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

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

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

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

The Lobster Queen Bill Z and trip leader Steve H

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy, Maribel, Reinel & Emanuel on the Amoray Diver

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

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

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

Ray, Frank & Bill – lobster clearning crew!

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

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

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

Esther & Paul Gehman on the Amoray Diver

Nick & Scott on the Amoray Diver

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

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

Hartman and Michelle at Conch House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end…..for now…we’ll be back!!

Manatee Madness – Crystal River, here we come!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

 

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

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

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

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

More to follow…

A Very Special Indian Valley Divers Club Meeting

A Record Turnout at the Indian Valley Divers August Club Meeting

A Record Turnout at the Indian Valley Divers August Club Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Memorable Memorial Day Weekend in Key Largo

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

David Valaika Gives a DPV Presentation at FKCC in Key West

David Valaika gives a DPV Presentation at FKCC in Key West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The IVS Team Listens to Presentation at Pilot Whale Rescue Pen

The IVS Team Listens to Presentation at Pilot Whale Rescue Pen

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

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

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

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

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Navigates Hourglass Cave on French Reef

Michael Stellatto navigates Hourglass Cave on French Reef

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

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

Shannon Hovers over the Wreck of the City of Washington

Shannon Hovers over the Wreck of the City of Washington

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

Spotted Spiny Lobster on the Wreck of the Benwood

Spotted Spiny Lobster on the Wreck of the Benwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IVS Key Largo Weekend Summary

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

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

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

Night Dive: Wreck of the Benwood (starboard bow)

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

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

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

The Benefits of the PADI National Geo Open Water Course

The standard PADI Open Water class is 4 open water dives over two days after successful completion of classroom and pool work.  Recently, PADI partnered with National Geographic to offer an Open Water Course that focused more time and attention on both a new divers underwater skills and the surrounding eco-system in which the dives take place.  The PADI National Geo Open Water course includes updated course book, classroom content and a stronger emphasis on buoyancy and navigational skills in both the pool and open water dives.  There are 6 open water dives over two days required to complete the PADI National Geo course.  Indian Valley SCUBA is a PADI 5 Star Training Center and offers the PADI National Geo course as a standard part of the introductory curriculum for new divers.  Most of IVS’s new open water students conduct the open water certification dives in the friendly confines of the “Quaribbean of the North” at Dutch Springs in Bethlehem, PA.  Most of IVS’s warm water enthusiasts venture to IVS South in Key Largo, Florida either with an organized IVS trip at Amoray Dive Resort or on their own vacation schedule.

Lora Sigler Feeding Hungry Tarpon at Robbies

Lora Sigler Feeding Hungry Tarpon at Robbies

Wayne and Lora Sigler of Quakertown, PA arrived in Key Largo over a beautiful holiday Easter weekend to complete their open water check out dives for the PADI National Geo Open Water course.  The Siglers are a very nice and active young couple looking to put SCUBA diving in their growing list of adventure activities.  The couple started their Keys adventure on Thursday with an early arrive and a half day of tourist activities in the Upper Keys including a stop at Robbies in Islamorada to feed the school of hungry Tarpon that lurk of the dock of the marina.

Good Friday morning started off with the obligatory stop at Key Largo Undersea Park (KLUP) or more affectionately known to us locals as Jules Undersea Lodge Lagoon.  Jules is in a reality a salty little “pond” created by a vinyl wall blocking off a large elbow of a saltwater canal with a retired underwater lab that now represents the only underwater hotel.  The viz at Jules could be anywhere from 5- 30 feet and the max depth is 25 feet.  Jules is first and foremost a phenomenal shore based training facility for introductory SCUBA diving classes.  There are a couple different platforms at 4 and 6 feet for confined water work and right off the platforms is the depths of Jules lagoon perfect for introductory open water dives complete with multiple down lines and guide ropes for low viz conditions.  What Jules lacks in underwater brilliance is totally offset by convenience and flexibility.  Instructors bring divers to Jules on Friday morning, conducts a refresher of skills and comfort on the shallow platforms and a student’s first open water dive and all flexible surface skills in the calm controlled environment of the lagoon.  After a visit to Jules, open water students are ready to dive the reefs of the National Marine Sanctuary from one of the numerous dive charter boats based in Key Largo.

Training Platform at Jules Lodge Lagoon at Key Largo Undersea Park

Lora and Wayne completed their first dive and flexible surface skills at Jules flawlessly although Lora attempted to circumnavigate the mangrove habitat on her first attempt on surface navigation.  With Jules in the logbooks, the couple and I headed to Florida Keys Dive Center on off Tavernier Creek just south of Key Largo.  The weather was gorgeous, the water temp was a balmy 81 degrees (above average for late April) and winds were a bit brisk which made for some bumpy surface conditions on the shallow reefs of the Sanctuary.  Our first dive off the Big Dipper dive boat was the northeast end of Molasses reef off Key Largo.   MO is an awesome large reef system full of bright orange sponges, purple sea fans and tons of colorful reef fish.  Plus, with depths of 25-35 feet and tons of large sand patches, Mo is perfect for open water certification dives.  The conditions underwater at Mo on Friday afternoon were excellent with 80 feet of blue water viz and no current.   Dive two of the PADI open waters courses is what I call the “working dive” because numerous skills are completed on this dive to allow a student to focus more on comfort underwater on forthcoming dives.  Wayne and Lora completed all skills on dive two which left plenty of time to explore the reef surrounding the boats mooring ball.  Kudos to Lora for keeping her cool after a momentary thought of “why I am doing this” during her first mask clear.  After a few calming breaths while standing up, Lora was back to completing the rest of her skills flawlessly.

Mortar Once held in Giant Pickle Barrels from Pickle Barrel Wreck

Mortar Once held in Giant Pickle Barrels from Pickle Barrel Wreck

The Big Dipper traveled south to Pickles Reef to dive Pickle Barrel Wreck which at 13 feet is not my preferred shallow water reef dive on a windy day.  Surge is no fun underwater especially for new students and the shallower the reef the stronger the surge. Thankfully, there is a sand channel near Pickle Barrel Wreck that goes down to 20 feet which was hidden from the surge and had plenty of open space to complete a few skill on open water cert dive number three.  The rest of the dive was spent admiring the large brain corals in the area and checking out a minnow cave I discovered when team IVS was in town 2 weeks prior.  The highlight of the dive was a school of 100 plus blue tangs munching on the reef like piranha.  We did swim over the spread out remains of the 100 year old Pickle Barrel wreck towards the end of the dive which made it all the more challenging to stay low in the surge with a half empty air tank (almost empty for Wayne!!!).  After two successful reef dives off the Big Dipper, it was back to the dock to sign log books and rest up for a full day of dives on Saturday.

Orion: Sister Dive Boat of the Big Dipper at Florida Keys Dive Center

Orion: Sister Dive Boat of the Big Dipper at Florida Keys Dive Center

Saturday morning started with more beautiful spring weather but still a bit windy.  Due the anticipated bumpy surface conditions, the Capt recommended that the Big Dipper dive boat travel to the deeper reefs of Tavernier.  (Deeper meaning 50 feet versus the traditional 25-35 feet depth on the reefs off Key Largo).    Shallower reefs are always preferred during any open water class but I had faith in Lora and Wayne to handle the deeper reefs and I also preferred to avoid the surge of the shallower reefs.  Our first stop was Crocker which was more like 60 feet to the bottom of the mooring ball instead of 50 feet but who is counting.  While Lora and Wayne processed through their obligatory ear clearing rituals, I checked out the landscape and immediately saw the largest school of Blue Parrotfish that I ever witnessed anywhere in the world.  There had to be 200 plus of these bright turquoise blue fish in a group together swarming over the reef under the dive boat.  Blue Parrotfish are normally seen in groups of two or three and only Midnight Parrotfish regularly travel in large schools when feeding on the reef. Mixed in with the school of Blue Parrotfish were hundreds of Sergeant Majors and Yellowtail Snapper.  I have been diving all over the Caribbean and you just do not see such congregations of reef fish than we have here in the Keys.  To add the excitement at the start of the dive, a 6 foot nurse shark was sitting in a patch of sand on the bottom of the mooring.  What a cool way to start your fourth dive in open water.  After paying our homage to the nurse shark, Lora, Wayne and become one with the school of Blue Parrotfish, Sergeant Majors and Yellowtail Snapper as we headed to a large patch of sand in a bit of shallower water (min depth 50 feet) right under the stern of the Big Dipper dive boat.

After mask removal and hovering skills, the dive was almost over for Wayne who was still breathing like he was running a 50 mile off road race (which he has done before!)  The deeper depths did not work well with Wayne’s breathing patterns but I assured him that he will improve once he convinces his body that SCUBA is not an aerobic activity. It’s all about conditioning the body to breath slow and deep. Lora mastered hovering no problem but decided to take here underwater genie imitation to shallower depths so as Lora was rising slowly and Wayne was signaling for low air (proper hand signal with the fist to the chest) it was time to catch up with levitating Lora and end the dive.  Lora taught me a lesson about instructing because she appeared a bit light on Saturday when her weighting and buoyancy were perfect on Friday.  Lora said she put all her weights into her BCD pockets and she was fine once she was below 10 feet of water.  On the surface, I demonstrated to Lora a proper snorkeler free dive entry which works well for divers in rough surface conditions to quickly get down to a manageable depth.  Lora’s buoyancy was excellent at depth and I am a big believer of using only the optimum weight to maintain neutral buoyancy.  The last thing I wanted to do was put more weight on Lora when she was fine yesterday and totally neutral underwater.  Well, it turns out that Lora probably lost one of her weight pockets on entry before the dive and Lora discovered her missing gear as we were preparing for the afternoon dives.

Adult Spotted Drum on Newfound Reef off Islamorda

Adult Spotted Drum on Newfound Reef off Islamorda

The next dive of the morning was at a special choice of Capt Greg called Newfound because I believe he discovered and named the dive himself.   No mooring ball at this site so divemaster Zach had to set the boat’s anchor.  Really cool dive site with endless reef and large coral heads and plenty of sand for the buoyancy skills of the National Geo section of the open water course.   Lora and Wayne were hovering machines and the extra skill work on buoyancy really paid off in their comfort underwater.  The second part of the dive was surveying the reef and marine life in the area. Plenty to see on this reef including fields of barrel sponges and small group of ballonfish spotted by Wayne (great job Wayne).  The deeper reefs of Tavernier are quite different in topography and corals than the shallow reefs of Key Largo so I always enjoy traveling south on the reef line for a bit of diversity.  Great choices Capt Greg!!

Lora Sigler Demonstrating Level Buoyancy on Spanish Lady Reef

Lora Sigler Demonstrating Level Buoyancy on Spanish Lady Reef

The afternoon dives on Saturday were on shallower reefs of Spanish Lady and Pete’s Reef.  Spanish Lady is two distinct dive sites in one with a shallow shelf near the boat’s anchor covered in soft corals and Sea Fans and a well defined ledge off the stern of the boat that is more alive with fish and not corals.  The ledge of Pete’s makes a well defined right angle right near where you start your dive but the preferred direction to make the dive is go to the corner and stay to your left and take in all the schools of reef fish and critters.  The first part of the dive for Wayne and Lora was at the bottom of the anchor of the dive boat to conduct the advanced underwater navigation portion of the PADI National Geo course.  Anyone can learn compass skills, but the mark of a good diver underwater is one who uses numerous visual cues to aid in navigation.  For the natural navigation portion of their skills, I taught Wayne and Lora how to use “breadcrumbs,” distinct parts of the reef topography to find their way back to a starting point.  The key element of using “breadcrumbs” underwater is to look back every so often in the direction of your return route to get a feel of the reef landscape looking in the opposite direction from which you started.  Other prominent cues underwater, is the location of the boat, other mooring balls and the direction of sun.  Lora and Wayne both executed a flawless return to the boats anchor after I led each diver on different routes away from the dive boat.  Wayne had a tough route over a flat plateau lacking distinct topography but he smartly used the shadow of the boat to guide us back to the anchor.

Lora had distinct coral heads as “breadcrumbs” on her navigation route and she used these markers to the letter to bring us back to where we started.  After navigation skills, our group headed to the ledge behind the boat for the fun part of the dive and to check out some cool marine life.  I immediately noticed and illustrated to Wayne and Lora that the main reef line followed the direction the boat was sitting.  You could literally do you dive on the ledge, turn around and follow the ledge to the corner and surface and be close to the stern of the boat (if the wind did not shift 180 degrees!!).  Easy navigation tip and the rest of the dive was quite interesting.  The ledge on Spanish lady is very dead but the fish are hanging in bunches of schools all over the reef.  The second part of the dive was the reef survey portion of the PADI course where our team focused on the symbiotic relationship of the fish and critters on Spanish lady.

Growing Staghorn Coral on Pete's Reef off Tavernier

Growing Staghorn Coral on Pete's Reef off Tavernier

The last dive of the day was on Pete’s Reef which I believe I was last on in December 2004.  Pete’s is an elliptical patch reef teaming with pristine brain and star coral which give the reef amazing profile.  The dive is fairly easy because you pick a starting point and just circle the reef and then cross over the middle portions of the reef once you re-mark your starting point. The key here is remembering your starting point.  The dive boat sat over a bed of sea grass and a 50 yard wide sand channel separated the boat from the reef.  The sand channel was wide and expansive so with no visual references besides the sun, I set a compass heading back to the boat once our team was heading in the right direction. (Tip: Turn your body back to the boat to mark any visual clues for your return route and then set your compass heading clearly at the direction of the boat).  I pointed out to Lora and Wayne how I was navigating the reef and my reef marker (big brain coral with unique features) but all this was bonus because they were already certified divers.  The dive on Pete’s Reef was all about fun with underwater photography as we broke out the cameras and housings and had some fun underwater. Wayne and Lora took some fantastic pictures for newbies and are off to fast start on their underwater diving adventures.

Lora and Wayne Celebrating their SCUBA Cert at Snappers Sunday Brunch

A big thank you goes out to Florida Keys Dive Center, Capt Greg and divemaster Zach for taking good care of the IVS training team in difficult surface conditions.  The Siglers completed their PADI National Geopraphic Open Water course and really enjoyed the extra education on buoyancy, navigation and the underwater environment in the Keys.  I could see a definite improvement in dives number 5 and 6 of the course because on skills the students struggled with on early dives they now excelled with just a bit of coaching, adjustments and more time underwater to gain comfort with the surroundings.  Congratulations to Wayne and Lora and please use your cert cards well and come back to the Keys soon.

IVS Invades the Keys – again!

This blog report brought to you by Butch Loggins and Dave Hartman!

April showers bring May flowers….well not quite the saying we use in Key Largo. It’s more like April sunshine brings more divers. No wait for the weary as a group of eager divers from Indian Valley SCUBA in Harlyesville, PA invaded Key Largo for another weekend of serious diving just 30 days after the last IVS group was in town. A few changes from the normal IVS schedule were on the menu for the April 1-4th weekend trip. First, the entire group including the advanced divers went to Jules Lodge Lagoon (known as Key Largo Undersea Park or KLUP) on Friday morning. Second, all shallow reef dives on Saturday to give the newbie divers some more casual dives. Third, Amoray Dive Resort had a wedding on Sunday afternoon so the double wreck dive of Duane Spiegel (and his other brother Duane) was moved to Conch Republic Divers 10 plus miles south on Tavernier Creek. Fourth, NO David Valaika who was off chasing fish in the Maldives. Let’s count-this is David V’s third IVS Key Largo weekend in a row without Big Dave. The Keys will never be the same!! I love the usual IVS weekend routine but a little change is the spice of life.

Barb, Scott and Cindy at Jules Lodge Lagoon Spa & Resort

Barb, Scott and Cindy at Jules Lodge Lagoon Spa & Resort

I was the host and lead for the Dec 2010 and Feb 2011 but was glad to pass over the reigns of the IVS group to Butch Loggins, IVS Senior Instructor and recent student of the”how to dive after heart surgery” PADI Distinctive Speciality. Butch wrote course so we expected him to pass with flying colors. Butch was joined by some very familar faces of Mike Gusenko, Cindy Montague Eisenhauer, Barbara Hill, Robert Scott Bruce and Larry Gilligan along with divers in training Robert’s son Frank and Cindy’s boyfriend Jim Gullo. After a productive visit to Jules Lodge Lagoon Spa & Resort, the IVS group boarded the Amoray Diver to check out the what was happening on the wreck of the naval ship LSD-32 Spiegel Grove.

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The conditions on Friday afternoon were a bit windy but the wind was blowing from the West (which is quite rare in the Keys) which meant only slight chop on the open ocean. There was a slight trend of murky water rolling throughout the Keys thanks to extreme low tides and the Gulf Stream flowing 5 miles off the reef line. 70-100 foot viz with turquoise blue water is quite common when diving the wrecks and reefs of the Keys but NOT today. The group experienced some excellent dives despite the “Dutch” like conditions on the Spiegel and French Reef although some divers had more of an experience than others on French Reef (more later). First, the Spiegel was a murky 10-15 feet of viz which is close to the worst I ever experienced on the Grove in my 300+ dives over 7 years of living in Key Largo. But who needs viz when you have 4 floors of a superstruture to explore of a 510 foot naval ship. Butch’s group followed the commerative Sue Douglass candy ass tour and all had a good time checking out the detail of the top decks of the superstructure. I took the experienced divers on a brand new version of my infamous Ultimate Spiegel Tour with a hint of my exclusive “Nooks and Crannies” Tour. The dive included stops in the Anchor Winch Room, Main Galley, Snoopy and his closet and the Machine Shop. Mike G. stuck around for EMTH (Extra Magic Time with Hartman) to see the White Board in the Ship’s Power Monitoring Room (complete with names of sailors who served on the Spiegel’s last mission) and electrical supply closets on the navigation level. EMTH means let’s freestyle in the wreck and find new stuff by checking out deadend closets and rooms.

Anchor Winch Room of the Spiegel Grove LSD-32

Anchor Winch Room of the Spiegel Grove LSD-32

There is so much detail on the Spiegel that I find something new on almost every dive. The unique part about my Spiegel tour on this dive was the route. The ship felt brand new to the divers even though all have been on numerous of my Spiegel tours. A recent IVS assisted “alternation” to the Spiegel last July (thanks for the help Frank Gabriel and John Z.) created an opening to forward section of the well deck which allows divers to go from the bow section of the Spiegel and enter the well deck without having to go all the way around to the aft section of the superstructure. Now the once forgotton Anchor Winch Room below the main deck of the bow is now a major part of all my standard “Ultimate Spiegel Tours.”

French Reef was quite an interesting dive on Friday afternoon. Very rarely do I get in the water and not see the bottom on a reef in Key Largo. I descended to the reef with my camera ready to take pictures for the IVS blog and Facebook posts but was alarmed to see about 15-20 feet of viz on the reef bottom. Butch was taking 10 year old Frank on his first 0pen ocean dive so I thought it wise to recommend to Butch to take the mooring line to the bottom of the reef and then stay close. Butch decided on a free descent and to swim toward the mooring line. Instead I found Butch, Scott and Frank swimming toward Cuba along the reef line. After some nifty navigation, I marked the mooring ball and pointed Butch and Co and the right direction. Once Butch’s team found the bottom of the mooring ball (which does not move…..navigation tip here folks!!) I then pulled out my camera and motioned to Butch that he was back under his own leadership and my duty was back to taking underwater pictures. I must say, for murky dive, we witnessed some awesome marine life: Southern Stingray, Spiny Lobster and very aggressive Green Moray Eel (see below).

A Green Moral Eel Stands His Ground on French Reef

A Green Moral Eel Stands His Ground on French Reef

I explored a very enjoyable reef ledge while Team Butch did their best impression of a low viz circular search to remain with contact with the mooring ball. Our dive on French was without incident but the other divers in our group had a different experience. There was a moderate current on French Reef and combined with low viz led to a bit of disorienation by a group of IVS experienced divemasters and instructors (who shall remain nameless!!). Let’s just say the Amoray Diver rescue reel with all 150 feet of line was in active use behind the boat throughout most of our time on French Reef. Nice job by Capt John and Divemasters Madision and Joe. Sometimes diving is all about the experience!

World Famous Pina Coladas Served Up at Club Dave

World Famous Pina Coladas Served Up at Club Dave

First day of diving was a bit bumpy and murky but fun was had by all and better conditions were in the forecast for Saturday and Sunday. Friday ended with Pina Coladas and an IVS Barbacue at Club Dave (my house). Team Butch was on their own time schedule in honor of the missing David Valaika but Cindy and Jim arrived early with a tasty flank steak and Larry followed a big bag of fresh shrimp. Barb and Butch then walked in the door with chicken and a whole bunch of sides for round two of eating for the early birds. Thanks to all IVS folks for helping out and bringing serious eats (shrimp, chicken, steak!!!). We all ate lke Kings! Special thanks to Mike G for being the one man clean up crew.

Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Dry Rocks

Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Dry Rocks

The IVS Group returned to the Amoray Diver on Saturday morning for trip to Key Largo Dry Rocks and the famous statute of Christ of the Abyss. Sunk in the 1960’s to honor the creation of John Pennekamp State Park, the striking statute of Jesus Christ with arms stretched to the air draws both divers and snorkelers to the ledge reef of Key Largo Dry Rocks in the waters off Northern Key Largo. After some fond moments of being “touched by Christ,” (the statute is covered in fire coral), the Amoray Diver moved to North Dry Rocks for another round of shallow reef dives. Improved conditions from Friday with calmer seas and clearer viz made for a pleasurable morning of diving. The Amoray Diver headed back to the dock for quick tank change and a bit to eat for the IVS crew before heading out Saturday afternoon for another set of shallow reef dives.

Large Brain Coral Hangs Over a Ledge near Pickle Barrel Wreck

Large Brain Coral Hangs Over a Ledge near Pickle Barrel Wreck

The IVS gang boarded the Amoray Diver Saturday afternoon for a trip to Pickels Reef off Southern Key Largo to dive the sites of Snapper Ledge and Pickle Barrel Wreck. The first stop was Pickel Barrel Wreck, a 100+ year old coral covered shallow spread out wreck in 15 feet of water with deeper reef ledges both north and south of the wreck. The northern reef ledge is covered in thousands of purple sea fans. The southern reef ledge is very pronouced with a sand channel at 20 feet and colorful reef walls on both sides. One wall has large brain coral head hanging over ledge and which may confuse divers by being similar in size and topography to the HUGE brain coral on Snapper Ledge. One joy of diving Key Largo is finding hidden gems tucked away in the area’s nebulous reef system. I found a mutiple chamber shallow cave filled with glass eye minnows between a break in a reef ledge about 50 years from Pickle Barrel Wreck. The cave was so cool-to tight to swimthrough but still a great opportunity for a quick video clip

The next dive was on Snapper Ledge which is one of the fishiest dives anyone in the world. Snapper Ledge never disappoints. A bad day on Snapper Ledge will still have more schools of fish than most reefs anywhere. Grunts, goatfish, snappers frequent this famous ledge and on this day the IVS gang also witnessed a large school Atlantic Spadefish flowing through the water column.

Mike Gusenko Navigates Through French Grunts on Snapper Ledge
Mike Gusenko Navigates Through French Grunts on Snapper Ledge

At one point our group was surrounded by French Grunts while about 100 Atlantic Spadefish blocked our view of other divers. The massive schools of fish were only the beginning as the highlight of the dive came a few minutes later when an 8 foot Green Moray Eel was cruising the reef looking to pick a fight with some fish or somebody. This eel was cruising everywhere and at one point swam up to my camera during a video and only turned back because of his reflection in the lens. An hour on the second dive flew by because the group was chasing and being chased by eels and surrounded by huge schools of reef fish. Overall, an impressive afternoon of diving on the reefs of Key Largo.

The Amoray Diver headed back to dock for another quick turnaround for the traditional Saturday night dive. The Wreck of the Benwood was the “planned” dive site for the night divers but the IVS gang decided to take explore the flat reef and pieces of metal off in the distance from the wreck. A bit of current and low evening viz had the group a bit confused (I am writing this second hand since I was at home watching my alma mater UCONN beat Ketucky in the Men’s Final Four). Another example of conditions where descending down the mooring ball is recommended to miminize errors in navigation. I guess the group did not learn from their dive experience on French Reef on Friday. The April weekend night dive will not go down in the annals of IVS trip history but another learning experience.

Beautiful Elephant Ear Orange Sponges Cover Molasses Reef

Beautiful Elephant Ear Orange Sponges Cover Molasses Reef

Sunday morning came quickly and the Amoray Diver headed to Molasses Reef for two shallow dives. Molasses is a spur and groove reef system with very pronounced spur coral ledges covered with Orange Elephant Ear Sponges and Purple Sea Fans. There are over 30 named mooring balls on Molasses Reef and all are occupied in a busy weekend in Key Largo. Capt John chose Permit Ledges on the southwest edge of the reef for the first dive and North Star in center of Molasses for the second dive. Permit Ledges aquired its name due to the frequent sighting of schools of big round silver Permits who often drift in from deeper water to check out the edge of Molosses. The two dive sites are quite distinct in coral formations and fish sightings despite the mooring balls being only 25-30 yards apart. The IVS gang enjoyed both dives on Molasses Reef and headed back to dock for change in dive shops for the eagerly anticipated after double wreck dives on the Speigel Grove and USCG Duane.

IVS Boards the Conch Republic Diver for an Afternoon Wreck Trek

IVS Boards the Conch Republic Diver for an Afternoon Wreck Trek

The IVS crew took a quick lunch on the road to travel South to Tavernier and Conch Republic Divers for the ever popular Sunday afternoon IVS Wreck Trek-double deep dives on the Spiegel Grove LSD-32 and USCG Duane off Key Largo. Both wrecks had below average viz but NO current which made for spectular relaxing dives. Butch Loggins, Barb Hill, Mike Gustenko and Larry were the “last divers standing” to make the afternoon trip of the group and all did a great job on both wrecks. The IVS crew stayed in one group for both dives including a unique “David Hartman Ulimate Spiegel tour” starting from the starboard crane and traveling through the entire well deck right out the “new forward hatch” to the bow and a circular tour of the Anchor Winch Room. We continued on to tour the ship’s Main Galley, a swipe of Snoopy’s nose, and circular tour around all 5 devices left behind in the Spiegel’s machine shop. The dive ended with a quick in-out tour of the ship’s Radar Room behind the bridge and an easy slow return on top of the superstructure back to the mooring. Viz was again murky around the ship but much clearer inside the Grove. With the Spiegel in the books, the Conch Republic Diver headed southwest to wreck of the USCG Duane: a 327 foot US Coast Guard Cutter that serverd from 1939-1980 and was sunk intentionally of the coast of Key Largo in 1987.

The IVS Crew on the Lookout Post of the Wreck of the USCG Duane
The IVS Crew on the Lookout Post of the Wreck of the USCG Duane

The Duane was the second deep dive of the day which called for a relaxing shallower than normal profile to maximize no deco time. What makes the Duane impressive underwater is that the entire ship is covered in orange cup coral and yellow sponges. Our on the Duane dive included encounters with a local Green Turtle and a HUGE Jewish…all 300 pounds of him hanging out in the base of the ship’s Crows Nest. Congrats to Butch Loggins for completing double deep wreck dives with no symptoms after his heart surgery last year and for completing his PADI Distintive Speciality. Go Butch!

Barb Hill and Mike Gusenko Descend to the Deck of the Duane

Barb Hill and Mike Gusenko Descend to the Deck of the Duane

IVS Weekend Summary

Dive sites: (All boat dives except Sunday afternoon with Amoray Dive Resort)

Friday April 1, 2011: Day 1: Morning-Jules Lodge Lagoon Spa & Resort; Afternoon: Spiegel Grove (#6 ball) and Outer Ledge on French Reef

Saturday April 2, 2011: Day 2: Morning-Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Dry Rocks and North Dry Rocks; Afternoon: Pickle Barrel Wreck and Snapper Ledge

Night Dive: A Plot of Sand Nowhere near the Wreck of the Benwood

Sunday April 3, 2011: Day 3: Molasses Reef: Permit Ledges and North Star; Afternoon-Spiegel Grove LSD-32 (#5 ball) and USCG Duane (Conch Republic Divers)

Divers: Butch Loggins, IVS Group Leader/Instructor, Jim Gullo, Barbara Hill, Cindy Eisenhower, Larry Gilligan, Mike Gusenko, Scott and Frank Bruce and your host David Hartman

The IVS Crew on the Amoray Diver.....What's up with that signpost?

The IVS Crew on the Amoray Diver.....What's up with that signpost?