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

Team IVS gallops back into the land of the Pharaohs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massive statues under restoration at the Memphis Temple

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

The Great Pyramid of Giza, with our Egyptologist Manal

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

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

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

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

Young carpet weavers hard at work employing their skills

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

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

The Sphinx..no other words needed!

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

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

Mosque of Mohammed Ali aka Alabaster Mosque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museum of Antiquities in Cairo

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

Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The massive entrance walls to Karnak Temple

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

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

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

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

Luxor Temple

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

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

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

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

Deir El-Bahri Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes from a local Bedouin village along the way

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

Roots Luxury Camp – El Qusier, Egypt

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

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

The sand volleyball court at Roots Camp – perfect!

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

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

Diving the caverns at Pirates Boneyard, El Qusier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Analyse the research and record findings.

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

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

[3] Complete Reef Clean Up Dives.

[4] Evaluate the debris collected record findings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shore entry through the reef – El Makluf

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

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

A colorful Giant Clam on top of the reef

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

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

Surrounded by dolphins…oh my!!

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

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

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


Stay Posted….Plenty more coming!!!

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!

Off to Bonaire!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kimberly Luisi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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