Tech Diving the Florida Keys

A tale of deep, dark adventure for sure!  Following on the heels of the Memorial Day trip, Brian Hubler is staying down to complete his Trimix certification with me this week.  So we’ve got some exciting dives planned – first the Spiegel Grove to do some technical warm-ups and skills reviews, followed by a trip out to the Northern Lights off Key Largo, then finally a celebration dive on the USS Curb in Key West.

Well fate, and the weather, has decided to not be so kind to us, and the fantastic days, quiet seas and calm breezes that we have enjoyed for the last week are officially…Over!  It is blowing now, but dive we must, so we head out on Monday to do a single extended technical dive on the Spiegel with Chris Brown and the folks at Silent Dive.  We opt to do this dive on nitrox with some 100% O2 to clean up at the end of the dive, and head out into bouncy seas and gray skies.  The current above the wreck is ripping, and the mooring balls are a bit awash, so we know we’re in for a bit of a thrill on today’s dive.

The IVS Boys at the No Name Pub

The IVS Boys at the No Name Pub

Well with the start pictured above, you can only imagine the rest of this story!  No, not like that…just three good divers planning and executing a day full of really nice dives!  We boarded Robert Trosser’s boat, FINZ, and headed out into a beautiful day on the ocean!  Swordfish were jumping, dolphins were playing with our wake, just everything you imagine when you think of great days at sea.
Stop # 1 was the USS Curb, a former naval salvage tug sitting perfectly upright in 190 ft of water.  For some reason Rob was unable to get a fix on it, even though we saw it on the depth finder, jumping up from the bottom profile.  So Rob dropped in overboard, and we dragged him a bit to where the underwater mooring should be, but he came up dry.  We repeated the exercise a second, and then a third time, and finally said “screw it, that’s not going to work”.  So we ran over the marks on the depthfinder again, threw the hook, and then drifted back in the current until we hopefully snagged the wreck.  Well we drifted, and drifted, and drifted, and finally, we snagged something!  At this point I said the heck with it, whatever we grabbed, we’re going diving!
So we geared up and in we went, Dave with a big fat 120 of air on his back, and Mark & I with some Helium in our double 100’s.  We were all slinging stage bottles, a 100% O2 and a 50% O2, both forty cubic foot cylinders.  Should be more than enough gas…..more on that later!
Dropping into the beautiful clear warm water, we saw nothing but anchor line going forward from the FINZ.  So we followed it, and followed it, and followed it…..holy smokes, how much anchor line does he carry??   We followed it some more, and some more…..and our depth was still less than 50 feet!!  What the heck, I am thinking, as we followed it..some more!  Finally, something is materializing out of the mist….what the heck is that I am thinking??   Lo and behold, as I get closer, I see what it is:
Yes, the anchor had snagged the underwater mooring, and we were in fact tied into the Curb!  Cool!  So another 150 feet of line, and sure enough, there we were, on the wreck!
More to come!
Advertisements

A Journey to the Sacred Land of the Mayans

Four long, dry days working in the salt mines of Harleysville, and I know it is time for a change.  What to do, what to do, what to do…OK – I got it- let’s go diving!!!  The Mexican Riviera is calling is calling sweetly, so Team IVS packs up and gets ready to head south to the land of the Mayans for nine days of extraordinary diving in the Akumal region.

Our plans are to fly into Cancun a day early to save a bundle on airfare, and then drive south approximately 70 miles to Akumal.  But wait, I am thinking, why wait 70 miles to moisten our gills?  We can start our trip with some diving right in Cancun, then, properly hydrated (no, not in ‘that’ way!), we’ll make the drive further down the road for the balance of the trip.

And actually Cancun has been on the list for some time now to check out as a potential destination for a future Indian Valley Scuba trip.  So we can do some reconnaissance diving and information gathering while we are here, better to serve the needs and desires of the IVS family of divers.  Yes, I know, it is work, but the sacrifice is the least we can do for the folks back home.

And before you all start thinking this Dave Valaika must have some sort of deathwish, marching off into yet another land of banditos and revolutions like my recent jaunt through Egypt, let me assure you that once again, the advertising departments at CNN and FOX News have gone all out to make it appear that Mexico is all but lost to the drug cartels, and no gringo will come out alive if you go there.  Nothing can be further from the truth, and there is nothing of that sort anywhere on the entire Yucatan peninsula, including the tourist-dependent Mayan Riviera.  The biggest fear you need to worry about here is how bad that great new suntan is going to hurt tomorrow, or are you sure that you packed your Pepto-Bismal!  So Americans everywhere, please take notice:  Mexico is open for business! Come visit!

So, my Public Service Announcement out of the way, I dig into my bag of resources, and the best dive operator in Cancun comes to mind, Scuba Cancun, owned and operated by my good friend Thomas Hurtado.  In fact, I had just seen Tom at the Beneath the Sea show and he had given me heck for not getting down there yet, so how fortuitous is this that we’re going to be in the ‘hood’ this very weekend!  We’ll be staying at the Hotel Casa Maya for the night and our plans for tomorrow are two deep reef dives, followed by a special dive in the Cancun Underwater Museum, an undersea art project created by Jason deCaires Taylor. I’ve seen it advertised and talked about for years, and now we’re going to have a chance to check it our up close and personal.

From there, the balance of our week will be spent at Villas de Rosa, a fantastic oceanfront property designed, built and operated by Tony DeRosa. Conveniently located between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, it offers easy access to all the major cenote systems that riddle the Quintana Roo area, plus the beautiful reefs of the Caribbean Sea right outside our doors.

So our flight is booked down for 10:15 Friday morning, out of Philadelphia.  Brian LaSpino, a man who’s always up for a thrill, decides to throw caution to the winds and drive down to the airport with me and catch the same flight.  Something tells me he is not a regular reader of the blog, that, or he has some short-term memory issues we might have to address!  But none the less, we book our flights together, and agree to meet at the shop early Friday morning to being our adventure.  We verify the flight departure time, back up the baggage check-in cutoff, add some time for parking and the shuttle, consider the rush hour traffic we’ll be driving in, and then, get this, round up a little for comfort, finally deciding to depart at 7:00 in the morning.

So tell me, what is wrong with this picture?  It is 6:45, and I am sitting on the deck at the dormitory, bags stacked neatly alongside me, reading the paper, and with nothing to do but wait for Brian.  Here I am, tapping my toes, checking my watch…where is Brian!!  I check my pulse, and verify that I’m not dreaming – yes, I am ready, early and ahead of schedule.  Sensing this must be some sort of sign, it’s probably going to snow in Mexico this week.

So I wait and finally around 7:25 Brian comes rolling in, and asks what time I’m really planning on heading to the airport. OK, faith is restored – he really DOES read the blog!!  But there’s no need to build the anxiety this morning, and my plan is to give the adrenalin glands the day off, so I suggest we just climb into the truckster and get on the road.  It’s 7:45 as we pull out of the parking lot.

So ready for the dramatic report from the ride to the airport?  There is none!  This morning is starting off waaay weird, nothing is stressful, traffic is flowing well, speed limit is observed, and parking is readily available.  TSA is, well, the TSA, and we observe some arguments over break times, and I speak out, loudly, saying “Hey, America’s security is at stake here, perhaps we can all focus on our real jobs here”.  That scores me some nasty looks from the boys and girls in blue, and Brian cringes, in anticipation of that less-than-gentle body cavity search that may be in the making.  Alas, nothing comes of it, and we pass through.  First stop is the brand spanking new Delta Crown Room at the Philadelphia airport, a year in the making, and it is a nice relaxing oasis in the hustle and bustle of the airport scene.  We get some complimentary breakfast items there, and before you know it, it’s time to stroll down the terminal and board our flight to Atlanta.

Once we land, it is a bit of a hustle to get across the airport and catch our flight to Cancun.  And as it turns out in the small world department, the flight attendant is a diver, and she and I swap stories and exchange emails with the hopes of diving together somewhere down the road.  Then Daryl sitting next to me wants to learn about diving, and next Michelle and Fred, a couple from Maryland sitting in the row in front of me, turn around and start talking diving.  Turns out they are divers and coming to vacation with their non-diving daughter Nicole, and her equally non-diving boyfriend Brian.  They were concerned about who they were going to dive with here, and as you might imagine, we cleared that concern up right away – they’re coming diving with us!  What a cool sport this is, and to share it with others is all that much better!  Well after another 2 1/2 hours in the air, and we touch down in the Land of the Mayans, Mexico.

Meanwhile, as we work our way through the serpentine line at immigration, Nichole comes up to me and asks how deep she would have to go if she tried diving with me.  Her parents were talking to her, and after listening to “no way” for so many years, they are shocked that she is ready to try it!  So now we’ll be doing a Discover Scuba for her and her boyfriend on Monday too!  Meanwhile Brian has been talking to his seatmate and passing out IVS cards brochures so we’ve got some other interest brewing from the “back of the plane gang” too.  This trip is picking up already and we’re not even wet yet!

Finally we make it to the front, and after the cursory rubber-stamping immigration process we gather our bags and then get to play the baggage rummaging lottery.  Press the button next to the nice man with the latex gloves on, and if you get a green light, you are good to go, but if it comes up red, you can count on everything you packed getting re-arranged as they dig through every nook and cranny in your suitcases.  Thankfully my honkin’ Pelican cases, crammed to the gills, get the green light, and my careful packing earlier this morning won’t be disturbed.  Brian clears also, and we head out to the taxi station.

Of course it would not be Mexico without some negotiation, so our cab fare starts out ‘astronomical’, then after some back & forthness, we negotiate a better rate, get the extra bag fees waived, and the price to take the two of us to our hotel is manageable.  We pile into the shuttle van, and immediately you know you are not in Kansas anymore – there are eight of us in the cab, including a young man from Australia, two girls from Bulgaria, a couple from Germany, and three Americans – a pretty neat international mix right from the start!  Our hotel for the night is the last one on Cancun’s hotel row, so we get to see a lot of nice properties as we drop off the others one by one.

We pull up and are greeted by Tony Smith, one of our other divers on this trip, who flew in earlier today from Philadelphia.  At the front desk we are welcomed by Raymundo the group manager, and we’re quickly set up in some very nice rooms overlooking the pool and the ocean – sweet! A quick dinner and we all head off early to bed to get a good start on our first day of diving tomorrow.  But not without first sharing the view from my room:

Saturday comes and it is an absolutely glorious morning.  We get our gear ready and leave our bags for the hotel to watch while we are diving today.  A short walk across the street and we are standing in Scuba Cancun, our dive operator for today’s activities.  There we meet Tom, the owner, and get the complete nickel tour of his dive center.  It is part of a many-faceted family business empire, and has been operating in Cancun for 31 years now.  It’s the second largest dive operation in eastern Mexico, and judging from the excellent customer service and attitudes we see everywhere, it’s easy to understand why is has been so successful.

Today we’ll be doing three dives, one wreck, one reef, and one visit to the Underwater Museum.  We load our gear on one of their five boats, a nice 65 ft long former crew boat from the oil industry.  These boats are popular at so many dive centers and make great platforms to work from.  All loaded, we get our briefing from Lars, who will be one of our dive guides. Lars is from Switzerland, via Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, so he’s a pretty interesting dive professional.  Pablo will be our other guide,  and we are joined by Herb, a former Texan who currently resides and Indiana and is down here for a little vacation.  There is also a group of locals on board, who will diving with two more guides, plus a videographer, so there’s plenty of staff to go around. The seas are relatively flat and the water is a stunning shade of blue, and we enjoy our thirty minute ride out.

Pulling up to the site of our wreck dive, the current is ripping, so the decision is made to abort the dive and head to a reef location in hope of better conditions.  We head over to Punta Negral, and hot-drop off the boat, knowing this will certainly be a drift dive with the currents.  Down we go to about 60 ft, and the reef is a serious of ridges and drop-offs, not too much vertical, but plenty to look at and covered with fish.  The currents are mixed and confused, and we sail along, working hard to not work hard, enjoying the dive and letting the water take us where it wants to.  Some nice morays, lobster, crabs, smaller fish, barracuda, and all the other typical Caribbean sea life provide a nice visual backdrop for us as we enjoy 50 minutes of bottom time in the 80 degree clear water.

All too soon we must return to the surface and we head over to our second location.  A little off-gassing on board, and sensing the crew might be operating on Mexican time, I decide to speak up and say, “Hey, my computer’s beeping – it’s time to dive again!”  Smart move, Dave, cause that inspires the crew to wrap up siesta time, and we’re back in the water in 30 minutes for dive #2.   Location #2 is a site called Granpin, because it supposedly resembles some sort of anchor, but we see no evidence of this at all.  It is, however, a real pretty dive site, and the current for the most part is much better here, allowing us to enjoy a lot of swim through’s and more pretty reefs.  Once we are done with the site we position ourselves above the reef, and enjoy a high-speed sail across the flats, with current probably approaching 4 knots – very cool to just hang upside down and backwards, enjoying a bit of a psychedelic visual as the sea floor flies by you.

Back to the dock, we enjoy a light lunch from the snack shop as the boat prepares for the afternoon trip.  We’ll be joined by some folks doing a Discover Scuba, and some others in an Open Water certification class, as we head out to a shallow, sandy site where the Underwater Museum is located.  Again, it’s a thirty minute ride out, and we tie up to a mooring above the site.  With the increased pressure on the reefs due to the popularity of diving in the area (not to mention the less-than-stellar buoyancy skills of many of those divers) the local diving community had looked at artificial reef options as a way to expand the diveable areas and reduce the impact to the natural reefs.  At the same time, the art community had an idea about doing something under the sea, and wouldn’t you know it – the two factions got together and hatched the idea for the Underwater Museum.  Funded by both government and private sources, the project moved forward with great efficiency (a rarity considering where it was taking place) and from last fall to today over 400 statues have been placed on the sea floor.  Built on hexagonal concrete bases approx 10 ft square, each contains about six life-size concrete statues of people depicting many aspects of life and careers.  Each block is butted up to the next, so you have a vast field of people standing on the bottom of the ocean – very  surreal indeed!  The sea has evidently approved of the project, and the surfaces are covered with early stages of sponges, some corals, and algae, and serve as homes and hiding places for schools of small fish.  Although the site itself is quite small, it’s still interesting enough for us to spend 70 minutes at 28 ft, examining the artwork, playing in the rocks and rubble that surround it, and observing the other divers and wanna-be divers cavorting in the water alongside us.

Let’s just say that it was pretty clear that these were not Indian Valley Scuba instructors at work here, as we witnessed some excellent breath holds during the regulator recovery and mask removal skills, none of which were caught by the staff.  Gauges dragging, over-weighted students standing and laying on the bottom, I was thankful indeed that we were not on a reef.  The sad news is that these folks will be getting c-cards and now taking these non-skills out to wreak havoc on what we love so much about the sea.  OK, off my soap box now.

Back on board, Brian, always working that mojo, engages one couple who were doing a DSD today and really loved it.  Turns out they live in New Jersey, and before you know it, emails are exchanged, cards are swapped, and Bev can be expecting a call from two new students who want to join the IVS family!  Nice work Brian!!  The trip back to the dock is quiet and scenic, right until we cross paths with a big catamaran out on a booze cruise,a and realize that nearly everyone on board is naked or near naked.  That inspires our captain to turn around and circle the catamaran again, making sure we were not confused over what we saw – yep, drunken naked people!  Pretty funny addition to the afternoon, and we return to Scuba Cancun’s dock to unload and say goodbye’s all around.

Meanwhile Roberto, our driver from Villas de Rosa, has arrived and is waiting to whisk us south to our next destination.  We gather our gear that the hotel has been carefully watching all day, and climb aboard for the ninety minute ride.  Tony DeRosa Sr, the owner of the resort, greet us when we arrive, and they have our room ready for us.  We get our paperwork completed with Tony Jr and his long-term Canadian/Russian squeeze, the lovely Mila, shows us to our condo.  Living large is an understatement for our accommodations this week, as we have a three-bedroom, three-bath condo with a huge deck right on the beach. Big kitchen, dining area, living room, we will certainly not get in each others way here!  We also get to spend a little time with our other two divers, who actually came down a week earlier, and are checking out today, Staci from Lake Tahoe and her daughter.  They had a wonderful week enjoying the cenotes and the reefs here, and can’t say enough about the service and accommodations they enjoyed at the resort.  The kitchen stepped up and took care of their strict vegan diets, and the dive team made it a mom/daughter vacation to remember!  So great to hear!

Dinner is served up to us in our condo, and we call it an early night.  Morning comes and we enjoy a dramatic sunrise, rising from the sea right in front of our east-facing condo; it doesn’t get any better than this!  Plans for today are a couple of cenote dives this morning and a visit to the reef after lunch.  We busy ourselves swapping our gear configurations for the caverns, grab some breakfast, mix up some delicious Divers D\Lyte for the day, and get ready to jump in the van to start this next phase of our adventure!

But wait!  It is a most beautiful day here, and the seas are absolutely flat!  So our host suggests we take advantage of these conditions and do some ocean diving today, since the weather can’t be counted on to be so nice every day.  So we re-configure our gear, haul it the long 40 yards to the beach, and load it in a 24 ft panga (open boat with outboard engine) that they brought up for us.  We get connected with Tito, who will be our personal guide and diving sidekick for the week, and Carlos, who will be our boat driver whenever we go out on the reef.  We load up the tanks, push off, and head out, enjoying some spectacular views as we motor the 15 minutes to our first site.

The boat is a little small, and the gunwales a little low, for getting all geared up on board, so we just inflate our BCD’s and toss our kits overboard, then roll off the boat in mask and fins.  We put on our gear in the water one final group buddy check, and then it’s thumbs down as we drop into the 200 plus feet of visibility  that greets us.  This site is called the canyons and it is appropriate, as the cuts between the vast fields oh healthy coral drop down 20 or 30 feet, making for some really fantastic diving conditions.  Our depth here is 90 ft, and we spend 50 minutes taking in our first taste of Akumal reef diving.  We like it!!

After that we head back to shore to get a second set of tanks, and push right back off for dive #2.  Another short ride, another great dive at a site called The Iglasius (the churches) named for all the dramatic arches and swim-throughs here.  Very, very nice, and Tito is very cool, allowing us to dive our computers and run our own dives, as he just swims along like one of us.  This is going to be a great week!  Finally, 70 minutes later, we surface from the 50 ft deep site, and climb back on board for the lunch run.

Lunch is served up poolside with some delicious butterflied chicken steaks and all the fixing’s – food is NOT going to be an issue here.  The cook is very accommodating, and has all my dietary quirks written down (no onions, no peppers, no guacamole) so he’ll be preparing “near-Mexican” dishes for me this week.   We kick back for a bit after eating, respecting mom’s rule “No scuba diving for 30 minutes after you eat” or something like that.  But soon enough, it’s time to head back out!

This time Tito figures out we are not going to give up easily, and we load two sets of tanks for the afternoon’s dives.  First stop is Dief Reef, similar to the others, and we get 60 minutes at 55 feet in.  Some very friendly turtles here, and Brian work’s on our PETA endorsement with some great critter interaction.

Finally, stop #4 for the day is Akumal Reef, and after a long 30 minutes of surface interval, we head back under for another 70 minutes at 55 feet.  OK, some of us enjoyed 70 minutes, that list being limited to the guy using the Cochran computer!  The NDL’s on the others tended to be a little more conservative, so I waved them all good bye and enjoyed the last part of the dive alone with the fishes! Finally time to head in, and enjoy dinner served up on the beach, with a beautiful moon over the ocean to accompany us.

Sweet!  Monday morning and breakfast is served in our condo dining room – this is living the good life for sure!  This trip might have been a bad idea, cause it sure will be hard to get Brian back into the IVS salt mines next week! Our first order of the day is to get some cenote diving in, so we load the gear in the van and get ready to head down the road.  But wait, no IVS story is complete without a little twist, and here’s this mornings: our van has California plates, and is registered in the US.  Mexicans are not allowed to drive American cars here under the insurance laws.  So go figure, who is our designated driver for the week?  Captain Dave of course!  Look out Mexico!!

So, map in hand, and Brian on board to translate the Spanish instructions, we head down the road to Dos Ojos (two eyes) one of the more famous of the cenote systems that riddle the area.  This is part of an immense underwater aquifer, with passages and channels cut through the limestone substrate millions of years of slightly acidic rainfall, creating a myriad of flooded tunnels to explore, some easily, and some not nearly so easily.  And as the earth has warmed and cooled over time, and the polar caps formed, melted, and then reformed to their current sizes, the sea levels rose and fell accordingly.  So at one point in earth’s timeline, this entire region was under the sea, and the actual ground we walk on here is actually formed of the old skeletal remains of coral reefs from days gone by.  When the water levels dropped to provide the water for the ice caps, the Yucatan rose from the sea.  Years of rainfall helped cut the passages, but it was the millions of years of leaks dripping through the cave ceilings that really added the silent majesty and beauty to the cenotes, creating thousands of stalagtites and stalagmites, some forming floor-to-ceiling columns and others just hanging down from the ceilings or rising up from the cave floors.

Although they have existed for tens of thousands of years, it was only recently that divers began crawling into holes, and down wells, to see what laid below the surface here.  And we are thankful they did!!!  Most of the major cenote systems have been explored to some extent in recent years, and as they have been, steps have been taken to help ensure the safety of divers using them, and the sanctity of these natural aquatic art museums.  Permanent guide lines, also know as “gold lines” due to the diving community standardizing the color, have been put in place along the cave floors, marking a clear path to follow that positively leads back home, to help avoid making a wrong turn and ending up as another pile of bones down some dark passage, as you can often discover during your dives here (although those bones are mostly that of animals, thank you).

So here at Dos Ojos, the site is named for the two areas that open to the surface, which, if viewed from above, are two circles, hence the “two eyes” name.  How those early Mayans got airborne to see that view I have no idea, but we’ll just accept that fact.  There are two major loop routes here, all starting and ending back at the smaller of the two open eyes, with permanent lines tracing a nice long path through the underground cenote systems and back.  There are many side passages and long dead-end tunnels that go off from the main route, but these are considered true caves from a diving perspective, and require significantly higher levels of training and preparedness in order to safely execute dives in these areas.  The cavern portions of the dives are primarily defined as being not further than 200 ft from an area where you can surface, and not having passageways so tight that only one diver can pass through at a time.  Additionally, there is some source of outside light that can be located when you are in the passageways, although the key word there is “some” cause in some areas it is not much at all!

So we brief our team with the overall plan, familiarize them with the site layout and what to expect down below, and walk on down to take a look at the final staging area and cenote entrance.  There are quite a few divers there already, and snorkelers and swimmers enjoying the refreshing, crystal clear water.  Listening to the various conversations taking place around us it is amazing how many different languages and accents you hear – cave diving is truly an international sport and draws folks from many lands, near and far.  All geared up, we do a final equipment check, and head down the path to the entrance.

Two dives are planned here this morning, one on each of the loops. The first route will be around past the “Barbie Line”, named for a jump that leads off to a beautiful cave system. We slip into the water, and perform a bubble check on each other, making sure none of our precious gas is leaking from a hose or fitting, cause there’s no early exits from some of the points on this dive.  All good, we drop down, and enjoy 50 minutes of touring through this beautiful system.  Brian’s new mb-sub cave light truly illuminates our path, and shows off the fantastic structures that draw folks here year after year. Maximum depth is only 26 feet but the distance we cover is non-stop eye-popping geo-art to the max!  Love it!

We come up and while the boys are switching tanks, I enjoy my doubles and get a 20 minute solo dive in down one of the passages, playing with the fish that live there, and checking out the tiny critters that live in the nooks and crannies and under the rocks here.  Finally the men return, and it’s time for dive #2 (or 3, for me).  This time we head down the “bat cave” line, and get another 45 minutes in the deeper portion of the cenote, at 39 feet max.  Great couple of dives to start the day, and we re-load the van and head back, stopping at a local market to pick up some supplies for our condo.

And speaking of hydration as we weren’t, once again we have brought a supply of Divers D\Lyte with us on this trip, to help maintain a healthy balance of hydration, electrolytes and nutrition.  This product, developed by our friend John Dooley, has taken off like a rocket in the scuba diving community, and we are proud to share it with others everywhere we go, planting the seed for future Divers D\Lyte believers across the globe!  In fact, here you can see Tito our dive guide enjoying the product, as well as a smokin’ model quality shot of yours truly with some great product promotion! And, just in case you don’t believe in proper hydration, you can walk around all day like a Michael Jackson look-alike with your pink umbrella – name withheld to protect the innocent, Tony!

OK enough of that scary thought!  Sorry children, it is safe to come out now!   Meanwhile our new friends from our flight, the Banner family, have driven down to Villas de Rosa to dive with us this afternoon.  Fred & Michelle are certified divers, and today their daughter Nikki and her boyfriend Ryan would like to see if diving might be the sport for them.  So, since this is a ‘business trip’ and NOT a ‘vacation’, Brian and I will conduct an open water Discover Scuba Diving for the two of them, along with a refresher for mom & dad.  We get a couple of sets of rental gear together from the local inventory, and head poolside for the first part of our DSD.   Paperwork is, of course, completed, and then we go through Scuba 101 for our two new candidates.  Physics, physiology, equipment, environment, we cover all the key points to help ensure a safe and fun experience in the ocean today.  Brian leads them through their skills in the pool and everyone is looking good.  Lunch is served poolside, and the anticipation builds for our open water fun!

We haul the gear down to the panga on the beach, load up, and pile the bodies in.  A quick briefing before we head out, questions are answered, and we fire up the 60 HP Yamaha outboard.  The wind has picked up a bit so it’s a wet and bumpy ride on out, but the viz is forever as we pass over the reef.  We choose a shallow site, Cabasas Malos (Bad Heads) where the maximum depth is 40 ft, and drop our anchor to try to reduce the surface drift while we get everyone set up.  Gear is tossed overboard, followed by the bodies and, and Brian and I make sure our new divers are all hooked up and looking good.  Regulators in, thumbs down, and we drop below the beautiful blue water to the reef.  No issues on descent, clearing is good, weighting is right on, and we get our buoyancy neutral above the reef.  Big OK’s all around, everyone is smiling, so let’s go see what we can see! The conditions are great for a first open water experience, and there’s plenty of sea life to entertain our newest divers.  We end up spending 45 minutes on this dive, surfacing with plenty of air all around, and pile back into the boat for the ride in.

The ride was a bit more than our friends had counted on, so once we are back at the beach, they make a wise decision to leave it at one dive today, and forego the second trip.  Well the ocean is calling our names, so it’s hugs and handshakes all around, and the three of us pile back in for another go at it!  Dive site is Islas Akumal, and we get another 70 minutes in (OK, I get another 70 minutes in, but those last 20 minutes were a solo dive as my dive buddies have all abandoned me) at a max depth of 55 ft to wrap up another beautiful day of diving in Akumal.

Another excellent dinner served to us in our condo, log books are filled out, photos downloaded, and off to bed to rest up for tomorrow’s activities – ALL cenotes!!

We’ve made an executive decision to not waste time by coming back to the resort for lunch today, and just staying out and enjoying our day of diving.  This lets us enjoy a more leisurely start and we finally get on the road around 10:00 to head south our first stop today, in the Chac Mool area.  Here they have an extensive cenote system, and our first dive will actually be in Kukulkan cenote.

Different than yesterday’ dives in Dos Ojos, here we have fewer ‘decorations’ as the formations are known as, but another feature which adds some spice to this particular dive – a heavy halocline that permeates most of the route.  A halocline is the technical term for when a layer of fresh water sits on top of a layer of salt water, which, even though the salt water is significantly warmer, the heavier density of the liquid keeps it from rising up on top of the fresh water.  But it is the actual zone between the two liquids that is the coolest, as the two waters are intermixed, creating a layer of liquid with varying refractive properties.  In appearance it is similar to the heat waves that rise off a hot desert or highway in the sun, and the net result is that our eyes cannot focus through the medium, no matter how hard we try.  It’s like someone smeared vaseline on the front of our masks, and you can’t even read your gauges, it is that strong an effect.  Dip your head below it, into the salt water, and the visibility is as clear as above it, in excess of 200 ft or more in most of the caves.  Same when your head is above it too!  But because the caves tend to follow paths that go up and down quite a bit, we pass through or swim through this layer multiple times in the particular cenote, so it is a good test of your confidence as a diver and ability to relax to know to just keep swimming and eventually you’ll be able to see again – very cool (OK, at least to me!!).  Here’s a pretty cool video that shows how this cenote, and the halocline, appears to the divers.

We spend 22 minutes at a maximum depth of 48 ft with our first traverse through the system, then catch our breath and debrief a bit before we head back to where we started, taking another 20 minutes to return to our starting point.

We climb out of the cenote and most of the gang heads back to the van to swap tanks.  I am diving in full cave gear as required by local law to lead these dives, including double tanks, so I just slip into the next cenote, Chac Mool, and hang out and chat with some of the other divers there while awaiting my team’s return.  Finally everyone is back, and we head into this system, which is similar to the first, and enjoy 71 minutes of this silent underwater splendor, with a max depth of 44 ft., before we climb out of the cenote and pile the gear in the van for the next top on our cenote-a-thon experience.

But first, a little more about Brian and his mojo!  While we were first setting up our gear, Brian strikes up a conversation with the gringo’s who are parked next to us. Turns out that Shawn, from Toronto, is an avid photographer, and is using an Olympus camera in an aftermarket housing.  He comments to Brian that he wished Olympus made a housing for his camera, and Brian, says “Did you know that they do make that?”.  Turns out Shawn had been misinformed by his local dive shop, and as a result has been suffering through with a mis-matched housing and camera setup.  Brian speaks with authority, as IVS is the North American distributor for Olympus Underwater Imaging systems, and Brian fields questions from customers on the product line daily.  Well they are waiting for us when we return from our dive, and before you know it, business cards are swapped, and Shawn is writing down his address for us to ship a new housing to him when we return to the states,  Way to go Brian! – he makes me soooo proud!!

The next stop on our hit parade is the Ponderosa Cenote, also known as Jardin de Eden (Garden of Eden), just a few minutes drive from Chac Mool.  Another little gate, another little entrance fee, and we head on in.  This is a very pretty spot, with a huge open swimming area, a high cliff for the kids to jump off of into the water (gotta watch that when diving underneath them!) and a nice dock and ladders for our entries and exits.  We set up and slip into the crystal clear water, and head into the cavern area, under the cliff (avoiding the bodies dropping down from above!).  It is another beautiful site, with a long swim through one portion of the cave system, then through a smaller open cenote, and finally into the entrance to the deeper cave system.  A great dive with 50 minutes of bottom time, max depth 39 ft.

We cruise from there to our last stop on today’s trip, at Tajma Ha cenote.  Often mis-spelled (and misunderstood) as Taj Mahal, the name is really Tajma Ha, with ‘Ha’ being the Mayan word for ‘of the water’.  Sorry to debunk that myth for anyone who wrote Taj Mahal in their logbooks!  OK, enough of the linguistics lesson, on to the dive!  This is probably one of my personal favorites in the Mayan Peninsula cenote system, and once we get it, the rest of the crew quickly agree.  You actually will pass through three separate cenotes as you dive through, with a maximum depth of 47 feet.  Several of the cenotes are not open to the sky, but rather end up in air-filled caverns above the water, filled with beautiful hanging formations, tree roots streaming down, and of course, bats!  Bats everywhere!  Can’t have a good cenote without having a lot of bats, and we are not disappointed here!  Besides the “dry” areas, there is so much to see in this cenote system, with fantastic decorations, huge collapses and piles of rocks, and cross-sections of the geological stratification that has taken place over time as this system was created by nature.  In a word:  Sweet!

That’s enough for today with five dives in four cenotes, and we head back for another great dinner, some debriefing time, and photo downloading from the cameras – look for some great stuff in the gallery – soon!

Wednesday now, and time to get out and explore some more cenotes!!  Today the kitchen staff has packed a lunch for us, so we don’t have to go hungry while out exploring for the day.  We load the gear, the designated driver (me) assumes the position, and we roll.  First stop is the chief’s house in downtown Tulum, where we pay our entrance fee and pick up the key for the gate at Angelita, a unique cenote located in the jungle about 10 kilometers south of town.  This is a different sort of cenote, essentially a shaft cut straight down into the jungle floor, with a maximum depth of 200 ft.  There are a couple of small caverns that go off the sides but nothing of any significant merit for exploring. The thing that makes this spot so special is a layer fo hydrogen sulfide in solution in the water, making a thick, whitish cloud across the entire cenote from approx 95 ft to 110 ft of depth.  As we drop down and approach it the appearance is surreal, with the limbs of trees that hurricanes have tumbled into the cenote sticking up our of the cloud in silent testimony to natures wrath.  The bottom appears solid, but as Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues would say, “that is just an illusion”.   As we approach, we grab our buddy for reference, just as we briefed, and slip silently into the mist, completely disappearing from view  – and each other!  But as predicted, we emerge from the bottom edge and sure enough, we can see, but now this day dive has just turned into a night dive, because zero light is penetrating the layer today!  Lights on, we split up into buddy teams and most begin a slow spiral back up and around the walls of the crater.  Meanwhile, Brian is going for a pinnacle dive here, in the dark, under the cloud, in a cenote – I love this guy’s style!  I take him down to 150 ft and we decide that is deep enough for today, a new personal best for him!  Good job Brian!  Eventually we surface, with 40 minutes of bottom time, and it’s high fives for a great dive for all!

We hump the gear back up the winding path through the jungle, and load the van for our next stop.  As I slip my booties off, Brian, with his medical background, takes a look at my foot and says “Whoa, what do we have going on over here?”.  My right foot, for the last year or so, has been peeling and somewhat reddened from around mid-foot to my toes.  It sheds skin constantly, and worse when I dive, but it never appears to be growing or getting worse, so yes, it is somewhere on my list of things to get checked out, but not quite near the top.  “Here, put that up here on the table”, Brian directs, and he gives me a thorough examination.  His diagnosis:  Trench Foot, or Jungle Rot, as it was coined during the Vietnam War, caused by my foot staying wet so much!  Not sure how we can ever cure this, I am thinking!  But Brian suggest fungicides and we’ll get on that as soon as we get back to Harleysville; no shopping at the Farmacia here!

OK, we close the clinic, pile in the van, and march our jungle-rotten feet to the next cenote – Calebero.  Also known as the Temple of Doom, this cenote has a very small vertical opening with only a ladder to get out.  Getting in is simpler, just a big giant stride and you can’t miss the water!  I know I am sounding like a broken record here, but this place is beautiful!  I need to digress here, and wonder where that term came from – broken record.  Growing up in the days of 45’s and LP’s (albums), if your record was ‘broken’ then there was no way to play it, similar to a CD snapped in half (there, the younger audience can understand it now).  However, if you scratched one of the grooves on the surface in such a way that the needle tracked back over to a groove it had already played, then in fact that short audio snippet would play again, and again, and again.  So why don’t we use the term “sound like a scratched record?” rather than a broken record?  One of life’s great mysteries, I suppose.

Ok, digression over, I am back!  I leave the group for a bit here cause there is a entry into the cave system that is just screaming my name, and I cannot deny the call.  Reel out, tie-off’s made, and I am down the shaft, exploring the dark zone and taking in all this fantastic beauty.  This place is stunning, and you have to see it to understand it (by the way, cavern and cave training classes ARE available at Indian Valley Scuba – OK, got my plug in!). But seriously, this is such a different kind of diving and so much more ‘Zen-like” than anything you’ll ever experience on a reef or a wreck.  OK, OK, enough said, I retrace my steps, collect my reel, and rejoin the group, as we wrap up another great dive with 45 minutes at 58 ft max.  Up the ladder we go, and boy these doubles are a bit of a hump, but I make it out with all my gear, and we head back up the path to load up the van and head down the road to cenote #3.

Well we ‘almost’ loaded the van, cause after the short ride down the road to our next stop, the Carwash cenote, we spread our gear out and Tito, of all people, realizes he is missing his fins and mask.  I am feeling like a mother hen here now, making sure everyone has all their stuff before we move on!!  Geeesh!  No problem, I jump back in the van (as the designated driver, it’s my job!) and haul donkey back up the road to Calabero.  Of course I have to deal with some local jokesters there who knew it was Tito’s gear, and finally I get it and return to the team.  “OK, is everyone ready?”, I ask, and into the drink we go!

Now here we have raised the bar on our team and their roles in the cenote diving.  There is no permanent line here, so I will be having Brian and Tony run the line for us this morning. We go over the proper tie-off techniques, selection of appropriate tie-off’s, routing of the line, proper tensioning, housekeeping and neatness, and team communications.  Buoyancy control is emphasized, as is situational awareness and keeping a cool head while working in the cavern.  And last but not least, I encourage them to actually look up and see how beautiful it is in there, which is an easy thing to overlook with all the other tasks at hand!  So we head in, Brian in the lead, Tito pointing the way, and we make our first tie-off’s.  On to the very important secondary tie-off, and then in we head, Brian laying line, Tony keeping it neat, and me just trailing along and observing the team at work.  Soon enough we run out of line on the primary reel, and Brian motions “what to do?”.  I hand him a finger spool, he ties it in, and we get another 150 feet along.  Again, out of line, but wait, we have another spool!  So another 150 feet down the line we go, before finally being completely out of line.  Here we are in a ballroom, so we leave the line to explore, knowing we can keep the end of our line in sight at all times.  Once done, we return to the line, and the team begins the job of reeling it all back in, spool after spool, until we are finally out of the cave and into open water.  Great work team!!  And a great dive to boot, with 60 minutes of bottom time and a maximum depth of 51 ft.

Finally, it is time for cenote #4 of the day, and we’ll wrap it up at Grand Cenote, or the “White Cenote” as it is known, since all the underwater formations are bright white here.  Another popular swimming hole, we walk through along the docks with our gear, answering questions as we go, and slip into the water through a crowd of young people enjoying this beautiful sunny day.  Down we go, and this cave has a long traverse line that passes around the system, almost 270 degrees around the main opening, with several passage ways off to the cave system to explore as we dive along.  There are over 56,000 feet of surveyed passages in this cenote system, so you could certainly spend a bit of time here exploring the various nooks and crannies below.  We get another hour of bottom time in at 50 ft, and finally head back up and back to the van to call it a day.  Poor Tito has not worked this hard in a long time, he confides to us, so we decide to cut him a break tomorrow and do some reef diving instead.

Morning comes and poor Brian is not feeling so well from all this abuse we have been putting his body through all week, so he opts to sit out the morning dives.  Looking at the stack of paperwork that I have hauled from my office to Mexico with me, I decide that a day of catching up on work and being Brian’s nurse would be a better investment of my time than the reef, so I pack Tony a lunch and send him off in the panga with Tito to do some diving.  I start on my paperwork, but then some little voice in the back of my head, starting out as a whisper, is not screaming at the top of it’s little lungs “Hey, you are missing a dive!”   Yes, you heard it, I nearly passed on a couple of dives!

Enough of that momentary lapse of reason, Brian will be fine and now owes me big time for me almost missing those dives!  We toss the gear in the panga and head out into some bigger waves than we have seen all week. It’s a wetter than usual ride out, but we make it, and our first location is Hogfish Reef.  Another nice 80 foot dive, with less-than-stellar visibility, no doubt due to the wave action above.  We get to play with a really big turtle here at this site, so that added a nice touch to the murky dive.  Still we manage to get 50 minutes in and head back for a second tank.

As we load the boat in the surf for dive #2, we realize it is sitting a little lower in the water, and each wave splashing against it is getting closer and closer to coming over the sides.  Wait a minute, it IS sitting lower – shoot, the boat is sinking!!  Seems the battery for the bilge pump has died, and we are not putting the ocean back on the outside of the boat where it belongs!  We bail, jump on board, pull the hull plug on the way out, and salvage the day!  And anyone who knows me knows that sinking boats and Dave V go hand in hand!  Oh well, enough of that bad memory, next you’ll start talking about leaning navigational markers in the Keys…Anyhows, we head out, and this time it’s Adventuras Reef, another nice one, and another 50 minutes at 50 feet in the logbook.  Plus our first shark sighting here, a nice nurse shark under an overhang.

We come back in for lunch and to check on our patient, and he is still not looking so good, we we decide it is best for him to sit out the afternoon dives.  Being in the land of the Mayans, we respect that older cultures way of thinking, and for this decision, I actually draw upon another native American culture, the Eskimos.  They knew they needed to keep the tribe moving for the benefit of the majority, so when one member became ill, or too old to keep up, they left them behind, for the polar bears to enjoy.  Well Brian, keep a sharp eye out for polar barracudas!! Tony and I discuss the splitting up of Brian’s gear as we walk down to the boat for the afternoon dives, and I make it clear I have first dibbs on his new Atomic T2X regulator!

Rather than fighting the surf again, we moved the boat down the street to where it is protected by a small breakwater, and we load up for out two afternoon dives.  First stop is Morgan Reef, 55 ft deep, and we get 60 minutes in here, with the highlight being a motorcycle sitting in the sand that provided some photo opportunities.  Second location was Los Quebralo, 57 feet deep, where we logged another 55 minutes of bottom time.  Viz sorta sucks at this point, so glad it was the fourth and final dive of the day!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, poor Brian has not been feeling well at all.  So as fate would have it, as I return with the van from this afternoon’s dive, there is someone parking in my spot, and I ask him to move so we can unload the tanks. Well funny thing is, he’s wearing a stethoscope, which I think is kinda odd, but hey, I am the stranger in a strange land here, so who am I to judge.  Well then he asks me if I know where room #204 is, and I say “Of course I do, that’s my room!”.  Wait a minute here!  This doctor is coming to see my Brian!!  Brian was not feeling well this morning, thought his tail bone might have bruised from some bouncing on the boat or my driving in the van (ha!).

Brian also suspected he may have something else, butt (pun intended) more on that later

So it turns out that my new friend and visitor is none of than Dr Cabelero (yes, Dr. Cowboy) who came from the Akumal clinic (yes they still make house calls here) to see Brian here in our room.  Turns out Brian has an abscess on, as Forrest Gump would say, “on his buttocks”, that has flared up and needs to be treated here.  So they took him away to spend the night in the Akumal clinic and put him on IV antibiotics for the night with the hope to be able to lance his derriere tomorrow to drain the abscess and then pack it with dressing for the trip home.  They would prefer he stays on the IV for a few more days, but, acting as Brian’s advocate in his weakened state, I told them we have to fly home on Saturday, so they can have him til the morning, butt (ha ha) then we need him back!  And suddenly for some reason I am thinking about that Atomic regulator again…

And if you’re wondering, no, I’ve got no pictures of it (Brian was too shy)!

But wait, breaking news here!  Brian just skyped me, and it turns out that he has a bigger pain in his ass than they suspected and it’s too big to operate on here in the little Akumal clinic, plus the risk of it involving other anatomical parts is too great for them to get out the power tools and cut into him here.  Should they err in their navigation, and get too close to any other parts of his intestinal tract, they would risk creating a shitstorm (pun intended) of problems for our boy, so they are taking him to the bigger hospital in Playa del Carmen for the night and intend to “go in” tomorrow. It’s a somber dinner for Tony and I tonight, worrying about our partner and his ass!

Friday morning comes and the seas have laid down a bit, and we head out to a site called Meke Maze.  This is a deeper site, at 115 ft, but we are rewarded with great visibility and healthy corals, so the shorter dive time is worth it!  We end up with a 45 minute dive, and return to our waiting panga for a 30-minute surface interval.  We motor over to our last reef location for the week, Chaemuiel Reef, and get our final 60 minutes of salt water bottom time in with the depth around 57 ft.

Back in I check on our patient, and he is still intact, and has not left any parts of himself here as a sacrifice to the Mayan Gods.  It’s getting kinda late in the day for surgery, I point out, and he agrees, considering our travel plans tomorrow.  Heck, I’ve got a clean dive knife, if we need to do any lancing I’m there for him!  Brian shudders at the thought and assures me he’ll be OK to make it home to see a real doctor there. OK, just wanted to offer!  A little home surgery makes for some great blog fodder!!

But while I am talking to Brian and making sure things are all good for the travel home, he realizes that he has a 10 a.m. flight, while Tony and I are flying out after 3 in the afternoon.  Now he needs a special ride to the airport, and can’t consider joining us in our ride to the Tulum ruins.  He’s flying on Delta, like me, so I suggest he give my friends at the Medallion desk a call, explain his predicament, express the fact that he is not sure when they will discharge him from the hospital, and see if they can do anything for him.  So he calls them up on Skype, using a video call, and there he is laying in his hospital bed, with his IV line in, and looking at the agent with his best puppy dog eyes on.  She looks up my record, sees we are connecting on the second part of our flight, from Atlanta to Philadelphia, and then goes ahead and says “Let me see what I can do”.  Well by the time this phone call is done, not only has she moved Brian from his morning flight to my afternoon flight, but she has upgraded his sorry (and swollen) ass to first class on both flights!  Holy Smokes, I need to remember this approach when my upgrades are not looking good!  Now he is my seatmate all the way back home!

OK, sensitive moment complete, it’s time to go diving!  Tony, Tito and I pile in the van and head down the road to Dream Gate cenote, a bit of a more primitive site.  We head about a mile into the jungle, stop at a small shack to pay our entrance, and then travel about two more miles down a trail cut in the jungle, without improvements, to the actual cenote.  There’s no swimming area here, as the cenote lies about 20 ft below the ground, and can only be accessed at two points, both involving ladders!  At one of the ladders there is a hoist to lower tanks down, and at the other, everything is on our back as we crawl in.

The extra effort is worth it, as the Dream Gate Cenote is a phenomenally beautiful cave system with a very unique twist:  Mayan human sacrifice victims, still swimming today where they were entombed hundreds of years ago!  Over 40 skeletal remains join us on this very poignant dive today.  Here’s a little video of what we saw today!

We end up with a couple of nice dives here, and I get a third one in, for a total bottom time of one hour and 50 minutes in this very special place.  Way to wrap it up!!

Back at the resort, we get good news – the authorities are releasing Brian tonight!  He calls for a ride and all the vans are locked up, so I suggest he grabs a cab from the hospital.  He does so, and confirms that his string of bad luck is not over – the cabbie has his wife and sick kid with him, and they stop several times on the way for the wife to open the door and let the kid vomit.  Nice!  Meanwhile poor Tony and I are pacing nervously, worrying about our Brian!  Finally he arrives, safe & sound, and it’s hugs all around as the team reunites!  We rinse all our gear together and spread it out on our patio to dry overnight in the arid air and constant breeze.

So on Saturday morning we’ve got some time before we need to head to the airport, and so our plan is to immerse ourselves in one last bit of Mayan culture, and that’s a visit to the Tulum ruins!  Our plan is to borrow one of the resorts vans, and head south to check out this rich site located on a towering precipice along the shoreline.  But allow me to digress yet again…Tito, who has been taking such great care of us all week, decides to wash the van for us to drive.  Only yesterday in fact we were talking weather patterns and precipitation in the area, and Tito pointed out that the official annual “rainy season” is September to November, when they might get rain once a week, and in some years, none at all.  So here we are in April, and that month does not fall in the rainy-ish period.  But, Tito did wash the van, and guess what?  Just like at home, the same phenomenom holds true – wash your car and it rains!  SO today, perhaps in the first time in Mayan history, it is pouring!  Amazing!  But does that deter us?  No!

We head down the rainy road and arrive in Tulum at the site of the ruins, which is quite the carnival with souvenir shops, trinket dealers, authentic actors doing authentic Mayan stuff, and everything else you would expect at a world class ruins site.  We buy our $2.00 tram tickets, and head up to the actual Tulum historical site.  We head in and let me just share – it truly takes your breath away to stand here and imagine this site 1,000 years ago, back in it’s heyday, with all sorts of village and religious activity taking place, the market trading, the seaport, and the hustle and bustle of a major gateway to Mexico and the Mayan civilization.  Very cool indeed!

We spend a couple of hours taking it all in, and then it’s time to head back, re-connect with Brian, grab our bags, and have Roberto drive us up to the Cancun airport for our flights home.  What a most wonderful week this has been, with thirty great dives, a dozen different cenotes, and more good stories and experiences than we deserve!  A most hearty recommendation for Scuba Cancun and Villas de Rosa – both first class operators in a first class diving destination!  Like the Governator says, “We’ll be back”.

But hold on, there’s more, from the ‘Team IVS Dives the Globe‘ department!  I get a text from Bill Zyskowski, who most know as the honorary poster child for the “Z-Ball” on the Spiegel Grove wreck in Key Largo.  Bill is diving today with our friend Randy on the Emerald dive boat out of Jupiter, and he is just gushing with his dive report.  Turns out they had a fantastic day there, with TWO hammerhead sharks, a big 14 ft bull shark, and a few others cruising with the divers and putting on a great show.  Bill was hunting lionfish today, and nailed five in total.  But not without cost, as one of his victims managed to return the favor, and nailed Bill good with his toxic venom before heading off to fishy heaven.  Bill reports a lot of swelling and pain, but once I shared Brian’s swelling and pain with him, he just said “Never mind!”

Hold on, there’s even more!   So Brian and I arrive at the Philadelphia airport and between waiting for our bags and then catching a shuttle to the off-site parking lot, it ends up being after 2 a.m. when we finally get back in the shop.  Brian jumps in his car for the short ride home, and between the shop and his house, he can’t resist getting turning on the mojo and getting one more comment for the blog.  Here it is, in Brian’s words:

By the way, I have one more final piece for your blog on this trip.  On my way home from IVS that night, I get pulled over at 2:15am for “making an erratic left turn” whatever that means.  The cop takes the usual license, registration and proof of insurance and goes back to his car. After about 20 minutes, he comes back and asks me if I have been drinking.  Naturally, I tell him “no” and he counters with, “are you sure?”  At this point I tell him I have been traveling all back returning from Mexico and I turn on my internal car light to show him my suitcases and he sees my IVS shirt.  He comments on it and how he always wanted to try SCUBA.  I briefly tell him about my trip (sans my buttock story) and I give him my card and invite him on a DSD.  He thanks me and lets me off with a warning!  I say “thank you and I will see you at the shop!”

Thanks for enjoying our story with us, and we’re sticking to it!  Stay tuned for our next adventure coming soon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down we go, deep, deeper, deepest! Technical diving in Key West

 

Time to get the nitrogen levels back up in the bloodstream, and what better way to do that than to head down, way down, on some deep wrecks off the sunny shores of Key West?

Steve Lewis, VP of TDI, along with Joe Weatherby joined Dave V on a technical diving excursion to explore some of the deeper wrecks located off the southernmost key.   Sadly, the weather gods are not giving us any good signs for this weekend, so we are heading south with fingers crossed for the best!

Thursday evening we arrive at IVS-Key West’s base on Stock Island and set up camp in our condo there.  This is one nice home away from home for sure, and we are thrilled to have met the owner, Mike Bullock, through our favorite dive operator here, Chris Norwood, owner of Florida Straits Diving.  Three bedrooms, accommodations for eight, newly refurbished throughout, this is living large indeed!

Friday morning comes and with it the 7:00 a.m. NOAA marine weather update.  Ruh roh – six to eight footers on the outside today with twenty-five knot winds whistling through.  Not the perfect recipe for a small boat and heavily laded divers on the ocean!  So, do we cancel?  Are you kidding?  We get a slightly larger boat! 

Our friends at Sub-Tropic step up and offer their boat for the day, which coincidently was available since no customers wanted to head out in these conditions!  Works for us, and we loaded up our gear, and motored out to the Vandenberg.  Seas were, shall we say, a bit testy, but we managed, and in spite of the topside conditions, the ocean below was perfect, with minimal current and 200 plus feet of visibility in the clear blue water.  Nice!

We dropped right into the #2 cargo hatch, descending down to 130 feet, and slip inside for Joe’s exclusive “hole in the wall” tour, covering over 400 feet of this wreck’s interior and never popping out until we drop into the engine room in the stern.  What a cool tour it is, lots of tight passageways, many turns, some areas with no alternate exits…all good for a great dive and a nice adrenalin rush too!

We spend 46 minutes at depth, finish off a ten minute deco obligation, and climb back aboard with big smiles.  The ladder is a bit challenging, balancing doubles on our back, and two slung stage bottles each, but we manage, and get ready to enjoy a few minutes of de-briefing and relaxing on board. 

OK, few minutes are up, it is time to dive again!  Gear back up, splash, and drop down, this time towards the stern of this majestic wreck.  Take a quick look-around at the stern, then we head up to the hanger area, where they used to store the weather balloon.  Once inside, we drop down the chute to the laundry room, at 140 ft.  This is a very cool drop, as the chute is about an 80 ft vertical drop, and it is only one diver wide.  Best part?  Once you enter, there are NO outlets till you get to the bottom, so commitment is key here! 

We exit out the bottom, and take a tour of the former laundry room, still full of steam presses and washers and dryers that completed their duty at sea.  This is a real tight area, and you have to by uber-careful to not silt things up once inside.  Buoyancy control and situational awareness is key, cause things could go to hell in a New York minute here.  After some good photo op’s, we head out the rear stairwell, up one level, then begin a tour forward through lots of crew berthing areas.  Bed frames, toilets and sinks, and personal storage lockers tell the story of what these spaces once were.  All sorts of new life forms are here now, “scouts” in a sense for a whole generation of new critters to come to these areas of eternal darkness (OK, except for the occasional zillion megawatt divers lights!),  Very cool to be witness to a sort of evolution as the sea reclaims this vessel.

Another forty minutes of bottom time passes too quickly, and we head back up, finishing off with a little 50% and 100% O2 mixes on the way to the surface.  A good day of diving, great wreck, great boat and crew from Sub-Tropic, and it’s time to head back in.  The sunset ride in just tops the day off, and we grab a quick bite and prepare our dive plans for tomorrow’s activities. 

Saturday morning comes and the wind continues to blow hard, from the south, which is a bad thing, cause there is a lot of ocean to blow across between here and Cuba, giving the wind, and the waves, time to build themselves up nicely.  None the less, we are here on a mission, so in spite of being the only boat heading out, we’re going diving!  We head our after lunch, and our first stop is the USS Curb, a former naval tug that sits upright now in 185 feet of water.  There it is on the sonar, so we check current direction, and make a few passes over the wreck to confirm we are on it.  The grapple is dropped, and we hook into it (there are no mooring balls).  One, two, three, we drop down into the abyss, and are greeted with views of the wreck from well over a hundred feet away. 

An absolutely amazing quantity and variety of life live on this wreck, sitting like an oasis in the middle of miles of flat, sandy plains.  From the smallest baitfish (what do you have to do wrong in this life to come back as a baitfish?  You don’t even get a name for your species, just “baitfish”) to huge 400# Goliath groupers (at least they get a name!), this wreck is a haven for life.  Marauding amberjacks and horse-eye jacks make passes at the smaller fish, and the fray is exciting to watch as someone goes home with dinner, while some else becomes a dinner.  Enough eloquent waxing on my part, back to the wreck!  Covered with snagged fishing nets and miles of monofilament, this wreck is a snagged diver waiting to happen, so make sure you have your line cutter or z-knife handy, and a bigger blade for the larger stuff. 

We’re diving a mix of 20% oxygen, 25% helium, and 55% nitrogen on this dive, so we enjoy 20 minutes of bottom time at 170 feet, followed by a nice 30 minutes of deco as we ascend.  The conditions remain perfect so the hang time is a pleasure with all sorts of things to watch as we pass the time.    

Stop number 2 is the Vandenberg again, but this time it is a night dive, as the sun has dipped below the waves for the day.  We hit 146 feet as we spent a lot of time exploring the engine rooms and machinery areas, racking up another 35 minutes of bottom time on our remaining trimix.  My friends spent most of the time shallower, but I wanted to pictures of the machinery, and these conditions would be tough to match another day, so my entire dive was spent below 140 ft.  Of course this comes with a price, that being a fifty minute deco obligation, with the last thirty minutes alone, hanging in the dark, catching the occasional silvery flash of a barracuda or other night time predator as they flew by, checking out the life form that was hanging there in the water.  Finally, an hour and twenty-five minutes after descending, I am back on board, and we enjoy a few beers as we toast the day’s events.  The sea had even laid down a bit for us as we headed back to the dock, making our nocturnal journey a little more mellow!

So it was time to grab a late dinner, so my friend Steve, who is Canadian and has traveled extensively through Cuba, and Joe, who is not, but somehow has also traveled frequently to Cuba, decided that is what we need to eat tonight – Cuban fare!  Well anyone who knows me would realize that Dave and any food containing spices don’t match up well, but I go, figuring there should be enough Presidente Light to wash down whatever I am convinced will be safe for this gringo to eat.  Dinner is fine, service is great, and we call it a night again.

Sunday, the winds are down a bit, but not gone, and our target today is the former naval cruiser USS Wilkes Barre, which likes almost 20 miles north up the coast from Key West.  So we batten down the hatches and head out, staying inside the reef as long as we can to minimize the seas, but eventually heading out to find our wreck.  This 650 ft long vessel was being used for the testing of underwater demolitions, and the test worked great, being detonated directly underneath the ship, and the concussion essentially ‘breaking the ships back’, as it lifted, ripped apart, then settle to the sea floor.  The stern is sitting perfectly upright in 240 feet of water, and the bow is settled a short distance away, laying on it’s port side.  Are target is the stern so we can enjoy this multi-level treasure and really get a chance to some some exploring.  We pick it up on sonar, sure enough it has a huge signature, and the grapple is dropped.  We complete our final gear checks, and splash.  Our blend today is 18/35, the lower oxygen content to avoid CNS toxicity and the resulting convulsions and death that typically accompany it, and the higher helium blend helps reduce the nitrogen in our mix, better to avoid being narc’d out of our minds and forgetting to do things, like maybe ascend!  We complete our ensemble with a couple of stage bottles, with our flavors today being the tried and true 50% and 100% oxygen mixes.

Well we start down the line, and we descend, expecting to reach the top of the wreck at 165 ft or so. This is where it gets a little weird, cause there is no wreck there.  OK, 175, 185, hmmmmm….finally, as we pass 200, there it is, a huge wreck, laying, well, on it’s side!  What the heck!  We are hooked to the bow section, not the stern!!  Time to rethink the dive plan a bit, but we’re OK, as we had planned a pretty aggressive dive depth-wise, and now the conditions matched our plans!   So we dropped down to 230 feet and spent about ten minutes there, checking out the gun turrets, deck fittings, and piles of things that have been snagged on this wreck over the years and lost by other boaters.   Up to 200 feet for another 12 minutes, then let’s grab the grapple hook and tie it off to itself so it doesn’t snag on anything else.  Well, the current had evidently picked up on the surface while we were down, cause when we unhooked the grapple, it took off like a kite, with Steve and Joe trying to tie it off, and me trying to hold the line down below our first stop depth. 

On another dive this might have been fun, but with our bodies chock full of helium, the rate of descent is very critical.  Those little molecules really like to jump out of our cells easily, so they need sufficient time for us to breath them out of our systems.  So, after a little struggling, we get the hook tied up to itself, and stabilize our depth, and begin our 50 minute, 13 level ascent to the surface.  Once there, we are careful to avoid the Portuguese Man ‘o Wars that are sailing by in the stiff breeze, with tentacles a’trailing, looking to sting something into submission, like us!

Well that was enough excitement for the day, and we call it, heading in for our last night in Key West.  A light dinner and beers at the Hogfish Cafe, conveniently located right next to our Key West condo!

Monday morning we started our journey back north, but we still had some diving to do! So we headed up to visit our friends at Conch Republic Divers in Tavierner, and get one final tec dive in on the Speigel Grove.  Forty eight minutes of bottom time below 120 ft, followed by forty minutes of staged deco, wrapped up one great weekend of Florida Keys technical diving.