clipped on tight!

We splash, via back-rolls over the gunnels of our skiff, check our weighting, and head down. The visibility is well over 200 ft, you can see forever. The wall is beautiful, covered with life of all sorts, and the variety and quantity of fish is truly amazing. Even better are the sharks, and we enjoy 6 or 8 on our first hour-long dive with depths of 60 to 100 ft. The machines are working well, with only minor alarms which clear quickly – Poseidon should re-think those sensor alarms and if they clear after one minute, maybe they should not annoy you with the “abort now!” message on the display and the buzzing and flashing red lights…..I’m just saying! Finally the dive comes to an end, and we shoot a marker buoy, and the boat motors over to retrieve us. Getting back on board is pretty straightforward with a nice ladder arrangement they have, but it is still more than painful for me to get up with my gimp leg. Next dive I will ditch the gear in the water!

A short run and short computer-based surface interval and we are ready to dive again. This time it is Blue Holes, so named for the four deep holes in the top of the reef formed as solution caves during the ice age when they were above the water line. The holes start on top of the reef, and drop down well over a 100 ft deep with nice swim-thru’s out to the open sea. Truly beautiful to enjoy, we visit a few of them and then head along the reef towards Blue Corner. Again the reef life is phenomenal, with sharks, turtles, and more filling your view no matter which way you turn. Again, the end comes too soon, but we’ve been down an hour, and up goes the marker, here comes the boat, and we head up. This time I drop the rebreathers and boarding is somewhat less painful, but without a doubt there is something very wrong going on here in my body. I cannot get comfortable aboard the boat and my breathing is labored, and the pain is reaching new heights in my leg. Like Steve Martin’s character is ‘The Man With Two Brains’, if it would just give me a sign, let me know something is wrong, then I would know stop diving and get it checked out!

We motor along back in the direction we started from this morning, and finally tie up in an area known as German Channel. Here we enjoy some fine sandwiches that the crew has brought for us, and drinks from the cooler. The generosity is really something, and we have been snacking and drinking all day long here, the cooler is filled to the brim with a variety of sodas and juices. Sam’s Tours is scoring big points with us that’s for sure!

Finally it is that magic time again…time to dive! I half-consider sitting this one out (take that as a measure of how my leg is feeling!) but no, my gills over-rule that vote and we need to dive! So I painfully gear up, and we drop once more, onto a very different area of the reef system. We are not down in the water five minutes before the first manta ray passes us….wow! Sharks abound, tuna are buzzing us, and the biggest tabletop corals are all around us. This place is phenomenal! Of course, being inside the reef, viz has dropped to about 50 ft, but what a fifty feet of view it is! More manta rays, five or six in total, visit us, probably two dozen sharks, and more fish biomass than we saw all last week in Chuuk. The variety and density of sea life here just blows me away! A big Napoleon Wrasse puts on a show for us, Clarinet Fish, Unicorn Fish, Tuna, Reef & White-Tipped Sharks, Rays, Nudibranchs, Turtles, you name it, we are looking at it! This is how the sea should look!! Indian Valley Scuba will be back to this island for sure! Finally, another hour has passed and we sadly must return to the boat. This time, even with gear off, I have a hard time getting back on board….this might be my sign, when I can no longer get back on the boat!

Back to the dock we head, and before we even tie up, Jim, Riley, Joyce, Bill & John are gearing up to jump in for a dive right there in the lagoon. There are Mandarin Fish to see in the rocks, plus clown fish, squid, and all sorts of other critters. You certainly won’t run out of dive options here! Plus we have a night dive in a couple of hours too! And while you are waiting, Sam’s has a full bar and grille right there under the roof to take care of any hunger or hydration needs!

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, our dive guide Jimmy has taken it upon himself to arrange for one of the Sam’s Tours vans to run me to the hospital. Talk about customer service! The driver runs me over, stopping at the hotel first to grab a clean shirt and my wallet, and then he whisks me off to the Belau National Hospital, in fact the ONLY hospital in the entire country of Palau! I silently prep myself for what may lie ahead for my leg and me!

OK, step one is the language barrier. Now the good news is this is nothing like my visit to one of Germany’s Krankenhaus’s last year with the English-Belgian-German-Belgian-English train of interpretation that I needed to survive that incident. If you missed that here’s a link to that blog entry.

First of all it is Sunday and the hospital is closed for the weekend, yes, closed. But thankfully the ER is open, although they charge a premium for anything done on the weekend. Yikes….my butt and wallet share a pucker at that thought! So back to the language, I walk in the ER and there are two nurses at what appears to be the front desk. They do NOT speak English, so I am sensing this could be a bit more challenging than explaining say, a broken arm or bleeding puncture wound, something perhaps a little more visual than an infection. Thankfully they point down a hallway and there behind the little window is a girl who speaks perfect English and gets me to fill out all the key forms and we start talking about insurance and other financial matters. She gets enough out of me to allow me to pass through the next door, and back to the station with the non-English speaking girls. She gives them direction and before you know it I am weighed, measured, my blood-pressured and temperature checked, oxygen in my blood verified, and my ears and nose are peeked into! Vital signs recorded on the paperwork, I can pass through the next door, where another fellow is sitting at a desk. He says, “Hello, I am Isaia” and extends a hand, so we are off to a good start. I respond with “Hello there, I am David, and what may I ask is your role here?”. He answers, “I’m your doctor”, “Great”, I say, “I’m your patient!” We share a laugh, and get started. It seems that good doctor Isaia Mekoll is trained in Anesthesiology and a graduate of Fiji’s School of Medicine. Well I was just telling the van driver on the way over that what I needed was a good anesthesiologist, so my prayers have been answered! And of course he’s a diver, so we connect nicely as we talk about Truk Lagoon, diving in general, the amount of staph in the ocean, and other related topics. We talk about my encounter with my prickly poisonous friend under the sea, and the cool looking souvenir I am now carrying around in my body from that experience. He recognizes that we are dealing with a pretty serious infection here, and is relieved to hear it is not apparently into my lymphatic system…yet. So I say, “let’s keep it from getting there, eh?” So we pull out the big guns and determine that oral antibiotics are not going to do the trick, we need intravenous injections, around the clock. You are going to have to come to the hospital at least four times a day for the rest of the week so we can administer them. Reaching deep down into my bag of buzzwords, I say “Hey I’m an EFR instructor and have my EMT training, I am sure I can administer the IV’s this week”. OK, so the second part was a bit of a stretch, but I know some EMT’s and I did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express one night! “Great”, he says, “that will make it much better”. Whew…problem number one solved, and I am thankful I packed my little while nurses hat for this trip!

So he prescribes Cefazolin Sodium, and sends me back into the ER to get my IV port installed, my “loading dose” of drugs, plus to put together my “carry out” order of drugs and paraphernalia. OK, so I walk in the room and Nurse Rita says here, lie down here on the stretcher. I am looking at the two dark spots on the sheet, and wondering what tissue groups they might be comprised of, when Rita laughs and says “don’t worry, it’s clean. We are very poor here and have to use our sheets until they are so think you can look right through them”. Whew…that is what I was seeing, the black mattress behind the white sheet. Heartbeat, returns to normal, I carefully lay myself down on the stretcher, doing my best to avoid touching any parts! Rita prepares my IV and thankfully all the wrappers are being opened on the sterile products for the very first time. She and I are chatting about working with such a limited budget, as she is looking at my arm for a good vein. I typically don’t have very prominent veins, but I can assure you today that anything that can hide inside my body is, including the veins! So she reaches into her pocket for a tourniquet, and as she wraps it around my arm, I ask, “Is that a party balloon?” To which she replies, “yes it is.” Oh man…….

So she pokes and stick me a few times, thankfully with a new needle, and each time the well comes up dry. Dr. Mekoll pokes his head in to see how we’re making out, and assures me that Rita is one of the best; she’ll find a good vein. I thank him for using new stuff on me, and he laughs, tells me the hospital has a stringent ‘3R” program…..re-cycle, re-condition, and re-use. Thankfully they are not enforcing that on this gringo today – at least I hope! He chuckles and leaves the room, and Rita continues her quilting project, sticking me, getting nothing, sticking me again. Like the girl in Meatloaf’s ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Lights’ I tell her “come on baby, I can last all night!” Finally she tires of my babble, and leaves the room for reinforcements, bringing her supervisor Jocelyn in. Ms J moves over to my right arm, brings out some real surgical tubing for a tourniquet, and gets a rise out of one of my veins near my wrist. She sticks me, and I ask, “Isn’t that a little close the joint?” “No, it will be OK”, she assures me, and turns me back over to Rita to continue. My confidence skyrockets here and Rita mixes up the first two vials of Cefazolin and loads the bag of IV saline with the juice for my first dose. She starts the drip and we chat while the reinforcements are racing in to help my body defeat this invader, and I ask how does she go about getting new sheets for her beds here. She tells me sometimes they bring them from home or get hand-me-downs from the floors but it is never enough, sometimes they just put blankets down for patients to lie on.

Time for some “give back” action here. I will be purchasing a few dozen flat twin size sheets at home and mailing them to Rita’s attention here at the hospital, and welcome anyone who wishes to join me to do so, just drop them off at the shop and Bev will be putting the package together next week. Rita is overwhelmed at the thought, and brings Jocelyn back into the room to thank me too. I assure them, this is the very least I can do for someone who is working so hard to help me here.

My drip finally finishes, and Rita roots through the supply closet to get me enough syringes and tips for the IV so I don’t need to practice the “3 R’s” back at the hotel. I thank her immensely, pack everything up, and head back out to the billing department. My first contact is there, and she tells me they checked it out, and cannot accept my insurance here, so could I please pay the bill? That ‘puckering’ sensation returns, and I ask what the damages are, remembering this is a Sunday visit to a closed hospital and premium charges will be incurred. She is still typing over there, and it is a lot. Let’s see, admission, ER fees, doctor consultation, IV and drugs, 16 more doses of drugs for me to take with me, plus a box of needles bandages, tubing, etc. I am thinking I might be washing bedpans here for a while to settle this. Finally, she is done, and passes it through the window to me. Grand total, including follow up visit with the doctor on Wednesday – $151.40. I about fall over and gladly hand her my credit card. Wow!

And I turn around, and who is standing beside me but my driver from Sam’s Tours, Jahan. Turns out he had something to drop off nearby and figure he’d check in to see if I was done yet. How’s that for service? So I jump back in his car, we make a stop for hydration products at a local market, and he takes me back to the hotel. Nice fat tip for my new friend from Bangladesh, and I am good for the night. The girls at the hotel front desk were very helpful in assisting me in getting to the hospital, and when I return they ask me how I am doing. Even better, when I get to my room there is a basket of fruit and a “Get Well =Mr. Dave” card from them. Sweet!

Camilo and Sue join me for dinner, and while we’re eating the gang returns from the night dive, just gushing with what they saw and how well it was done. Sounds like we really hit a home run here with Sam’s Tours in Palau! As much as I wished I was there with them, I knew I was doing the right thing by sitting out and treating my leg….wait, did I just say that???

The rest of the dive gang returns from the night dive, sharing more great stories and sightings, thank you very much. But the big news of the day comes from Tara – Dan proposed to her today on the beach! How special does that make this trip now?

Midnight comes and it’s time for my next dose, and I mix up the drugs, re-load the saline bag, and cannot get a drip started for the life of me. I check, double-check, and re-check everything, and it is the port that is not letting the saving juice pass into my being. Wait, if I wiggle my wrist just right, and bend my hand just this way, yep, there’s the needed drip. I knew I was on the mark when I commented to Jocelyn about it being so close to my wrist joint! Finally it’s all in, I flush the plumbing, and get some rest. My 6:00 a.m. alarm goes off and like an addict; it is time for my drugs!! I mix up a batch, load the bag, and shit, cannot get a drip started to save my life…or my leg! Darn it…..to the shower, and call down for a cab to take me back to the hospital and get this port re-done. My driver meets me downstairs, Deniz is his name, and we chat all the way to the hospital about the country, it’s history, and the people. Very learned guy, with great English, and here he is driving a cab. I tell him I might be a while and he says, “No problem, I will wait”. So I go inside and once again the nurses don’t speak good English and just about when the feeling of frustration starts to take over, a voice besides me starts rambling on to the nurse. Why it’s Deniz, and he is here translating. More customer service above and beyond. She understands and without a moments wait there is Nurse Jay standing alongside me, and he asks all the important questions and we get right into the ER to make it right. Now a personal observation, I recognize my sheet from last night, so not sure what the linen changing policy is here but glad I have clothes covering most of my body as I lay down!

Jay is from the Philippines, turns out her came here with his father, who is a commercial farmer, to pitch a pineapple plantation to the former President of Palau, but that idea got nowhere, but in the meantime he met his future wife here, so he never went back home. He was already a registered nurse so he started working at the hospital and here we are today! Cool story. So he takes one look at the IV port and says “why did they put it so close to the joint?” Duh……why do you think I am here today! We laugh, he gets onto the sticking process, only pierces me four times before we get a gusher, and it’s on my preferred left hand too! So I say, “hey, great job! How about we test it out with a dose of medication?” So he mixes up a batch, hooks up the plumbing, and shazam…..nothing! Hah! Always check your work, I am thinking! Sure enough, he had taped the port down too tightly and collapsed my vein on it, so we re-did the taping, got a good drip, and I leave the hospital feeling pretty good about things, especially the fact that there is no charge for today’s work, not even the drugs!

Sure enough Deniz awaits, and he shares more history and stories on the way back to the hotel. I ask him what I owe him when we get there, and he says “$7 for the trip over and $7 for the trip back, and can I ask for $2 for waiting for you?” Now he waited nearly an hour at the hospital for me, so here’s a $20 and he starts rooting for change before I stop him. He gives me his cell phone number, and I tell him maybe I’ll have him give me a bit of a tour if I get bored tomorrow, and he lets me know that will be no problem! Another friend in Palau! Nice.

So now the blog takes an interesting turn, cause the dive reports will be coming at you third hand as I enjoy the next few days of this underwater paradise through the camera lenses and stories of my diving buddies here. Needless to say, the abuse is unending as I continue to nurse this darn leg infection. Who’d of thunk that a cute little soft coral could wreak such havoc into this mans plans!

So today’s report includes another great day of many dives (none that I did, thank you!) but at least my gear was being cannibalized by my team and various parts were involved in all dives today. Somehow I should feel thankful for that….why don’t I? Anyhow, back to the report…it was raining cats and dogs and the seas were a tad rough, but our team made it out to the first stop, which was Blue Corner, an area with typically strong currents and lots of life. Here they would get to use for the first time the famous Palau Reef Hooks, basically big marlin hooks with the tips ground off and a short length of line attached with a clip. You snag the hook on a piece of rock, clip the other end to your BC, inflate a little, and hang motionless as the current blasts past you and the nautical show unfolds live right in your face. Sharks galore, more turtles than could be counted, Napoleon Wrasse and the rest of the usual cast of characters that make up each dive here. An hour bottom time, finished with a drift to the boat. The lead instructor on the boat commented to our group that is it is not often that he encounters a group of divers who exhibit such great dive skills, buoyancy control and just general good reef ethics as ours….very cool to hear that from someone who sees dive groups every day of the year!

The crew then moved the boat to close to the second location, and beached it for a while to enjoy our surface interval. Well unbeknownst to anyone, John Glo’s rebreather hose was leaking on the way in, and with the splashing water and noise, he did not hear his precious diluent draining away. So when he checked his gear at the beach, he was sadly disappointed to find his cylinder empty. The average man would have hung up his diving for the day, but not our John! With a sense of ‘can-do’ and the spirit of team cooperation, John and Bill Z pulled out their tool kits and worked together to rebuild John’s rig into a Poseidon-based open circuit system for the balance of today’s dives. Way to go team!

So drop #2 was at Turtle Cove, which lived up to it’s name, another ho-hum dive site with 200 plus feet of viz, more friggin’ turtles than anyone should ever see on a dive that Dave is not making.…whoa….was that my outside voice there? OK, I am doing the right thing, leg is getting better…somehow writing that does not make missing the dives feel any better!!!

On the way back they stopped at a third location and enjoyed yet another spectacular reef dive, sighting three leafy scorpion fish and a playful cuttle fish that hung with our group for quite a while. All in all a great day of diving for most, but not all of Team IVS. Back at the dock, it was another Mandarin Fish spotting dive, followed by a night dive. We (and I use this term loosely) cannot get enough of these great dives in!

Monday midnight and my “time for drugs” alarm goes off, and I cannot once again establish a drip into my friggin’ arm! So I decide to mainline, mix up my drugs, find a big ’ol vein, and drive the juice home. I will beat this bastard infection! Come morning and it’s time to repeat, and I am glad my knowledge of street drug use is coming in so handy here! I need to get back to the hospital and get a good IV port put in!!

So it’s breakfast with the gang on Tuesday, and while most head out, I am heading back to the hospital to see who is sticking folks today. Sue has decided to take a day off from her diving so she joins me as I call my friend Deniz again and have him haul me over to the hospital. Well lucky me, Nurse Jay’s is at the front desk today, so without any formalities, it’s back to the ER ward and we spend a half hour or so applying tourniquets, tapping veins, sticking, un-sticking, and finally scoring a good one in the back of my hand. “Let’s test our work again”, I say, and he agrees, mixing up my drugs (I brought my own today) and sure enough we get a good drip! We clean up, shake hands, and arrange to meet him here tomorrow night at 11 before I head to the airport for my last dosage and removal of the port.

So what to do, I am thinking, and Sue says, “How about we tour the island?” So that sounds like a fine plan, and Deniz has a few good ideas. So off we go, and we get quite a bit of national history as we chug along. Kinda neat that Deniz is both intelligent and well-versed in English so it is a pleasure to ask questions and get credible answers; not always the case when visiting a foreign land. I learn that they don’t use a lot of water towers here, so when the island loses power, which happens with a bit of frequency, if you don’t have some storage tanks of water to draw from, you are screwed – hence the big stainless steel tanks behind out hotel and a few others I have noticed.

Another thing that strikes me here – there is NO trash or litter. And I don’t mean just a little bit, this place reminds me of what a country would look like if the folks from Disneyland were running it. I am utterly amazed at the contrast between Chuuk and here. They recycle here, no one litters, not even along the highway, not even cigarette butts in the street. Absolutely amazing the pride the people of Palau have in how they and their nation look!

On our way we pass by the big chief’s house, the number one guy in all of Palau. It seems that there is one big chief, who is the oldest nephew of the ruling family, chosen by the aunts in that family. He shares the monarchy with the eldest aunt, who is queen. Every state under him has 10 chiefs including one big chief who reports to him. Every village in every state has 10 chiefs too, so I am wondering, how many people here are NOT chiefs of something?? The chiefs all come from the top four clans in each state, ‘Braveheart’-style, with those in clan number 5 to infinitum never ever getting a chance to sit in the chiefs seat. Interesting but it is how it is.

We cross over the ‘Friendship Bridge’ built by the Japanese in 2002 as a sign of reparation after the horrors of WWII occupation to the Big Island, more properly known as Babeldaob. This is a huge island, dwarfing Koror where we are staying by a magnitude of 1,000 or more. It is divided into 10 states, 6 in the East and 4 in the West. The largest state is the first we enter, Airai, and it is the most populated state in Palau. We also learn that each village has a central meeting house, called a ‘Bai’, sorta like a Grange Hall from those in northeast US. But before we can go any further, we need to stop at the local state government facility, and purchase our “tourist permits”, complete with “photography permits”, for visiting any of the cultural sites on the big island. Fifteen dollars later, and many thanks from the state employees, we are on our way. After that, we motor on into the first village, and stop to check out the first Bai. This one is named in named in honor of the canoe warriors who frequently traveled to outlying islands to kick ass and bring home booty. Hence was the life of a warrior-pirate in Palau back then, much like it is in Somalia today .. go figure! They had some really cool 60-passenger war canoes preserved there, and some fantastic story-boards painted inside the Bai’s that told of the events over time that helped shape each village.

Our second visit it to another village and another Bai, but on the way we pass the US Embassy, and in spite of the “No Photography” signs all over the fences, you know I took quite a few, with the wide-eyed security guards looking at me and wondering what terrorist-supporting state I must be from, plotting an attack on the most laid-back island embassy you can imagine. It must really suck to be assigned to Palau if you are in the State Department. At least I got to see where a few million of my tax dollars have gone – it’s the nicest building on the nicest ocean view property in the state of Airai you can imagine.

We also pass by Camp Carter, which is a US military installation here, occupied by a rotating staff of Army Corps of Engineers, Navy Construction Battalions, and civil construction units from various other branches of the US military. Why are we here, you may ask? Part of the world peace initiative keeping the country of Palau happy with the US and not looking elsewhere for aid and support. Sucks that the world needs this, and that we need to pay for it, but glad to not have to worry about the Palau nuclear proliferation program!

Another stop is the Japanese headquarters building from the occupation period, located adjacent to the old airport they constructed for the war. Thankfully the buildings have been preserved exactly as they were abandoned by whatever live Japanese soldiers were in them at the end, because based on the bomb damage and the thousands of bullet pockmarks and artillery round holes through the buildings, you would not have wanted to be there for the last few days under the old management! Some old Japanese war hardware has been brought there for display, including some old amphibious tanks that could travel from island to island – smart idea for occupation of such a country. On our way back to the hotel we pass the State Court House, another Japanese building that escaped the war unscathed due to the reports that US prisoners were being tortured there and was therefore “off-limts” for US bombing missions. It’s ironic that here we are enjoying this beautiful land and visiting old Japanese war sites on the day of remembrance of the Pearl Harbor attack.

It’s evening now and the diving team returns, full of more wonderful stories and sightings from their day at sea. John Glodowski really makes me feel better by telling me that today was the most awesome day of diving he has ever experienced…”Unbelievable”, he says, “like nothing I have ever seen before! Giant bait balls using us to hide from the attacking tuna, sharks everywhere, more turtles, yadda, yadda, yadda..” Thanks John! But seriously, we have surely scored big time with the country of Palau, the Sea Passion Hotel, and Sam’s Tours. Watch for our next trip to this area on the books soon!

An interesting side note of how news travels, here I am watching the news in Palau, via Australia, and there is the Philadelphia Housing Authority up there being investigated for spending $17,000 on a party to celebrate some of its workers completing diversity training. Way to embarrass us, Philly!

Well it is Wednesday now, and for those who are following Little Gorby, here is the updated skinny on my leg. Overall, it seems to be improving but not as much or as quickly as I would like, so today I decide to go visit Dr Roberts, touted as the finest doctor on the island, at his clinic adjacent to the national hospital. Technically, that would also make him the finest doctor in the country, since this island is the only one with a hospital. I like going right to the top!

So the hotel offers me a ride over, and in less than ten minutes I arrive at the Family Surgical Clinic. First things first, out of respect of the local traditions, my shoes come off at the front door, and I realize am in the minority amongst his staff in that I am not chewing Betel nuts, infused with lime and tobacco – sort of a Palau version of Red Man chewing tobacco, but much grosser, especially with all the “spit bottles” next to everyone’s work station….yuck! Like walking barefooted around a medical clinic wasn’t yucky enough already! Thank goodness I am filled to the brim with antibiotics already.

Now it turns out that Dr. Roberts is a graduate of the University of Hawaii, certified by multiple US Medical Boards, has actually worked in some Philadelphia hospitals, as well as half a dozen other locations on the US mainland, plus served a stint in the US military medical corps. He really is first class and a native from Palau who came home to take care of his people. But, I find out when I arrive that unfortunately he has left for the day. I put on my best puppy dog eyes, and tell the staff that when I called this morning they said he’d be in all day and he is the only reason I am here. It works; they call him on his cell phone and he actually drives back to the clinic just to see me!

He comes in and spends two hours sharing stories of locals and tourists who have been stuck and stung here, most survived, others did not, showed me where one guy from Texas died right outside his office after swallowing a man-of-war jellyfish while snorkeling. He tells me about the man-of-war that wrapped around his own neck while snorkeling in Oahu and immediately paralyzed him from the neck down, and how a surfer who was on the beach came in and saved him, injecting him with doses of Benadryl, some sort of epi pen, and morphine for the pain, before driving him 20 miles to a hospital and ultimately saving his life. Amazing. We talk about things like this and he asks what’s in my first aid kit when I dive – I said a lot more now!

He examines my leg and says it appears that there are multiple evils taking place inside me right now, and while some have been responding well to the IV feeding of Cefazolin, other areas are clearly not improving, especially along the shin bone and in two ugly purple blotches on the inside of the calf. He rules out MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus) due to the lack of puss and distinctive odor, so that deadly flesh eater is not the problem. He prescribes two additional drugs to what I am already taking, Rocephin, a different form of antibiotic, which is also administered via IV, and an oral antibiotic Septra. All three drugs now need to be administered in cocktail fashion until I am home Monday and get to see my doctor there, so no diving in Guam for me.

He reminds me that in addition to all the great saline I am getting in my IV’s that I need to hydrate, especially to help avoid deep vein thrombosis during my upcoming long flights. What a perfect segway to ask the direct question of a medical professional – is Coors Light considered hydration? He looks me right in the eyes, and says, “I dive and fish every day I am not working here in the clinic, and what do you think the cooler on my boat is filled with? Yes, David, Coors Light is hydration!” There you have it folks, I’m writing that one down!!!

Now that we have enjoyed a good laugh, he writes me a pile of scripts for all the things I need in my first aid kit so I can purchase them when I get home. Very cool indeed.

We bid farewell, and two of his nurses, Diana and Marciana, come in to administer my drugs and I tell them my IV port (my third one) will not allow for a drip. Dr Roberts sticks his head back in and points out that sometimes these infections change the blood chemistry a bit and cause problems like this with IV’s. I tell him I have been directly injecting the Cefazolin because I needed the hydraulic pressure of the syringe to shove it in, and he says that although I can also do that with the Rocephin, the pain might be more than I wish to bear, so we go about and stick me four more times until we find a place in my body that bleeds freely, and now I have my fourth port installed in four days. Drugs are administered and I get my shoes, leaving with another large box of drugs and paraphernalia under my arm, plus a script to carry my IV gear onto the plane, and my bill ends up at $313 for todays three hours of non-stop professional medical care. Amazing.

My driver from the hotel has come back and the takes me over to the dive shop to see how the rest of the gang made out today. There I meet with Mark, the manager, and Sam, the owner, and we spend an hour or so in a mutual lovefest about how much we enjoyed their operation and how they and their crews enjoyed the professionalism and skills of our divers. It makes me warm and fuzzy inside to hear that as it is something we really live and teach every day, and when professionals take the time out to compliment us on that it really underlines what we are all about. And of course the six degrees of separation comes into play there and we all end up with more connections throughout the industry than you can imagine, including our chosen diver operator in Guam with whom they are best buds with. Great affirmation on that choice. I head back to the hotel and enjoy the last few hours before I need to pack and head to the airport with the gang for the 2 hour flight to Guam.

With no diving scheduled for this travel day, Tricia, Sue, Tara and Dan opted for massages at the hotel. Tricia and Sue enjoyed what Sue described as the best massage she has ever had, and an unbelievable bargain at 2 hours non-stop treatment for a whopping $60. Meanwhile Tara & Dan enjoyed what Dan described as a treatment right out of Josef Mengele’s playbook, including the famous ‘fingers shoved in both ears while stretching his body backwards’ move. Sure sounds like they offer a variety of massage options here! While all that spa action was going on at the hotel, the rest of our group enjoyed a day of snorkeling and visiting Jellyfish Lake and a few other places before bringing the gear in and drying more time. Dinner was at Krammers, a local eatery and pub, and everyone had a blast, with the evening topped off by Mike Parz kicking John Z’s butt in foosball, 10-3. Back at the hotel, we toss back a few cans of hydration and then grab some power naps before the shuttle bus is here to pick us up at midnight to take us to Part III of our Micronesian Adventure – Guam!!

Our shuttle bus is right on time and we head over to the Palau airport. Now keep in mind that I am traveling with a bag full of intravenous drugs, bags of saline solution, and enough syringes to rival any heroin den. So we get through the bag check-in process, stop for some delicious ice cream cones, and head to security. I announce to the security agents that I am carrying a bagful of drugs (those words exactly) and they say OK, and I pass my bags through the scanner. On the other side, they feel an urge to investigate….my carry-on suitcase! They root through my t-shirts and undies, put all my liquids into a plastic bag, put it back in my suitcase (bit not back through the scanner!) and send me on my way. Never once did they ask or look at my “bagful of drugs”. So, tip to anyone considering being a drug mule as a career change, honesty seems to be the best policy – tell them you have the drugs, and you are clear to pass!

We land in Guam at 5:30 in the morning, pick up our rental vans, and check into the Sante Fe hotel. While this certainly is a decent property, after spending a week at the Sea Passion in Palau, this is one terrific letdown. OK, we’ll suffer through, we unpack, some take a nap, and a few of us head out to breakfast and then down the road to find our dive operator, MDA Guam. We locate the shop and head in to see if they are as smooth and efficient an operation as the Odyssey and Sam’s Tours have been so far.

The short answer is…NO! Holy smokes, this is like night and day from what we have been enjoying the past two weeks. Between some employee turnover, some internal communication breakdowns, and just how they do like to do it, this is giving all the signs of a painful experience in the making. For starters, there is only one Nitrox analyzer in the house, and they want every tank analyzed there before we head to the boats. That will add another hour to the loading process. OK, we negotiate our way through this, since we have our own portable analyzer (thank you John Glo) and can take a page out of the Nitrox log, and do our own analysis on the ride out. Then, the boat crews are independent operators, who have “contracts” in four, five and six hour increments for crewing the boats. And, just to add a touch of Cozumel to the mix, they require a one hour surface interval between dives, in spite of the fact that we are doing multi-level dives with computers and using Nitrox. So if we want to add a third location to our dive trips, you need an accountant to figure out the math, between the adjusted crew contract, the surface interval times, run times….you get it. I suggest that perhaps this might be something I can discuss with someone a little higher up the corporate food chain, so the woman handling our group calls someone and says to me, “he’s on his way to the dentist and will call you on your cell a little later”. OK, that will work, and I let that matter drop with a fair degree of confidence that more learned heads will prevail. Then comes the matter of money – we need to pay for the boat charter in full before we leave the dock. Now they already have deposits from us for all three days charters, so they are actually ahead in the money department, but that is conveniently forgotten. On top of that, we don’t know how many are going to make today’s dive after traveling, or how many tanks we’ll need, or how many Nitrox, but she demands we pay the bill now. OK, let’s play fantasy land, and make up some numbers so she can push keys at the register, knowing full well that no matter what we say or she inputs, it will be wrong and we’ll be back to adjust it later. Go figure….all part of MDA Guam process. So we pay some amount, and head back to the hotel to gather the troops for a briefing.

As we pull up to the hotel, my phone rings, and a voice on the other side asks for Dave Valaika. I identify myself, and he says, “Are you going to come diving today with MDA?”. “We just left the dive shop and set everything up, may I ask who is calling?”, I say. “This is Scott”, he tells me, and that certainly clears it up….NOT. “Are you with MDA?”, I ask, and he replies “Yes.” OK, we’re dealing with a master of communication here, I am surmising. So I lead with a probing question, “Are you the fellow who was supposed to call me from the shop about our diving?” “Yes”, he offers. “Oh OK, you were heading to the dentist earlier, thanks for calling back” I say, trying to warm up the conversation from dead cold a bit. “No”, he says. OK, that worked well. So I start, introducing myself, a little about our group, our dive experience overall and specifically what we have been doing for the last two weeks, trying to establish some sort of rapport here. So I explain that we are doing multi-level dives, diving with Nitrox, using computers, and will not be going into deco. So we’re trying to figure out how to get our three dives in without needing to spend 6 hours on the water, by using prudent surface intervals and conservative dive profiles. Scott tells me “I can’t tell you that you can do less than an hour surface interval; I’d get in trouble with PADI if I did”. “Really?”, I ask, where do you find minimum surface requirements in PADI’s standards?” “That’s what PADI requires”, he states with authority, and I quickly recognize that I am talking to a synchronized-stepping block of stone, not a dive professional. It is truly disappointing to have folks like this in any position of authority or management, just continuing to pump this absolute BS out to those who listen to them. I decide to give up on the three dives attempt; we’ll stick with two and then do shore diving to satisfy our nitrogen-infusion needs.

Anyhows, we leave, and Bill Z, John Z & Joyce get a shore dive in at Gun Beach. They report “We are not in Palau anymore!”. Coral lacks color and life, fish counts are low, the highlight is the good viz. After that we gather for our briefing, get the head count for the afternoon boat, and head back to the dive shop. Poor Jim C is not looking good at all, and decides to sit the afternoon out in hopes of feeling better tomorrow. The rest of the gang get in two nice dives, the first being at Blue Hole, a nice drop-off with some holes down through thee reef with dramatic exits at 125 ft. This would be really cool if the shop, knowing where we were planning to dive, had not mixed up nice 34% EAN mixes for the gang, so 1.6 ppO2 was screaming on everyone’s computer as they exited the side of the hole. I suppose that whole oxygen toxicity thing is a guideline here, probably that is what was removed from the PADI manual and replaced with that Guam-specific one hour surface interval rule. After that adrenalin rush, the second dive was on the Tokai Maru / Cormorant dive site, a wreck site unique in that two ships sunk there, the Cormorant from WWI, and the Tokai Maru, a casualty of WWII. The two hulls sit side by side at 110 ft of depth, and they are a decent dive. Two nice dives overall, and they head back in to the dock. Back at the hotel, we headed over to Vitale’s Italian Restaurant for dinner, drinks and laughter, before everyone retired for the night and some well deserved sleep.

It’s Friday now, well at least for us (it’s still Thursday for the folks at home!) and we head out for our morning dives. We do have a nice 48 ft Newton for our charter, and there is plenty of room for ballroom dancing after our 10 divers are aboard. Jim is still sick, and Tara and Camilo decided to take the day off too. Dive site one is The Crevice, a deep cut in the edge of the reef line that runs down in excess of 215 ft (verified by Dan, although the reported depth was, in accordance with MDA Guam policy, 130 ft). Big eagle ray entertained our divers for a while, and some sharks, but again, colorless, life-less corals seems to be the order of the day here. Site # 2 was Gab Gab 2, a decent reef with about 60 ft of depth, some more fish and a bit of color. The highlight of the dive was the presence of the Atlantis submarine that was touring among our divers, and thankfully none of our group mooned the passengers on board. During our surface interval between dives Tricia Arrington, under the watchful eyes of instructor Bill Zyskowski, completes her Rescue Diver certification – congratulations to Tricia. Dan Schnell was excellent in his victim role, and this fact was duly noted for inclusion in future dive trips and training. While that was enough nitrogen for some, half the group headed back out for a night dive, on the Tokai Maru / Comorant site again, and came back with more good stories and great pictures to back them up!

Dinner was enjoyed on the beach at the Sante Fe Grille, where we enjoyed a beautiful sunset while watching fisherman cast their seine nets, some surfing action, and a couple of B-52 bombers cruising overhead and landing here on Guam. Kinda cool mix of old world and new!

Finally it’s Saturday, our last day of diving on this adventure, and only five hardy souls rolled out of bed to make today’s dives – Bill, Sue, John, Joyce & Riley. First site was Blue & White, cool for spectacular views down a deep sandy chute in the reef wall, but also a bit surgy. Second location was Western, in the harbor, and similar to Gab Gab, lots of life on the reef, and more photo ops. They headed back in, bid farewell to our guests at MDA, and had a great post-dive lunch at some local Chinese hangout. Time for one last gear drying session and a trip downtown for some trinket and souvenir shopping, before an early bedtime for the 3:30 a.m. wake-up for tomorrow’s flight home.

But before we crash for the night, our crew is up for a good final dinner together and we take some votes on what everyone wants. Finally it is decided that a steakhouse is in order, so we head over to the Merloj Steakhouse, and as we pull into the parking lot I notice the adjacent restaurant, ‘Steak & Curry’, and comment that those two words together just don’t sound right in a restaurant. We park the vans, and as luck would have it, there is a private function at Merloj so they suggest, yes, you guessed it, Steak & Curry. I take a deep breath as we head in to the place, which does not have a single customer seated there. Hmmmmmm..not always a good sign, but Hana, the Chinese hostess/owner, welcomes us with a warm smile and we decide what the heck, we’re here.

She seats us, and introduces her assistant Bema, and together the two of them, along with Hana’s husband the chef, turn out such a festival of fun and good food that we are utterly amazed, considering our first impressions. Talk about a good time, and with our group of thirteen laughing and interacting with them, the entire dining experience was a most fitting cap to a fantastic trip. Everyone left with bellies full from food and sore from laughter, and again we’ve made some great new friends in far away places.

Before we forget, congratulations are in order for Riley Peeples, who captured the top prize for this trip, the WMDTD trophy – the ‘Way More Dives Than Dave’ award, with 45 dives logged. In fact, almost everyone, maybe even everyone, logged more dives than our fearless on this trip. Yes, my leg is doing better, but needs some good old US of A medical treatment to bring this painful chapter to a close! Time to go home for that.

Sunday and it’s O-Dark Thirty, and time for most of our gang to head to the airport. Sue & I have a more leisurely departure at 10:30. We return the rental vans, and get shuttled over to the airport. There is not a single car in front of the airport….weird. We grab a couple of carts, pile the bags on, and head inside, to find………no one. Really weird. In fact, after we looked really hard, there were a couple of Delta agents there leaning on the counter with nothing do to, and a couple of baggage inspectors doing the same. We were, literally, the only customers in this huge airport. Seems everyone in this part of the world really believes in checking in god-awfully early, and the morning rush had long passed. Sweet, from my point of view…talk about personal service! Bags checked, zip thru security, walked right on the flight, and as soon as I sit down, here comes one of the senior flight attendants, thanking me for my business and noticing the bandage on my hand from the IV port. Well in a heartbeat the team is gathered around, and the level of attention ratcheted up a few notches. I am remembering this, wear a bandage on future flights, it’s better than a puppy at getting attention! So we all do some chatting, and wouldn’t you know it, but Judy, the flight supervisor, who lives in Minneapolis, is a Harleysville native. In fact her kids live about a mile from the shop – friggin’ amazing small world we live in!! So now she’s planning a trip back east to get certified with her kids to take a family scuba vacation together. Gotta love it!

We land in Tokyo, breeze through the very efficient airport security, relax a bit in the club, and before you know it we are whisking our way east into the face of the snowstorm that is burying Minneapolis, our destination! Good news is that they have 14 hours to get that darn runway cleaned off and let us get home on time!

Flight to Minneapolis is long but uneventful, and I touch down just about on time. Skies are clear, weather is good, runways are plowed, and it’s about 55 degrees in Philadelphia. I’m feeling pretty good about this …. what can possibly go wrong now?

Immigration is, well, immigration, and all the trick questions are answered well, so I am allowed to pass. Grab my bags and hand the blue card to the Homeland Security officer whose job it is to collect the cards. They don’t read them, look at them, or do anything, but collect them. What a monumental waste of resources and money. But the TSA has my number, and they need to pull my camera out of my bag, give it a thorough wipe down, run it through the machine, and hand it back to me. Note to budding terrorists everywhere – don’t store your explosives in your camera, cause mine is checked on about 80% of the flights!

If that wasn’t enough to make me realize that I am back in America, in an airport system run by Americans, it all comes to light as I arrive at my gate to board my final flight to Philadelphia. According to my itinerary, the flight is scheduled for 2:00, and boarding is scheduled to begin at 1:20. I arrive at the gate at 1:15 and there is no plane in sight. I ask the gate agent if there is something wrong and she says no. OK, that’s a bad sign, when you are supposed to start boarding in 5 minutes and you have no plane and the gate agent fails to see a problem, considering they do this for a living. At least I get some entertainment while I wait, watching them blow snow off the runways and taxiways at the airport – these guys have some serious toys here!

So back to my flight, at 1:40 I approach her again, and ask if we have a plane for today, and she says “I am calling over now” as she picks up the phone and speaks to where ever “over” really is. She hangs up and announces to me and those around me “the plane is here already on the ground and someone forgot to bring it over”. That’s a confidence builder for sure! So we wait…..and wait…..not sure exactly what it takes to taxi or drag or whatever a plane over from somewhere else in the airport to our gate, but we wait anyway.

Finally it is 2:25 and the updated flight departure time is 2:30. OK, once again, I approach, and ask with all due respect “are we still planning to take off at 2:30?” “No, that’s wrong’, she says, and turns away. Great communication on the ground here. Frankly I am not sure what I or the 200 other passengers did to deserve to be treated like mushrooms here, being kept in the dark and fed you know what.

So now finally at 2:35 a plane pulls up. Why could someone not have been honest an hour ago so perhaps we could have eaten, or gotten some business done, or enjoyed the membership in the Crown Room that we paid for? Even more important, I have Jim planning to be at the Philadelphia airport to pick me up and I have no way to communicate with him ass he left his cell phone on the Odyssey so he is phone-less. I wonder, is this sort of thing so shrouded with secrecy that the only way to handle it is the way we did today?

But wait…there’s more! So now the plane is finally there, and the ground crew attempts to move the jetway up, only to find there is about 6 inches of snow in front of the tires. So they are rocking the jetway back and forth like a couple of 17 year old’s driving in their first snow storm, when the solution to this dilemma is so painfully obvious. Fifteen minutes of this pass, and finally one of the three guys goes and gets a snow shovel. One guy shoveling, two watching….perfect. Except for the 200 or so passengers waiting and watching this amateur circus.

Before we start talking about the big snowstorm from yesterday and using that as an excuse, we all know we are talking about Minneapolis here, not Miami. This airport operates all winter long. The 6 inches of snow have been in front of the jetway tires all day long. Not a single effort was made to say “Hey, let’s get this cleaned up, so when a plane comes we can move the ramp to the jet!”. It’s like the first day of work here for these guys. Amazing.

Finally at 3:15 the jetway is clear and they move it to the side of the jet. The flight crew boards and we await our call to board. What a circus and truly an embarrassment to Delta. We have no potable water and the lavatories have not been serviced, so we must wait, but that’s OK, as the baggage is still being loaded 2 hours after scheduled take off…that’s interesting. So finally they close the door, and you would think we could leave……but NO….the pilot announces we still have no potable water, and “The Company” does not want them to depart without it, so again, we wait. A quick vote among the passengers around me is conclusive – the heck with the water, we can do without coffee and flushing toilets for two hours..let’s take off! But that does not sway the captain, so we wait.

At 4:45 the plane lurches sideways, and I look up to see that the gate agent has rammed us with the jetway. Lots of skill and finesse there…my heart plummets at the thought that they might have just damaged the jet. Nope, they back up, and hit us again, and finally we open the cabin door. Not sure why they needed to do this, but someone finally rouses the honey wagon who shows up at 4:50, drains our tanks, gives us some potable water, and then are we ready to go? NO…we need to be de-iced. Not a single thread of efficiency in this operation today. This truly sucks.

Just then the guy sitting next to me is on the phone and says “Hey in Philadelphia they just announced this flight is canceled!” I chuckle and say, “See what they know? Just cause we’re late we’re still coming!”. Those words have hardly left my lips when the flight attendant announces that our flight has been canceled and we need to de-plane. Amazing!

And my leg is pounding and swollen and does not need any more terminal jogging exercises. Some of the sites have now burst open and are weeping right through my pants, making this whole delay experience that much better. I will remember today for a while, that is for sure!

So now I am re-scheduled on a flight that was scheduled for 6:00 and has already been delayed until 7:45…another great sign. And poor Jim is waiting in Philadelphia, I hope, but have no way of getting to him! In the end, my flight finally takes off at 8:00 p.m., with 100% of the blame for he delay/cancellation being due to a) failure to move the available jet to the gate, b) failure to think ahead that the jetway might need to be shoveled in order to move, c) baggage is two hours late in loading, and d) aircraft was never serviced. OK, I am done now, thank you for listening, and yes, I feel better.

There is some justice in all this snow….the NY Giants tried to fly into Minneapolis yesterday for today’s game at the Humphrey Dome, but had to land in Kansas City and get bussed up to Minneapolis. And then, after they enjoyed that ordeal, the arrived, just as the roof collapsed on the dome, so now they are bussing over to Detroit to play a re-scheduled game there Monday night – hah! That should put a dent in their game plan! Of course the downside is that I planned on making it home tonight with ample to time to enjoy watching the Eagles play the Cowboys while enjoying a fine welcome home dinner served up by Michele, but my new flight schedule puts those plans right down the drain. Life is cruel sometimes!

Well at least through the magic of technology, and internet access during the flight, I get to enjoy the Eagles putting another one in the ‘W’ column by beating up the ‘Boys. Finally we land in Philadelphia at 11:30 p.m. and my two days of traveling are over. Jim is there waiting for me, we load up and head to Harleysville. It is good to be home! And we’re already planning our return to Palau!

Meanwhile it is time to start with some serious wound care for my leg which is not doing well at all. We’ll keep you posted on what we find out there!